Times Past

He burglarized his father's bank, but later became a respected politician in early California

He burgled his father’s bank but became one of the most respected politicians and jurists in California during the mid-nineteenth century.

Pablo de la Guerra was the eighth of 14 children sired by the man whom most Californians called “El Capitán” during the first decades of the 19th century. José de la Guerra commanded the Santa Barbara Presidio.

The de la Guerras were extremely hospitable people. They entertained virtually every American and European visitor to California during the 1820s and ‘30s.

Along with José Figueroa and Mariano Vallejo, Captain de La Guerra provided the only stable political leadership California enjoyed during the period between the end of Spanish rule and American conquest.

In 1826, El Capitán built the Casa de la Guerra, the largest home in Santa Barbara. The casa had a wooden tower, or altito, where “El Capitan” stored his valuables.

The Casa has been restored to its 1830s appearance by the Santa Barbara Conservancy.

Little Pablo loved to climb the tower. One day, he found a loose shingle. Lifting the shingle, his eyes beheld a chest of gold and silver coins.

Pablo had no idea what the coins were worth. Most economic activity in Alta California was by barter, but he loved the multicolored hues of light that reflected from the shiny surfaces.

The chest was a good 10 feet below the roof. But Pablo was an ingenious youngster.

He climbed down and went in search of a rock and some rope. He went to the nearby beach and found some pizmo – or brea – oozing from the sand. This was tar from an early Santa Barbara oil leak of purely natural origins.

Pablo rolled the rock in the gooey tar. He tied the rope around the sticky rock. He then climbed back up the altito, lifted the loose shingle and lowered the rock to the treasure chest. When he pulled up the rope, many coins stuck to the tar-covered rock.

Pablo did a land office business trading the gold and silver coins for things he wanted from the other children in the pueblo. He traded some coins for a top. Other coins were traded for a beaten-up brass horn and still others for bits of colored glass and beads.

Very shortly, troubled parents were bringing the bartered coins to “El Capitan” in his office at the Presidio’s Commandancía.

José de la Guerra quickly repaired the roof of his altito. He decided that it was time for his son to receive a more disciplined education. Pablo was packed off to Carmel Mission, where he received instruction in the “three R’s” by the padres.

Then he was sent to the adobe of his much older brother-in-law, William P. Hartnell. Hartnell’s short-lived Collegio de San José was located on the Hartnell ranch, southeast of the present town of Salinas.

Hartnell was an English merchant and shipping accountant. He later served as Governor Alvarado’s Visitador general for the missions.

Many wealthy Californios sent their children to the Presbyterian missionary schools in Hawaii, but Hartnell needed his own school. He had 25 children!

Pablo de la Guerra thrived under “Professor Hartnell’s” tutelage. The boy who had started as a burglar became wise and trustworthy beyond his years. By the time Pablo reached his 21st birthday, he was serving as surveyor of customs in Monterey.

In December 1846, John C. Frémont’s battalion captured Santa Barbara. Many older Spanish/Mexican grandees in Santa Barbara, including Pablo’s father, wanted nothing to do with the American occupation.

Pablo acted as an intermediary, and his judicious nature was soon recognized by the Yankee ascendancy in California.

To be continued…

This column is by Dan Krieger. Professor of History, Emeritus at Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo, he is past President of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com.

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