The Three-Generation Saga That Created Moraga


The City of Moraga is named after the builder of the 1841 adobe on the knoll above Orinda’s Miramonte High School.

It’s the oldest building in Contra Costa County. And looked every year of it in 1935.

Joaquin de la Santisima Trinidad Moraga, who called the adobe home, was the third generation of one of California’s most notable pioneer families.

Grandfather Moraga – Jose Joaquin – was second in command to Captain Juan Bautista de Anza on his 1775 expedition to the California missions. Moraga was 34 at the time.

Leaving from Tubac – present day Arizona – in September 29, 1775, the group of soldiers and colonists covered 1,500 miles before reaching Monterey.

De Anza and Moraga went north to scout out a site for a presidio and mission on San Francisco Bay, so-named by Gaspar de Portola on his 1769 expedition.

While De Anza returned to report on his expedition’s success, Moraga stayed to build the colony.

On June 17, 1776 Moraga and the colonists left Monterey, arriving at the future site of Mission San Francisco de Asis 10 days later.

Besides establishing the mission, Moraga founded the presidio and was its first commandant. Down the Peninsula, he also established Mission Santa Clara de Asis and the city of San Jose de Guadalupe, present day San Jose.

As military leader of San Francisco, Moraga faced any number of challenges ranging from scarce supplies to spotty support from the home government.

According to an account by Brother Guire Cleary, a Franciscan monk, Moraga was the godfather of the first Ohlone Indian to be baptized at the mission, Francisco Moraga, June 24, 1777.

Moraga described the Ohlone as “affable, generous and not at all mistrustful,” Br. Cleary says.

When he died in 1785, Moraga left behind a wife, Maria and a son, Gabriel Antonio. Moraga’s remains were disinterred in 1791 and buried at the foot of the altar of Mission San Francisco de Asis “with al the pomp that was possible and becoming to (his) merits,” wrote Father Benito Cambon, the builder of the church.

Gabriel Moraga, whose fifth son is the Joaquin of City of Moraga fame, was one of the first explorers of the Central Valley.

Many of the valley’s major place names stem from Moraga’s 1805 and 1806 expeditions to the area that now is centered in Fresno County. The journeys were undertaken partly out of curiosity and partly to search for possible mission sites.

As with Spanish explorers before him like Sebastian Vizcaino, Moraga took inspiration for many of his place names from whatever saint’s feast day was at a hand.

So when Moraga camped next to a river on the January 6 feast day of the Three Wise Men, he named it El Rio del Los Santos Reyes, “River of the Holy Kings.”

Today, the Kings River.

Three months later, on March 20, Moraga discovered another river. It being Saint Joachim’s feast day made it a two-fer. He honored both the saint and his father by naming it the San Joaquin.

Moraga also gave the Merced its name: El Rio de Nuestra Senora de la Merced.

The Sacramento River is named for the Sacrament.

Mariposa – Spanish for “butterfly” – was so named because of the swarms of yellow butterflies Moraga encountered there. The Calaveras River was named because of the skulls found there.

In 1810, Moraga was ordered to launch a campaign against the Suisun Indians who had killed three recently baptized Carquin Indians.

Moraga with 17 Spanish soldiers and a group of Christian Indians attacked 120 Suisuns massed against him on May 22, 1810 near what’s now Rockville.

No Spanish were killed. The Suisuns retreated to three grass houses. The occupants of two were killed and the third house was set afire, killing its occupants as well.

Eighteen Indians were taken prisoner but set free because their wounds wouldn’t allow them to travel. Six boys and six girls were brought back to the mission.

Moraga made several trips to Fort Ross in 1812, 1813 and 1814.

Gabriel Moraga died in 1823 and is buried in the cemetery of the Santa Barbara mission.

Gabriel’s son, Joaquin, served with his father in the army for 10 years, resigning his commission in 1819.

He and his cousin, Juan Bernal, petitioned the governor in 1835 for a 13,316-acre land grant for what was called Rancho Laguna de los Palos Colorados, “Ranch of the Lake of the Redwoods.”

The area covered present-day Moraga as well as parts of Orinda, Canyon and Lafayette.

An 1828 Mexican law allowed the asking for land in exchange for unpaid military service.  The governor approved Moraga’s and Bernal’s request in 1841.

Moraga’s adobe originally had three rooms and an outside kitchen. Indian servants lived in nearby lean-tos. The adobe was restored and expanded in 1965. It’s now a private residence.

MHS_G76_sepiaBernal died in 1847, leaving his half of the ranch to his widow and children.

Although Moraga sold various portions of his spread, he still owned 5,642 acres when he died in June 1855.

After Moraga’s death, various parcels of the ranch were owned by different individuals.

In a series of transactions beginning in 1912, most of Moraga’s rancho was eventually owned by James Irvine, founder of the Southern California land company of the same name.

One hundred acres were given to St. Mary’s College of California in 1927 because Irvine thought the presence of a college might boost the value of the surrounding land and increase attractiveness to buyers. It didn’t.

Irvine died in 1947. Irvine’s heirs sold his remaining 5,000 acres of the original rancho.

Moraga became Contra Costa County’s 15th city on November 13, 1974.


Filed under: California History

1 Comment »

  1. Well done.

    6 of the Henning clan attended St. Mary\’s in Moraga. A 7th, my great granfather, attended the prior campus in Oakland in 1863.

    I know, boring……………

    Comment by Pat Henning Sr. — 3.31.2011 @ 6:45 pm

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