Cape Crusaders: 10 Key Figures in Los Cabos History
Los Cabos has a long history, and has been inhabited, loosely speaking, for more than 10,000 years. For the vast majority of that time it was the territory of hunter gatherers called the Pericú. Very few names of Pericúes are known to us now, and those that are–Chicorí, Botón and Gerónimo, por ejemplo–are primarily remembered for plotting against and killing colonizing Spaniards. Given this lack of reliable information for so much of the human history of the area, it will come as no surprise that a survey of the most important figures in local history necessarily starts in the Spanish colonial period.
Some of these figures were heroic, some were pioneers, while others were merely in the right/wrong place at exactly the right/wrong time. But all 10 played a huge role in making Los Cabos the place that it is today.
Sebastián Vizcaíno (1548 – 1624)
Vizcaíno was a central figure in the development of Los Cabos, and appears at several key points during its early colonial history. He was a merchant aboard the treasure laden galleon Santa Ana when it was attacked an taken by English privateers led by Thomas Cavendish in 1587. He was granted a concession to the pearl beds of La Paz in 1596, the first person so honored since Cortés had landed there in 1535. And in 1602 he was given command by the Spanish Viceroy in México to explore the Pacific Coast of California (then one territory) to locate safe harbors for the lucrative Manila – Acapulco galleon trade.
Originally from Extremadura, an extremely poor region in Spain that produced an enormously disproportionate number of famed explorers and adventurers – Cortés, Balboa, Pizarro and Hernando de Soto, to name but a few – Vizcaíno became a soldier at an early age, participating notably in the Spanish invasion of Portugal in the early 1580s. He became wealthy soon after, in New Spain (then the name of México), when he married well, and carried off a series of successful business ventures. He was involved with the hazardous galleon trade from 1586 – 1589, and in addition to his explorations in California, mapped the coast of Japan and served as a Spanish diplomat there.
Did I mention his talent for naming? Vizcaíno ensured his place in the history books by naming seemingly every place he ever visited in California, even if others had done it first. It was Vizcaíno who named La Paz (Cortés had called it Santa Cruz), and it was Vizcaíno who gave San José del Cabo the name by which it was known for well over 100 years: San Bernabé. Before that, it had been known by the original inhabitants, the Pericúes, as Añuití. Later, when the mission was named in honor of José de la Puente, the town gradually followed suit.
Among his other lasting contributions are the names San Diego, Santa Barbara, and Monterey. Perhaps you’ve heard of them as well.
Don José de la Puente (1670 – 1739)
Better known by his title, Marqués de Villapuente, this man was one of the most remarkable in all of México. His name will always be remembered in Baja California Sur, if only because the missions at San José de Comondú and San José del Cabo were named in his honor, and that of Santa Gertrudis for his wife. You will find very few people today, however, who know of his great deeds, or understand why he’s so important to local history.
The first permanent settlement in California was at Loreto, and was founded in 1697 by Juan María Salvatierra and the Society of Jesus. The capital of the territory until 1777 (when it moved to Monterey), Loreto was the beachhead for over 70 years of Jesuit mission building, a time that in retrospect is considered perhaps the most formative period in peninsular history. The reason for this is that the Jesuits basically answered to no one but God. Part of the deal they made to proselytize on the peninsula was that they would be privately funded, and entirely self-sufficient. Thus was born the Pious Fund, and the Marqués de Villapuente was by far its greatest donor. He paid for almost half the missions founded by the Jesuits in California–standard price then was $10,000 pesos for a new mission–including the southern loop of La Paz, Santiago, San José del Cabo, and Todos Santos.
Born the son of a mayor in the Camargo province in Spain, José de la Puente was sent to New Spain at the age of 12, where he was put under the guidance of his uncle, then Captain of the Royal Guards. Given this martial upbringing, it should come as no surprise that the young José became a formidable soldier: he fought pirates on the Spanish Main, helped put down an Indian uprising in Mexico City, fought against the French Navy in the Nine Years War, and defended Veracruz against English and Dutch enemies during the War of the Spanish Succession. He also became very, very rich; receiving his title at age 34.
His generosity is legendary. In addition to the vast sums he donated to the Jesuit cause in California–a few years before his death he also ceded to the Pious Fund some 500,000 acres of land in mainland México, which were home to over 230,000 head of cattle–the Marqués also founded two Jesuit missions in what is now Arizona, funded Jesuit colleges in Havana and Caracas, gave to Franciscan missions in Africa, and supported Christian causes in China, India, Syria and the Philippines.
He was, suffice it to say, a giant of a man, and his largesse was in large part responsible for the development of what is today the state of Baja California Sur.
Nicolás Tamaral (1687 – 1734)
The Marqués de Villapuente may have provided the seed money for the mission at San José del Cabo, but it was Nicolás Tamaral who founded it in 1730, and provided, albeit briefly, much needed shore support for the Manila galleons, which stopped to take on fresh water nearby before proceeding to Acapulco.
Tamaral, a native of Seville, joined the Jesuits at age 17, and was working as a missionary in New Spain by the age of 25. He first came to California in 1717 and remained there for the rest of his life, establishing a mission at La Purísima before continuing south to what was then known as San Bernabé. It was there that he raised the ire of the Pericúes by urging them to abandon polygamy.
“The problem was greater here than elsewhere, judging from Tamaral’s detailed accounts,” writes Peter Masten Dunne in Black Robes in Lower California. “First of all the men were unaccustomed to any restraint whatsoever. The plurality of women meant that each male could have a number of wives. Still another and a very practical advantage influenced the men to polygamy. Reared in utter idleness, a man could loll and sleep all day long on the ground under the shade of a palo blanco while his women ranged about for food to feed him, and emulated each other in trying to please him most. Truly the men were badly spoiled.”
The Jesuit ban on polygamy is largely credited for the deaths of missionaries Lorenzo Carranco in Santiago and Tamaral in San José del Cabo. The former was beaten to death with sticks and stones, the latter beheaded with a knife. Tamaral’s death is the subject of a tile mosaic above the entrance to the parrish church in San José. The tableau incorrectly depicts the Pericúes–they are portrayed wearing loincloths, which they never did–and glosses over the friar’s grisly death, both understandable given the modest sensibilities of most churchgoers.
The long-term consequences of these killings were profound. The subsequent Rebellion of the Pericúes (1734 – 1737) set in motion political tides that eventually resulted in the expulsion of the Jesuits from Calfornia, as well as the cultural extinction of the Pericú.
Thomas Ritchie (1811 – 1872)
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. 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: presumably his first wife, Loreto Higuera.
Ritchie’s two-story house overlooking Médano Beach was the social and commercial center of San Lucas for many decades. He raised cattle, made whiskey, operated a de facto hotel and post office for the whalers, naval officers and adventurers 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.
Ross Browne, whose Explorations in Lower California offers one of the classic 19th century portraits of life in Los Cabos, wrote of Ritchie:
“He has undergone many tribulations at the hands of the Mexicans. Without cause they have robbed him, have made him pay taxes, have taken him prisoner and have threatened to kill him. He is now considered an inevitable and unavoidable citizen of this country.
“At one time, his property was confiscated and he was thrown into prison in Mazatlán. An English warship threatened to bomb the city if he was mistreated or abused anew. Because he survived the severe wounds inflicted upon him, which would have killed any other man on Earth, it was said it would be miracle if he were ever to die.”
Ritchie did eventually die, of course, but not before fathering eleven children–four with his first wife, seven with his second, Ynes Villavicencio–and helping to give birth to a now famous resort city.
José Antonio Mijares (1819–1847)
If Fr. Tamaral was the first martyr of San José del Cabo, Lt. Mijares was the second. But whereas Tamaral is publicly remembered with a mosaic that shows him being brutally murdered, Mijares is forever memorialized by a majestic monument, a place of honor in the Jardín de los Cabeños Ilustres–the entire garden set around the place where Mijares heroically fell–and a broad central boulevard that bears his name.
Why so much for one, so little for the other? Tamaral was a Spanish friar. Mijares, on the other hand, was a Mexican hero.
Most accounts of the Mexican American War (1846 – 1848) gloss over, or omit entirely, the battles fought on the Baja California peninsula, the majority of wich took place after the occupation of Mexico City, when the war was essentially over.
San José del Cabo was the site of two important engagements: one a battle, the other a siege. At the outset of the war, the U.S. Navy had essentially blockaded the peninsula and urged neutrality on Mexican citizens there. The stout citizens of San José, however, after hearing of armed resistance at Mulegé, immediately tore down a foreign flag that had been hoisted and expelled American civilians.
In retaliation, Commodore Shubrick installed in San José a detachment of 24 men under the command of a Lt. Heywood, armed with cannon and rifles. Young Lt. Mijares, under orders from the head of Mexican peninsular forces, Capt. Manuel Pineda, valiantly led an attack on Heywood’s position on Nov. 20, 1847. This was the critical action of the Battle of San José del Cabo, during which Mijares was fatally wounded.
The courage of men like Pineda and Mijares is one of the reasons Baja California was not ceded along with numerous other Mexican holdings in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.
(to be continued)…