Ex-Pirate Evolved Into a Leading Citizen
He was a New England Yankee who arrived in California as first mate to the most feared pirate ever to ravage the West Coast. When he died 31 years later, he was revered as a uniquely skilled pillar of the tiny City of the Angels and the builder of its most enduring public structure.
Dubbed a “miracle worker” by the Franciscan padres who first employed him, Joseph Chapman--Los Angeles’ first U.S. resident--used his abilities as a craftsman and engineer to build the city’s first church, many of its finest adobe houses, a grist mill in San Gabriel, another mill at Mission Santa Inez, and even a 60-ton schooner, the Guadalupe, which carried the pueblo’s exports to foreign markets.
Chapman’s additional skills as an uncredentialed doctor and dentist won him the padres’ praise as the “most useful man in the pueblo.”
Yet when he first set foot in the frontier town, he was definitely persona non grata--a jailbird.
It was even rumored that he had studied law but gave it up, saying, “Don’t come to God as a lawyer; he prefers honest sinners.”
In 1818, Chapman was an apprentice shipbuilder in his native Boston. But he dreamed of a life at sea and abruptly set sail for Hawaii, then known as the Sandwich Islands. There, he was either shanghaied by or joined the French-Argentine privateer and revolutionary Andre-Paul “Hipolito” de Bouchard, who had undertaken an around-the-world voyage on behalf of Argentina, his newly independent adopted country.
Along with two ships--the Argentina and the Santa Rosa--and a crew of 350 cutthroats, Bouchard carried letters of marque empowering him to plunder Spanish shipping and possessions, including those in California waters.
In Hawaii, Bouchard--who already had captured 26 Spanish ships--plotted a raid on Monterey, the capital of colonial California.
But a spy had informed mainland authorities of the privateer’s plan, and the Californios were ready with a force of 200 Spanish soldiers and Native Americans who were kept at the missions.
They divided their force between Monterey and Santa Barbara, the raiders’ likeliest targets. Coastal residents were warned and sentinels were posted. Women and children were poised to flee, gold and jewels were buried or sent away for safekeeping.
Flying the Argentine flag, Bouchard’s vessels set sail for California, with Chapman second in command aboard the Santa Rosa. With him was Tom Fisher, who would become the first black American to set foot in California. Fisher, too, would stay on, later winning the friendship of Los Angeles’ mayor, Antonio Maria Lugo, by protecting the land baron’s ranchos from horse thieves and cattle rustlers.
On a moonless night in November 1818, the two ships quietly anchored in Monterey Bay. At dawn, the Santa Rosa opened fire, but was soon badly damaged by bombardment from a well-managed shore battery.
Chapman and two other pirates rowed ashore to surrender and were promptly thrown into jail.
Under cover of night, Santa Rosa’s unhurt crewmen jumped overboard from the damaged ship and joined the Argentina, leaving the wounded behind. Bouchard dispatched a letter to the governor of California, demanding his surrender. But when the governor refused, Bouchard opened fire with the Argentina’s 40 guns and sent 300 men storming ashore in longboats, four of them fitted with cannons.
The outnumbered and outgunned Spanish garrison retreated, leaving the three prisoners behind. Within two hours, Bouchard had one prisoner--the town drunk, he later found out--and had taken control of the empty streets.
Over the next two days, the raiders sacked the mission, set fire to buildings and searched for valuables, but the only treasure they uncovered was a cache of fine brandy and wine.
Meanwhile, the Santa Rosa was repaired and Bouchard sailed southward with his two ships. They dropped anchor several miles north of Santa Barbara and came ashore at Don Jose Maria Ortega’s Rancho del Refugio, which had a reputation as a smugglers’ paradise. As the pirates landed, a large group of horsemen, led by Lugo, arrived and quickly captured three pirates. In turn, Bouchard and his remaining marauders destroyed buildings, cut down fruit trees and slashed the throats of fine horses that fell into their hands.
It was all too much for Chapman, whose sense of adventure did not extend to mindless destruction. He gave his shipmates the slip and walked six miles to the Santa Inez Mission, where he surrendered.
Bouchard--still empty-handed--sailed for Santa Barbara to pick up supplies. At Santa Barbara, 30 Spanish soldiers took advantage of a pouring rain to fool the raiders with a clever ruse.
Marching around and around a beach knoll, the soldiers changed their clothes each time they reached the hill’s landward side. Bouchard, peering through the foul weather with his telescope, believed the 30 men were at least 300 strong. The intimidated privateer called a truce, arranged a prisoner exchange--Monterey’s town drunk for three of his pirates--and sailed south, pausing briefly to march inland and sack Mission San Juan Capistrano.
Shortly afterward, “Blond Joe” Chapman--so nicknamed by the Spaniards--was released. Lugo took him under his wing on the American’s promise to supervise a crew of Native Americans building a church at the plaza in Los Angeles.
These Native Americans at first called Chapman “El Diablo” because of his brusque and sometimes abusive language, a peppery mix of English, Spanish and Indian dialect. But in time, they grew to admire and respect him.
The Franciscans also admired Chapman’s skills, but remained frustrated as their attempts to convert the gifted young man were “sunk in the darkness of the Baptist faith.”
After building a grist mill with an innovative vertical waterwheel at the San Gabriel Mission, the padres lent Chapman--still a prisoner--to the Santa Inez Mission, where he built a water-powered fulling mill that beat and pressed cloth. It still stands.
It was there that he met and fell in love with the beautiful 20-year-old Maria Guadalupe Ortega, the daughter of the man who owned Rancho Refugio. She succeeded where the padres had failed, and Chapman converted to Catholicism.
In 1822, just before his marriage to Guadalupe and before Mexico’s independence, Chapman was granted a pardon for his piracy by the king of Spain--perhaps the king’s last official act in California.
Setting up housekeeping in Los Angeles with his new bride, Chapman kept busy crafting flour mills to save women the time they spent grinding corn with traditional stone metates, and building and making repairs to townsfolk’s adobes.
In 1831, when Gov. Manuel Victoria granted him Mexican citizenship, Chapman repaid him by stitching up a face wound he received during a battle at Cahuenga (now the site of Studio City).
That same year, Chapman mollified the padres by building them the city’s first seaworthy vessel, named Guadalupe. It was carried piece by piece to San Pedro, where it was reassembled and launched. Initially, it was used to hunt sea otters and, for many years afterward, shipped Los Angeles’ first exports, including lemonade, to Spain.
Before his death in 1849, Chapman had sparked a building boom: his daughter’s adobe on Haley Street in Santa Barbara; the mill at Mission Santa Inez, and one of Los Angeles’ oldest churches and cherished landmarks, the church of Nuestra Senora la Reina de Los Angeles.