The Rise of Mariano G. Vallejo

Most Northern Californians probably know about a community in the San Francisco Bay Area named Vallejo. They may also be aware that its name honors General Mariano G. Vallejo, an early California landowner in the Sonoma area. What many people don't know is that a connection exists between Vallejo and San Joaquin County. In fact, the County can be seen as the setting for an event that was crucial for the course of his career.

Mariano G. Vallejo late in life (ca. 1880).

Mariano G. Vallejo late in life (ca. 1880).

Vallejo was born in 1808 to a well-placed Mexican family from Monterey, California. The son of a soldier, he spent most of his early years in the Monterey Presidio and got much of his formal schooling directly from the governor of Alta California. In 1824, he enrolled in the Presidio as a cadet. Soon afterward, the governor promoted him to the rank of corporal. Five years later—at the tender age of twenty-one—Vallejo held the post of second lieutenant in the Mexican army.

In 1829, Vallejo was given the task of subduing a rebellion among native Californians. He had under his command a contingent of more than one hundred Mexican troops. Indians from throughout the San Joaquin Valley had gathered under the leadership of Chief Estanislao, taken up arms, and dug entrenchments in or near what is currently Caswell State Park. By the time Vallejo and his soldiers arrived, Estanislao and his allies had already driven back another force of Mexican soldiers.

Analyses of the ensuing conflict differ. Some historians see Vallejo and his troops routing the Indians and forcing the survivors to take refuge in Mission San Jose. Another perspective, expressed in a previous post on this blog (December 14, 2011), sees the Native Americans victorious. Whatever the case, the bloodshed and destruction were great, and the encounter did nothing to slow the momentum of Vallejo's rise to power. In fact, later developments suggest that he actually benefited.

In 1833, Vallejo was appointed commander of the San Francisco Presidio, founded the town of Sonoma, and was granted Rancho Petaluma. One year later, he received an appointment to the highest military command in Northern California, the directorship of Colonization of the Northern Frontier. Bestowal of this authority enabled him to begin construction of the Sonoma Presidio and to form an alliance with Chief Solano of the Suisunes tribe.

By the early 1840s, Vallejo had become a key player in California politics under Mexican rule. But his fortunes declined rapidly after U.S.-backed forces declared the Bear Flag Republic in 1846. Two years later, the discovery of gold on the American River triggered a human tsunami that diluted the power of leading Californios like him and forced them to expend fortunes in defense of their land titles. In 1890, at the time of his death, Vallejo's influence had shriveled and his once-vast landholdings had dwindled to one small two-hundred-acre ranch.

Nobody can say for certain what would have happened if Vallejo hadn't led his troops into battle against Estanislao. It's probably safe to assume that the history of California and its Native Americans would have differed somewhat. I can't help wondering also whether Vallejo's ascent to power would have been quite so steady or rapid without the afterglow of notoriety he seemed to gain as a result of that encounter.

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