A story of long-ago failure leads to success

Times Staff Writer

One man couldn't see what was right in front of him. The other had vision despite blindness.

Archibald Gillespie, a 19th-century Marine captain, so misunderstood Mexican culture that he triggered a Los Angeles rebellion during the Mexican-American War.

Werner Marti, his biographer, lost his eyesight in high school but graduated from UCLA. He stumbled upon the papers of the detested Yankee Marine as he searched for a dissertation topic in 1949.

It was a turning point in his career and, posthumously, in that of Gillespie, who had pretty much disappeared from the pages of California history. No paintings or etchings of him survive.

Marti's 1960 biography of Gillespie, "Messenger of Destiny," published by John Howell books, was "a fluke," he said in an interview. "A lovely old colonel interested in military history read my dissertation and sent it in for publication. I never would have done that."

Marti, whose upright bearing makes him seem far younger than his 89 years, became head of the history department at Cal Poly Pomona, retiring in 1977.

Gillespie was a secret agent sent to California by President James K. Polk in 1845. His mission: to ensure that California ended up in the United States. But Gillespie's overbearing bullishness worsened relations between Americans and Mexicans and got him run out of Los Angeles.

On presidential orders, Gillespie sailed into Veracruz, Mexico, in late 1845, disguised as a rich merchant. He was 32, with an excellent record as a Marine officer, a command of the Spanish language and a high recommendation from his superior, Marti says.

While traveling across Mexico on horseback, wearing a "serape and Mexican hat," Gillespie sent lengthy dispatches to Washington. He described the bedraggled condition of Mexican forces in anticipation of eventual battles as "the most miserable troops I have ever seen."

In early 1846, Gillespie sailed to California to convey secret orders. First, he met with the U.S. consul in Monterey, Thomas O. Larkin, to advise him of the possibility of war and instruct him not to give Mexico a "pretext for action." Next, Gillespie went to Oregon to deliver the same message to Army Capt. John C. Fremont, the explorer and mapmaker.

Gillespie, Fremont and a ragtag band of rebels returned to California to seize it. Fremont's insurgents made a rough-and-ready flag from a petticoat, with a crudely drawn grizzly bear -- the precursor to today's state flag. They raised the banner in Sonoma, setting in motion the Bear Flag Revolt and proclaiming California an independent republic. (Fremont and Gillespie weren't present for the flag-raising, but Fremont took credit for it nonetheless.) By July 7, the war with Mexico was on.

Fremont and Gillespie were sent to raise the flag in San Diego with some of their "freebooters," who by now had been mustered into the Army. Then they marched to Los Angeles to meet up with Commodore Robert Stockton.

By mid-August 1846, the American flag flew in Los Angeles; California had fallen to American forces virtually without a shot. Most local Mexicans, who had little allegiance to their distant government, cheered the Americans. Mexican music played in the old plaza for weeks as crowds gathered to celebrate.

Stockton and Fremont left Los Angeles in early September, leaving Gillespie in charge of a 48-man garrison.

Gillespie enforced martial law and a curfew, calling a halt to the parties and music. He sentenced some violators to hard labor "and threw others into the clink for petty thefts," Marti said.

"Gillespie was a military man who simply carried out his superiors' orders," Marti said. "He lacked tact and misunderstood the Mexican culture."

Early on the morning of Sept. 23, 1846, 300 armed Californios surrounded Gillespie's downtown headquarters and demanded his surrender.

Before capitulating, Gillespie secretly dispatched a courier to Stockton with a plea for help. The message was written on cigarette papers and rolled into the courier's curls.

Gillespie himself lowered the U.S. flag and took it with him. He and his men high-tailed it south to San Pedro to await reinforcements, which soon arrived. Mexicans and Americans battled across Southern California for the next three months.

In the final battle for Los Angeles, in what is now the city of Vernon, Americans outnumbered Californios 2 to 1. The Americans won, and the next day the Californios surrendered.

On Jan. 10, 1847, the Americans returned to the pueblo. Fremont arrived the next day. On Jan. 13, near what is now Universal City, he signed the Campo de Cahuenga Treaty, which ended the Mexican-American War in California and paved the way for the state's entry into the Union.

After the war, Gillespie married Elizabeth Duane, daughter of a former U.S. Treasury secretary and a great-granddaughter of Benjamin Franklin, Marti said.

In 1853, plagued by recurring bouts of dysentery, Gillespie resigned from the Marines. The couple separated; Gillespie moved to Sacramento and worked as a notary and private secretary to Gov. John B. Weller.

Gillespie moved to San Francisco around 1869 and died there in 1873, when he was about 60.

At a boardinghouse in Sacramento or San Francisco -- it's unclear which -- he left a trunk of personal papers, including Stockton's handwritten proclamation to the people of Los Angeles when his forces first occupied the pueblo in 1846.

More than 60 years later, the granddaughter of the boardinghouse owner sold Gillespie's papers to a Los Angeles bookseller, who sold them to a historian. When the historian died before writing her book, her estate donated the collection to UCLA.

Marti's story is as remarkable in its own way as Gillespie's. At 16, Marti was playing high school football in Pasadena. This was the era of leather helmets, which offered little protection. After several tackles and blows to the head, Marti's vision began to blur. Within months, he was blind. He never finished high school.

But within five years -- changed and matured by blindness, he believes -- he taught himself to read Braille, tackled UCLA's entrance exams and, in 1939, entered college as a "special" student. "They mostly use that category for athletes who are deficient," Marti quipped.

He later was reclassified as a regular student. "I wanted to be a lawyer," Marti said, "but later changed my mind because I liked history better."

After his 1943 graduation, he attended the Hazel Hurst Seeing Eye dog training center, now Santa Teresita Hospital, in Duarte. There, he and his first guide dog, Taffy, mastered the art of guiding together. He worked as a camp counselor during the summer, where he attracted another counselor -- his future wife, Pat. The couple married in 1944.

While teaching at the private Webb Schools in Claremont, Marti earned his master's degree at the Claremont Colleges, then sought his PhD at UCLA.

In 1953, Marti's dog, Taffy, walked him to the rostrum, where he delivered the UCLA commencement speech about "how this great place of learning accepted students for what they can do, not who they are," Marti recalled.

"He's living proof that talent and persistence can overcome almost any adversity," said Ralph Shaffer, professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly Pomona, who succeeded Marti as department chairman. "No one could ever replace him."

The Martis retired to Bishop and took up cross-country skiing. "Pat would tell me which way to point my skis," Marti said, and away he'd go as she'd call out, "right," "left," and "tree dead ahead."

The couple relocated to Rancho Cucamonga in 2003. Pat died two years later.

Over the years, Marti has owned four guide dogs: Taffy, Mike, Panda and Chris. But, he said, "It was my wife and six children who guided my life."

cecilia.rasmussen@latimes.com

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