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While a lot of genealogical research can feel like you’re just slowly sifting your way through a soggy mountain of old data to occasionally discover a few tiny grains of precious family history, once in awhile your heart leaps with the thrill of finding those golden nuggets which add to the genuinely rich heritage that is the family saga.

As a direct descendant of some of California’s earliest European explorers and settlers, I am also related to most of the other early Spanish colonial period families since they all pretty much intermarried with each other and continued to do so for centuries. We even have a phrase that covers our sometimes near, sometimes more distant relationships among the descendants that we are all “California cousins.”

I have recently been working with the local Saddleback Area Historical Society, which has a small reference library onsite at Heritage Hill Historical Park in Lake Forest, California.


The park is home to a restored circa 1863 adobe house built by Jose Antonio Fernando Serrano, one of my ancestral California cousins. My sister and I were invited as representatives of the Serranos to a recent annual Pioneer Family Gathering at Heritage Hill and we were pleased to meet more Serrano cousins also in attendance that day.

Later, through the President of the Society, I was put in email contact with still another Serrano descendant and we’ve been exchanging old family information and historical photographs. His questions led me to “dig around” further in various archive collections seeking those ever elusive tiny grains I spoke of earlier. You know the sort of thing: a birth date here, a burial place there, a baptism or marriage record; the nuts and bolts of genealogy.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I struck gold. Historical gold with brightly shining nuggets that tie the Serrano family powerfully to the larger vein of California history.

The first item I discovered when searching out Serrano information was a copy of a letter written by one-time governor of California, Pio Pico. The letter was written one day after the death of Jose Antonio Fernando Serrano, builder of the Heritage Hill adobe, and is a wonderful message of condolence and tribute to his memory. It was written to Maria Petra Avila, Serrano’s widow. The letter was in a special collection at The Huntington Library. When we contacted the Huntington about receiving a copy, it was discovered that the letter was weakening at the folds and had been -- decades ago -- patched with Scotch tape! It’s possible that no one had even seen this letter since it was donated. By bringing it to the attention of the curator, we saved this letter for future generations. The curator -- after making a copy for us -- passed it along to the Preservation Department to be properly repaired and preserved according to current archive standards: removing the old tape, correcting its destruction effects, and repairing the folds and breaks using modern museum-quality techniques.

The second item is even more remarkable. It is in the archive collection at the Santa Barbara Mission and was written in 1780 at Mission San Carlo Borromeo, better known today as the Mission at Carmel. The letter was written as a request to allow Francisco Serrano -- father of Jose Antonio Fernando Serrano -- to remain at Mission Carmel as a colonist. The signature on the letter is that of Father Junipero Serra, founder of the California Missions and probably the most well-known figure in California history.

We’re currently in the process of acquiring quality photo copies of these letters to be framed and presented for permanent display in the Serrano Adobe at Heritage Hill Historical Park. So, yes, we are still mining for and finding California gold through family research and making it available for the public to see, for docents to bring to visitors’ attention, and to foster better exchanges of historical materials between archives and public historical sites. And that enriches us all.

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Comment by William S Dean on December 20, 2009 at 7:27pm
Hi, cousin Carol. Best of the season. Yes, these were pretty exciting finds for the descendants and the historical society. It also shows that Francisco Serrano would have directly known our ancestor Jose Antonio Yorba from Carmel. I did mention -- didn't I? -- that Serra married J. A. Yorba at the mission there, to a neophyte?

Always fascinating things to uncover and learn!
Comment by carol bartholomew on December 20, 2009 at 7:03pm
Wow, what breath,taking, heart-pounding finds. way to go cuz.
Comment by Tina Micheal Ruse on December 14, 2009 at 6:07pm
William what wonderful finds! I know what you mean about going along with just little bits and pieces and then finding something really big.I had the pleasure of finding out just in October that my fathers dad was half Californiano as well!I have met a bunch more cousins.
Your letters are a real treasures especially the one signed by Father Serra.Makes you wonder what else is out there in some museum or drawer doesn't it?! Thanks for sharing,Tian.

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