The Silver Dons, 1833-1865

CHAPTER FOUR: Rise of the Ranchos

The warm sun of California lighted the flowering of a pastoral scene that would leave its magic and legends for generations yet to come. For 400 miles, from San Diego to Monterey, California became a vast, unfenced grazing ground. Silver ornaments from Mexico grew heavier on trappings of the horses which the landed Dons rode through the seas of wild mustard which drowned the hills in blazing yellow. They built rambling ranch houses and yet maintained their homes in the towns, and all doors were open to every visitor.

Alvarado and Micheltorena continued the policy of granting public lands, as was done throughout all of Mexico, in conform­ance with the old Spanish principle which had recognized the Crown as the owner of all colonial possessions. With Pico it was a problem of finding enough deserving people to reward.

Many land grants were held provisionally, others were claimed and then abandoned for one reason or another, and still other large sections were merely occupied and used, or, in some cases, token tracts granted to Indians for their maintenance were appropriated in exchange for liquor or sacks of goods.

The applicant for a land grant needed only to provide assurance he was a Mexican citizen, submit a diseño, or map, giving the approximate boundaries and describing natural landmarks, and promise to occupy the land, build a house on it, and stock it with some cattle. No payment of any kind was required. The final act of possession was carried out by local officials. The taking over of the first land grant in San Diego, Los Peñasquitos, by Capt. Ruiz, in 1823, was described by Capt. Pablo de la Portilla:

“. . . I took Señor Ruiz by the hand and led him over it and made him take real and personal possession of said tract which he did take quietly and peacefully. I did cast stones to the four winds and made other acts of real possession. I, the above commissioned officer, ordered in the name of His Majesty, whom God may protect, that no one shall dispute in any manner the above mentioned Ruiz in his possession of said tract, called Peñasquitos, which the aforesaid Francisco María Ruiz has taken and which he shall not be dispossessed without being first heard and through legal right under the penalty of two hun­dred dollars the payment of which I now condemn whoever shall disturb him in possession . . .”

The old Spanish league contained 4,439 acres, and a maximum grant was supposed to be eleven leagues. In time maps were not required. The only surveys were those made by “practical men” on horseback with lariats, sometimes only of fifty varas, or approx­imately 137 1/2 feet, in length, with stakes on each end. A horseman would plant one stake while another rode off at full speed to the length of the rope and set the second stake. This would be repeated until the land between natural landmarks was measured off. Landmarks were hills, conjunctions of creeks, groups of trees or even single trees. If natural markers were lacking, stones were placed in piles or sticks casually driven into the ground.

Wherever there was water there was a ranch, from the coastal mesas which are cut here and there by the intermittent streams of California, to the broad upland valleys which are enriched by mountain snows.

Los Peñasquitos Rancho, which followed the narrow Peñasqui­tos Canyon and Creek into the low foothills, and consisted of 8,486 acres, passed into the possession of Francisco María Alva­rado, a builder of one of the earliest homes in Old Town, in 1837. Before his death Capt. Ruiz transferred it to Alvarado in compen­sation for board and care while in failing health. Alvarado also claimed, through a grant from the interim governorship of Carrillo in 1838, the town commons in Soledad Valley. Los Peñasquitos Canyon opens into Soledad Valley. This claim was never recognized, however.

Marriage was a route to plenty. John Forster, the English trader who came to California by way of Guaymas, married Doña Isadora Pico, one of the sisters of Pío Pico who had escaped the Jamul massacre, and in 1845 came into possession of the govern­ment ranch, La Nación, which had been used by José Antonio Estudillo for grazing cattle for a number of years. It was a stroke of good fortune that his father-in-law was governor of California. This tract of 26,631 acres, lying on both sides of the Sweetwater River, adjoined the pueblo lands of San Diego on the south. The area now embraces the cities of National City and Chula Vista.

The Estudillo family held the nearby Otay and Janal Ranchos, two of the earliest land grants in San Diego, dating back to 1829 and the governorship of José María Echeandía. Janal Rancho had 4,436 acres and Otay Rancho 6,657.

The order by Micheltorena restoring some of the missions to the care of the padres, and which had left the San Diego Mission with the ranchos of El Cajon and Santa Ysabel, was ignored by Pico.

Miguel de Pedrorena, the sea trader from Lima, married María Antonia Estudillo, a daughter of José Antonio Estudillo. It was María and not Miguel, however, who in 1845 received El Cajon Rancho, the richest grazing ground of the San Diego Mission. This was a tract of 48,799 acres, embracing what is now El Cajon, Bos­tonia, Santee, Lakeside and Flinn Springs, between the eastern edge of La Mesa and El Monte Park, and lying, in part, along the San Diego River. Pedrorena became a rancher as well as merchant.

The English sailor Edward Stokes and his father-in-law, José Joaquín Ortega, acquired two large ranchos, Santa María Valley in 1843, and Santa Ysabel Valley, the site of the asistencaa of the San Diego Mission, in 1844. Santa María Rancho, or Valle de Pamo, was a grant of 17,708 acres, and the present town of Ra­mona, thirty-eight miles from San Diego, is situated in its central portion. Santa Ysabel is a well-watered valley, and until taken from the Mission had a large Indian population. The grant con­tained 17,719 acres.

Jonathan Trumbull Warner, now back in California after his visit to the United States, acquired San José Valley, a property of San Luis Rey Mission known as Agua Caliente and now as War­ner’s Ranch. It had been held previously by Capt. Portilla and José Antonio Pico, another brother of Pío Pico, and divided into two ranchos. They apparently abandoned them because of contin­ual troubles with the Indians, and so, in 1844, Warner filed a petition for the entire valley, or 44,323 acres. Warner never mar­ried into a Spanish-Mexican family. He became a Mexican citizen, however, taking the name of Juan José Warner, and married Anita Gale, the daughter of an English sea captain who had been left in the care of the Pico family while she was still a young girl. Warner went into business as a rancher and operator of a trading post and he soon found himself astride an important immigrant route. He became known as “Juan Largo”, or Long John.

Another one of the English mariners, Capt. Joseph Snook, was naturalized in 1833 and while he was still engaged in the coastal shipping trade, had the foresight to marry María Antonia Alva­rado, the daughter of Juan Bautista Alvarado. He was captain of the ship which transported Isaac Graham and his exiled hunters to San Blas and was at Monterey when it was “captured” by Com­modore Jones. As early as 1842 he received a grant of two square leagues along the upper San Dieguito River, and three years later received an adjoining tract of the same size from Gov. Pico. With that, he quit the sea and settled down on his princely estate of 17,763 acres known as St. Bernardo Rancho, which stretched along the rolling land on both sides of what is now Highway 395, from north of Lake Hodges south to Peñasquitos Creek.

Capt. Snook’s father-in-law held El Rincón del Diablo Rancho, 12,653 acres adjoining St. Bernardo on the north and now the site of the city of Escondido with its fine surrounding farm lands and citrus groves. He received it in 1843 from Gov. Micheltorena.

The Arguellos had cast their eyes to the south. Santiago, the elder, claimed a large acreage below the present international border, Rancho Ti Juan, his grant dating back as early as 1829. Here, in time, rose the squatter town of Tijuana and the resort area of Agua Caliente. During the Mexican years that area was considered the frontier and the ranch was abandoned from time to time because of lack of protection from the Indians. In one such period José Antonio Aguirre instituted proceedings to gain con­trol of the property, but the governor gave Arguello six months in which to re-occupy the ranch, which he did.

His son, Santiago Emilio Arguello, was handed a section of Upper California by Gov. José Figueroa in 1833. This was Rancho Milijo, located along El Camino Real south of San Diego Bay, and evidently running into his father’s property in Mexico, and which eventually became identified as La Punta. The home that he built appears on the first maps made by the Americans, but its hilltop site has been covered by the freeway from San Diego to Tijuana. He never was able to substantiate his right to this as well as to other properties. Rancho Milijo was estimated to have included more than thirty square miles. In the area now are the communi­ties of Otay, Palm City, Nestor and San Ysidro. The Machado family of San Diego also came into possession of lands below the Arguello Ranch in Lower California.

Throughout so many of the grants in Southern California runs the name of Pico. Pío Pico had held Jamul since 1831, but as he was rarely there, it was left in charge of his brother, Andrés. The limitation on grants of eleven leagues was forgotten. In 1841 Pío and Andrés received from their old enemy, Gov. Alvarado, the largest grant of them all, Rancho San Onofre y Santa Margarita, consisting of 89,742 acres along the coast in northwestern San Diego County. Three years later, in 1844, they added another sec­tion known as Las Flores. They now had 133,440 acres stretching twenty miles along the Pacific Coast, from the city of Oceanside north to the Orange County line near San Clemente, and rising eastward into the coastal mountains. Las Flores was acquired by the Picos by the simple device of having a grant issued in the name of an Indian, Pablo Apis, who was living in the starving In­dian pueblo of Las Flores, and then transferring title to themselves. The United States Marines were to acquire a large portion of the land during World War II.

After long effort Juan María Osuna, the first alcalde of San Diego, in 1845, was able to obtain absolute title to the San Dieguito Rancho, the 8,824 acres which became known as Rancho Santa Fe, about twenty-five miles north of San Diego and inland from the sea about three miles. Osuna had obtained possession of the property in 1836, and provisional grants were made to him in 1840 and 1841. His daughter Felipa married Juan María Mar­rón, a son of a frontier settler, who always managed to hold a public post of some kind at one time or another, and who acquired the nearby Agua Hedionda Rancho, just south and east of the present town of Carlsbad and along US Highway 101. It contained 13,311 acres. Northward from San Dieguito Rancho was the grant of the dram shop owner, Andrés Ybarra, which was known as Las Encinitas Rancho. The one square league of 4,431 acres was in­land from the coast and east of the present town of Encinitas.

Los Vallecitos de San Marcos, 8,877 acres of valley land west of El Rincón del Diablo Rancho, was granted to Jose María Alva­rado in 1840 but eventually became the property of Lorenzo Soto and in modern times the site of the town of San Marcos. La Cañada de Los Coches, the smallest land grant in California, con­sisting of only 28.39 acres, on present Highway 80 just west of Flinn Springs and in the center of El Cajon Rancho, was granted in 1843 to La Beata, Doña Apolinaria Lorenzana, who also owned Jamacha Rancho. The mission fathers formerly watered their swine in dry seasons at a little spring arising from subterranean sources, thus giving it its name of Glen of the Hogs. Pauma Ran­cho, 13,309 acres southeast of the Pala Mission, and watered by the San Luis Rey River, was granted in 1844 to José Antonio Ser­rano. Buena Vista Rancho, 1,184 acres surrounding the present town of Vista, was granted to an Indian named Felipe, in 1845, but it was not to remain with him for very long. Cuca Rancho, 2,174 acres south of Palomar Mountain, was granted to María Juana de Los Angeles in 1845. In the same year Gov. Pico gave Cuyamaca Rancho, a mountainous area now embracing Cuya­maca State Park and Cuyamaca Lake, to Agustín Olvera who had married his niece, Concepción Arguello, but the boundaries were vague and much of the country was inaccessible in bad weather. Disputes over this territory were to last for many years. Olvera resided in Los Angeles and historic Olvera Street still bears his name.

Two Indians of San Luis Rey Mission, Andrés and José Manuel, were granted Guajome Rancho east of the Mission and lying be­tween the present towns of Vista and Bonsall, in 1845. This grant of 2,219 acres soon passed into the hands of an American mer­chant, Abel Stearns, of Los Angeles, who married a daughter of Juan Bandini. The Bear Valley district northeast of Escondido, known as Rancho Guejito y Cañada de Palomia, consisting of 13,298 acres, was granted in 1845 to José María Orozco, who had served as a justice of the peace and collector of customs in San Diego. Juan López, who also built one of the early homes in Old Town, near that of his friend, Santiago Arguello, took over the San Vicente and Padre Barona Valleys, which lie south of Ramona and northeast of Lakeside. This tract of 13,316 acres was known as Cañada de San Vicente Rancho.

In a rare gesture of consideration, the government denied a peti­tion of Bonifacio López for grazing rights in San Pasqual Valley, on the upper San Dieguito River, where a small band of Christian Indians had been re-settled in their own “pueblo” of mud and grass shacks after the secularization of the San Diego Mission.

Juan Bandini was not fortunate with his property and he finally abandoned Tecate Rancho below the border and transferred his interests to areas north of San Diego and into Lower Califor­nia. Pico reached down into Baja California to grant to Bandini the lands of the last mission built in the Californias, Guadalupe, fifty miles below Tecate and founded in 1834 by the Dominicans. It is now the site of a religious colony which fled from Russia. Bandini also was to lay claim to the offshore islands of Santa Catalina and Santa Cruz.

Other ranchos, and the owners or occupants, were: Cueros de Venado, J. M. Marrón; Jeus, M. I. López; Paguai, Rosario Aguilar; San Antonio Abad, Santiago E. Arguello; San Ysidro, José López, and Secuán, probably in Lower California, Juan López. Only one of these went before the U.S. Land Commission.

The end of the mission system had brought some fear to the Boston hide traders who had depended on the mission ranchos for the great shipments of leather for the factories of New England. Alfred Robinson, in his “Life in California,” wrote:

“At first, the change was considered disastrous to the prosperity of California, and the wanton destruction of property which followed, seemed to warrant the conclusion; but the result, however, proved quite the contrary. Individual en­terprise, which succeeded, has placed the country in a more flourishing condition, and the wealth, instead of being confined to the monastic institu­tions, as before, has been distributed among the people.

“The liberality of the Californians, since their first opposition to Mexico, has induced many foreigners to settle in the country, and several hundreds of Americans may be already found located at different points. Their industrious habits have procured for them many very promising settlements, where the lands, under the judicious management, produce abundance, and contribute greatly to the beauty of the surrounding country.”

Nostalgia always has gripped those who looked back on this period in California’s history. William Heath Davis, in his “Sev­enty-five Years in California,” wrote:

“When the rancheros . . . rode about, during the leisure season, which was between the marking time and the matanza, or killing time, and from the end of the matanza to the spring time again, the more wealthy of them were generally dressed in a good deal of style, with short breeches extending to the knee, ornamented with gold or silver lace at the bottom, with botas (leggings) below, made of fine soft deer skin, well tanned and finished, richly colored, and stamped with beautiful devices (these articles having been imported from Mexico, where they were manufactured), and tied at the knee with a silk cord, two or three times wound around the leg, with heavy gold or silver tassels hanging below the knee. They wore long vests, with filagree buttons of gold or silver, while those of more ordinary means had them of brass. They wore no long coats, but a kind of jacket of good length, most generally of dark blue cloth, also adorned with filagree buttons. Over that was the long serape or poncho, made in Mexico and imported from there, costing from $20 to $100, according to the quality of the cloth and the richness of the ornamentation.

“The serape was always plain, while the poncho was heavily trimmed with gold or silver fringe around the edges, and a little below the col­lars around the shoulders.

“They wore hats imported from Mexico and Peru, generally stiff; the finer quality of softer material — vicuña, a kind of beaver skin obtained in those countries. Their saddles were silver-mounted, embroidered with silver or gold, the bridle heavily mounted with silver, and the reins made of the most select hair of the horse’s mane, and at a distance of every foot or so there was a link of silver connecting the different parts together.

“Behind the saddle, and attached thereto, was the anqueta, of leather, of half­moon shape, covering the top of the hindquarters of the horse, but not reaching to the tail; which was also elaborately stamped with figures and lined with sheep skin, the wool side next to the horse.

“The stirrups were cut out of a solid block of wood, about two and a half inches in thickness. They were very large and heavy . . . Their spurs were inlaid with gold and silver, and the straps of the spurs worked with silver and gold thread.

“When thus mounted and fully equipped, these men presented a magnificent appearance, especially on the feast days of the Saints, which were celebrated at the Missions. Then they were arrayed in their finest and most costly habili­ments, and their horses in their gayest and most expensive trappings. They were usually large, well developed men, and presented an imposing aspect. The outfit of a ranchero and his horse, thus equipped, I have known to cost several thousand dollars.”

The styles of women’s dress changed but little over many years until the rise in trade brought the latest styles from Mexico City. Families were large but there were plenty of servants. The women, though small of stature, exerted strong domination over family life. Pío Pico once said that until he was twenty-six years of age “I was in complete subjugation to my mother, my father being dead. When younger I could repeat the whole catechism from be­ginning to end, and she would send for me to do so for the edification of strangers.” Children were almost as plentiful as the cattle on the range. Juan Bandini had ten children; Joaquín Car­rillo,twelve; Santiago Arguello, twenty-two; José Arguello, thirteen; Domingo Carrillo, eight; José Antonio Estudillo, eight, and José María Ortega, eleven. There were Indians to serve as cooks and maids, to wash and clean, and to attend individually to the wants of even the youngest child.

Days were made pleasant with sports of various kinds. There was cock fighting, horse racing and bear hunting, and the Plaza in Old Town would be fenced upon occasion for days of amateur bull fighting and the cruel bear-and-bull fights.

The population of the San Diego district began to grow once more. By 1845 there were perhaps 350 white persons, native-born and foreign, in the area of San Diego. There were now probably forty or so houses in the pueblo and the larger ones had wooden floors and furnishings brought all the way across the Pacific Ocean from China and the Philippines, or around the Horn from Eastern United States. With military protection absent, a militia was or­ganized under the command of Andrés Pico as captain. In the same year Upper California was divided into two districts, with the first district, Los Angeles, including everything from San Luis Obispo south and having three partidos of which San Diego was the third. Each partido was to have a sub-prefect, and for San Diego, the appointment went to Santiago Arguello. The sub-prefect succeeded to the authority which had been vested in justices of the peace who had continued, however, to be referred to as alcaldes.

The hide trade went on as before, Boston vessels taking as many as 40,000 hides at a time from the houses at La Playa where they had been cured and stored after being collected up and down the coast. With heavy imports, the market in Boston drifted up and down, and at one time, Alfred Robinson, who was in New York in 1844 in connection with his duties as a supercargo, or shipping agent, wrote that the ship California, which had sailed from San Diego, “still lies at the wharf in Boston, her hides unsold and the owners awaiting better prices . . . hides are worth from l0c to 10-3/4c.” Generally shippers expected about one hide for each dollar they invested in wares to be sold in San Diego and other coastal ports.

American whalers appeared in increasing numbers. At least eight of them put into San Diego Bay, in the period from 1842 to 1845, for repairs and supplies, and, in some cases to sell merchan­dise to pay for outfitting before returning home. One whaler from New London, Conn., in 1843, received permission from the Prefect at Los Angeles to make repairs at San Diego but was refused a license to hunt whales in the bay. It did so anyway, evidently, for Manuel Domínguez, the justice of the peace, received a letter from the Prefect demanding to know who had granted permission.

The American settler who became the first United States consul at San Francisco, Thomas O. Larkin, and who often engaged in trading deals with Capt. Fitch, in a letter to the Secretary of State, wrote in 1844:

“In all probability, within three years there will be six hundred American ships, with twenty thousand seamen, engaged in the whale fishery on the Northwest Coast of America. The ports of California offer many inducements to those thus engaged, to put in for fresh provisions and to recruit the health of sick on board.”

Less than six months later, his prediction was confirmed, according to a letter he wrote, as a correspondent, to the New York Journal of Commerce:

“By almost every newspaper from the United States and many from England we find extracts and surmises respecting the sale of this country. One month England is the purchaser, the next month the United States. In the meantime the progress of California is onward, and would still be more so if Mexico would not send every few years a band of thieving soldiers and rapacious officers . . .the whole foreign trade of California is in the hands of Americans. There now (are) 500 to 1000 American whalers with 20,000 seamen in the Pacific. Half of them will be within twenty days’ sail of San Francisco.”

He noted that there were 1000 to 1200 foreigners in California:

“Many of them never expect to speak the prevailing language of the country. At this . . . period a knowledge of the English language is to a merchant of more importance than the Spanish . . . A person traveling from San Diego to San Francisco . . . can stop at a foreigner’s farm house almost every few hours, and travel without knowledge of the Spanish language . . . The laws of Mexico are but little respected, and observed only when they are for the inter­est of this country.”

He saw the leading men of San Diego in a different light than did their political enemies. He described Juan Bandini as a man of wealth, information and influence, of good standing and studious disposition.

In a letter to Secretary of State James Buchanan, he wrote:

“Ninety miles (by sea) south of San Diego there are some very extensive cop­per mines belonging to Don Juan Bandini. There is no doubt but that gold, silver, quicksilver, copper, lead, sulphur and coal mines are to be found all over California. . . the Indians always have said there was (sic) mines in the coun­try but would not show their location; and the Californians did not choose to look for them.”

Capt. Fitch, he wrote, was “a man of wealth, some influence, of medium information, not of a political character in general.” John Warner “has much land and some cattle. A man of active life, good information, some influence, will have more. Addicted to politics.” As for José Antonio Aguirre, the merchant and ship owner from Spain, he was “a man of wealth and information, correct and for­mal. Has much influence among the Spaniards in this country, the same with clergy. Converses but not connected in politics.”

Larkin, encouraged by Buchanan and working secretly with a number of Californians, including Warner, sought to bring about in an orderly way an independent California which eventually could seek the protection of the United States. But other events were to intervene.

In Washington and Mexico City, the issue of Texas reached a climax. The independence of Texas had never been recognized by Mexico, and its admission into the Union late in 1845 triggered an outbreak of hostilities. On May 13,1846, President Polk signed a bill declaring that a state of war existed between the United States and Mexico. A “Manifest Destiny” began to unfold.

Within four days rumors of the declaration of war reached Com­modore John D. Sloat and a United States fleet then in the harbor of Mazatlán, Mexico. The ships slipped by a British fleet and headed out to sea.

Frémont, the American military officer supposedly engaged in exploration and mapping, moved his rugged adventurers too near the coast, in violation of a pledge he made to Gen. José Castro, and in June, in the charged atmosphere, a band of Americans led by a rawboned frontiersman named Ezekiel Merritt seized some horses that had been collected for Castro. In the ensuing excitement, set­tlers in the Sacramento and Napa Valleys began an insurrection in which they raised a crude Bear Flag at Sonoma and proclaimed the Republic of California. In less than a month the new “repub­lic” had withered away.

Pío Pico, with history rushing upon him, had hastened to dis­pose of the rest of the mission properties. He auctioned off San Juan Capistrano Mission on December 4, 1845, to John Forster and James McKinley, for $710.

Five months later, on May 15, 1846, he gave away land many believed to be within the pueblo boundaries in granting Coronado and North Island to Pedro C. Carrillo, the son of Carlos Antonio Carrillo, who was receptor or collector of customs at San Diego and who had married Josefa, another daughter of Juan Bandini. The grant of 4,185 acres was known as Peninsula de San Diego Rancho.

The two islands are connected to the mainland by a narrow causeway of sand to form the protecting arm of San Diego Bay. They were covered with grass and wild poppies, and Car­rillo said he needed them as grazing grounds for his cattle. They are now the site of the City of Coronado and the United States Naval Air Station.

Three days later, on May 18, the mission which Pico had helped despoil, San Luis Rey, once the most populous and most prosper­ous of all the missions of California, was sold to his brother, José Antonio, and Antonio José Cot, for $2437.

Monserrate Rancho, 13,322 acres south and east of Fallbrook, was granted to Ysidro María Alvarado, and San Felipe Rancho, 9,972 acres in San Felipe Valley, east of the mountains and on the old Sonora route from Mexico to California, was granted to an Indian by the name of Felipe Castillo, but eventually passed into possession of John Forster. Ramón Osuna, son of the first alcalde, tried to claim Valle de las Viejas, between Alpine and Descanso.

On June 8, Pico signed a deed conveying the mother mission of California, San Diego, and all its remaining lands, 58,875 acres from the pueblo boundary inland to E1 Cajon Valley, and from National City to Clairemont, now the major residential areas of San Diego, to Santiago Arguello in payment for past services, whatever they might have been.

After performing the last recorded baptism, on June 14, Fr. Oliva left the unhappy Mission of San Diego and retired to San Juan Capistrano. At San Luis Rey, Fr. José María de Zalvidea, who previously had toiled for twenty years at Mission San Gabriel, and was regarded by the Indians almost as a saint, was in his last days. Felipa Osuna de Marrón remembered how he pierced his feet with nails, until he hardly had any toes left, and knelt on the ground in the fields and taunted bulls to attack him. He died sometime in June and was buried on the gospel side of the main altar at San Luis Rey.

On June 30, Colonel Stephen Watts Kearny left Fort Leaven­worth, Kansas, to lead the Army of the West on the Santa Fe Trail to California. On July 2, Commodore John D. Sloat ar­rived at Monterey from Mazatlán and after an unexplained delay of five days, disclosed to the Californians that war between Mex­ico and the United States had already begun, and proceeded to raise the Stars and Stripes. Two days later a courier brought the news to Frémont.