27. July 2014 · Comments Off on The Lady and the Cavalier of Valle de San Jose · Categories: Old West, Uncategorized · Tags: , , , ,

(I have been sidelined this week, working on a chapter of The Golden Road, and discovering about the place where Fredi and the herd of Texas cattle would have finished in California)

California marked the high tide-line of the Spanish empire in the New World. The great wave of conquistadors washed out of the Iberian Peninsula in the fifteenth century looking for gold, honor, glory and land, roared across the Atlantic Ocean, sweeping Mexico and most of South America in consecutive mighty tides, before seeping into the trackless wastes of the American Southwest. Eventually that tide lapped gently at the far northern coast, where it dropped a chain of missions, a handful of military garrisons and small towns, and bestowed a number of property grants on the well-favored and well-connected. There has always been a dreamlike, evanescent quality to that time – as romantic as lost paradises always are. Before the discovery of gold in the millrace of a saw-mill built to further the entrepreneurial aims of a faintly shady Swiss expatriate named John Sutter, California seemed a magical place. It was temperate along the coast and perceived as a healthy place; there were no mosquito-born plagues like malaria and yellow fever, which devastated the lower Mississippi/Missouri regions in the 19th century. Certain parts were beautiful beyond all reasoning, and the rest was at the least attractive. The missions, dedicated primarily to the care of souls also had an eye towards self-sufficiency, and boasted great orchards of olives and citrus, and extensive vineyards. The climate was a temperate and kindly one in comparison with much of the rest of that continent; winters were mild, and summers fair.

It was a rural society of vast properties presided over by an aristocracy of landowners who had been granted their holdings by the king or civil government. Their names still mark the land in the names of towns, roads and natural features; Carrillo, Sepulveda, Verdugo, Vallejo, Dominguez, Pico, Castro, Figueroa, and Feliz, among many others. They ran cattle or sheep on their leagues – the hard work was mostly performed by native Californian Indians; those who had survived such epidemics as were brought inadvertently by Europeans and who were amenable to being trained in useful agricultural skills. These vast estates produced hides, wool and tallow; their owners lived lives of comfort, if no very great luxury. From all accounts they were openhandedly generous, amazingly hospitable, devout … a little touchy about personal insult and apt to fight duels over it, but that could said of most men of the 18th and early 19th centuries.

The Carrillo Ranch house - circa 1929

The Carrillo Ranch house – circa 1929

One of the notable estates was that which lay around the present-day hamlet of Warner Hot Springs. Besides being a very fine property, it was also located the southern emigrant trail – that which ran through south Texas and New Mexico territory to Yuma, at the confluence of the Gila and Colorado Rivers, and terminated in Los Angeles. Eventually, the Butterfield stage line would follow this trail – and the ranch at the place where the road to San Diego diverted from it became a stage stop. The property also was the object of considerable legal wrangling – it was inadvertently granted to two different claimants; Silvestre de la Portila in 1836, and transplanted Yankee, John Joseph ‘Juan Jose’ Warner eight years later. Juan Joseph Warner built an adobe house on the property, and conducted ranching and trading operations until an uprising by local Indians drive him out in 1851. In the meantime, Silvestre de la Portila had deeded the property to Vincenta Sepulveda, the daughter of a long-established and important local family. Eventually, the powers that be decided in favor of Dona Vincenta, who at the age of 21 had married another scion of a well-to-do ranch family, Tomas Antonio Yorba, who was more than twice her age. Yorba and his wife set up first at his family property at Santa Ana, in present-day Orange County, where they ran cattle for their hides and tallow, and operated a small general store, trading all kinds of general goods, groceries and luxuries. Their house was a rather splendid one; they impressed many visitors with not only the generous nature of their hospitality, but order and luxury of their house – better adorned and furnished than the usual hacienda. After ten years of productive and apparently happy marriage Tomas Yorba died, leaving his wife the residence, large herds of sheep and cattle, considerable jewelry and the care of their four surviving children. She continued managing the property, her household and her business; a wealthy, attractive and able young woman. She did not remain a widow for very long; she married again, to Jose Ramon Carrillo, of San Diego, who had managed a large property in northern California. Romantically, they met at the wedding of Dona Vincenta’s niece to an office of the Mexican army. Jose Ramon Carrillo had a reputation for physical courage, which was not based solely on his experiences as a soldier. (He had engaged in several skirmishes between Californios and the Anglo members of the Bear Flag party, or during the Mexican War and in fighting with hostile local Indians, which was pretty much what had been expected of a man of his age and class.) But his most famous fighting exploit wasn’t with other men at all – it was with a bear.

When out riding with friends in the Sonoma foothills some time before his marriage, the party spotted a bear, at some distance. Carrillo proposed (and there is no evidence that liquor was involved in any) that he fight the bear … on foot and alone. He took a mochila from his saddle – a flap of leather used to attach saddle-bags and wrapped it around his left arm – and a large hunting knife with a keen blade in his right. When he advanced on the bear, it charged him; Carrillo shielded himself with his left arm, and thrust with the knife into the bear’s torso. Within a very short time, the bear lay dead before him. On another occasion, Carrillo attempted to lasso another bear, from horseback. In the heat of the chase, bear, horse and rider fell into a five or six foot deep chasm, hidden until that very moment by dense brush. The abruptness of the fall removed all fight from the bear – and it tried to scramble up the steep side of the pit. Realizing that there was no scope for fighting the bear in the ditch and that discretion might be the best part of valor, Carrillo braced himself under the bear’s hindquarters and gave a good push with all of his strength. The bear scrabbled at the edge of the pit, got over it and promptly ran away.

By the mid-1850s, Dona Vincenta had clear title to the former Warner property; she and her new husband moved there, built an even grander house – an establishment which also served as a stage station, and on the eve of the Civil War, Don Ramon Carrillo applied for the position of post-master … the rancho was also a post office. During the war itself, he also served as a spy and scout for the Union Army in the Sonora. There were shadows falling on him, however; a political and business rival was found dead, shot in the back by person or persons unknown late in 1862. He was interviewed under oath by a court in Los Angeles, and released – the court having found nothing to charge against him.

Dona Vincenta and her family in the 1890s (She is the elder lady in the center)

Dona Vincenta and her family in the 1890s (She is the elder lady in the center)

Two years later, Don Ramon also fell to an assassin’s ambush. The murderer – again – was never identified, and at the age of 51, Dona Vincenta was again a widow. She continued to manage the ranch, with the aid of her grown son for another five or six years, before moving to Anaheim, and to a long retirement in the house of her married daughter; Dona Vincenta lived to the age of 94. The ranch property was sold in the 1870s, continuing as a profitable sheep ranch for the remainder of the century and into the next. The site is now a museum, and open to the public.

26. July 2013 · Comments Off on The Notorious Bandit Vasquez · Categories: Old West · Tags: ,

He was of an old-and well-respected Hispanic Californio family, was Tiberico Vasquez; born in Monterey, the capital of what little government burdened the far-flung Spanish and then Mexican province which is today the state of California. (And such a state is in, these days, too – but I digress.) He was born sometime between 1835 and 1840; his family home in Monterey is now part of the local historical district. He was handsome, well-dressed and well-educated. He could read and write, had charming manners, and a touchingly gallant way with the ladies … which eventually spelled his doom, if the Mexican-American War and the Gold Rush had not already end the idyllic isolation in paradise for the old Californio families. They had lived lives of casual comfort, such as it was, a life based on cattle ranching and a profitable trade in hides, of bountiful hospitality among the great land-owning families and their friends, rounds of celebrations, of grand balls and fandangos, and genteel amusements such as bear-and-bull fights, and flirtations in the shade of the olive and citrus orchards planted here and there.
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17. May 2013 · Comments Off on Stranded in the Death Valley · Categories: Old West · Tags: , , ,

When gold was discovered in the foothills of California’s Sierra Nevada in 1848, it didn’t take very long for word to get out. From the eastern United States, California was then a six-month journey by mule trail or covered wagon over land – that or a long sea voyage around South America, or two sea voyages broken by a short but disease-plagued trek across the narrowest part of Central America. The sea voyage was expense, the overland journey a bit less so – and it probably seemed much more direct, anyway. Two young Gold Rushers who hit the trail in the spring of 1849 were William Manly and John Rogers; young and adventurous single men who had come by separate means as far as Salt Lake City. Manly already had an adventurous trip just getting that far. From an account written much later, he seems to have been a broad-minded optimist, good-humored and above all – and adventurous. He and some companions had decided to venture down an uncharted river in canoes – and only an encounter with some helpful Indians prevented them from going all the way – down an uncharted river and into a deep and impassible canyon. With one thing and another, they had arrived too late in the season to consider crossing the Sierras by the Truckee River Pass. This was three years after the Donner Party – which served as a Dreadful Warning to all wagon train parties considering a mountain passage late in the trail season.

Instead, Manly and Rogers hired on as drovers or general hands to a lately-arrived party of emigrants and gold seekers who had sensibly decided to follow what was known as the Old Spanish Trail, which led south from Salt Lake City and then west to Los Angeles; the present-day IH-15 roughly follows this trail. The leaders of the so-called Bennett-Arcane party didn’t want to risk any more peril for their families than they had already. The Old Spanish Trail did cross some considerable stretches of desert, but there were regular sources of water all the way along, and it was quite well-traveled.

Unfortunately, the Bennetts and the Arcanes and their friends were tempted into taking a short-cut – the bane of early wagon train pioneers, and one which usually contributed considerable hardship, if not to their doom.  They had a map from a fellow in Salt Lake City who was represented as an expert geographer. As it turned out, he wasn’t – and the seven wagons of the Bennett-Arcane party went off the trail and into an endless and trackless stretch of desert, a valley broken here and there by ranges of steep mountains. By the end of November, 1849, they were across the valley – but nearly out of supplies and had butchered most their draft oxen as they failed, one by one. Fortunately, they had found a small freshwater spring. From there they decided to send for help – and William Manly and John Rogers volunteered … to set out on foot, with only what they could carry. Decades later, Manly set down an account of that journey. “… Mr. Arcane killed the ox which had so nearly failed, and all the men went to drying and preparing meat. Others made us some new mocassins out of rawhide, and the women made us each a knapsack. Our meat was closely packed, and one can form an idea how poor our cattle were from the fact that John and I actually packed seven-eighths of all the flesh of an ox into our knapsacks and carried it away. They put in a couple of spoonfuls of rice and about as much tea … the good women said that in case of sickness even that little bit might save our lives. I wore no coat or vest, but took half of a light blanket, while Rogers wore a thin summer coat and took no blanket. We each had a small tin cup and a small camp kettle holding a quart … They collected all the money there was in camp and gave it to us. Mr. Arcane had about $30 and others threw in small amounts from forty cents upward. We received all sorts of advice. Capt. Culverwell was an old sea faring man and was going to tell us how to find our way back …” There was no need for that; Mr. Bennett had utter faith in Manly’s ability to find his way out of the valley and back.

Rogers had a single shotgun, and Manly borrowed a repeating rifle.They set bravely out, not knowing that they would have to walk 250 miles through the desert before reaching aid. They found the occasional spring of sweet water, but others were contaminated with alkali or salt. “ … Our mouths became so dry we had to put a bullet or a small smooth stone in and chew it and turn it around with the tongue to induce a flow of saliva. If we saw a spear of green grass on the north side of a rock, it was quickly pulled and eaten to obtain the little moisture it contained …  Our thirst began to be something terrible to endure, and in the warm weather and hard walking we had secured only two drinks since leaving camp… We tried to sleep but could not, but after a little rest we noticed a bright star two hours above the horizon, and from the course of the moon we saw the star must be pretty truly west of us. … The thought of the women and children waiting for our return made us feel more desperate than if we were the only ones concerned. … I can find no words, no way to express it so others can understand. The moon gave us so much light that we decided we would start on our course, and get as far as we could before the hot sun came out, and so we went on slowly and carefully in the partial darkness, the only hope left to us being that our strength would hold out till we could get to the shining snow on the great mountain before us. We reached the foot of the range we were descending about sunrise. There was here a wide wash from the snow mountain, down which some water had sometime run after a big storm, and had divided into little rivulets only reaching out a little way before they had sunk into the sand.”

With the shotgun and repeating rifle, they were able to hunt for food along the way, but Manly suffered from an injury to one of his legs and could only limp along slowly. He urged Rogers to go ahead alone, Rogers refused, so they went on together. On the last day of December, the two young men finally arrived at Mission San Fernando. With the money they carried, they bought two horses, a mule and sufficient supplies … and returned the way they had come. They had to abandon the horses halfway back, but the mule with the precious supplies was as nimble-footed as a cat on the most treacherous part of their passage. They arrived to find their friends all alive but one; Capt. Culverwell, the seafaring man. The life-saving journey took them twenty-six days, there and back. The Bennetts and Arcanes packed up those valuables left to them on the backs of their surviving oxen and the nimble-footed mule and walked out. Years later, Manly wrote of the adventure which had tried them all to extreme: “There were peaks of various heights and colors, yellow, blue fiery red and nearly black. It looked as if it might sometime have been the center of a mammoth furnace. I believe this range is known as the Coffin’s Mountains. It would be difficult to find earth enough in the whole of it to cover a coffin. Just as we were ready to leave and return to camp we took off our hats, and then overlooking the scene of so much trial, suffering and death spoke the thought uppermost saying:—”Good bye Death Valley!”

The spring where the party had camped, waiting for the young men’s return is still called Bennett’s Well. It’s at the foot of the Panamint Mountains. Ironically, fifty years later, Death Valley itself would be the focus of the last of the great western gold and silver rushes.

(Manly’s account, Death Valley in 49 is available as a free eBook from Project Gutenberg, and it is a surprisingly lively read.)

30. September 2012 · Comments Off on Oranges and Honey · Categories: Domestic, Uncategorized · Tags: , , , , , ,

I have a shoebox full of vintage postcards, collected in the Thirties by the invalid young son of Grandpa Jim’s employer. Among my favorite cards are those of places I knew, like the Devil’s Gate Dam, on the nebulous border between La Crescenta and Pasadena, with a Model-A Ford on the roadway atop the dam, and Mt. Wilson topped with snow in the background, and a view of the Arroyo Vista hotel, still a landmark in the days when Mom was driving us to Pasadena to visit the grandparents, but half a century past its Roaring Twenties prime.

My very favorite is a view again of Mt. Wilson and the San Bernardino range, edged with snow against a turquoise blue sky, and acres of orange groves covering the entire plain below, even up to the foothills. From the mountain peaks and ridges, an expert could deduce where that particular vista had been taken down for 3-penny posterity. The citrus groves were long gone from Pasadena when I was a child, nibbled away by suburbia, but pockets of hold-outs still held sway in back yards; Grannie Jessie and Uncle Jim had an enormous lemon tree in their front yard, and a smaller orange tree along the driveway, shading the only place where JP and I were allowed to dig, and make mud pies amid the sweet scent of orange blossoms and the still-sweet moldy smell of the windfalls.

When Grandpa Al and Grannie Dodie first moved out to Camarillo in the early 1960ies, and Mom and Dad would drive up on Saturday afternoons for dinner, the way there from the Valley that was not rolling hills covered in tawny dry grass and dark green live-oaks, was still taken up with citrus groves. The orchards were like vast, roofless rooms, walled with the windbreak trees, and floored in neat rows of orange, lemon and grapefruit trees, guarded by tall towers with slow-moving vanes intended to move the air when it came too close to freezing.

Gradually, creeping fingers of suburbia reached into the groves along the highway, just as they had before in Pasadena and the San Fernando Valley. Between one Saturday dinner and the next, the grove was bulldozed and by the next year, there would be a tract of houses, and the windbreak around the grove would be ragged, no longer a tall, sheltering wall against the wind. No doubt a few survivor trees lingered in back yards, or maybe were planted by the builders. Redwood House was built on hills which had once been olive groves, and the surviving trees still aligned in rows, along the roads or from yard to yard, but someone had planted orange and lemon trees there, and around Hilltop House. After we moved in, Dad averred that he had favored buying it because he had a wish to have fresh-made lemonade from fresh-picked lemons from his own tree on the Fourth of July.

Oranges and lemons were so ubiquitous, so much a part of the public and private landscape that it came as a shock to realize there were people elsewhere who had to go to the store and actually buy them… and they were an exotic and foreign delicacy at that. Our neighbors at Hilltop House brought over their visiting English cousins, so their children and their little cousins could swim in the pool— three little boys who looked like various incarnations of the juvenile Roddy McDowell. The youngest happened to notice the orange tree, growing in the hillside by the steps to the pool.
“What is that, miss? A peach tree?”
“No, it’s an orange tree, “ I said, and his eyes widened.
“May I have one, miss?” he asked, tremulously, “To eat?”
“You can pick many as you like,” I said, and damned if he didn’t sit down and eat four of them.

Feeling a little guilty over the fruit that fell from the tree and was wasted, Pippy and I made a concerted effort to keep ahead of production, that summer. We filled three or four shopping bags with ripe oranges, without making an appreciable dent in the bounty. It was more than we and our neighbors could ever eat, so we converted it into juice. Gallon jugs of juice filled the refrigerator— still more than we could drink, and before we could think of what to do with it all, the brush at the end of the hill caught fire, and we would up taking it out to the firemen afterwards. They drank it gratefully every drop, straight from the jugs, fresh-pressed and icy cold on a hot day after a brushfire. So much for trying to keep ahead of the bounty, but we could not count on a fire every day.

We went back to letting the surplus rot on the ground, but at least our bees got the good out of it. Amidst the other pets, strays and lab survivors and Hilltop House, we had taken on a hive of bees. Our pastor’s oldest son had begun working on a Scout Merit Badge in beekeeping, and alas, too late, discovered that he was one of those severely allergic to bee stings. The hive had to go, and go it did, with all the paraphernalia, to the sunny hillside above the vacant lot next door, which was planted in thyme and native chaparral. For two or three years, we had our own honey.
We never did figure out what plants the bees favored, because the honey was like nothing else I have tasted since. It was clear, almost like Karo syrup, with a delicate flavor, not quite citrus, not thyme, distinctive, but unidentifiable, as rare as the oranges were common.

Oranges and honey, tart and sweet, enduring, but ephemeral, a vision of California that still exists in the backyards of suburbia, and on the postcards from another era.

When gold was discovered in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada in 1848, it seemed as if most of the world rushed in to California – which, until then had been a sparsely-settled outpost of Mexico, dreaming the decades away. The climate was enchantingly mild, Mediterranean – warm enough for groves of olive trees and citrus to thrive, and the old missions crumbled away as if nothing had or would ever change. The old, proud Californio families with names like Verdugo, Vasquez, Pico and Vallejo kept vast cattle herds and lived in extensive but rather Spartan-plain estates. There were a few handfuls of American settlers who had come overland, or by sea; they tended to what little trade there was, and an energetic and slightly shady Swiss entrepreneur named Johann Sutter had a vast agricultural and establishment centered around a fortified holding in present-day Sacramento. It was on his property, and in the course of building a saw-mill that gold was discovered. And change came upon the enchanted land  – and the place called Yerba Buena turned almost overnight from a hamlet of eight hundred souls on the shore of San Francisco Bay into a ramshackle metropolis of 25,000 and more in the space of two years.

The responsible citizens had once before resorted to a Committee of Vigilance, in response to a riot instigated by a criminal element known as the ‘Hounds’ in 1851. The Hounds were housebroken, following a judicious culling of the most notorious ring-leaders – either hung or exiled, but it was only a temporary solution. Five years, a couple of devastating fires, and who-knows-how-many thousand hopeful Argonauts later, the situation in San Francisco had degenerated to a point beyond the toleration of responsible and civic-minded citizens … again.

And this time, it was more than just a situation of sober citizens faced with obstreperous criminals – by 1856 it was a collective of sober citizens arrayed against a corrupt, criminal-allied, and crony-capitalist big-city machine. Several decades after the event, popular historian Stewart E. White wrote, “The elections of those days would have been a joke had they not been so tragically significant… the polls were guarded by bullies who did not hesitate at command to manhandle any decent citizen indicated by the local leaders. Such men were openly hired for the purposes of intimidation. Votes could be bought in the open market. ‘Floaters’ were shamelessly imported into districts that might prove doubtful; and, if things looked close, the election inspectors and the judges could be relied on to make things come out all right in the final count…” White also noted, “With the proper officials in charge of the executive end of the government and with a trained crew of lawyers making their own rules as they went along, almost any crime of violence, corruption, theft, or the higher grades of finance could be committed with absolute impunity…” White contributed a lot of the corruption to an influx of what he called low-grade Southerners, who were apt to use what he called ‘pseudo-chivalry’ in response to personal or political criticism, ‘battering down opposition by the simple expedient of claiming that he had been insulted.’

In the midst of all this, there were business reversals; a local and trusted financial and express firm failed. Its assets were taken over in what was suspected to be shady means which benefitted – of course – certain businessmen closely associated with the local machine. A crusading newspaper editor, James King of William and his Daily Evening Bulletin riveted and titillated the reading public as thoroughly as he angered those whom he targeted. King criticized various pillars of the city, in editorials and in straight news stories. He pulled no punches; he named names, explained methods and connections. About the same time a gambler, Charles Cora, shot and killed a well-known and well-liked US Marshal named William Richardson who was unarmed at the time. This was an unprovoked, cold-blooded shooting. Conviction seemed almost certain, although Cora was a good friend – a very good friend of both the local sheriff and the keeper of the jail, where he waited trial in considerable luxury and comfort. No expense was spared in Cora’s defense – and when the case came to trial, the jury couldn’t come to a decision and Cora was released. The law-abiding element in town seethed.

Several months later, King wrote another sizzling editorial – this one concerning an appointee to the position in the federal customs house. The appointee was the choice of one James P. Casey – a member of the board of county supervisors, and also a member in good standing of the political establishment. This, no doubt accounted for the curious circumstance of being elected to the board despite the fact that he didn’t live in the district, had not been on the ticket, nor been a candidate … and no one could be found who voted for him. Doubtless, Casey was already in King’s sights – for besides disparaging the customs-house appointee, King also noted that Casey had previously been an inmate in Sing-Sing. Casey accounted himself affronted, and paid a visit to the Daily Evening Bulletin offices to demand an apology – which was not forthcoming. After some hours drinking and fuming, Casey left the bar and waited just across the street for King to pass on his way home. At about 5 PM, King left the newspaper office, and as he passed by on his way home, Casey shot him. King fell, mortally wounded – while Casey’s friends hustled him off to safety in a nearby police station lock-up.

(to be continued)