Times Past

California banditos, Chumash vaqueros and the ghost stories of the Dana Adobe

By night, Salomon Pico believed that “dead men tell no tales.” So, he left the El Camino south of Orcutt strewn with skeletons. By day, he drank wine and brandy with his fellow rancher, Capt. William G. Dana.

Nipomo’s Dana Adobe is along sleepy Oakglen Avenue, hidden from the town and Highway 101 by groves of eucalyptus trees. The adobe was constructed by Native American workers for Boston-born sea Capt. Dana in 1839 on his 37,888-acre Mexican land grant. It sat at the very center of the El Camino that connected Mexican California from Sonoma in the North to San Diego in the South.

Following the heroic efforts of Nancy and Clark Howland to restore the dilapidated adobe, I spent many hours working there with volunteers from the San Luis Obispo County Historical Society and Cal Poly students.

Alonzo Dana, a great grandson of Capt. Dana and his wife Josefa Carrillo Dana, donated $10,000 to the Historical Society for the restoration of the adobe. He closely supervised us. Not all my students appreciated his supervision, so I decided to turn his visits into teachable moments. I asked him to tell us stories about his family and the Dana Rancho while we ate our Saturday lunch. He had written several articles for La Vista: The Journal of Central Coast History.

Ghost stories of Dana Adobe

As Halloween approached, the students asked him if there were any ghost stories. He said that he really didn’t want to talk about such things, but if there were ghosts, the adobe would certainly attract them because of the endemic violence of the 1840s and ‘50s.

Capt. Dana built a cupola on the roof of his adobe home, using his spyglass to look for Yokut Indian raiders. They’d ride through the Cuyama Gap (now Hwy. 166) to steal the captain’s horses and cattle.

This was the age of the Californio bandidos. Alonzo said Capt. Dana was personally acquainted with two of the most notorious bandits, Jack Powers and Solomon Pico. Powers was the leader of the gang that robbed ranchers who had driven their herds to the Mother Lode to feed the ‘49ers. As the ranchers returned with saddle bags filled with gold, they often disappeared near what is now Camp Roberts.

While Powers lived in Santa Barbara, he got to know Capt. Dana. That didn’t prevent Powers’ gang from raiding the Dana Ranch to steal horses.

Pico was born on a prosperous ranch near Monterey. His brother was José de Jesús Pico, the grantee of Rancho de la Piedra Blanca, which includes most of the land purchased by George Hearst in 1865. Salomon had a land grant near the confluence of the Stanislaus and San Joaquin rivers. His claim was apparently overrun by Yankee miners during the Gold Rush. His wife, Juana, died during this time. He swore vengeance on the Yankees.

Salomon moved to a ranch near Los Alamos, where he befriended Capt. Dana. He also watched the El Camino from atop what is now called Solomon Peak (named after Salomon but spelled with three Os) above the Solomon Hills just south of Orcutt.

Many Yankee travelers left San Luis Obispo carrying gold to purchase cattle. They never made it to Santa Barbara. Years later, skeletons were found with .51 caliber bullets embedded in them, the same single-shot caliber favored by Pico.

Powers died at the hands of angry Indians near Tubac, south of Tucson, Arizona. Pico was killed by a Mexican firing squad in Baja California.

As a boy, Alonzo Dana told my students, he’d heard stories that the ghosts of both Powers and Pico would come back to the adobe where Capt. Dana offered them hospitality. And that the ghosts of the Yokuts killed by Capt. Dana’s Chumash vaqueros would come back to harass the ghost of the captain.

Tickets available for ghost stories

For the third year, the Dana Adobe Cultural Center presents “Ghost Stories: A telling of the Bloody ‘50s Bandits.” This 40-minute experience takes visitors back in time to witness to the infamous bandit raids of the historic Adobe.

Tours leave every 15 minutes and tickets are timed. Space is very limited; reservations strongly suggested.

Tours are being held Oct. 25-27 with times at 6:30, 6:45, 7, 7:15, 7:30, 7:45, 8, 8:15, 8:30 and 8:45 p.m. Buy tickets at: https://my805tix.com/events/50204.

See historic graves in tour

You’ll see the graves of Josefa and Capt. Dana on my annual free Halloween Graveyard Tour at 4:15 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 31 at the Old Mission Cemetery at the Bridge Street entrance near the intersection of Beebe and Bridge behind the Pacific Coast Center in SLO.

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