post-title A Brief History of Los Cabos, Pt. VI: The End of the Mission System and the Birth of Cabo San Lucas

A Brief History of Los Cabos, Pt. VI: The End of the Mission System and the Birth of Cabo San Lucas

A Brief History of Los Cabos, Pt. VI:  The End of the Mission System and the Birth of Cabo San Lucas

A Brief History of Los Cabos, Pt. VI: The End of the Mission System and the Birth of Cabo San Lucas

Learn more about the history of Cabo San Lucas and the Los Cabos area of Baja California Sur, Mexico.

As the 19th century dawned in Baja California, the peninsular population was suffering on a number of fronts. The settling of Alta California had siphoned off many of its most talented soldiers and missionaries, not to mention much of its accumulated resources. The War for Independence from Spain, far from helping matters, had cut off communications with the mainland, so that much needed supplies were unavailable, and soldiers and civil employees were unable to be paid.

The Dominican friars, although they established nine new missions during their time on the peninsula, were then on the precipice of poverty, administering subsistence level agricultural and ranching operations with rapidly dwindling neophyte populations. So decimated were their indigeonous charges from smallpox and other diseases, in fact, that from San Ignacio south to Cabo San Lucas nary a Guaycura or Pericú remained. The few Indians about were those that had come from the mainland to work. By 1815, the Dominicans were so desperate they had to appeal to the Franciscans in Alta California for food, clothing and other necessities.

Most Dominican missionaries and civil authorities of the time remained sympathetic if not loyal to the Spanish, and any orders that managed to get through from fledgling Mexican leadership were largely ignored. This recalcitrance extended well beyond the end of the war. Nearly sixteen months passed after the revolutionary Plan of Iguala was proposed by soon-to-be emperor Agustín de Iturbide and future president Vicente Guerrero–and almost 11 after the Treaty of Córdoba ratified it–before Dominican missionaries finally swore allegiance to the new government in July 1822. In the interim, the reluctance of peninsular authorities to embrace the new national order provided a flimsy justification for one of the strangest episodes in the history of Los Cabos: the attacking of San José del Cabo by Lord Admiral Thomas Cochrane and the Chilean Navy.

Even in an age of swashbuckling, Cochrane was a captivating and charismatic figure.  Born in Scotland, 10th Earl of Dundonald, his derring-do as a naval captain during the Napoleonic Wars led the French to dub him Le Loup de Mers, “The Wolf of the Seas.” Convicted and dismissed from the Royal Navy after the Great British Stock Exchange Fraud of 1814 (he was later pardoned and reinstated), Cochrane rebounded by lending his considerable talents to burgeoning independence movements in South America, leading rebel navies for Brazil, Peru and Chile. So beloved is he in the latter, where he was Vice Admiral of the Navy, that to date five separate ships have been named after him.

Cochrane’s clever tactics and heroic deeds provided much of the inspiration for the  two great protagonists of 20th century maritime fiction–C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower and Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey–and his efforts on behalf of Chilean independence inspired a collection of poems from none other than Pablo Neruda.

But there was nothing heroic about what happened in San José del Cabo. On February 17, 1822, two ships in Cochrane’s command–Independencia under Captain William Wilkinson, Araucano under Captain Robert Simpson–sailed into San José, flying Chilean colors. Upon seeing that the Spanish flag still flew on shore, they allowed their men to sack and pillage the town. Nothing if not methodical, they also looted the mission church.

While Independencia captured the supply ship San Francisco Xavier, and obliged local military leader Fernando de la Toba to swear an oath of independence, Araucano embarked for Loreto, which it promptly attacked on the 4th of March. Although the governor was forced to flee, Simpson’s men were ultimately repulsed by forces led by Ensign José Maria Mata, losing several prisoners in the process. Araucano was thus forced to withdraw until its sister ship, Independecia, arrived on the 7th of March. At that point, Loreto, like San José del Cabo, was sacked; and Mata too was forced to pledge allegiance to México.

Brief History | Los Cabos: Part VI | Los Cabos Guide

Captains under the command of legendary admiral and aristocrat Thomas Cochrane sacked San José del Cabo in 1822, ostensibly for refusing to recognize Mexican Independence. Painting by James Ramsay.

Indpendence, it seemed, was a concept that needed time to be fully embraced, as evidenced by the coronation of Agustín de Iturbide as emperor in 1822. But by 1824 Iturbide had abdicated and voluntarily gone into exile (he was later executed upon attempting to return), and México became a republic under the leadership of president Guadalupe Victoria. Thus began a long period of internal conflict and instability that plagued México for decades to come–an age exemplified by Antonio López de Santa Anna, who served as president on 11 separate occasions–until the nation finally began to stabilize under the leadership of Benito Juárez.

The changes sweeping the mainland slowly radiated out to Baja California, then, as for much of its history, considered little more than a backwater. Henceforth, the peninsula would be divided into four municipalities–Cabo San Lucas, Loreto, Santa Gertrudis and San Pedro Martir–each administered by a government that included a mayor, councilmen, business agent and secretary.  Overseeing the now federal territory was a jefe politico, a position equivalent to governor. Thus José Manuel Rúiz, the first jefe politico, replaced José Argüello, the last Spanish governor, in 1822.

But it wasn’t until Rúiz was replaced by José María de Echeandía in February 1825 that a new way of life began to take hold on the peninsula. Echeandía had been tasked by president Guadalupe Victoria with secularizing the remaining missions, and distributing half the lands and livestock to their respective neophytes. This process was hard fought by the Dominicans, and decades passed before secularization was finally successful. And by the time it was achieved, the original intent híad been utterly compromised. The land in the south ultimately went, not to Indians, but to Spanish soldiers and settlers, thus contributing to the rise in ranching culture that was one of the distinguishing features of peninsular life for the rest of the 19th century, and much of the 20th.

No one fought secularization more vigorously, and more effectively, than Gabriel González, a Dominican friar assigned to the mission at Todos Santos. González arrived at the mission in 1825, the same year that Echeandía issued his first reglamento (regulatory proclamation) for the secularization of mission lands. He successfully fought off the decree as it applied to Todos Santos for over a decade, until he was exiled to the mainland, after José María Mata returned from his own exile and banished his enemies. Undeterred, González soon convinced the federal government of his innocence, and by 1840 had been named president of the Dominican missions in Baja California, replacing Felix Caballero. The next year, current jefe politico Luis del Castillo Negrete issued another secularization order. Gonzalez again fought it off, traveling to the mainland to appeal to then president Santa Anna.

But despite the efforts of González and others, the mission system that had sustained the peninsula for a century and a half was slowly dying. Misión Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe del Norte, northeast of Ensenada, became, in 1834, the last of 48 Jesuit, Franciscan and Dominican missions to open in Las Californias. Restrictions were attached, however: missionaries who retired or died could not be replaced. Over the next two decade, all the missions were closed or were reorganized as parrish churches. The last mission to close on La Frontera was Santo Tomás in 1849, after prospectors on their way to the Gold Rush in San Francisco looted the church and stole all its valuables.

González, in Todos Santos, was still fighting, but what was once a mission had been a parish church since 1840. He finally retired in 1855, having acquired enough former mission lands to establish his own ranch at San Jacinto, and support what was estimated to be 22 children. He was the last missionary, and is rembered as one of the greatest; most notably in Peter Gerhard’s Gabriel González, Last Dominican in Baja California, a biographical essay published in the Pacific Historical Review in 1953.


Cattle were unknown in the Americas before the Spanish colonial period, and although they were probably first introduced in California by Hernan Cortés, organized ranching did not take place until the Jesuit period. The party led by Juan María Salvatierra, the “first apostle of California,” for example, brought 30 head of cattle when they arrived to found the first mission at Loreto. In addition to livestock like cattle and sheep, the Jesuits also imported horses and mules.

The first privately run cattle in California were at Rancho Santa Gertrudis, some 13 miles northeast of Misión Santa Rosa de las Palmas in Todos Santos. They were the property of Esteban Rodríguez, onetime captain of the presidio at Loreto. Rodríguez was, along with Salvatierra, one of the founding group of 10 who first landed in 1697. Because of his decades of loyal service–and because his pension was never approved due to political machinations on the mainland–the Jesuits broke one of their cardinal rules: to allow individuals to own cattle. From the late 1720s until the early 1740s, Rodriguez was allowed to raise livestock, and even had soldiers assigned to assist him. By the time he died in 1746, the last of the pioneer group to do so, the Jesuits had bought back the ranching rights, fearing legal issues with his heirs.

The brief period of independent military authority at the San José del Cabo presidio following the Rebellion of the Pericúes, and later land grants given by visitador Don José de Gálvez were both key in promoting the development of privately own ranches throughout Baja California Sur. But although Manuel de Ocio, whose mine at Real de Santa Ana was the peninsula’s first successful commercial enterprise, is also remembered for operating a profitable ranching business; it was not until the early 19th century, when mission lands began to be secularized, that ranching became the most important enterprise on the peninsula.

In fact, it is not an exaggeration to say that the modern culture of Baja California Sur is inextricably linked with the history of ranching. The tough, independent ranchers–primarily former soldiers and their descendants–and their similarly rugged chinampos (a small, durable cattle breed introduced by the Spanish) managed to not only live, but thrive in the isolated, often inhospitable mountain and desert terrains that comprise much of El Sur.

The chinampo (also known as corriente cattle), for example, can survive days without water, and have adapted over time to feed on desert fare like mesquite, shrubs and cactus. They wander freely until round-up, and even today, one cannot drive very far in Baja California Sur without seeing cattle crossing signs displayed at intervals along highways and byways.

Brief History | Los Cabos: Part VI | Los Cabos Guide

Perhaps the only breed tougher than the ranchers whose culture became the defining feature of 19th century life in Baja California Sur were their cattle: the small but hardy chinampo. Photo courtesy of Ellen Levy Finch.

The ranchers themselves formed small communities and became completely self-sufficient: using methods learned from missionaries, they built homes, raised goats for meat and cheese, planted and irrigated fruit and vegetable gardens, and made their living selling livestock and crafting fine leather goods. They were also, as all chronicles of the time attest, exceptional horsemen, world-class riders and ropers.

Their wives and daughters, meanwhile, cooked, cleaned, sewed, gardened and gathered flowers, among other occupations. Ranching was thus a family enterprise, and it was not uncommon for ranching couples to have 10 or more children to help with the various chores. (Harry Crosby’s writes wonderfully of this disappearing culture in Last of the Californios, his ode to the mountain ranchers of the Guadalupe, La Giganta and San Francisco Sierras).

Despite the secularization of mission lands–Misión San José del Cabo Añuití, which was abandoned in 1840, still maintained close to 400 head of cattle at the beginning of the 19th century–San José del Cabo did not become an important cattle raising region until the latter half of the 1800s (when, not coincidentally, it also developed a reputation for high-quality leather goods).

But enough evidence still exists–most notably, cattle brands–to identify most of the region’s pioneer ranchers and their properties during the formative period between 1800 and the advent of the Mexican American War in 1846:  men like Ignacio Aguilar at El Ranchito and San Matías; Juan María Carrillo at La Cantería; José María Castro at La Boca de San Miguel and El Pajarito; Vicente Ceseña at El Encinal; Juan Colín at El Chinal and San Pedro (born John Collins, he deserted from a whaling vessel, and was baptized Juan Colín in order to marry Loreto Marrón); Serapio Cota at San Pablo and Cajón de los Chorros; Frutos Estrada at El Saucito; José González at San Ramón; Eugenio León at Santa Cruz; José Antonio Lucero at San Bernardo; Juan Pedrín at San Felipe and El Potrero (originally from France, Pedrín married Vicente Ceseña’s sister Loreto); and José María Trasviña at Los Jacalitos.

In an impressive feat of scholarship, historian W. Michael Mathes documented over 700 brands registered in the territory from 1809 – 1885 for his brief but exceedingly informative book Cattle Brands of Baja California Sur (the bilingual work is also known as Los registros de marcas de Baja California Sur).


Another of the most marked differences between the Spanish and Mexican periods was increased sea trade, as whalers, merchant ships and sea otter hunters began making regular appearances at peninsular ports.

In 1807, a New Yorker named Thomas Smith deserted from an American trader, the Maryland, that had put in at San José del Cabo. He was the first, but far from the last, to do so, although most deserters during the first half of the 19th century were from whaling vessels.

It is a curious fact, but if you look at the “first families” of Los Cabos, you will discover that many have English names:  Green, Wilkes, Collins, Ritchie. In many chronicles, the founders of these lines are referred to as pirates. In truth, almost all were deserters from whaling vessels. Thomas Ritchie certainly was, although his reasons were different than most. Usually, desertion was a means to escape cruel conditions. He was cabin boy on a ship captained by his uncle, and stayed because he had fallen in love with dark haired lass in San José del Cabo: his first wife, Loreto Higuera.

In at least one case, there were as many as half a dozen men deserting from the same ship. “Present day descendants of these six foreigners (their surnames were Hastings, Collins, Leggs, McClish, Gavarine and Robinson) say that their predecessors were English students who had been kidnapped and taken aboard by force,” noted Pablo L. Martinez in his Guía Familiar de Baja California, 1700 – 1900.  “This may or may not be true. What is certain is that they did arrive in such ships and that they entered the land to be free of the ill treatment they received as whalers.”

Whaling was one thing these men had in common. An acceptance of their new surroundings was another. Each was baptized, given a Spanish name, and acclimated into the local community; and it was customary to take the family name of their “godfather,” the father of the woman they married. Thus, although deserters unquestionably added a degree of heterogeneity to what was a very homogeneous culture, none placed themselves above their neighbors, and to a man they left their pasts behind, living as Mexicans for the rest of their lives.

Thomas Ritchie is the most famous of the foreigners to settle in the region during this period, primarily for being one of the first to build a permanent dwelling in Cabo San Lucas. Ritchie’s two-story house overlooking Médano Beach was the social and commercial center of the town for many decades. He raised cattle, made whiskey, operated a de facto hotel and post office for the whalers and naval officers who dropped anchor in the bay, and later, after gold and silver mines appeared at El Triunfo and San Antonio, arranged transportation for those seeking to strike it rich. But contrary to what has been written in some chronicles, he was not the original founder of Cabo San Lucas.

Brief History | Los Cabos: Part VI | Los Cabos Guide

Thomas Ritchie was one of many deserters from whaling vessels to make his home in the Capes Region during the first half of the 1th century. His home overlooking Médano Beach was at the center of the then small community of Cabo San Lucas for decades. Photo courtesy of

“In the debate between whether Thomas Ritchie or Cipriano Ceseña were the founders and first to settle in Cabo San Lucas proper, “ writes contemporary historian Gustavo de la Peña Avilés in his recently published Las Memorias del Vigía, “there is another version:  that the Martinez and Castro families were the co-owners of the land, including Gregorio, Luis and Crispín Martínez. Luis would be the owner of El Médano, where he lived in a house that gave refuge to the victims of the hurricane in 1939. However, the descendants of the Martinez family say that when their ancestors came and lived here so too did Don Cipriano Ceseña.”

Cipriano Ceseña is generally credited by regional academics and historians as the father and first citizen of Cabo San Lucas. There is no evidence to show exactly when he, his wife Luciana and their brood of children (they had 13 total) first settled near Playa El Médano, but it seems to have been some time in the 1820s.

Cipriano Ceseña, incidentally, was the son of Juan Ignacio Ceseña, and grandson of Juan José Ceseña, the first Ceseña in Baja California Sur and former mayordomo of the mission at San José del Cabo. One of Cipriano’s sons, Vicente, fathered 27 children with multiple wives–reputedly the most of anyone on the peninsula during the 19th century–and is thus in large part responsible for the continued flourishing of this very old and very respected regional family.

By far the best accounts of early life in Cabo San Lucas were penned by travelers. Frederick Debell Bennett, an English surgeon and naturalist studying the whaling industry, visited in 1835, and was very much impressed with the inhabitants of the small community, which then numbered about 30 people.

According to Bennett in his Narrative of a Whaling Voyage Round the Globe from the Year 1833 to 1836:  “The village or settlement consists of about eight dwellings, erected at a distance from the sea, beneath the shade of some mimosa trees. They are small, built of adobes and thatched with flags obtained from the neighboring town of St. José. Each hut usually contains one or never more than two apartments and is faced with a portico, which affords a favorite lounge for the resident family. Their furniture is scanty, and rather more useful than ornamental. The hairy surface of a dried bullock’s hide, spread on the hard earthen floor, is the usual bed…They live contented, and consequently happy; and their conduct towards each other, as well as to ourselves, was equally courteous and hospitable.”

Despite its seaside location, however, Cabo San Lucas was at that time a rather typical ranching community. Bennett noted that the soil was not conducive to agriculture, and that the inhabitants subsisted almost entirely on meat and cheese. The only vegetables they consumed were imported corn and home grown sweet potatoes. And, in the manner of ranches throughout the region, men and women ate at separate times. Women cooked and then served the men, but did not sit down themselves until the men had returned to work.

A few years after Bennett’s visit, in 1842, another group of foreign travelers arrived in Cabo San Lucas, victims of an unplanned detour. They were sailors from a Japanese coastal vessel that had blown out to sea in 1841. Among the nine rescued and put ashore in Baja California–after four months of drifting–was a man named Hatsutarō, who later wrote of his adventures in a strange land.

“At daybreak two or three women came from the two houses and welcomed the Japanese to come to their homes, where each was served a drink called ‘café,’ which is something like tea with sugar in it,” remembered Hatsutarō  in Kaigai Ibun. “The seamen were then divided into groups of three and four men, and on a cowhide spread beneath a sunshade made of something like thatching, which hung down from the eaves outside the house, they were served a meal of corncake, preserved meat and bananas.

“One of the two houses was built in the style of a warehouse, with walls some three feet high. A doorway faced the east, and the roof was thatched…The inside of the house had an earthen floor, and on it there were spread mattresses covered with cotton print, which served as beds. The cookhouse was built separately and had an oven made of clay. They cooked with iron pots and pans.

“The second house was a cabin with walls and roof built like the first house. More than 20 persons lived together in these two houses. The people were fair of complexion, their hair was black, and the color of their eyes was the same as that of the Japanese people. But there was one man who was master of the larger house, and he looked just like the Europeans (presumably Thomas Ritchie).

“This place was called Cape San Lucas, in Baja California, on the American continent. It seemed to be a narrow place on the seashore at the base of the mountains.”

Hatsutarō and his crewmates, after being tended to for two days in Cabo San Lucas, were transported to San José del Cabo, where they lived for nearly seven months. Hatsutarō was taken in by a local couple named Miguel and Ignacia Choza, and, in the manner of the time, an attempt was made by Miguel to marry the castaway to one of his three daughters.  But Hatsutarō longed for his native land, which he eventually regained in 1844.

Miguel Choza, however, would soon be heard from again, in connection with one of the defining North American events of the 19th century: the Mexican–American War of 1846–1848.

But that’s another story .

by Chris Sands, Travel Writer.

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