Few of the legendary rancheros in California history can compare with Joaquín Estrada, the owner of the Rancho Santa Margarita.
By the late 1830s, the vast holdings of the Franciscan missions were distributed to civilians as land grants.
Joaquín was the son of José Ramon Estrada, the alcalde at Monterey. The Estradas were an important family with connections to Santa Barbara’s prestigious De la Guerra clan.
The Mexican officials hoped that influential Californio families would put the former mission lands to “the best possible use.”
Under the Franciscans, the Santa Margarita Rancho was a versatile operation. It had been used for sowing field crops by the padres. Estrada converted it to a cattle ranch.
Virtually all of the 22 Mexican grants issued for San Luis Obispo County during the period 1840-1846 witnessed a similar transition from a fairly variegated agriculture to cattle raising. San Luis Obispo was becoming a “cow county.” The loss of diversity left the region especially vulnerable to both economic downturns and drought.
Cattle ranching began yielding fantastic profits a decade later when the Gold Rush brought hundreds of thousands of miners to the Mother Lode. The cattle ranches of Central California were in a strategic location to provide these hungry argonauts with beefsteak at highly inflated prices.
Joaquin was famous for his opulent lifestyle. Don Joaquin even brought Joseph Andrew Rowe’s famed circus from the Sierra goldfields to his rancho for the entertainment of his guests.
He invited friends and relatives from throughout the state to come to the Casa de Estrada. The party lasted for two weeks. Each night, for twelve consecutive nights, the circus gave a show.
But Don Joaquin spent himself into debt. With cattle prices falling and a lack of diversity in agriculture, he couldn’t pay his bills.
The 1860's marked the end of an era in California history. The generous, adventuresome, fun-loving Californio rancheros lost the basis for their wealth in less than a decade. Nowhere was this change in California's economic structure more apparent than along the Central Coast.
By 1859, activity in the gold fields was slowing down. The new center of mining was for silver in the Comstock Lode in Virginia City across the Sierra Nevada.
Some discouraged miners began to take up farming and ranching in the Central Valley.
This lessened demand for cattle from the old “cow counties.” The income of the ranchero families was severely curtailed.
By 1861, Joaquín Estrada was financially “belly up.” He sold his beloved Santa Margarita Rancho to Martin Murphy Jr. of Santa Clara County, reputedly for $45,000 or about $2.50 an acre. Murphy gave the ranch to his son, General Patrick W. Murphy.
Estrada retired to his smaller Atascadero Rancho, which he also lost several years later.
General Murphy was as extravagant a person as his predecessor. He promoted one development scheme after another for his vast land holdings. He even entered the political arena.
After thirty years, General Murphy also lost the Santa Margarita. But that's the way it is in the often-tragic history of land development in California.
Next Sunday, April 28, at 2:30 p.m., the Santa Margarita Historical Society will gather in the Santa Margarita Community Hall to celebrate the Mission era roots of its famed rancho. Santa Barbara’s Ed Vernon is well known for his work on the Missions of Baja California. His account of Asistencia Santa Margarita de Cortona and its evolution through a succession of owners is a compelling part of our history. Come and listen and see images from Ed’s research into the historic Asistencia Santa Margarita de Cortona.
Dan Krieger’s column is special to The Tribune. He is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.