What happens when a project starts out as a footnote, and then takes on a life of its own? Over the upcoming weeks and months I’ll share my research journey.
Everyone has had he experience of looking for information about a topic, and then being led in another direction by something they discovered along the way. It is one of the beauties of research — you never know what you will find.
Something similar happened to me with the story of an early California woman named Sylveria Pacheco. I came to know Sylveria as I was doing research on José María Suárez del Real, the last Franciscan at Mission Santa Clara de Asís. Father Real, as he was known, was a fascinating and misunderstood character. Through him, I was able to learn a great deal about Alta California during the years of the Mexican era. I eventually wrote an article about him that will appear in an upcoming issue of California History, the journal of the California Historical Society.
Something Catches My Eye
While working on the Real project, I spent time in the mission archives at Santa Clara University. Sylveria’s name surfaced a number of times in mission records and other documents, especially in relation to property she had owned. Most notably, in a letter written in the early 1900s, she was accused of having been the mistress of the Suárez del Real, and mother of his children.
While this accusation certainly got my attention, I could never find any other evidence to corroborate it. Nevertheless, I kept notes on Sylveria, since she certainly was an interesting person. Over time, I began to collect a number of details that helped to paint a picture of her life. Once I finished writing about Suárez del Real, I knew it was time to dig into Sylveria’s story.
An Anza Party Descendant
Sylveria Pacheco was born in the Pueblo of San José de Guadalupe (modern-day San José, California) on June 20, 1811. Records tell us that she was baptized María Sylveria Pacheco at Mission Santa Clara, just one day later. Like many Hispanic women of her time, she was given María as a first name, but among friends and acquaintances, was known by her middle name, Sylveria.
Her parents were Miguel Antonio Pacheco y del Valle and Juana María Sánchez de Pacheco. Miguel and Juana had a total of 12 children, of which Sylveria was the ninth.
Her father, Miguel, was originally from Fronteras, Sonora, in what is today northern Mexico. As a young man, he came with his parents to Alta California with the Anza expedition of 1775-76. He later served as a soldier at the Presidio of San Francisco, where he met his wife, Juana. The two eventually settled in Santa Clara. When Sylveria was 18 years old, Miguel died of a blow to the head from an ox.
Sylveria’s mother, Juana, was born at the Presidio of San Francisco in 1776, the daughter of Anza expedition members. She was the second child baptized at the Presidio. As a widow, she would later be granted Rancho Arroyo de las Nueces y Bolbones, which would become the town of Walnut Creek.
A Turning Point
What caused me to seriously start researching into Sylveria’s life was an article from 1916 in a magazine called the Overland Monthly. The article was titled “The Passing of the Pachecos.” The author, Harry Burgess, claimed to visit Sylveria at the Pacheco family rancho in what is today Concord, California. If Burgess truly met Sylveria Pacheco, it would mean that she lived to be at least 105 years old!
Burgess depicts Sylveria as “Doña Sylveria.” She is the lone survivor of a bygone age, a relic of an archaic, romantic past. In a mix of Spanish and English, she tells the author stories of her life growing up at the mission (“Days of heroism, sacrifice and joy!”), her later marriage to an American (“He was bad!”) and her property at Santa Clara (“They took it from me…but it is mine!”).
The article even implies that she helped her American husband meet his end. “‘Then I sent him on a journey.’ “The gesture accompanying the Senora’s [sic] word picture of the summary disposal of her Gringo consort had done credit to a Medici.”
What We Know
After reading Burgess’s piece, full of turn-of-the century romanticism, I had to know who the real Sylveria Pacheco was. I also decided that she deserved a well-researched, scholarly article to clarify the historical record. Since then, I’ve begun drafting an article, and I have uncovered more facts about Sylveria:
- In 1832, she married a German aristocrat, Karl von Gerolt, who died two months after their wedding.
- The child born of her brief marriage, Carlos Gerolt, died at 7 months old in 1833.
- In 1840 she petitioned for, and received, a grant of property at Mission Santa Clara from Governor Juan Bautista Alvarado.
- She had 3 more children in the 1840s, whose fathers are listed as “unknown” in mission records.
- She was one of the heirs to her mother’s rancho near Walnut Creek.
- By 1860, she was married to an American named Charles H. Cole or Coles.
- She never learned to write but signed documents with her mark.
I have written a short profile of Sylveria for the Trailblazer, the newsletter of the California Pioneers of Santa Clara County. I also presented a paper on her at the California Missions Conference in February of 2016. In both cases, I received enthusiastic feedback, so I think I am on to something.
Still Looking for Answers
And although I have uncovered a good deal of information about her so far, there are still some unsolved mysteries about her life:
- When did she die, and where is she buried?
- What happened to her sons born in the 1840s?
- Who are her descendants?
- What really became of her second husband, Charles?
Sylveria’s story, like so many stories of the Californios, is intriguing and full of drama. And I’m convinced that the more we learn the stories of individual people, the less we are bound by clichés or stereotypes about the times they lived through.
As I uncover more information about Sylveria Pacheco and her story, I’ll share the adventure with you. I hope you will follow along. You can find out about some of the other projects I’ve been working on, include the Fr. Real project, on our Projects page.