African Californios

Image: Pío Pico, his wife María Ignacia Alverado, and two nieces, Maraneto Alvarado and Trinidad de la Guerra

This website is designed to be a repository for the history of Africans and Afro-descendants in California from the arrival of the Spanish in 1769 to California statehood in 1850. While we are currently still building the site, it will eventually include biographies, photos, sample lesson plans, and, most importantly, a database of all the Californios of African descent from 1769 to 1850. This database has been organized into a massive family tree. These beta versions of these features are available in the tabs above.

Africans and Afro-descendants in California

Scholars readily accept that Afro-descendants populated early Spanish California. Though little work has been done on the topic, often cited are a series of censuses in 1790 of California’s four presidios, San Diego, Santa Barbara, Monterey, and San Francisco, along with its two struggling towns, San Jose and Los Angeles, that identify roughly 19% of their populations as being of African descent. However, scholars believe that this is possibly an undercount.

Of the military companies that entered California during the initial expansion, only one was an all-European unit, the Catalan Volunteers. They however only numbered twenty-five, and twelve of them died even before they reached San Diego. Furthermore, only five stayed after the initial Portolá expedition that was the first to colonize California (1768- 1770). 95 Catalans did then return in 1796, sent there out of fear of a British invasion, but their presence was temporary, and most were withdrawn by 1804-5. Due to the deployment of the companies, the Catalans were mainly concentrated in the northern regions of Alta California around the presidio of San Francisco. Of the other companies mentioned in the historical record, the Company of Loreto and Company of Cuera (the leatherjacket company) as well as the colonist of the Anza and Rivera expeditions, most of these settlers and soldiers were drawn from frontier areas, such as Sonora, Sinaloa, and Baja California, which all had sizable Afro-descendant populations.

Despite the preexisting socio-racial hierarchy, many Afro-descendants, particularly soldiers, were able to rise to great prominence in the chaotic transition from Spanish to Mexican control. They were able to get large land grants in the process of secularizing the California missions after Mexico declared independence (1821). These land grants formed the now famous Ranchos that came to dominate the economic life of California up until the transfer of power to the U.S. after 1848. Prominent Afro-descendants include Manuel Nieto, a soldier from the Portola expedition. He later acquired 158,000 acres in Southern California, which included the area encompassing the modern cities of Long Beach, Huntington Beach, Norwalk, and Downey. At his death in 1804, he was the wealthiest man in California. Tiburcio Tapia, a soldier stationed at Santa Barbara who later commanded the military detail at Lompoc, acquired Rancho Cucamonga, became a judge, served in the California provincial legislature, and was three-time mayor of Los Angeles. Pio Pico became one of the most important players in Mexican and later U.S. controlled California. In 1831, Pio led a rebellion against the Mexico City appointed governor of California, Manual Victoria. After defeating the governor, he was briefly elected territorial governor in 1832. Though his tenure was short, Pico oversaw the transition of mission lands to prominent families of California, including many of African descent.