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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp

A Good Man

Yet another new governor—in fact the sixth governor that authorities in Mexico City had appointed since 1822—arrived at Monterey, the capital of Alta California, in January 1833. Brigadier General José Figueroa was forty-one years old, a Mestizo of Spanish and Aztec ancestry proud of his Indian heritage; an accomplished, competent military man charged with resolving difficult situations, not the least of which was a politically unstable province ruled by two rival governors.

For the past year or more, the Hispanic residents of Alta California (as distinguished from the peninsula called Baja California) had been divided in a north-south split over the control of political offices, custom house revenues, and distributions of public funds. In the north, Agustín Zamorano held office in Monterey, while José Maria de Echeandía ruled southern California from Los Angeles and San Diego. Happily—as acting Mexican president Valentín Gómez Farías had hoped when he appointed General Figueroa to the governorship in 1832—both men deferred to Figueroa’s authority and the government of Alta California was again united. Meantime the new governor assembled the local legislative body and informed them of the other priority items in his orders: to promote colonization between San Francisco Bay and the Russian settlements at Fort Ross near Bodega Bay, and to formulate a plan for transferring mission lands to the Indians and other private individuals, an action many considered to be long overdue—although others disagreed.

Long before Mexico achieved its independence from Spain in 1821, the Crown’s intention, when it sent the Franciscans to colonize the region in 1769, was that the priests were to administer the missions in trust for the native inhabitants until such time as the Indians were able to take control themselves and become full-fledged, productive citizens. Accordingly, in his first year as governor, Figueroa initiated the emancipation of a number of Indians then living in Franciscan-run missions, establishing Indian-run settlements at three sites in southern California. However, his well-intentioned plan failed when the Farías government in Mexico City, suspicious that Spain would continue to have undue influence and power in California in the persons of the Spanish-born Franciscan padres, ordered the secularization (disestablishment) of the missions in August, 1833. Figueroa objected, but finally acquiesced, approving the secularization plan the following year, and overseeing the initial secularization phase. Mission San Juan Capistrano was the first to have its lands confiscated, in 1834.

Acting Mexican president Farías created still more problems for Figueroa when, in 1833—the same year the Mexican Congress passed secularization legislation—he appointed wealthy Mexican landowners José Maria de Híjar and José Maria Padrés to lead a group of 239 settlers north to establish secular control of the province, with Híjar to replace Figueroa as governor.

But while these would-be colonists were still at sea, Antonio López de Santa Anna reclaimed the Mexican presidency and revoked Híjar’s appointment. This news, sent overland by a horseman who traveled forty days from Mexico City to Monterey, reached Figueroa before the ships landed. Angered to learn he had no official powers, Híjar launched a rebellion on March 7, 1835, in Los Angeles. Figueroa had both Híjar and Padrés arrested and ousted from California, although many of the colonists stayed to become distinguished citizens. Later in 1835 Figueroa published his Manifesto, the first book published in California, explaining that his opposition to the Híjar-Padrés colonization scheme was because of his belief that at least half of the mission lands should be turned over to the Indians.

During his tenure José Figueroa issued almost fifty land grants, among them Rancho Laguna Seca in Monterey to Catalina Munrás, wife of Monterey trader Esteban Munrás; Rancho San Pascual to Juan Marine (which today encompasses the cities of Pasadena, South Pasadena, Altadena, San Pascual and portions of San Marino); and Rancho Petaluma in Sonoma to Mariano Vallejo. Figueroa’s leadership, benevolence, and personal popularity were praised by many of his contemporaries, and historians regard him as the best and most competent of the Mexican governors, but the tasks he had been given were near impossible to accomplish to the satisfaction of all—and his time ran out too soon.

He died from a stroke on September 29, 1835, some say brought on by the extreme stress he suffered over the Híjar rebellion. Monterey residents held elaborate mourning ceremonies and buried him in a crypt beneath Mission Santa Barbara. Figueroa Street in Los Angeles and Figueroa Mountain in the Los Padres National Forest are named for him.

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