Unforgettable: The American Invasion


On July 29, 1848, the USS Cyane navigated through the thick kelp outside Point Loma and entered San Diego Bay. The sloop of war unloaded a ragtag 120-man army at La Playa: 39 regulars, plus deerskin-clad Tennessee backwoodsmen, Delaware Indian scouts, and, an observer wrote, “loafers picked up lately whose morals had better not be too closely examined.” Most were seasick during the three-day voyage from Monterey, including Kit Carson, who swore he’d never board another ship. At 5:00 p.m., soldiers raised the Stars and Stripes unopposed in San Diego plaza. The “American Invasion” of Southern California had begun.

Captain Samuel F. DuPont, a portly man whose walrus mustache flared into thick muttonchops, found the small population quiet and orderly. After he shored up the Presidio and renamed it Fort DuPont, the captain visited Mission San Diego. Though olive and date trees still flourished, the gardens and vineyards had gone to seed. The church, surrounded by wigwams made of thatch, was “dilapidated,” its paintings “tattered.” The natives wore few, if any, clothes. “A more miserable and naked sight I never saw.”

The mission’s only priest, Father Vicente Oliva, was a “perfect Friar Tuck, who was what sailors term ‘two sheets in the wind.’ ” A troubled, deeply melancholic man, Oliva had been at the mission for 26 years and watched its slow decline. A month earlier, he’d buried his dear friend Father José María Zalvidea at San Luis Rey, which made the despondent Oliva one of the last Franciscans in the region.

DuPont doesn’t mention the 53-year-old woman caring for the friar. Apolinaria Lorenzana was probably either running the daily affairs of the mission or at one of her three ranchos. When Oliva arrived in 1820, she was already hailed as la beata, the blessed one, for her piety. By the time DuPont arrived, the mission had become so “destroyed,” she said, it was “very hard to provide Father Oliva with food.”

Rumors strafed San Diego: the haughty Americans were here to stay (their leader, John C. Fremont, wore an elegant blouse, leggings, and a felt hat and was obviously a man of reason, but his volunteers dressed and acted like rabid curs); no, the mongrels were headed to Los Angeles to battle Californio forces amassing there. More rumors: Americans, joined by native tribes, were burning ranchos; the oldest families in town were taking sides, turning against each other; worse, bands of Sonorans were coming up from Mexico to wipe out the invaders, the Indians, and every Californio who supported the takeover. Things changed so rapidly, no news was new.

When Oliva buried Father Zalvidea, he promised he’d return to celebrate the Feast Day of San Luis on August 25. Lorenzana encouraged the old friar to make the bumpy trek in a carreta. They could gather much-needed corn and seeds, she said, since “there was nobody at San Diego to do the planting, or for that matter, anything else.”

As they headed north, on a dirt trail often just six feet across, Lorenzana and the friar looked far ahead and behind: every rider could be a foe; every sky-high cloud of dust an army come to pillage. They stopped at Juan Marrón’s rancho, Agua Hedionda (at Carlsbad, from the ocean east to Vista). To their surprise, he was home.

Marrón had been administrator of Mission San Luis Rey. But when Fremont’s army went through on August 9, he evicted Marrón from office. Now that the Americans were here, Fremont told him in Castilian Spanish, natives wanted the land the friars had promised.

Marrón’s wife Felipa said she feared the Indians and the American troops “because they were undisciplined.” Soon she would also fear Californios, who accused her husband of spying for the Americans, which she denied.

That foreigners could invade Mission San Luis Rey — and enter the sanctuary armed — horrified Lorenzana: such an unthinkable violation. The stately church, which gleamed like a dove in bright sunshine, had been her second home. From 1821 to 1830, she’d nursed countless patients and been godmother to dozens of children at the mission. If the enemy could invade sacred ground so freely, so brutally, where could God reside?

Lorenzana was born uprooted. Shortly after her birth, in 1793, someone left her at the Mexico City orphanage. She came to Alta California as part of an experiment. In 1800, New Spain promised 20 orphans they’d have parents and families in the colonies. But Lorenzana never married and found her home in the church. She taught herself to write on scrap paper, became a curandera (a healer using traditional and native remedies) and a teacher. Although everyone called her la beata, she rejected talk of sainthood and preferred the title la cuña (the foundling). She performed so many services for so many years that historian Father Zephyrin Englehardt wrote, “Miss Lorenzana deserves to be classed among the Franciscan missionaries of California.”

At first, Father Oliva refused to celebrate the Feast Day because enemies occupied the mission. But Oliva assented when an emissary in deerskin, Alexis Godey, promised the padre he’d be unharmed. (Lorenzana often reads a person’s temperature: she called Godey, Kit Carson’s great rival, “a very good and tranquil man.”)

After the ceremony, Lorenzana wanted to go north, to San Juan Capistrano, rather than home. She was “very sad because of the American takeover of the country and did not want to return to San Diego.”

The 66-year-old Oliva, whose life work was in Mission Valley, said, “If you’re going to San Juan, then I’m going too. What would I do all by myself in San Diego?”

On their way, Lorenzana left Oliva at Rancho Santa Margarita (now Camp Pendleton) and continued on. For one of the few times in her life, she had no strength to share. “I was furious about the situation with the Americans. I thought, if I leave, then the Americans will leave too.”

When she reached San Juan Capistrano, word came that war had erupted in Los Angeles. She returned to San Luis Rey with Oliva. Godey was gone. Five Americans said, go to San Diego. Then one said, no, he’d ride there first to see if it was safe. That night, the man headed to San Diego. Lorenzana never saw him again.

Between chaos to the north and south and natives gathering in the east, Lorenzana and Oliva stayed at Mission San Luis Rey, always with a “sense of impending danger.”

Juana Moreno arrived with her children. Families are abandoning San Diego, she said. More rumors: California’s most prominent leaders, Pio Pico and General José Castro, might flee to Mexico. (“Castro,” Angustias de la Guerra uttered through clenched teeth,

didn’t want “to expose his interesting person to bullets.”) In September, an army of Californios forced the Americans out of Los Angeles.

A few days after the Morenos arrived, an armed Indian rode up to the mission holding a spear with a red flag attached like a banner. “A bad sign,” Lorenzana told Oliva. His chief wanted wine, the Indian said. He was camped at nearby Guajomita with many angry warriors.

Oliva gave him the wine and the Indian left.

That night, Doña Moreno appeared in the doorway “half-naked and very frightened.” One of her son’s young native friends told her to leave San Luis Rey at once. “Indians were going to attack the mission and kill all the white people.”

The Indian who had taken the wine rode up, a quiver full of arrows slung across his back. His chief, it seemed, wanted more.

Oliva gave him a second bottle, plus a scolding for bringing weapons to the mission, and again the Indian left.

That night, as Moreno’s son sprinted to Santa Margarita for help, Moreno, Lorenzana, and Father Oliva lit candles and torches and tried to illumine as much of the grounds as possible. “There was so much light, it almost seemed like day.”

Oliva sat on a bench while Lorenzana roamed around, checking various rooms for attackers. “As you can well imagine,” she recalled 32 years later with a shudder, “we did not sleep at all that night.”

The next morning, Sérvulo Varelas, who had led the recapture of Los Angeles, rode up with 30 men. He told the Indians their “attitude made no sense at all, because they and the Californios were one.” He gave them food and wine. When he returned, he took Lorenzana and Father Oliva aside. “Go to San Juan Capistrano,” he whispered, “pronto.”

On December 6 and 7, Andres Pico and about 80 lancers defeated General Stephen Watts Kearney’s army at San Pasqual. Twenty-one of his soldiers died, and Kearney received two serious wounds. But more Americans had come to San Diego and, according to Miguel de Pedrorena, justice of the peace, “a party of fanatic adventurers called Mormons” was on its way from the east, “well armed with the purpose of taking this country by force.” Rumor had it that their leader, Brigham Young, wanted to colonize all of Alta California and drive everyone else out. Some Californios sided with the American forces to defend themselves from these new invaders.

In the first week of February 1847, Father Oliva asked of Lorenzana a favor: go to San Luis Rey, bring back the mission registers, and find a chalice he’d hidden in an arroyo. It could be dangerous, he added. She agreed to try.

That hordes of foreign soldiers clogged the region — taking cattle and horses and human lives — tormented Lorenzana. As she approached San Luis Rey, she saw a sight as perplexing as it was nightmarish: a battalion of forces, at least 300 strong, was camped at the mission. But unlike Fremont’s savages or Kearney and Stockton’s grim regulars, who’d come through in January, the new ones looked like a civilian army — of skeletons.

Few wore woolen uniforms, and almost every one looked as if he hadn’t taken off the filthy, shredded outfit for months. Not many had shoes. Their faces were strangest of all: from their eyebrows to their noses, they were sunburned and blistered, while the skin below their eyes — where foot-long beards, recently shaved, used to grow — was white. The narrow bands across their eyes resembled beet-red masks.

Some did drills and learned to march for the first time, but many were so gaunt and as brittle as twigs, they just leaned against walls for support and swatted fleas.

This was the famous Mormon Battalion, a religious volunteer unit that had come west from Council Bluffs, Iowa, under countless hardships. They arrived in San Diego on January 29, 1847, and moved to San Luis Rey on February 3. Their leader, Colonel Philip St. George Cooke, said, “History may be searched in vain for an equal march of infantry.”

Lorenzana didn’t see history, just more sharp sabers, more long flintlock muskets tilted against each other like teepees, and more death.

Squads of ten occupied each room — infested it, to Lorenzana’s mind. For 30 years she had battled syphilis and smallpox in mission infirmaries. This plague felt more menacing: it threatened to kill a way of life. So many Americans had invaded Alta California that she could no longer wish — or even pray — them away.

In the decades to come, several of her compadres said the change felt like the end of the world. Lorenzana did as well. Whenever her tristeza (sadness) seemed to wane, a new tragedy would resurrect it. Her life became a series of losses, from departed friends to the destruction of everything she’d known.

Father Oliva died on January 2, 1848. A few weeks later, she complained to the president of friars, “The doors of the church of Mission San Diego have been removed” and silver chalices and candlesticks stolen. “This wickedness and robbery must be attributed to the American soldiers.” The assault “has been very sad and painful to me.” If asked, she said, she would go to the mission, but since Oliva’s death, she had no priest to perform the sacraments — a must in her daily life — and had “no mind to go to San Diego.”

Lorenzana had three ranchos, two deeded her by the Mexican government, a rare privilege for a woman (and almost unimaginable for a poor, single woman). A third she bought outright. All three — Jamacha, San Juan de las Secas, and Los Coches — had been mission grazing lands. Before leaving San Diego, she lived part-time at Jamacha. After she left, she entrusted care of the three to her close friend, British-born John Forster, one of the largest landowners in the region.

Around 1850, while she was still at San Juan Capistrano, Forster allowed Captain John Magruder to use Rancho Jamacha to graze U.S. Cavalry horses. Either through “hocus pocus” or americano legalese, the livestock became squatters, and the land eventually fell into Magruder’s hands.

“I had placed my trust in Señor Forster,” says Lorenzana, “and he violated that trust by letting others use the rancho,” which she never saw again. “And I never heard from Don Juan Forster again either. The truth is that I never received anything in return for the use of my rancho.”

The county recorder of January 17, 1853, claims that Magruder paid Lorenzana $2500 for Jamacha. Philip Crosthwaite, J.J. Warner, and E.B. Pendleton, prominent San Diegans, testified with one hand on the Bible that the terms of the contract “had been fully explained” to Lorenzana.

But when Thomas Savage interviewed her in 1878, Lorenzana angrily told him she’d refused to sell the property and that, somehow, she lost all three of her ranchos. “It is a long story, and I don’t want to talk about it,” she added — or Savage added, possibly freeing himself from the need to probe further. “She appears to be a good old soul,” he wrote, “resigned to her sad fate.”

“Like nearly all Californios of her generation,” writes Genaro M. Padilla, Lorenzana “found herself in the 1870s not only near the end of her life but also at the end of a way of life. The world she had known was receding into a past as unrecoverable as her sight.”

When Savage interviewed her at Santa Barbara, Lorenzana was at least 85. She was feeble, impoverished, and “stone blind.” The orphan, who experienced all the turmoil of 19th Century California, once again depended on the charity of others. “So it is,” she said, “after having worked for so many years, after having had possessions that I did not relinquish through sale or otherwise, I find myself in the greatest poverty, living by the favor of God and from handouts.”

Lorenzana lived six more years in that condition, fending off bouts of sadness with thoughts of happier times, as when she would take the sick to the hot springs at Agua Caliente and “bathe them and take care of them.”

She died in Santa Barbara. The funeral took place at the parish of Our Lady of Sorrows, a church devoted to the seven sufferings of the Virgin Mary. The register entry, written by Jamie Vila, reads, “On April 12, 1884, I gave ecclesiastical burial to the body of Apolinaria Lorenzana, single, about one hundred years of age, a native of Mexico whose parents are not known.” — Jeff Smith


Beebe, Rose Marie, and Senkewicz, Robert M., eds., Testimonios: Early California through the Eyes of Women, 1815–1848; Lorenzana’s recollections, pp. 165–192.

Englehardt, O.F.M., Zephyrin, San Luis Rey, San Francisco, 1921; San Diego, San Francisco, 1920; San Juan Capistrano, Los Angeles, 1922; Santa Barbara, San Francisco, 1923.

Griswold del Castillo, Richard, “The U.S.–Mexican War in San Diego, 1846–1847: Loyalty and Resistance,” Journal of San Diego History, vol. 49, 2003, no. 1.

Gusdorf, Georges, “Conditions and Limits of Autobiography,” Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical, Princeton, 1980.

Haas, Lisbeth, “War in California, 1846–1848,” Contested Eden: California before the Gold Rush, Berkeley, 1998.

Padilla, Genaro M., My History, Not Yours: The Formation of Mexican American Autobiography, Wisconsin, 1993.

Rush, Philip S., Some Old Ranchos and Adobes, San Diego, 1965.

Sanchez, Rosaura, Telling Identities: The Californio testimonios, Minnesota, 1995.

Van Wormer, Stephen, “Legal Hocus-Pocus: The Subdivision of Jamacha Rancho,” the Journal of San Diego History, spring 1984, vol. 30, no. 2.

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