Old San Juan: A Street That’s Not a Street

A small discrete downtown street bears the name of one of San Juan’s earliest and controversial leaders

Don Tryon

By Don Tryon

Tightly nestled between two buildings is a little walkway that’s designated as a street. It’s so small that you could almost stretch your arms and touch both the RokPrime Steakhouse and Capistrano Trading Post are located. It’s a great shortcut from Camino Capistrano to the depot parking lot.

This street is named for one of our historical personages of long ago, a person the residents of the time were pleased to see disappear. This street’s name is Arguello Way.

In 1838, Juan Bautista Alvarado, the Mexican Governor, appointed Santiago Arguello to administer the Mission and surrounding lands after they were secularized by the Mexican government. Our town became known as Pueblo San Juan de Arguello. He was remembered by the townspeople as a brave—but less than courageous—young officer in the handling of the pirate raid led by Hippolyte Bouchard in 1818. After that incident, he rose through the military ranks and was honored by the appointment.

Arguello was to be paid $1,000 annually for his services, plus the support of his wife, 22 children and numerous relatives. The money would have been obtained through a sort of taxation on the Mission neophyte Indians in the form of goods or labor. This privilege was abused when he used the Indians to cultivate his fields and put his brand on the best horses he purchased with the Mission brandy. The Indians were impoverished enough without this added burden as this all had to be paid before they could enjoy the fruits of their labor for themselves. They appealed to the Governor about having to feed so many mouths and clothe so many people. The Governor did send an investigator, but was be expected, he found no fault. As a result, many Indians began to move away, which only put a heavier burden on those who remained and were poorer than ever.

After a few years, Arguello, tired of all the complaints and lack of appreciation for his efforts, packed up his family and moved away. The town’s name “de Arguello” was quickly abandoned. All that remains as a tribute to this once shining star of privilege is this small alley called Arguello Way. I often wonder how well the song “When the swallows come back to Arguello” would have fared.

Another oddity of this walkway is the street sign showing its name. What should properly be a “G” looks more like a “Q.” Could this possibly be another way to spell Arguello or was it the type script used. Is it possible some former city employee made a mistake? I do know that in Spanish a “G” sounds like a soft “H.”

There’s a new book out, a novel called The Memory Keeper by Larry K. and Lorna Collins. It’s a tale of how the Juaneño Indians fared during Arguello’s reign—a lot of true facts interwoven with a delightful tale about a family and others lived here during this time. I think you will like it. I believe the Mission Gift Shop may have it by now. Good reading.

Don Tryon is a 25-year resident of San Juan Capistrano. He is currently the vice president and archivist for the San Juan Capistrano Historical Society. Tryon is a former member of the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission, the Orange County Historical Commission and the Fiesta Association.

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One Response to “Old San Juan: A Street That’s Not a Street”

  1. Eric Bergstrom
    June 15, 2014 at 7:28 am #

    That was a fun little story, Don. I hope you’re planning on writing a regular column.

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