CAPTAIN WILLIAM DANA OPENED THE DOORS OF HIS GRAND ADOBE HOME ON THE NIPOMO RANCHO TO ALL WHO TRAVELED EARLY SAN LUIS OBISPO COUNTY TRAILS.
Standing in a grove of Eucalyptus trees on Nipomo Mesa, about one fourth of a mile from the new State freeway in San Luis Obispo County, is a venerable landmark of California's past...Casa de Dana. It should be designated a Historical Monument by the State of California. A 13-room adobe residence, it was built by Captain William Goodwin Dana about 1840. Historian Myron Angel calls it "a monument in the history of the county, second only to the old missions, and around it cluster many pleasant and interesting reminiscences...in nearly all the books on California in the early days, in government reports and orders, frequent mention is made of Captain Dana, his pleasant home, and his hospitality."(1)
Here, one jornada, or day's journey, south of Mission San Luis Obispo on El Camino Real, many weary travelers found food and lodging and fresh horses to carry them on their way between Monterey and San Diego. If at times a stranger seemed in desperate straits, money was unostentatiously placed at his bedside so that he should not go penniless on his way. Casa de Dana was for several years the only stopping place between Missions San Luis Obispo and Santa Ines, and the only house between San Luis Obispo and Los Alamos on the road to Santa Barbara, four jornadas south.
When General S. W. Kearney established the first regular mail route in California on April 19, 1847, the order read: "To be carried on horseback by a party to consist of two soldiers, starting every other Monday from San Diego and San Francisco, the parties to meet at Captain Dana's ranch the next Sunday to exchange mails." (10) The couriers were then to return by the same route, reaching their starting points on the following Sunday. The only other stopping places mentioned in the order along the Mission trail from San Diego were San Luis Rey, the Pueblo de Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Monterey, and San Francisco, but doubtless stops were made at other mission settlements, for the Franciscan padres had taken thought in 1769 to establish their missions one day's journey apart. By 1849, "there was a military express mail, with 3 riders: one between San Francisco and Monterey, the second between Monterey and W. G. Dana's Nipomo Rancho, and the third between Dana's and Los Angeles."(13)
Rancho Nipomo (the Indian word ne-po-mah meant "foot of the hill") was one of the first and largest of the Mexican land grants in San Luis Obispo County. Captain Dana, then a naturalized citizen in business in Santa Barbara, had applied for it in 1835, and the grant was confirmed by Governor Juan B. Alvarado on April 6, 1837. It consisted of 37,887.91 acres and commanded, across the arroyo below, a magnificent view of rolling hills and valley where sometimes bands of marauding Indians from the Tulares could be detected. The residence was built by Indian labor of great adobe bricks with walls two feet thick, in the U-shape of the period, enclosing a patio where fig trees were planted. The right arm of the U was the kitchen; the left, a storehouse. The upper floor was a dormitory, where the younger children of the growing family slept. When guests assembled in numbers, as at the wedding of Maria Josefa Dana and Henry Amos Tefft, they passed the night on their saddle blankets on the front porch.
In 1849 Nipomo Rancho was one of the voting places that helped decide the issue of statehood for California. It was the site of one of the early post offices of the area. It was later a stagecoach stop. Still later, when the Pacific Coast Railway was constructed in 1881, Captain Dana's widow gave a right-of-way across her domain, a strip 10 miles long and 60 feet wide, receiving therefor free rides for the rest of her life! A depot was then built on the ranch, and the village plot of Nipomo was laid out. (1)
For a generation, Nipomo Rancho was a headquarters for political and social activity. Among the noted visitors of the period, some of whom remained as guests for long periods of time, the most commonly mentioned are Lt. Col. John C. Fremont, who almost became President; Edwin Bryant, one of his lieutenants and later alcalde of San Francisco; Capt. W. H. Halleck, later General Halleck, who in the American period became identified with the New Almaden quicksilver mine near San Jose and a law firm in San Francisco; William Rich Hutton, who surveyed Nipomo Rancho among others in San Luis Obispo County; and Henry Tefft, who married a daughter of Captain Dana, helped draft the first Constitution of California, became the first Assemblyman from San Luis Obispo County to the State Legislature, and served as District Judge of the San Luis Obispo District. (Henry Tefft and his wife, Maria Josefa, lived at Casa de Dana.) Army officers en route between stations were often there. At one time a party of English scientists made a home there for a month, exploring and collecting specimens. (10)
Two visitors at the Dana adobe whose letters and journal give firsthand descriptions of the rancho were Hutton and Bryant, the latter of Company H, California Battalion. Young Hutton came from Washington in 1847 as clerk to his uncle, Major William Rich, who served as paymaster to the U.S. Volunteers for the occupation of California. Later, Hutton was appointed County Surveyor of San Luis Obispo County, and after his return to Washington became a noted civil engineer, the Hudson River tunnel being one of his achievements. Of the Dana family, he wrote to his mother in 1850; "...I was obliged to go on to Nipomo with Mr. Tefft, and after crossing the arroyo grande, a very miry, half-bridged stream, and going up a hill we thought we could not get up, we had a very pleasant drive to this place. I found Captain Dana an excellent good-natured old gentleman, and his daughter (Mrs. Tefft) is a favorite with all who know her....among others, of Uncle. Since I have been here they have treated me very kindly, and they live very comfortably. I sent up to San Luis for my things, and have commenced (surveying) on this farm. The farm is about 10 miles long and, I believe, nearly as broad, though a third of it is hilly and good for nothing. The air is filled with the fragrance of the different species of clover, and in some places the oats are 4 feet high.
"They have about 30 or 40 tame cows, and we have lots of milk and fresh butter." Of Mrs. Tefft, he wrote to his uncle: "I know that you think a great deal of her, and think that you would like her much more if you knew her reading. Altho' she has had but few books, she knows them by heart....among others, Moratin's Comedies and Poesias sueltas." (13)
Bryant's description of the country he passed through in 1846 with Fremont between San Luis Obispo and Nipomo would delight any modern Californian. In his journal for December 18, he wrote: "Clear, with a delightful temperature. Before the sun rose the grass was covered with a white frost. The day throughout has been calm and beautiful. A march of four miles brought us to the shore of a small indentation in the coast of the Pacific where vessels can anchor, and boats can land when the wind is not too fresh. The surf is now rolling and foaming with prodigious energy...breaking upon the beach in long lines one behind the other, and striking the shore like cataracts. The hills and plains are verdant with a carpet of fresh grass, and the scattered live oaks on all sides, appearing like orchards of fruit trees, give to the country an old and cultivated aspect. The mountains bench away on our left, the low hills riding in gentle conical forms, beyond which are the more elevated and precipitous peaks covered with snow. We encamped about three o'clock near the rancho of Captain Dana, in a large and handsome valley well watered by an arroyo." (6)
The Dana adobe was not only a center of hospitality along El Camino Real. It was for many years the main center of agriculture and industry in a hundred-mile stretch of the California coast, and supplied Missions Santa Ines, La Purisima, and San Luis Obispo, as well as neighboring ranchos, with many of its products. Among the outlying buildings were a soap kitchen, where the tallow produced in stock-raising was used; a room provided with looms for weaving coarse cloth for clothing, serapes, and blankets; a turning lathe and furniture factory; and a blacksmith shop, where agricultural implements were made; for example, an improved plow, for the Spanish-Californians were still using on their great ranchos an arada, the pointed stick of Biblical times. This was a section of a small tree, with a limb long enough to reach to the yoke of the oxen, one end of the section sharpened to scratch the ground and the other shaped for a handle. In his furniture shop, Captain Dana made use of his seafaring days. Elegant bedsteads and wardrobes, now scattered among the homes of his descendants, exemplify the skill of his artisans. (1)
As for the man who built the Dana adobe, he is described by Historian Bancroft as one of the three most prominent foreign traders, "who came often during a series of years and became well known to the Californians, men who, though visitors now, became permanent residents later, and men who died in California." (2)
Born in Boston in 1797, he sailed as a young man on his uncle's ships to China and India. He was a cousin of Richard Henry Dana, Jr., who became famous in 1840 as the author of Two Years Before the Mast, and for whom Dana Point and Dana Cove on the Southern California coast were later named. He arrived in Santa Barbara in 1825 on the brig Waverly, of which he was now master, after the long voyage around Cape Horn and to the Pacific Islands. This ship, with her two consorts, "introduced the Hawaiian flag to California waters and opened a new branch of territorial trade." (2)
His marriage to Josefa, the daughter of Don Carlos Antonio Carillo, member of one of Spanish California's most noted families and in 1835 provisional governor, brought him in contact with the political, commercial, and social leaders of three decades and three regimes, the Spanish, the Mexican, and the American. He was one of that "new and able class of Spanish-American grandees to whom the Mexican governors appealed and who became grantees of large areas" during the troubled times of Mexican independence from Spain, secularization of the missions, and revolution within Alta California. (5)
He built and launched with Don Carlos in 1828 or 1829 what was probably the first sea-going vessel on the west coast and christened her the Santa Barbara. This was a few miles north of Santa Barbara, at Hill's rancho, now the town of Goleta, from the Spanish word goleta, meaning "schooner." (1) She was designed for the coasting trade and the catching of otters for their valuable skins, Captain Dana being one of the few licensed to hunt otters.
He erected the first frame building (with materials brought from Chile by sea) in San Luis Obispo in 1850, on the road leading past the old Mission to Monterey, and in 1851 the first hotel, Casa Grande, a large adobe which later became the county courthouse. This structure, with its sheet iron roof and timbers hauled at great labor by oxen over the winding trails from the pines of Cambria, is reported to have cost over $50,000 and was "the great hotel of the south." By this time in California history, because of the gold rush in the north and the American settlers from the east, San Luis Obispo saw much travel and transacted much business, but Dana did not realize any considerable profit from the fluctuating fortunes of Casa Grande.
His brother-in-law, Captain Thomas M. Robbins, former mate of the Waverly, having married Encarnacion Carrillo, sister of Josefa, received Santa Catalina Island as a grant from the Mexican government. Dana's son-in-law, Henry Tefft, was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention at Monterey and became the first Assemblyman from San Luis Obispo County under the American flag. He himself (Dana) received in the first election under the new State Constitution the largest number of votes for the Senate, but owing to informalities in the election, he was displaced by Don Pablo de la Guerra of Santa Barbara.
"In 1845," Bancroft says, "Larkin (Thomas O. Larkin was United States Consul at Monterey) gave him an excellent character as a man of greater influence than any other foreigner to the Santa Barbara region." (2) Myron Angel records: "That he was favorable to the American cause is shown by the warm friendship of Fremont and prominent officers, but he was prevented by acute rheumatism from taking part in military operations." (1)
His concern for the welfare of the central coast section of California is reported by Fra. Engelhardt. Mission affairs had sadly deteriorated after secularization by the Mexican government, and on June 6, 1847, Dana wrote to Governor Mason from his Nipomo ranch: "Society is reduced here to the most horrid state. The whole place has for a long time past been a complete sink of drunkenness and debauchery. Alcalde's orders are made nugatory by want of force to restore order. The most respectable reside on their farms at some distance from the Mission, and it is morally impossible that they could unite (in case of an outbreak) in season to be of any service. A military force is absolutely necessary in the place. The wild Indians are committing raids and carrying off droves of horses. Californians and foreigners formed a party and went after them. In a week they returned; they had found the Indians too strong. If some prompt measures are not adopted, the farmers will have to abandon the ranchos. Horrid murders are reported at San Luis Obispo by the alcalde." (9)
A generation earlier, in December, 1846, at San Diego, together with other American traders who happened to be in port, he had signed an appeal to Governor Echeandia which strengthened the cause of Jedediah Smith, whose incursion into Mexican territory was looked upon with suspicion by the Mexican government. "The Californians were astonished by the appearance in their country of this first party of Americans to come overland...hunters and trappers under command of Captain Smith...who finally arrived At Mission San Gabriel from Salt Lake very much exhausted." (11) Echeandia ordered Smith to appear at San Diego and give an account of himself and his reasons for coming to the country. His plea was that he had been compelled to enter the territory for want of provisions and water. When Dana and his cosigners wrote that "the trapper's papers were all en regle, and his motives doubtless pacific and honorable," Smith was released by the Governor and given permission to purchase supplies, but was ordered to return by the same route he had come, and as soon as possible. (2)
The Huntington Library at San Marino has ten letters of Captain Dana among the Stearns Papers (1833-39), dealing with business and politics. The Bancroft Library at Berkeley also has a number of his letters.
After his naturalization as a Mexican citizen in 1835 and during his residence in Santa Barbara, Dana served as appraiser at La Purisima mission, as Captain of the Port of Santa Barbara, and, in 1836, as alcalde. (2) Removing to Nipomo, he later held such official positions as Prefecto (the highest office in the gift of the Mexican government) in 1849, and County Treasurer of San Luis Obispo County in 1851 after California's admission to the Union.
Another testimonial to Dana's prominence is seen in a letter dated October, 1836, from Governor Nicholas Gutierrez, who addresses him as "Mi estimado amigo (My esteemed friend)." (1) In 1846, Agustin Janssens, justice of the peace at Santa Ines Mission, listed him as one of the eleven who contributed to the defense of the government when General Flores revolted in the south. Janssen's circular of October 25 stated that ten Americans were said to be seducing the Indians in the Tulares to attack the rancheros as a part of the generally unsettled conditions. (2)
Dana undoubtedly aided his father-in-law, Carrillo, the "Pretender," to escape in 1838, in company with his son Pedro and Jose Maria Covarrubias by boat from Santa Barbara during the Governor's absence. (2) Don Carlos was favored for governor by the party of the south as against the revolutionists Alvarado and Castro of the north and had been legally appointed by the President of Mexico. Nonetheless, "so powerful a man was he," writes his cousin, William Heath Davis, that when, in April, 1840, Governor Alvarado ordered all resident Americans in the Department of California arrested (about seventy including John M. Price, then in Dana's service), Dana himself was not touched, even though he was of the opposite party. Davis reports later that on a voyage north from Santa Barbara he and his companions were obliged to leave their ship at Pt. Concepcion because of a head wind, and to continue by land to Monterey. Stopping at Rancho Nipomo, they found there other worthies of the day, Mayor Henry F. Teschemacher of San Francisco and Dr. Nicholas A. Den, being sheltered on their trip north. "We each bought two horses from Dana to continue our journey," he records. (8)
Lieutenant Bryant, on that famous expedition against the insurgent Californians of the south, described in his journal of December 18 not only the scenery, but also his host: "Captain Dana is known and esteemed throughout California for his intelligence and private virtues, and his unbounded generosity and hospitality. I purchased here a few loaves of wheat bread, and distributed them among the men belonging to our company as far as they would go, a luxury which they have not indulged in since the commencement of the march. Distance 15 miles." (6) On the return journey of the expedition after the capitulation of the Californians, Bryant recorded: "About noon on the 4th (February), we halted at the rancho of Captain Dana, where we procured fresh horses, leaving our wretchedly lean and tired animals and proceeding on..." (6)
According to Juan Francisco Dana, son of Captain Dana, whose reminiscences at the age of 93 were published in Touring Topics, November, 1931, under the title, "Ten Decades on a California Rancho," Colonel Fremont eluded on that memorable march south an ambush by the Californians in Gaviota Pass by following the advice of Captain Dana that he and his 700 men should take the more difficult San Marcos Pass to Santa Barbara, and that he should get Benjamin Foxen of Rancho Tinaquaic, where they camped December 20 in the woods near the Foxen home, to guide them. (12) Thus the future of California as a State under the American flag may have been in some measure decided, for Fremont did get through and did meet Commodore Stockton in Los Angeles, who had marched up from San Diego to quell the insurgents. Two granite monuments and a bronze marker now memorialize not only Fremont but Foxen, his guide. The first, at the entrance to Foxen Canyon, was erected by Santa Barbara County; the second, in San Marcos Pass, by the Daughters of the American Revolution, Santa Barbara; and the third, in Gaviota Pass, by the Native Sons of the Golden West, Santa Barbara; and the Lions Club, Santa Maria. Not one plaque has been posted in honor of Captain Dana for the part that he, too, perhaps played in the destiny of California.
A contemporary says of the famous ride of Colonel Fremont from Los Angeles to Monterey in March, 1847: "The hard gallop and light trot of their spirited animals brought them, at set of sun, to the rancho of their friend, Captain Dana, where they supped, and then proceeding on to San Luis Obispo, reached the house of Don Jesus (Pico), the Colonel's companion, at nine o'clock in the evening...one hundred and thirty-five miles from the place where they broke camp in the morning!" (7)
A later diarist, William Henry Brewer, employed in the geological survey of 1860-64, does not mention the Dana adobe or family, but describes in his entry of Tuesday, April 9, in Up and Down California in 1860-64 the landscape at his Camp No. 24, Nipomo Ranch. (4) He was naturally more interested in the many fossils he had found at Camp 23 on the Foxen ranch, "among them a portion of a fossil whale, dug up at the ranch, the bones very stoney."
A contemporary not so highly reputed by posterity is mentioned in Jespersen's History of San Luis Obispo County as "a friend of the Danas (not knowing him as a leader of bandits), whom he robbed of gold from the sale of cattle." This infamous character was Jack Powers, "a gambler and robber, who plundered and murdered at will during the 'Desperate Fifties'; who was socially accepted, but whose camp on the bloody Nacimiento River was headquarters for the outlaws." (14) Captain Dana was indeed a member of the Vigilance Committee organized in 1858, the closing year of his life, by the community of San Luis Obispo, at last aroused by a series of crimes culminating in the murder of two Frenchmen. When Santos Peralta was arrested, the vigilantes took him from jail and hanged him and later, others of the band, acts which Jespersen names as "illegal but justifiable." This period in the history of California is explained by Benjamin Brooks as transitional. "The Vigilance Committees enrolled the most prominent citizens of the county, both American and Spanish.... it was a period of violence...the government was feeble, the courts were powerless, the lax administration of the law bred crime." In the conflict of races, he continues, the "vicious and indolent Mexican peons and half breeds chiefly constituted the dangerous class and found little consideration at the hands of the rough white element. Without doubt they were often treated with injustice and cruelty...impelled by a spirit of revenge or a lust for crime, bands roamed the country...until they were exterminated." (5)
Of many instances of hospitality recorded at the Dana rancho, perhaps that shown to the officers and crew of the United States ship Edith is most often retold. The Edith was wrecked in 1849 on Point Arguello, a rocky head land twenty miles southwest of Lompoc which has since seen many a ship go down. One story is that the sailors aboard the Edith, "being anxious to join the gold rush, deliberately put the ship on the beach, where the hospitable Dana provided them with horses, saddles, and a guide that they might proceed to Monterey. After the ship was salvaged by Dana and the materials were used on the rancho. The smokestack on the forge in the old blacksmith shop, still standing, was among the wreckage put to good use by this thrifty Bostonian." (12)
One last attribute of this pioneer Californian is noted by Fra. Engelhardt and by Bancroft...that he was in a way a "physician"! He tried to cure Don Angel Ramirez in February, 1840, by giving him "more purgatives and some emetics to eject the phlegms and blood." (9) Ramirez died and was buried in the Mission, February 7.
Captain Dana died in Nipomo in 1858 and his wife in 1883. Both were buried in San Luis Obispo. Of their twenty-one children, thirteen grew to manhood and womanhood, but have now all passed on. The last son to own his father's adobe was Fred Dana, whose widow sold it in 1900. Twenty-eight grandchildren and many great grandchildren are still living in California.