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JAUNTS: Ventura County

Historical Footnote

Downtown walking tour to recount obscure Battle of San Buenaventura.

April 16, 1998|JANE HULSE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

As battles go, the Battle of San Buenaventura failed to make it into many history books. In fact, few Venturans know about this quirky skirmish of 1838 that emptied the mission of wine, and left its thick adobe walls pockmarked by cannon fire.

Now, 160 years later, city historian Richard Senate is revisiting this "mini-civil war" during a two-hour downtown walking tour Saturday, from 1 to 3 p.m. Cost is $6 for the city-sponsored event.

The so-called battle--almost comic in retrospect, according to Senate--took place when the territory of California was part of Mexico. It was a confusing time, politically, because two rival governors claimed leadership over the territory.

It all came to a head March 27, 1838, in a two-day siege of the old mission. During Senate's tour, he will walk participants through the engagement, starting at Ventura's Albinger Archaeological Museum, which displays one of the six-pound cannonballs that pelted the mission.

"It must have been pretty astounding," Senate said. Three cannons fired on the mission that day. "Twenty years later, a cannonball was pulled out of the walls."

It all started before California was a state, when this huge territory was isolated from the central government in Mexico City. Juan B. Alvarado was governor, sitting in what was then the administrative capital in far-away Monterey.

But things went haywire when Mexico named Carlos Carrillo, former administrator of Mission San Buenaventura, governor in 1837. Carrillo's plan was to move the capital to Los Angeles.

Alvarado balked, refusing to recognize Carrillo's appointment. When a flurry of letters and proclamations failed to solve the dispute, it was clear the two sides would come to blows.

Ventura and Santa Barbara represented a dividing line of sorts. Those in Santa Barbara and north were loyal to Alvarado, and those in Ventura and south sided with Carrillo and the move to bring the capital closer to Mexico City.

The Rincon, along Ventura County's coast, was a crucial passage at the time. "It was believed that whoever held the Rincon pass could control the state," Senate wrote in a booklet about the battle, published last summer. "The old Mission San Buenaventura was forever linked to the pass along the coast and those who desired to hold it."

The mission, established by Father Junipero Serra in 1782, was home to about 300 people at the time, Senate said. In addition to the adobe church built in 1809, the complex included a cemetery, housing for Chumash members as well as the padres, a granary, vineyard, orchard, laundry, tannery and hospice.

When Carrillo's forces failed to seize Santa Barbara, they returned to Ventura and retreated behind the thick walls of the mission to await an attack by Alvarado's forces. They left the complex unguarded and consumed the mission's supply of wine, Senate said.

Meanwhile, Alvarado's troops, led by Gen. Jose Castro, had picked up additional soldiers at the Santa Barbara Presidio, along with three cannons. The force of about 100 men marched on to Ventura and surrounded the mission complex while Carrillo's troops, led by Juan Castaneda, slept.

Castro's army cut off the water supply to the mission and stole the southerners' horses.

The next day, Castro demanded surrender in a couple of notes addressed to the forces inside the mission. Their third refusal, according to Senate, included the invitation to "Do as you please!"

As the battle heated up, the north suffered the first--and only--casualty of the siege. A sharpshooter with a rifle in the mission's bell tower killed one of Alvarado's soldiers, a father of seven.

"They didn't want to kill anyone," Senate said. "He was killed by mistake." Californians didn't want bloody battles that would diminish their numbers, "so battles became mere rituals of military bravado--lots of color, loud speeches and louder cannon, but few if any casualties," he wrote.

"When people were slain on the field of battle, there was great remorse, no matter on what side he served."

The fatality inflamed the northerners who directed cannons on the mission throughout the day. "But it wasn't done with the same murderous intent of the American Civil War," Senate said. The shots were spaced out so the cannon could cool off between firings. During those breaks, the men would relax and drink.

The cannon fire continued into the next day, but eventually an Indian came out of the mission complex and explained to the northerners that it was pointless to continue the siege because the troops had slipped out of town on foot the night before.

About 70 were captured at a spring in Saticoy where they were soaking their feet. Most of them switched loyalties at that point, Senate said, and joined the northern troops in the march south, where Alvarado's side was eventually victorious.

Alvarado had had hopes of making California an independent nation, and he had even gone so far as to have a special flag made for that purpose. The red, white and green flag was flown briefly only once, Senate said, and that was atop San Buenaventura Mission.

BE THERE

"The Battle of San Buenaventura," a walking history tour, will be held Saturday from 1 to 3 p.m., beginning at Albinger Archaeological Museum, 113 E. Main St., Ventura. $6. For information and reservations, call (805) 658-4726.

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