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Volume 5

Spain Rules California

Hunting and Gathering Banned in Santa Fe Springs

The hunting and gathering ways of the first people of Santa Fe Springs, the Tongva, came to an abrupt end after the Spanish established their mission at San Gabriel in 1771. For the next six decades, they redirected the energies of Native Californians, especially the Tongva people, into making California a prolific producer of orchard fruits, grapes, grains and livestock. So forceful was the transition from Native rule to Spanish rule, the Tongva were given a new name, the Gabrieleños, after the mission where they served as unpaid laborers.

During this time, Tongva villages like Chokishingna in Santa Fe Springs, were abandoned as the tribal groups were moved into the mission compounds and dormitories. It became impossible to return to their hunting and gathering ways after the concept of property ownership was established in the state. Their populations declined by significant numbers every year, and with no political clout, the Gabrieleños capitulated to the farming lifestyle of the missionaries. The mission system was designed to last only 10 years, then distribute land back to the converted, native people. The mission system lasted 60 years and the land was never returned to the locals.

By 1810, relationships between Mexico, California and Spain were strained. Spanish supply ships were no longer sent, and pay to soldiers and missionaries was stopped. By 1822, Californians heard the news with disbelief that Mexican colonists had successfully staged a revolution, and had broken from Spanish rule. California, far from the vortex of the struggle, received their independence from imperial rule without the bloodshed that had occurred in Mexico. Yet, despite their family ties with Mexico, Californians maintained strong local pride and had trouble identifying with their far off neighbor and new ruler, Mexico.

The evils of the mission system, where it pertained to tribal groups, was well known to Mexican Governor José Figueroa, a well educated man who was known for his respectful treatment of indigenous people. In Mexico, sentiment was growing for the emancipation of the people who had been kept as slaves at the missions. In 1883, a decree sent to California on horseback announced that the missions were to become parish churches and mission property was to be dispersed.

History Gets Foggy and a Feud Begins

This decree must have been a huge setback for Juan Patricio Ontiveros who had built a large adobe home on the site that is known in the City of Santa Fe Springs as Heritage Park. The footing of his adobe home, built around 1815, can be seen today near the park’s Carriage Barn. Because there were very poor records kept at the time, no one is sure exactly why Ontiveros was well-settled within a land grant that was given to Manuel Nieto. To make matters worse, his squatter’s presence did not endear him to the Nieto clan, and the two families feuded for years.

Contemporary researchers have uncovered a lot of information about this first Mexican resident of Santa Fe Springs. Juan Patricio Ontiveros was descended from a Spanish military family who followed the conquistadors to Mexico. While his father was out soldiering, young Juan Patricio was raised by priests at the San Gabriel Mission. Like his father, he became a soldier in the Spanish/Mexican army. Also like his father and most Californians of that era, Juan Patricio was illiterate.

As a soldier, he was assigned to protect the mission from Native uprisings as well as provide security for Spanish interests in California. The major interest of the Spanish in those days was the successful cattle hide business that created profits for the motherland. In fact, the cattle hide industry was so important in the state that the hides were referred to as “California Bank Notes.”

Mission San Juan Capistrano, not the San Gabriel Mission, owned the largest herd in Southern California. Since cattle require miles of land for grazing, the animals wandered into regions to the north of the mission that are now known as Santa Fe Springs, Downey and Norwalk. An important job of the vaqueros, the Mexican cowboys, was to gather together thousands of free roaming cattle for an annual round-up and slaughter, called the matanza. The success of the matanza was a life and death situation for Californians once they were cut off from Spain. The Spanish embargo forced the Californians to develop a trade system of hides for consumer goods from the British ships.

We can only speculate that the powerful San Juan Capistrano Mission strategically placed Ontiveros on the Nieto lands to make sure their cattle herds flourished, and to conduct the annual slaughter and processing. So great was this responsibility that Juan Patricio Ontiveros was named Mayordomo or overseer of the Pueblo of San Juan Capistrano while he was living in Santa Fe Springs!

Prior to the Mexican decree relieving the missions of their power, Ontiveros’ power and authority was derived through the missions. Shortly after the decree, Manuel Nieto’s children were successful in ousting Ontiveros from his lands. (Manuel Nieto died in 1804, the wealthiest man in the State.) The Ontiveros family reestablished themselves on 35,000 acres in Orange County, where many of their descendants still live.

The Spanish Fort Rumor

Before the building of Heritage Park there were many rumors about the one time presence of a Mexican fort on the site. It took a team of archaeologists to uncover the facts. The buried fort ruins turned out to be the cobble stone foundation of the Ontiveros adobe home. Not far from the foundation, they uncovered an immense pit of cattle bones from several decades of matanzas. Thousands of bones, many with butchering marks made by the vaqueros, were extracted from the pit. Household trash like broken pottery of both Native and Spanish origin was also discovered. The bone pit and adobe foundation can be viewed on the grounds of Heritage Park.

While these things may appear to be mundane they are a precious legacy of the City’s Spanish/Mexican past.