The establishment of Villa de Branciforte as a civil settlement, as well as the creation of the Los Angeles and San Jose settlements, is a unique occurrence in Spanish colonial history. Unlike the Missions, these were established by and for civilians. However, the secular side of the California history during the late 18th and early 19th centuries has been overshadowed by a predominant focus on the Missions history.

The secular history of Alta California is an important part of California's connection to the westward expansion of European culture, as well as the foundation of California's Hispanic traditions.

Villa de Branciforte witnessed far greater cultural diversity, individual freedom, democracy and free enterprise than were found in Spain, Mexico or in the California Missions. The settlement was independent from the Church and the settlers at Villa de Branciforte were often at odds with Mission Santa Cruz. The colonists were a collection of merchants, explorers and retired soldiers.

They arrived with little more than their bare hands to work with and were able to sustain the colony for generations, with little support from Spain or Mexico. They settled the County, developed its industries and pushed for greater autonomy, while remaining independent, mirroring the strong entrepreneurial traditions of many modern emigrants.

Population waxed and waned, in a time of considerable social upheaval, with ownership of California shifting from Spain to Mexico and finally the USA, and politics dominated by the Crown, the Alcaldes and the Dons. The secular colony struggled at times, thrived at others and took part in events that are of local, statewide, and national significance.

Villa de Branciforte was annexed to the city of Santa Cruz in 1905, and is known today as East Santa Cruz.


By Margaret Koch

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, and in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, November 16, 1975.

There was a day when race horses thundered the dusty length of North Branciforte Avenue to the cheers and shouts of enthusiastic crowds...

In that day, before pavement, about 170 years ago, the street was a racetrack for Villa de Branciforte. Lining it on both sides were small adobe houses Spain controlled the Alta California coastal areas and Mission Santa Cruz had been established by the Franciscan Padres in 1793 94.

The Villa de Branciforte was one of three civil settlements in Alta California; the others were Los Angeles and San Jose. The Villa had been established by Spain to foil possible colonization attempts by Russia, England and France. Spain had no intention of losing her foothold in the "new world."

In 1796 97 Lt. Alberto de Cordova, a Spanish engineer, and Governor Diego de Borica, came to Mission Santa Cruz to confirm the site across the river from the villa. It was to be named for Viceroy Branciforte of Mexico.

In July of 1797, eight (or nine) settlers arrived from Guadalajara. Cordova's plan had called for the expenditure of more then 23,000 pesos which was not done. Settlers also had been promised adobe homes which did not materialize and payments of 430 pesos over a period of five years.

One year later the first settlers, who were by the way, refugees from Mexican law, told

to "colonize or go to jail," young Spanish soldiers began arriving. They had completed 10 years of duty with the military and were encouraged to settle at the Villa de Branciforte.

Life at the Villa and life at Santa Cruz Mission were very different. The Mission padres taught the Indians to plant and sow crops, to weave, to work leather, to build adobes and do all sorts of useftil things. They instructed them in religion and lengthy prayers were held several times daily. Work and church were the routine.

Across the San Lorenzo River at the Villa, life was exciting and colorful. There were fiestas and fandangos, aguardiente flowed like water, gambling was popular, bear and bull fights were wild and horse races went on even on Sundays much to the shock and indignation of the padres. At the Villa, the motto was "Pleasure Before Business."

The pious padres disapproved almost everything the Villa residents did, and the animosity grew by leaps and bounds between the Mission and the Villa. These worldly pleasures must have been hard on the Indians because several of their traditional tribal games were based on a kind of gambling. When they left the Mission fields and orchards to join the noisy fun at the Villa, they were punished by the padres.

The padres protested to the Spanish authorities, then to the Mexican authorities, but in vain. In 1816, a half hearted attempt was made to tighten regulations at carefree Villa de Branciforte. From headquarters in Monterey can the following:

"All persons must attend Mass and respond in a loud voice, and if any persons fail to do so, without good cause, they will be put in stocks for three hours." "Living in adultery, gaming and drunkenness will not be allowed and he who commits such vices shall be punished. . . "

The Villa centered right where Branciforte Elementary School is located today, on North Branciforte Avenue at Water Street. The State Historical monument is at the comer there.

The Villa boundaries reached to Seabright on the south, De Lavega Park on the north, Branciforte Creek to the west and Morrissey Boulevard in the east. By 1822 their was a population of 120 in the Villa according to Leon Rowland's Annals of Santa Cruz.

But Villa cattle and horses ranged far and wide, creating further problems and hard feelings with Mission Santa Cruz whose herds also ranged far and wide.

When Mission Santa Cruz was secularized in 1833-34, the Villa maintained it separate identity as a political entity until about 1850, and as a township for around 55 years. It was called "Spanish Town" by old time Santa Cruzans. Then in later years, it was known as East Santa Cruz.

American squatters (a legal description) settled and held lands there, resulting in a snarl of legal disputes in the 1860's.

In 1905, the Villa was annexed to the City of Santa Cruz. The bronze plaque that marks one of Santa Cruz County's most interesting historical sites was placed by the State of California in 1950.

By Phil Reader

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.

Under the flag of Spain, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo explores the west coast of North America.

The crown sponsored Manila Galleons, from New Spain, begin their yearly trans Pacific voyages of commerce to the Philippines. On the return trip they pass down the coastline to Acapulco.

Merchant Adventurer Sebastian Rodriguez Cermeno successfully explores the California for an acceptable port of call for the Manila Galleons.

Sebastian Vizcaino, also in search of a good harbor, discovers Monterey Bay. His discovery sets the scene for the settlement of the Alta California Region.

Father Junipero Serra and Captain Gaspar de Portola begin land based exploration and settlement of Alta California.

May 5, The Nootka Incident - Fearing the loss of the Nootka harbor, strategically located near Vancouver Island, the Spanish government dispatched two vessels to the area. Upon arrival they find five ships already there. Two British, two American and one Portuguese. Esteban Martinez, the Spanish Captain quickly captures the two British ships which leads to the threat of war between the two old adversaries.

October 28, A costly war was averted my the compromises which were reached at the "Nootka Convention." Under the terms which were finally agreed upon on April 2, 1894, both nations should have access to the Nootka Sound, but Britain could not enter upon or establish any bases in Alta California. But Spain continued to view the British intentions in the Pacific region with a great deal of suspicion.

Miguel de la Grua Talamanca, the Marques de Branciforte become the Viceroy of New Spain. Like his predecessors he is acutely aware of the vulnerability of Spain's Alta California Province. With this in mind, he sets about planning for the defense of the region.

October 17, Miguel Costanso, a military engineer with geographical knowledge of the area, sends a letter to Branciforte containing a plan for the bolstering of California's military defenses - including the suggestion of settling retired soldiers in a new Villa there.

January to June, Lieutenant Alberto de Cordova, and Diego de Borica, Governor of Alta California, seek out an appropriate site for the villa, which is to be named in honor of Viceroy Branciforte. They investigate several possible locations among them, one at Alameda, one near the presidio at San Francisco and a third on the east bank of the San Lorenzo river across from the Santa Cruz mission.

August 4, Governor Borica reports to the Viceroy that the Santa Cruz side is best suited for settlement and that the "Villa de Branciforte" be established there.

February 25, Viceroy Branciforte order the establishment of the villa on the bluff above the San Lorenzo river. The recruitment of settlers for the new villa begins in New Spain.

May 12, The first group of colonists from Guadalajara, ragged, destitute and in ill health arrive at Monterey aboard the Concepcion. Seventeen persons in all - some of them had been convicted of petty crimes. It would be a month before they are able to continue their journey.

July 24, Governor Diego de Borica formally dedicates the Villa de Branciforte at the site. At the same time Gabriel Moraga was appointed the villa's first Comisionado. Soon two other groups of settlers joined the new community.

August, Lieutenant Cordova surveyed the area and estimated the expense for the establishing the villa would amount to $23, 405, a staggering sum for the time. Also at this time, religious authorities from the California mission chain sent a protest to the Viceroy deploring the founding of a secular settlement so near Mission Santa Cruz.

December, Comisionado Moraga reported that the colonists were making steady progress with planting wheat and fencing their fields. As well as civic improvements such as bridges and pathways. Although they were too busy to improve the temporary thatched roofed houses which had been built for them before the arrival. Meanwhile, promised aid to the settlers was agonizingly slow in arriving. In 1897, forty people were living in the villa.

August 28, Twenty two more convicts arrive at Monterey from Guanajuato. Six of this number were assigned to Branciforte.

September, The pioneers or "probadores" were joined by a contingent of six young "invalidos," soldiers who had served out ten years enlistment in the army. This was the type of settler which Governor Borica had hoped to attract. They had military training and could help carry out his scheme of building up a population that could be called upon to defend the coast. Paramount among this group was Jose Antonio Rodriguez and Joaquin Castro, whose descendants were to play a prominent role in the development of the region. Also arriving at this time was Sargent Marcelino Brovo, another influential figure in the early history of Villa de Branciforte.

The population had jumped to seventy. Journeys for purposes of pleasure outside of Branciforte were forbidden without a travel pass.
November 28, Newly appointed comisionado Ignacio Vallejo took a census and reported there there were now twenty retired soldiers living at Villa de Branciforte. A total population of eighty-three.

The population of the Villa reaches a high of one hundred seven.

December 11, The Viceroy orders the suspension of all aid to Branciforte. Effectively forcing the settlers to go it alone on the frontier. During this year an attempt was made to establish a civil government when Jose Vincente Mojica was elected alcalde and Fermin Cordero and Tomas Prado were elected rigidores.

1800 1807 There was a series of disputes over land at Branciforte pitting the Villa against the mission. In 1803, Marcelino Brovo filed suit asking for land on which to run his herd of cattle. He was joined in the suit by a group of five other invalidos. Brovo would die before permission was finally granted.

The population of Branciforte plummets young "invalidos," soldiers who had to forty one.

The local government experiment lapsed after three years. Felipe Hernandez was the last alcalde; thereafter and until 1822, a comisionado was the only authority. Population: thirty-one.

The padres and mission authorities deems that the common lands of the Villa extend as far as the Soquel River, but not beyond. Population of the Villa was reported at only seventeen.
Population is back up to forty six.

Governor Sola orders the rounding up all cattle for the purpose of identification and inventorying. This is the first "rodeo" held in the Branciforte region.

November 21, The Argentina insurgent Hypolite Bouchard sacks and burns the Alta California capital of Monterey. Governor Sola orders Padre Ramon Olbes to abandon Mission Santa Cruz, and flee with his neophytes to Santa Clara. At the same time, he asks Branciforte Comisionado Joaquin Buelna to remove all of the valuables from the mission in case Bouchard should turn his attention to that mission. Buelna carried out his assignment, keeping an inventory of goods as he did so. He was joined in his efforts by Majordomo Joaquin Castro. But group of ruffians broke into the mission storehouse and made off with some of the goods. Upon his return Olbes flew into a towering rage and wrote the governor charzing Buelna with the theft of mission property A three month investigation cleared Comisionado Buelna of all charges and emotions soon died down.

A huge flood inundates the Branciforte Creek San Lorenzo River delta bottom lands. Raging waters completely cover the area between Mission Hill and the Branciforte bluffs.

The population of the Villa rebounds to one hundred and six.

The population had reached one hundred and twenty two and the succession of alcaldes was resumed, changing yearly. However the population was too small to entitle it to a ayuntamiento, (municipality) it was placed under the jurisdiction of the presidio of San Francisco. In 1828 it was transferred to Monterey.

November, The Russian Jose Bolcoff settles at Branciforte. Bolcoff, along with Joaquin Buelna were the two most dominant figures in the history of the Villa.

1821 1822
A series of revolutions in New Spain brings about the creations of the modern state of Mexico, with Alta California as its northern most province.

Foreigners begin to arrive at the Villa. Thomas Doak, the first American settler in California appears at Branciforte.

1820 1840
The development and growth of the "Hide and Tallow" industry takes place. It quickly becomes the basis of all commerce in Alta California.

Four other "foreigners" arrive. Julian Wilson, a Virginian, the Buckle Brothers and William Trevethan, all Englishmen.

The population of Villa de Branciforte is listed one hundred and fifty.

November, The first Mexican land grant in the Branciforte jurisdiction occurred when Joaquin Castro received Rancho San Andres. Other grants quickly followed.

A population level of 210 is reached.
August 9, Secularization of Mission Santa Cruz is begun at the direction of Governor Jose Figueroa. Branciforte and the mission were merged under the name Pueblo de Figueroa, but the name never caught on. Ignacio del Valle was appointed Comisionado. Valle brought about a number of civic improvements including the construction of governmental offices and a school.

November, Young Californios Juan B. Alvarado and Jose Castro lead an insurrection against Mexico, declaring California a free and sovereign state. One third of Alvarados army was made up of American sharpshooters lead by Isaac Graham. The revolt ended when the authorities in Mexico appointed Alvarado governor of Alta California.

A smallpox epidemic sweeps through the region.

August 1, Brancifortean Eugenio Soto's arrow riddled body was found hanging from a tree near Mission Hill during time when there were many reported Indian outrages in the region.

April 19, A group of young Branciforteans, including several sons of Branciforte pioneer Jose Antonio Robles, had been running wildly around the countryside stealing horses and raising havoc and attracting the eye of the young ladies of the villa. They defied authorities so often that a band of them were were rounded up, fastened together by a rope and were marched off to San Juan Bautista. As horsemen they felt insulted and humiliated by being force to walk. Defiantly they refused to comply with their guards orders. Avelino Robles tore off his shirt and flung it at the soldiers. In response, they opened fire. Avelino was shot dead and his brother Nicholas wounded.

April, Governor Alvarado, never fully trusting Isaac Graham and his men, orders the arrest and deportation of all of the foreigners at Branciforte. They are taken to Monterey and placed aboard ship and sent into exile in Mexico.

July, After their return from exile Graham and his group settle in the Zayante region where they established a lumber mill, distillery, etc.

February 11, Fulgencio Robles, another of the wild Robles boys, was shot and killed when he rode his horse into a Branciforte adobe where a group of men were drinking and gambling. Gil Sanchez, the man who killed Robles was exiled from the area for a year.

October 19, Commodore Thomas A. Catesby Jones, falsely convinced that The United States was a war with Mexico, sailed into Monterey Bay and landed his men at the capital. Hearing this Branciforte shopkeeper Josiah Belden hoisted the stars and Stripes on a flag pole in front of his place of business. Two day later after being made aware of his mistake Belden sheepishly hauled down the flag.

A "padron" or census taken in the fall gives the names of 470 residents of Branciforte and the Santa Cruz area including 80 foreigners.

Political turmoil in Alta California and war between Mexico and the United States bring about instability in the Province.

July 7, The American flag is raised in Monterey, marking the shift of power in the region from Mexico to the United States.

About the Author:
Phil Reader is a historical and genealogical researcher. Five generations of his family have lived in Santa Cruz County. He has written several works on local history with a focus on Live Oak, Law and Order in early Santa Cruz County, and biographies of African-American pioneers of Santa Cruz County. Phil is also co-author of the Santa Cruz County History Journal, Issue Number 3, Special Branciforte Edition, The Museum of Art & History @ the McPherson Center, Santa Cruz, 1997. Phil Reader is a member of the advisory committee of the Villa de Branciforte Preservation Society.


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