Times Past

Land grabs and corruption rampant in California's ranchero era

A poster for the 1920 film, The Mark of Zorro," starring Douglas Fairbanks.
A poster for the 1920 film, The Mark of Zorro," starring Douglas Fairbanks.

With the legend of Zorro, the so-called “ranchero era” has been highly romanticized by Hollywood.

But the dashing black-clad masked outlaw who defends the Indians against tyrannical officials and political corruption was much needed in California during the 1830s and 40s. It was a period of dishonesty and unabashed land grabbing of the vast holdings of the former Franciscan missions.

On April 14, 1842, Manuel Jimeno Casarin, secretary to California’s Gov. Juan Bautista Alvarado, dismissed Vincente Canet, the civil administrator at Mission San Luis Obispo. Canet was accused of corruption. José Mariano Bonilla, Canet’s successor, became alcalde (mayor) of the pueblo.

Jimeno directed Bonilla to divide what remained of mission lands near the missions into square parcels, 100 yards on each side, the size of two football fields. These were to be distributed to the remaining mission Indians for use as homes and gardens. What was left of the tools and livestock at the mission was also to be divided “according to the merits of each individual.”

The outlying lands of Missions San Luis Obispo and San Miguel were divided into great ranchos. The size and extent of these ranchos generally followed the administrative units used by the padres as outlying rancherias or existing Indian settlements.

As alcalde, Bonilla did quite well for himself. The 15,685-acre (one square league, or nearly 25 square miles) Huer-Huero Rancho near the present town of Creston was granted to Bonilla in 1842.

The name Huer-Huero has puzzled both scholars and local writers for more than a century. The term means “blond, blond” in Spanish, where doubling the adjective was a means of stressing its meaning. Some authors speculate that it may refer to sulphur springs in the area. Perhaps the yellow and white of those springs generated the name.

It seems more likely that the name was a Hispanic corruption of the Salinan “Huohual,” a native ranchería that supplied neophytes for Mission San Miguel.

The 37,888-acre Rancho Nipomo was awarded to a New England sea captain, William Godwin Dana, in 1837. Its name is clearly derived from a native ranchería, meaning “at the foot of the hills.”

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. He married Maria Josefa Carrillo, eldest daughter of Don Carlos Antonio Carrillo. Her mother was the sister of Gen. Jose Castro, the military commander of California.

The Carrillos were related to the Ortegas, Lugos, Bandinis and de la Guerra y Noriega family, the most powerful families in Southern California.

Captain William G. Dana received the Nipomo Rancho because of his relationships through marriage and his service to the Californio government and economy. He constructed the first schooner launched in California at the mouth of Goleta Creek. He would have preferred land near Ojai but got a fertile rancho with a good deal of excellent river bottom land.

Capt. Dana was a second cousin to Richard Henry Dana, the author of “Two Years Before the Mast.” When the young man sailed to California aboard the brig Pilgrim in 1835-36, he apparently made no effort to meet his older cousin.

It seems unlikely they failed to meet by circumstance, given the smallness of Californio society. Richard Henry Dana was in Santa Barbara, while his cousin, William, lived while awaiting news of the anticipated land grant. Dana family folklore holds that there had been a breach in relations between two branches of the family.

It seems more likely that Richard Henry Dana had only contempt for his cousin and other Yankees who came to California, became “don perfectos” by adopting the Catholic religion, marrying Mexican women and had large families.

In “Two Years Before the Mast,” Dana writes that because Protestants have no political rights under Mexican law, “Americans and English who intend to remain here become Catholics, to a man; the current phrase among them being, ‘A man must leave his conscience at Cape Horn.’”