The Facebook messages after Memorial Day were mixed. They ranged from “Happy Memorial Day” to “Thank you, veterans, for your service” to postings of old photos of men and women killed in combat.
A Gold Star mother — her son had been killed in the Long War — complained that a cemetery memorial service started with “Happy Memorial Day!” One Blue Star Navy spouse — her husband is deployed — pointed out that we have Veterans Day to acknowledge the vets and Memorial Day is to remember the fallen. People mean well, but in an era where few Americans serve in the military, we have lost the distinction.
José María Verdugo (1751-1831) never faced these issues. Instead of holidays, Verdugo was given a land deed.
Verdugo enlisted in Baja California’s version of the Spanish Army, the Royal Army of the Presidio of Loreto. In his history, California Pastoral 1769-1848, Hubert Howe Bancroft described Army life. “Each soldier had a broadsword, lance, shield, musket and pistols; six horses, a colt and a mule. One horse was kept constantly saddled and ready day and night.”
In 1769, at the age of 18, Verdugo was part of the famous expedition to the north.
The journey from Loreto in Baja California to San Diego in Alta California was about 300 miles. Verdugo descendants have traced the footsteps. On March 24, 1769, Verdugo, along with his brother, Manuel, joined the first of two overland expeditions. This expedition was called the Rivera expedition and it included a Franciscan priest named Juan Crespi. It was followed by the group led by Gaspar de Portolà and Junípero Serra.
There were three supply ships, but when the Rivera group arrived in San Diego 52 days later, only two were anchored offshore. The third had been lost at sea. By the time Portolà and Serra arrived on July 1, half of the men were dead and most survivors were ill.
As time went on, Spanish settlers began to populate the region. By 1777, Verdugo, now a corporal, was assigned to the San Gabriel Mission as a guard and his parents had moved north from Baja California. Two years later, he married María de la Encarnación López and began his own family.
In 1784, the Army commander granted Verdugo the right to graze cattle and to live on a 36,000-acre parcel called Rancho San Rafael, with boundaries from the Arroyo Seco to San Fernando. In 1798, Verdugo retired from the army and the governor granted him formal title to the parcel. The Verdugo land grant was again acknowledged after Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821.
After his death, two of Verdugo’s children inherited the land. The U.S. ended its war with Mexico in 1848 with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The treaty provided that Alta California would be a U.S. territory but that the Mexican land grants would be honored. Despite these terms, the Verdugo family (and others) ended up in litigation. The years passed and the land, which was given to commemorate a brave soldier’s service, was lost.
We live in a region that was settled by forgotten soldiers. We live in an era of forgotten wars.
Memorial Day was designed to commemorate the fallen. Gold Star. Blue Star. Those on active duty know the difference.
ANITA SUSAN BRENNER is a longtime La Cañada Flintridge resident and an attorney with Law Offices of Torres and Brenner in Pasadena. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @anitabrenner.