Grist For The Mill, Part Two — Chapman’s Millrace



Joseph John Chapman was a Boston able seaman, a wharf rat trained in shipbuilding, mechanics, blacksmithing. In 1811, when he was 27, in what seems to have been an idealistic fit of democratic ardor, he sailed for Argentina to join the Bolivarian revolution against colonial Spain. Somehow Chapman ended up joining the crew of Hippolyte Bouchard, the “revolutionary pirate.”

Bouchard’s was a ship of fools, an invasive Foreign Legion, a corsair in the cause of libertad. In November 1818, Bouchard and his piratical crew, including Chapman, sailed down the coast of California, burning towns, threatening missions, and plundering lands. It was a daft attempt to liberate Spain’s beleaguered colonies by destroying them.

On a shore raid north of Santa Barbara, at Refugio, pictured above, Chapman was captured by the Californians. Somehow he convinced them he was harmless, and and had skills; anyway the clever Yankee prisoner was set to work in 1820 building new mills for Mission Santa Inez — a fulling mill and a grist mill. Fr. Zalvidea’s success with the Molino Viejo at San Gabriel had proved they could help a Mission grow.

Finished by 1822, Chapman’s mills were superb. And gorgeous. Which is modernism.

Chapman was granted amnesty by Gov. Sola, and immediately became known as the finest mechanic and construction foreman in Alta California. Shockingly, he then eloped on a sloop with Guadalupe Ortega y Sanchez, the belle of California. Her father had founded Santa Barbara! Chapman was not Catholic! When the couple were apprehended at San Pedro, Chapman reportedly faced a shot-gun conversion to Catholicism, and a re-wedding ceremony at La Placita church in LA. Perhaps in penance, Chapman was set to finish the framing of the roof of La Reina de Los Angeles. Chapman and a crew rode up into the San Gabriels, logged out timbers, hauled them by ox back to LA. He may even have agreed to pay for the bell he yoked in the belfry. In December, 1822, La Placita was finally finished, and the bell rung for a solemn and festive re-dedication procession, with all the citizens from miles around.

La Placita was an assitencia of San Gabriel; and when Fr. Zalvidea saw the fine job being done on the roofing, he gave Chapman his next job, building San Gabriel’s new mill — El Molino Nuevo — to replace the abandoned El Molino Viejo. (In the intervening years, the poor neophyte girls had gone back to rolling grains with metates, per George James Wharton). So between 1822-1824, the Yankee pirate-turned-millwright, dammed, dug, delved, daubed and did it.

With this mill right in the Mission’s front yard (above, middle right), Fr. Zalvidea had finally achieved his goal of bringing modern — indeed, state-of-the-art — capital improvement to replace the old wasteful production process of the province’s most necessary commodity. And Chapman didn’t just build the mill and the dam, he helped frame all the other new buildings, and even the famous Indian-crewed schooner, the “Guadelupe,” out of San Pedro, the perfect coasting-vessel to market their produce.

But 1822, Chapman’s banner year, also brought ominous rumblings to California from distant Mexico City. The anti-colonial Bolivarian revolution that Chapman had supported, had finally convulsed Mexico. The new republic was committed to overthrowing the Mission system entirely. Californians were naturally pro-Spanish, especially the Spanish-born Franciscans. It took 25 more years, and the American invasion, to absolutely put an end to the Missions. During those years, California grew, diversified, secularized. And the Californio mentality began to change: Spanish citizens were suspect, including the sullen conservative friars that were left in the province. Many Franciscans left California, and the Indians wandered away from the crumbling Missions.

Meanwhile, in 1824, a respected and solid and even admired citizen, settled down in the Pueblo with one of the most lovely brides California ever knew. The next year, when the river shifted course, the Chapmans were among the first to set up vineyards in the old river bottomland, that sun-drenched new strip adjacent to the Pueblo where they founded the California wine industry with cuttings of Fr. Zalvidea’s famous vina madre, the mother vine that still drapes the Pueblo in green today.

In 1826, with San Gabriel soaring to new prosperity because of his agricultural improvements and his ruthless organizational plan of native alcaldes driving teams of neophytes on set projects, Fr. Zalvidea seems to have had a nervous breakdown. He was “retired” without duties to San Juan Capistrano, then in 1842 to San Luis Rey. His mind had completely retired from reality; witnesses reported he would swat away demons, and scourge himself ritually (as did Serra), and sit entranced, occasionally shouting a scrap of prayer. Others thought him completely sane, only a bit lost in mysticism. Like most Franciscans, he never accepted the concept of Mexican California or the secularization of the Missions; the irony being, that his efforts to build a modern foodstuffs-shipping corporation at San Gabriel, had been itself, that process of secularization. And as we shall see, with the Missions winding down, the center of production shifted to the towns, particularly El Pueblo de La Reina de los Angeles.

NEXT PART: “Capital; Milling; Capitol Milling!”


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