Who was Dona Arguello?

People rushing to catch trains in Redwood City zip by a sculpture of Dona Maria Soledad Ortega de Arguello (above), whose land became home to generations of Peninsula residents and whose family was part of one of the great tragic romances of California history.

Her sister-in-law Concepcion Arguello, who was born at the Presidio in San Francisco, and Russian soldier and diplomat Nikolai Rezanov fell in love and were forced by circumstances to part — forever. It’s a complicated story that has been told many times, including renditions by such literary luminaries as Bret Harte and Gertrude Atherton. The San Francisco Chronicle summed up nicely the romance with a headline atop a 2006 story by Carl Nolte: “Epic Love in old California: Concha and the czar’s courtier — How a 15-year-old Spanish beauty fell for a Russian Sea Captain, 42, and waited Forever.” In short, he came, saw, liked, and sailed away, never to be seen by her again. She became a nun. A mural in the chapel at the Presidio depicts the couple.

Luis Antonio Arguello II was born in 1830, the youngest of Luis Antonio Arguello I and Soleded (Ortega) Arguello. Luis is shown to the right with his cousin Ignacio Marlarin,.

Soledad (1797–1874) would marry Concepcion’s brother, Luis Antonio Arguello, who became the first governor of Mexican California. Luis was a widower with two children when the couple wed in 1822. His first wife, Rafaela, died in 1814. Luis died in 1830 at the age of 46.

According to “The Arguello Family in California” by Annette O’Connell, the wedding between Soledad and Luis was “the first great wedding at Mission Santa Barbara.” The author also speculated that relatives felt “it was time that 25-year-old Soledad was married.” The bride, she wrote, was “radiant and queen like in a priceless gown with a lace mantilla that swept from her lovely head to her small feet.” O’Connell’s research found that the bride’s trousseau had been worked on by “a hundred Indian girls for months.”

Upon her husband’s death, Soledad inherited Rancho de las Pulgas, which initially consisted of about 59,000 acres but would be reduced by legal hassles to 35,000 or so acres that would become Belmont, San Carlos, Redwood City and parts of Menlo Park. Historians say the grant is the only one in this part of California that goes back to the King of Spain. The others were made by the Republic of Mexico.

The widow Arguello and her children remained on the ranch after Luis’ death, although there are reports they lived occasionally at Mission Santa Clara, according to O’Connell. These were the Zorro days of rodeos and feasts, when cattle were rounded up and branded with some of the herd butchered for hides and tallow. A hint of this is on display in an exhibit at the San Mateo County Museum in downtown Redwood City.

A ranch census in 1838 listed 4,000 cattle and 2,000 horses in the area of today’s San Carlos, where Dona Arguello and her family lived and which now boasts an Arguello Park. After the war with Mexico, she was forced to go to court to prove her title.

Many of the rancho grantees lost their holdings because of court costs and legal delays as well as the squatters who would not get off the land. The Arguello claim was a exception. Filed in 1852, it was approved a year later and was upheld by the United States Supreme Court. Soledad was finally able to sell her land. In 1859 she and her son, Jose Ramon, and some other buyers bought a ranch in Santa Clara County. Within a few years, Jose Ramon built a mansion that still stands at 1085 Santa Clara Street in Santa Clara. Soledad moved in with him and his family where she remained until her death.

“Notwithstanding the depredations of lawyers and squatters, Soledad was in easy circumstances after 1853,” O’Connell wrote. The “depredations” included the Arguellos giving about a quarter of the land as payment to their representative, Simon Mezes. Mezes donated three blocks to Redwood City, which became land for the courthouse and two parks, one being California Plaza, site of today’s county offices.

In 1976 Redwood City renamed the downtown plaza to honor the Arguellos. The bust by artist Ray Lorenzato was paid for by the Bicentennial Committee of the County Board of Supervisors as well as contributions from individuals. Whatever the honors, it seems that Arguello Plaza will be literally and figuratively overshadowed by an adjacent landmark — a sign that reads: “Climate Best by Government Test.”

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Jim Clifford retired in 2000 after a 40-year career as a news reporter, a span split between United Press International and the Associated Press. He writes the “Rear View Mirror” history column that appears in the San Mateo Daily Journal. He also writes history stories for several magazines, including Climate, The Journal of Local History and La Peninsula.

Clifford, the author of “Philip’s Code: No News is Good News — to a Killer,” is veteran of both the Navy and Air Force. He and his wife, Peggy, met when they were students at San Francisco State. The native San Franciscans moved down the Peninsula to Redwood City where they raised seven children. “Times were good,” Clifford said.

Jim Clifford

Jim Clifford retired in 2000 after a 40-year career as a news reporter, a span split between United Press International and the Associated Press. He writes the "Rear View Mirror" history column that appears in the San Mateo Daily Journal. He also writes history stories for several magazines, including Climate, The Journal of Local History and La Peninsula.

Clifford, the author of "Philip's Code: No News is Good News - to a Killer," is veteran of both the Navy and Air Force. He and his wife, Peggy, met when they were students at San Francisco State. The native San Franciscans moved down the Peninsula to Redwood City where they raised seven children. "Times were good," Clifford said.