The origin of San Jose, Costa Rica

by | September 9, 2019

Photo by: Ig @deivophotos The origin of San José Do you know, dear reader, why the year 1813 is a very significant year in the history of San Jose and Costa Rica? It may sounds like a random date without much relevance to national history. However, for the sons and daughters of the capital city and for those who inhabit it today, it is a very relevant date. Perhaps you’ve heard the name Florencio del Castillo? Sure, you’d say, the highway to Cartago bears the name of this illustrious Costa Rican. But do you know what Don Florencio has to do with the capital city? And maybe you, as a “Josefino”, or as Costa Rican have wondered why San José, founded almost two hundred years later than Cartago, became our country’s capital? What events led to such an outcome? If you find it difficult to answer don’t be surprised. History tends (especially in Costa Rica) to hide or forget chapters of our past and to deprive us of its best anecdotes and protagonists. At Carpe Chepe we gave ourselves the task of gathering information and creating the following chronology of the most important events in the history of our beloved “Chepe” (affectionate name with which San Jose is known). The idea, as always, is the dissemination of our history and thus a better understanding of who we are. Before we being: If we all went back to the year 1700, we would find the city of Cartago, capital of the province of Costa Rica (province of the General Captainship of Guatemala), converted into the economic, demographic and political center. There lived the Peninsulars (Europeans), the children of these (called Criollos) and other members of the incipient Costa Rican society. Where today we find the city of San Jose, there was nothing, not even an indigenous establishment, this probably due to the lack of freshwater bodies that crossed the center of the city. But let’s travel a little further back to understand how Chepe was born: In 1575 The city of Cartago is definitively established in the valley of El Guarco, where it stands today.

Cartago 1800s

Plan of the city of Cartago at the beginning of 1800. Album de Figueroa. National Archive of Costa Rica.

The Spaniards, crammed into the conquest period, had concentrated all the Aboriginal people in four “Indian villages”, all West of the Ochomogo range. Thus between 1570 and 1580 were founded: San Antonio de Curridabat to the east, San Bartolomé de Barva to the north, San Luis de Aserrí to the south and Our Lady of the Assumption of Pacaca to the west (today’s Ciudad Colon), all with their respective churches and priests to “educate” the Aborigines. However, the Spaniards who lived in those towns could not go to mass together with the indigenous people so they had to go to Cartago once a week or they were exposed to be excommunicated. Dissatisfied with this, they asked Leon of Nicaragua (the highest religious authority in the area) to establish a church that would be located closer to these Indian peoples.  Foundation In 1737 the “Parish aid of San José de la Boca del Monte” was established and a year later the first church dedicated to Saint Joseph holy Patriarch was completed. It was identified that founding place just in front of the current store Scaglietti, in Calle 2 between AvCentral and Avenue 1. The chosen place was a plain located between the Torres and María Aguilar rivers, which occupied a strategic position as a passing route, a commerce route and a resting area between the different valleys, and of communication between the “villages of Indians”. Thus, San Jose emerged at the crossroads between the trails that led to Aserrí to the south and Curridabat to the east, with the one coming from Pacaca and the one coming from Barva from the north. Basically, downtown San Jose was (and still is) a crossroad between the surrounding settlements; anyone who would like to go to a village should go through that crossroad, which is probably why still today it is used as a transit route between surrounding cities. Although 1737 is recognized as the official year of the city’s founding, it is not until 1751 that a more stable settlement was formed, due to important works to improve living conditions, such as the construction of a ditch to bring water to the neighbors. In 1755 the first delimitation is given in quadrants; the first plaza was built in front of the Church and the first streets of San Jose were plotted. In addition, the mayor of Cartago, Tomás Lopez del Corral ordered the villagers scattered around the valley to congregate around the Church. The “Villita” was shaping up!. Consolidation What today is San Jose Downtown, known as the Mataredonda Valley, belonged to a couple of people (imagine that!). One of them, Captain Pedro de Torres, inherited his territories to his wife Doña Maria Meléndez, who in turn inherited in 1722 his only daughter Josefa de Torres, married to an Italian named Antonio Chapuí. Doña Josefa de Torres was the mother of the priest Manuel Antonio Chapuí, born in Curridabat in 1712 who became the first San Jose priest born in Costa Rica, and who in 1776 ordered to build a new church one block south of the Hermitage originario. The first Metropolitan Cathedral was born where it still lies nowadays. In 1782 the construction of the tobacco factory is ordered, which was located in San José (current Central Bank) which would consolidate the city as the economic center of the country. The tobacco allowed: the monetization of the province of Costa Rica, a certain accumulation of capital, an improvement in the roads of communication and the growth and predominance of the city of San José. In 1783 Manuel Antonio Chapuí Torres died, who left in his Will, the land corresponding to: “The current districts of Francisco Peralta and Gonzales Lahmann to Barrio Amon by the east, up to the Anonos and Rohmoser by the west, and between the rivers Torres and Maria Aguilar by the north; That is to say, the most valuable land in the metropolitan area “to those who would like to establish in them”. One of Chapuí ‘s valuable legacies is the Sabana Park, the first suburban park in San Jose. From 1787 to 1792 it was agreed to grow all the tobacco crops only in the province of Costa Rica, driven by the Bourbon reforms, a series of administrative measures promoted by Felipe V to get more economic benefit from the colonies in the Americas. Now, being San Jose the main tobacco planting site, it gained an advantage over other cities, including the capital Cartago. It was precisely between 1780 and 1820 that San José took the lead, materially and demographically, with respect to Cartago, Heredia and Alajuela.

Villa de San Jose 1787

Map of 1787 showing for the first time to the Villa of San Jose as part of the Kingdom of Spain, due to its tobacco production.

San Jose, the city Now, as you will remember dear readers, we started the article talking about a date, 1813. It is precisely in that year that San José received the title of city, thanks to the efforts of the priest Florencio del Castillo, deputy of the province of Costa Rica to the Cortes of Cadiz. Don Florencio, a prominent Costa Rican, claimed that our province had not been awarded with such recognitions, as other provinces did, for fidelity to Ferdinand VII during the invasion of Napoleon. Del Castillo not only got the declaration of San Jose as a city, but the appointment as Villa for Alajuela, Heredia and Ujarraz. In the same year, the first town hall was created in San José, which, despite its short duration (1814), would create the first educational institution of the country (the House of teaching of St. Thomas). We have reviewed the origins of San José, from the Conquista to its appointment as a city. However, its prominence in our history was just beginning, as we will see in our next article, where we’ll review its history from our independence and its consolidation as the country’s capital. Beware! avid enthusiasts of history, that our journey through the history of Chepe just begins, by the hand of Carpe Chepe, we will explore the main historical and cultural aspects of the city that we love so much. Note: The following bibliographical sources were used for the elaboration of this article:

  • Arias, Raul. 2009. La Era del Café en Costa Rica: Forja de una Nación (1840-1914). Centro de Conservación del Patrimonio Cultural. 40p.
  • Fernandez, Andrés. 2013. Los Muros Cuentan. Crónicas sobre arquitectura histórica josefina. Editorial Costa Rica. 182p.
  • Quesada, Florencia. 2011. La modernización entre cafetales: San José, Costa Rica 1880-1930. Editorial UCR. 274p.

David Espinoza – known as Deivo. Forester, Geographer, singer in the Costarican band de Republica Fortuna, Carpe Chepe Guide and history lover and the San Jose City