José Antonio Yorba I (1746-1825)

Consider this something of an extended footnote.

For more than a century – at least since H.H. Bancroft published his massive, seven-volume History of California in the 1880s – the traditional belief has been that José Antonio Yorba came to California in 1769 with the first Spanish colonizing expedition. But it now seems that is not true.

Bancroft’s volumes actually give two different dates for Yorba’s arrival, listing him as having arrived between 1769 and 1773 on one page, and having come in 1769 as “one of Fages’ original Catalan volunteers” on another.

Yorba certainly was one of Pedro Fages’ one hundred soldiers, but, as historian and Yorba descendant Don Rowland explains:

“We do not know if José Antonio Yorba was among the twenty-five Catalans who left Sonora with Portolá. Joseph P. Sanchez, author of Spanish Bluecoats, wrote that he was, primarily based on information from the writings of Hubert Howe Bancroft. Yet, doubts remain, as there have been no primary documents presented to support that position, and Bancroft was not specific. Antonio Yorba’s name does not appear in California mission records until 1773. And, Yorba’s name is not listed among the twelve Catalan Volunteers who marched from San Diego to Monterey in the spring of 1770, a document that should have included Yorba’s name if he were alive and well in California. Both omissions seem to contradict the assertion derived from Bancroft’s epic work. Further, since only twenty-five of the original 100 man Catalan regiment crossed from Sonora to Baja California in 1768, and of that twenty-five, only twelve survived the ordeal to San Diego, it would seem numerically improbable that Yorba was with Portolá in San Diego and Monterey in 1769.

“So, when did Yorba arrive in California? The most probable answer is 1771, when a supply ship arrived in Monterey carrying twelve Catalan reinforcements from the Sonora campaign, and a group of Franciscan friars destined to expand the California mission system. Again, Yorba’s name first appears in mission records in 1773, and there were no ships reaching Monterey between 1771 and that time – and no land routes yet existed from Sonora.”

Thus, Rowland admits, “I have somewhat reluctantly concluded that he arrived in Monterey in 1771.” [Donald E. Rowland, “José Antonio Yorba I,” Orange Countiana VIII (2012)]

Historian and photographer Harry Crosby has been studying the Portolá route since the 1960s, and reports that he also has never found any proof that Yorba came in 1769. Most notably, his name is lacking from the list of the original soldiers prepared by José Francisco Ortega. [Harry Crosby, Gateway to Alta California, The Expedition to San Diego, 1769 (2003)]

But Crosby differs from Rowland in suggesting that Yorba “must have been among” the reinforcements who arrived in San Diego by land in October 1771. [Crosby, “Defining and Manning ‘The Portolá Expedition,’” Boletín, The Journal of the California Mission Studies Association, 2005]

As both authors point out, the first documentary record of José Antonio Yorba in California shows him serving as a godfather at a baptism at Mission San Carlos in January 1773.

I freely admit that when I first learned of all this (initially from Don Rowland in 1999) I was skeptical; but the research is solid, and the conclusion seems clear. At the very least, the burden of proof is now on anyone who wants to argue that Yorba came in 1769.

Having reached California in 1771, Yorba soon decided to settle here permanently. In May 1773 he married Maria de Gracia Feliz, an Indian convert at Mission San Carlos. Two of his fellow Catalonian volunteers took Indian wives as well. Father Serra was very supportive of their decision, writing to the Viceroy in August 1775:

“They all wish for and anxiously ask and beg that with permission to leave the service, a piece of land be assigned to them on which to settle down…. These men … have in mind to establish their homes, to work in the fields, and on their land, as they are accustomed to do in their native country, and to have a fixed place of abode for themselves and their children who are already to beginning to appear. That is really their chief calling in life, and not to be soldiers in this kind of service.”

Serra was concerned, as well, that as soldiers, they might be transferred to other missions, “forcing the poor Indian wife to go where they have no house to put her in,” far away from their relatives. 

“I myself am of the opinion that without this regulation that these men remain as settlers, as they themselves wish to do, it will be utterly impossible for these missions … to make any progress…. [T]hese three families … form, as it were, the beginnings of a town…. I do all I can to encourage them, in order that, by their diligence at work, and by their economy, they may serve as an example to the others.” [Fr. Antonine Tibesar (ed.), Writings of Junípero Serra (1955) – where Yorba’s name is transcribed as “Torba”]

Antonio and Maria Yorba had three sons; one died young, but the other two, Francisco Xavier and Diego Maria, both became soldiers like their father. Neither seems to have left any children. Maria de Gracia died in 1781, and a year later, Yorba married Maria Josefa Grijalva. Through his father-in-law, Juan Pablo Grijalva, became a ranchero in what is now Orange County, receiving his own rancho concession in 1810. His sons, José Antonio II, Tomás, Bernardo, and Teodocio, and their descendants, would go on to play an important role in the early history of the area.

José Antonio Yorba lived to see California pass from Spanish colony to Mexican territory. At the time of his death in January 1825, he was the oldest European settler in Southern California – a true California pioneer. He is buried at Mission San Juan Capistrano.