The Presidios of Alta California

The Presidios of Alta California
By Sasha Honig



Reminders that the Spanish established missions in California are hard to miss: the string of 21 places along the coast where a mission is a major tourist attraction; street names and town names and businesses with the word "mission" in them; mission-inspired architecture seen in everything from train stations to taco stands to even Baptist churches in Central Valley towns; "Mission-Style" furniture; and colorful orange crate labels found in antique stores showing a roly-poly Franciscan friar with a mission in the background. The missions, in fact, along with the orange, are icons of California history.


Monterey Presidio Chapel

Less familiar are the Spanish presidios (military forts), four of which were strategically placed along the California coast. However, in the era of their establishment the presidio was equal to the mission in the eyes of the Spanish authorities who authorized their establishment. In fact, in terms of establishing its political claims to Alta California, it can be argued that the presidio was even more important to the Spanish government than the missions. It can be further asserted that the presidios had a lasting social impact on California--that the soldiers and their offspring became a major portion of the later rancho elite of California, along with civilian settler families with whom they inter-married. These people were the seedbed of the Hispanic population of California, and even today in former presidio towns such as Santa Barbara, their descendants form an active part of community life. The purpose of this work is to trace the history of the presidios in California so that we might have a more complete picture of our state's Hispanic past beyond the oft-told tale of the missions.



Precedents for the use of garrisons of soldiers and their families to both conquer and colonize a new land can be found as far back in Spanish history as the Roman period (when they were known as praesidium or praesidia). However, the history of presidios as a frontier institution in New Spain (as colonial Mexico was known) dates from the late 1500s, when Spanish prospectors found fabulous deposits of silver hundreds of miles to the north of Mexico City, well beyond the boundaries of the former Aztec empire. This sprawling area was called the "Gran Chichimeca" by the Spanish, after the semi-nomadic, semi-agricultural tribes who lived there.

The Spanish soon came to know and fear them for their fierceness in warfare, their skill with bows and arrows, and their bravery. The Chichimeca tribes bitterly resented the Spanish presence, and waged constant warfare on them. Their hatred of the Spanish seemed implacable, their skill in warfare, formidable. They were masters of hit and run tactics--one day they would attack a mining camp in one place, and the next day, many miles away, another target, perhaps a silver pack train, plodding along carrying supplies or silver, an easy hit; warriors would then melt into the desert landscape with ease, leading any pursuing Spaniards into unfamiliar, waterless territory, losing them, totally confounding them.

Before 1568, the Spanish viceregal government took little active military role along this frontier, but instead left defense and offense up to the private individuals; thus the frontier became speckled with fortified homes and blockhouses (called casasfuertes--literally "strong houses"), walled towns, and fortress-like churches. Merchants and miners shipping goods and silver throughout the territory did so in fortified wagons or pack-trains accompanied by armed convoys of horsemen, their own private armies in effect (Powell, 128-29). In the late 1560s, however, the able Viceroy Martin Enriquez stepped in to throw the weight of the royal government behind the effort to better (or more actively) defend the Spanish towns, mines, and ranches. In 1569, Enriquez declared all-out war ("war by fire and blood"-- guerra a fuego y sangre) against the Chichimecs and began establishing presidios in the Far North, with the result that by 1590, the presidio was a major frontier institution, a symbol of the King's authority in the Far North. Patterns were established which pertained not only to this frontier but to most other subsequent frontiers in the Far North, even including the last of all the frontiers, Alta California, exactly 200 years after the Enriquez initiative.

Monterey Presidio ChapelPresidio functions were defensive (to protect Spanish towns, ranches, mining camps, and towns of friendly Indians) and offensive (against hostile natives or to open up new territories for Spanish occupation).The presidio became also a place where friendly natives came to settle, receive protection against their enemies, and get gifts of clothing, food, and other items, all of which of course made them physically dependent on the Spanish. Missions existed also, but some historians say that of the two, the presidio was the lead institution in the pacification process (Powell 135-39).

On all subsequent frontiers, the mission and the presidio would co-exist, sometimes peaceably and cooperatively, sometimes at odds with each other. From beginning to end, from the Gran Chichimeca to Alta California, soldiers who served at presidios led a hard life and were paid very poorly if at all. In the Gran Chichimeca and later frontiers, they ran into trouble with missionaries and with Spanish law, if they enslaved Indian men and mistreated Indian women. Soldiers and their officers did not necessarily admire the missionaries, and the reverse was true. Tension between the two became part of the pattern of Spanish expansion into the North. Perhaps it should also be pointed out that part of the pattern too was the continuation, to one extent or another, of private defensive arrangements--the fortified civilian settlements, missions, haciendas, camps, country homes (Williams 166-169). In Alta California, an example in the Mexican period of a fortified country home was the large adobe at Petaluma built by Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, today a State Historical Park.



In the late 1600s, the Spanish government established a cordon of presidios in what today are states along either side of the present border between Mexico and the United States (Nuevo Leon, Coahuila, Chihuahua, Sonora, Sinaloa and Baja California in Mexico and Texas, New Mexico, Arizona in the United States), with missions scattered throughout the same area. The Spanish were now in the territories of the Tepehuanes, Tarahumares, Yaquis, Apaches, Pimas, and the Pueblo peoples of the Rio Grande. The threat from hostile natives was also always there, always constant, erupting at times into major confrontations such as the Great Pueblo Revolt of 1680 in New Mexico but usually expressing itself in small but deadly little wars which kept Spanish soldiers in a constant state of alert. They expected trouble from the Indians and they usually got it (Williams 24). Thus the presidios' function was still the pacification of the Native Americans, as it had been in the Gran Chichimeca. 

In the 17th and 18th centuries, they had the additional function of protecting the Spanish empire's northern boundaries from foreign intrusion (e.g. the English moving westward from the Atlantic seaboard or the French moving southward along the Mississippi watershed from Canada). International competition for empire was in full sway on the North American continent; repeatedly in the 1600s and 1700s, wars for colonial territory would rip across the continent, sometimes pitting the Spanish against the French, sometimes against the English, and sometimes against both simultaneously, with additional worries cropping up about the Russians, whose expansionistic czar was encouraging movement across Siberia and towards the North American Pacific coast (the whole of which the czar loosely referred to as "California" or "Nova Alvion").

All these nations were jockeying for power and land. The potential threat from foreign powers hoping to move in on the rich Spanish empire was always there, like the nagging pain from a sore tooth which never seemed to go away. Often, Indian warriors were used as surrogate fighters in the wars for colonial domination. (Hence the Seven Years War, 1756-1763, is also known as the French and Indian War). In the atmosphere of international imperialistic competition, Spain became increasingly aware of the need for the presence of permanent outposts on the far northern frontier--towns, presidios, missions, and ranches. Foreign competitors would have a more difficult time claiming new territory for themselves if there was already one or more of these in existence.

The traditional Spanish method of laying claim to land was no longer adequate: it was not good enough for an explorer to land, look at the landscape, read the proper legal formalities over it, tear some leaves off a bush, drink some water, move some sand around on the beach, and erect a cross perhaps--all properly observed and recorded by a notary. The cross might soon fall down, the bushes would grow new leaves, and any traces in the sand were soon obliterated by wind or tide. No permanent presence had been established. Foreign rivals, if they were in earnest, did not respect such flimsy claims and felt no compunction about moving in and taking land for themselves, if they could get away with it. 

The defensiveness of the Spanish crown was heightened in 1763 by the territorial realignments resulting from the Seven Years War (or French and Indian War). England acquired a huge swath of territory which brought her holdings all the way to the Mississippi River, which meant that Spain and England now faced one another, eyeball to eyeball across that river. This was not a comfortable situation for the Spanish, who had little reason to doubt that England might continue to expand eastward, across the river, at Spanish expense until--who knew?-- they ultimately reached the Pacific Ocean.

Spain regarded the Pacific Ocean as a private domain--the so-called "Spanish Lake," and thanks to the 1542 claims of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, Alta California was therefore Spanish territory. But Alta California was not effectively occupied as of the end of the Seven Years War; there were no missions, no presidios, no towns--nothing physical--to show Spanish rivals that Spain's claim was real. The Crown's increased consciousness of vulnerability to foreign enemies led to the official decision in 1768 to at last actually settle Alta California. It was to head off the Russians and/or the English that Portolá and Serra were sent to Alta  California; before Portolá left Alta California in 1770, two presidios would be established, San Diego (1769) and Monterey (1770). 

Two missions, in the same localities, would also be established by Serra in those years. Together, presidios and missions would establish a visible Spanish presence which no foreigner could deny. As of 1770, then, a beginning had been made on the settlement of Alta California.

Consciousness of foreign interest in Alta California remained a major factor in policy towards Alta California throughout the entire Spanish period, 1769-1821, with the presidio at the center of Spain's plan to defend her holdings there. It was expected that missions would also play a role--by serving as a tangible reminder of the Spanish presence and by ultimately transforming Indians into loyal Spanish subjects. Missions, in their way, were to serve as instruments of Spanish imperial expansion.

San Francisco Presidio Cannon

San Francisco Presidio Cannon

Castilian Coat of Arms on San Francisco Presidio Cannon

Castilian Coat of Arms on
San Francisco Presidio Cannon

Monterey Presidio Chapel

Monterey Presidio Chapel


However, the presidios of Alta California were established during a transition period of government policy toward the relationship between presidios and missions along the frontier. The defensiveness of the era caused the government to question which was more important in claiming the frontier--the mission or the presidio? It would become clear in the 1770s that the presidio was to be more emphasized although missions would still be established and partially supported with government funds, and missions would be dependent on presidios for help in defending themselves, if need be, against Indian hostility.

The Seven Years War showed that Spain's hold on her empire was tenuous; therefore, forceful measures were taken which show greater official interest in presidios on the frontier: it was recommended that the pre-existing cordon of presidios in the Southwest be re-aligned for greater effectiveness (Moorhead 58-60); new ones were established in Alta California, the last of them in 1782 at Santa Barbara; the frontier army was professionalized and made equivalent to the newly established royal regular army in Central Mexico (Moorhead 65-67); administration of the far frontier provinces was made more efficient by semi-detaching them from the control of the distant viceroy in Mexico City (the frontier provinces were now called the Provincias Internas or Internal Provinces); and new scientific explorations of the Pacific Coast were undertaken.

Not all of these measures proved to be permanent or capable of complete realization, e.g. the Provincias Internas were eventually returned to viceregal control (or eventually lost their semi-autonomous status), and the Southwest cordon was never truly effective. However, the royal determination to improve the defense of the frontier provinces was clear, reflecting the warlike nature of the times and international rivalry for power.

The King was also determined to assert his power and authority as monarch; this inevitably brought him and his officials into conflict with the church, especially in the early years of California's settlement. And so, while missions and presidios would co-exist in the Far North, it was sometimes with tensions, most notably in the governorships of Felipe de Neve and Pedro Fages. The transition to a more militarily-oriented state was not a smooth one. In effect, the position of the missions was demoted in importance, a demotion which the Franciscans of California would resent and which they would resist.


Place and Date Founded

SAN DIEGO (1769)
San Diego Bay


Monterey Bay


Bay of San Francisco


Santa Barbara Channel

Geo-Strategic Importance

Large with narrow entrance affording protection from winds; proximity to Mexico


Exaggerated size and safety based on misleading reports of 17th cen. explorer Sebastian Vizcaíno; still it became site of capital and presidio of Alta California


Narrow entrance (the Golden Gate) called by the Spanish the "Boca de San Francisco" (Mouth of San Francisco)Northernmost position allowed protection of Spanish claims on northern coastline

Poor bay but bridged the long distance between presidios of San Diego and Monterey; also established Spanish presence along the narrow corridor between ocean and mountains vulnerable to Indian attack; planned as jump-off point for Spanish expansion into the interior. (Beilharz 89)



The presidios existed to help lay the Spanish claim to Alta California and to defend it against foreign intrusion, as has already been pointed out. They also existed 1) to defend the colony against Indian uprisings/hostility. The level of Indian violence was rising along the Far Northern frontier among the Pimas, Apaches, and others, and fear extended to Alta California (Beilharz 83). 2) To function as nuclei of colonization. Presidios would be centers where a population of Spanish-speaking people would be planted who not only would establish Spain's claim to this land but whose descendants would permanently inhabit it and hold it for Spain into the future. In this, the Spanish in Alta California were harkening back to precedents in both ancient and recent history of Spain, e.g. in the time of the Roman Empire, when Roman soldier-settlers extended their civilization to distant lands such as Spain, called by them Hispania, or when Spanish Catholics took lands from Moslems in the 700 year war of the Reconquista, or when Spanish conquistadores conquered and colonized the Americas, beginning in the Caribbean in 1493, or when soldiers moved with their families into the Gran Chichimeca, New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas. Alta California was simply the last frontier, its settlement a final episode in an ancient parade of strangers who ventured into new lands and stayed.



A California presidio was located approximately a mile from the shoreline (Whitehead Citadel, 85) -- a distance that would put the fort safely out of cannonball range from any hostile foreign warship. Closer to the shore, the line of first defense would be cannon emplacement, sheltered behind a dirt, adobe, wooden planked or stone embankment. Such an installation was grandly called a "castillo" or castle. Little remains today of these batteries, although archaeologists have uncovered remains of the one at San Diego, called Fort Guijarros, and have a good idea of its size and physical appearance. The site of the castillo, at San Francisco, called the castillo de San Joaquin, lay overlooking the Golden Gate. Little of the old Spanish fortification remained visible when American forces in 1848 first saw it, but like the Spanish, the Americans realized the importance of defending the entrance to San Francisco Bay and in the 1850s built Fort Point on the site of the old castillo, thus obliterating what little was still there. Today this fort sits dwarfed in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge, its Spanish antecedents almost completely forgotten.


Ground Plan, Santa Barbara Presidio - Courtesy of Santa Barbara Trust for Historical Preservation

Much is known of the appearance of the main presidios from contemporary descriptions, plans, drawings, maps, and archaeology, and so, compared to the castillos, it is possible to more thoroughly describe them.

The basic pattern of a presidio was a hollow square of high walls with fortified projections, or bastions, on the corners. Inside the walls were barracks and family quarters for the soldiers, their armory, a chapel, the commandant's headquarters (comandancia), storerooms, the guardhouse, and possibly a corral. (Whitehead, Citadel 113-115) In the center lay the parade ground or plaza de armas.For convenience, the inhabitants of the presidio would welcome having a source of water within the presidio enclosure; certainly in case of attack, this would be desirable. A gunpowder magazine (storage place) would be located somewhere outside the wall at a safe distance lest it accidentally explode.

Before 1772, presidios along the Far Northern frontier did not follow any standardized plan, but might lack one or more of the features mentioned above--only one bastion, for example, or none at all, no barracks, etc. However in 1772 a royal regulation (reglamento) attempted to standardize the presidio ground plan along the far northern frontier. Even so, the plan was not always followed in every detail; here the bastions might be round, there they might be diamond-shaped; here a presidio had a deep dry moat surrounding it, there it did not; here defense walls surrounded the presidio on all four sides, while there another might lack a wall on one or more sides. Variations of these sorts were seen throughout the Southwest and California. Still, in California, the general pattern of a hollow square was followed, with some kind of corner bastion arrangement and outer defense wall. (Whitehead, Four Fortresses 67-94 and Citadel 111-124; Williams diss., 51, Moorhead 161-164)

California presidios were crude looking affairs in the earliest stages of construction, and must have been extremely uncomfortable for the men and officers. An earthen stockade was first built, then structures inside to shelter the people. These were structures of upright sticks arranged around a square and plastered with mud, with dirt floors and flat roofs above covered with leaves, branches, sod or grass, plastered down with mud.

In the winter, rivulets of mud washed through the skimpy roof and dropped onto the heads of the buildings' occupants. The floor underneath turned to mud in rainy season or to gritty dust in the summer. Slightly more weather-tight was the roof covered with natural asphaltum (brea), of which there was an abundance in Southern California. However, on a hot summer day, the brea melted and fell in globs on the occupants, their furnishings, or the floor. Unless repaired, this also left holes in the roof, through which winter rain then leaked onto the miserable occupants and their belongings. (Whitehead, Citadel 105).After a season or two of rain the walls might collapse and have to be rebuilt, perhaps of adobe and stone, with roofs of tile (some floors still dirt, some of fired tiles known as ladrillos). Adobe structures were more weather-tight, but even so, the presidios experienced periodic collapses of walls and roofs. For instance, the presidio of San Francisco was virtually destroyed by heavy rain in 1779. (Whitehead, Citadel, 196)

Around the perimeter of the presidio, a dry moat was dug to increase the defensiveness of the presidio. This moat might have been 12 feet wide and 6 feet deep, with excavated dirt piled up on the outside lip which attackers would have to climb over, exposing themselves to the presidio's defenders (Whitehead, Four Fortresses, 70-71).

There might or might not be an outer defense wall, as was mentioned earlier; San Francisco, for example, seems to have lacked a complete set of walls-- only three sides were covered (Beilharz 81). At Monterey, Governor Neve found, on a 1777 tour of inspection, that Monterey was completely open; he ordered the situation be rectified, with construction of tall stone walls (Beilharz 81-82). Estimates for the height of the walls at Santa Barbara range between 8 and 12 feet. (Whitehead, Citadel, 188-189) Monterey's wall was also about 11 feet high, and a little over 3 feet thick (Whitehead, Citadel, 189).

In some cases , the backs of the buildings, looking straight out at the dry moat, and the countryside beyond, were all that protected the interior of the presidio (e.g. San Francisco and San Diego); it was expected soldiers would fire upon an advancing enemy from the roof or from back windows if they existed (Whitehead, Citadel, 121-22). ).

But in other cases (Monterey after it was rebuilt in 1789 and Santa Barbara), an outer defense wall was built with a line of patios or backyards directly behind, which led to back entrances into the soldiers' family quarters. Inside each individual patio, the family would dig a latrine, store supplies of wood and other goods, build an outdoor kitchen, and corral the family goat, a pig (who also acted as the family garbage disposal unit) and other domestic animals. In case of attack, the enemy would have to first clamber over the dry moat, climb the outer wall, dodge around the latrine, wood pile, all the while trying to avoid gunfire from the roof or back windows.The basic layout of the presidio--the rings of defense represented by the moat, the outer defense wall--the entire hollow square pattern itself, in fact-- was a frontier adaptation of the European castle, a mode of defense in which one waited within a strong place for the enemy to attack. This stand-and-fight style of warfare was not effective on the Spanish frontier against the Apaches and other mobile hostile tribes if they chose to simply wage guerrilla warfare in the countryside, slipping easily through the wide mesh of the presidio system; with presidios so widely scattered, it was not hard to by-pass them. Similarly, in Alta California its effectiveness would be limited if hostile Indians there similarly failed to play by European rules.

The presidio system would also be ineffective if invading foreigners were not so obliging as to head straight for Santa Barbara or its three companion presidios rather than land elsewhere along the long California coast. (In 1818, a pirate named Bouchard did both-- attacking Monterey presidio and then moving to attack other unprotected coastal ranchos along the coast of Southern California). Notwithstanding its drawbacks, the hollow square Spanish presidio became the model for U.S. Army forts throughout the West and private forts as well (e.g. Sutter's Fort in California).

The work of constructing the California presidios was done by the soldiers themselves or by the soldiers with the help of Indian workers (Jackman 10). In the case of Santa Barbara, sailors from the frigate captained by Esteban Martinez were also pressed into service (Jackman 8). Especially valuable were the skilled craftsmen who had received special training in San Blas, (the primary port on Mexico's west coast for trade to Alta California) and who had contracted for service in California.

Some soldiers felt that such physical labor was beneath them and refused to lift a hand, (Beilharz 78) but probably their officers saw to it they pitched in to cut wood, make adobes, etc. While most men seem to have accepted the job, at Santa Barbara one soldier at least, a private, became resentful and defied his commanding officer, Felipe de Goicoechea, whereupon Goichoechea climbed the wall upon which the man was working and threw him off (Jackman 10).

Evidence of Indian participation in construction of the presidios is documented in several contemporary sources. At Monterey, for example, the expense sheets submitted to the Paymaster General in Mexico mention the sums paid to Indians for help in building the chapel there. At Santa Barbara, José Francisco Ortega reported that the Chumash eagerly worked for beads, and said that if only he had more beads, the work would progress even faster (Johnson 367).

Indian workers and their families became a permanent feature of life at presidios, and in fact may have preferred living there to living at missions where life was less free and more regimented. To some Spanish officials, Indian residence at presidios was a welcome alternative to the missions; Miguel Costans—, for example, believed that the whole process of Hispanization could be accelerated with the intermarriage of soldiers and Indians, and furthermore, the sooner Hispanization could be achieved, the sooner missions could be terminated ("secularized). Of course, missionaries took a dim view of allowing Hispanization to occur outside the mission system, especially when it involved soldiers whose immorality was, to them, notorious and intolerable.



Soldados at Santa Barbara Presidio

Soldados at Santa Barbara Presidio

As was pointed out earlier, the soldiers of the presidios formed the seedbed of California's future Hispanic population, along with the civilians who lived in the pueblos (Los Angeles and San Jose). Four major racial groups went into the making of this population: español (Spanish); Indian; mestizo (part Spanish, part Indian); and mulatto (part black, part Spanish), plus combinations, in all possible mathematical ways, of these various groups).

By the late 1700s, when Alta California was being founded, the word "mestizo" was often used to describe any mixture--black, Spanish, and/or Indian-- but "mulatto" was a commonly used designation as well. The generic term "casta" was sometimes used to refer to any mixed blood person, whatever the mathematical combination of Spanish, black, and Indian. Even in tradition-bound Mexico City, 1811 census records omit references to black and mestizo although did include mulatto (Seed 1982, 577).Thus in the mestizo group in California, some individuals might have been primarily European in appearance, some predominantly Indian in appearance, and others might have had many African-American characteristics. There was no uniform or stereotypic appearance for mestizos. This being so, when it came time to be recorded in a census where one's race was listed, or where race was mentioned in other official documents, a mestizo might "upgrade" his racial designation to "español" if he was fair enough or rich enough or had otherwise achieved Spanish status. (Forbes 178) Similarly, a mulatto might change his racial designation to mestizo and even eventually to "español," having similarly grown old enough, wealthy enough, or socially and politically distinguished enough to claim that designation.

Settlers' or soldiers' spouses occasionally also included Hispanified, Christianized Indians (e.g. from Mexico, Baja California, or Alta California) (Forbes 182-183 ).

In the category of "españoles" (Spaniards) were those Spaniards born in Spain, who were called "peninsulares" to differentiate them from "criollos" ("creoles" in English) who were Spaniards born in Mexico. If truth were known, many who called themselves criollos were in fact mestizos, perhaps from a subgroup called castizos (3/4 Spanish, 1/4 Indian). (Meyer and Sherman 210)

Officers tended to be peninsulares or creoles while ordinary soldiers were usually mestizos, most often from Baja California (specifically from Loreto, location of the presidio), from the northwestern portion of Mexico (Sonora, and Sinaloa) or from Central Mexican areas such as Jalisco or Querétaro. (Forbes 184-185)

In the hierarchy of Mexican colonial society, peninsulares or creoles placed themselves towards the top, mestizos, blacks, and Indians towards the middle and bottom.



To be a mixed blood person-- a mestizo or one of the "castas"--in Mexican colonial society was to lack many advantages in life. To be a mestizo was to be considered automatically inferior by the Spanish classes and to lack most of the legal privileges they enjoyed. To be a mestizo was to be looked down upon by peninsulares and creoles, who considered them congenitally inferior and even prone to violence and crime. Mestizos were considered to have none of the virtues and all of the vices of their parents

By the late 18th century, mestizos were rising on the social scale and gaining some respect, even some moderate wealth (MacLachlan 223-228) Even so, opportunities were limited for mestizos. One way to rise on the social scale was to join the military, which enjoyed greater status or "respectability" than many other occupations. In the mid 18th century, with the new drive to improve New Spain's defenses, the army was the recipient of special official attention and was in the process of being rejuvenated and professionalized; the frontier army was elevated to a status equal to that of the regular army in central New Spain; perhaps it was hoped that this would improve recruitment efforts. Certainly, being able to qualify for special legal privileges called the fuero militar was an important inducement for mestizos to join the military. Being in the army gave a mestizo soldier access to power and legal protection he did not otherwise have (Moorhead 234-35 ).

Being in the army had other benefits for mestizos. At the end of one's career, a soldier could ask for a pension, a land grant, and perhaps some cattle. He could, perhaps become a great land owner of thousands of acres, thus achieving the Hispanic gentleman's dream, something which most mestizos in Central New Spain had few hopes of reaching, but which was possible on the wide-open northern frontier. At the same time, a mestizo might even change his official racial designation as recorded in censuses or other documents (see above). Patricia Seed has established that in Central New Spain, one's racial designation was actually determined by one's profession or employment (Seed, 582-585) The job defined the man, or at least his racial category.




Santa Barbara Presidio Chapel

Despite the advantages of being in the army, Alta California was evidently viewed as an undesirable post; soldiers did not rush to join up for service here. Thus, the military population was tiny, only 150 men and officers in 1777, for example, about the time Felipe de Neve became governor; he was anxious that Indians not realize just how numerically weak the Spanish were. (Beilharz 73 ) Many of Neve's accomplishments as governor were aimed at ways in which the Spanish presence could be improved or maximized: the foundation of a new presidio (Santa Barbara) and two civilian pueblos (San Jose and Los Angeles).

Despite Neve's efforts, the military population grew only slowly. Nearly 30 years after Neve's tenure in office, (ca. 1815), the presidios' populations ranged between only 300 and 600, with San Diego as the smallest of the four (Costello and Hornbeck 317). This does not mean that up to 600 men lived within the presidio itself at any given time; instead, some were on the trail carrying the mail, or on scouting expeditions, or were scattered over the presidio district serving their stints as guards at missions at the four to six missions within each of the presidial districts. However, by 1815 each presidio had become the nucleus of a small town that included both civilians and retired soldiers. It is estimated that the total population for all four presidios was approximately 1200 people (Costello and Hornbeck 317-318), probably not including associated Indian workers or servants who had chosen not to live at a nearby mission and were called "ladinos"-- Indians who had become at least partly Hispanified in culture but independently, not as neophytes at any mission.

It must seem paradoxical that on one hand the crown was attempting to professionalize the army and was in defensive mode while on the other it was slow to improve the pay and working conditions of the soldiers it so badly wanted to defend the frontier, but such was the case. It obviously would have been in the royal interest to offer special inducements, e.g. higher pay, for frontier service, but that did not happen. The embarrassing fact was that there was just not enough in the royal treasury to fund all that royal law and policy called for (a not uncommon fact-of-life for many governments both then and now). Then, as now, in such a circumstance, the government looked for ways to economize, or ways to find cheap labor. This took the form of pressing convicts into the army, a practice called the leva in Central Mexico. The streets and jails of Mexican cities or towns were cleared of vagabonds and criminals, putting them into the army, and sending them north to Alta California.

Royal authorities hoped some of these involuntary soldiers would also be artisans who could teach their skills to the Indians while serving escolta duty at the missions (Garr, 137). There was also always a great need for artisans around the presidio itself for building and maintenance. The dilapidation of the presidios, remarked upon by visitors such as Vancouver, would indicate that artisan-soldiers were hard to come by.

In the early years, convict-soldiers supplemented the many professional soldiers stationed in Alta California. Missionaries complained bitterly about convict- soldiers' supposed lack of character and crimes and scandals connected with them; Serra begged the viceroy to not use Alta California as a place of exile, or, in effect, a penal colony (a veritable "Ceuta", Serra called it, a reference to an infamous penal colony in Africa to which the Spanish crown had sent prisoners for centuries) (Garr, 137-138). Governors, such as Arrillaga, also complained that convict-soldiers were insolent, vicious, and immoral (Garr 138-139).

To counterbalance the negative view of the convict-soldiers, however, it should be pointed out that some of them proved both honest and able; such a one was Hermingildo Sal, who rose to serve as commandant of San Francisco Presidio (Campbell, 1972 ). Convicts sent up to California were not necessarily hardened criminals and service in California may have represented a welcome escape from the prejudice and limitations of the class system of Central Mexico.

Compared to creoles or peninsulares, mestizos suffered disproportionately from harsh and arbitrary punishments in the justice system of Central Mexico simply because they were mestizos. Creoles and peninsulares tended to view all mestizos as dyed-in-the-wool liars and crooks, congenitally predisposed toward criminal behavior. If there were two suspects in a criminal case--one a creole and the other a mestizo--officials tended to automatically assume the guilt of the mestizo. Since the Spanish system of justice assumed a person was guilty unless he could prove his innocence (not innocent until proven guilty) mestizos found it especially hard to prove innocence; the preconceptions about supposed inborn criminality of their race had already led to prejudgements of guilt. Punishments were severe even for minor crimes, but crimes against property, e.g. banditry or cattle rustling, brought special wrath on the heads of accused mestizos, probably because creole or Spaniard officials were also members of the elite property-holding aristocracy. (MacLachlan 44-52). In a situation such as this, it must have happened that many of the convict-soldiers sentenced to service in California were essentially decent men rather the monsters missionaries and many historians have painted them to have been. It had been their wretched misfortune to run up against a system which was tipped against them because of their race.

In any case, the complaints of the missionaries led to cessation of the practice, and in the last 20 years of the Spanish period, no convict soldiers were sent to Alta California (Garr, 139). However, the use of such soldiers was revived in the Mexican period, which led again to much scandal and dissension.

One of the greatest problems which led to some of the missionaries' most bitter complaints, was the abuse of Indian women by soldiers. Prior to the mid-1770s, there was a complete lack of Spanish or mestiza women in Alta California, which led to a state of enforced celibacy for the men-- a state that did not suit most of them. Unlike missionaries, soldiers did not, after all, take vows of chastity. The outlet for sexual energies which could have occurred in marriage between soldiers and Indian women would have been most acceptable to both crown and church, but such marriages were rare, and soldiers, like soldiers of many nationalities in most historical eras, took advantage of native women. Missionaries' complaints were probably exaggerated, but were no doubt based in fact, human nature being what it is. As Serra complained to the viceroy, "it is as though a plague of immorality had broken out;" he further remarked that the Indians believed Spaniards were the offspring of mules, "... seeing that mules were the only members of the female gender they saw among us" (Garr, 136) .

For greater social stability and an improved moral tone, the crown wished to encourage formation of family life among the soldiers. Spanish officials looked for ways to increase the number of Spanish or mestiza women in the population, although there was no consistent governmental policy for sending women colonists to California. In 1775, Viceroy Bucareli authorized Captain Juan Bautista de Anza take to California an expedition of 240 settlers, the largest number of families with women and children at any one time in the Spanish period (In 1774, Captain Rivera y Moncada had brought in a small party of 51 people.) (Bancroft I, 218) In the 1790s, Governor Borica asked that "mujeres blancas" (white women) be sent to California in numbers at least equal to the number of male convict soldiers; if "mujeres blancas" proved too hard to find, then women of lesser "quality" (mestizas, mulattas, etc.) perhaps could be induced to make the move; he recommended some kind of inducement-- a serge petticoat, a shawl, and a linen jacket might do the trick. Borica also offered a 40 peso bonus to any soldier who got married. (Bancroft I, 605). In 1800, the viceroy sent 10 orphan girls to California to be distributed among presidial families; by the end of the year, 2 of them were married. (Bancroft I, 606).

Such marriages--or any marriages--were a sign that the Spanish population in Alta California was on the way to becoming permanent and that the stability so desired by Church and State was being achieved. Both Church and State encouraged marriage, and this included inter-racial marriages, unlike the British in the Thirteen Colonies where marriages between whites and Indians or whites and blacks was officially frowned upon. In New Spain, including California, there was no legal reason why such alliances should not occur.

However, in California, intermarriage between Spaniards and California Indian women was rare; ca. 1800 or 1801, Father Fermin de Lasuen reported that only 24 colonists had married Indian neophytes since 1769 (Bancroft I, 610). Having an Indian mistress was another matter, however. (Governor Pedro Fages, for instance, had a Yuma Indian concubine, with whom he was found in bed one evening by his wife Eulalia , who understandably became considerably upset. She subsequently left him, which concerned local missionaries and resulted in her being sheltered in a nearby mission until she could recover her composure. Ultimately she forgot her rage, agreed to forgive the governor and resume their marriage.)Lower class mestizo men--which meant most of the soldiery-- married mestizas, mulattas, and, more rarely, indias (Indian women), probably in that order of preference. Officers, on the other hand, tended to marry women of the same social class (or "calidad") as themselves: espa–olas (actually more likely creoles than peninsulares) or mestizas of a high economic and social class. An officer's promotion and his pension later was influenced by the social class of his wife. By 1790, 2/3 of the soldiers were married (Campbell, 587) but because the population was so small, with little immigration from Mexico, there was considerable inter-marriage among a relatively small number of families during the Spanish period and the Mexican period which followed it. It follows that very likely men and officers at the presidios shared many blood relatives.



Santa Barbara Presidio Grounds

Santa Barbara Presidio Grounds

Life for people at the presidios was never easy; it was, instead, filled with poverty, material deprivation and physical discomfort, true frontier- or pioneer-style.

Soldiers sometimes went years without pay, the ships from Mexico not having arrived with their payrolls. Even if the ship did arrive, their pay was too low (only 365 pesos/year for ordinary soldiers) (Beilharz 41) to allow them to buy a great deal at the commissary, where prices were government-set at artificially high levels. Poverty was such that soldiers sometimes complained that mission Indians were better dressed than they were. Governor Neve remarked that the men's uniforms were so shabby that their nakedness was barely covered; certainly, these men could not decently attend Mass . (Campbell 588).

Commanding officers were better off, but did not live in luxury. For example, the comandante of San Francisco lived among crumbling, dilapidated structures which heavy rains perpetually threatened to melt away while, in contrast, the Russian officer in command at Fort Ross enjoyed carpets on the floor and drapery at the windows, an opulence which must have given the Spanish comandante much food for thought. (Campbell 589).

The presidios had few industries of their own, and had to rely on outside sources for manufactures and even foodstuffs-- everything from furniture to chocolate. Some commodities were acquired from the missions-- e.g. foodstuffs and some manufactures made by neophytes. Some of what they needed they acquired from the government supply ship sent up from San Blas (although sailings from San Blas were irregular, making arrival of supplies problematic). Ships stopped coming at all after 1810, when the Mexican War for Independence began (Hornbeck and Costello 318), one of the bloodiest, most destructive independence struggles in Latin American history . Official interest in the plight of the distant, tiny supply-starved colony in Alta California was not especially high given the circumstances. Although trade with Russian Fort Ross was illegal, some goods were gotten there (boats and furniture, for example). Finally, New England was a source of manufactures, although trade with Yankee sea captains was strictly illegal during the Spanish period.

Living conditions for the men, women, and children who lived in the presidios were uncomfortable and crowded by today's standards (although probably not so different in comparison to other frontier peoples--in New Mexico, for example.

The families lived in a series of rooms partitioned in the rectangular structures that made up the sides of the presidio, one room to a family, although perhaps a large family might be given two rooms, if it was lucky. To gain a little more space, some of the cooking and eating was done in the patio or backyard.

An unknown luxury within the walls of the presidio were separate, detached houses, although such homes eventually sprang up in the towns surrounding the presidios.The size of the families who lived in the presidios varied a great deal. In 1790, in the four presidios, the average number of children was merely four per family; in the 1830s, the average was higher but only slightly so. (Miranda 62-63) On the other hand, José de la Guerra, comandante at Santa Barbara, was father to 13 children. Two of his daughters also went in for large families: one bore 18 children while her sister had 12 children by her first husband alone. However, siblings of these two had only 7 or 8 children each. (Miranda 63)

Extended families, of course, were also large. For example, when Juan Bautista de Alvarado (governor of California 1836-1842) was growing up in his grandfather's living quarters in Monterey; crowded within a few rooms were approximately sixteen people. This included his widowed mother, his grandparents, and their many children, one of whom was Juan Bautista's uncle, Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo , who was actually younger than he. To escape the mob, the boys in the family often slept outside under the covered corridors. (Conley 21-30) Vallejo himself later was father to sixteen children.

Few physicians were to be found in Hispanic California to care for residents of the presidios (or in the civilian pueblos either, for that matter). There was one physician in the pueblo of Los Angeles in 1790 and in Monterey there was a private doctor named Manuel Gutiérrez de Quijano for a number of years (1807-24) (Jones 230) ; otherwise, there were military physicians at the presidios only sporadically and never continuously (Nunis, 38-39). Life for women must have been especially difficult because of isolation, frequent pregnancies, scarcity of medical care, and poverty; the mortality rate for them and their children must have been high.

There was no public school system for the education of presidio children. In the late colonial period, Governor Sol‡ financially supported a school on his own, but had to give it up when his salary--like the salaries of the men--did not arrive for several years. Governor Borica also tried to establish a school system, making education mandatory, the funding to come from local residents. Noble as the idea was, it did not prove permanent. Not surprisingly, the literacy race among soldiers and their families was low. In San Francisco in 1799, only 1/6 of the soldiers (8 out of 51) could sign their names (Jones 227-230).

The lack of public schools, however, did not rule out private schools or use of tutors. Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo and a few friends, for example, were taught by a private tutor, a retired sergeant whose methods of rote memorization were no doubt deadly. Nevertheless, Vallejo became one of the best educated men in California, a writer, and a book collector. Presidio soldiers are sometimes denigrated by historians for their illiteracy, but the example of Vallejo shows the unfairness of the charge. Rancheros, later, were also not known for their literacy, but are not condemned in the same way as the soldiers. For both, literacy was probably just not important in successfully carrying out the tasks of everyday life. However, only soldiers who could read, write, and cipher were in line for promotion, (Campbell, 1972 ) which must have been an impetus for the ambitious among them to find a way to learn.

Of course, the rancheros of the Mexican period and the soldiers were often the same people-- a retired soldier, for example, who was successful in gaining a land grant, having plead poverty and long military service. Alternatively, a land grantee often was a descendant of a soldier. In this way, the soldiery helped form the "rancho class" of the Mexican period, the soldiers and their families serving as a crucial component of the Hispanic population of the Mexican period and early American period.



The men of the presidios did their jobs well, considering limited finances, under-manning, and low morale. Their function was basically defensive, although their role in scouting for new missions or in chasing after runaways from the missions was more proactive (and more condemnable, as far as modern revisionist historians are concerned, who see the soldiers as part of a repressive mission system). Still, in their own time, their function was regarded as mainly defensive-- to react if a foreign invader should appear or if a major Indian uprising should occur. They were not well-prepared to meet either eventuality, through no fault of their own. Due to a stingy government they were badly armed and under-supplied. More often than not, their firearms were of the wrong caliber or in such poor condition that they were actually unsafe to fire or the soldiers lacked sufficient gunpowder or lead to even carry out firing practice. The cannon, pointed toward shore to repel the invader who might come, were probably stopped up, broken, or inoperative due to lack of powder or cannon balls. Still, the soldiers fought bravely when they had to, although they were pragmatic enough to know when it was time to retreat; the best example of that came in 1818 when the French pirate Bouchard landed at Monterey to take the town; soldiers fought them as long as they could before evacuating the population to safety in the east. Bouchard sacked and burned Monterey, but not without resistance from the soldiers.

As far as management of Indian uprisings is concerned, it should be pointed out that during the Spanish and Mexican periods, there were relatively few major uprisings. How the soldiers performed on those occasions is, of course, a matter of controversy if one is of the school of thought that the entire Spanish presence--missions, presidios, and pueblos together-- was evil and repressive-- that all were intent upon genocide-- that the sins of Columbus were simply being played out on this the last Spanish frontier. In their own historical context, the soldiers were doing what they were sent to do and were no worse than soldiers of other eras or other nationalities (e.g. the British and how they inter-acted with the Native Americans along the Atlantic seaboard, or the Americans and how they treated the Plains Indians).



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