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The Five Olivases

Defending native soil

By Jennifer Celeste Vo and John P. Schmal
Published on LatinoLA: July 18, 2010


The Five Olivases


Becoming Californians
Mexican Americans started arriving in California in the late 1760s. Sponsored by the Spanish administration, many Mexican citizens living in Sinaloa, Sonora, Jalisco, and Baja California took advantage of the promising opportunities available to them by taking part in the expansion of the Spanish Empire into Alta (Upper) California.

My name is Jennifer Vo and my ancestors were among the soldiers and settlers who took part in the Expedition of 1781 and the founding of the cities of Los Angeles (September 1781), San Buenaventura (March 1782) and Santa Barbara (April 1782). True natives of California, my family has remained living in California ever since. Like my parents and my grandparents before me, I hold this land deep in my heart, continuing to live and work in Southern California and raise my family in the same place where my ancestors lived and worked.

Defending Native Soil
With such a strong bond tying us to this land, it should not be surprising that my family has always felt a strong commitment to defend its native soil. Although my family originated in Mexico, we emigrated to California with great hope and determination, and it has remained our home for 229 years.

Through the generations, California has truly become a part of our heart and soul. My great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, Juan Matias Olivas, took part in the Expedition of 1781 that founded the city of Los Angeles. A year later, he and his small family moved north into the Santa Barbara Presidio, where the next three generations of Olivas soldiers were posted. Many of my other ancestors with other surnames also served at both the Presidio of Santa Barbara and the Pueblo of Los Angeles.

Under a New Flag
When the Mexican-American War ended with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (February 2, 1848), California came under the political control of the United States. The Americans were quick to recognize California's economic and strategic importance. Less than three years after the signing of the peace treaty (September 9, 1850), California was admitted into the Union as its thirty-first state. As my family transferred its allegiance to a new flag, our determination to defend our native soil remained strong in the decades to follow.

The Civil War Begins
When the American Civil War broke out in 1861, my Olivas ancestors were living in Santa Barbara. Following their military service for Spain and Mexico, most of my ancestors had retired to civilian lives, tilling the soil and practicing their horsemanship skills as members of the community. As the Civil War and its influence came to California, it was seen as primarily an eastern war, having very little effect on the lives of Mexican-American Californios.

But as the war between the states escalated in 1862, California's politicians began to consider the real possibility of contributing some of California's manpower to the Union's cause against the Confederacy. State Senator Romualdo Pacheco of Santa Barbara saw great potential in his fellow Californios. A former officer in the Mexican Army and a strong Union loyalist, Pacheco believed that the men of his region, with their exceptional skills in the art of horsemanship, represented a potential pool of cavalry recruits for California and the Union. He proposed the formation of a regiment of "native cavalry," which would draw its recruits from the ranches of Southern California.

The First Native Cavalry
In January 1863, the U.S. War Department following up on Senator Pacheco's recommendation authorized the establishment of four companies of Mexican-American Californians in order to utilize their "extraordinary horsemanship." The first elements of the First California Native Cavalry were organized in March 1863, but recruitment of vaqueros from Southern California did not begin until early 1864.

Company D
In the early 1860s, a drought caused economic distress to many of the old ranchos of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties. Many local ranch hands including members of my family found themselves unemployed, and viewed the military as a new and promising option to make a living for their families while also reviving a time honored tradition of the pioneer Californios.

On January 30, 1864, 26-year-old Blas Olivas the fifth of sixteen children of Juan Silvestre Olivas and Clara Pico and a cousin of my great-great-great-great-grandmother, Mar?a Antonia Olivas became the first Olivas to enlist. Blas was mustered in as a private in Company D on March 3, 1864 and was described as being 5 feet 10 inches tall with black eyes and hair and a dark complexion. His given occupation was "vaquero." Most of the members of Company D were enlisted in Los Angeles, so it is likely that Blas traveled from the city of Santa Barbara in order to enlist.

Company C
Company C of the First Native Cavalry was first organized at Santa Barbara in July 1864 by Captain Antonio Mar?a de la Guerra. On July 25, 1864, Jos? Victoriano Olivas, the younger brother of my ancestor, Mar?a Antonia Olivas, enlisted with this company. At the time of his enlistment, Victoriano was described as 23 years of age, 5 feet 7 inches tall, with a dark complexion, black eyes and black hair. His occupation was recorded as "ranchero." Victoriano was mustered in the next day.

Victoriano was accompanied by two of his cousins. Jos? Antonio Olivas, another son of Juan Silvestre Olivas and Clara Pico, enlisted on July 25, 1864 and was mustered in the next day. At the time of enlistment, Antonio was described as 5 feet 9? inches tall, with a dark complexion, black eyes and black hair. Like Victoriano, he was a "ranchero." Enlisting on the same day was 19-year-old Pablo Olivas, the younger brother of Antonio. Pablo was mustered into Company C on the same day he enlisted and was described as 5 feet 7? inches tall, with dark complexion and black eyes and hair. He too was described as a ranchero.

On the same day that Victoriano and his cousin Antonio were mustered into Company C, Victoriano and Maria Antonia's younger brother, 20-year-old Blas F?lipe Olivas, became the fifth Olivas to enlist in the native cavalry. Blas F?lipe was described as 5 feet 7 inches tall with a dark complexion, black hair and black eyes. He was also a ranchero.

Drum Barracks
By September 1864, both Company C and Company D were housed at Drum Barracks, which was located in the present-day Wilmington section of Los Angeles, not far from the Port of Los Angeles. In addition to finding gainful employment, the five Olivas cousins by enlisting in the cavalry now had the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of their fathers, grandfathers and their pioneer great-grandfather (Juan Matias Olivas). Service in the military had been a way of life for three generations, and all five Olivases were now playing a new role in defending California against possible incursions by Confederate forces. Unfortunately, one Olivas soldier would never see the year 1865 and Union victory. On December 26, 1864, Private Pablo Olivas died of consumption at Drum Barracks.

As it turned out, the First Native Cavalry was initially put to work on a massive irrigation project to help carry water from the San Gabriel River to Wilmington. This assignment did not please the officers of the units, but nevertheless construction continued until January 1865, as the Civil War in the East neared its conclusion. In fact, one of the cavalry's organizers, Major Jose Manuel Salvador Vallejo, resigned his position at the end of February 1865, frustrated by the ditch digging and misallocation of manpower.

At the same time, however, cavalry troopers marched in local parades and patrolled the waterfront, guarding federal property in San Pedro and Wilmington. The possibility of sabotage on the part of Confederate sympathizers was a very real threat. In fact, during 1864, privateers loyal to the Confederacy sailed to Catalina Island and attempted to sink ships carrying gold and silver en route from the Comstock Lode to Union coffers.

The End of the War
On April 9, 1865, after four years of civil war which led to an estimated 630,000 deaths and at least a million casualties General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, at the Appomattox Court House in Virginia. The original purpose for which the cavalry had been organized was no longer relevant.

Service in Arizona
In March 1865, Brigadier General John S. Mason, recently appointed as the commander of the District of Arizona, announced that the Native Cavalry would be traveling eastward to fight Apache Indians. Once they had reached Arizona, the battalion was also charged with patrolling the International Line with Mexico. At this time, the French were occupying Mexico, but a full-fledged insurgency was taking place against the occupiers and the possibility of hostile forces crossing into the United States was real.

Although the war had ended, the Native Cavalry continued to do its duty, operating against Indian insurgents, pursuing bandits and guarding the southern border in the District of Arizona from the spring of 1865 until April 1866. Because the military tradition had been such a strong factor in my family's history, my ancestors took great pride in their service, and many Santa Barbara residents welcomed them heartily upon their return in the spring of 1866. At the time they were mustered out, the veterans of Company C were welcomed home with a parade and two-day fiesta in Santa Barbara.

Retirement
The four surviving Olivas soldiers returned home, married and settled down to quiet lives, working as laborers and raising their families in Southern California. One exception was Jos? Antonio Olivas, who moved to Nevada. My great-great-great-great-granduncle, Jose Victoriano Olivas died at the age of 76 in 1914 in San Luis Obispo.

Defending Native Soil
From Juan Matias Olivas in 1781 to the present day, the military tradition of my family, and its firm commitment to California's security, has persevered. The five Olivas soldiers exemplified just one generation among many. Two of my family members were killed in World War II, and three of my uncles served during the Korean War. Even today, my youngest sister Amanda is serving with the Navy defending our country in ports all around the globe.

Southern California and Los Angeles in particular is home to a diverse population of people who belong to more than 200 ethnic and linguistic groups. For those who choose to make this land our home, California is undoubtedly a special place. But, for my family, having lived on this land for 229 years and proudly defending its soil in almost every war, this state holds an exceptionally unique and incomparable place in our hearts -- for me, my mother, my grandmother and my children.

Dedication: I would like to dedicate this story to my grandmother, Dora Basulto, who taught me that where you come from is as important as where you're going, and that our strength lies in the spirits of those who came before us.

Research Acknowledgement:
We wish to acknowledge the assistance of Tom Silva and David Jackson in putting this story together.

Other Sources:

California State Military Department, the California State Military Museum, "California and the Civil War: 1st Battalion of Native Cavalry, California Volunteers," Online:
http://www.militarymuseum.org/1stNatCavCV.html

Hunt, Aurora, "The Army of the Pacific: Its operations in California, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Plains region, Mexico, etc. 1860-1866" (Glendale, Calif.: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1951),

Orton, Richard H. "Records of California Men In The War of the Rebellion 1861 to 1867," (California Adjutant-General's Office, 1890).

Prezelski, Tom, "Lives of the Californio Lancers, The First Battalion of Native California Cavalry, 1863-1866," The Journal of Arizona History, Spring 1999.

Vo, Jennifer C. and Schmal, John P., "A Mexican-American Family of California: In the Service of Three Flags" (Heritage Books, 2004).

About Jennifer Celeste Vo and John P. Schmal:
Jennifer Vo is currently working towards her master's degree in Communication Disorders and operates her own online editorial business at EditForYou.com, providing editorial and proofreading services to clients from all over the world.
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