The hidden history of the “Mother of Santa Rosa”

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On Tuesday, March 21, the University of Northern Colorado Hispanic Studies program hosted a seminar featuring guest speaker Karen Roybal, who discussed Maria Ygnacia Lopez de Carrillo.

One of the earliest settlers of Northern California, Lopez de Carrillo is considered an important figure in the area’s early history. However, not much is known about her because she isn’t mentioned in California historical records. Her absence from historical records is what spurred Roybal to begin her research. Lopez de Carrillo wasn’t just the mother-in-law of General Mariano Vallejo, she was a ranchera who maintained control over Rancho Cabeza de Santa Rosa for a long period of time.

During her seminar, Roybal mentioned how unusual it was for a woman, particularly a woman of color, to be in charge of such a large business in a field dominated by male figures. Lopez de Carrillo would also hire a lot of the Southern Pomo people — the Indigenous people that lived on the land before settlers came. Roybal discussed how these factors could’ve led to the omission of Lopez de Carrillo from the history books. According to Roybal, some men at the time wouldn’t have been happy about a woman owning a ranch employing the Southern Pomo people.

Most of Northern California history focuses on the settlement by General Mariano Vallejo, who didn’t have the best relationship with his mother-in-law. Roybal said Vallejo recorded everything and saved every letter he received — however, there’s no mention in his records of his mother-in-law. She also said Vallejo most likely made a conscious effort not to mention her in any of his letters or records, making any research tougher.

“The speech I gave today stemmed from research that I had done in Northern California at the Sonoma State University archives and the Bancroft Library in Berkeley, California,” she said.

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While researching Lopez de Carrillo in these libraries, Roybal found two pieces of information helping her better understand the woman commonly referred to as the “Mother of Santa Rosa.” The first is a short story loosely based off the life of Lopez de Carrillo. While it isn’t very accurate, it offered Roybal a different perspective on how her history has been preserved through stories, passed down through generations of Northern Californians.

The second is a letter from Lopez de Carrillo herself. During her final hour
in the Bancroft library, Roybal stumbled across the letter addressed to Lopez de Carrillo’s son. While not very informative, the letter detailed how she was a travelling businesswoman, leaving her son in charge of the ranch while she was away.

“We mostly hear of male driven history of colonization and settlement in the U.S. southwest,” Roybal said.

During the Q&A after her seminar, Roybal focused on this male driven history. According to her, this led to the erasing of Lopez de Carrillo from the story of the settlement and colonization of Northern California. Roybal said she is still focused on uncovering the history of the “Mother of Santa Rosa” nearly two years after beginning her research.

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