Battle of Natividad
The Mexican-American War came to Pacific shores in July 1846, when U. S. Navy warships invaded the seaports at Monterey and San Francisco Bay, proclaiming that Mexican-owned California was now annexed to the United States. The Navy had “captured” both places without firing a shot; nevertheless, not all Californios meekly accepted the takeover—several martial confrontations ensued. One of the more important clashes was the one known as the Battle of Natividad on November 16, 1846.
Between July and November, several conflicts had taken place in which American forces had thought themselves victorious. But in October, news of an insurrection by armed Californios at Los Angeles spurred immediate action to reclaim the city. Famed Army explorer John Charles Frémont, in California since late 1845, now commanding his California Battalion and recently promoted to Lt. Colonel, sailed south from San Francisco Bay with some 160 men, intending to join other American forces already in Los Angeles. Learning of the scarcity of available horses in the southlands, he landed at Monterey October 28th, determined to obtain mounts, and march overland.
It was essential that Frémont bolster his maneuverability by gathering many horses. Besides the 160 with him on the ship, there were approximately 450 men holed up at Mission San Juan Batista, awaiting his orders. Earlier, he had appointed Charles D. Burrass, a popular 1846 immigrant from St. Louis, to provide riding stock to the members of the Battalion.
It was essential to the interests of the rebel Californios to prevent this stock from reaching Colonel Frémont. Accordingly, on October 23rd, General José Flores had appointed Manuel Castro to occupy the Salinas Plain, with 150 fighting men. Castro arrived there on or about November 12th. The subsequent action took place on La Natividad, a private ranch.
Rancho La Natividad, an 8,642-acre land grant in the Salinas Valley, had been awarded in 1837 by Governor Juan Alvarez to Manuel Butrón and his son-in-law, Nicolás Alviso. La Natividad, which was mostly on level ground, adjoined the Gomez land grant Rancho Vergeles, which was broken by ridges and ravines radiating south from the nearby Gabilan Range. Cart roads entered La Natividad from Monterey and from the upper Salinas Valley, ultimately joining near the boundary between the two ranchos; from there three rough trails—one of which followed past the Gomez rancho—led over the Gabilan Range to Mission San Juan Bautista.
On November 15, two more American outfits arrived at the mission. One was a group of 34 men captained by Charles D. Burrass, bringing a herd estimated at 500 horses and mules from the Sacramento Valley. The other was about 35 men under California Battalion Captain Bluford K. Thompson, aka “hell raising” Thompson—a gambler by profession—who had recruited a motley party of ranchers, runaway sailors, and recent German immigrants at San Jose. The following day, Burrass’s party moved through a gap in the Gabilan Range and reached the Gomez rancho, where they sighted Castro’s forces and withdrew to a small oak grove . . . but Castro’s men surrounded them and a brisk fight was on. Realizing he was outnumbered, Burrass sent for help.
It came after Bluford Thompson galloped into the mission camp, shouting “Saddle up! Get your horses! We’re going to have a fight!” Soon the company was tearing through the gap, with Thompson in the lead on his iron-grey steed. Although the command was strung out over several miles, all joined Burrass. Thompson pushed for immediate action, but even as the Californios were raising up their wounded and retreating, Burrass declined, citing his responsibility for the horses. Finally, though, he agreed to charge, taking the lead riding Frémont’s own grey charger, named “Sacramento.”
Fifty-five Americans stormed out from the Gomez’s Rancho Vergeles, rushing pell-mell toward a foe numbering at least twice that number.
From the journal of Dr. Marius Duvall, stationed with the ship Portsmouth in San Francisco Bay, November 24, 1846: Today we heard that a party of Americans (50 in number) with 300 horses, under the command of Charles D. Burrass on their way from the Sacramento to join Capt. Fremont . . . had been attacked, near the mission of San Juan, by a party of Californios (150 in number). The conflict is said to have been very severe—Mr. B. and 3 of his men were killed and several wounded—the Californios were driven from the field leaving 8 dead. The Americans pursued their way and joined Fremont, with all their horses. We are waiting for particulars.
Considering that there were no electronic communications devices of any kind in the West, Duvall’s journal entry so soon after the conflict is amazingly accurate. Fremont’s November 20th letter to his former Topographical Corps artist/surveyor Edward Kern, then in charge of Sutter’s Fort in the Sacramento Valley, reported that the Americans suffered four wounded (two severely) and four dead, including Charles Burrass. The defeated Californios, he claimed, withstood up to 20 killed plus a considerable number of wounded. (Manuel Castro's troops reported five wounded, but no deaths.)
In military parlance it was a minor skirmish, but the Battle of Natividad was important because the Americans were able to save the large drove of horses and mules for Frémont’s California Battalion. Had this not been the case, Frémont’s subsequent march south would surely have been delayed; in that event perhaps failing to execute the Treaty of Cahuenga signed by Frémont and Andrés Pico in January 1847, the agreement that ended Mexican-American War hostilities within California.
California Historical Landmark #651 in the Salinas Valley marks the site of the Battle of Natividad.