My Very Beloved Chanita

The Moreno love letters, 1852-1869

Jose Matias Morena II:  "Take good care, dear one. of the expected baby"
  • Jose Matias Morena II: "Take good care, dear one. of the expected baby"

San Francisco, Nov. 4, 1863

My very beloved Chanita,

It has been twelve years since we were married and I have been reminiscing about you and the wedding. Do you remember how chiflada (scatterbrained) you were that day? Do you remember that you danced a great deal? Do you remember the toast that Francisco Rodriguez wrote?... I also remember that it has been two years since you celebrated the first ten years of your marriage in Guadalupe [Baja California]. I hope to return to celebrate the second ten years by your side and that of our beloved children. Then we will tell them that we are celebrating our twentieth anniversary. Matias and Dolores will dance, and you will be a little old, and I will still be young and handsome....

Moreno

His father married a local woman and changed his name, Joseph Matthew Brown, word for word to Jose Matias Moreno.

His father married a local woman and changed his name, Joseph Matthew Brown, word for word to Jose Matias Moreno.

Matias Moreno was a businessman in northern Baja California in the 1850s and 1860s. From his ranch in the Guadalupe Valley near Ensenada, he was forced to travel constantly to make a living for himself and his wife Chanita Lopez de Moreno. He was so much in love with his wife that he dreaded these departures from her. Often on the road in dangerous and troublesome times, he survived the separations through letters that were delivered by ship, horse, friends, and, occasionally, even enemies. Some of his love letters to her, and her answers back, were found a few years ago in a closet in Point Loma. Translated from the original Spanish, the 82 letters tell of their children, their daily lives, their hardships, and their love. We know the married love of today to be fragile: kept and unkept promises, unknown challenges. But what of married love 150 years ago?

Chanita. short for Prudenciana, was descended from a leatherjacket soldier who may have arrived in San Diego as early as 1769 with Junipero Serra

Chanita. short for Prudenciana, was descended from a leatherjacket soldier who may have arrived in San Diego as early as 1769 with Junipero Serra

Moreno was half-English, the son of an English whaler shipwrecked in Baja California in the year 1800. His father married a local woman and changed his name, Joseph Matthew Brown, word for word to Jose Matias Moreno. The English father became a Catholic and settled down at San Antonio in Baja California. His son and namesake, Jose Matias II, was raised in part by a Dominican Catholic priest, Gabriel Gonzalez, in Todos Santos, Baja California. While young and hotheaded, Jose Matias II joined Father Gonzalez in an insurrection against the commandant of Baja California in a battle at Todos Santos in 1842. Convicted for insurrection and sent to prison at Mazatlan. Jose Matias was released, moved to San Diego, and met Chanita.

Dolores Moreno - one of the three children (of 16) who lived to adulthood

Dolores Moreno - one of the three children (of 16) who lived to adulthood

Chanita. short for Prudenciana, was descended from Ignacio Lopez, a leatherjacket soldier who may have arrived in San Diego as early as 1769 with Junipero Serra. Ignacio's son, Francisco, came with the Anza Expedition in 1774. Francisco's granddaughter was Chanita's mother, Juana Lopez of Old Town San Diego; Chanita's father was the powerful General Mariano Vallejo. Her parents never married, but letters from Vallejo to Chanita show that she visited his home and gave evidence of his love for this "natural" daughter. Born in Old Town in 1832, Chanita was a tiny woman with a fair complexion and large, hazel-colored eyes like Vallejo's; late in life, she was remembered as being immaculately groomed, wearing embroidered lace blouses with a hat and gloves to go visiting. Descendants recall her speaking Spanish quickly with a high voice and moving lightning-fast around a room.

Chanita is thought to be the first person to notice U.S. soldiers marching up to Old Town with a U.S. flag in 1846. She ran to the plaza warning everyone she could see that "a million gringos" were coming. She remembered standing with the Machado children on the roof of the Machado de Silvas House at Old Town's Plaza and watching the U.S. forces marching into the square. She remembered dancing shyly with U.S. military captain John C. Fremont at Old Town’s Casa de Bandini and how he asked her to please drop the caption and just call him “John."

There isn’t a lot known among Moreno descendants about the meeting of Jose Matias and Chanita. Obviously she was chiflada at their wedding in Old Town in 1851. Jose Matias had been secretary to Don Pio Pico, the last governor of Mexican-era California. During the U.S.-Mexican War, Jose Matias ran and hid (once hiding in a bed dressed as a woman at Mission San Luis Rey), as Zorro-like he fled south to Baja California for safety. During the final days of the U.S. attempt to take Baja California, Jose Matias was arrested at the Battle of Todos Santos and imprisoned again at Mazatlan until the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the war in 1848. He may have met Chanita sometime after the U.S. takeover, since he had family and business dealings in San Diego.

The young couple, he 32 or 33 and she 19, settled down happily at the Casa de Lopez in Old Town. Now housing the Rockin' Baja Lobster restaurant on Twiggs Street, the house was originally located to the west, where I-5 runs today. Within 20 days of their wedding, Jose Matias was called away to join the San Diego Fitzgerald California Volunteers to ride through the San Diego backcountry looking for the Indian leader Antonio Garra. Garra had been named in an investigation of an Indian rebellion against excessive U.S. taxation. Released from the Volunteers just 55 days later on January 17,1852, Moreno spent the next 17 years of his life on the road between Mexico City, Mazatlan, Baja California, San Diego, and San Francisco trying to provide for his family as a merchant, translator, and contact between U.S. and Mexican businessmen. After a period as the political chief of the frontier (jefe politico de la frontera) from March 11, 1861, to April 25,1862, at the former Guadalupe Mission in Baja California, he tried farming, ranching, mining, mercantile interests, and stock brokering to make ends meet.

Chanita’s and Jose Matias’s love letters to each other, so full of domestic, economic, and sometimes international news, ended up in the Point Loma collections of descendants Helen and Beverly Long. With the help of California State Park historian Ron Quinn, they were given to the Huntington Library in San Marino, where they were considered by some to be the collection of the decade. These treasured letters, carefully translated by the late Robert and Helen Long, reveal the daily life, tragedies., love, and intimacies of a frontier couple. He writes to her from Mazatlan the year after their wedding:

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