He was born in 1813 at the Pueblo de Los Angeles, in Spanish colonial Alta California, then a province of the Viceroyalty of New Spain. José del Carmen Lugo was the eldest son of Antonio Maria Lugo.
José del Carmen Lugo, in a joint venture with his brothers José María and Vicente Lugo and cousin Diego Sepúlveda, began colonizing the San Bernardino Valley and adjacent Yucaipa Valley. The land covered more than 250,000 acres (1,012 km2) in the present day Inland Empire. Their colony charter was approved by the Mexican government in 1839. The valley was plagued by robberies and frequent raids by California Indians resisting loss of their homeland. Many would-be colonizers would stay for only short periods of time. The Lugo families became strong allies with the Mountain Band of Cahuilla Indians led by Chief Juan Antonio.
In 1842, the Lugo family bought the San Bernardino Asistencia, a former “sub-mission” of Mission San Gabriel. The adobe buildings were in disrepair. Lugo made repairs and soon he and his wife and two daughters moved into the asistencia.
By 1842, the Mexican governorship of California was about to change. To protect their land, the Lugo family applied for and received the Rancho San BernardinoMexican land grant of 35,509 acres (144 km2).
- Mexican–American War
During the Mexican–American War, Lugo led a Californiomilitia. In December 1846, he was ordered to punish a band of Luiseño Indians in retaliation for the Pauma Massacre. His militia forces, together with allied Cahuilla, killed 33–40 Luiseño in the Temecula Massacre to avenge the deaths of 11 Californio lancers. The latter were killed for stealing horses from the Luiseño.
He was the leader of Californio forces during the Battle of Chino and the Temecula Massacre. By January 1847, he was placed in charge of the Chino prisoners by General José María Flores. Lugo escorted the prisoners to the Rancho Santa Ana del Chino and released them.
In March 1847, he met with the American John Charles Fremont in Los Angeles. Fremont requested that Lugo round up as many of Flores’s abandoned horses as possible. Lugo rounded up about 60 horses between Los Angeles and San Bernardino.