COLD CASE

Death of a Californio

An 1856 illustration of San Francisco’s Mission Plank Road.
An 1856 illustration of San Francisco’s Mission Plank Road.
The mysterious slaying of Francisco Guerrero in 1851 took place as a massive land grab was underway—one that left the Golden State’s Spanish-speaking inhabitants with little.

On August 3, 1849, with the gold rush in full frenzy, the instant city of San Francisco held municipal elections. All those voted into office were Americans, with one exception: a Californio—a Spanish-speaking inhabitant of pre-cessation California—named Francisco Guerrero was chosen as a subprefect, a top administrative position. Guerrero’s victory demonstrated the high regard in which he was held. It was a dizzying time for the 38-year-old Guerrero and his young metropolis. Mexico had ceded the California territory to the United States just three years earlier. Then gold was discovered in the Sierra Nevada foothills, and the world rushed in. In the annus mirabilis of 1849, 80,000 men poured into California.

Many of those newcomers cast a covetous eye on the vast Californio ranchos. These enormous tracts of the most valuable land in the territory had been granted by the Mexican government to its then citizens. As the gold rush got underway, Americans began squatting on the Californios’ land and contesting their ownership in court. Thus commenced one of the founding injustices of California history: the dispossession of the Californios.

Because of his reputation for fairness and his expertise in land issues, Guerrero was often called to testify in cases involving contested titles. Ironically, his unique standing may have led to his death, and within a few decades, the Americans managed to lawyer these Spanish-speaking Californians out of almost all their holdings.

Francisco Guerrero y Palomares was one of the developing municipality’s leading citizens. Born in Tepic, Mexico, in 1811, he moved to the region then known as Alta California in 1834. During the next few years, he acquired several large pieces of land in Yerba Buena, the tiny hamlet that would later be renamed San Francisco, as well as a large ranch near what is now Half Moon Bay. Guerrero was liked and respected by both Californios and Anglos. In the spring of 1844, he and three American friends provided the beef and wine for a grand barbecue that was the climax of a weeklong strawberry-picking party attended by almost the entire population of Yerba Buena. Guerrero recognized that California was inevitably going to pass from Mexican control, and, like his more famous fellow Californio Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, he welcomed foreign immigration.

Guerrero lived in the small Californio neighborhood near the decaying old Mission Dolores. On the afternoon of Saturday, July 12, 1851, he and an acquaintance, Robert Ridley, set out on horseback on the newly constructed Mission Plank Road (today’s Mission Street) to do business downtown. Ridley decided to spend the night. That same afternoon, Guerrero returned, leading Ridley’s bay horse.

Around 3 p.m., someone saw Guerrero allow a man, later identified as François LeBras, mount the bay and ride alongside him. Another witness, Mrs. Anne Greene, told the city’s leading newspaper, Daily Alta California, that she saw the two men “riding along as if racing, and saw a striking, as if they were whipping each other’s horses, and a sort of scuffle.” Greene saw Guerrero fall from his horse in front of her house, on Mission between what is now 11th and 12th Streets.

Guerrero died the next day and LeBras was spotted in North Beach, trying unsuccessfully to sell Ridley’s bay horse. LeBras was later arrested by a vigilante group, which conveyed him to an official coroner’s inquest, where witnesses testified that Guerrero and LeBras had been arguing and that there was blood on the plank road about 20 feet short of where Guerrero had fallen, indicating that he had been injured before he fell. Two doctors testified that Guerrero’s head injuries were consistent with blows from a club or slungshot and not with a fall from a horse. The coroner found that Guerrero had been killed by blows to the head inflicted by LeBras.

But LeBras was a most implausible candidate. He was generally considered to be insane, and he was small and feeble. So despite the coroner’s finding, the vigilantes backed off and turned him over to the legal authorities.

As Kevin J. Mullen notes in The Toughest Gang in Town: Police Stories from Old San Francisco, the trial that followed was gravely flawed. Key eyewitnesses were not called; neither were the two physicians. The jury found LeBras innocent without leaving the box.

The Daily Alta smelled a rat, and editorialized, “It is well known that [Guerrero] was most intimately acquainted with the land titles in this portion of California, and many parties were interested in having him out of the way.”

William Heath Davis, a local merchant and a longtime friend of Guerrero’s, speculated that Guerrero’s killing had been instigated by Anglos who stood to profit from a bogus Mexican land grant called the Santillan claim. “They wished to get Guerrero out of the way, as he would have been a damaging witness against their claim; being afraid of his influence and ability and independence of character; knowing he would not hesitate to expose the fraudulent nature of the claim,” Davis later wrote in his account of the period, Seventy-Five Years in California.

The beloved man whom Davis called “one of the few real founders of San Francisco,” who is buried in the Mission Dolores cemetery, and after whom the city’s Guerrero Street is named, may well have been a victim of the insatiable desire for land that would soon leave his fellow Californios stripped of everything they once owned.

Gary Kamiya is the author of Cool Gray City of Love: 49 Views of San Francisco and a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.