Early California Berryessa Family History


by Christine Bonner
In September of 1775, Nicolas Antonio Berryessa and his sister Maria Isabel, my first California ancestors, began their long journey to California from Mexico. Unhappy over the arrival of a new stepmother, they wanted a chance to get away, so they marched under the flag with Captain Juan Bautista de Anza and the Spanish Colonization Expedition. They settled in the San Francisco area, thus beginning the early history of the Berryessa family.Nicolas and other Spanish-Mexican families began to establish their ranchos after receiving Spanish land grants. Following Mexican Independence in 1822 from Spain, the Mexican Colonization Law of 1824 insured the early settlers clear title to unoccupied lands, allowing many other families to join the Berryessas in California’s heartland.In May 1846, the United States declares war on Mexico with the intent of acquiring Texas and California. In California, most of the fighting occurred in the south. Without clear direction from Congress, Captain John C. Fremont’s men captured Sutter’s Fort without a battle. Also without a fight, four Berryessa brothers, Francisco, Nemesio, Santiago and Santos, along with General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo and other Californianos, were taken prisoner by the Bear Flaggers, who wanted to declare an independent Republic of California.

Fremont appeared to be supporting the rebels, or using them to foment war in Northern California. In the confusion, Jose de los Reyes Berryessa, a worried father at the age of 75, left his San Vicente hacienda to visit his imprisoned sons. Two of his nephews, Francisco and Ramon de Haro accompanied him. Unarmed, they were intercepted by Fremont and his scout Kit Carson, and killed.


To the peaceful Northern Californians, some of whom had favored a United States takeover of California, it was cold-blooded murder. A prominent San Francisco surveyor who was an eyewitness to the killings ultimately claimed Berryessa land as his own.

The Bear Flag Republic never materialized and Captain Fremont was summoned to the east under cloud of a court martial. Nonetheless, the United States won the war and acquired California, and under the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, Mexican residents were to retain their land grants and enjoy full citizenship. But it was not to be.

As gold lured hordes of wealth-seekers from the states, bigotry, violence, and discrimination in the courts robbed many Mexican Californians of their property and lives. Squatters wanted the land and were determined to have it. Many members of Nicolas Berryessa’s family died trying to protect their ranchos.

Years after California became a state in 1850, the battle over land continued. Holders of Mexican land grants were required to bear the burden of proof of ownership, which meant they paid the legal fees for long court maneuvers and expensive land surveys–challenge after challenge. When at last they couldn’t pay, the native Californians were forced from their land. For families like the Berryessas, it was the end of a dream in the new land of California.





Compañeros This release by folk harpist Christine Bonner is a tribute to her early California heritage and a celebration of life, family, and friends.

“Compañeros” retains the rich Spanish flavor that was embraced in Christine’s debut album “Sand Castles”. From the fire and passion of flamenco to the soothing gentleness of a lullaby, this recording presents a life and voice that is entirely unique.



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