|19th Governor of Alta California|
|Preceded by||Agustín V. Zamorano (north) and
José María de Echeandía (south)
|Succeeded by||José Castro|
|Died||29 September 1835|
|Profession||Governor, politician, soldier|
Background and governorship
Figueroa was a Mestizo of Spanish and Aztec ancestry, and was proud of his Indian background. He had served as a military officer on the Sonoran frontier. He achieved the rank of Brevet Brigadier general.
Figueroa was appointed governor of Alta California in 1832, and arrived for duty in January, 1833. Due to political turbulence, Alta California had two rival acting governors at that time. Agustín V. Zamorano held office in Monterey in the north, while José María de Echeandía ruled Southern California from Los Angeles and San Diego. Both men deferred to Figueroa, and the government of Alta California was united.
Figueroa oversaw the initial secularization of the missions of upper California, which included the expulsion of the Spanish Franciscan mission officials. This also involved the issuing of many Mexican land grants for former mission lands, originally intended to be held in trust for Mission Indians. He also had to deal with the Híjar-Padrés colony, and a resulting rebellion.
Many of the communities that had grown up around the twenty-one missions became secular pueblos (towns). Most of the towns kept their previous mission names. In the case of Mission Santa Cruz, Figueroa considered changing the town name to Villa Figueroa, but the change was never put into effect.
In 1833, the Mexican Congress passed legislation to secularize the California missions. Acting Mexican president Valentín Gómez Farías, a liberal reformer, appointed José María de Híjar and D. José María Padrés to lead a group of 239 colonists to establish secular control of Alta California. Híjar, a wealthy landowner, was appointed governor to replace Figueroa, and Padrés, an army officer, was appointed military commander. The colonists were farmers and artisans, and were volunteers carefully selected by Farías. His objective was to modernize and strengthen Mexican rule over California, as a bulwark against the growing influence of Russia and the United States.
While the colonists were traveling north to Alta California on two ships, president Antonio López de Santa Anna took full power, and revoked Híjar's appointment as governor, thereby allowing Figueroa to continue in that post. A horseman traveled for 40 days from Mexico City to Monterey to bring the news to Figueroa. One of the colonists' ships arrived in San Diego on September 1, and the second ship arrived in Monterey on September 25. As the horseback courier had arrived previously, Híjar learned to his consternation that he had no official powers. 
Figueroa objected to the colonization plan since he believed that at least half of the mission lands should be turned over to the California natives. The Franciscan missionaries had administered the missions in trust for the original inhabitants. On August 4, 1834, Figueroa issued a 180-page proclamation setting out a plan for secularization of the missions, which was far more favorable to the native peoples than the Híjar-Padrés plan.
On March 7, 1835, a small group of the Híjar-Padrés colonists launched a brief rebellion against Figueroa in Los Angeles. Although the rebels took control of the town hall, the revolt promptly collapsed, and its leaders were arrested.
When word of the failed coup reached Figueroa, he promptly had Híjar and Padrés arrested. Híjar and his closest associates were ousted from California, although many of the colonists stayed and became productive citizens of California.
In 1835, Figueroa published in Monterey, California his manifesto defending his administration and explaining his opposition to the Híjar-Padrés colonization plan. This was the first book published in California.
Illness, death and burial
Francisco García Diego y Moreno, who later became California's first bishop, reported that Figueroa was "greatly agitated on account of the disturbances that the colonists caused", and set out on a strenuous voyage in 1835 to calm the political turmoil. He sailed from Monterey to San Francisco, and with very little rest, on to San Diego and then he returned to Monterey in June, 1835, and was "already ailing". Although he was initially able to continue his work, he felt weak and did not recover. He participated in the session of the territorial assembly that convened on August 25, but informed that body on August 27 that he needed to take a leave of absence for health reasons, appointing José Castro as interim governor.
Beginning September 6, he was confined to his bed and on September 22, he resigned, appointing José Castro as his successor. On September 27, he wrote his last will, asking that his body be preserved and buried at Mission Santa Barbara.
Figueroa died in Monterey on the afternoon of September 29, 1835. As he had requested, his body was preserved, and sent to Santa Barbara by ship where it arrived on October 27. He was buried in a crypt beneath Mission Santa Barbara.
Rumors circulated after his death that he had been poisoned. The following year, Diego reported to the Mexican government that Figueroa had shown symptoms of apoplexy in his final months, and that blood clots had been discovered in his brain when his body was preserved after his death.
There were also persistent rumors that his body was not buried in Santa Barbara. In 1912, his casket was opened, and the body was consistent in that it was in a Mexican military uniform. The size of the skeleton matched Figueroa's small stature, no more than five feet, two inches tall.
Landmarks named after General José Figueroa include:
- Figueroa Mountain, in the San Rafael Mountains, Los Padres National Forest, Santa Barbara County, California
- Figueroa Street and Figueroa Avenue, in Los Angeles, California
Figueroa rancho land grants
- Mexican land grants in Alta California issued by Governor José Figueroa:
- Francis J. Weber Prominent visitors to the California missions, 1786–1842 1991 "Jose Figueroa (1792–1835), an Aztecan mestigo, was a veteran of the Sonora frontier. He was Governor of California between 1833 and 1835. "
- Guinn, James Miller (1902). Historical and Biographical Record of Southern California:Containing a History of Southern California from Its Earliest Settlement to the Opening Year of the Twentieth Century. Chicago: Chapman Publishing Company. pp. 72–73.
- Starr, Kevin (2007). California: A History. Modern Library. pp. 47–49. ISBN 9780812977530.
- Rowland, L. (1980). Santa Cruz, the early years: The collected historical writings of Leon Rowland, p.16. Santa Cruz, Calif: Paper Vision Press.
- Johnson, David. "Book Review: Manifesto to the Mexican Republic, which Brigadier General José Figueroa, Commandant and Political Chief of Upper California Presents on his Conduct and on that of José María de Híjar and José María Padrés as Directors of Colonization in 1834 and 1835". San Diego History Center. Retrieved September 5, 2016.
In this handsomely designed and intelligently conceived volume, C. Alan Hutchinson has made available an important document concerning California’s Mexican period. Governor José Figueroa’s Manifesto to the Mexican Republic was the first book length imprint published in California (1835).
- Engelhardt, Zephyrin (1913). The Missions and Missionaries of California. San Francisco: The James H. Barry Company. pp. 597–605.
- Bush, Sara (April 1, 2013). "Santa Barbara Mission crypt undergoes retrofitting". KEYT-TV. Santa Barbara, California. Retrieved September 5, 2016.