Woman Helped Bring a Peaceful End to Mexican-American War


Stashed away under a Santa Barbara house, in a long-forgotten chest covered with almost a century's worth of dirt and dust, a curious woman with deep California roots unearthed a rare book. It was California's first schoolbook, "Tablas Para los Ninos," published in 1836 and headed for the auction block this month.

Of the 200 copies printed, only two others are known to exist. One is archived among treasures at the Huntington Library; the other holds a special place at UC Berkeley's Bancroft Library.

The child who owned the 10-page arithmetic book does not stand out in history--but his mother does. She was a broker of peace and architect of the cease-fire agreement that effectively brought California into Yankee hands.

The book's discovery brings to light a true peacemaker and major player who wrote most of the Articles of Capitulation, which ended the Mexican-American War in California. More than a year later, the articles served as a model for the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which gave Texas, California and everything in between to the United States, and which was the nation's only treaty to be written by the losing side.

Bernarda Ruiz de Rodriguez was on the losing side, a Californio Mexican born in 1802. She was the daughter of a sergeant of the Santa Barbara presidio and of an heiress to the prominent Lugo landowning family of Los Angeles.

In 1845, when the California she had known began to fall apart, she was a widow with nine children.

Californios up and down the state were so unhappy with Mexico City's authority that they raised their own army and defeated Mexican federales in the near-bloodless Battle of Cahuenga, which was fought near what is now Universal Studios. The Californios had established their autonomy, at least temporarily.

Bernarda's four eldest sons, who supported the family by running an informal pony express mail service between Santa Barbara and Mexico, were eager to fight. A year later, their chance came. In 1846, the newly autonomous Californios found themselves doing battle with Yankees wanting to take over California.

In December of that year, as the Mexican-American War began heating up on scattered battlefields, the Ruiz de Rodriguez brothers joined other Santa Barbarans and moved south to Los Angeles to fight.

Others headed for the Gaviota Pass to ambush American forces led by Lt. Col. John C. Fremont and his band of nearly 400 freebooters, who were coming to Los Angeles for the battle.

On Christmas Day, Fremont was warned of the plot by a local sea captain who guided them by another route into the undefended town of Santa Barbara. Fremont led a fearsome force of men with heavy black beards, blue flannel shirts, buckskin pants, Bowie knives and guns.

While the Californios lay in wait in the pass, preparing to drop tons of rocks on the American soldiers, Fremont and his troops took control of Santa Barbara, commandeering a herd of fresh horses that belonged to Bernarda.

As Fremont plotted his attack on Los Angeles in the hotel next-door to Bernarda's adobe, she was planning her own strategy to bring peace to both sides--and get her horses back.

Fremont's reputation as an officer and a gentleman was in contradiction to the band of well-armed adventurers that accompanied him. Word circulated among frightened townspeople that he might take revenge on them for the failed ambush, and seize their property.

As the panic-stricken townsfolk huddled in their homes, Bernarda walked next-door to the hotel and confronted Fremont. Because she was the town's matriarch, a woman of influence with important family connections, he promised her 10 minutes of his time.

Diplomatically, as she would later write, she urged him to "go easy on" her people, advising him that a "generous peace," one respecting property rights--including her horses, which Fremont later returned--would be to his political advantage.

Undaunted by the era's barriers to women, she appealed to Fremont's ego and ambition, reasoning that he could gain thousands of loyal allies rather than bitter enemies if he released prisoners, permitted those who did not wish to stay in California to go back to Mexico, granted those who did stay equal rights with U.S. citizens, and pardoned Gen. Andres Pico, commander of the Californios.

The 10 minutes he promised lasted two hours. Bernarda skillfully proved that the pen was mightier than the sword.

At the same time, in Los Angeles the Californios were waving a flag of truce, surrendering their "dear City of Angels." Nonetheless, the Californios refused to yield to Fremont's rivals, Gen. Stephen Watts Kearney and Commodore Robert Stockton, who wanted to hang Pico and his 75 soldiers. Though peace looked possible in Santa Barbara, more bloodshed appeared likely in Los Angeles.

The next day, amid escalating tensions, Bernarda accompanied Fremont south to the San Fernando Mission, where they heard of Kearney's and Stockton's harsh terms, and where angry and embittered Californios were waiting to complain.

Bernarda went alone to Pico's camp and smoothed things over by telling him of the peace agreement she and Fremont had forged.

Pico knew of Fremont's penchant for going over the heads of his superiors, and agreed to meet with him at an already famous spot where two other battles had been fought, an old storage building belonging to the mission. It would later become known as Campo de Cahuenga, the unofficial birthplace of modern California, which stands near the Los Angeles River where Lankershim and Cahuenga boulevards meet.

What happened next, on Jan. 13, 1847, may have lacked the drama of a battle, but there's no denying that it was a momentous event.

Fremont and Pico sat at the treaty table on the adobe's porch, in the pouring January rain. Behind them stood Bernarda. Surrounded by high-ranking officers, she watched in silence as Fremont, Pico and six others signed the Articles of Capitulation, the cease-fire that reflected her thinking and philosophy and became known as the Treaty of Cahuenga.

The agreement, one copy in English and the other in Spanish, ended the war in California--although it continued elsewhere for a year--and became the keystone to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Under that treaty, the United States eventually paid more than $18 million to get control of a half-million square miles of the American West, setting the wheels in motion for California to become part of the United States.

Though Fremont jumped into the spotlight as a peacemaker during his monthlong stint as California's first military governor, Bernarda's catalytic role was lost amid the Yankee fanfare and, later, in the pages of history.

She returned to Santa Barbara, where she lived until her death in 1880, at 78.

Although Bernarda's name is nowhere to be found in the treaty, a fountain at Campo de Cahuenga is dedicated to her triumph. In 1887, seven years after her death and four decades after the Treaty of Cahuenga, Fremont acknowledged in his memoirs that the peace agreement was modeled on her advice.

"I found that her object was to use her influence to put an end to the war, and to do so upon such just and friendly terms of compromise as would make the peace acceptable and enduring," Fremont wrote.

"And she wished me to take into my mind this plan of settlement, to which she would influence her people; meantime, she urged me to hold my hand, so far as possible. Naturally, her character and sound reasoning had its influence with me, and I had no reserves when I assured her I would bear her wishes in mind when the occasion came, and that she might with all confidence speak on this basis with her friends."

Bernarda's son, the textbook's owner, Mariano Rodriguez, later became principal of the Normal School in Monterey and died in Carpinteria in 1897.

Bernarda's great-great-great-granddaughter, Beverly Roland, found the fragile textbook under her mother's Santa Barbara home a few years ago. It was printed by Augustin Vicente Zamorano, the state's first printer, and contains 10 hand-sewn pages and a blue cover and is full of almanac-style tables: how many inches to a foot, how many seconds to a minute, how many tens in a million. The tiny treasure will be auctioned off at John's Western Gallery in San Francisco on May 17.

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