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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp

Doña Francisca Vallejo

A dark-eyed beauty, Francisca Carrillo was born in San Diego when California was still a province of Imperial Spain, and raised in the Spanish traditions of graciousness and hospitality. Refined and fine-mannered, she was also strong-willed, forthright, and quite a good shot with firearms. She was the daughter of a leading family, and the wife of an important man. A girl of seven when Mexico wrested the province from Spain, she was a family matriarch when Mexico ceded ownership to the United States at the end of the Mexican-American War.    


Francisca was fifteen when she met her future husband in January, 1830: Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, a twenty-three-year-old soldier, who had arrived in San Diego in the wake of a rebellion against the Mexican government. Immediately attracted, Vallejo courted Francisca over the two weeks before he had to leave for military duties in Monterey. The pair kept in touch with letters, but didn’t see each other again for almost two years.


They were married at the Presidio of San Diego on March 6, 1832. Born August 23, 1815, Francisca was still sixteen on the day of her wedding.


The following year Francisca gave birth to a son, the first of their 16 children together; but also, the first of six babies who died very young. At the time, the couple was living in the whitewashed headquarters of the San Francisco Presidio, where Mariano Vallejo was the recently-appointed Commander. Another son (who lived a long life) was born there in 1834. In May of that year, Governor Figueroa assigned Vallejo the task of establishing a military post north of San Francisco, to thwart the perceived threat of Russian expansion southward from Fort Ross. In the process of establishing this new headquarters, he founded what was to become Sonoma County.   


The headquarters compound included military barracks, plus homes for other Vallejo relatives. Even before the imposing structure was finished in 1840, the couple moved into La Casa Grande, a three-story adobe on the new Sonoma Plaza, the home where eleven of their children were born. Over the years, La Casa Grande became the center of social and diplomatic life north of the Bay.


Then at dawn on June 14, 1846, a rag-tag party of American settlers invaded the compound, intent on overthrowing the Mexican government and creating a California Republic. Known to history as the Bear Flag Revolt, its leaders captured Sonoma, arrested Mariano and three others, sent those men eighty miles away to Sutter’s Fort for detention, and occupied the little village for 25 days overall. Francisca was frantic during this time, and even years later the word “bear” caused her distress.


In early July, the Bear Flaggers’ reign was eclipsed by the arrival of the U.S. Navy bringing the Mexican-American War to California. When the Stars and Stripes was raised over the Sonoma Plaza on July 9, 1846—even though Mariano was still imprisoned—no one was more elated than Doña Francisca Vallejo, who knew that American acquisition of California was one of her husband’s most cherished dreams. Francisca threw open her house, extending gracious hospitality to all. An American serviceman described her as “very fat, but still with evidence of much beauty.” Prominent immigrant Edwin Bryant, who saw her not long afterward, chose to describe her as “an individual of charming personal appearance … who possessed the highest degree of natural grace, ease and warmth of manners.”


Mariano Vallejo came home in August, 1846. In May, 1847, along with two partners, he founded a new city. He would have named it “Francisca,” for his wife, except that the little seaport settlement of Yerba Buena had already changed its name to San Francisco. Instead, he named it “Benicia,” Doña Vallejo’s second name.  


In the 1850s the Vallejos established another estate in Sonoma, where the last three of their children were born. They named it Lachryma Montis, a Latin translation of the Indian name for the free-flowing spring on the property; and they lived there from 1852 until their deaths in the 1890s. The house was a two-story, wood-frame, prefabricated structure designed and built in the eastern United States, then shipped around Cape Horn. After reassembly on site, the structure was replete with marble fireplaces, crystal chandeliers, and a piano imported from Europe.


It was the scene of many grand parties, at least until one economic setback after another forced them to live more quietly. In her later years Francisca, who once had a large household of servants, oversaw the house and grounds with little help other than two cooks.


Francisca Benicia Carrillo de Vallejo died there on January 30, 1891, a year and 12 days after the death of her husband on January 18, 1890.


March is National Women’s History Month.

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