In the great romantic legend of early San Diego, Josefa Carrillo falls in love with Henry Delano Fitch, a Massachusetts seaman. But Governor José Maria Echeandia forbids their marriage. So late one night, the star-crossed lovers sneak aboard a ship and elope. They take their vows 74 days later at Valparaiso, Chile.
Why prevent the ceremony? According to Leo Carrillo, Echeandia had “ants in his pantalones.” Josefa was “the Marilyn Monroe of her day.” One look at her “flashing dark eyes, laughing mouth with full red lips so inviting,” and the governor “was smitten.”
According to Carrillo, Echeandia was a “thin little squirt” who serenaded Josefa beneath her window. But though her parents approved of the governor, Josefa, Carrillo has her say, “could never love a funny, ugly little Bantam rooster of a man like that.” And since marriages in those days were often by arrangement, “It was almost unheard of for a young girl to be so outspoken in her opposition to her parents’ choice.”
The last part, at least, is accurate. When she sailed south on April 16, 1829, Josefa Carrillo rejected all for love: her parents, the church, social obligations. But as the tale evolved into a legend of her extraordinary courage, a scapegoat grew as well. To Leo Carrillo, who wrote in 1961, Echeandia was a “sneaky little fellow.” He “sprayed perfume on himself” and kicked servants “for not polishing his boots properly.”
Echeandia actually stood three or four inches taller than Jedediah Smith, the six-foot fur trapper. Echeandia had a wife and four daughters in Mexico City, the eldest roughly the same age as Josefa (who was 15 when he first saw her in 1825). The 40-year-old may have been smitten or, just as likely, may have been protective. As governor, Echeandia had run-ins with Jedediah Smith, James Ohio Pattie, and John Bradshaw — Americans all. Fitch may have looked like just another lying Yankee.
When he came to San Diego, Echeandia made an instant impression. Trained as an architect, the thin, chestnut-haired, often sickly official spoke with a precise Castillian lisp. His cultivated manners, the norm in Mexico City, struck locals as affected, even snooty. He expected civility. He may have acted superior but, and this was new, he came to preach equality. As the first wave of republicanism in Alta California, Echeandia threatened unprecedented changes.
He rode to San Diego with Fijo de Hidalgo (“noble child”), a squad of infantry. At Mission San Vicente Ferrer, in Lower California, an Indian complained that Father Antonio Menendez, a Dominican, had committed acts “of a private nature.”
Echeandia yanked the priest from office. The new government, he assured the natives, would always respect their rights.
The ousting was unprecedented. Never before, writes Manuel Clemente Rojo, had the “simple accusation of an Indian” removed a friar. Equally astonishing, the “modest republican general” treated “everyone courteously, instilling in them a new disposition unknown up to that time.”
The natives were so impressed, they escorted Echeandia triumphantly from one mission to the next. At San Diego, the governor-general sent Menendez to the Presidio chapel, where he’d have “little contact with the Indians.”
To Echeandia, San Diego must have been a letdown. The governor’s house — approximately where the Father Serra Cross now stands on Presidio Hill — overlooked the crumbling garrison and roughly 30 structures spread across the flatlands. The first house built down the hill, Casa de Carrillo, stood amid a large garden, shaded by pear, olive, and pomegranate trees. The owner, Joaquín Victor Carrillo, was a leather-jacket soldier from Loreto. His eldest daughter, tall, hazel-eyed Josefa, attracted enough suitors to have her pick of mates.
Known as “el rey del mar” (“king of the sea”), Henry Delano Fitch was a ship’s master. He sailed up and down the California coast trading in hides, tallow, and furs. Richard Henry Dana Jr. called him “fat and vulgar,” with an unquenchable thirst for strong drink. William Thomas hailed Fitch as a “generous and whole-souled American.” All agreed on one thing: Fitch’s ship, as Idwal Jones observed, was the one vessel on the coast “that was never black with a hurricane of flies.”
Thirteen years her elder, Fitch first saw Josefa in 1826. A year later, he gave her parents a written promise of marriage.
In February 1827, Echeandia went to Monterrey (he stayed there 14 months: an odd absence if he were truly in love with Josefa). While up north, in ill health from the Monterrey Bay fog, the governor decreed that foreigners could only marry Californians under special circumstances: they must become a Catholic and a naturalized citizen.
But Fitch, who traveled extensively, retained his Congregationalist faith and American status. Did Josefa “keep the governor at arm’s length for so long because of Captain Fitch,” asks Frances Bardacke, “or did she keep Fitch waiting for Echeandia to declare himself? Was Echeandia waiting impatiently” — as rumor had it — “for a sick wife to die in Mexico, or was his whole courtship of Josefa a legend?”
On April 14, 1829, Fitch honored the first obligation. Father Menendez had a reputation for loving wine, women, and cards — y sabe barajar: knew how to cheat. He baptized Fitch in the presidio chapel. Lt. Domingo Carrillo, Josefa’s uncle and Echeandia’s chief assistant, acted as godfather.
The wedding ceremony, scheduled for the next day, was hardly the gala one might expect. Menendez erected a small altar at Casa de Carrillo. Late that evening, along with Josefa’s parents, only four men attended: Domingo Carrillo, Captain Richard Barry, Pio Pico, and Maximo Beristain. Why the secrecy? Keep the jealous governor in the dark?
Domingo was late. Menendez decided to start without him. Just then, Domingo burst in. “The governor forbids the wedding! I refuse to be a witness!”
Acting in his official capacity, Domingo warned that the ceremony would incur “the wrath of the civil, military, and ecclesiastical authorities.”
Hearing these words — and most likely in hot water with the governor — Menendez flung off his ceremonial robes and refused to continue. As he left he whispered to Josefa and Fitch, “There are other countries where the laws are less stringent.” He even offered to join them but vanished before they could reply.
Fitch fumed. His new godfather had stopped the marriage! Josefa cried tears of shock. In most accounts, she turned to Fitch and said, “Why don’t you carry me off, Don Enrique?”
Fitch was scheduled to sail the Buitre (“Vulture”) to South America the next day. He conferred with Pio Pico and Captain Barry. Each urged him to take Josefa. In a testimonial she said Fitch took the initiative.
No one consulted her father.
Early the next day, Fitch said good-bye to friends at the presidio, then to his beloved. He rode the La Playa trail to where the Buitre lay anchored. He boarded the ship and barked orders. His crew shimmied up the masts, unfurled sails, and the English brig split whitecaps on its way to sea. Beyond Point Loma it grabbed a wind to the west.
That night, Josefa didn’t weep. She packed belongings into a small trunk and listened for pounding hooves. Pio Pico rode up on his best horse. Josefa, who said he “didn’t have any trouble convincing me,” climbed on in front of Pico, and they galloped into the night.
Six sailors waited in a longboat near the landing at La Playa. Not far up the beach, Fitch hid behind a large rock. The horse pulled up. Just before the lovers raced to the boat, Pico shouted, “Good-bye, cousin. May God bless you.” Then, to Fitch: “And you, Cousin Enrique, take care not to give Josefa reason to regret having joined her lot with yours.”
The sailors rowed out to the Buitre, concealed beyond the bluffs of Point Loma, and the ship sailed south.
It was as if Prince Paris had abducted Helen of Sparta. The news of scandal rampaged up and down the coast. Surely Fitch took Josefa against her will. And if he didn’t, he’d lied. He vowed to become a naturalized citizen but never did. The elopement rankled church authorities almost as much as Josefa’s father, who suffered unthinkable shame. Don Joaquín became so distraught he swore he’d kill Josefa and her kidnapper on sight.
Fitch, Josefa, and an infant son, Enrique Eduardo, returned to San Diego in July 1830. Fitch’s frigate, Leonor, brought sugar, skins of brandy, and 50 convicts to help populate the frontier. Neither husband nor wife — Curate Orrego had married them at Valparaiso — dared come ashore. Her father was so dishonored, townspeople warned her, Joaquín always kept a musket nearby.
Legend has it that Josefa snuck ashore at midnight. When Fitch found her missing, he feared, writes Ella Sterling Mighels, “She must have jumped overboard from her wild despair over her father’s anger against her.”
The next morning, when Josefa reached the garden gate at Casa de Carrillo, legend says she crawled on her knees and begged her father’s forgiveness. She fled, she told Joaquín, to “escape the tyranny” of Echeandia. After much wavering (some accounts even have him pointing the musket at her), Don Joaquín relented. In her Testimonio, written decades later, Josefa remembers her father saying, “I forgive thee, daughter, for it is not thy fault that our governors are despots!”
Only the most glowing accounts mention Don Joaquín forgiving Fitch, and none have Fitch forgiving his father-in-law. Don Joaquín “abused her most shamefully,” Fitch wrote years later, “frequently threatening to flog her and telling her I was a heretic and that she was living with me as a common prostitute.” Fitch said he hoped Don Joaquín would “go to hell.”
Fitch had to sail north — to sell his cargo and unload 25 convicts. Since he refused to leave Josefa in San Diego, she joined him on the long windward passage to Monterrey, where Echeandia had faced a military rebellion the year before and where a similar maelstrom now awaited them both.
When the Leonor anchored at San Pedro, Padre Jose Sanchez, vicar of the territory, ordered Fitch to stand trial at San Gabriel: the wedding raised “serious charges.” Surprised and miffed, Fitch sent his marriage certificate instead.
He arrived at Monterrey in August. The certificate had flaws, he learned: it was torn and blotted; also, they weren’t members of the parish where they were wed. Fiscal José Palomares ordered Echeandia to arrest Fitch. Soldiers locked him in the harbormaster’s office. They kept Josefa under house arrest at John Cooper’s two-story adobe.
In late October, Josefa asked to go to San Gabriel. When Echeandia approved, Palomares declared that the governor had violated ecclesiastical authority. He was a “culprit before God’s tribunal” and must stand trial. Vicar Sanchez agreed but chose not to arrest Echeandia. Instead, he had Fitch moved to San Gabriel in December.
On December 9, the interrogations began. Both Fitch and Josefa vowed that she’d gone voluntarily, that their marriage in Valparaiso was legal (also that she was chaperoned during their 74-day passage and that their son was conceived after they were wed). Weeks of attacks and denials concluded on December 28. Sanchez declared the marriage was “not legitimate, but in spite of the infractions of the law, it was valid.” Fitch and Josefa were now velados — married — and had to perform several acts of contrition.
Although their 19 years together were rocky — in 1835, because she gambled heavily, Fitch began legal steps for a separation — the couple had 12 children.
Fitch died in 1849. He never forgave his father-in-law or his persecutors. He wrote a letter to John Cooper: “All the devils in Hell could not separate us. So all those busybodies who had had too much to say about my marriage being unlawful may go to Hell and f--k spiders, and if you hear any of them speak any more about it please damn their eyes on my account.”
Fitch hated Echeandia as well: “The Mexican authorities were more vicious than a water carrier’s donkey.”
Echeandia may have loved Josefa. Or, as the apple of every eye, she may have assumed that his fierce political passions — and ingrained distrust of Americans — were amatory. As the legend grew, she made Echeandia the villain, possibly stuffing anger at her domineering father into a father figure. Years later, however, she forgave Echeandia “with all my heart.”
Occupying a thankless post he may never have wanted, Echeandia left San Diego on May 14, 1833. Trouble followed him home. When he became governor-general, Echeandia told Mexican authorities to give half his salary to his wife, who’d stayed behind in Mexico. They didn’t. For two years after he arrived, the family lived near starvation. An earthquake in 1835 destroyed many homes in Mexico City. Echeandia, returning to his architect/engineer roots, made a small fortune rebuilding them. In 1856, he told Angustias de la Guerra he was — possibly for the first time — “living very well here.”
He died, in the care of two stepdaughters, around 1871. ■
— Jeff Smith
- Ronald L. Miller: “The probability of Echeandia’s interest in Josefa is debatable.”
- Rosaura Sanchez: “Although she could make allowances for Echeandia’s personal weakness, [Josefa] would not forgive the church, which…had made incredible demands and kept the couple apart.”
- Henry Delano Fitch, in his will (January 1849): “In case Josefa Carrillo, my wife, entering a second time in the marriage state, after my death, she will withdraw her share of the property, and have no more authority as Executor of this will.”
Bancroft, Herbert Howe, History of California, vol. III, San Francisco, 1885.
Bardacke, Frances, “Josefa’s Courage; Captain Fitch’s Independence: A Letter of Amplification,” San Diego Magazine, August 1969.
Bebe, Rose Marie, and Senkewicz, Robert M., Lands of Promise and Despair, Berkeley, 2001; Testimonios, Berkeley, 2006.
Carrillo, Leo, The California I Love, New Jersey, 1961.
Hutchinson, C. Alan, Frontier Settlement in Mexican California, New Haven, 1969.
Mighels, Ella Sterling, Literary California, San Francisco, 1918.
Miller, Ronald L., “A California Romance in Perspective,” Journal of San Diego History, spring 1973.
Robinson, Alfred, Life in California, Santa Barbara, 1970.
Rojo, Manuel Clemente, “The Reminiscences of Manuel Clemente Rojo,” cited in Lands of Promise and Despair.
Sanchez, Rosaura, Telling Identities: The Californio Testimonios, Minneapolis, 1995.
Smythe, William E., History of San Diego, New York, 1907.