Native San Diegans find a little help from other descendants
Will Bowen | Downtown News
“In the past, all our paths crossed,” observed Marilyn Ellis, in town April 6 from Salt Lake City with her son Bill, to attend the Descendants of Early San Diego (DESD) Research Workshop at the California State Parks in Old Town.
“My son and I are here at the workshop to try and find out information on my husband Michael’s side of the family,” Ellis said. “His great grandmother was an Aguilar. I am doing this because I want my children to know where they came from and who they are. I think this will give them a better understanding of themselves.”
Georgia Callian, the DESD research workshop chairperson, helped the Ellis’ look through all the old books, reports, and photographs that she brought to the workshop for information on the Aguilar family.
“We have this workshop three times a year here in Old Town to help people look up their family genealogy,” Callian said. “Then on the last Saturday in June, we have a big celebration, called ‘Descendants Day,’ where all the descendants of the people of early San Diego get together and socialize.”
Old Town was a close-knit community where everyone knew and looked out for each other.
Callian traces her own ancestry to the Machado Family of Rancho Buena Vista and Rancho El Rosario — which was a large ranch in Mexico. She is also related to Jose Antonio Yorba, who arrived in San Diego aboard the “San Antonio” as one of the Catalonian Volunteers that accompanied the ships.
“Working on family history is like being a detective. Searching through the materials to find the true picture of the past,” Callian said.
Corey Braun, a San Diego City Planner, was also at the workshop. He is the great-great-great-grandson of Bonafacio Lopez, who built an adobe on the side of Presidio Hill and another in Sorrento Valley in the early part of the 1800s.
“Bonafacio Lopez — who was the regeator [arbitrator of cattle disputes] for Old Town — was the son of Ignacio Lopez, who was born at the Presidio. Ignacio Lopez, in turn, was the son of Juan Francisco Lopez, a Leather Jacket soldier who marched up from Sinoloa with Father Serra and Captain Portola in 1769 to found the city of San Diego.
Juan Francisco was married to Feliciano Arballo. They met and married at Mission San Gabriel in 1775 when Abarallo was traveling with the people Spanish Indian fighter and explorer De Anza was taking up from Tubac, Arizona and founded the Presidio in San Francisco.”
Braun is also related to Marcos Crosthwaite, grandson of Phillip Crosthwaite, the owner of Rancho Poway and a participant at the historic battle of San Pascual in 1846.
“My grandmother used to tell us stories about our family’s exploits, that is how I got interested in family history,” Braun explained.
Samuel Ames, also at the workshop, is a fifth generation San Diegan. He recently returned here to retire after serving as an art professor at Rhode Island College for many years. He is related to the Ames/Serrano family of Los Coches Rancho and Rancho Aqua Hedondia.
“I am here to complete the family history,” Ames said. “What you see is that you are part of something much larger than just your family. You are a part of the history of California.”
The Old Town Descendants was originally founded in 1980 by Elena Orozco (State Parks and a descendant), Henry Israel (descendant) and Alexa Luberski-Clausen, the State Parks Historian. The idea for it actually first arose in 1969 with the 200th anniversary of the City which was celebrated by the founding of Old Town as a California State Park.
Twelve years later, in 1980, Luberski invited all early San Diego descendants to come to the opening of the restoration of the Estudillo Adobe in Old Town, which had finally been completed. Such a large and enthusiastic number of people showed up that Luberski and Braun decided to make “descendants day” an annual event.
In 1990, Callian became the chairperson of the group and started the genealogy research workshop program in 1991.
“Our mission as descendants is to keep our history alive,” Callian said. “San Diego has a complex past. Most people think California began with the Gold Rush or when Anglos first came here. Many think San Diego began with Alonso Horton. But it goes back much farther than that! We start with the Native Americans from pre-contact period, whom are still with us, then the Spanish Colonial period and the period of ‘Los Californios,’ when we were a part of Mexico.”
Callian said the group exists to help people research their roots and their family’s local history. And, if curious native San Diegans bring in old photographs, Callian said they will even assist in identifying them.
“It has been shown when adults and/or children know their past, they have a better sense of purpose, place and identity,” she said.
Connie Rascon Gunther is the current chairperson of Descendants. She attended the workshop in the morning to continue research of her Adolfo Savin and Cota families. Gunther visited Old Town during the first Descendants meeting with her mother Consuelo, the great-great-granddaughter of Adolfo Savin. He was a prosperous French merchant who provided loans or owned buildings in Old Town, such as the Cosmopolitan, the Gila house, a house on Juan Street and the Protestant Cemetery.
The organization was recently renamed “Descendants of Early San Diego” or DESD, and its membership is full of rich native San Diego history. DESD Committee members also include, Dr. Leonor Perez, Vice Chairpersons’ daughter is related to Juan Francisco Lopez and Maria Feliciana Arballo who were on the Anza Expedition. Secretary Linda Jacobo is a direct descendant of Jose Manuel Machado, Ramon Cota and Albert Benjamin Smith. Smith earned acclaim in 1846 when he climbed the flagpole in Old Town Plaza to re-raise the American flag while under fire from Mexican soldiers. He also served as one of San Diego’s earliest County Assessors and Superintendent of Schools. Another DESD active member is Abel Silvas, whose family is affiliated with the Juaneno Band of Mission Indians, and Acjachemen Nation.
For further information about the DESD or their ongoing research workshops, contact Georgia Callian at email@example.com or search for “Descendants of Early San Diego” on Facebook.
—Will Bowen writes about local arts and culture. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.