The Silver Dons, 1833-1865

CHAPTER FIFTEEN: Last of the Dons

Three decades had passed since the missions had been secularized and the Indian lands confiscated. In that short time the Western expansion of the United States and the frequent rising and falling of the cattle market had witnessed the passing of most of the ran­chos from the Dons to the new settlers, either through sales or mortgage foreclosures, on many occasions long before the final patents recognizing the original Spanish and Mexican grants were ever issued. The cattle that had roamed wild over the hills, and with no attempts to improve the stock, deteriorated with time. But it was the drought that finally broke the last of the Dons and turned friend against friend. The silver saddles of the pastoral years were sold to pay taxes and debts.

The ownership of Warner’s Ranch continued to carry with it violence and death. A United States District Court had upset a Land Commission decision and granted the lower portion of the ranch, or 8800 acres including the ranch house and Buena Vista Valley, to Silvestre de la Portilla, one of the original grantees who had abandoned the valley because of troubles with the Indians.

The lands, however, after the departure of Warner, were occu­pied by the Carrillo family, and José Ramón Carrillo and his wife came into possession of Buena Vista Valley and they, in turn, lost it to a Los Angeles promoter, speculator and cattle baron by the name of John Rains, in settlement of an $1800 debt. Rains also foreclosed on Warner and obtained the upper 18,000 acres. Now he claimed a virtual empire extending from Warner’s all the way up into San Bernardino County. Ramón Carrillo became his majordomo.

In 1862 Rains was lassoed from his horse near Cucamonga, beaten, shot four times, and his body dragged off into the brush by the side of a road. The crime was never solved. Two years later Ramón Carrillo, while accompanying the widow of Rains, was murdered. Mrs. Rains herself had been threatened with lynching.

Warner served as a provost marshal and chief of the Los An­geles draft board during the Civil War, and afterward received a deed for a tract of land in Los Angeles. In later years he lost this too, and died blind and almost penniless in 1895 at the age of 88.

A knowledge of agriculture and business, which the old Dons did not possess and had little desire to learn, aided Cave Couts in weathering the economic storms. His ranch home at Guajome, built in the finest architectural tradition of the times, contained twenty rooms in four wings around a central patio 80 x 90. There was a central fountain, and in one of the many adjoining ranch buildings was a small chapel for worship. Couts also acquired the Buena Vista Ranch on his north and Los Vallecitos de San Mar­cos on his south.

The Osunas and their relatives, always in need of money, jug­gled their interests in trying to meet various loans on San Dieguito Rancho. Small loans carried interest rates of ten per cent a month. Shares of ownership were sold for as low as $315. The rancho was not finally patented to the heirs until 1871. When it came time to die, Doña Juliana Osuna instructed that for the wake her body was to be dressed in a black or blue wool dress and be stretched out on the hard earth instead of in bed or on a table.

John Forster, the Englishman, had surrendered possession of Rancho de la Nación, the lands of which embrace all of National City and Chula Vista, in 1856. He had been borrowing sums of from $15,000 to $25,000, at three per cent interest, for a number of years. The ranch passed into the possession of a French resident of San Francisco, F. A. L. Pioche, who also acquired San Felipe Rancho from Forster.

Eight years later, during the great drought, the Picos trans­ferred possession of their vast Santa Margarita Rancho to Forster, who was their brother-in-law, for a sum of $14,000. Mortgage rec­ords show subsequent loans totalling nearly $60,000, at two per cent a month, from the agency through which the Frenchman, Pioche, had acquired Rancho de la Nación. But Forster managed to save the ranch. In later years, however, the Picos and Forster engaged in a lengthy civil litigation over what had been agreed upon as to final possession and ownership. The Picos lost.

The widow of Santiago Arguello disposed of her rights to 3000 acres in the San Diego Mission lands, which contained altogether twelve square leagues, or a large part of present San Diego City, for $500. The son, José Antonio Arguello, mortgaged a share for $3000 at one and a half per cent per month. A patent for the land was issued to the Arguello heirs and assignees in 1876.

The Marróns began selling their interests in Agua Hedionda Rancho as early as 1859 and it was leased to Francis Hinton in 1860 for a loan of $6000, with José Marrón and José María Es­tudillo retaining the right to come and gather salt from the lagoons for their families. Soon after the ranch became the pro­perty of Robert Kelly.

The entire ranch of Las Encinitas was sold by Andrés Ybarra and his wife to Joseph Mannasse and Marcus Schiller for $3000 in 1860. Though Pío Pico once had bought Los Peñasquitos Ran­cho at a sheriffs sale, because of a $420 unpaid debt, he returned it to the Alvarado family, to whom he was related. By the time the patent was granted, ownership had passed to Capt. George A. Johnson, of the Colorado River Navigation Company, through a marriage to Tomasa Alvarado.

The peninsula of San Diego, which comprised Coronado and North Island, left the possession of Pedro Carrillo soon after it had been granted to him. He sold it to Capt. Bezer Simmons for $1000 because he couldn’t find anybody who could pay more. Four years later it was sold to William A. Aspinwall, the builder of the Panama Railroad and a founder of the Pacific Mail Steam­ship Company, and his partners, for $10,000. The peninsula had been included within the boundaries of the pueblo as drawn by Capt. Fitch but despite that, the grant was recognized by the Land Commission.

Twenty-six years after their father’s death, the Pedrorena chil­dren, a son and three daughters, won title to Rancho El Cajon. The Arguellos were never able to sustain their claim to La Punta, south of the bay and squatters moved onto the land and resisted all efforts to dislodge them.

A thousand acres of the common lands of Soledad Valley which had supplied grain and other foods for Old Town under both Spain and Mexico, and which had been coveted by many, in 1856 finally became the property of an Irishman, Andrew Cassidy, who had come to San Diego to operate a U.S. tidal and meteorological sta­tion, and who had married Rosa Serrano. She was the daughter of José Antonio Serrano, who built a home in Old Town sometime after 1850. Cassidy found himself hard-pressed during the drought, and in a letter to Couts pleaded for payment of money owed to him, remarked that he also had come into possession of Serrano’s Pauma Rancho, and would be willing to trade it, and that Louis Rose was offering only seven cents for hides and “I would not listen to him.” The wool market was equally depressed. In another letter a month later he wrote of a debt of $1000 that had to be paid to Mannasse and Schiller within forty days and he had tried everything possible to raise money but had failed:

I have sent cattle with Serrano to La Paz (on the Colorado); he came home without a dollar. He gave the cattle away to Forster on three months’ credit. In my opinion he might just as well (have) given them away.

The rancho passed into other hands and a number of years later a third of it was auctioned by the sheriff for $126.84 in back taxes.

Capt. George W. Hamley, who as master of the whaler Stonington, assisted in the American conquest, finally quit the sea for San Diego as had so many other sailors, and obtained possession of Rancho Guejito y Cañada de Paloma in the Bear Valley district north of Escondido. The ranch originally had been granted to José María Orozco, who had sided with the Californios and fired on Albert Smith while he was attempting to free a tangled Ameri­can flag on the Plaza flagpole.

The smallest of the San Diego ranchos, La Cañada de los Coches, situated west of Flinn Springs and a little over twenty-eight acres in size, was patented to the Catholic Church as a result of a be­quest by Doña Apolinaria Lorenzana. Long before that took place the ranch had become the home of Julian Ames, the former otter hunter, who erected a grist mill and also sold soap to the residents of Old Town. Ames became prosperous. Doña Apolinaria, who also had lost the 8800-acre Jamacha Rancho by means which she never understood, lived out her days, blind, and supported by friends and public aid, though remembered by the Indians she had befriended in the pastoral days at the missions.

The crumbling buildings on the low hill overlooking the San Diego River, which Fr. Junípero Serra had called the “Mother Mission” of California, again were under the protection of the Catholic Church. On May 23, 1862, President Lincoln had con­veyed 22.21 acres, which contained the buildings and cemetery, to the Church. The Mission once held sway over more than 3000 square miles of the richest lands of San Diego County.

Many of the other figures of the exciting days of conquest, settlements and exploration, continued to serve their country with distinction. But the dead of San Pasqual lay in forgotten graves in Old Town. The names on the small wooden crosses had weathered away and were no longer remembered. Kit Carson, who had assured Gen. Kearny that the Californios would not fight, joined the Union Army in the Civil War, was named a brigadier general of Volunteers in campaigns against the Navajo Indians in Arizona, and became a legend of the West. Beale, the young Naval lieutenant who brought word of the San Pasqual disaster to San Diego and became an Indian agent as well as a trail­breaker, was named United States minister to Austria-Hungary by President Grant.

The adventurer who participated in the recapture of San Diego so many years before, John Bidwell, became a member of Con­gress and then Prohibition candidate for President.

Capt. Samuel du Pont, who took over the civil government of Mexican San Diego in the name of the United States, as a rear admiral commanded a fleet of ironclads and monitors in some of the most brilliant actions of the Civil War. Naval Lt. Stephen Rowan, who directed the raising of the American flag in Old Town, fired the first naval shots of the Civil War, became com­mander of the New Ironsides and eventually rose to the rank of vice admiral. Lt. William Maddox, who commanded the Marine squad at the flag raising, is the only man to have had three destroyers named after him. The USS Cyane, after thirty-four years of service to her country, was taken out of service and fif­teen years later sold for scrap.

Emory, the young topographical engineer who expected so much of San Diego, became a general in the Union Army, as did Capt. Nathaniel Lyon, who had opened a new route over the mountains. Lt. Col. Bankhead Magruder, who had caned Lewis Franklin in the Plaza, resigned his commission, and became a Confederate general. After the war, he fought for Maximilian in Mexico. An­drew B. Gray, the engineer with the U.S. Boundary Commission, and one of the original developers of New Town, also became a Confederate general.

Capt. Derby, the engineer who first turned the flow of the San Diego River, continued his humorous writings under the name of John Phoenix, built roads in the untamed Northwest, but began to go blind at the age of 34, and died in 1861. James Lassitor, known to passengers on both the Birch and Butterfield Lines, as operator of Lassitor’s Place in Green Valley and as station master at Vallecito, was murdered and robbed in the desert in 1863, while he was returning from a successful prospecting trip to the new Arizona gold mines. Albert B. Smith took his own life.

The Hungarian count, Agoston Haraszthy, who was named the first sheriff in San Diego, became an assayer for the government mint in San Francisco, and was accused and cleared of embezzling more than $150,000 in gold. He subsequently was sent to Europe to gather cuttings to improve the grape culture of California, and as a result was credited with the growth of the state’s wine indus­try. The last heard of Agoston Haraszthy was in 1871, when he disappeared from a plantation he owned in Nicaragua. It is believed he fell into a creek and was eaten by alligators.

A few San Diegans were still clawing away at the mountains that for so long had frustrated hopes for the future. Pete Larkins and Joe Stancliff, who had packed oats down the hay road in Ori­flamme Canyon, from Cuyamaca Valley to Vallecito, for the Butterfield stages, built a little station at the foot of Mountain Springs, on the bitter but more direct trail that led from Ft. Yuma to San Diego, and with a long team of oxen were liter­ally dragging occasional immigrant wagons and teams up the steep rocky hillsides.

The end of the war brought reports of mass desertions from the Union and Confederate Armies, and there were expectations of new waves of immigrants, particularly from the ravaged South where an old order had come to a violent close, and by November, 1865, the Wilmington Journal reported there were 300 wagons, mostly from Texas, between the Rio Grande and Fort Yuma. The Journal remarked “it is feared that the love of the Union is not very strong among this multitude.”

The new wave would be a new generation and belong to a new era of law and order and progress. The hand of the past and the weight of isolation had left their marks on Old Town. The editor of the Wilmington Journal, A. A. Polhamus, visited San Diego in 1865, by steamer. He wrote:

“Walking up the hill we passed through the deserted Presidio which is in ruins. The ground is covered with ice plant and the pretty flowers would seem to denote that where they grow some unknown hero’s foot had trod, else their beauty is in vain. On returning to the town we found it as quiet as a village graveyard, and the appearance of many of the houses conveys the impression that they are sepulchers for the dead rather than for the living. San Diego was at one time much larger than it is now. Between three hundred and four hundred inhabitants, four stores, three hotels, one church, one school with fifty-three pupils. The county contains 13,000 square miles yet has but one town, San Diego, one church, one school, no newspaper.”

The old ways and the old feelings died slowly. Mary C. Walker, of Manchester, N. Y., arrived from San Francisco in 1865 to teach school at Old Town, and was forced to resign after befriending a mulatto woman. The next year she married the widower Ephraim Morse. She recalled the following scene:

“A Spanish circus visited San Diego soon after my arrival. It exhibited in the evening in a corral with high adobe walls, the company having no tents. The place was lighted by strips of cloth laid in cans of lard and then set on fire. The primitive lanterns were set on high posts and at best furnished a poor light. The spectators included nearly all of the population of the town who could pay the admittance fee of fifty cents. I think the Indians were admitted at half price. The Americans and Spanish occupied one side of the corral, and the Indians squatted on the ground on the other. The performances on the trapeze and the tightrope looked especially weird and fantastic in the smoky light of these primitive lanterns.”

A promising wealth still glistened in the sun. A rich gold lead, assaying $160 a ton, was struck twenty miles north of San Diego in the direction of Escondido. Gold discoveries at Jamacha, how­ever, proved worthless, since nobody could locate the source of the loose, rich quartz scattered about the ground.

But the hills were green once more and the cattle and the sheep were fat and multiplying, and the new tides of immigrants into California would need meat and wool. The mountains and the deserts would remain as brooding challenges and the eyes of pioneers would turn more and more to the harbor and the open sea as the gateway to the future. And here was a climate that despite occasional vagaries beckoned gently to American pioneers as it had to the Silver Dons.