Times Past

'Isolated from the rest of the world': SLO challenged celebrated early California leader

The “Casa Grande” Courthouse where Judge Pablo de la Guerra held court in 1867 by artist Edward Vischer. It was located on Court Street next to the “Bull and Bear” Plaza in San Luis Obispo.
The “Casa Grande” Courthouse where Judge Pablo de la Guerra held court in 1867 by artist Edward Vischer. It was located on Court Street next to the “Bull and Bear” Plaza in San Luis Obispo.

The following is continued from Dan Krieger's June 10 column, "How a stolen cannon led to a show of leadership from an early politician on the Central Coast."

Gringos tried to take away the citizenship of one of California’s most celebrated leaders in 1869.

By the 1860s, the young boy who raided his father’s treasury at the Santa Barbara presidio had become a distinguished jurist and politician, as a delegate to the California Constitutional Convention in 1849, a State Senator, acting Lt. Governor and District Court Judge for Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo.

to Don Pablo de la Guerra was at home in the gentlemen’s clubs of San Francisco. He regularly showed the more attractive parts of our Golden State to the rich and famous from the eastern establishment to whom he was connected through his sister, Anita de la Guerra Robinson, who had married into Boston and New York’s commercial aristocracy.

Appearance could be deceiving. In 1851, he could accurately declare before the California State Legislature that “of the 113 members in this Legislature, I am the only native of this state…”

As a State Senator, he took it upon himself to try to ameliorate the worst effects of the new American government toward Native Americans, leaving them landless and without representation.

Governor Peter Burnett declared that “warfare would not cease with Native Americans “until the Indian race becomes extinct.”

He alienated Gringo populists when he urged the Legislature to seek an adjustment of the U.S. Land Act of 1851 intended to transfer as many Mexican land grants as possible into the hands of the newly arrived Americans.

They challenged his right to hold public office since Congress had failed formally to grant citizenship to de la Guerra or other Californios. In the landmark case of People v. de la Guerra (1870), the California Supreme Court upheld de la Guerra’s right to run for public office, arguing that when California was admitted as a state, former Mexican nationals became citizens.

San Luis Obispo must have seemed like a primitive place to de la Guerra in the late 1860s and early 70s.

He had been in such places before. He had served five terms in the California state senate. He had attended senate sessions in all four of California’s state capitols: San José, Vallejo, Benicia and Sacramento. He served in legislative sessions disturbed by fire, flood, gunfights and riots.

Now, in 1867, he was in his last tour of public service as presiding judge of California’s First Judicial District. The presiding judge was required to spend several weeks, at least twice a year, hearing cases in San Luis Obispo.

De la Guerra arrived just in time for the feast of St. Louis, the Bishop, our mission and county’s patron saint. He was less than happy with the rancor raised by the fiesta itself in the "Barrio of the Tiger." On Aug. 19, he wrote to one of his daughters:

“This is written in the midst of the noise and uproar of the children, men, oldsters and ladies watching the bullfight. With each turn or gore of the bull, there is a universal shout, and unfortunately, the house in which I write is in the very plaza where the celebration is occurring.”

Five years later, de la Guerra had to attend to court business in San Luis Obispo during the middle of a rainy winter. The roads were nearly impassable, even those between our town and the beach at Avila. The storm abated, and on Jan. 11, 1872, de la Guerra wrote to his wife:

“At last I can write you with some hope that my letter will reach you. I can now get to the beach, and I expect to send you this letter by the first ship that passes by here, although my letter will have to go to San Francisco and then back to you [in Santa Barbara].

“I arrived at the pier (in Avila) on the morning of the 29th after many risks in disembarking. I found I couldn’t get to town because the creek which we usually cross four times en route was without any crossings. Finally, after five days on the beach, I undertook coming here, almost swimming for a mile. All went well except for several frights.

“We haven’t had word from San Francisco since the third. We are so isolated from the rest of the world.”

The next year, de la Guerra resigned from the bench because of ill health. In 1874, he died at the age of 54. He was buried in a bronze casket in the de la Guerra crypt at Mission Santa Barbara, next to his parents and their friend, Governor José Figueroa.

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.