Cambrian: Opinion

Ranch Update: Rancho Santa Rosa was part of Mexican, not Spanish, land grant

You learn something everyday! I found out that this old saying is very true in an embarrassing way recently. I wrote that Rancho Santa Rosa was a Spanish land grant in my last Cambrian article. I had seen that written and heard it so many times I just accepted it as fact. After the article was published I got a very nice e-mail from Bev and Jerry Praver, correcting my misinformation. (They host The Cambria History Exchange at, where you can find lots of information about people and places that are part of Cambria’s colorful past.)

It’s also true that it’s never too late to learn something new! This is what I learned, not only from Jerry and Bev but also Geneva Hamilton’s book “Where the Highway Ends”: During the time California was under Spanish control, very few Spanish land grants were given away.

One such grant was given to Mission San Miguel and encompassed the land that was to become Rancho Santa Rosa. Then, according to the Pravers, “In 1821, Mexico declared its independence from Spain and soon secularized the missions the Spanish had built. It was during this period that more than 800 Mexican land grants were given to prominent citizens. One of these Mexican land grants was the Rancho Santa Rosa granted to Don Julian Estrada by the Mexican governor of California, Juan B. Alvarado, in 1841.”

Don Julian married and started his family of 10 children in Monterey, visiting his land occasionally. He moved his growing family to the rancho in 1849. There he raised cattle, selling the tallow and hides to traders who shipped them around Cape Horn to the East Coast. He later supplied beef to San Francisco. Much of the Estrada family food was also produced on the rancho.

The Estrada home became a social, religious and political center for the surrounding area. The family lived lavishly and dressed in clothing made of rich fabrics embroidered in gold and silver, as did other families of the Dons. Apparently Don Julian Estrada was not a great businessman, and between his extravagant lifestyle, increasing taxes, surveying costs, a heavy drought, and declining prices for his products, he borrowed against his land.

Unable to repay his loan, he struck a deal with the lender, Domingo Pujol of San Francisco. Pujol paid Estrada an additional $12,000 and took title to the Ranch, with the exception of the land surrounding the Estrada home.

In 1866 Pujol subdivided his portion of Rancho Santa Rosa and began selling parts of it. According to Geneva Hamilton, one such subdivision was sold to John Myers and William Gillespie, who operated a portable steam saw mill and sold parcels as they cleared it for lumber. In just three months, they made an excellent profit and sold the balance of their holdings, with the sawmill operation, to Pacific Steam Saw Mill, which continued to clear land for lumber and sell parcels. This sawmill operation changed hands several times before becoming part of the Fiscalini Town Ranch and later part of our Fiscalini Ranch Preserve, in the heart of Cambria!

Again, quoting the Pravers: “ Saving the Ranch was one of the (most) wonderful things ever to happen in Cambria,” and they called it a miracle. It has been indeed a miracle and a wonderful thing that we've had this beautiful community asset for the last 10 years. I think most of us would agree!

But what of the indigenous groups that lived here before the missions and the ranchos? Diaries from the Portola Expedition described the inhabitants as friendly, gentle, kind and generous. They spoke a dialect of Salinan and the expedition referred to them as Playa Indians.

They maintained seasonal campsites, following food sources seasonally. Their nomadic lifestyle made temporary lean-to

shelters of brush a practical housing solution. They were skilled basket and net makers. You can see some of these beautiful baskets in the Santa Barbara Natural History Museum.

When this area was part of the Mission San Miguel holdings, some of the native people maintained orchards and cattle. With the passing of the land to the Dons, many of them stayed with the land, remaining to work for the new owners. Don Julian Estrada was one of the landowners who depended on them to run his ranching operations while he lived in Monterey.

When you walk the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve today you can see some evidence of its former inhabitants; soil blackened by Native American use and grinding holes. There is some discussion as to whether the original inhabitants were Chumash

or Salinan. To find out more about

these first people, you can attend our next docent walk on the Ranch. Friends of the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve is sponsoring an archaeology walk with Elise Wheeler, State Parks archaeologist, who will take you back in time.

You will see the Ranch with new eyes. You will find out how these early inhabitants lived and how they dealt with their surroundings through many changes. Reserve your space at www.cambriaranchwalks.comor 927- 2202.

Jo Ellen Butler is executive director of Friends of the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve. RanchUpdate appears in The Cambrian monthly in this, the 10th anniversary year of acquisition of what was then known as the East West Ranch. Contact FFRP at ffrpcam, 927- 2856, or P.O. Box 1664, Cambria 93428.