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How horse stealing brought the Mexican-American War to the Bay Area

On July 9, 1846, two months after President James K. Polk declared war on Mexico, American troops landed at the small Mexican trading post of Yerba Buena and raised the American flag over the old plaza, soon to be called Portsmouth Square.

As the previous Portals explained, most of the local Californios — native Californians, most of them Spanish-speaking — accepted the U.S. occupation and offered no resistance. But a series of outrages eventually led a group of prominent rancheros to rise up in a rebellion, which would climax in the only military engagement fought between Californios and the U.S. military in Northern California during the Mexican-American War.

What goaded the long-suffering rancheros beyond endurance was the rampant, illegal confiscation of their most valuable possession: their horses.

Starting in October 1846, an irregular band of American settlers, led by an ambitious German immigrant playing a double game, began seizing horses and other supplies from ranches across the Bay Area and threatening and abusing the rancheros and their families.

The band’s leader was Carlos Maria Weber, a San Jose resident with an only-in-early-California story. As Dorothy Regnery writes in “The Battle of Santa Clara: The Only Campaign in the Northern California District Between the Californios and the United States Forces During the Mexican War,” Weber was a well-educated Prussian with a taste for revolution. Emigrating from Germany in 1836, he joined in the Texas revolt, then headed to California in 1841.

Weber was granted Mexican citizenship, bought a large ranch and was appointed a captain in the Mexican auxiliary infantry. But he was a closet revolutionary who wanted California to follow in Texas’ footsteps and become an independent nation.

After the Bear Flag Revolt in June 1846, Weber’s anti-Mexican position became known. With his allegiances now out in the open, he was appointed by Commodore Robert Stockton, the senior U.S. military commander in California, to be a sergeant in command of the newly created San Jose militia. His orders were to watch the Californios, not engage in military operations.

But Weber abused his position. He raised a 65-man company that he called the Pueblo Rangers, after the Texas Rangers. Without legal authority, he began to raid Bay Area ranches for horses needed by the U.S. Army, which had suffered reverses in the southern part of the state.

After ravaging the area southeast of San Jose, he and his band headed up the Peninsula, raiding every ranch along the way. On Nov. 7, they rode into Yerba Buena with 70 horses, spent the weekend there, then rode out to raid more ranches.

Trivia time

The previous trivia question: Jan. 3, 1998, was the last time the 49ers played the Minnesota Vikings in the playoffs before the divisional round game Jan. 11. Who was the 49ers’ leading receiver in that game?

Answer: J.J. Stokes, with nine catches.

This week’s trivia question: How many San Francisco homes did builder Fernando Nelson and his sons construct?

Editor’s note

Every corner in San Francisco has an astonishing story to tell. Gary Kamiya’s Portals of the Past tells those lost stories, using a specific location to illuminate San Francisco’s extraordinary history — from the days when giant mammoths wandered through what is now North Beach to the Gold Rush delirium, the dot-com madness and beyond. His column appears every other Saturday.

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The rancheros complained bitterly to U.S. officials, but to no avail. Many Americans recognized that Weber’s heavy-handed campaign was stirring up ill will, but nothing was done as he and his militia seized an estimated 6,000 horses.

Californios who did not willingly yield their horses were abused. A former alcalde was beaten on the streets of San Jose for refusing to give up his saddle. Weber tied one little girl to a stake and threatened to shoot her if her father did not give up his hidden horses.

The rancheros never forgot how they had been treated.

“When interviewing descendants of Californios a century and a half later, one hears the reverberation of handed-down hatred of ‘Americans who robbed in the name of (John C.) Fremont,’” Regnery writes. Fremont encouraged the Bear Flag uprising and was made a commander of U.S. troops in California.

Dolores Martinez was 14 when Weber and 30 other raiders rode to her family’s ranch in what is now Portola Valley. With guns drawn, the men took horses, saddles, guns and blankets, then ordered the women to make them food. This episode filled Martinez with such a hatred of gringos that for a half a century she refused to speak English.

A large ranch south of San Francisco, Rancho Buri-Buri, was particularly hard hit. The head of the ranch was 44-year-old Jose de la Cruz Sanchez. His 40-year-old brother, Francisco Sanchez, had just moved to a new hacienda on the coast — the still-standing Sanchez Adobe in Pacifica. They also had three younger brothers.

Long established and comparatively well-educated, the Sanchezes were widely respected among Californios and foreigners alike. They had accepted the U.S. occupation, but Weber’s raids turned them against the invaders. When U.S. officers in Yerba Buena became so fearful of a (nonexistent) Mexican invasion that they arrested one of the young Sanchez brothers, Manuel, who had come into town to buy goods, the two older brothers were goaded into action.

A rash venture by the recently elected alcalde of Yerba Buena, Washington Bartlett, gave them an opportunity. Bartlett decided to go on a scouting expedition to learn about the supposed Mexican invasion force. Taking six volunteer sailors, he went first to the settlement at Mission Dolores, where he and his men danced all night with the welcoming Californios, and then on to Rancho Buri-Buri.

On Dec. 16, 1846, while Bartlett and his men were watching vaqueros rounding up cattle in the stone corral, the Sanchezes seized them at gunpoint. It was probably retaliation for the arrest of Manuel Sanchez, but it soon broadened. Rancheros from miles around who had suffered at Weber’s hands soon gathered.

The 100 or so Californios who joined the Sanchezes were hardly a military juggernaut. Many were old men. They had a few guns but no powder. Their lances, an ancient Spanish weapon, were most likely knives tied to willow poles. Ten men wore their old Mexican army swords. One American observer called them “the most ragged and forlorn set of men one could conceive” and said it would be a disgrace to fight them.

The members of this ragtag group knew they would be facing troops armed with cannons and modern rifles, but they were determined to protest their unjust treatment. The story of their encounter with the U.S. military on a muddy plain in Santa Clara will be the subject of the next Portals.

Gary Kamiya is the author of the best-selling book “Cool Gray City of Love: 49 Views of San Francisco,” awarded the Northern California Book Award in creative nonfiction. All the material in Portals of the Past is original for The San Francisco Chronicle. To read earlier Portals of the Past, go to sfchronicle.com/portals. For more features from 150 years of The Chronicle’s archives, go to sfchronicle.com/vault. Email: [email protected]

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