Most people living in Los Angeles today have probably never heard of the Expedition of 1781. However, if this expedition had not taken place or fulfilled its objectives, Los Angeles would not have turned 238 years old in September 2019. This expedition of almost a thousand miles founded a small pueblo on the outskirts of the extensive Spanish Empire. That small pueblo, now known as Los Angeles, would eventually form the nucleus of a thriving multi-ethnic, multicultural urban center with a population of almost 10 million people.
Authorization of the Settlement
In 1774, King Carlos III of Spain had authorized the settlement of the California communities we call San Gabriel, Los Angeles, and Santa Barbara. He believed that the establishment of pueblos, missions and presidios in these areas would serve as a bulwark against the looming threat of the Russian and British empires, both of which were moving closer to California.
In December 1779, Viceroy Bucareli and Commandant General de la Croix had approved a proposal by California Governor Felipe de Neve to establish settlements at the sites of present-day Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. Soon after, Fernando Rivera y Moncada, the Lieutenant Governor of California, was appointed to oversee the recruitment of the proposed settlements.
Assembling the Expedition (1779-1781)
In December 1779, Governor de Neve sent an expedition under the command of Captain Rivera into Sinaloa and Sonora to recruit 59 soldiers and 24 families of pobladores (settlers). Of the fifty-nine recruits, thirty-four soldiers were to go to California, while the other twenty-five would fill the places of those soldiers taken from the presidios in Mexico.
Most of the soldiers selected to accompany the settlers on their northward march belonged to a unique breed of Spanish soldiers called los soldados de cuera (the leather-jacket soldiers). Recruited from the poorest classes of Sinaloa and Sonora, these young men were prepared to serve and perhaps die in the service of the Spanish Empire. However, although they served under the flag of Spain, most of them were, in fact, natives of Mexico and of modest, mixed-race origins.
These young soldiers – and the pobladores (settlers) they accompanied – were prepared to take their families with them to this strange, untamed land, uncertain of the challenges that lay ahead. However, with the challenges and uncertainty came great opportunities and we are certain that they were well aware of this.
Requirements of the Recruits
The instructions required that the soldier recruits and the settlers should be “healthy, robust, and without known vice or defect.” Both the soldiers and settlers were to be married men – with families – and should possess “greater strength and endurance for the hardships of frontier service.” Included among the settlers would be a mason, a carpenter, and a blacksmith.
Rivera was to offer prospective colonists daily rations and a monthly salary of 10 pesos for the next three years, as well as “an allowance in clothing and supplies.” The settlers would be granted the use of government land as common pasture and would also be granted an exemption from taxes for five years.
All recruits were required to bind themselves to ten years’ service. It was also hoped that the unmarried female relatives of the pobladores would be encouraged to marry bachelor soldiers already in California. Upon completion of his task, Rivera would assemble the whole company of recruits at Álamos in Sonora. From Álamos the recruits and their families would move on by sea or land. In addition to recruiting soldiers and settlers, Rivera had to purchase equipment and supplies, as well as 961 horses, mules, and donkeys. The animals would be sent north by way of the Gila and Colorado Rivers.
Although he started his search in February 1780, Rivera did not enlist his first settler until May. It was difficult to enlist people for a ten-year commitment to a remote and desolate outpost surrounded by thousands of potentially hostile Indians. Most people realized that getting to California from Sonora and Sinaloa was a long, arduous and dangerous journey. Additionally, rumors were circulating in Sonora that soldiers serving in California were not getting paid their due.
By August 1, 1780, Rivera had recruited only 45 soldiers and seven settlers from Sinaloa and Culiacán. But, by August 25, he was able to recruit eleven farm families (numbering 44 people in all) and 59 soldiers. By November, Captain Rivera had recruited all of the soldiers he needed, but was still short on settlers.
The Expedition Begins
Rivera’s entire expedition of settlers, soldiers, and livestock were assembled at Álamos in January. At this point, he decided to split the expedition into two groups. First, he assigned seventeen of his soldiers under the command of Alferez Ramon Laso de la Vega to accompany the eleven settlers’ families in their march up the Baja Peninsula. This party, under the overall command of Lieutenant José de Zuñiga, left Álamos on February 2, 1781, started northward, and eventually crossed the Gulf of California from Guaymas to Loreto, Baja California. An outbreak of smallpox among the settlers delayed the journey for awhile. Not until August would most of Zuñiga’s party make it to the San Gabriel Mission.
Captain Rivera’s Death
Meanwhile, Captain Rivera on the mainland, accompanied by 42 soldiers and 961 horses and mules, rode north toward the Colorado River. Rivera and his troops arrived in July at the junction of the Gila and Colorado Rivers. At that point, Rivera sent the troops and their families ahead to the San Gabriel Mission. With several men still under his command, Rivera camped on the eastern (Arizona) bank of the Colorado on the night of July 17, 1781 in order to rest and feed his livestock before crossing the Colorado Desert.
However, Rivera’s large herd of cattle and horses caused a great deal of damage to the Indians’ mesquite trees and melon patches. Enraged, the Yuma Indians attacked and massacred Rivera and several of his soldiers. At the same time, the Indians also attacked two nearby pueblos, killing a total of 46 people.
Rivera was 57 when he was slain. He had been a California soldier for 40 years. His widow was left destitute. She was never able to collect any part of Rivera’s last five years of pay, held up as it was by disputes with missionaries and higher civil authorities.
The Arrival in San Gabriel
Fortunately, the thirty-five soldiers and thirty families of the Sonora escort had already arrived safely at the San Gabriel Mission on July 14, 1781. This massacre caused a great deal of trepidation to the Spanish frontier zone. As a result the inland route from Sonora to California was virtually closed for several years.
Having traveled more than 950 miles from their starting point in Sonora, the settlers and soldiers lived at the San Gabriel Mission for several weeks as they made preparations to start their new lives in Los Angeles. At that point, the settlers were only nine miles from their destination (Los Angeles).
The Pueblo of Los Angeles was officially founded on September 4, 1781, when, it is believed, a procession of settlers and soldiers made their way to a location along the Los Angeles River. In actuality, the building of the pueblo may have been a more gradual process.
Although founded in 1781, the small pueblo grew steadily over the decades. The Sinaloans and Sonorans who had contributed so greatly to the establishment and the life of the pueblo continued to play an important role in the growth of Los Angeles. At the following website, one can see the names of the inhabitants of Los Angeles in 1790:
Scanning this list of names, one can easily see that Sinaloans and Sonorans were, by and large, the life-blood of the young pueblo. The passing of two centuries has greatly diminished the influence of Sinaloa and Sonora on the city’s direction, but the Angelinos of today can still appreciate the efforts of these pioneers.
Thomas Workman Temple II, “Soldiers and Settlers of the Expedition of 1781,” Southern California Quarterly, Vol. XV, Part 1 (November 1931).
Marion Parks, “Instructions for the Recruital of Soldiers and Settlers for California – Expedition of 1781,” Southern California Quarterly, Vol. XV, Part II (1931), pp. 189-203.
Jennifer Vo and John P. Schmal, A Mexican-American Family of California: In the Service of Three Flags. Heritage Books, 2004.