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Sunday, May 07, 2006

Vallejo’s holdings dwindled as his life faded

Jerry Bowen

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Despite sorrows, he could look at life and laugh

During his life, Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo had been rich and famous beyond his wildest dreams. Misfortune also followed this great man as many of his children died and his imprisonment during the Bear Flag invasion of his home in Sonoma left him in declining health.

He contributed much to the state of California and its future, but by 1870 his fortunes were on the wane and were eventually to end in total eclipse. Most of his land holdings had dwindled from 175,000 acres to 228 acres surrounding his homestead. His wealth had been lost or stolen as time passed.

Then on May 5, 1878, his favorite daughter Jovita died, causing the general much grief. Still, he was a fluent speaker, had a keen wit and a sense of humor. He was often invited to social functions where he charmed his audiences with thrilling tales of the early days in California, as he had known them.

In his senior years this great man could still look at life and laugh despite his losses and his sorrows, and thus it was to the end. He was ever the genial, generous host, though his fortunes had shrunk to insignificance, and a mortgage hung over his lovely home.

His final years were lived quietly with his wife at Lachryma Montis as he sat in his rocker on the veranda of his home, gazing out over the beautiful valley he had helped to develop. On July 7, 1889, he celebrated his 82nd birthday, and he still seemed hale and hardy.

Late in December, however, he began to fail, and early in 1890 he became seriously ill. His favorite son, Platon, a medical doctor, took care of him, but slowly his life stream ebbed, and his great and generous heart grew weak.

By Jan. 17 all hope for his recovery was gone. His final hours were described in the California Historical Society Quarterly: “As evening fell, the lights burned low in Lachryma Montis; as low as the sinking life within, as low as the hopes in the hearts of his many Sonoma friends who, with voices hushed, awaited the inevitable hour.”

That night the editor of the Sonoma Tribune-Index, H. H. Granice, held up his press to await the outcome, so that his Saturday edition of Jan. 18, 1890, might be the first to proclaim the inevitable news of the great man’s passing. The editor’s 12-year-old daughter, Celeste, was sent to the home as the reporter to cover the event.

The night was cold, and soon Celeste grew sleepy, as the silent press stood still, hungry for that final bit of news. Weary with watching, she fell asleep and it was almost dawn when a member of the family woke her up to tell her that the general had passed away.

Outside, the pale light of a fading moon bathed the garden of Lachryma Montis in ghostly splendor, while within, at 4 a.m. the pulse of this great man throbbed its final beat. Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, the generous and valiant Californian, was dead.

They say that behind every great man there is a great woman. Indeed, the same could be said of Mrs. Mariano Guadalupe Benicia Francisca Maria Felipa Vallejo. Unfortunately she was left destitute and suffered a stroke a few months later.

A Jan. 9, 1891, article in the San Francisco Chronicle paid tribute to Gen. Vallejo and his wife and told of attempts to provide for the ailing widow:

General Vallejo - A Tribute From the State Proposed.

The Widow in Straitened circumstances.

A Pension for her and a Monument to her Husband.

“It is expected that a bill to provide a suitable monument to the late General Vallejo and a pension or grant of some sort for his aged widow will be introduced during the present session of the Legislature by one of the representatives of Sonoma County.

“The movement to erect a monument at the expense of the State to that distinguished native son who took such an important part in the early history of California was quietly begun by a few of the General’s many friends soon after his death, which occurred in January of last year. A great deal of correspondence resulted, during which many prominent men such as George C. Perkins, Senator Stanford, General John Bidwell, Ellwood Cooper, Senator John P. Jones and many other prominent citizens, including Pioneers and Native Sons, expressed their hearty approval of the scheme. The plan in the minds of those who were the movers in the matter was the erection of a bronze statue of heroic size on a suitable pedestal in Golden Gate Park.”

It went on to say, “... friends of the family decided to try at the same time to get the Legislature to do something for the benefit of the widow, who was left without an income, and it is understood that a bill embodying both these features will be introduced at Sacramento during the present session.

“It is learned from friends of the family that Mrs. Vallejo has, ever since the General’s death, been confined to her bed and has been in straitened circumstances. A purse of $75, made up by a few pioneers in this city a short time ago, a donation from Mrs. General Bidwell and a little assistance quietly given by a few other generous friends have temporarily placed her in comfortable circumstances. She is now 73 years old. At the time of her husband’s death, a year ago, she was remarkably well preserved and was still a handsome woman. Her hair was raven black, her teeth sound, her memory clear and her movements agile, and she retained many traces of the beauty of the Spanish type which friends of her former years well remember. General Vallejo’s death completely prostrated her she has seldom left her bed since. A month ago she received a paralytic stroke, losing her speech, but the crisis passed and she is now expected to partly recover. Her portrait, which appears in the January Century, was taken a few months ago and it is said is but little like her as she was a year ago.

“... long after his death a communication signed by many pioneers and prominent citizens here was sent to the California delegation in Congress, through Senator Stanford, urging endeavors to secure a pension from the Government for Mrs. Vallejo. Nothing has been heard about this scheme for a good while and the prospects of its succeeding are apparently poor.

“General Vallejo was a member of the Native Sons of the Golden West, and at the time of his death was the oldest native son in the State. He was greatly esteemed and venerated by members of this order, who were proud of him and who felt a deeper interest in him than the general one awakened by the romance of his history. The matter of the erection of a proper memorial came up at the meeting of the Grand Parlor April last and was referred to a committee, but it was lost sight of in the bustle of preparation for the Admission Day celebration. It will come up again at the meeting of the Grand Parlor in April next.”

At the end of the article, one of the pioneers summed up Vallejo’s life, “The State has honored Sutter and Marshall,” said a pioneer yesterday, “but there is no name in all the history of California more worthy of honor than General Vallejo, who did more to move California to the Union at critical times than many people are aware. He was a distinguished character, and both his private and public careers should be sources of pride and gratitude to the people of the State.”

At 6:15 on the morning of Jan. 30, 1891, Mrs. Benicia Francisca Maria Felipa Vallejo passed away. A massive tomb of California granite was erected at Sonoma by the Vallejo children in loving memory of their parents.

As for the Bear Flaggers who intruded into the Vallejo family’s life, after all is said and done, even though they are often portrayed pretty much in a negative light, many of them contributed to the future in many positive ways as time passed.

Several names of members of the Bear Flag Revolt are quite familiar to local residents and since this series has gone on for quite a long time, I’ll just mention a few names who had some part in the Rebellion: George C. Yount; Joseph B. Chiles; Granville P. Swift; Nathan Coombs; Robert Semple; John Gordon; Ben Kelsey.

If I have tweaked your interest in the story of Vallejo and the Bear Flaggers, here are a couple of books I’m sure you will find fascinating with arguments on both sides of the fence: “Vallejos of California,” by Madie Brown Emparan, published in 1968 by The Gleeson Library Associates, University of San Francisco; and “The Men of the California Bear Flag Revolt and Their Heritage,” by Barbara R. Warner, published in 1996 by the Arthur H. Clark Publishing Company.