T H E   S T O R Y   OF   C E R R I T O S
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Private Grants

In1784, three soldiers who had been among the leather-jacket troops of the Portola expedition approached Governor Fages, who was reinstated after the death of Rivera. They asked permission to graze cattle on land near San Gabriel Mission. Their request seemed reasonable, so Governor Fages approved, writing a report to the Commandante General in Chihuahua. Months later he was notified that his action had been confirmed in Mexico and a list of regulations was given. Grants must not encroach upon the lands of any mission or pueblo, a stone house must be built, cattle stocked on the land, and enough herders to keep the animals from running wild.

It is important to remember that these were not outright grants of land, as all of the land was the property of the Spanish king, but permission to use certain tracts of land. Likewise, the mission property belonged to the king and was to be returned to the Indians when they had learned to use it as good citizens.

Corporal Jose Maria Verdugo got the first grant, northeast of the pueblo of Los Angeles. It amounted to 35,000 acres, and he named it Rancho San Rafael. Most of Glendale and Burbank are located there now. The second grant, of 75,000 acres, called Rancho San Pedro, was given to Juan Jose Dominguez. It was west of the San Gabriel River (remember, it flowed where the Los Angeles River flows now) to the ocean. The third and largest grant went to Manuel Nieto. It consisted of 300,000 acres of land and extended from the San Gabriel River to the west and the Santa Ana River on the east. The road from San Gabriel to San Diego formed the northern boundary (about where Whittier Boulevard is now), and the ocean was the boundary on the south. The priests at San Gabriel protested that Nieto's land encroached on theirs, so some 150,000 acres were pared away, but enough remained that it was still the largest rancho granted. At first it was called La Zanja, but later it was known simply as Rancho Los Nietos.

Today, Long Beach, Lakewood, Downey, Norwalk, Santa Fe Springs, part of Whittier, Huntington Beach, Buena Park, Garden Grove, and many smaller cities including Cerritos are located on what was the enormous Nieto Rancho.

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Jose Manuel Nieto
Jose Manuel Nieto was a soldier of the San Diego presidio who was probably assigned to Mission San Gabriel at the time his ranching concession was given. He had come to Alta California with the Serra-Portola expedition of 1769. The 1790 census described him as mulato, from Villa Sinaloa, Mexico, age 56. He lived with his wife, two children, and his mother. Presidio soldiers were permitted to raise a few cattle for food and a little profit, as their pay was very low. As his cattle had increased, the need for more grazing space caused him to apply for the rancho concession.

Nieto retired from duty in 1795 and settled down on his rancho. Three more children had been born to the family. A small community called Los Nietos gradually built up around the Nietos home, which was near the Indian village of Sejat on San Jose Creek. At his death in 1804, he was the wealthiest man in California - not in money, but in land and cattle and horses.

The Nietos house was typical of the first homes the ranchers built. About twenty feet square, it had one or two rooms, adobe walls, a packed earth floor, and roof covered with reeds. Cooking was usually done outside. The menu consisted of fresh or dried beef and vegetables from a small kitchen garden - probably squash, corn, and beans. Replicas or restorations of a similar early ranch house can be seen at Old Town in San Diego and nearer at the Sepulveda adobe in Costa Mesa. If a tar pit was nearby, brea (tar) was used to coat the reed roof as a waterproofing. More rooms were added later as they were needed.

After Manuel Nieto died, his ranch was inherited by his widow and five children and his eldest son Juan Jose acted as manager.

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Foreigners Visit

California had several foreign visitors who were making scientific voyages of the Pacific and took advantage of the opportunity to check out Spanish defenses. The French Comte de la Perouse was the first visitor in 1786. Captain George Vancouver of Britain stopped by several times in 1792 to 1794. The first American ship to visit was the Otter in 1796. They described the California settlements as impoverished and poorly defended.

The entire Pacific coast was no longer Spain's. The Russians had established a trading post and colony at Sitka, Alaska by 1799. In 1806, Nikolai Rezanof, a Russian agent, came to San Francisco to spy out the fur hunting possibilities and buy food for the starving Sitka colony. While the foreigners were hospitably entertained and their ships reprovisioned, any attempts to set up trade were officially denied.

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Hard Times and Revolution
These were hard times for the Spanish in California. Napoleon Bonaparte had taken over Spain. The Mexican economy was tight and supplies for California were sparse and undependable. American ships involved in whaling and seal and sea otter hunting sailed off the coast and sometimes put in to shore to repair their boats and get supplies. The law forbade trade, but the Californians were known for their hospitality and did not deny the sailors fresh food. Some of the mission padres and ranchers decided it was better to take a risk than to go without the supplies they needed, and after the 1790's American vessels stopped by hidden inlets to barter for skins and cowhides with badly needed household goods from New England. If they were caught smuggling, the ship's captains were arrested and sent to Mexico for trial, but trade was brisk and profitable and many officials turned a blind eye.

By 1810 all of Latin America had risen in revolt against Napoleonic Spain. California escaped the wars and turmoil until a captain from Argentina named Hippolyte de Bouchard sailed into Monterey Bay in 1818, seeking support for Latin American independence. When the officials showed little interest in his cause, he attacked the city and sailed south, pausing to lob a cannonball as he passed Santa Barbara. At San Juan capistrano, Bouchard's “pirates” swarmed ashore and pillaged and burned the mission.

After years of confrontation, Agustin de Iturbide declared Mexico to be independent of Spain and made himself Emperor. In April of 1822, the California garrisons lowered the Spanish flags and California became a province of the Empire of Mexico. Louis Antonio Arguello, the first native born California governor, took office.

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Under Mexican Rule
Under the new Mexican government, changes were soon made in trade regulations. Commerce with foreigners was encouraged as there was hope that duties and taxes would provide the money needed for government payrolls and supplies. Some of the presidio soldiers had not been paid for years and pensions had been suspended. Some seventeen more of the soldiers had been given land concessions by the Spanish governors and thirty more grants were given by the Mexican government before 1833.

In 1822, British and American agents opened offices for their firms in Monterey and trade in hides and tallow began on a large basis. Finally, much needed goods were available, and missions and private ranches began to slaughter their excess cattle. The dried hides, called “California dollars,” bought items that were stocked in stores on ships. They bought clothing and furniture, foodstuffs and tools, and even shoes made in Boston from hides that had been shipped from California.

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Pastoral California

This was the beginning of the great “pastoral” period of California's history. The missions were thriving, their vast acreage covered with vineyards, fields, and thousands upon thousands of head of cattle. Thousands of the Indian converts had died of diseases they caught from the Spanish, but those who remained at the mission had been trained as farmers, vaqueros (cowboys), and in many necessary skills and crafts. They provided the labor on the missions and the ranchos.

In 1825, the Emperor Iturbide abdicated, and Mexico became a republic. California became a territory of Mexico in 1826. Now that there was no longer a ruler, the rancho grants became the property of those who had held the concessions. More grants were given to individuals.

Now that the rancheros owned their property and were realizing profits from the sale of their cattle hides and the tallow or fat that was melted and stored in leather bags, they began to enlarge their houses and spend their profits on things that would make life more comfortable. There was no shortage of labor, so families had many servants, specialized to perform every needed task.

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Americans Come to Stay
Also in 1826, a band of weary American fur trappers led by Jedediah Smith arrived from across the desert to Mission San Gabriel. While the authorities welcomed trade with American ships, it was quite another thing to have them come overland. For years California had felt protected from the ambitious eastern nation by barriers of mountains and deserts. Smith was jailed, fined, and sent his way. Sure enough, he was only the first of a series of frontiersmen to wander into California. At this time, the mission Indian population was about 18,000 and the non-Indian population was only about 4,200. It was no wonder that the government was worried about too much interest by the growing nation on the eastern seaboard.

Some foreigners had begun to settle in California. Some, like John Doakes, were sailors who decided to find new homes in the villages. Others, like Thomas Larkin, came as business agents and became important in the commerce of the area. If foreigners were to become landowners, they were required by the government to become Mexican citizens and to convert to the Catholic faith. Many married into Spanish-Mexican California families.

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Missions Secularized
For years there had been rumors that the missions were to be “secularized,” that is, turned over to the Indians and the lands divided among them. Originally, each mission was to have existed for about ten years, but the time had been extended because the padres had argued that the California Indians were backward and difficult to convert and teach Spanish ways, and that they needed more time to work with them.

With Mexican independence, differences between the government and the Catholic church came to a head. Many people were jealous of the power and influence of the church and its great wealth and land holdings. The government began to nationalize the church properties, and in 1833, the Mexican Congress passed an act that called for immediate transformation of the California missions into civil parishes.

The governor of California at that time was Jose Figueroa, who devised a workable plan for secularization. Half of the mission lands, herds, and supplies and farm machinery would be divided and turned over to the Indians who would become a population of farmers and ranchers. The remaining half would be managed by civil administrators for the new towns that the government hoped would be buffers. The Russians had already established a trading post at Fort Ross, north of San Francisco. The British had begun expansion of their holdings in western Canada. It sounded good in theory.

In practice, it was a disaster for the Indians. The “administered” lands were broken into ranches and granted to private individuals. The Indians found they could not operate their small farms and ranches by themselves and soon sold them to ranchers who had long had an eye on the prosperous mission domains. Some 300 grants were recorded between 1833 and 1839. The Indians were neither ready to take part in the Spanish-Mexican communities nor could they return to the life they had before the missionaries had come, so thoroughly had their lives been disrupted. There was little else for them but to become servants and cowboys on white-owned ranches, or live as derelicts in the offskirts of the pueblos. Only Santa Barbara remained a church. The other missions' buildings were used as barns and warehouses and soon began to decay.

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Nietos Ranch is Divided

About this time, the children of Juan Manuel Nietos were concerned about having their property reconfirmed, as there was a possibility that others would claim some of it. On May 17, 1834, Governor Figueroa signed a document that confirmed the land to the heirs, but divided into five ranchos. These were called Santa Gertrudes, Las Bolsas, Los Alamitos, Los Cerritos, and Los Coyotes. Perhaps some of the heirs were already considering selling their lands, for during the next ten years each of the ranches became the property of other owners. Los Alamitos was sold first to Governor Figueroa and then to Abel Stearns. Rancho Los Cerritos was sold to John Temple. Stearns and Temple were Americans who had come to California earlier, become prosperous as merchants in Pueblo Los Angeles, married Spanish-Californian wives, and were now ready to take part in the booming cattle business.

The family had hired Abel Stearns, an amateur surveyor, to make a formal map or diseno of their lands.

Juan Jose Nieto had been left in charge of all his father's property in 1804. His was the largest portion when the land was divided as he became owner of two of the ranchos. It is said that he connived with Governor Figueroa that the governor could buy 28,000 acre Los Alamitos for only $500, so that Juan Jose would be ensured of getting the largest rancho, Los Coyotes.

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Rancho Los Coyotes
About 48,825 acres of land were in Los Coyotes Rancho. The San Jose Creek divided it from Rancho Los Cerritos on the west, and arbitrary lines marked the other boundaries. Leffingwell Road is approximately where the northwest boundary was, extending to the old Camino de Real, now Imperial Highway, and following it on the north east. The eastern boundary was an arbitrary line about where Harbor Boulevard is today, and the southern was close to Westminster Boulevard.

The property included the Coyote Hills and most of the Arroyo de los Coyotes. We now call that Coyote Creek, and in 1889 it became the boundary between Los Angeles and Orange Counties.

Juan Jose had built a house in 1831 on the eastern part of Rancho Los Coyotes. He enlarged it in 1834, and for years it was an important stopping place for travellers on a shortcut that led from the old Camino de Real, past the Coyote Hills, and eventually to Pueblo Los Angeles. The house sat on the hill near where the Los Coyote Country Club is today, just east of beach Boulevard in Buena Park. The house stood well into the 1900's, but was damaged by vandals and “treasure hunters.” A modern housing tract is now on the site, just above Malvern Avenue.

In 1840, Juan Jose Nieto sold his ranch to Juan Bautiste Leandry, a Sicilian-Italian whose name was spelled Giovani Batiste Leandri before he settled in California in 1827. He had a prosperous store in Los Angeles and perhaps had extended credit to Nieto, for no conditions or price are mentioned in the deed of sale, and it was said that Leandry “got it for a pittance.” Leandry renamed the rancho La Buena Esperanza, “the good hope,” but it was still generally called Los Coyotes. He died in 1842 or 43 and his widow, Francesca Uribe Leandry married Francisco de Campo. They lived in the ranch house for the next twenty years.

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Ranching the Only Business
Trade in hides and tallow reached a peak year in 1838, when upward of 200,000 hides were shipped to Boston. Ranching was the only business of the area.

There were no fences between the ranchos, and rodeos were held annually to establish who owned what cows. These were not the riding skill rodeos we know today, but actual roundups, involving the vaqueros of several ranches. The herds were separated and counted and calves were branded. The cows were not the fat Herfords that are seen on modern ranches. These were tough, rugged animals similar to the famous Texas longhorns.

During the year, surplus cattle were killed, the skins pegged out to dry, the fat rendered in big kettles, often obtained from whaling ships. The fat became tallow, and was stored in leather bags and sold to become candles and soap in New England factories. The meat was dried into the staple food called jerky or carne asada, or it was simply left to rot. Most of the work was done by Indians who had been trained by the mission padres and were carrying on a tradition of hide gathering that began in the Mexican provinces in the early 1500's.

American ships travelled up and down the coast, collecting hides which they took to San Diego for further treatment before they were carried around Cape Horn to the New England factory towns. Most Californians assumed that they were going to Boston, as it was the only American city most of them knew by name. An interesting and detailed account of the hide trade and California at this time is to be found in Richard Henry Dana's book Two Years Before the Mast.

California still had a barter economy. No one even saw coins or cash. A cowhide was assumed to be worth about a Yankee dollar, and the rancher's credit was always good in the stores aboard ship or in the pueblos.

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An Enjoyable Life
It was an easy and enjoyable life. The cattle needed a minimum of care and that was often supervised by a manager called a mayordomo. Horses multiplied so fast that they were occasionally a problem and the excess were killed to reserve the pasturage for the more profitable cattle. Every rancho had many horses broken to riding and everyone rode. Only old ladies and infants traveled in the creaking and ponderous wagons called carretas. Californians were famous for their horsemanship and had many games that involved horseback riding.

The ranchos were renowned for their hospitality. It might take days for a ranchero to travel from his outlying home to Los Angeles, as he was expected to stop and visit at each ranch house he passed. There were no newspapers and most people could not read if there had been, so a visitor was the source of news and gossip. A rodeo, birth, wedding, even death, was an excuse for a rancher to call together his neighbors, prepare a feast, and, if it was appropriate, give a baile (dance) to celebrate the event. On Rancho Los Coyotes, the vaqueros of all the neighboring ranchos would be invited to participate in a “run through the mustard” before the annual rodeo. Thickets of the yellow-flowered weed were so high that the cattle would hide and be unaccounted for. Lines of horsemen would trample the mustard flat.

Many families lived on their ranches only during part of the year. Toward winter they moved to town houses they owned in Los Angeles to be ready for the festivities of the Christmas season. During the rainy season, the roads and trails were completely impassable, and they would have been stranded far out on the ranch. After Easter, they returned to the country. Later, a few of the important ranchers became “land barons” owning several properties. They might live in town all year, leaving their mayordomos to oversee the operation of the ranchos.

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United States Shows Interest
The United States was interested in acquiring California, especially as accounts of the beautiful land found their way to the east coast. Some Americans felt it was their “manifest destiny” to rescue the fertile soils from the “lazy” ranchers and make them yield the profits that good Yankee know-how could produce. American Southerners would probably have been more sympathetic to the California way of life. To New Englanders, it was down right immoral.

In 1835, President Andrew Jackson offered to buy the California territory but was turned down by the Mexican government. During the next ten years, California was visited by the Wilkes and Fremont scientific expeditions, and even accidentally captured by Commodore Thomas ap Catesby Jones in 1842.

The Californians took it all in stride. In fact, some would just have soon have let the United States take over, as there had been so much wrangling with the Mexican government and with Californians who wanted independence and staged comic opera wars with many proclamations. Several groups of American settlers had already made their way over the Sierras or along the Old Spanish Trail from Santa Fe. In June of 1845, a group of American settlers staged what came to be called the Bear Flag Revolt in Sonoma, California. They were joined by John Charles Fremont and the men of his expedition and declared California independent. Their flag inspired the state flag that we have today.

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The Mexican-American War in California
Actually, war had broken out between Mexico and the United States on May 13, but as usual, it took months for the word to reach California. On July 7, 1845, Commodore John D. Sloat put up the American flag in Monterey and declared California a possession of the United States.

Later in July, Commodore Robert F. Stockton took command. He enlisted Fremont's men and the Bear Flaggers into the American army, marched to Los Angeles, and declared martial law. Things might have remained peaceful, except that an incompetent and unreasonable officer named Archibald Gillespie was left in charge of Los Angeles. The citizens staged a revolt, defeated Gillespie and the American troops in a battle near Chino, and forced them to flee to ships in San Pedro Harbor.

In another battle at San Pasqual near San Diego, the Californios under their general Andres Pico again beat American troops. This time they faced the men of General Stephen Kearny who had just completed a march from the midwestern United States. His men were exhausted, their gunpowder was wet from rain, and they faced an irate army made up of the world's most skilled horsemen, armed with razor-sharp homemade lances and a few pistols and rifles. Eventually the Californians withdrew, and Kearny went on to occupy San Diego.

American troops made several tries to re-occupy Los Angeles, including a battle at Dominguez rancho, but had little success. Finally, Commodore Stockton combined his forces and marched north from San Diego. On January 7, 1846, they camped near the de Campo ranch house on Rancho Los Coyotes. Their resting spot was near a stream that is a tributary of Coyote Creek. The officers were entertained at the de Campo home while the troops prepared to march on to Los Angeles the next day. A memorial on a big boulder in front of the Los Coyotes Country Club commemorates the event.

Fortunately, they got word that the Californians were planning an ambush, so they were prepared when they met the forces of General Jose Maria Flores at the San Gabriel River. A brief but fierce battle took place. This time the Californians fell back. The site of this battle is marked with a monument at the corner of Washington Boulevard and Bluff Road, above the Rio Hondo river. (In 1847, the San Gabriel river ran in that channel.) After another skirmish at a place called La Mesa, now an industrial area of Vernon, the Californians withdrew.

A formal surrender ceremony was held at Rancho Cahuenga. Fremont represented the United States; Andres Pico represented the Californians. This ended the War with Mexico in California. The war in Mexico itself ended with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848.

Even though United States military governors were now in charge, life for most Californians was unchanged. But it didn't last long.

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Gold Rush
In January of 1848, John Marshall was supervising work on a sawmill on the American River that was part of John Sutter's enormous ranch in Northern California. He picked up a pebble that glimmered in the millrace, and took it to his employer. After testing it, Sutter sent it to San Francisco where a newspaper man let the word out. It was gold!

Almost immediately, the people of San Francisco left for the Sierra foothills. Sailors abandoned their ships in the harbor and went to the gold country where they expected to find nuggets sitting on the ground, just waiting to jump in their pockets. Almost every able-bodied man in Monterey and the sleepy village of Los Angeles joined the prospectors.

In a few months, word of the strike had reached the east coast of the United States, and gold fever started hundreds on their way to California. The first steamship of gold seekers arrived in San Francisco in February of 1849. The gold rush had begun. Miners came from Europe, Mexico, and South America. Soon thousands were pouring into the area where colonists had to be paid to settle not too many years before.

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Not everyone was concerned with the hunt for riches. Representatives met in Monterey in September 1849 to write a constitution. It was ratified on November 13 and presented to Congress. President Millard Fillmore signed the act that admitted California as a state on September 9, 1850.

Some of the towns in California were incorporated as cities, including Los Angeles. The population of Los Angeles was 3,530. 8,300 people lived in Los Angeles County, and half of them were considered “domesticated Indians” by the census takers.

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A "Great Fiesta"
Some ranchers joined the “49ers,” but it wasn't long before they saw that their real wealth was in their cattle. The gold miners were hungry. It wasn't long before all the wild game had been hunted and eaten. Miners were willing to pay good money for beef. Big herds were rounded up and sent north. Cows that had been worth a “leather dollar” brought $25 to $52 a head. Money and gold began to be seen in the Los Angeles area.

The Californians had a custom of emptying egg shells, and then filling them with cologne or confetti. They were called cascarones, and when they were broken over the head of a man or girl at one of the dances, the recipient was showered with the confetti or scent. Now they were sometimes filled with gold dust.

The cattle boom brought sudden prosperity to the unsophisticated ranchers. They were wealthy beyond their dreams, and soon fulfilled their heart's desires. Charles Nordhoff wrote that the women bought expensive rugs to cover the earth floors of their houses and wore silk and satin dresses with long trains. The men bought gold spurs and silver mounted saddles and bridles for their horses. They often paid two or three thousand dollars for suits decorated with real silver thread embroidery. Their time was filled with amusements and expensive entertainment for their friends. They had always been inveterate gamblers, but now they could wager thousands in cash, land, and livestock on the outcome of a single race.

Surely the great fiesta could never end! It did. Cattle ranchers in other western states began to herd cattle west, and their cows were not as stringy and tough. The prices that San Franciscans and miners were willing to pay for beef went down and soon the market for Southern California cattle had disappeared. Ranchers, unfortunately, had grown accustomed to their high life style, and often borrowed money by mortgaging bits of property.

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo had assured the citizens of the area that had been Mexican that their property would remain their own. However, hoards of American settlers had moved into the state and many of the gold hunters wanted to settle down on farms. They couldn't understand how a few men could own such vast estates and raise only cattle. Often they moved right in on the ranchos and became squatters.

The federal government appointed a land commission to investigate ownership. It began meeting in 1851.

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Federal Land Commission
The commission required that the ranchers prove their ownership of the land they claimed. This was difficult. Only in a few cases did owners still have the papers that confirmed their grants. Very few had acceptable surveys. Things had been very informal in colonial California, and often the land description was something like this: from the top of the hill to the big oak tree; west to where the cow skull sits on the rock, and south to the little stream. In the meantime, the oak tree had died and been chopped up for kindling, the cow skull was carried away or moved, and the stream had dried up. Witnesses could testify that they knew what boundaries custom had accepted, but most of the commission's meetings were in San Francisco, and it was expensive to lodge family, lawyers, translators and witnesses there while one waited for a hearing. The lawyers were all too anxious to help out - for a fee that was often a percentage of the property.

Still, things were in such confusion that the commission was probably the only way to handle the question of property ownership. During the last few years of Mexican rule, some three or four hundred grants had been given by the last Mexican governors. Pio Pico had bequeathed some 700,000 acres to himself and his brother Andres before he fled to Mexico. In addition there were many outright frauds - five separate parties claimed to have been granted the land on which the boom town of San Francisco now stood!

Over five years, the commission heard over eight hundred cases involving the ownership of over nineteen million acres. More than five hundred claims were eventually approved, 275 rejected, and the rest were withdrawn.

The Rancho Los Coyotes was confirmed by the land commission to Francesca de Campo and Andres Pico in 1855. Luckily for them, the Nietos had stored away their grant documents and Abel Stearns had made and recorded a formal survey. Perhaps Andres Pico had loaned money, cattle, or other goods in exchange for a mortgage on part of the property. However it happened, he was considered a half owner. Francesca de Campo had inherited her share from her husband, Juan Bautista Leandri, who had purchased the ranch in 1840.

Many of the other ranchers had to fight through the courts for years, borrowing money to pay their lawyers. Eventually they found that all too often, the lawyers and moneylenders owned it all. By the turn of the century, very few Californio families lived on the lands that had been granted to their fathers and grandfathers.

Sometime during the 1850's, Andres Pico and the de Campos experienced financial difficulties and the Rancho Los Coyotes became the property of Abel Stearns.

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Abel Stearns
Don Abel (also frequently referred to as “Cara del Caballo” or “Horseface”) was an extraordinary man. He was born in Massachusetts in 1798. His parents died when he was twelve, and he followed the old New England tradition of going away to sea. For ten years he was a crew member on ships sailing to China and the East Indies. Eventually, he became a supercargo on vessels trading in the West Indians and Spanish America. That meant that he went ashore and contracted for cargoes and often arranged for their sale.

In 1826 he arrived in Vera Cruz, Mexico and spent the next few years travelling around Mexico conducting business. In 1828 he became a Mexican citizen and applied for a grant in California. He arrived in California the next year and began trying to untangle the red tape involved with settling his grant. This was frustrating and finally impossible as the California government was in such turmoil at the time, so he shelved the idea of land ownership for a while and settled in Los Angeles.

At that time, the pueblo was a pretty poor place with only a few hundred people. Yankee visitors described it as dirty and dusty and with more starving dogs than people.

Stearns worked as a supercargo for an American hide trading firm for a few years, travelling up and down California, buying hides and collecting them for the ships. He came up with a great idea. During 1832 and 1833, he began buying a supply of trade goods form the “Boston” ships, paying for them with hides and tallow. Eventually he had enough to stock a store in the pueblo. His plan was to entice the ranchers to bring their hides and tallow to him in exchange for the items in his store. He would store the hides, and when a ship arrived, would sell the hides for cash or more trade goods. He would be the much-needed middleman in the hide and tallow business.

He bought an old building that the San Gabriel padres had built on the beach at San Pedro and enlarged it to be his warehouse. Enemies accused him of smuggling, but he was acquitted and his business flourished. Because he had established San Pedro as the place for trade, it became the site for the great harbor that was eventually built there.

In 1841, he married Arcadia Bandini. She was the daughter of Juan Bandini, an important citizen of San Diego. Some people described her as the most beautiful woman in California - poor Don Abel was not handsome, and a dissatisfied customer had slashed his face with a knife so that he had a scar and a speech impediment. Arcadia was fourteen years old - Don Abel was forty-one.

The couple settled into their home on the plaza in Los Angeles. It was called “El Palacio” and was the handsomest and largest house in town. It was built of adobe, with walls three feet thick and one story high. The rooms included a ballroom one hundred feet long.

Soon the Stearns home was the social center of Southern California. Dona Arcadia was a beautiful ornament and a charming hostess. Every important visitor to California stayed at El Palacio or was entertained there. Commodore Stockton wrote in his journal a description of the evening he was entertained at dinner.

Arcadia's younger sister Isidora ran the household and directed the servants. In 1851, she married Cave Couts, an American and West Point graduate who had come to California with the United States Army. For a wedding present, Don Abel gave them the Rancho Guajome near San Diego.

Stearns became richer and richer. In 1842, he purchased the Rancho Los Alamitos, once part of the Nietos Rancho, so that Arcadia could have a summer home on the beach.

Not only was he one of the richest, but he soon became one of the most important and respected citizens in the pueblo. He held several offices in local government and was a member of the California Constitutional Convention and a state assemblyman.

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Stearns' Ranching Empire
The Rancho Los Alamitos was only the first of many ranches that Stearns acquired. By 1860 he owned all of the former Nietos ranchos except for Los Cerritos and Santa Gertrudes. He had property from San Bernardino to the Mexican border. He was the wealthiest man in Southern California, owning more than 177,796 acres. His vaqueros branded several thousand calves every year. In addition, he owned his store and several other businesses including a tin mine, and in 1859 he built the Arcadia Block, the first business center in Los Angeles. It was on the property behind his house, facing the next street, and housed several fine offices and shops.

Los Angeles had grown considerably and by 1860 had a population of 4,399 and a reputation as a pretty wild place. Vigilantes had been organized to bring some law and order. Sure enough, Abel Stearns was involved in the vigilante committee.

The first of a few non-Spanish towns to be settled in the Los Angeles Basin was El Monte, where some Texas farmers had made homes in 1852. In 1857, Anaheim was settled by a colony of Germans.

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Flood & Famine End an Era
During the winter of 1861-1862, all of California experienced a series of severe floods. Sacramento was practically washed away and much of the Central Valley became an enormous lake. Southern California was covered with flood water.

The next few years brought the worst drought ever seen in Southern California. From too much rain, now there was none. The grass dried up and the cattle starved. Water holes and streams disappeared. Hoards of crickets ate the little green that was left. Thousands of cattle died and even their hides could not be salvaged because they were punctured by the starving animals' bones.

As if things were not bad enough, the people were hit by an epidemic of smallpox. Almost everyone in the poor district north of the plaza in Los Angeles died of the disease. The Indians who had been gathered on reservations by the government were devastated and practically none survived.

There was a total collapse of property values in the “cow counties.” By 1865, the total valuation of real and personal property in Los Angeles was only $800,000. Don Abel still owned his ranches, but had only $300 in cash. He lost his favorite, Los Alamitos, as he had taken out a loan to build the Arcadia Block. Some accounts say it was sold at Sheriff's auction for $152; others that Michael Reese foreclosed on the $20,000 mortgage and later sold the ranch for $125,000.

The droughts ended in the winter of 1867-1868 when it rained for two solid weeks. Nature changed the map of the Los Angeles Basin. The Los Angeles had changed its course in the 1830's to join the San Gabriel River. Previously, it had emptied near Santa Monica, but now it emptied into San Pedro Bay. Now, the San Gabriel River left its old bed, following the course of a new irrigation ditch that Pio Pico had dug near his ranch house. The river tore out a new channel, washing away tons of topsoil and inundating the land. When it had finished, it followed its present course where the little San Jose Creek had flowed, emptying into Los Alamitos Bay. The old channel became known as the Rio Hondo, to where it joins the Los Angeles River.

During the floods, the old adobe house in Los Nietos where Manuel Nieto had lived was washed completely away. The Pico house still stands in Pico Rivera and is being restored from damage suffered in the 1987 Whittier earthquake. Hopefully, it will soon be open to visitors again, as it is a fine example of the rancho houses built during the “golden” days.

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Los Angeles & San Bernardino
In 1868, Don Abel was threatened with losing all his property for $4,000 in delinquent taxes, but next year an old friend named Alfred Robinson interested a group of San Francisco financiers into forming a syndicate that came to be known as the Robinson Trust or the Los Angeles and San Bernardino Land Company. Maybe Stearns could be saved from bankruptcy. The syndicate gave Stearns $50,000 to settle his debts and one-eight of the profits.

Attractive maps were prepared and mailed out with brochures to people in the eastern United States and even in Europe. It was a good time to sell land. Soldiers who had returned from the Civil War had begun to travel west and wanted farms. The Central and Union Pacific railroads had been united in May of 1869 and new settlers could now easily come to California. The state government had formed the California Immigration Union to encourage settlement.

In the first year, the Robinson Trust had sold more than 20,000 acres. By 1871, Abel Stearns was on his way to a second fortune when he died of a sudden illness while on a trip to San Francisco.

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