Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo (1808-1890)
Contributing Editor: Genaro Padilla
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Students' lack of historical knowledge about the U.S.-Mexican War (1846-48), especially events in California, can be a problem. Some historical background needs to be given; Vallejo should be read as a colonized subject. His historical personal narrative gives the Mexican version of events.
Students often wonder why Vallejo seems politically contradictory. They ask whether he wrote other material and are curious about his social position.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Vallejo's sense of betrayal comprises an important and intriguing theme. From the selection one can surmise that he actually favored American annexation of California, but was summarily imprisoned by a group of Americans he refers to as "thieves."
Like Seguin, Mariano Vallejo was born into a prominent family, in his case in Monterey, California. Vallejo early decided to pursue a career in both politics and the military and by age twenty-one had been elected to the territorial legislature and had distinguished himself in various campaigns against the Indians. Again like Seguin, Vallejo supported the American presence in his region, hoping that the yanquis would bring both prosperity and stability. Accordingly, Vallejo became one of the most prominent California supporters of the American annexation of California.
The movement toward American control of California accelerated with the Bear Flag Revolt of 1846. Vallejo was inexplicably taken prisoner by the troops of John C. Frémont and held for two months, an experience that should have raised doubt in Vallejo's mind about his pro-American sympathies. But Vallejo persisted in his allegiance and eventually served in the state's first senate. In the early 1850s he filed for validation of his Mexican land-grants, only to lose much of his property in a ruling by the United States Supreme Court. By the 1860s his fortune and influence had declined considerably, and a wiser Vallejo sat down to compose a "true history" of his territory, free of myths and lies. After a series of mishaps and distractions, he completed his five-volume chronicle and donated it to H. H. Bancroft, the celebrated California historian. Vallejo lived quietly thereafter, tending to the 280 acres of land he had left of his once-vast empire. Like Seguin, he looked back on his support of American expansion with great bitterness.
In "Six Dollars an Ounce," Vallejo writes of an economic revolution that changed California as decisively as San Jacinto changed the course of Texas history. He recounts how the Gold Rush of 1849 threw California into a frenzy. Previously reasonable men gave up respectable trades and careers to pursue the yellow metal. As Vallejo tells it, the Gold Rush unleashed the meanest of human qualities--distrust, avarice, and violence among them--and accelerated the destruction of traditional California culture. In the Americanization of California, Vallejo notes that he witnessed change but not progress.
(Biographical and historical information contributed by Raymund Paredes.)
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
The Vallejo selection should be thought of as autobiographical historiography.
It was written as a revisionist version of historical events that Vallejo wished Americans would hear.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Comparison might be made with Native American orations on tribal displacement, uncertainty, subjugation.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. What is the standard version of the Bear Flag Revolt in California in 1846?
2. How does the Vallejo version humanize the Mexican populace?
Padilla, Genaro M. "The Recovery of Chicano Nineteenth-Century Autobiography." American Quarterly 40, no. 3 (Sept. 1981).
Pitt, Leonard. The Decline of the Californios. Los Angeles: University of California, 1969. A good background history of events during the period.