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Founded in 1797, Villa de Branciforte is a unique occurrence in Spanish Colonial history. Unlike the Spanish missions, the Villa was secular, and unlike the other two original secular settlements, the pueblos of Los Angeles and San Jose, Branciforte was a "villa," the only villa to be created during the Spanish Colonial era in California.

The Villa de Branciforte was a hybrid community populated by soldier-settlers and established to colonize and defend Alta California against Russia, England, and France. In 1802, five years after it was founded, the Villa de Branciforte settlers attempted to establish a civil government by electing an alcalde (or mayor), an election that was perhaps the first to be held in Alta California. The settlers were an enterprising and colorful group of people.

We seek recognition and preservation of the unique character and history of the Villa de Branciforte area. This includes the preservation of historical landmarks, the "living history" and diversity of our local architecture with roots in the adobes of the Spanish Colonial period, and significant archaeological features, such as adobe foundations, adobe bricks, roof tiles, burial sites and other archaeological finds pertaining to the early inhabitants of Villa de Branciforte.


by David W. Heron

This article was published in the Santa Cruz County History Journal, Issue Number 3,    Special Branciforte Edition, The Museum of Art & History @ the McPherson Center, Santa Cruz, 1997.

During his tenure as fifty third Viceroy of New Spain, from 11 July 1794 to 31 May 1798, Don Miguel de la Grua Talamanca Branciforte, Marques de Branciforte, did little to endear himself to his subjects. He was off to a slow start when he refused the normal inspection of his personal effects by port authorities in Veracruz, and such was his reputation that people suspected that he planned to sell some of his goods at a profit. (1)

He apparently learned, in fact, that his predecessor, the Conde de Revillagigedo, had written to a relative in Madrid when he heard that Branciforte would succeed him, protesting the appointment. When Branciforte heard this, it confirmed his dislike of Revillagigedo, whom he regarded as ineffectual, gullible and eccentric. Revillagigedo, whom modern writers have judged to be one of the better viceroys of New Spain, nevertheless gave Branciforte the benefit of a detailed report on the state of the missions in Spain's American colonies. (2)

On the other hand Don Miguel's relations, while he was viceroy, with Diego de Borica, governor of California, were considerably more cordial. When Borica proposed in 1796 establishing a new settlement ten leagues north of Monterey, across the San Lorenzo River from the Santa Cruz Mission, he named it Villa de Branciforte. (3)

The choice of the name was not inappropriate. The viceroy took a strong interest in New Spain's military defenses, criticized Revillazizedo's dependence on native troops, and tried wherever possible to staff his military establishment with veterans. He was concerned about the colonies' vulnerability to foreign incursions, and particularly suspicious of the British. In a letter to Manuel Godoy in July 1795 he expressed his fear that Britain would exploit the permissiveness of the 1790 Nootka Convention and colonize the coast of California as well as the Sandwich Islands. Because of these concerns he was committed to increasing the Spanish presence on the central coast of Alta California, and particularly interested in the strength of this presence near Monterey. (4)

Miguel de la Grua Talamanca y Branciforte was born in Sicily, of the prominent Carini family. As a young officer in the Spanish army he married Maria Antonia Godoy y Alvarez, sister of Manuel Godoy, the Duke of Alcudia, favorite of Queen Maria Louisa. H. H. Bancroft attributed Branciforte's noble title, his army commission as captain general, and his viceregency entirely to the good offices of his brotherin law, Godoy, to whom King Carlos IV delegated great power and responsibility. (5)

Branciforte demonstrated his devotion to the throne by commissioning, in 1796, of a large equestrian statue of King Carlos, executed in bronze by the preeminent sculptor Manuel Tolsa, and erected in the Plaza de Armas. (6)
Branciforte's principal assets as viceroy were his cordial relationship with Godoy, his ostentatious allegiance to the throne and the Virgin of Guadalupe, his military acumen, and his willingness to assert his authority.

Branciforte's principal assets as viceroy were his cordial relationship with Godoy, his ostentatious allegiance to the throne and the Virgin of Guadalupe, his military acumen, and his willingness to assert his authority.

The attribute for which he is most criticized was his acquisitiveness. Bancroft asserts that "the main object of the new viceroy was to enrich himself by fair means or foul." (7) When his replacement, Miguel Jose de Azanza, was appointed in the spring of 1798, Branciforte returned to Spain aboard the Monarca with five million pesos in his luggage, three million for the king and two million for himself (Bancroft even questions whether he actually gave three million to the king). The process of collecting this nest egg, including the overt sale of offices, commissions, and other favors, aroused some public criticism. (8)

Another problem was his ostentation, which even for the average viceroy was regarded as excessive. The king had decorated him with the Order of the Golden Fleece, which he wore on most public occasions. Bancroft wrote that his critics circulated caricatures of the viceroy in which a dead cat was substituted for the golden lamb of the actual decoration. It was his custom during receptions at the viceregal palace to remain seated under a canopy, as if enthroned. He was also criticized for his conspicuous adulation of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Not the least of his image problems was that he was of Sicilian birth. Most Spaniards regarded him as a foreigner.

Bancroft recalls Don Miguel's spending some days, toward the end of his term, in Orizaba, in the mountains between Mexico City and Veracruz: "His stay at that town, where he was surrounded by his creatures, was marked by a series of disgraceful orgies ... Never have the people of New Spain complained so bitterly and with so good cause, as against this viceroy, who in after years deserted his sovereign [to serve Joseph Bonaparte] in the hour of his sorest need." (9)

Branciforte was highly critical of some of Revillagigedo's innovations, such as the suggestion box on a city street to receive common peoples' requests and suggestions. Branciforte removed it, saying that all it did was to breed insurrection. He also ordered the arrest of all the Frenchmen living in New Spain and Louisiana, and confiscation of their property. Bancroft said he did this because of disapproval of their revolutionary beliefs and their tendency to gossip about the queen's intimacy with Godoy. It was also, undoubtedly, a source of personal income. After the 1796 Treaty of San Ildefonso ended hostilities between Spain and France, Godoy instructed Branciforte to release the French. Instead of freeing them he apparently turned them over to the inquisition. (10)

The establishment of Villa Branciforte was not an immediate success. The Franciscan fathers at the mission opposed it, it was under funded, and its initial resident volunteers left something to be desired. In 1803 Jose de la Guerra, sent to assess its progress, reported that of its twenty five houses only one was built of adobe, the rest little more than thatched huts. Population fluctuated in the early years, but in 1804 Ignacio Vallejo reported that it was down to thirty one. (11) These kinds of problems may well arise when a new town is named for a foreigner.


1. Bancroft, Hubert Howe, The Histoy of Mexico, San Francisco, A.L. Bancroft & Co, 1885 8, v. 11, pp. 485 90.

2. Bushnell, David, "El Marques de Branciforte," Historia Mexicana, v. 2, no. 7, p. 391, 1952. Bushnell pursued Bancrofts bluntly critical account of Branciforte's tenure to original correspondence in the Archivo General in Mexico City, was somewhat more charitable in his treatment of the marquis than was Bancroft, but admitted "Sin embargo, la opinion desfavorable existe, y es unanime." Also Revillagigedo, Juan Vicente Guemez Pacheco de Padilla Horcasitas y Aguayo, Conde de, Informe sobre las Misiones ... Mexico, Editorialjus, 1966.

3. Guest, Florian, "The Establishment of the Villa de Branciforte," Calilornia Historical Society Quarterly, v. 41, no. 1, March 1962, pp. 36 37.

4. Ibid, pp. 30 33.

5. Bushnell, p.390 and Castaneda Iturbide, Jaime, Gobernantes de la Nueva Espana, Mexico, DF, Coleccion Distrito Federal, 1986, v. 2, p. 125. Castaneda refers to Branciforte as "el siciliano."

6. Cavo, Andres, Los Tres Sighs de Mexico durante d Gobierno Espanol.. 1852, Mejdco, R. Navano, p. 639 40.

7. Bancroft, p. 486 490.

8. Cavo, p. 642, Castaneda, p. 127, and Bancroft, p. 490.

9. Bancroft, p. 486 7.

10. Ibid., p. 488.

11. Guest, p. 46.










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