Site  by Lynne Landwehr 2001






Features and Information: 
    First-Person Historical Narratives

From Mary Cone's 
Two Years in California
Chicago: S.C. Griggs and Company, 1876

[Note: Although Benjamin Foxen's rancho was located south of the San Luis Obispo/Santa Barbara County line, the excerpt which follows is of interest within the context of SLO County history because of Foxen's connections with the Dana family of Nipomo; he was their "next-door neighbor," some 20 miles to the southeast.  Other accounts of Foxen concur that he was a decidedly "original character."]

     "Mr. Foxon [Foxen], at whose house I stayed, is an Englishman, and claims to be the oldest Anglo-Saxon settler now living in California. He has been more than fifty years in the State, and has lived where he now does since 1836. He brought his family there the year following. There was no settler or settlement near, and the household lived under a tent while the father built the adobe house which they now occupy.

     "Some of his accounts of the doings in those early times bordered so nearly upon the marvelous as to be rather a tax upon one's credulity. Among many other things that were passing strange, he told how upon one occasion his house was surrounded by grizzly bears, and he standing in the door, with his wife to help him load his gun, had killed eleven of the monsters! He had often been with Kit Carson in his exploring expeditions, and shared his dangers and his hardships. He had also engaged in enterprises under the leadership of Fremont. 

FoxenAdobeRemains.jpg (32293 bytes)
A pile of rocks (background),
indicated by a plaque (foreground),
is all that remains of the adobe
where Benjamin Foxen and his wife
fought off the 11 grizzly bears,
as recounted to visitor and writer Mary Cone. 

     "His wife was Spanish, and in all the half-century they had lived together she had not learned so much of his native tongue as would enable her to ask or answer the simplest question. Eleven of their eighteen children were still living, several of them in the vicinity. They were educated at the Santa Inez mission school, about eighteen miles distant. 

     "Mr. Foxon's possessions extended over many leagues, and his flocks and herds were numbered by thousands. A few years ago, on account of a severe drought which killed the feed, the family lost in a single season fifteen thousand sheep and seven thousand cattle, and yet in the twenty-four hours I stayed there, and the four meals I ate, I saw neither milk nor butter, nor anything into which milk enters as a compound, and no fruit of any sort. Neither did I see anywhere around the house anything that looked like a garden, or any preparations for raising vegetables for the future. In answer to some questions having a bearing upon the subject, Mr. Foxon said that it was too windy to raise fruit; he had tried two or three times; had set out trees, etc. 

     "Of course a Yankee would have found a way to remedy this difficulty by seeking a sheltered place, which must have been easy to find, where the surface was so uneven and hills near by, or he would have constructed a shelter to keep off the wind. Mr. Foxon  said he supposed they might milk a cow or two, and have milk and butter; but they had sheep corraled near by, and if they had cows they would be obliged to rise early to milk them and get them out of the way before the sheep were let out, which would be a trouble; so they lived on meat and bread (unaccompanied by butter) and eggs, and creamless coffee. 

     "But, as if to make up for the quality, they increased the number of their meals. Although the breakfast was not over till somewhere between eight and nine o'clock, they had four meals per diem, the last being supper at six. The extra occasion was made up of tortillas and tea about four o'clock in the afternoon. 

     "I think I was quite a God-send to the old gentleman, and he made the most of the blessing. In this retired place it was something to have an attentive listener for a whole day. How constantly he talked, and how much he told me of the early times, the Indians, the bears and other wild beasts! He did not think that the coming of the Anglo-Saxons, and their settlement in the country, had increased the content and happiness of the inhabitants. As for their enterprise and improvements, what was the use of them if people were happier without them? There never were people that lived lives so easy, so full of contentment and actual happiness as the Californians did when under Spanish and Mexican sway. The delightful climate and fertile soil made it easy to support life, and what they had was shared by all who needed it. The coming of Americans introduced selfishness, the greed of gain, and all the thousand ills that follow in their train. 

     "In an interval of rest in the conversation, when Mr. Foxon went out for a walk, I looked around everywhere for something to read. Not a book, not a newspaper, old or new, was to be found; not even an almanac was visible. It seemed strange to see people living so absolutely isolated--cut off from all the interests that affect the race, both in the past and present. Three sons and a daughter were still at home. One of the sons bore himself with the air of a prince, and when I came away, to assist me in starting, bestowed upon me numerous little civilities in a most gentlemanly and even courtly manner.  

     "We reached San Luis Obispo, the principal town in the county of the same name, about two o'clock in the morning, and were allowed to rest until seven, when we started onward again. We saw the old mission church which was built in the early mission days, and gave name to the town and county. 

     "Soon after leaving San Luis Obispo we crossed the Santa Lucia mountains, a spur of the Coast Range, and were then in  the Salinas valley. This is a fine area of land, about seventy-five miles long and from three to five miles wide. About one-half of the valley lies within the limits of San Luis Obispo county. We crossed the Santa Margarita ranch, belonging to Mr. Murphy, soon after descending the mountains. This ranch has within its boundary twenty-five thousand acres of land, and upon these acres roam seventeen thousand head of cattle, all of which are owned by Mr. Murphy. 

     "As we rode along in the stage a gentleman, who was well acquainted in that region, pointed out a place that had been disrupted and thrown into confusion by an earthquake not many years before. Large fissures were made in the ground, which closed again with a suddenness that allowed them to swallow up horses and cattle that were feeding on the spot in unconscious ignorance of the casualty that awaited them. Quite a number of horses disappeared in this catastrophe, some of which left their tails or their feet sticking out of the cracks so as to identify the cause and place of their departure. These were their only mementoes. 

     "Twenty miles north of San Luis Obispo we came to the Paso Robles ranch. This lies on a beautiful level plain, and includes ten square miles. The Paso Robles  springs are on this ranch, and are quite a place of resort. There are two or three large buildings for the accommodation of visitors, and they seemed to be well filled when we were there. The water in a spring near the house is scalding hot, while in one but a mile distant it is icy cold, but in both it is strongly impregnated with sulphur. There was quite a civilized look around these springs, and much was said in commendation of the healing power of the waters.

     "The greater part of this day's ride was through the Salinas valley, and there was much to make it attractive. The sun was bright and not too warm, the air was pure and the sky cloudless. The country looked like a grand park. Large oaks stood here and there as a skillful landscape-gardener would have placed them in order to get the best effect. There were no thickets, and only trees enough to give beauty and variety to the scene. 

     "The ground was covered with a luxuriant growth of alfilerilla, a native product, which is of a peculiarly soft and pleasant green. Without looking at all sickly, it has a yellowish tinge, which seems to give peculiar effect to the variations of light--to the alternations of brightness and shadow. This alfilerilla made the groundwork, then the pattern was filled in with flowers, 'whose beauty and whose multitude rivaled the constellations.'

     "The California poppy (escholtzia) was in full blossom, and  with its yellow petals shading off from a deep orange to a light straw color, according to the variety to which it belonged, covered oftentimes acres of ground. Sometimes a whole hillside was one solid mass of molten gold, or seemed to be, looking at it from a distance. Many sovereigns might have had their meetings on places covered with "cloth of gold" without any help from the upholsterer. 

     "In other places purple prevailed, and over a large extent of space this royal color was spread out. Again flowers that were red or blue would possess the land, and afford a chance for comparison as to which of the different hues was most agreeable to the eye. To one pair of eyes at least the solution was easy. After seeing yellow hills by the score, and red and blue and purple fields, there was something very restful in looking at the soft, polished and comforting green, unmixed with anything that was flaunting or gaudy. The summing up of the verdict was, although these bright hues are beautiful for variety, yet if choice must be made for common use, 'green it shall be,' for green suits the eyes best,--another proof that, among things as among persons, the brilliant and showy may please us as occasionals, but for every-day wear the quieter and more durable are better. 

PostcardSanMiguelMissionJune21.jpg (23050 bytes)
Mission San Miguel

     "Soon after leaving Paso Robles we came to San Miguel. The old mission church is still standing and is in quite a good state of preservation. The adjoining wing, which was erected for the use of the priests, is now perverted and polluted by being turned into a dram-shop, to our personal regret and the increase of our fears. Our driver had for some time been giving unmistakable evidence of having taken a great many drops too much, and he now increased his potations and our danger. He lingered over his cups and made an unreasonably long delay. 

     "We finally started, and for the next ten or fifteen miles ran such a race as would have left John Gilpin's famous steed far behind. Up hill and down, through rivers and quicksands, we went at a speed that seemed to one unused to racing more than a two-forty pace. We crossed the Salinas twice, splashing through each time as though running for a wager or for life. 

     "When we finally stopped at the next station for a change of horses our poor team was all dripping with sweat, and every muscle was quivering with the strain to which it had been subjected. We started on with fresh horses with almost equal rapidity of motion, nor did the race end until we stopped at the philosophically named town of Plato, and changed team and driver. 

     "In all the eighteen hundred miles that I traveled by stage upon the Pacific coast that was the only 'stage fright' I had--the only case in which I had any cause to doubt the skill or competency of the driver. In southern California especially, the drivers, as a class, seemed to be intelligent, gentlemanly men, to whom it was safe for a lady to trust herself, and upon whom she might depend for any attention or help she needed. 

     "The Atlantic and Pacific railroad, as now surveyed, will pass through the Salinas valley, and when the fortunate day of its completion comes this county will make rapid strides in the race for prosperity. There will then be an outlet for the products of the fertile valley of the Salinas, and tillers of the soil will find out how much better than gold-mines are the riches that honest toil can bring forth from the ground."


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Copyright 2001 Lynne Landwehr.  All rights reserved.