By Jay Rajesh Patel
Tiburcio Tapia was born on April 14, 1789 in San Luis Obispo, California to Jose Bartolome Tapia and Maria Francisca Mauricia Villalobo. Tapia was one of the first of the second-generation Californios of African descent. He became a soldier, politician, and later a merchant, winery owner, and ranch owner of the vast Rancho Cucamonga.
Military Man, Merchant, and Smuggler
Tapia had a successful military career culminating in his appointment as corporal of the guard at Mission de la Purísima Concepción de la Santísima Virgen María, near Lompoc, California. While there, he was able to successfully defend the mission against a native attack. After retiring from military life, he relocated to Los Angeles and became a successful merchant. His store sold items such as brandy, slippers, and imported Chinese silks. Tapia, however, also participated in a gold smuggling operation, which was facilitated by his father, Jose Bartolome Tapia, who was granted the Rancho Topanga Malibu Sequit in 1802. Tiburcio therefore used access to the beach area of the Malibu coastline to illicitly import his goods.
Mayor of Los Angeles and Marriages
In 1830, Tiburcio Tapia was elected by the town council to serve as Mayor of Los Angeles for the year, and Tapia was later re-elected in 1839 and 1840. He served jointly as First and Second Alcalde (mayor) with Jose Sepulveda in 1840. In 1832, he married Maria Juana Tomasa Acebedo and had his first daughter, Maria de la Merced Tapia. Unfortunately, Maria Acebedo passed away on December 10, 1834. Tapia then remarried on July 28, 1837 to Maria “Tomasa” de Jesús Valdez, and they gave birth to Juan de la Cruz Tapia and Jose De Jesús Tapia.
Tiburcio Tapia bought some cattle and needed a place as soon as possible for the animals to graze, so he applied for a Mexican land grant that would issue him 13,045 acres. In 1839, Rancho Cucamonga was granted to Tiburcio by the Mexican governor of California, Juan Bautista Alvarado, long after his family had established roots in Southern California. He quickly transferred his cattle to the rancho, but he faced one issue: an obligation to build a residence on the land within one year. Tapia started building a fort-like adobe on top of Red Hill with the help of local Native Americans. It is called the Tapia Adobe and remains as a tourist destination in present-day San Bernardino County, California. In 1839, Rancho Cucamonga became California’s first winery by planting commercial vineyards.
Settling at Tapia Adobe and Death
On May 31, 1842 Tiburcio was appointed a judge in Los Angeles. A few years later, around 1845, Tiburcio Tapia, worried about the forthcoming conflict between Mexico and the United States over California, secretly buried all his smuggled gold on his Rancho Cucamonga property. He told no one where it was buried and passed away before it was retrieved. On August 24, 1845 Tapia died when he used a knife that he had used to spread poison on a cattle carcass to kill coyotes to cut his own food, thereby accidentally poisoning himself. Rancho Cucamonga was later inherited by his daughter, Maria Merced Tapia de Prudhomme, and her husband, Leon Victor Prudhomme, and they resided in the adobe. She believed that the fortune was buried nearby and even told the story of a ghost-like figure passing through her room occasionally, always stopping in the same place on the wall. Frustrated Leon stabbed the wall and found a hollow spot where a bag of silver coins and a piece of paper had been hidden. Speculation arose that the paper held clues to the jackpot but to this day the gold has not been found.
Hittell, Theodore Henry. History of California. Vol. 2, Pacific Press Publishing House, 1885. Lelande, H. J., et al. “EXTRACTS FROM THE LOS ANGELES ARCHIVES.” Annual Publication of the Historical Society of Southern California, vol. 6, no. 3, 1905, pp. 242–52.
“Los Angeles City Mayors Past to Present.” Mayors of the City of Los Angeles, California, http://www.laalmanac.com/government/gl11.php.
Muckenfuss, Mark. “Rancho Cucamonga: An Old Tale of Smuggler's Gold.” Press Enterprise, Press Enterprise, 6 May 2014, https://www.pe.com/2014/05/06/rancho-cucamonga-an-old- tale-of-smuggler8217s-gold/.
“Tapia, Tiburcio.” TAPIA, Tiburcio b. Abt. 13 Apr 1789 Alta California d. Abt. 24 Aug 1845 Los Angeles, Alta California: Schwald Family Genealogy, https://schwaldfamily.org/getperson.php?personID=I17617&tree=RodSchwald&sitever=st andard.