José Francisco Ortega

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José Francisco Ortega (1734 – February 1798) was a Spanish soldier and early settler of Alta California. After serving as chief scout for the Portola expedition in 1769, Ortega stayed on to become the patriarch of an important Californio family.

Early life[edit]

Ortega was born in 1734 at Zelaya, Guanajuanto, Mexico, where he worked as a warehouse clerk. In 1755, he enlisted and served at the Presidio at Misión Nuestra Señora de Loreto. In 1759 Ortega married María Antonia Victoria Carrillo, who was born 1741. Some time after being made a sergeant, Ortega left the army to mine in Baja California, and became alcalde (mayor) of the mining camps placed on the peninsula. Later he rejoined the army.

Alta California[edit]

Sergeant Ortega was on Gaspar de Portolà's 2nd land expedition to Alta California in 1769. He was the chief scout on the expedition that discovered San Francisco Bay, and was probably the first to see it.

In 1773 Ortega became Lieutenant and Commandant of the Presidio of San Diego, a post he held until 1781. Previously he was Acting Commandant from July 1771 in the absence of Pedro Fages. As Commandante he went with Fray Fermín Lasuén and twelve soldiers to explore the site chosen for Mission San Juan Capistrano. Ortega was a favorite of the missionaries, including Junípero Serra. In the spring of 1782, Ortega was on the expedition that founded Mission San Buenaventura and the Presidio of Santa Barbara. Ortega became the first Commandant of the Presidio of Santa Barbara that year, and remained until 1784. During 1787–1791 he was Commandant of the Presidio of Monterey,and in 1792 the Commandant of the Presidio in Loreto.[1]


In 1795 he retired as brevet captain with 40 years of service. Ortega was given a Spanish "land concession" in 1794, which he named Rancho Nuestra Señora del Refugio (Rancho Refugio) near Santa Barbara. He built his ranch here, but didn't enjoy it long. On February 3, 1798, Ortega fell from his horse and died at age 65 near the Indian village of Casil at Refugio Beach. He was buried under the floor of the Santa Barbara Presidio Chapel the following day.


Ortega's descendants became one of the prominent Californio families. His son Ygnacio was the 1809 grantee of Rancho San Ysidro. Daughter Maria de Guadalupe married the naturalized American Joseph John Chapman. A granddaughter married the Scot John Gilroy, namesake of Gilroy, California.


  • Military record in the Mission San Juan Capistrano archives
  • Bancroft, Hubert Howe, The History of California (1884) Vol I. 1542-1800, pp. 670–671.