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Volume 6

Governor Fages Gives Santa Fe Springs to his Army Buddy

Spain’s grip over Santa Fe Springs and the rest of the state was lost after the Mexican revolt of 1822, leaving the officials in far off Mexico City in charge of California. One of the goals of the new rulers was to dismantle the mission system that owned the land and the Native American labor force. What happened in reality was that Mexico and its appendage, California, entered a period of instability and it took a while to neutralize the powerful missions. A series of Mexican governors began the process by giving away huge tracts of mission land to their friends. They made no provisions to help the native population transition from the paternal care of the missionaries to the harsh world of a free economic system. Native Californians, whose traditional way of life was already lost, became landless, destitute outsiders in a place that had once been their home.

The first three grants were made by Governor Pedro Fages in the late 1700’s to members of his old command. One of these grants was to Manuel Nieto, who requested 300,000 acres that contained the San Gabriel Mission grazing lands in what is now Santa Fe Springs. The grant was reduced to half that amount, but nevertheless, the land he received at no cost started at the San Gabriel River and terminated at the Pacific Ocean in Long Beach and included half of present day Orange County. The grant stayed intact for 30 years.

Interestingly, Mr. Nieto in his declining years chose to make his home in a part of the immense grant known as Rancho Santa Gertrudes, where he built an adobe home, corrals and cultivated fields. The region, including Santa Fe Springs, was then referred to as Los Nietos. Unfortunately for Nieto, the land grant came with a powerful, well-entrenched family headed by Patricio Ontiveros, whose adobe home remains can be seen at Heritage Park. A feud over land ownership between the two families would span three generations.

In telling the story of Patricio Ontiveros, it is important to know that very few people in California during that era were able to read or write. The ruling Spanish/Mexican government had never established schools, civic centers, post offices or libraries. Most of the largest landowners were illiterate. To make matters worse, California was still considered to be the most remote and isolated outpost in the civilized world, reachable only by a dangerous sea journey around Cape Horn. Consequently, the information we do have about the era of transition from missions to ranchos is sketchy. Surviving maps or diseños that identified land grant boundaries were amusingly primitive.

Patricio Ontiveros, A Man with Two Missions

Two of the richest missions in California were San Gabriel and San Juan Capistrano and their power was not easy for the Mexicans to revoke. Their wealth consisted of vast cattle holdings that required thousands of acres to sustain the grazing herds. Patricio Ontiveros, born in 1772, was nine when he and a sister were left at the San Gabriel Mission with the priests. His father, a soldier, had been called back to Mexico and his mother followed her husband. The priests taught him to read. Like his father, he eventually joined the Mexican Army.

Archaeologists believe that he built an adobe home at the Heritage Park site around 1815, three years after he was appointed Mayordomo by the San Juan Capistrano Mission. In this position, he was the official overseer of the mission’s riches … its cattle. (Local San Gabriel Mission’s grazing lands extended into the Pasadena area.) While we know little about him personally, it is pretty clear that this position gave him substantial power and prestige.

For more than 100 years, Southern California’s economy revolved around the cattle industry. With no fences, Capistrano Mission cattle would wander for miles, even as far as Santa Fe Springs. Probably, cordial relationships between the two missions and a careful system of branding allowed the two herds to intermingle. The Nieto herds would have added tension and confusion to the situation. In fact, one legal battle between the Nieto and the San Gabriel Mission dragged on for 10 years in the courts. Nieto complained to the governor, “ I am so much persecuted by the Mission that I am compelled to seek the protection of your honor … they are continually endeavoring me to abandon the place to the Indians.”

Bones, Bones, Bones

In 1985, archaeologists excavating the site where Heritage Park was to be built, uncovered a playground-size area in proximity of the Ontiveros home filled with cattle bones. Also found in the pit were remnants of household trash such as broken pottery. After a cow was slaughtered, its corpse would have been used in three ways. Butchered meat was eaten immediately, or cut in strips and dried as carne seca. The hide was pegged on the ground to be scraped clean and dried, and the fat was used to provide tallow for candle making. The bones were tossed in a pit and covered with a layer of dirt. After the hides were dried in Santa Fe Springs, they were carted to harbors, like Dana Point, stacked high in the holds of sailing ships, and sent to Europe where they were turned into manufactured goods. The hide trade gave California, and especially Santa Fe Springs, commercial importance in the world economy. There was no currency in California; everything was bartered with cattle hides.

A person’s wealth was measured in the number of animals he owned. Manuel Nieto died the richest person in California in 1804 with vast holdings of black cattle and horses. His descendants successfully ousted Ontiveros from their father’s land after the secularization Act of 1833, which was the final death knell of the mission system. Patricio Ontiveros petitioned Governor Figueroa for a land grant that included land claimed by Nieto, but he died in 1835 before it was granted. His family, composed of eight children, received the grant which included much of central Orange County. However, the rancho way of life was doomed; the Yankees were coming … The floods were coming … The drought was coming.