Site  by Lynne Landwehr © 2001






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   First-Person Historical Narratives


"Ten Decades
on a California Rancho:
Random memories
of stirring events in the Golden State
under three flags

by Juan Francisco Dana,
of the Nipomo Rancho,
as told to John Edwin Hogg
and published in Touring Topics
November 1931, Volume 23, Number 11 

Reprinted with the generous permission of 
The Automobile Association
of Southern California

(publisher of Touring Topics)
through John Lehrer, Westways Editor


[Note: The Nipomo Rancho (in the southern part of what is now San Luis Obispo County)  was granted by the Mexican government to Yankee sea captain and trader William Goodwin Dana in 1835.  He met all the requirements--he had converted to Catholicism, married "una hija del pais" (a native daughter),  and taken Mexican citizenship.  In exchange, he received -- free -- 38,000  acres of land on the California coast.  

Like other early ranchos in the County, the Nipomo Rancho became a self-sufficient entity, with a culture that blended Hispanic, "American," and Native American elements.  Dana and his wife Maria Josefa Carrillo de Dana were the parents of 21children; Juan Francisco Dana was their fourth son, born in 1838.  By virtue of a very long lifespan, a clear memory, and a gift for anecdote, he became a 20th-century interpreter of the rancho way of life which vanished as the large landholdings were broken up and settled in the decades after the Gold Rush. 

The following article, along with other selections, was incorporated in the 1960 book of Dana's memoirs entitled Blond Ranchero,  which was re-printed in 1999 by the South County Historical Society.  --Lynne Landwehr]]


       "As I look back over the first ninety-three years of my life, I see such changes, it’s hard for me to realize I’m living in the same world I was born in.  I’ve seen this country change from a thinly-settled, Mexican frontier wilderness to what it is today.  As a boy, I used to make fire with flint and steel, and we lighted our houses with candles.  Now, I can sit in my old adobe house, the Casa de Dana, that my father built ninety-two years ago, when I was only a year old, and listen to radio programs from all over the world.  The automobiles roll past by the thousands every day, and the airplanes drone overhead.  The man who might have predicted such things during my youth would have been considered mad.  They’d have put him in irons!

      "My father, William Goodwin Dana, was a native of Boston.  He followed the seas, and after having made several trips to California as master of the brig Waverly, settled in Santa Barbara in 1825.  He had previously established a commercial business in Honolulu.  Santa Barbara was then the principal city, major seaport, and capital of Mexican, Alta California.  Richard Henry Dana, who gained literary fame with his book Two Years Before the Mast, was my father’s cousin.

     "After he had retired from the seas in 1825, Father established a merchandising business in Santa Barbara.  He became quite a prominent citizen, and at various times held a number of important public offices.  It was there, also, that he became acquainted with my mother, and married her after he had been confirmed in the Catholic faith.  My mother was Josepha Carrillo.  She was a daughter of Don Carlos Carrillo, provincial governor of California.  I was born in Santa Barbara June 22, 1838.

      "By reason of his marriage to a Mexican grantee, my father became eligible for a grant of land, and in 1835 received the tract known as the Nipomo Rancho.  This grant consisted of 38,000 acres.  After receiving it, my father moved his family to Nipomo, and built the old adobe known as Casa de Dana, which has been my home for more than ninety years.  Nipomo is a Spanish corruption of the Canaliño Indian word nipoma, which means “foot of the mountains.”

    "The California that I knew as a boy was a very different country from what it is now.  For some years after Casa de Dana was built from adobe bricks made on the spot, and timbers carried by the Indians from the Santa Inés Mountains, it was the only house between Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo, with the exception of the missions.   All this country was then virtually a wilderness.  Our only near neighbors were Indians.  There was very little land under cultivation, and wild game was everywhere.  Grizzly bears were so numerous they were a nuisance.  We used to make scarecrows to keep them away from storehouses, tents, and wagons.  The valleys swarmed with deer and antelope.  There were no dry years then, and the streams were always full of water.  You could go to any of the streams and catch a bushel of trout in an hour.  Wild ducks and geese used to rise up off the streams and marshes in flocks that darkened the sun.  There were no insect plant pests and crops grew like the weeds do now.

      "As a youngster, I grew up with three languages.  Spanish, of course, was the language of California then.  I learned the language of the Canaliño Indians, and Father, being a New England Yankee, saw to it that I also learned English.  His place of business in Santa Barbara was a trading center and rendezvous for seafaring men from the United States.  I used to go there and talk with those fellows in English, and with this practice, I soon learned to speak English as well as I did Spanish.  I also learned quite a bit of the Kanaka language of the Sandwich Islanders [Hawaiians], many of whom were employed as sailors on ships that traded between Honolulu and Santa Barbara.  Although I’ve spoken Spanish and English for about ninety years, I still prefer to speak Spanish.  I still feel that Spanish is my native language, and English an acquired foreign tongue.

      "How well I remember being ridden about on the shoulder of Lieutenant-Colonel John C. Fremont when he camped on my father’s property in December, 1846.  It was late in November that Fremont began his arduous march from Monterey that was to result in the American flag being raised over Santa Barbara without a shot being fired.  Fremont arrived in San Luis Obispo County on December 10 with his army of 700 poorly-equipped, footsore, and weary soldiers.  They had encountered a great deal of rainy weather, and arrived on my father’s ranch soaked to the skin, very tired, and badly in need of food.

      "Father went over to greet Fremont and his men at their camp, which was located in an oak grove at a point known as The Summit, and not far from Casa de Dana.  Finding the men hungry, he immediately sent a number of vaqueros to round up forty head of cattle to be slaughtered and a feast prepared.  It was while the cowboys were rounding up the cattle that Nazario Quijada, one of the vaqueros, asked me if I’d like to go to the camp and see the American soldiers.  Boy-like, I jumped on Nazario’s horse with him and rode over to the camp.

      "Eight-year-old boys with golden hair and blue eyes were something of an oddity in California in those days.  I had inherited those characteristics from my father.  As a result, I hadn’t been in the camp but a few minutes before Colonel Fremont spied me.  Picking me up, he paraded me before his officers on his shoulder, saying, “Take a look at this boy.  Californians have black hair and olive skins.  This boy may be a little Californian, but I’ll bet he has a Yankee father.”  He was quite sure of it when he found that I spoke English the same as other California youngsters spoke Spanish.

      "Fremont’s men had a big barbecue in camp that evening while the colonel and his staff were feasted and entertained at our home.  That evening, Fremont spoke to my father in private about the condition of his stock and supplies.  Father immediately gave him thirty horses and told him where the animals could be caught.

      "Father and Benjamin Foxen were the only Americans in the district at that time, but both had lived among the Californians so long they knew the sentiment against the invaders to be very bitter.  Father had learned that the Californians planned to ambush Fremont in Gaviota Pass, and suggested to the colonel that he should seek the services of Foxen, who was familiar with the country to the southeast. 

      "The plan for wiping out Fremont’s troops in Gaviota Pass would have been simple and direct.  It was conceived by Augustín Janssens, military comandante of the district.  The Californians would allow the gringo army to enter Gaviota Pass, at that time a narrow defile between towering walls of granite.  With gunpowder, the Californians would loosen huge boulders above the pass.  These would be rolled down to crush men and horses like so many insects.

      "Informed of the odds against him if he attempted to go through Gaviota Pass, Fremont sought a different route through the mountains.  Crossing the Santa Maria Valley, he arrived at Foxen’s ranch, the Rancho Tinaquaic, and solicited the aid of Foxen.  Foxen, torn between loyalty to the Californians and the tie of English blood that bound him to the invaders, refused to aid Fremont.  Then, as Fremont and his men were marching off to their doom, Foxen set out and overtook him.  He escorted the little army through San Marcos Pass while Augustín Janssen and his hardy Californians waited all day at Gaviota Pass for an enemy that failed to appear.  Thus my father had a little-known, but highly important part in the shaping of this bit of history by which California was to become an American state.  

FoxenPlaque.jpg (39858 bytes)
Plaque commemorating
Fremont's stop at the
Foxen Rancho in 1846,
Foxen Canyon Road, Santa Barbara County

      "During my boyhood there were no public schools.  My early education consisted of several years of private tutoring.  Later I attended a private school at Santa Inés. I then attended the Benicia Collegiate Institute, at Benicia, and there received the only instruction I ever had that was in English.  When I was twenty-one years old, I returned to Santa Barbara for a very important appointment.  I was married there on Christmas day, 1851, to Senorita Francisca Carolina Thompson.  She was a daughter of Captain Alpheus B. Thompson.  Captain Thompson was a brother of Francis Thompson, who was the captain of the Alert, the ship aboard which Dana wrote his famous book.  My bride’s mother was of the de la Guerra family, and we were married in the old Casa de la Guerra, which is still a familiar landmark in Santa Barbara.  After the wedding, there was a big fiesta and the wine flowed freely.

       "In those days, good wine was cheap and plentiful.  Everybody drank wine.  We had a code of ethics about drinking, and anyone who took more wine than his head would carry was speedily punished by a sort of unwritten law of social ostracism.  Drunkenness was not at all popular, and consequently, we had very little of it.

      "People in California during the early days were happy and contented.  Life was simple and easy, and we always had plenty of time to enjoy it.  No one was ever hungry.  We had some poverty then, the same as now, but poverty then didn’t carry with it the misery and suffering that it does now.  There was reverence and respect for old age.  Neighbors would actually quarrel over who was to adopt any orphaned children.  Our pleasures were mostly entertainments of a social nature.  Sometimes our fiestas lasted for a week, and they were one great round of feasting, dancing, and music, always with plenty of wine.  Bullfighting and cockfighting were popular sports.  Not infrequently some vaquero would rope and tie up a grizzly bear to be matched against a fighting bull.  Gambling was always popular, as was also horse racing.  The bull ring and the cockpit, however, never held much fascination for me.  I never liked to see animals suffer, and the brutality of such sport disgusted me.

      "People are not the same nowadays.  In the old days, everybody was honest, and a man’s word on anything was usually just as good as gold.  Nowadays, it’s mighty hard to trust anybody for anything.  If you’re not mighty careful whom you trust, you can’t always be sure.  I don’t see how this country is going to carry on if it keeps on drifting toward schemes of dishonesty, crookedness, and trickery, as it has been doing in recent years.  I don’t see why they don’t try to get back to some of the old-fashioned ideas of fairness and honesty.  It would be so much better for everybody.

      "I don’t mean by this that we had no crime in the old days.  We had plenty of it, but it was a very different crime situation from what we have now.  Our criminals were mostly organized gangs of bad men.  They were murderers, cut-throats, robbers, cattle thieves, and rogues of every description.  During the 1850s we had such an orgy of crime that that decade is known to most of the old-timers as “The bloody ‘50s.”  By 1858, things had become so bad that life and property were not safe, and something drastic had to be done about it.  We went to work then and there to organize a vigilance committee, and it soon got the desired results.

      "Under this system, every reputable citizen became virtually a deputy sheriff.  We hanged about a dozen of the bandit ringleaders, shot down a few more, and drove the rest out of the country.  I was one of the vigilante guards, and with my own hands arrested ad put the irons upon several of the rogues who were later taken to San Luis, tried, and hanged.

      "To give you an idea of how tough ad hard-boiled some of these desperadoes were, I well recall one that went to his death on the scaffold at San Luis.  I was one of the guards at the execution, and my job was to protect the prisoner from mob violence.  I can’t remember this fellow’s name, but he was a robber and murderer.  While the hangman was adjusting the rope around his neck, a priest asked him if he had any last words he wanted to say.  Si, padre,” he replied.  Then, speaking in a loud voice so the crowd assembled around the scaffold could hear, he called out:  Adios muchachas bonitas!  Siento mucho dejarlas!”  (“Good-bye pretty girls!  I’m very sorry to leave you!”)  Imagine the utter bravado of such a person! 

      "Among the desperadoes that troubled this country during the 1850s were such fellows as Salomon Pico, Jack Posers, and Pio Linares.  Salomon Pico used to cut the ears off the victims he killed and robbed.  He’d make a wreath of the ears, carrying them around the neck of his horse.  These rascals troubled the countryside for years before the vigilance committee disposed of them.

      "Jack Powers flourished as a bandit for a long time because he led a dual life.  He was known all up and down the coast as a well-bred gentleman and sportsman.  He owned a string of race horses, and was caretaker of the de la Guerra stables.  He mingled with the best families, and this gave him the opportunity to inform himself about money deals, sales of cattle, and when gold was being moved over the trails.  Once he had gained such information, Powers would disguise himself, waylay and rob his victim, and then speedily return to his role as a reputable citizen.

      "Powers first came under suspicion when one of his  victims succeeded in shooting him in the leg. He came to our house, and told me that he had injured his leg by being thrown from a horse.  I examined the wound, and without the slightest thought that I might be right, said:  “It looks like a gunshot wound to me, Jack.”  “Yes,” replied the bandit, “it does look like a gunshot wound, but I got it by falling on a bone that was on the ground at the point where the horse threw me.”  It wasn’t long after that before Powers found it necessary to flee to Mexico, where he and his ringleader, a man by the name of Monet, met their doom. 

    "It was not long after the [bullet/bone] incident that Jack Powers tried to rob my brother, Guillermo, and also made a raid on Casa de Dana.  Guillermo had driven 300 head of cattle to San Francisco, and was on his way home with a saddlebag full of gold received from the sale.  Powers got wind of the transaction, and sought to waylay Guillermo when he came along El Camino Real near where Arroyo Grande is now located.  Fortunately for Guillermo, however, he decided to come home by way of the beach instead of through the mountains where Powers was in wait for him among the willows.  This left Powers mastheaded out there like the Californians were when they tried to waylay Fremont in Gaviota Pass.  It was a mere coincidence that undoubtedly saved Guillermo’s life.

     "That evening, Powers, then unknown to us as an outlaw, made a social call at Casa de Dana to find out if the vaqueros had returned.  When he found Guillermo was safely home, and had apparently brought the money, he bade us goodnight and left.  Casa de Dana was always a stopping place for all sorts of travelers, and, soon after Powers had gone, a Yaqui Indian came along and asked for a place to sleep.  We put him in a small log cabin near the house, and the Indian was soon asleep.  Meanwhile, Powers had organized his gang and returned.  The Yaqui heard him and went to the cabin door to see what it was all about.  One of the bandits tried to grab him, but he only caught the Indian by the serape.  The Indian wriggled out of the garment, slammed the door shut, dived out a back window, and escaped.

      "About this time Azevedo, one of our Indian servants, looked out the door of the house.  A bullet sang past his head and tore out a chunk of plaster beside the door sill.  My brother Enrique then looked out the door, and immediately a bullet whizzed past him.  All hands in the house then bolted the doors, blew out the candles, and ran upstairs, where they could shoot to better advantage.  Powers knew the room where the firearms were kept and promptly surrounded the place in an apparent attempt to keep us from getting the arms.  But when no one went for the weapons, he evidently believed we already had them upstairs, and had put out our lights to repel the attack.  Soon everything was quiet, and a challenge shouted out to the bandits brought no response.

      "The poor Yaqui who was routed out of his lodging hasn’t been seen from that day to this, and probably never did know what it was all about.  Yet, he undoubtedly saved the day for us.  The bandits saw him escape, and no doubt thought he had succeeded in warning us, or that we may have succeeded in taking the arms inside.  It was several years before we pieced together all the details of this raid, and then only when the vigilance committee was about to hang several of the rascals that came to the end of the rope in San Luis.  They told the story of how Powers had tried to waylay Guillermo, and then tried to rob the house when the first effort failed.

      "The vigilance committee never did get Powers to put a rope around his neck, but we got so hot on his trail that we drove him out of the country.  He escaped into Mexico, and while camped in a small Mexican village, quarreled with his henchman Monet over the division of some of the loot.  It resulted in Powers and Monet shooting it out, and they killed each other.  The inhabitants of the village fled when the shooting began, and when they returned with the authorities several hours later, they found that swine had torn to pieces and partially devoured the bodies of the two desperadoes.

       "I believe I saw the first ship that was ever wrecked on Point Arguëllo.  It was the U.S.S. Edith  wrecked there in 1849, just eighty-two years ago.  The gold rush was on in California, and people from here and elsewhere were rushing off to the gold fields.  The sailors aboard the Edith were anxious to join the gold rush, and having no other way to do it, they deliberately put the ship on the beach.  Some of the crew and passengers stopped over with us at Casa de Dana until they could continue their journey.  Father gave them horses and all the money they needed.  The money was left in their rooms at night, as was our usual custom with guests.  If it was needed, the occupant of the room was given access to it without the embarrassment of having to ask for it.  Such was the characteristic hospitality all through California in those days.

      "Although I was only a boy of eleven at that time, I remember the wreck of the Edith as if it were yesterday.  My father bought the salvage rights upon the vessel, and we used to go down there with carretas and oxen.  The sailors helped strip the ship and brought the salvage ashore to be loaded on the carretas.  Day after day they carried me aboard the wreck, where I rigged my fish lines and fished while the men worked.  I caught so many big fish the wreck made an indelible impression upon my memory.

      "Every now and then, I read some newspaper account about hostile Indians in this part of California, and in fairness to the Indians that I knew, I want to say that there never were any hostile Indians here in my time.  They were all good Catholics, and there was never any trouble among them that couldn’t be settled by a few words from any priest.  I spoke their language and knew them so well, that in justice to them I’ll go on record as saying they were never anything but a peaceful and inoffensive people.

      "We also had a good many Tulare Indians around here when I was a boy.  They used to come over the mountains to trade with the Mexicans, and to work as cooks, servants, and general handy men around the ranches.  They were rather different from the Canaliños but they were peaceful, good-natured Indians nevertheless.  Not very many of the Tulares spoke Spanish very well, but I managed to learn enough of their language to know them and understand them.  What became of all these Indians?  Well, they’re like the grizzly bears and the running rivers, all gone.  Their blood may still be with us, but it’s in the veins of Mexicans and Americans.  It would be hard to recognize any of them as Indians now.

     "Times have certainly changed mighty fast since 1875.  I went to Los Angeles in the winter of that year and bought some cattle from José Sepúlveda.  It took me five days to get to Los Angeles with a team and wagon, and fifteen days to get back, driving the cattle.  While in Los Angeles, I met a man who wanted to trade me a whole city block of vacant lots for the team of horses and wagon I was driving.  The block of land was between Broadway and Hill Streets, and between Eighth and Ninth Streets.  I rejected the offer, telling him I was not interested in any real estate so far from the business area of the city.  The same land today, of course, is worth tens of millions of dollars.

      "For many years, Nipomo was a stage station on the line between San Francisco and Los Angeles by way of Santa Barbara.  The first railroad came in 1882.  It was a narrow-gauge line running from Los Olivos to Port San Luis.  Since then, I’ve seen the great agricultural development of this area, with towns and cities springing up like mushrooms after a rain, and all the improvements we’ve seen in recent years.  Now we have automobiles, good roads, telephones, electric lights, airplanes, radios, and what not.  In spite of all the hurry, the passing of the old-time hospitality, and the seeming trend toward dishonesty, I believe people are better off than they used to be.  I believe that people will eventually adjust themselves to the changed conditions, and will manage to find a little time to enjoy and appreciate the blessings they now have.

      "The original Nipomo Rancho has been reduced little by little from 38,000 acres to eighty acres.  My wife died in 1917.  Of the eight children born to us, two daughters and three sons are living.  I now have six grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.  Ninety-three years is a long time for one person to have lived on this earth, especially during the interesting period of history I’ve seen.  If I were a little younger, I’d like to take a ride in an airplane.  But I’m afraid they’re not quite safe enough for an old man like me.  I’m not tired of life yet, and I believe I still have a few good years ahead of me.  I want to live as long as God will let me."  


[Post-script:  Juan Francisco Dana died in 1936, age 98, but there are still plenty of Danas in the Nipomo area.  The Casa de Dana is still standing, and is under repair.]



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