Times Past

A polite U.S. military retreat with an apology and dancing

Méxican Governor José Manuel Micheltorena.
Méxican Governor José Manuel Micheltorena. Courtesy photo

On Oct. 19, 1842, U.S. Navy Commodore Thomas ap Catesby Jones launched a “preemptive strike” against Mexican California. He landed a battalion of Marines with fixed bayonets on the shore of the Mexican Presidio in Monterey.

Jones was the commander of the U. S. Pacific Fleet. In September 1842, he was notified by the U.S. consul in Mazatlan that a war with Mexico was imminent.

The American flag was raised, and Monterey was briefly occupied by U.S. forces. Jones had issued strict orders that the civilian population be treated with the greatest respect. Monterey’s shop owners were delighted because the Americans paid in cash without bargaining for a lower price.

Monterey’s citizenry especially loved the U.S. Navy band that played popular music well into the night. Many years later, former California Gov. Juan Bautista Alvarado recalled that “the Fandangos and Bailes were never so grand.”

Meanwhile, Alvarado’s successor as governor, the newly appointed Gen. José Manuel Micheltorena, fumed in Los Angeles. The governor was an appointee of Mexican dictator Antonio López de Santa Anna, the “villain” of the Alamo. Gen. Santa Anna was as unpopular in México as he was in the American-controlled Republic of Texas.

Fearing the loss of California, the dictator’s paranoia caused him to send Micheltorena to California with a small army of 400 newly released convicts from Mexican prisons. Micheltorena wasn’t given sufficient funds for uniforms, weapons or even food for them.

From the time they landed in San Diego, the under-equipped army stole whatever they wanted, greatly angering the Mexican Californios.

Micheltorena threatened to march north to drive the Americans out of Monterey, but didn’t have the resources to launch a real offensive against the well-armed American occupiers.

Meanwhile Commodore Jones learned that a war with Mexico had not broken out. He sent an apology to Gov. Micheltorena in Los Angeles. The Marines lowered the American flag and the USS Cyane sailed away.

Three months later, Jones was given orders from Washington to go to Los Angeles and apologize to the Mexican governor in person.

Jones met over dinner with Micheltorena at the home of American merchant Abel Stearns in Los Angeles on the evening of Jan. 17, 1843.

The following day, Jones met with the governor at his headquarters. Micheltorena sought reparations for the damage done to “the honor of Mexico.” The governor demanded that Jones sign a note committing the United States to supply him with 1,500 military uniforms and weapons, musical instruments for a proper band, and $15,000.

Jones, seeking a delay in the proceedings, asked that Micheltorena provide a written translation. The two men attended a dance that evening. There is no record as to whether or not the Navy band supplied the music.

Two days later, Jones sent Micheltorena a note stating that he found the demands excessive and that he did not have the authority to sign the note. On Jan. 21, 1843, the American squadron departed from San Pedro.

Micheltorena’s demands were never met. Two years later, the much disliked governor was overthrown by Pío de Jesus Pico, the last Mexican governor of California.

Jones was censured and recalled from his command of the Pacific Fleet. But that didn’t end his career. He was soon restored to command and played a major role in restoring the Kingdom of Hawaii, which had been seized by British Capt. Lord George Paulet.

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Readers of Times Past may wish to attend a fascinating presentation by Michele Smith, author of “The Saints of San Simeon,” titled, “Walking in the Footsteps of Father Serra” at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, as part of the Cambria Historical Society Speaker Series. The fee is $10, which can be applied to a $30 membership. For information and reservations, call Penny Church at 927-1442, or e-mail pennylanec@aol.com.

Dan Krieger’s column is special to The Tribune. He is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and past president of the California Mission Studies Association.

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