If you had to guess the occupation of the first rich man in California, what would it be? Gold Rush miner, railroad tycoon, real estate speculator?
In actuality, it was a soldier and former blacksmith named Manuel de Ocio.
It’s not a name most people know, since most people don’t know that Baja California was the original California. In fact, from the first landing of Hernán Cortés in La Paz in 1535 until 1769, it was the only part of California to be settled by European colonizers. In this case, Jesuit missionaries and their attendant support staff, which included a few dozen soldiers to protect them from the native tribes of nomadic hunter-gatherers they were trying to convert, and a few sailors to help ferry needed supplies from mainland México.
Ocio was born in 1700 in Andalusia, Spain, but his first documented presence in peninsular California was in 1733, when he was listed on the presidio rolls at Loreto as a soldier at full pay.
It was the next year, however, that he first stepped into history, helping to save the life of Padre Sigismundo Taraval in Todos Santos, after indigenous Pericúes revolted and killed the Jesuit padres at Santiago (Lorenzo Carranco) and San José del Cabo (Nicolás Tamaral). Ocio and two other soldiers had the foresight to spirit the good father Taraval away before the mission at Todos Santos and that at La Paz were also destroyed during the three-year uprising subsequently known as The Rebellion of the Pericúes.
Life on the peninsular frontier wasn’t all danger, however. In 1741, Ocio was serving at the mission in San Ignacio when a powerful chubasco threw up an enormous quantity of oyster shells onto beaches at the 28th parallel (near the northern border of modern day Baja California Sur).
The local Cochimí tribe knew that Spaniards were fond of shiny pearls, so they decided to barter the information in trade for items they found useful. Ocio was one of a few soldiers to learn the news, but the only one with the experience and connections to truly take advantage of the opportunity. He immediately retired as a soldier and hurried off to Guadalajara (then capital of Nueva Galicia) to acquire everything he would need for a full-scale pearling operation, from canoes to crews and more goods to barter with the Cochimí.
Over the next three years, he would harvest over 400 pounds of pearls. They weren’t the best of quality, but they were enough to make him rich and finance his subsequent investments, which included the first peninsular silver mining operation at Santa Ana – just south of modern day mining towns El Triunfo and San Antonio – a ranching business with up to 16,000 head of cattle at its peak, and a merchant store. He also invested his earnings in real estate, buying at least 14 houses in Guadalajara, which he used for rental income.
Ocio, as the first rich man and the first real taxpayer in California, also acquired the right to impose the “King’s Fifth” on other would-be pearlers. In short, he established a sort of mini business empire in the heart of Jesuit California; which, by the way, brought him continually into conflict and litigation with his former employers over the next 20+ years.
How did he do it? What were the connections that helped him take advantage of a golden opportunity? Well, for starters, he married well.
Here’s the story…
Born in Portugal, Esteban Rodríguez Lorenzo was one of the first men recruited by the Jesuits for their California venture, and was one of the original 10 who landed on the beach in Loreto in 1697. He was captain of the presidio for nearly 40 years, making him the highest ranking secular figure on the peninsula. He was, in effect, both governor and justicia mayor, the chief justice in charge of settling civil disputes.
After briefly resigning his post, Rodríguez returned to the mainland, where he met María de Larrea. The two were married in 1707, and became the first settlers to start a family in California, having seven children. Ocio married the sixth, daughter Rosalía, who was born in 1717. Another daughter, María, married Pedro de la Riva, who became lieutenant of the Escuadra del Sur, the presidio substation established in San José del Cabo in the early 1740s.
These connections were crucial to Ocio’s success. His father-in-law expedited his retirement to pursue his pearling opportunity, and his brother-in-law helped defend the Real de Santa Ana mines against native tribes. Unfortunately, wealth would not bring Ocio happiness. His wife and one of his two sons, Mariano, died within five years of the opening of the mines in 1748.
But Ocio remains a hugely important California historical figure for several reasons. One, he was the first entrepreneur. Two, his money helped finance the settlement of what would become known as Alta California, and eventually the U.S. state of California.
It happened like this…
After the Jesuits were expelled from all Spanish territories in 1767, and the Franciscans installed in California, Ocio paid to have one of his ships bring visitador generál José del Gálvez to California, and hosted Gálvez when he established his headquarters at Santa Ana. It was Gálvez who planned expansion and oversaw the 1769 expedition of Gaspar de Portolá and Junípero Serra into Alta California, which gave birth to a new territory (with devastating consequences for what, after 1804, would come to be known as Baja California).
The consequences for Ocio of this generosity would also prove devastating. He was fleeced in card games by officials of Gálvez and, in 1771, murdered by two of Gálvez’s imported miners, who were in the process of robbing Ocio’s storehouse.
It’s not a storybook ending by any means, but Ocio’s tragic downfall should not obscure the third and most important reason his legacy endures today.
The mines at Real de Santa Ana required a workforce that would eventually reach over 300 people, drawing laborers from the mainland who would not only help populate California, but become the founders of many pioneer peninsular families (like the Cota family), whose descendants are still prominent in Los Cabos today.
In fact, you never know when you might meet one.
Saludos from Co-Founders…
Chris Sands – Writer and Michael Mattos