Fitch: A dramatic love story
On First Street West, across from the Sonoma Plaza stands, the two-story Leese-Fitch Adobe
California artist Charles Nahl painted this version of Josefa Carrillo being carried to her elopement with Henry Fitch.
Courtesy of Bancroft Library/University of California
On First Street West, across from the Sonoma Plaza stands, the two-story Leese-Fitch Adobe, with its long balcony upstairs and stores below. Jacob B. Leese was a well-known American merchant, who moved from Yerba Buena, married Mariano Vallejo's sister and was appointed Alcalde just before the so-called Bear Flag Revolt. But where did the name Fitch come from?
Actually "Fitch" evokes memory of the most dramatic love story in the days of Old California.
It all began in 1826 in the pueblo of San Diego, then a scattering of adobes occupied primarily by descendants of Spanish families. Josefa Carrillo, just 15-years-old, was the sensually beautiful eldest daughter of Joaquin Carrillo, a military officer, and Maria Lopez Carrillo, both from established Californio families.
When Henry Delano Fitch, the 28-year-old Yankee captain of a trading ship, met Josefa he was immediately smitten. From an old Massachusetts family, Fitch was sailing the West Coast of the New World on behalf of a prosperous Danish merchant and ship owner, Enrique Virmond. It is probable that the Carrillo daughter was first seen by Henry when she was rowed out to his ship, the Maria Ester, to examine fabrics from Asia and Europe suitable for new dresses.
For Fitch, a man of the world, his attraction to the young Josefa, came as a pleasant surprise to him. And the passion Señorita Carrillo felt for the American was fueled by his refined manners and chivalrous treatment of her as a woman to be respected - although in the company of men, he could be a rough-talking mariner. In an interview half a century later, Josefa would rhapsodize over his kindnesses to her. It was not uncommon that women of the Californio elite found American and British manners a welcome contrast to the domineering conduct of many Californio men. On his part, Fitch appreciated Josefa's self-assurance in a feminine package, a characteristic of the Carrillo women.
Their courtship was hampered by his being off at sea for months at a time. In a society in which 15 was a marriageable age for a young woman, time was moving on. When Josefa was 17, the enamored captain followed Mexican protocol by writing to Josefa's parents announcing his honorable intentions and asking her father for her hand in marriage. Joaquin Carrillo promptly gave his approval. But Henry had several hurdles to meet before the wedding could take place. Most of all as a New England Protestant he would have to be baptized as Catholic.
In March 1829, two years after the couple first met, the lovers met with her parents and Fr. Antonio Menéndez, to set the wedding day for April 15, 1829. A trading sail to Valparaiso, Chile, would serve as a honeymoon. The ceremony would be conducted at a temporary altar within the Carrillo home. The day before the wedding date, Fitch was baptized after confession and became a Catholic.
The next day, the Carrillo home was packed with friends and relations, including Josefa's three giggling younger sisters, somber señoras in black, rancheros, soldiers, merchants and cousin Pio Pico (who one day would be the last Mexican governor of California). Before the altar stood the big American and the youthful beauty.
Clad in his special vestments for weddings, Fr. Menéndez had uttered only the opening words of the ritual when Josefa's uncle, Domingo Carrillo, barged into the room and marched up to the altar. In a loud voice he interrupted the priest, "By the order of the Governor you are commanded to halt this ceremony." Uncle Domingo was officially the adjutant to Governor José Maria Echeanedia and had been Henry Fitch's witness when he was accepted as a Catholic. Domingo said he was sorry, but he was obeying official orders.
Amidst the ensuing chaos, the priest slipped off his vestments and left. Josefa gripped Henry's arm, whispering, "Why don't you carry me away, Enrique?"
Among the dispersing guests, Fitch sought out cousin Pio Pico, with whom he had become close friends. Pico was more than happy to help Enrique and Pio's cousin, Josefa. He also would take pleasure in embarrassing the Governor, whom he did not like either personally or politically. Pico quietly told Fitch to go back to his ship, the Buitre, prepare to weigh anchor, and he would deliver Josefa to him. Then appearing to console his cousin, he quietly told the would-be bride to pack a case of clothes, and be ready to leave that night when it was truly dark.
Later, her heart pounding, Josefa found Pico waiting outside with a large horse. He boosted her up into the saddle and climbed on behind. With a bag containing a few dresses and petticoats held in her lap, they galloped to the shore of the bay.
Waiting there was Fitch and a boat manned by six sailors. Pico blessed his cousin and told Enrique, "... take care not to give Josefa reason to regret having joined her lot with yours." Fitch swore that as long he was alive she would be happy, a promise she reported near the end of her life that he had fulfilled.
After a 74-day voyage they reached Valparaiso. As soon as Capt. Fitch could unload his shipment of hides they searched out a priest who married the couple on July 3, 1829. Selling one ship and buying another, the Leonora, for his employer, Fitch traded along the coast for many months, loading up for the California market and switching the ship's flag registration from American to Mexican. When the Fitches made it back to San Diego on July 21, 1830, Josefa was carrying their one-month-old infant son, Enrique, in her arms.
Mother Maria Carrillo and her other daughters came aboard for a happy reunion, cut short by ominous news from Maria. Josefa's father, Joaquin, felt humiliated by the elopement since it looked as if he could not control his own family. In a fit of violent temper he had publicly declared that if she returned he would kill his own daughter to preserve the family honor. Everyone knew that military officer Carrillo kept a musket in the main room of their adobe.
Josefa drew in a deep breath, handed little Enrique to her oldest sister and set off on a brisk walk toward the pueblo. While the other Carrillo girls and several women friends stood nervously outside, she pushed open the wooden door of the Carrillo adobe to face her father sitting at a small desk at the far end of the room. The musket was leaning against the wall within his reach. She called out, "Father, I have returned to San Diego to ask you to forgive me for leaving your home." He scowled in her direction and said nothing.
The young mother dropped to her knees on the pounded dirt floor. Repeating her pleas for forgiveness, she began slowly crawling toward her father. She declared her love and respect for him and said she had disobeyed to avoid the tyrannical rule of the government. When she reached just a yard from his chair, suddenly he stood up, and with tears at the corners of his eyes, he reached down and lifted his daughter into his arms, saying, "I forgive you. It is not your fault that our leaders are despots." Josefa flung open the door where a fearful crowd of women had gathered. The day wound up with a celebratory dance instead of a murder.
New test confronts love-struck couple
When Josefa Carillo returned to San Diego as a bride and mother to receive the forgiveness and blessing of her father, after eloping with Capt. Henry Delano Fitch, her father's embrace was not the only test to confront the love-struck couple.
After sailing up the coast for a week, when the couple berthed the ship at Monterey, an assistant to their old nemesis, Gov. Echeandia, appeared and announced they were both under arrest on the Governor's order. The arrest was based on a summons by the Ecclesiastical Judge of the California Missions, who contended their marriage was not valid and they were living in sin.
Josefa was placed in the home of English-born Juan Cooper and his wife, Encarnacion, younger sister of Mariano Vallejo. Capt. Fitch was held at the port office, under the command of Lt. Vallejo.
As an added torture, the Fitches were kept apart for the three months it took before a hearing could be scheduled at the San Fernando Mission in Southern California. Josefa traveled overland in a coach while Henry went by ship. Once at San Fernando, Josefa and her little son were placed in the home of Capt. William A. Richardson and his wife, Maria Martinez Richardson, who guarded Josefa as if she were a wayward teenager.
The alleged excuses for the latest trouble were that the pastor in Chile who performed the wedding was not from a parish to which they belonged, and the marriage license was badly damaged by water. The church court finally ruled that, despite irregularities, the marriage would be recognized. The Fitches were required to say half a rosary apiece and Henry was ordered to donate a bell to the church (which somehow he forgot). Later, Josefa would declare that the authorities were "more vicious than a water carrier's donkey," and Henry wrote to friends in language not suitable for his wife's eyes, the mildest of which was: "they may go to hell." Years later Henry and Josefa agreed to forgive their oppressors.
Governor Echeandia's motivations for his participation in the repeated persecutions are murky. Josefa was certain that he desired her charms for himself, and he resented that an American whom he did not like would win this delectable prize. Politically he disliked the ease with which Americans and Englishmen like Fitch, Cooper, Richardson and Hartnell would become Mexican citizens and successful businessmen with attractive Californio wives.
The Fitches returned to live in San Diego, where Henry (by then always Enrique) set up a successful trading store and operated a fleet of ships working the ports of the west coast of both North and South America. Josefa gave birth to seven boys and four girls. When her father died in 1836, they moved into the old Carrillo home.
As a prominent citizen Fitch served briefly as San Diego's city attorney (without any legal training) and justice of the peace. When the American military took over during the war with Mexico, they appointed him Alcalde of San Diego.
Meanwhile, in 1832 Josefa's sister Francisca Benicia married the up-and-coming Lt. Mariano G. Vallejo, Henry Fitch's one-time jailer. Vallejo was sent to Sonoma in 1835 to secularize the mission, establish a pueblo and manage 66,000 acres of lands available for grants. Vallejo took care of his widowed mother-in-law Maria Carrillo (for whom the Santa Rosa high school is named) by giving her a land grant of 8,800 acres which is now the city of Santa Rosa, where she arrived by ox cart accompanied by nine of her children.
Gen. Vallejo used his influence with his cousin, Gov. Juan Bautista Alvarado, to obtain a land grant of 48,800 acres, called Sotoyome (supposedly Indian for "handsome place"), for the Fitches. It was north of Santa Rosa, centered on what is now Healdsburg. For several years, Fitch stalled retiring to this attractive country while he pursued other business interests. However, the hide and tallow business, the source of much of his shipping profits, was shrinking, and he had difficulty trying to collect from deadbeats like John Sutter. When California became American territory, and the hub of California's economy shifted to San Francisco in the first wave of the Gold Rush, the Fitches decided it was time to move north.
Josefa joyously looked forward to living close to her mother and her siblings. Her husband welcomed the opportunity to develop the rancho and do business in the burgeoning Bay Area. He even purchased land in San Francisco as a site for a possible mill. The couple set March, 1849 as the target date for moving to the undeveloped rancho.
But tragically it was not to be. The week after Christmas, 1848, Henry was stricken with typhoid fever. Within a few days his weakened condition was complicated by the onset of pneumonia. He died in San Diego on Jan. 13, 1849, just 49-years-old. To add to Josefa's despair, her mother, Maria Carrillo, passed away six weeks later at her home in Santa Rosa. Nevertheless, after settling affairs in San Diego, the intrepid 39-year-old widow Fitch, decided to settle at Sotoyome.
When she reached the pueblo of Sonoma, her brother-in-law, Mariano Vallejo, sold Josefa the two-story adobe which Jacob Leese had built in 1841, and Vallejo had purchased in 1849. This gave her a place to stay while a house overlooking the Russian River was built at Sotoyome, and some cash flow since a portion was rented to Gen. Persifor Smith, West Coast commander of the U. S. Army. The Leese-Fitch adobe was considerably larger than today for it extended to Napa Street and around the corner. After the Army left in 1853 and Josefa moved to her new home, she leased the building to Episcopal Reverend J. L. Ver Mehr for his St. Mary's Academy for Young Ladies. Eventually she sold the building to new owners who turned it into a hotel named Fitch House.
Josefa had to sell off portions of Sotoyome to settle legal problems with squatters, as well as 100 acres auctioned to Harmon Heald in 1856, which became the center of Healdsburg. But she continued to live in her river-side mansion, surrounded by her extended family of children, in-laws and grandchildren until her death in 1893, aged 82.