San José, California is the oldest city on the West Coast. In November it celebrates its birthday.
November 29th marks the anniversary of the founding of the city of San José, California in 1777. It is odd to think that the city that calls itself “The Capital of Silicon Valley” was founded the same year the Continental Congress adopted the Stars and Stripes as the flag of the United States in the midst of the Revolutionary War. And San José doesn’t want us to forget this. So each year, History San José (the city’s historical society) organizes Happy Birthday San José on the third Saturday of November.
The event takes place in the city’s historical center. The centerpiece of the celebration is the Luis María Peralta Adobe. The Adobe was built in 1797, and is the oldest surviving building in San José, not to mention the last remaining structure from the old Pueblo.
For the last couple of years my family has attended Happy Birthday San Jose. It is an enjoyable, free event, with children’s activities (like lassoing a play steer and dressing up as California pioneers), tours of the Peralta Adobe and the nearby Fallon House museum, live music and handicraft vendors. And since the Adobe is located adjacent to San José’s hip San Pedro Square Market, there are plenty of places to eat and drink. You even meet descendants of the original settlers and view artifacts related to life on the Alta California frontier.
Prior to San José’s founding, there were no Spanish towns in either Baja or Alta California. It was in 1777 that Viceroy Antonio María Bucareli made plans for one to be founded on the Río de Guadalupe (today’s Guadalupe River). He wanted the pueblo to be situated near the Mission Santa Clara, recently established in January of 1777 by Fr. Junipero Serra, a few miles from the southern tip of the San Francisco Bay.
Bucareli chose José Joaquín Moraga, a military commander from the San Francisco Presidio, to lead a group of settlers bold enough to create a new frontier town. Moraga had distinguished himself as part of the colonizing expedition from northern New Spain (today’s northern Mexico) led by Juan Bautista de Anza. Most of the group of sixty-eight settlers were members of Anza’s band of colonists, which included soldiers, vaqueros (cowboys), and farmers.
After reaching the location, Moraga officially dedicated the town as El Pueblo de San José de Guadalupe, naming it after Saint Joseph, on November 29, 1777. El Pueblo was situated near the ruins of an ancient native village, which the settlers referred to as the Pueblo Antiguo (the Old Town). The original inhabitants of area were the Ohlone people, who lived throughout the greater San Francisco Bay region. Ohlones and settlers would develop a rocky relationship over time, but the descendants of both groups are still present in the Bay Area today.
And although San José was founded as a Spanish town under a Spanish king, few, if any of the colonists were born in Spain. Almost all came from northern Mexico — Moraga himself was from what is today Arizona — and a sizable percentage were of mixed indigenous-European (mestizo) or Afro-European (mulato) descent. One of the settlers, Manuel Gonzalez, was an Apache Indian who came with his wife Micaela, and their five children. It was Manuel who most likely built the Peralta Adobe in downtown San José.
The small colony was officially California’s first city. 238 years later, San José boasts over one million inhabitants and is the third largest city in California, the “Capital of Silicon Valley.” So if you are in the area, take some time to head over to downtown San José and wish the city a Happy Birthday. You’ll get a little perspective on the time when Adobe meant a house, not a computer program.
If you are interested in knowing more about early life in San José, check out the chapter “Life in the Pueblo of San José” in Lands of Promise and Despair: Chronicles of Early California, 1535–1846.