By Greg Niemann
Throughout Baja California and Baja California Sur you have probably noticed local families with Anglo surnames. Many of those Anglo-named families have been on the peninsula a long time too. A good many are descendants of seamen who jumped ship to begin lives anew in an adventurous new setting.
It started with Thomas Smith, a 27-year-old sailor from New York who is credited with having been the first such settler after he jumped ship on New Year’s Eve, 1808. Now there are Smiths throughout Baja.
Then, in the mid-1880s Englishman Richard Daggett Sr., a junior officer on a German ship anchored in the Sea of Cortez, had enough of his captain and settled in the Bahia de los Angeles area. He escaped capture and his descendants are still prominent in the area.
In a scenario similar to the Smiths and Daggetts was the patriarch of the Fischer clan of San Ignacio, Frank Fischer. He was the German fourth engineer on a vessel docked in Santa Rosalia, got into some trouble with the second mate and fled ashore. It was 1910 and the 25-year-old fugitive, who was wanted by authorities for his illegal status, somehow made his way overland to San Ignacio.
Finding an idyllic location for his sanctuary, Fischer married a local Mexican girl and became the village blacksmith. With automobiles finding their way to central Baja, he became such a good mechanic no one cared where he came from nor bothered to turn him in.
He became a real pioneer Baja mechanic. As there was no electricity, he made much of his own equipment which included belts and pulleys and flywheels. He spoke fluent German, English and Spanish.
A 1958 book Solo Below, a Guide Book to Lower California by Don A. Hugh reports, “Fischer, a genial German, operates a garage there and is a good mechanic. He also has a deep well where water may be obtained.”
Another guidebook in 1961 advised travelers to look up Fischers Garage and Blacksmith Shop.
And then, according to Sunset magazine's 1971 Guide to Baja California, “Fisher is something of a Baja legend. …his auto repair and welding shop has doctored many ailing vehicles making the trek down the peninsula.”
Even Cliff Cross’ popular 1974 illustrated guidebook Baja California notes “Repair work is done at Frank Fischer’s garage. Located near the end of the road that goes east from the plaza – past the post office.” He further includes a drawing of the “auto repair, blacksmith” shop in an architectural rendering of the town.
Discovered Serpent Cave
When he was younger, Fischer explored much of the surrounding countryside afoot, or by horse or mule. While on a hunting trip, Frank Fischer discovered what would later be called Serpent Cave, a painted cave in the mountains that featured the likeness of a serpent running along the entire lip of the overhang.
The cave was in an area so remote it took eight hours from San Ignacio by pack train. The mystery writer Erle Stanley Gardner (the popular Perry Mason series) heard of the cave and wanted to visit it but could not afford the time. He returned on another trip with helicopters, picked up Fischer from town and had him guide the famous writer and his team to the cave.
The cave drew a lot of attention, and on subsequent visits, Gardner was accompanied by Life magazine photographers, and an eminent archeologist from UCLA, Dr. Clement Meighan, who documented the find for Mexico. The cave also led to one of Gardner’s books, The Hidden Heart of Baja (William Morrow and Company, 1962).
In the year 2000, back when I was visiting some caves north of San Ignacio, I thought about Gardner and Fischer. Coming down out of the mountains, I had a blowout on the dirt road. I changed the tire and continued, looking for the first “llanta” repair shop, finding one near the entrance to San Ignacio. The shop owner was Francisco Fischer, a descendent of the original village smithy and brother of Oscar Fischer, owner of the La Posada Inn (now the Posada Hotel).
It seems Frank Fischer’s sons and grandsons are among San Ignacio’s most enterprising residents. They run a garage, a repair shop, the Posada Hotel, (which was actually established by then 85-year old Frank Fischer in 1970), and travel–related businesses. For whale watching tours and/or guided trips into the mountains to view the painted caves, you merely ask around for Señor Fischer.
Descendants also ran the old Fischer's Café, about 10 miles north of San Ignacio at the intersection of Highway 1 and the Abreojos road.
It seems the townspeople of the oasis village of San Ignacio, if they’re not descendants of Fischer, still remember him. Once I was having dinner at Rene’s, a small, thatched-roof restaurant overlooking a palm-shaded pond, and chatting with the manager Victor Lopez Arce. He related how when he was a kid he remembered the original Frank Fischer well. “He was real old, a short little guy who walked all over town. He was a ‘mechanico’ and even though he was short, everybody looked up to him.”
The Arces of Baja California
I mentioned to Victor that in this part of Baja if the locals are not named Fischer, then they seemed to be named Arce. He couldn’t agree more, being an Arce himself.
There are Arces all over the Baja California peninsula, mostly descended from Juan de Arce, allegedly an Englishman who acquired a Spanish surname after being raised on the mainland of Mexico. Arce arrived in Loreto as a soldier in 1698, one year after the first Baja mission was established there.
Arces are everywhere in Baja California and BCS. In his definitive tome Last of the Californios (Copley Books, 1981), author/scholar Harry W. Crosby lists 24 people named Arce in the index.
In fact, it was Tacho Arce and his son Ramon Arce who later helped author Crosby find and photograph prehistoric cave sites all over central Baja for his 1997 book Cave Paintings of Baja California (Sunbelt Publications).
Even in 2000 when I drove to the mountain village of San Francisco, before I could visit the painted caves I had to register with the coordinator there. His name was Enrique Arce and my guide that day was his brother-in-law, Jorge Guadalupe Arce.
If you get to the San Ignacio area and want to either visit the cave art, or go visit the whales in the lagoon, Maldo Fischer and his partner Johnny Friday run Baja Ecotours, an eco-conscious travel outfitter providing off-the-beaten path expeditions into the Baja wilderness and specifically to their gray whale watching base camp.
Or just ask around. There’ll be a Fischer or Arce to help you.
Greg Niemann, a long-time Baja writer, is the author of Baja Fever, Baja Legends, Palm Springs Legends, Las Vegas Legends, and Big Brown: The Untold Story of UPS. Visit www.gregniemann.com.