A ride to Santa Barbara could cost you your life. That was the way it was in San Luis Obispo between 1853-58.
The legendary “Joaquin Murieta” had been killed and decapitated by Capt. Harry Love and his Rangers near Arroyo de Cantua northwest of Coalinga on July 25, 1853. The California legislature eventually confirmed the bandit’s death by paying a $5,000 reward. The Chinese merchants in San Francisco awarded Love an additional $1,000 for killing a murderer of Chinese in the mother lode.
An era of peace and security should have followed. But, along El Camino Real, matters worsened.
In 1855, San Luis Obispo County clerk David Newsom’s good friend, William J. Graves, the county prosecutor, had to risk the ride to Santa Barbara. Graves had just been nominated for state senator. The Senate district encompassed San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and what is now Ventura counties. Graves’ supporters in Santa Barbara planned what we would call a “political fundraiser” consisting of “a parade, target shooting and dinner.” Graves invited Newsom to come along. Newsom recalled:
“We made an early start within a few miles of the Los Alamos Ranch, stopped at a spring of water situated in a grove of trees. We ate our lunch and took a rest
“After lunch we started at full gallop. Graves would point to a gulch and say, ‘There was killed a cattle buyer, and over yonder knoll another!’ We came to a road cross beside the road. Here a whole family of Americans was killed. Our horses appeared to feel that there was danger in the air. Away they sped, not letting up until Santa Inés Mission was reached.”
The bandit Salomon Pico was blamed for many of the atrocities Graves identified. Pico was recently the subject of one of David Middlecamp’s informative and entertaining “Photos From the Vault” columns in this paper.
Pico was a familiar figure along the Central Coast during the 1840s. He was born on a rancho near present-day Salinas. His father was a soldier at the Monterey Presidio. One of his brothers, José de Jesús “Totoi” Pico, was granted the Piedra Blanca ranch, which was later purchased by George Hearst. His cousin was Pío Pico, the last governor of Mexican California.
Salomon Pico was given a 58,000-acre land grant in what is now Stanislaus County. In the summer of 1848, his lands were overrun by would-be miners seeking gold. His wife, Juana, was either injured or contracted one of the water-born diseases brought on by the Gold Rush. She died possibly in the hands of an American doctor in Monterey on Nov. 19, 1848.
Salomon Pico is said to have vowed to take revenge on the “gringos.”
He moved to the Los Alamos area as a cattle buyer in 1849. He reputedly made a career of nighttime raids on gringo cattle buyers carrying saddlebags filled with gold to buy herds of cattle in the “cow counties” of Southern California. Parties of buyers passing through San Luis Obispo were never seen again.
Salomon Pico’s career along the Central Coast ended in June of 1851 when he was involved in the murder of John Caldwell, a mail carrier in the lower Salinas Valley. Pico and William Otis Hall, his American partner, were captured by a vigilante committee. Hall was hung, but because of the influence of Pío Pico, now the most influential businessman in Los Angeles, Salomon was freed on bail.
Thereafter, he decided to stay in the Los Angeles vicinity, sometime fleeing to Baja California, where he was executed in 1860.
But even after his departure, the El Camino Real remained unsafe. Graves and Newsom clearly feared for their lives as they quickly rode to Santa Barbara in 1855.
Who were the new culprits?
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.