José Francisco Ortega (1734 – February 1798) was an indigenous Californio soldier and early settler of Alta California. He joined the military at the age of twenty-one and rose to the rank of sergeant by the time he joined the Portola expedition in 1769. At the end of his military duty he would be granted land which he named Rancho Nuestra Senora del Refugio near Santa Barbara.
Ortega was born in 1734 in Celaya, Guanajuato, where he worked as a warehouse clerk. He was of indigenous background, but little else is known about his youth. In October 1755 he enlisted in the military as a private soldier to serve at the Royal Presidio at Misión Nuestra Señora de Loreto in Baja California. He rose to the rank of Corporal on August 3, 1956, and on February 9, 1759 he rose to the rank of sergeant. In 1759 Ortega married María Antonia Victoria Carrillo (ca. 1742 - May 1803), daughter of another soldier, at Loreto. Some time after being promoted to sergeant in February 1757, Ortega left active duty to mine in Baja California and became alcalde (administrative and judicial officer) of mining camps in the southern part of the peninsula. Ortega rejoined the army in 1768, having been recruited by California Governor Gaspar de Portolá to lead his expedition to explore and settle Alta California.
Spain had a plan to use Alta California as a buffer zone starting in the 1760s. This move to populate Alta California came from a decree by King Carlos III who wanted to keep its control away from the Russians who were hunting seals off the coast of California. The overall goals of the Spanish Crown were to defend against the Russians, construct a mission north of San Diego, and to have more people living between San Diego and Monterey. The establishment of missions came under the guise of the viceroy of Mexico who had some objectives in mind: a native population, sufficient land for agriculture, and enough water for that agriculture. Sergeant Ortega was the chief scout during the second phase of Gaspar de Portolà's land expedition to explore and extend the northern boundary of Las Californias. After establishing a base at San Diego in July, 1769, Portola led a reduced party that pushed on to the north. At the northern extreme of that march, Ortega led a scouting party that encountered San Francisco Bay on November 1, 1769, and was one of the first Indigenous Californios to see the bay.
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 Commandant 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.
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 at Mission Santa Barbara the following day.
Ortega's descendants became one of the prominent Californio families. His son Ygnacio was the 1809 grantee of Rancho San Ysidro. His grandson Emigdio Ortega built the Ortega Adobe in 1857 in Ventura, California. Granddaughter Maria de Guadalupe married the naturalized American Joseph John Chapman. Granddaughter Maria del Pilar Ortega married Santiago Argüello, alcalde of San Diego and grantee of the Rancho ex-Mission San Diego and the Rancho Tijuana. Granddaughter Maria Soledad Ortega married Luis Argüello, the first native-born governor of Alta California. Another granddaughter married Scottish immigrant John Gilroy, namesake of Gilroy, California.
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