Gregorio Ortega: A Citizen of El Rio

During the early 1870s, Gregorio settled into the small farming area of El Rio, some seven miles east of San Buenaventura

By John P. Schmal
Published on LatinoLA: December 22, 2009

Gregorio Ortega: A Citizen of El Rio

El Rio is a small community in present-day Ventura County located along the northeast side of the 101 Freeway in the Oxnard area. According to the 2000 census, 6,193 people lived in El Rio. This area of Ventura County was originally inhabited by the Chumash Indians. But, in 1781 and 1782, Mexican settlers and soldiers primarily from Sinaloa and Sonora made their way to Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and Ventura (formerly San Buenaventura).

Since those early years of the Spanish settlement, a steady flow of Mexican immigrants have made their way from various parts of Mexico to the small communities in the coastal Southern California area. One of the resourceful Mexican immigrants who settled in El Rio during the 1860s was Gregorio Ortega. Of course, the area underwent extensive changes in terms of political orientation during a 66-year period.

Originally the area was inhabited by the Chumash, but in 1782, the Spaniards moved their empire north and began settling in this area (with the establishment of San Buenaventura). With the independence of Mexico in 1821, the area became part of Mexico. Then, following the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 following the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848 El Rio and the rest of Ventura County became part of the State of California within the United States of America.

It is believed that Gregorio came from Mexico to El Rio in the 1860s around the time of the American Civil War. His state of birth is not known, but his death certificate in 1916 indicated that he was from Southern Mexico. What is clear is that on January 3, 1870, Father Juan Comapla joined Gregorio Ortega in marriage with Regina Esquivel, a local girl with strong roots in the area.

On July 7th of the same year, Gregorio Ortega and his wife Regina were tallied in the U.S. Census as residents of Township 1 of Santa Barbara County. At the time there was no Ventura County, which was split off from Santa Barbara County three years later. San Buenaventura County was listed as their "post office" at this time.

In 1870, Gregorio was a 25-year-old day laborer, and his wife Regina was 23 years old. By this time they had a one-year-old son, Solomon Ortega and they also lived with a 23-year-old shepherd, Frank Laird, a native of Scotland.

Living a short distance away was Regina's family. The eldest daughter of her parents, Regina's family ties remained strong and she was actually tallied in the household of her parents too. Apolinario Ortega was a 55-year old farmer who had married his wife Maria Antonio Olivas on November 30, 1849 at the Santa Barbara Mission. Apolinario like Gregorio was a native of Mexico (from Irapuato, Guanajuato) and also like Gregorio had married a local girl.

In the 1870 census, Apolinario (listed in the census as "Polinario Escoville") was tallied with his much younger wife, 40-year-old Maria A. and their nine children, of which Regina was the oldest. It is possible that Regina was tallied in both households because she may have depended upon her family for the care of her infant child. So Regina Esquivel Ortega is a somewhat unusual example of a person who was counted in the 1870 census in two different locations with two different surnames.

During the early 1870s, Gregorio and Regina settled into the small farming area of El Rio, some seven miles east of San Buenaventura. The town was formally established in 1875 as New Jerusalem by Simon Cohn, a German Jewish immigrant who owned the general store in the area. When the New Jerusalem Post Office was established in 1882, Mr. Cohn would serve as the first postmaster. Two decades later, New Jerusalem would be renamed El Rio ("The River"), named for the nearby Santa Clara River.

Family and Citizenship
During the 1870s, Gregorio and Regina continued to enlarge their family. On July 23, 1877, Gregorio became a citizen of the United States of America, with Octaviano Morago and Guadalupe Elwell as his witnesses for citizenship. Gregorio and his family were tallied in the Federal Census of 1880.

Listed as a 40-year-old laborer and a native of Mexico living in Ventura Township, Gregorio headed the household. His wife, Regina, was listed as 30 years old and gave California as her place of birth (her father was a native of Mexico, her mother a native of California). By this time, they had a family of four sons and five daughters, listed as follows: Mar?a A. (daughter, 10 years old), Solomon (son, 9 years old), Gregorio (son, 8), Mar?a L. (daughter, 6), Valentine (son, 5), Marcelina (daughter, 4), Genevive (daughter, 3), Michaela (daughter, 2), and Dionisio (son, two months old).

Over the next eleven years, another nine children would be born, but these births took their toll on Regina. On April 23, 1891, Regina Esquivel Ortega died. In approximately 21 years, she had given birth to 18 children. Regina's services were held at the San Buenaventura Mission on April 25th.

Researching the Ortega Family
When Jennifer and Vo and I originally researched this family, we had hoped to link Gregorio Ortega to the well-known Ortega family that served as soldados at the Santa Barbara Presidio. Quite a few Ortega families who are descended from these pioneers lived in the Ventura and Santa Barbara counties during the Nineteenth Century. In fact, several people including me had thought that Gregorio was the son of Jose Manuel Ortega and Andrea Cota.

Jose Manuel and Andrea Cota did not have a son named Gregorio but they did have a son named Jose de la Luz de Jesus Ortega and this gentleman has been confused with Gregorio. In the 1860 census, this Jose de la Luz, 18 years of age, is living in the Santa Ynez Township of Santa Barbara County with his brother Vicente and other siblings.

In the 1870 census, it seems possible that the 30-year-old Jose G. Ortega, listed as a day laborer in Township 2 of Santa Barbara County, is the same Jose de la Luz Ortega. My theory is that the name was originally written as "Jose L. Ortega (L as in Luz), but that the "L" was written down improperly as "G." However, at the same time this Jose G. Ortega was living in Santa Barbara, 25-year-old Gregorio was living in the San Buenaventura area with his newlywed wife and one child.

So, I believe that Jose de la Luz Ortega did not become Gregorio Ortega. I had hoped to make this link because of the colorful history that the Ortega family had in this region, going back to the first Commandant of the Santa Barbara Presidio, Jos? Francisco de Ortega. But all my research on Gregorio continued to point to Mexico, not California, and his death certificate clinched it when it indicated that he had been born in "Southern Mexico."

An Illustrious Past
However, the Gregorio and Regina Ortega family did have a proud past. In addition to Gregorio's success as a hard-working pioneer in the El Rio area, Gregorio's wife, Regina Esquivel was descended from a long and famous line of Los Angeles and Santa Barbara pioneers. Regina was, in fact, theǪ

Great-Great-Granddaughter of Juan Matias Olivas (soldado)
Great-Great-Granddaughter of Jose Rosalino Fernandez (soldado)
Great-Great-Granddaughter of Pedro Gabriel Valenzuela (soldado)
Great-Great-Granddaughter of Anastacio Feliz (soldado)
Great-Great-Great-Granddaughter of Luis Quintero (Poblador of Los Angeles)

Regina's children had a Mexican-born father as she did (Apolinario Esquvel was a native of Irapuato), but the rest of her ancestry was very Californian. The many descendants of this family continue to carry on the proud traditions of this family, which has its Mexican roots in Rosario (Sinaloa), El Fuerte (Sinaloa) and Alamos (Sonora). By the end 1781, all of Regina's ancestors were playing an active part in the development and security of the Los Angeles and Santa Barbara communities.

By 1900, the widower Gregorio headed a household of ten in the Hueneme Township. It is unlikely that Gregorio knew his exact date of birth because he stated that he was born in 1845 and was 55 years old, but his age has fluctuated with each census. His death certificate gave his age as 78, which would mean that he was born in 1838. So figuring out Gregorio's real age is not easy.

Many professional genealogists have expressed the belief that you should assume the age given by a young person is likely to be more accurate than the age given by a much older person. If that theory is true, then we would assume Gregorio was born about 1845 (because he stated that he was 25 years old in 1870).

In the 1900 census, Gregorio stated that he had arrived in the U.S. in 1875, which must be off by about 10 years. He stated that he was a naturalized citizen, a native of Mexico and still employed as a "day laborer."

The children of Gregorio were listed as follows: Lucy Ortega (daughter, born December 1881, 18 years old); Clara (daughter, born June 1886, 13 years old); Isabel (daughter, born June 1883,16 years old); Carrie (daughter, born March 1879, 21 years old); Jose (son, born November 1880, 19 years old); John (son, born June 1888, 11 years old); and Thomas (son, born November 1890, 9 years old). All of his children were listed as natives of California. Also living with him were a niece and a nephew, Willie Martinez (born August 1891, 8 years old) and Fidele Martinez (born August 1895, 4 years old).

Gregorio Ortega died of a cerebral hemorrhage on February 22, 1916. His funeral took place at Santa Clara Church, followed by burial in El Rio Cemetery Gregorio's lengthy obituary, which appeared in the Ventura Free Press on February 25, 1916, paid tribute to the hard-working father:

"Ortega, a pioneer of the El Rio section, was the father of 18 children, fifteen of whom, eight sons and seven daughters, survive him. He was a sturdy character, a hard worker and a good citizen."

Gregorio and Regina Ortega were important members of their community. They worked hard and they raised a large family that has spread across the Southern California area. Gregorio and Regina represented the best aspects of that early community: a hard-working immigrant (who became a citizen) and his wife, Regina, the descendant of the Sinaloans and Sonorans who helped develop Los Angeles and Santa Barbara during the Late Eighteenth Century.

Note: John P. Schmal and Jennifer Vo wrote "A Mexican-American Family of California: In the Service of Three Flags," (Heritage Books) about five founding families of Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties. Jennifer Vo is a great-great-great-granddaughter of Gregorio Ortega and Regina Esquivel and a descendant of Luis Quintero, one of the founding fathers of Los Angeles.

About John P. Schmal:
John Schmal researches early indigenous and Mexican families in the Los Angeles area and is the author of "Mexican-American Genealogical Research: Following the Paper Trail to Mexico."
Author's website

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