One-hundred seventy-seven years ago, government authorities rounded up 46 undocumented immigrants from across California, shackled them in leg irons, and crowded them into the hold of a ship which set sail for San Blas, Mexico. Though there was a generous legal immigration policy in place offering a pathway to citizenship, these deportees had chosen to live in California without procuring the required immigration papers. As they sailed sweltering to an uncertain future, the exiles proudly sang their respective national anthems from below deck.
It was California’s first deportation of undocumented immigrants, and – defying our contemporary expectations – the deportees were all American citizens or British subjects, evicted by Mexican authorities. The year then was 1840, and California was still a territorial department of the United Mexican States.
This new take on a dusty old story – the so-called “Graham Affair” – is just one of many engrossing narratives John Mack Faragher weaves into his book “Eternity Street: Violence and Justice in Frontier Los Angeles,” a masterwork of historical scholarship that doubles as a genuine page turner.
As Faragher explains, the Mexican authorities, led by Gov. Juan Bautista Alvarado, had good reason to be suspicious of Alta California’s extranjeros. Just four years prior, locked into a political struggle against Mexico’s conservative, centralist government, Alvarado and his Californio compatriots had enlisted a company of American “Wood Sawyers & Hunters” under the command of Isaac Graham, a onetime fur trapper who operated a grogshop and distillery in Monterey (then California’s capital). With the help of Graham and Los Rifleros Americanos, Alvarado deposed the acting governor and representative of Mexico City, Lt. Col. Nicolás Gutierrez, and declared California “a free and sovereign state.” Now, in 1840, the swelling ranks of these frontiersmen, joined by deserters from the American and British merchant and naval ships that frequented California’s ports, represented a growing threat to Alvarado’s new political order.
Not all Anglos were viewed with such mistrust. Others had complied with Mexico’s immigration rules, which required them to register with the local alcalde. Some, like Abel Stearns, John Rowland, and Jonathan “Don Juan” Temple, converted to Catholicism and adopted Mexican citizenship, which enabled them to marry into elite Californio families and acquire great wealth.
The loyalty of this new wave of settlers, described as “men of a turbulent and undesirable class,” was uncertain.
But the loyalty of this new wave of settlers, whom historian Hubert Howe Bancroft described as “men of a turbulent and undesirable class,” was uncertain. Many had privately hoped that, during the revolt of 1836, California would follow Texas into full-fledged independence from Mexico. Indeed, settlers in the mold of Isaac Graham would later lead the Bear Flag Revolt that, in 1846, set into motion the American conquest of California.
When a rumor that these extranjeros were plotting a revolt found Alvarado’s ear, the governor sprang into action. On April 7, 1840, he ordered the arrest and deportation not only of the alleged plotters but of all extranjeros across California who lacked official papers. He made exceptions for men who had married local women or were employed in an “honorable” occupation, presumably because they were more rooted and thus more trustworthy.
The government chartered a barque, the Joven Guipuzcoana, to transport the deportees to the port at San Blas, Mexico, from where they would march to Tepic to stand trial. On April 24, anchored off Monterey, the ship accepted its first detachment of deportees, along with a military escort. It then sailed to Santa Barbara to collect another 12 undocumented immigrants from southern Alta California, including Los Angeles.
Soon after the Joven Guipuzcoana weighed anchor, Alvarado issued a proclamation. The governor was careful to “recommend… to [Californians’] generosity and friendship those who ought to be considered as Mexicans, and who reside in the country under the protection of its laws” and noted “the hospitality with which [Californians] have always received strangers.” But he denounced the alleged conspirators as “villains,” and announced that they had been deported from California, “together with … a multitude of other foreigners, who were illegally introduced into the country, and who had no other object here but the increase of public disorder.”
As their ship sailed down Mexico’s coast, the 46 foreigners defiantly belted out “Hail Columbia” and “Rule, Britannia!” from their seaborne prison.
The deportees were almost certainly unaware that ensuing events would allow their story to be told, 177 years later, with a rich sense of irony.
They were probably unaware that their plight would spark a major international incident; ultimately, under diplomatic pressure from the British government (which then truly “ruled the waves”) Mexico's central government was forced to release the detainees and return them to California.
The deportees were almost certainly unaware that ensuing events – shifting borders; massive influxes first of white Anglos and then of Latinos to California; the election of a U.S. president openly hostile to Mexican immigrants – would allow their story to be told, 177 years later, with a rich sense of irony.