The period from 1850-1900 was a defining epoch for the Baja California peninsula. From the end of the Mexican-American War–when the territory was narrowly saved from inclusion in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo–to the end of the 19th century, Baja California was the object of intense scrutiny from American interests, who attempted to extract money from it in myriad ways, from mining and real estate speculation to filibustering expeditions bent on outright conquest.
Long an insular area shielded from the chaos of world events by ruling missionary orders and restrictions against foreign trade, Baja California was finally forced to come to grips with its place within the nation, and within the world at large. Not only that, but its inhabitants were forced to forge their identity as a people during a time when México itself was in suffering through a traumatic series of domestic and international upheavals.
The 1850s, in particular, were a decade of civil war for the country, as liberals and conservatives fought over the future direction of the nation. Liberals wanted to democratize and secularize México, while conservatives continued to insist that stability was reliant upon traditional pillars like the army and the Catholic Church.
A liberal tide swept Antonio López de Santa Anna from leadership for the final time in 1855, setting the stage for the Constitution of 1857; a document that guaranteed basic human rights consistent with, for example, the U.S. Constitution, but in its strictures against the church was a radical departure that plunged the opposing political forces into a three-year conflict known as The War of Reform.
The civil conflict degenerated even further during the 1860s, as many conservatives welcomed the intervention that occurred when liberal hero and president Benito Juárez placed a two-year moratorium on debt payments to foreign powers, and the French seized the opportunity to invade. Mexican patriots famously defeated the French at the Battle of Puebla in 1862 (origin of the holiday Cinco de Mayo), but by 1864 an Austrian archduke named Maximilian von Hapsburg had, along with his wife Carlota, become puppet rulers of México.
Years of fierce fighting and political pressure from the U.S., which had recently emerged from its own civil war, finally forced the French from country, and Emperor Maximilian and two of his loyal generals were executed for treason in 1867. But tyranny would rear its head again when Porfirio Díaz seized political control of Mexico in 1876, and bestrode the nation as a dictatorial colossus for well over 30 years.
It was against this half-century backdrop of national crises that a new era in Baja California unfolded.
In December 1857, Colonel Diego Castilla and his peninsular troops refused to recognize the newly minted constitution, citing the recently formulated Plan of Tacubaya, a conservative program that aimed to abolish the reforms enacted by Benito Juárez.
In an earlier age the combined might of the military may have overcome dissenting sentiment among the inhabitants of El Sur. Not this time. Bajacalifornio constitutionalists led by Manuel Márquez de León, Ildefonso Green and former wartime jefe político Mauricio Castro marched on La Paz and attacked the defeated the army forces.
It was the defining act of regional identity, one made explicit when a legislative assembly was convened soon after. The peninsular residents averred that although they were proud Mexican citizens, they would govern themselves independently until such time as the War of Reform was ended and the rights guaranteed by the constitution were reinstated.
Two of the men at the forefront of this collective act of courage, Márquez and Green, would prove themselves patriots time and time again, and tower above all other figures during this crucial era of peninsular history.
In an age of conflict, they were always ready for a fight. But more than that, their fierce individualism and democratic values were unerringly representative of the best qualities of the region that spawned them.
Born in the mining community of San Antonio in 1822, Márquez was already a veteran of the Mexican–American War and numerous campaigns against invading filibusters when he took sides in the War of Reform. Not content with his opposition to Castilla’s troops, he mustered his own army and set sail for the mainland to continue his fight for the liberal cause, most notably with a successful attack on the port of San Blas. When that war ended, he fought against the French, in the process becoming friendly with a general from Oaxaca, future president Porfirio Díaz.
His relationship with Díaz took a turn for the worse when the latter ascended to power, overturning the electoral process and assuming increasingly dictatorial powers during a long reign that lasted until the Mexican Revolution in 1910. Disillusioned by the Plan of Tuxtepec and a massacre in Veracruz in 1879 (the occasion of Díaz’s famous order: ¡Mátalos en caliente!), Márquez once again took up arms on behalf of democratic principles, forming a rebel army that seized the port of La Paz. After installing his nephew Clodomiro Cota as jefe político, he issued his own revolutionary Plan of El Triunfo in an attempt to stir the nation at large. A year later, however, the rebellion was quelled; bloodied but unbowed, Márquez was sent into exile in San Francisco.
Ildefonso Cipriano Green Ceseña was, if possible, an even more irascible and charismatic figure than Márquez. Born in Cabo San Lucas in 1830, son of a Mexican mother and a European father who had deserted from a whaling vessel, Green was in San Francisco during the Gold Rush era. He also became personally acquainted with the bandit Joaquin Murrieta–the real life inspiration for the fictional character of Zorro–whom it is said he consciously tried to emulate by fighting for the rights of his fellow Mexicans.
When filibuster William Walker was chased from Cabo San Lucas in 1853, it was Green that led the local militia, henceforth known as Los Rifleros de San Lucas. When Antonio Pedrín was unjustly ousted as jefe político by Pedro Navarette in 1865, it was Green and Pablo Gastelum who led the charge to have him reinstated, which he was the following year. When the ship John L. Stephens, bound for Mazatlán with arms and ammunition for French forces under Emperor Maximilian, stopped in Cabo San Lucas in 1866, it was men like Green who seized it and had its cargo rerouted to Mexican partisans. When a politically connected bandit named Ramón Valdés was terrorizing and extorting citizenry in the Capes Region in 1874, it was Green who defeated him in a duel to the death.
Green, like Márquez, embodied the spirit of the age; an age when implausible events were transforming the future of Los Cabos, and indeed the entirety of the Baja California peninsula. He also embodied the tremendous vitality of the emergent region, living to the age of 102 and fathering 25 children.
Although the term filibuster is now degraded and refers solely to prolonged political speechmaking, in olden days it was bestowed upon those individuals who waged war against foreign powers in hopes of attaining wealth and everlasting glory.
These forays across national boundaries were obviously illegal, not to mention, in the case of the U.S., contrary to national policy. That said, the American government largely looked the other way: it was not averse to profiting if events broke the right way, but it was quick to distance itself when embarrassments inevitably happened. The true policy could therefore be said to be one of plausible deniability.
The inspiration for many of these freebooting forays was Texas, whose early U.S. settlers had successfully fought for Independence, and were later granted annexation to their native country. The increasingly vehement arguments over the subject of slavery–filibustering reached its height in the 1850s, in the lead up to the American Civil War–also contributed to the movement, as proponents of “the peculiar institution” sought new lands to add to their already existing Southern bloc. That was certainly the case with William Walker, the most famous of all the filibusters.
Born in Tennessee, Walker was a young man who had bright prospects but seemed consumed with restless energies. Armed with a fine college education, he practiced both law and medicine, but ultimately abandoned both for a career in journalism in San Francisco.
It is a curious fact, but just as the pioneer resort developers during the peninsula’s golden age of tourism in the 1940s and 1950s were current or former pilots, the filibusters who repeatedly attacked Baja California and Sonora during the 1850s all seemingly hatched their plots, and enlisted their armies in Gold Rush era San Francisco. Perhaps the heady promise of overnight fortune was a like a disease, one that once contracted could never be entirely cured.
As to why Baja California and Sonora proved such frequent targets, the obvious answers were a) that they were tantalizingly close to San Francisco, and b) both were sparsely populated–the entire Baja California peninsula contained a mere 7,000 inhabitants as of 1851–and thus perceived as extremely vulnerable.
The country, too, was seen as weak. México was suffering through a prolonged period of political instability and insolvency, and had been obliged to give up almost half its national territory as a result of the Mexican–American War. Given the country’s problems with factionalism, the filibusters undoubtedly perceived that the Mexican army would be slow to react, particularly to attacks in more remote regions like Baja California and Sonora.
And truth be told, many filibusters thought the people in these far-flung territories would welcome their interventions.
That was their biggest mistake.
Inspired in part by impoverished French aristocrat Count Gaston Raoulx de Raousset-Boulbon, who led the first of his ill-fated filibustering expeditions to the Mexican state of Sonora in 1852, Walker and 45 men set sail from San Francisco aboard the Caroline on October 16, 1853. Their goal was to establish a newfound Republic of Sonora under the laws of the Code of Louisiana. Walker had even designed a flag for his dreamed-up republic: three horizontal stripes, red on top and bottom, with the middle field of white decorated with two red stars symbolizing Baja California and Sonora.
After touching briefly at Cabo San Lucas on October 28, Walker and his men proceeded to the capital at La Paz, where they landed on November 3. Their arrival could not have been more fortuitous. Not only were they able to seize the current jefe político, Colonel Rafael Espinosa, but his replacement, Colonel Juan Rebolledo, who arrived a scant three days later. In the interim, los filibusteros seized the local archives, looted the houses of better appearance, and issued a manifesto proclaiming their new slave state.
Resistance was not slow to form. Manuel Pineda, heroic leader of the wartime peninsular forces, organized a civilian attack against the invaders; and soon-to-be General Manuel Márquez de León, a war veteran residing in Todos Santos, assembled more armed men to repulse the upstart Americans. Seeing the rising tide of opposition, Walker wisely decided to retreat to Cabo San Lucas, but after being harried by the warship Garrea and local militia led by Ildefonso Green, was obliged to pull his troops back all the way to Ensenada.
There, the filibusters established their headquarters at a ranch owned by the Gastelum family. Briefly bolstered by the arrival of 150 reinforcements aboard the brig Anita, Walker was able to maintain his northern power base for several months before local resistance, desertion and supply shortages spelled doom for his erstwhile republic, and indicated one final retreat.
So ended the last battle of the Republic of Sonora,” wrote James Jeffrey Roche in By-Ways of War: The Story of the Filibusters. “Four and thirty tattered, hungry, gaunt pedestrians, whimsically representing in their persons the president, cabinet, army and navy of Sonora, marched across the line and surrendered as prisoners of war to Major Mckinstry, U.S.A., at San Diego, California. It was the 8th of May, 1854; and so Walker kept his thirtieth birthday.”
Walker was not long dissuaded. He organized another filibustering expedition, this one to Nicaragua, where he seized power and served as president for nearly a year. His Central American adventure did not end well, however. He was shot by a firing squad in Honduras on September 12, 1860.
In the wake of Walker peninsular authorities were on high alert, and thus little surprised when a small fleet of three ships sailed into La Paz on November 13, 1855 under the command of a self-styled admiral named Juan Napoleón Zerman. Wearing a sombrero bedizened with chicken feathers, and a uniform consisting of mismatched parts, the admiral came ashore bearing letters that contained, according to historian Pablo L. Martínez, “various absurd decrees, edited in barbarous Spanish.”
Manuel Márquez de León, practiced now in such matters, immediately arrested the naval pretender and turned him over to current jefe político José María Blancarte, who had arrived on the peninsula accompanied by an additional 600 soldiers sent expressly to repulse further filibustering attempts. Blancarte cared little for Zerman’s explanations, and had his ships, arms and supplies confiscated. But the French adventurer and his men were eventually released without harm. In that, they were exceedingly lucky.
Two years after Zerman’s aborted excursion, a former California state senator named Henry Crabbe crossed the border at Sonora with approximately 100 men. Like Walker and Raousset-Boulbon, who met a similar fate at Guaymas in 1854 after being repulsed during an attempt to land at San José del Cabo, Crabbe and his men were executed by firing squad after an eight day battle at Caborca. Crabbe suffered the additional indignity of having his head severed and exhibited for a time in a jar filled with either vinegar or mezcal (sources vary on this point).
The rising tide of terrible deaths, including that of interventionist ruler Emperor Maximilian (also shot by firing squad), should have acted as a deterrent to further filibustering expeditions. But although these incursions declined after the 1850s, they continued to occur at random intervals until the end of the 19th century.
The final foreign design upon Baja California was a ludicrous plot hatched by a group of Southern California businessmen–largely newspaper editors–in 1890.Their brilliant plan was for men aboard the steamers Manuel Dublan and Carlos Pacheco to capture the Mexican warship Democrata, come ashore during a fandango at the Hotel Iturbide in Ensenada, and overpower the presumably drunken officials.
This course of action was allegedly sanctioned by the English owned Mexican Land and Colonization Company, whose treasurer, a certain Mr. McQuilter, felt U.S. stewardship of the region would vastly expand (perhaps by as much as 100 times) the value of his company’s holdings in the area. McQuilter advocated an advance of $100,000 to further the scheme with U.S. conspirators, who included Walter Gifford Smith, editor of the San Diego Sun; B.A. Stephens, editor of the San Diego Informant; and Captain John F. Janes, who published the San Pedro Shipping Gazette and lived in a house made from shipwrecks.
Word of the plot leaked, however, and was published delightedly by the San Diego Union, a direct competitor to the Sun and Informant. The sensational aspects ensured the story was reported nationally, leaving the conspirators open to public ridicule, as well as censure from two governments.
Jacob P. Leese is remembered for two reasons: for being the second U.S. settler of what would become the city of San Francisco (it was still named Yerba Buena and under Spanish control when he moved there in 1836); and as the namesake of the Leese Concession granted by Mexican president Benito Juárez on March 30, 1864.
Considering how close México came to losing the Baja California peninsula in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, and how sought after a prize it was for filibusters in the decades following the war, Juárez’s decision to grant such an enormous percentage of peninsular lands for a U.S. colonization scheme can be seen, depending upon one’s perspective, as either an act of sheer desperation or cleverly counterintuitive.
The concession gave Leese control of almost two-thirds of the peninsula, over 46,800 square miles from the latitudes of 24.20 to 31 (generally speaking, from Bahía Magdalena to San Felipe). The money Leese paid for this privilege ($100,000 pesos in gold, then equivalent to approximately the same sum in U.S. dollars) was undoubtedly useful for the Mexican government, which had been flirting with insolvency since the Independence period, and was in an ongoing battle with the French, who successfully installed Maximilian less than two months after the Leese concession was signed.
Critics of Juárez maintain that in his efforts to fight off the French he was willing to sacrifice the Baja California peninsula, then as for much of its history considered little more than a backwater by the national government. His proponents, meanwhile, insist the concession not only helped to keep the mainland from falling into French hands, but that the peninsular lands were ultimately never really in jeopardy of permanent foreign ownership, since the contract contained 18 strict provisions that were ultimately impossible to fulfill. There is also a school of thought that by trying to promote a population surge in Baja California, Juárez was providing a counterintuitive buffer against continued U.S. filibusters; guarding his rear flank, so to speak.
While Juarez’s motives were somewhat cloudy, Leese’s, at least in the short term, were clear. He was intent on fueling real estate speculation in order to fulfill the contract’s most important stipulation: that he provide 200 colonizing families within a five year period.
To better assess ways to promote the peninsula to U.S. settlers–and to exploit its mineral resources–an expedition was carried out on the peninsula in 1866 by, most notably, journalist J. Ross Browne, geologist William Gaab and mining engineer F. Von Lohr.
It has long been speculated that Browne, a former treasury agent, was not only providing advice to Leese, but was also working for the U.S. government to assess the possible benefits of later annexation if colonizing U.S. citizens transformed the landscape of the first California in the same way they had in what was now the U.S. state of California. If the latter is true, then his advice was made abundantly clear in a series of articles he published in Harper’s New Monthly magazine in 1868. Baja California has strategic importance, Browne concluded, but otherwise isn’t good for much of anything (although he did allow that Chinese laborers might cultivate fisheries on the Pacific Coast).
“There is no doubt this point or terminus of the Peninsula would be a valuable acquisition by the United States,” Browne noted of Cabo San Lucas. “Situated on the highway (shipping lanes) from San Francisco to Panama, and to all the Pacific ports of México, it is easy of access, affords good anchorage for vessels of the largest capacity, and possesses every advantage of position and climate that could be desired in a place of resort for supplies.”
Despite Browne’s predominantly negative impressions, caustically expressed in his series for Harper’s, his travelogue about the expedition’s peripatetic journey by burro from Cabo San Lucas to Bahía Magdalena is one of the few extant portraits of life as it existed in El Sur during the latter half of the 19th century.
He was not uniformly jaundiced in his opinions. Browne was effusive in his praise, for example, when sketching a portrait early Cabo San Lucas citizen Thomas Ritchie, who had deserted from an English whaling ship to raise a family at Land’s End.
Of Ritchie he wrote: “He is the only European on the Cape. I cannot make but passing mention of him, since he is one of the institutions of the country. Forty years ago he was a cabin boy in a vessel belonging to his uncle. Becoming fascinated with the charms of a dark señorita at San José, he ran away and secreted himself till the ship sailed…His history, though not remarkable for stirring adventure, is full of interest. He has been the host of all the distinguished navigators who have visited the coast during the past forty years. Smuggling, stockraising, fishing, farming and trading have been among his varied occupations.
“He now has a family of half-breeds around him, none of whom speak his native language. He has made and lost a dozen fortunes, chiefly by selling and drinking whisky. No man is better known on the Pacific Coast than ‘Old Ritchie.’ He has suffered martyrdom at the hands of the Mexicans. They have robbed him, taxed him, imprisoned him, threatened to kill him, but all to no purpose; and they now regard him as an inevitable citizen of the country.
“Captain Ritchie’s house at Cape St. Lucas is the home of adventurers from all parts of the world. Admirals, commodores, captains and mates inhabit it; pirates and freebooters take refuge in it; miners, traders and cattle-drovers make it their home. In short, the latch-string is never drawn in. His hospitality is proverbial. All who have money pay if they choose; those who have none he feeds and makes drunk from sheer love of fellowship and natural generosity of heart. No traveler, weary or way-worn, ever went from his door without rest and sustenance.”
Although Browne was often cutting on the subject of other peninsular inhabitants, whom he largely deplored as lazy and primitive, his descriptions of the land itself were frequently poetic, as in this description of San José del Cabo:
“The old mission building stands on a slight eminence about two miles from the beach, in a most beautiful part of the valley, and forms the Acropolis around which centres the pleasant little town of San José. A stream of pure water courses through groves of citrons and oranges on the lower slope of the hill, and luxuriant palms hang with tropical effect over the washing-places along the azequia (sic), where the dusky damsels of the town assemble to work and gossip.”
Of the East Cape he wrote: “In no part of the world can the nights surpass those of the Gulf region. The sky is beautifully clear, the stars shine with the brilliancy of diamonds; the air is fragrant with the delicate odors of wild flowers; the stillness of death reigns around the camp in these profound solitudes. Tall, silver-gilt cacti stand like giant sentinels on the mystic outlines of the desert.”
Browne’s reports to Leese were presumably as gloomy as those he allegedly made to the U.S. government, since the San Francisco businessman transferred his rights to the Lower California Company, which itself traded and sold parcels in dizzying succession.
The New York based Lower California Company was frequently accused of fraud, of promising paradise–free land, unlimited opportunities–to would-be settlers, who instead discovered land of little use for farming and native residents who viewed them with suspicion if not outright hostility. Most returned destitute, loudly trumpeting their disgust to U.S. newspapers.
The only successful venture of any sort was a trade in orchilla, a native lichen that yielded a highly prized dye, which was developed around Magdalena Bay, most notably by Flores, Hale and Company.
In 1871, the Mexican government sent an inspector, who discovered only 21 American families living within the boundaries of the concession. Since this violated article seven of the provision, the original Leese Concession was declared void. Legal claims would persist for decades, but Juárez’s decision was ultimately vindicated.
The national government had stabilized, and Baja California remained a Mexican territory.
Just as the failure of the U.S. to acquire Baja California in the Treaty of Guadalupe–Hidalgo helped fuel subsequent filibustering attempts on the peninsula, so too did the discovery of gold in Alta California shortly after the conclusion of the war promote renewed interest in Baja California’s mineral wealth. In fact, the population boom that occurred as a result of the discovery of new gold and silver deposits near El Triunfo and San Antonio in 1862 was in large part driven by unsuccessful Gold Rush prospectors seeking a second chance to strike it rich.
It should be noted, however, that San Antonio and El Triunfo were already well established when the 19th century mining bonanza thrust them into international headlines. Manuel de Ocio’s Real de Santa Ana, it will be remembered, was the first peninsular mining company, having begun operations in 1748. But the story of these two mountain communities dates back even farther than that.
In the winter of 1720, shortly after the founding of the mission at La Paz, Jesuit padre Jaime Bravo and a soldier named Ignacio de Rojas were exploring an area approximately 40 to 50 miles south of the mission–at an altitude of about 1500 feet above sea level in the Sierra de la Laguna, the mountain range that forms the spine of the peninsula between Cabo San Lucas and La Paz–when Rojas stumbled upon a rich vein of silver ore. It took the wealth Ocio acquired from years of seasonal pearl diving operations to ultimately fund the mines that sprung from this providential discovery, and even at their peak these mines were probably less profitable than Ocio’s auxiliary commercial enterprises like merchant stores and cattle ranching.
But Manuel de Ocio’s example inspired other would-be peninsular entrepreneurs, including two people in his immediate circle. One was an accountant and the man who is thought to have managed Real de Santa Ana during Ocio’s frequent absences, Gaspar Pisón y Guzmán. Pisón opened his own mine, Santa Gertrudis, in 1756, some 10 miles north of Santa Ana. Since the area in the immediate vicinity of Santa Gertrudis was uninhabitable by the mine’s work force, Ocio’s brother-in-law Simón Rodríguez (son of Esteban Rodríguez, long-time presidio captain and one of the original members of the Jesuit party that landed in 1697) established a camp on a nearby hillside, at the site of a permanent spring.
This was San Antonio, the town that following the collapse of Santa Ana became longest continuously occupied secular community in the Californias; an honor it maintains to this day. In historical chronicles of this sort, San Antonio is remembered as the birthplace of heroic General Manuel Márquez de León, as a hotbed or resistance during the Mexican–American War, and, for a brief period in 1829, as the capital of Lower California after a hurricane devastated Loreto. But it was much more than that. During the 19th century, it was as important a community as then existed on the peninsula, equivalent in stature to Loreto, La Paz and San José del Cabo.
El Triunfo, five miles distant, was for many years “a poor relation,” home to a modest camp called Las Casitas. Some claim its present day moniker stems from the cries of triumph following the discovery of gold and silver in 1862, but more likely the name was taken from Ocio’s most famous mine, El Triunfo de la Cruz (The Triumph of the Cross; not to be confused with Juan de Ugarte’s ship of the same name, which was the first ever constructed on the peninsula). Historian Harry Crosby refers to these early mining communities as “the cradle of private enterprise in California,” and their halcyon years during the middle part of the 18th century established them as the peninsula’s first true commercial center.
The work force brought from the mainland to work these first mines had lasting consequences for what is now Baja California Sur, but there is no comparison, demographically speaking, between the labor pool that trickled to Real de Santa Ana and Santa Gertrudis in the 1750s and 60s, and the population explosion that transformed the peninsula after the second mining boom hit in 1862.
Simply put: San Antonio and El Triunfo became the wealthiest and most densely populated towns in Baja California during the latter part of the 19th century, and their success radiated outwards, driving commercial expansion throughout El Sur.
Thousands eagerly joined fledgling mining companies–many of which were outright frauds, set up to swindle greedy investors–while others packed their pickaxes and boarded seagoing transports vessels bound for Baja Sur. Almost overnight, the population of tiny El Triunfo swelled from a few hundred to 10,000 strong. Many prospective miners landed at Cabo San Lucas, where Thomas Ritchie made one of his own fortunes arranging for mule teams to ferry them overland.
Soon, El Triunfo had outstripped San Antonio as the premier mining center in the area. By 1874, its mines were shipping some $50,000 in silver to La Paz each month (over one million per month in modern U.S. dollars). Once larger companies like El Progreso moved in, prospectors scattered and the mines were mainly worked by Chinese immigrants and Yaqui Indians from Sonora. The largest chimney stack for smelting operations, dubbed Ramona, was built by none other than Gustave Eiffel, whose successes with the Statue of Liberty and a certain tower in Paris were yet to come.
El Triunfo flourished for a time, becoming a regional cultural center, and the first town on the Baja California peninsula to install modern conveniences like electricity and telephones. It also for a time boasted more pianos per capita than any place in México, a curious if short-lived phenomena that helped produce renowned concert-trained pianists such as Francisca Mendoza, as well as a host of important local composers.
The renaissance at El Triunfo ended when the mine was flooded during the hurricane of 1918, and although attempts were made to revive it a few years later, it closed for good in 1926.