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August 20, 2013 > History: Winter of 1846

History: Winter of 1846

Momentous changes came to California in 1846. Immigrants threatened to upset the political system, causing Californians to consider driving out all foreigners. Governor Pio Pico sold Mission San Jose to his brother, Andres, and former Governor Juan B. Alvarado, on May 5. The transaction was later declared to be illegal. The United States flag was raised at Monterey July 7 and California was declared to be part of the United States.

California was a land of turmoil, some of it created by John C. Fremont who visited the Bay Area on his third western exploring expedition. His first view of the East Bay was evidently from a whaleboat on a journey with Captain Hinckley from San Francisco to San Jose in January 1846. Later, after other adventures, Fremont camped with a band of his men near the Jose Vallejo home across the road from Mission San Jose in September 1846. Jose's daughter, Guadalupe, wrote that the men were very hungry and consumed large quantities of food which had been prepared for the Indians.

Henry and Napoleon Smith came across the plains in 1845 and arrived at Sutter's Fort Christmas Day. The next year they traveled to Mission San Jose. Napoleon stayed there, but Henry entered military service with John C. Fremont.

The ship Brooklyn arrived in San Francisco Bay the last day of July with members of the Church of Latter Day Saints who came to find homes. Many of them settled in the Mission San Jose area and became leading citizens in developing the land.

Marius Duval, a United States Navy surgeon on duty in California, passed by Mission San Jose and noted decaying walls, deserted workshops, the closed church, and a few Indians eating from an abundance of ripe pears.

Edwin Bryant visited Mission San Jose in September. The street was deserted except for two donkeys near the fountain. He noted that adobe houses were deserted, roofless, and crumbling. Two itinerant French peddlers were selling clothes, brandy and small articles in the quadrangle. Bryant was served a meal of beef jerky, tortillas, and coffee by a friendly Mexican lady.

Father Jose Maria Real was in charge of Mission San Jose, but lived at Mission Santa Clara. He visited often and ministered to a scattered and diminishing congregation of Native Americans. Visitors noted the dilapidated condition of the buildings that offered scant shelter to the few natives who still called the mission their home.

George Harlan led a group of immigrants that separated from the Donner Party near the Great Salt Lake and crossed the Sierras before winter snows. Harlan sent his nephew, Jacob W. Harlan, to Mission San Jose to select winter quarters at the "ownerless and abandoned mission." The Harlans found Henry Smith, his brother N. B. Smith, and William Mendenhall already at the mission. Members of the Harlan, N. P. Fallon, Michael Murray and Van Gordon families lived in the Mission San Jose adobes for a while. They had been with the Donner party but separated at Fort Bridger and avoided Sierra blizzards.

Early snows fell in the Sierras on the last day of October and it snowed 13 days in November. These heavy snows trapped the Donner-Reed party at a place now called Donner Lake. Some of the members of the Harlan party tried to rescue their friends and former traveling companions, but the deep snow and fierce storms caused their expedition to fail.

James Reed was banished from the Donner party after he got in a fight with another man in October. He went on foot, alone to Fort Sutter and tried to organize men to rescue the Donner party. The attempt failed so Reed continued on to Mission San Jose in November. He soon went on to the Pueblo of San Jose, but realized the agricultural and real estate possibilities of the Mission San Jose area. Reed must have realized that his family was trapped in snow on the other side of the Sierras, but apparently his concern did not deter him from his visions of owning property near Mission San Jose.

More Americans came to the mission. Others went on to Santa Clara where some 30 families had assembled and organized for safety. There were 3,000 more people in California by November, and a shortage of food; the missions were no longer reliable supply houses. Most provisions had been seized for troops and many cattle had been driven to the hills for pasture and protection.

Catherine Fallon was born to Jeremiah and Eleanor Fallon in their early days at Mission San Jose. It was later reported that their son John died after eating plums from the Mission garden. This story provides some verification that the people living in the adobes survived, at least partly, by eating produce from the Mission garden.

Heavy rains brought floods and destruction throughout northern California. This was the first American Christmas in Mission San Jose, but because of war, floods, food shortages, poor housing, threat of disease, and the torment of the stranded Donner Party, it was a season of great concern. The winter of 1846 was a struggle for survival by our first American pioneers.

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