The early history of California is made up of many remarkable women. Fortunately, some of them left behind stories that give us important glimpses into life in frontier times.
The three women below all lived in San Diego, but their lives took very different paths, as you will see. Each had a different story, but they all lived through the upheavals that changed California forever.
The information in this article is drawn from the book Testimonios: Early California Through the Eyes of Women, 1815-1848 by Rose Marie Beebe and Robert Senkewicz.
Josefa Carrillo de Fitch: Forbidden Marriage
Josefa Carillo was born in San Diego in 1810. Although her parents named her María Antonia Natalia Elija, she went by the nickname Josefa.
Josefa’s father, Joaquín Carrillo, was a soldier from Baja California and her mother, María Ignacia López, was a daughter of a soldier and a woman who had come to California with the expedition led by Col. Juan Bautista de Anza in 1776.
María’s mother, María Feliciana Arballo, was known for creating a stir during the journey by singing songs that the expedition’s chaplain, Fr. Pedro Font, considered inappropriate. This caused a conflict between Fr. Font and Col. Anza, who refused to punish María for her behavior.
From her grandmother, Josefa inherited a penchant for making waves. In 1829 Josefa was engaged to marry Henry Fitch, an American sea captain who had settled in Alta California. But the governor of Alta California, José María de Echeandea, was opposed to the wedding. According to Josefa, the governor was in love with her and wanted to marry her. Together with Henry, Josefa boarded a ship to Chile, where they were married.
When the couple returned months later to San Diego, the situation was still tense. In her testimony, Josefa claimed elopement so angered her father that she said he vowed to kill her. But the young bride soon reconciled with her father and a grand ball was held in the couple’s honor.
Josefa and Captain Fitch had 11 children and opened a store in Old Town San Diego. After Fitch died in 1849, Josefa continued to run the store but eventually decided to leave San Diego.
In 1850, she moved north to the area near Sonoma. There she lived on Rancho Satiyomí, the land granted to her husband in 1841.
In 1875, Josefa gave an interview to Henry Cerruti, a biographer working for historian Hubert Howe Bancroft. Bancroft was collecting stories from people who had lived through the Spanish and Mexican eras for his multi-volume History of California.
During the interview, Josefa provided information about the meaning of some California place names, including “California” itself, which her mother told her was an Indian word meaning “high hill.” She also told the story of her elopement with Henry and criticized how Americans had gone around re-naming places in California.
Because squatters had overrun her rancho, Josefa spent much time and money trying to defend her title to the land. She eventually had to submit to a series of forced land auctions to pay her legal costs. At one such auction, Harmon Heald bought 100 acres and turned it into the town of Healdsburg, where Josefa lived until she died in 1893.
Juana Machado de Wrightington: Surviving Change
Juana Machado was born in 1814 in San Diego. Her father, José Manuel Machado, was a soldier at the Presidio, and her mother, María Serafina Valdés, was from the Pueblo of Los Angeles. Both her mother’s and her father’s parents had come to Los Angeles as part of the Rivera expedition that brought families to settle in the area in 1781.
In 1829, Juana Married a soldier, Dámaso Alipas. She was fifteen years old at the time. Together the couple had three children. Unfortunately, Dámaso was killed in 1835 and Juana became a widow.
A few years later, Juana met an American, Thomas Wrightington, who had come to San Diego as a sailor. Juana and Thomas married and eventually had three children of their own.
In 1877, Juana gave an interview to Thomas Savage, another biographer working for Hubert Howe Bancroft. In her testimony, Juana provided important historical information about the Californios’ involvement in the Mexican-American War, Indian uprisings and life as the child of a soldier.
Juana recounted what it was like to be part of a soldier’s family when California became part of Mexico. She described the poignant moment when the presidio soldiers were ordered to cut off the long braid they wore.
At the tip of the braid, there would be a ribbon or silk knot. On many men, the braid went past their waist. It was quite similar to the way Chinese wore their hair…I remember when my father arrived home with his braid in his hand. His face showed such sorrow. My mother’s face was not any better. She would look at the braid and cry (p. 128).
Later, Juana lived through the U.S. annexation of Alta California. Due to her mother’s appeal to U.S. Naval Commodore Stockton, Juana’s brother received a safe conduct pass by U.S. forces. He later served as a guide for the military but did not participate in the fighting.
Juana again became a widow in 1853 when her husband Thomas was killed after a fall from a horse. For decades, Juana’s house in Old Town San Diego remained an important center of public life.
Juana died near San Diego in 1901.
Apolinaria Lorenzana: Service in a Time of Violence
One of the people Juana mentioned in her testimony was Apolinaria Lorenzana. Apolinaria was well-known and loved among the people of San Diego, both gente de razón (Hispanic) and Indians. Although she was never married, Apolinaria was godmother to numerous children, both Californios and indigenous.
Apolinaria arrived in California in 1800 with a group of orphans from Mexico City aboard the frigate Concepción. Because the children at the orphanage had no families of their own, they all received the surname Lorenzana, after the bishop who founded the orphanage. At the time of her arrival, Apolinaria was approximately seven years old.
Soon Apolinaria was placed in the household of Don Raymundo Carrillo, the commander of the San Diego Presidio, where she stayed as a child. Later, she worked at Mission San Diego for many years, involved in numerous aspects of mission life.
Growing up at the orphanage in Mexico City, Apolinaria learned to read, but later she had to teach herself to write.
…When I was older and already in California, I taught myself how to write. Using whatever books I could find, I would copy the letters onto any sort of paper I could obtain, such as empty cigarette papers or a blank piece of paper that somebody had thrown out (p. 171).
Apolinaria became well-known as a teacher, and many young girls learned to read and write thanks to her.
Thomas Savage interviewed Apolinaria in 1878. Her testimony provides many details about life in Southern California during the Spanish and Mexican eras, including the workings of daily life at Mission San Diego de Alcalá.
In her testimony, Apolinaria described the violence that often took place between Native Americans and Californios in the 1830s. A particularly harrowing account is the story of an attack by Native Americans on Rancho Jamul outside of San Diego in 1836, as well as the revenge that some Californios took against native people.
Apolinaria was also a landowner who eventually had three ranchos near San Diego: Rancho Jamacha, Rancho San Juan de las Secuas, and Rancho Cañada de los Coches. All of those ranchos had been part of Mission San Diego de Alcalá.
In her interview, Apolinaria described what she would do when given a new piece of land:
Whenever I acquired land, I had it blessed and named in honor of a saint. I have always had faith in the power of the saints, and above all, faith in the one who surpasses them all — God himself (p. 184).
Apolinaria died in 1884. She was 112 years old. At that time she had lost all of her land holdings and lived on the charity of others. During her interview with Thomas Savage, she reflected on her life in service to others:
I had the satisfaction of being well-loved by young and old and rich and poor. Maybe it was because I was good-natured and would do whatever I could to help people (p. 191).
You can read the complete testimonies of Apolinaria Lorenzana, Juana Machado and Josefa Carillo — along with many others — in Testimonios: Early California Through the Eyes of Women, 1815-1848.