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Founded in 1777 as El Pueblo de San José de Guadalupe, the City of San José was the first civil settlement established in Alta California under Spanish dominion. Today, little remains of the City’s first 73 years of Spanish-Mexican existence: an adobe, a few archaeological remains buried beneath buildings and parking lots, and the greatly reduced plaza, once the center of the pueblo’s activities. What is not seen and rarely thought of is the legacy from this period: the plat of the city; the names of places and streets; relationships to other governmental, civic, and religious institutions; and underlying customs and laws which make San José and California different from the culture of the eastern United States.

1781 Diseño
1781 Diseño (map) from the Pueblo Papers
One of the few remainders of this seminal period are the archival papers housed at the History San José Research Library & Archives. Known as the Pueblo Papers, or the Spanish-Mexican Archives, these 4,000+ documents date from 1781 through the admission of California to statehood in 1850. They delineate the ayuntamiento or municipal government activities, capturing the official governmental rule colored with patriarchal concern. The primary official, the Alcalde, served as the magistrate, governor, and “town father,” and his interests reflected not only the official viewpoint, but the particulars of the town, its citizens, and its role as a Spanish settlement. The activities documented in the Pueblo Papers reflect the realities of everyday life in Spanish frontier-California: the relationships between Spanish and Indians, children and parents, missions, presidios and pueblos; elections, the local economy, and military discipline.

José Pantoja working with the Pueblo Papers
The Pueblo Papers have been part of the city of San José’s archives since the city’s incorporation in 1850. In the 1930s, as a WPA project, a selected number of documents were translated. In 1959, the papers were microfilmed and a copy was made from which an abstracted index was created in 1966. With the assistance of the Hispanic Genealogy Society of Santa Clara County, notably Patsy Castro Ludwig and José Pantoja, the original papers were reorganized in the 1990s and the index corrected.

In 1998, students from Santa Clara University transcribed and translated documents for the year 1809, published as “A Year in the Life of a Spanish Colonial Pueblo: San José De Guadalupe in 1809 Official Correspondence” (Lambert, 1998). Thanks to the 1809 translations, an important period of San José’s local history has been brought to life. These translations provide insight into all aspects of agricultural life in the first pueblo in Alta California, from grazing and water rights, to the timing of harvesting and threshing. Judicial and political procedures are brought to light regarding how city officials were chosen and how the community dealt with allegations of robbery, rape, and child abuse. The community’s links to the Spanish colonial world are also evident in calls from the Vice Royalty of New Spain for San José and other communities of New Spain to support the liberation of Spain from Napoleonic France, and the restoration of the monarchy of Fernando VIII.

In 2014, History San José began to digitize the Pueblo Papers and make them available online. Note that 40+ documents from the same collection are held at the San José Public Library and can also be viewed online through the link below to the California Room’s Digital Collections.

(Excerpted from Leslie Masunaga’s Preface to A Year in the Life of a Spanish Colonial Pueblo)


Lambert, D. (1998). A Year in the Life of a Spanish Colonial Pueblo: San José de Guadalupe in 1809 Official Correspondence. Santa Clara, Calif.: Santa Clara University, Department of Anthropology and Sociology.