Times Past

California’s politics thrive on family connections

William Goodwin Dana in 1857.
William Goodwin Dana in 1857.

Family relations were everything in the politics of economic survival in Mexican Alta California during the 1830s and ’40s.

We’ve written about the Ana María de la Guerra-Alfred Robinson wedding that took place at Santa Barbara’s Presidio Chapel in 1836. The nuptials united the interests of El Capitán José de la Guerra, longtime comandante of the Santa Barbara Presidio and one of the largest landowners in Alta California, and Alfred Robinson, the California agent for Boston-based Bryant, Sturgis & Company, the largest market for cattle hides, sometimes called “California dollars.”

That wedding was immortalized in Richard Henry Dana’s book, “Two Years Before the Mast,” published in 1840.

Ironically, Richard Henry Dana would have nothing to do with his cousin Capt. William Goodwin Dana, who was a resident of Santa Barbara in 1836.

Capt. Dana had been involved in the China trade and the three-way trade between California, the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) and Peru. He settled in Santa Barbara in 1825 and soon built the first schooner launched in California.

He married Maria Josefa Carrillo, eldest daughter of Don Carlos Antonio Carrillo in August 1828. Her mother was the sister of Gen. Jose Castro, the military commander of California. The Carrillos were related to the Ortegas, Lugos, Bandinis and Noriega de la Guerra family.

While he may have preferred land near Ojai, which was closer to Santa Barbara, Capt. Dana’s relationships through marriage and his service to the Californios (Spanish and Mexican landholders) eventually got him a fertile rancho with a good deal of excellent river bottom land in Nipomo.

He was “awarded” the 37,888-acre Rancho Nipomo as a Mexican land grant in 1837 by Josefa’s cousin, Gov. Juan Bautista Alvarado. Nipomo means “at the foot of the hills” in Salinan and a dialect of Chumash.

By 1849, blessed with many eligible daughters, Capt. Dana invited a young attorney, Henry Tefft, to spend the next four months at his ranch.

It was time to “marry off” his eldest daughter, Josefa, who was strikingly beautiful. Her family connections were still very important in Southern California and her father was a man of considerable wealth. Capt. Dana had formed alliances with many Yankees who came to California during the Mexican War and the early Gold Rush.

Those connections promoted a betrothal between Josefa and Tefft, a rising star in California politics. He was a signatory to the California State Constitution of 1849 and supported Native Americans’ right to vote.

Tefft recalled conversations with Capt. Dana about Mexican law granting rights to women. He insisted the state constitution include property rights for women. As a result, California was the first state to recognize rights for women.

By 1850, Tefft was district judge for San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties.

Tefft’s good friend, William Rich Hutton, was one of the few surveyors in California in 1850. Hutton had just completed a survey of Los Angeles with Lt. E.O.C. Ord. The former Army training facility on the Monterey Peninsula would later be named in Ord’s honor.

American land law was replacing the Mexican style of holding title by merely describing landmarks. Formal surveys were about to be imposed by the U.S. Land Act of 1851.

Hutton came to San Luis Obispo County to survey Capt. John Wilson’s Rancho La Cañada de los Osos y Pecho y Islay. While there, he did the first survey for the pueblo of San Luis Obispo.

Tefft persuaded Hutton to also survey his future father-in-law’s rancho in Nipomo. Hutton was at the rancho when the Tefft-Dana union was celebrated in 1851.

The festivities were an incredible adventure the young surveyor from Baltimore would never forget.

To be continued.

Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and past president of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com.