Finding Your Roots: Pioneer Spanish families in California

By Friends & Neighbors September 15, 2013 00:05

Isabelle-Drown2A tattered old pamphlet with a handwritten index on its stapled cover caught my eye at the De Ferrari Archive in Sonora. I was working with the remarkable collection amassed and donated by County Historian Carlo De Ferrari.

Who wrote it, I wondered, and why did it only include pages 377 to 389? The title, “Pioneer Spanish Families in California: with special reference to the Vallejos,” compelled me to open it. I was helping several people trace their Spanish ancestral lines and thought this might hold important clues.

Thanks to Maggie Durgin, Tuolumne County Library reference librarian, I learned these pages appeared in Century Magazine in 1891, extracted from a book written by Charles Howard Shinn and John T. Doyle and published by Scribner and Co.

Talk about great things coming in small packages. For those descended from California’s pioneer Spanish families, these pages are a gold mine of information: names of some of the original pioneers, where they came from, and how these great families were connected by the marriage of their children. These alliances made the families even more powerful, and many held important offices in California government. According to our little pamphlet:

  • Don José Maria “founded” the Pico family in California in 1782
  • Don Ignacio Soto was the first of his family to arrive, in 1776
  • A wealthy ship owner, Don Aquirre, was a Basque (the region that straddles parts of Spain and France) and was also a California pioneer
  • The Vallejo family traces its origins from soldiers and nobles of Burgos, Spain. The pamphlet’s details about General Ignacio Vicente Vallejo’s courtship and marriage to Maria Antonia Lugo offer a glimpse into the past ways of the Spanish in California.

We are fortunate that General Vallejo and his brother, Don J.J. Vallejo, wrote about their lives and times. These writings are held by the Bancroft Library under “Documents relating to the history of California.”

The pamphlet details 30 prominent families in California during the late 1700s. Included are politicians, merchants and landowners.

Many of the daughters of Spanish pioneers married Americans, as did some of their favored sons, so we have a blend of ethnic backgrounds – always a challenge for genealogists to untangle. And we can only wonder at the number of love stories that bloomed here.

One well-known story is written as a ballad by our own Bret Harte. Concepción Argüello, a 15-year-old known for her beauty, fell in love with a Russian promoter named Nikolai Rezanov. You can learn more online by Googling her name.

Maybe you have heard stories at your grandparents’ knees that you are of the great house of the Moragas. Or that you are a descendant of Don José Maria Pico or other Spanish families. Let’s find them in the online records.

First go to FamilySearch, at Enter the name for which you are searching, along with approximate dates and at least California, Mexico, Spain or Basque for place of birth.

If that doesn’t work, go back to the FamilySearch home page, scroll down Browse by Location, then click on the country you want to search. If you want Spanish records, click on Continental Europe, and on the next screen click on Spain. You will jump to a screen with 40 collections of Spanish research. Click the blue hyperlink of the collection you wish to search. If it has a camera icon beside it, you will be able to see the original record.

You can do the same if you are searching for your Mexican ancestors. When you are at the home page and click on Mexico under Browse by Location, you will find a list of 65 searchable collections. To search for California records, click on United States, then on California to find 25 collections.

Don’t forget to Google your family names – for instance, if you’re looking for the Soto family, just enter “Soto genealogy” in the search field. That name appears more than 100,000 times in U.S. Census records from 1790-1930. Your Soto ancestor may be in there, along with members of his or her family.

Maggie Durgin told me that the entire book, “Pioneer Spanish Families in California: with special reference to the Vallejos,” can be borrowed on interlibrary loan from the Sonora library.

Until next time, happy ancestor hunting!

Genealogy expert Isabelle Drown lives in Sonora. Email her at

Copyright © 2013 Friends and Neighbors Magazine


By Friends & Neighbors September 15, 2013 00:05
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