SAN DIEGO — In the late 1820s a beautiful, stubborn, adventurous girl, Josefa Carillo, visited the trading ship Marie Ester in the San Diego port. She intended to find material for a new dress as she boarded the ship with her cousin, Pio Pico.
The captain of the Marie Ester was a Bostonian, Henry Delano Fitch (an ancestor of Franklin Delano Roosevelt), and Josefa's sparkling beauty captured the Yankee seaman. It is said she flirted outrageously with him, but when he asked for her hand in marriage, her father refused the captain. Fitch persevered, however, and was baptized into the Catholic religion. The family then relented and allowed the wedding but, as the ceremony started, a messenger from the governor arrived, forbidding the padre to continue, since Fitch was considered a foreigner in California.
Undaunted, the daring sea captain and his bride-to-be plotted with Pico, and one Friday Pico picked up Josefa and took her to the pier to meet Fitch. By the time she was missed at home, the Marie Ester had already sailed for Valparaiso, Chile, where the couple were married.
Today, state historian Alexandra Luberski said, it is estimated that thousands of the descendants of these two and other well-known early San Diegans live in the area. Since 1985, 45 individuals and their families have joined Descendants of Early San Diego Pioneers, a sub-organization of Boosters of Old Town, sponsored by the state Parks and Recreation Department.
The 12 remaining historic houses in Old Town have real meaning for these descendants, in the form of stories their families have told them about life in the area before 1872, when New Town, in the present-day Horton Plaza area, began to grow.
Luberski, a historian for the Department of Parks and Recreation, organized the group of descendants in 1980 while she worked in the state's regional office in Old Town.
"During that time I often heard people say things like, 'My great-great-grandmother lived here, referring to the Estudillo house, or 'My mother once told me. . . .'
"I thought, I've got to get these people together. They should meet. So, I did a small mailer, and pulled together the first Descendants' Day."
The people who came to that first Descendants' Day either carried the names of or were related to the prominent families in San Diego's early history (before 1872)--Lopez, Cabrillo, Bandini, Estudillo, Pico, Machado--as well as Philip Crosthwaite (an important landowner who had fought in the Battle of San Pasqual on Dec. 6, 1846), and Robert Decatur Israel (the city's last lighthouse keeper).
The descendants' group is open to those San Diegans whose ancestors lived in San Diego before 1872--as well as anyone interested in the history of the city (historians, archivists, genealogists).
According to Luberski, a new interest in heritage has been evident since "Roots" and America's Bicentennial.
"I wanted to help families with genealogy, to investigate family history, and to provide resource people to answer questions. For example, one year I invited Sister Catherine Louise La Coste to speak. She is an archivist for the Catholic Church at USD (University of San Diego).
"Most of the early families were rooted in Catholicism, so the family history is recorded in church records. The non-Catholic men who came to California during that period married California girls and became Catholic."
Descendants' Day is held the second Sunday in June (this year on June 14), and there are other activities during the year. Many members of the descendants group also belong to the San Diego Genealogical Society and Boosters of Old Town (who are sponsoring Evening in Old Town, featuring tours, dinner and a melodrama, on Saturday.
The goals of the group are to promote public awareness and interest in the heritage of early San Diego, to clarify misinformation about all eras of San Diego history, to organize gatherings of descendants to exchange information, to renew or create family ties, to assist and encourage the writings of biographies as a part of the family genealogy, and to conduct oral history interviews on family histories.
Some of the family histories have been documented. Students of Richard Griswold de Castillo, a professor of history at San Diego State University, have helped with oral history projects, including one of Joseph Montijo, 82, of Old Town.
An article about Prudencia Vallejo Lopez de Moreno, on file at the San Diego Historical Society, has been written by Helen Pearl Mygrant Long, a member of the descendants group. Long wrote the biography of her great-grandmother before she joined the group. Prudencia was born in Old Town in 1832, and was the great-granddaughter of Juan Francisco Lopez (he came to Alta California with Father Serra's expedition).