Who were the soldiers that came to Alta California? What was their life like? What were the presidios and what was their role on the frontier?
When Spanish soldiers arrived in Alta California, it wasn’t with the aim of discovering gold or toppling great empires, like the conquistadors 250 years earlier. In fact, Alta California was considered the far-off and uninviting of the Spanish territories in the Americas.
The King Wants a Plan
The presence of soldiers was the result of a plan by a man named José de Gálvez. The King of Spain, Carlos III, named Gálvez Inspector General of New Spain 1767, and entrusted him with the defense of all Spanish-claimed territories from Mexico, north to the Pacific coast o fwhat is today the U.S.
It was Gálvez’ task to discover the intentions of the Russians and English on the Pacific coast, and to keep them from expanding into territories that had already been claimed by Spain.
Gálvez decided the best way to do that was to establish a series of military bases in far-flung Alta California. He knew, though, that he could not count on enough soldiers to launch a full-scale occupation.
Gálvez’ plan, therefore, relied on creating a number of Spanish garrisons at strategic points on the coastline, with the help of native people for most of the defense of the territory. In order to do so, he hoped to partner with missionaries to persuade the natives to embrace Christianity and to become allies of the Spanish.
A key part of Gálvez’ plan was to send married soldiers who would settle in Alta California, forming the basis of a stable colony. These soldiers would not only deter the British and Russians from colonizing the area, but their families could also serve as good examples of the Hispanic lifestyle to the Indians.
Beginning in 1769, Gálvez launched expeditions to explore places to establish a presence in Alta California.
Presidios: The Backbone
These early expeditions resulted in the founding of two presidios or forts — the first at San Diego in 1769, and the second at Monterey in 1770. Over the next two decades, the Spanish would establish two more presidios at strategic locations on the coast: one at San Francisco in 1776 and the other at Santa Barbara in 1782.
The word presidio comes from Latin, the language of the Romans. The Romans, who conquered many territories throughout the Mediterranean world, including Spain, called their military garrisons praesidium, and each praesidium presided over a military district.
The Spanish divided Alta California into military districts according to the locations of the four presidios. Surrounded by fortified walls and protected by cannons, the presidios were military fortresses, designed to protect a part of the coast and to allow the Spanish government to project its influence over a particular area.
But a Spanish presidio was more than just a military base. It was also a community, with housing for the troops and their families. It also had other amenities, such as a blacksmith’s shop, carpenter’s shop, rudimentary medical facility and chapel. Each presidio also had a tract of land nearby that was used to grow crops to support the men and families living there.
Usually only a small number of troops were stationed at each presidio. Through the mid-1770s, the total number of soldiers among the three presidios (Santa Barbara would not be founded until 1782) and the missions was not more than 80. Ultimately no more than 500 soldiers were ever stationed in Alta California at one time.
Who Were the Soldiers?
Soldiers were recruited from all over the Spanish empire. Most of the soldiers in Alta California came from New Spain (what is today Mexico), though some were born in Spain or came from as far away as the Philippines. The majority were of mixed European and indigenous or African descent.
The troops were known as soldados de cuera or leatherjacket soldiers, because their main personal protection was not made of armor, but was a jacket of leather that hung down to their knees. This jacket was thick enough to protect them from arrows, knives and other sharp objects.
The weapons they carried were lances, swords, muskets and pistols, although to conserve ammunition, they relied on their heavily on their lances and swords.
Spanish soldiers were known as excellent horsemen, and spent many hours training and honing their riding skills.
Officers and Enlisted Men
As in most armies, soldiers were divided into officers and enlisted men. Enlisted men made up the bulk of the soldiers. Most came from rural and low-income backgrounds, and many were recruited from frontier areas. Enlisted soldiers carried out the common tasks associated with military life.
Officers generally came from more wealthy, noble or more influential families. These families had the means to put their boys through the cadet training required to form officers. Young men were often sent to the frontier to serve as junior officers and learn the craft from more experienced, higher-ranking officers.
Being an officer in the Spanish frontier military was often a stepping-stone to a career in civil administration in more central locations, like Mexico City, though some officers, like José de la Guerra y Noriega, the commander of the presidio at Santa Barbara, spent their whole lives on the frontier.
Guarding the Missions
In addition to the soldiers stationed at the presidios, a small number of troops, usually 5-7, was assigned to guard each mission. This group of soldiers was known as the escolta. Their job was to guard the mission from attack by hostile natives or pirates. They also acted as police, backing up native officials in punishing crimes or enforcing laws at the missions. At times they would be sent out on military expeditions along with native auxiliary troops, against Indians who had threatened the mission or stolen horses and livestock. They would escort the padres on their travels amongst far-flung native villages or travel with Indians from the mission to recover those who had abandoned the mission.
Along with military and law-enforcement duties, soldiers and their families at the missions were expected to act as good moral examples to the native people, to teach them trades or crafts, and act as godparents at baptisms or witnesses at marriages. In some cases, single soldiers also married Indian women at the missions.
Although the lives of soldiers would at times be marked by battles or adventures, much of their time was taken up by the normal day-to-day tasks of military life on the frontier.
Since no fortifications existed when they arrived in the territory, the soldiers’ first duty was to actually build the presidios out of adobe bricks. Once built, the presidio needed to be constantly maintained and repaired, since adobe can easily disintegrate.
The soldiers also had a routine they needed to follow. They had to perform guard duty, maintain their weapons and train in order to stay ready for action.
They also had to go out on patrols, campaigns and expeditions, and to participate in the work of the ranches operated by the presidio, called Rancho del Rey (the King’s Ranch) or Rancho de la Nación (the Nation’s Ranch).
Soldiers on the California frontier were also expected to be farmers, especially if they were married. Most military families had small farms with livestock, and over time, some of these farms developed into large-scale ranches.
In addition to overseeing the livestock, families had to plant and harvest the vegetables, fruits and grains they grew to sustain themselves, together with hunting and gathering other other foods available in the California landscape.
Women played a very important, essential role in soldiers’ lives. They took care of all the daily household tasks, including preparing food, cleaning, looking after the children, weaving and sewing, caring for the smaller animals, and overseeing the family budget.
Some soldiers’ wives, such as Juana Briones, become well-known healers or curanderas, thanks to their knowledge of the curative properties of local plants.
Many presidio families were large — at times as many as twelve children in a single family. Nevertheless, because children were vulnerable to illnesses and many families lost children, the average soldier’s family on the California frontier had between three and four children.
Children growing up at the presidios had their own responsibilities. From an early age they would learn to share in the chores around the home and also to participate in the caring for the crops and the animals. By their teenage years, presidio children had learned to handle most adult tasks.
Life for children at the presidio was not all drudgery, though. Most young people grew up surrounded by relatives and friends, and there was time for playing and spending time with them. During the evenings they would listen to stories from the adults, or attend parties or fiestas.
Children at the presidios received an education, though it was somewhat different from the education children receive today. Much of it involved learning the duties of ranching, including how to ride horses from an early age or other skills associated with ranching.
In the early days at the presidios, there were no schools, so parents did their best to teach their children what they knew. Some were able to hire tutors, or, if there happened to be a soldier who could read and write, he might serve as a teacher for the local children. As time went by, the Spanish government began to institute formal schools for the education of soldiers’ children, at first boys, and later girls, too.
For children, some of the most interesting and enjoyable times of the year were during religious festivals and holidays.
Soldiers and their families followed the traditions of the Roman Catholic Church, which was the religion of the vast majority of people in Spain and Latin America. Each presidio had a chapel, and Catholicism was very important for giving the people a life of faith, a moral framework and a meaning to life.
Religious festivals filled the year, and they were the times not only to worship in church, with masses and other ceremonies, but they also meant celebrations in homes and outdoors, with friends and family.
Mexican Independence Brings Change
As frontiersmen, soldiers in Alta California were far removed from events in other parts of the Spanish world. So Mexico officially received its independence from Spain in 1821, news of the change did not reach Alta California until 1822.
At first, not much changed, but with time, soldiers began to feel the effects of the new arrangement.
One particular change had to do with how soldiers wore their hair, which was very unique. Juana Machado, a soldier’s daughter who grew up in San Diego, recounted how, as a little girl, she experienced the change of rules under the new government.
“The men were used to wearing their hair long and braided. At the tip of the braid, there would be a ribbon or silk knot. On many men, the braid went down past their waist…The order [to cut off the braid] was carried out. I remember when my father arrived home with his braid in his hand. He gave it to my mother. His face showed such sorrow. My mother’s face was not any better. She would look at the braid and cry.” (From Testimonios: Early California through the Eyes of Women, 1815–1848).
Despite changes such as these, soldiers were loyal to their new country, and continued to carry out their duties as they did under Spanish rule.
Mexican independence also meant that the financial situation of the presidios did not improve. For long periods of time the government was not able to send payments to the presidios. The soldiers were therefore forced to live completely off of what they could grow, as well as anything the missions, also hard-pressed, could supply.
For that reason, the Mexican government began to allow the granting of larger parcels of land to soldiers as compensation for their years worked. This practice had already begun under Spain, but increased with Mexican independence.
These lands would often be part of mission lands that the government considered to not be being used fully or adequately. In this way, some soldiers were able to establish an independent life for themselves and their families after they retired.
Some land grants were very large, and would become ranchos covering thousands of acres. The families who lived on them would become influential members of Alta California society. Many of these ranchos would eventually form the basis of some of California’s most important towns and cities.
To Learn More
Today there are a number of places you can visit to experience the military legacy of Alta California.
In San Diego, the Serra Museum on the site of the San Diego Presidio tells the story the early days of California’s first Spanish outpost.
You can visit the Presidio of San Francisco, which was still a U.S. Army installation until a few years ago, and is now operated by the National Park Service.
The Presidio of Monterey is currently a U.S. Army base, but there is an excellent museum you can visit. While in Monterey, don’t miss the Royal Presidio Chapel, which is the oldest stone building in California.
The Santa Barbara Presidio is now a State Historic park, and is operated by the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation. It has been fully restored to the condition it was in during Spanish times, with an extremely knowledgeable and dedicated staff to guide you during your visit.
Another excellent place to get an idea of the lives of the soldiers who guarded the Alta California missions is La Purísima Mission State Historic Park. There, volunteers recreate the lives of Spanish soldiers and their families, including some who are descendants of those very families.