California History

Cattle on the Conejo

Conejo Grade 1920

Conejo Grade 1920

One of the books I picked up on the bookstore tour was Cattle on the Conejo, by J.H. Russell. It is a collection of reminiscences by a rancher who had been on the property since his birth in 1883. That property was the Triunfo Ranch, the eastern edge of the larger Conejo grant. And for those who don’t know, Conejo Grade straddles the Ventura/Los Angeles County line, and  is the passage on Highway 101 between Thousand Oaks and Camarillo. What attracted me about the book was a short section on building the first state highway in California which was routed over Conejo Grade. I have to go back and look at my notes, but this roughly around 1910-12. El Camino Real boosters claim that the original state highway (Highway 2) followed the historic El Camino Real, at least through Southern California. That would mean that the historic El Camino Real passed over Conejo Grade. Of course, there was no historic El Camino Real, at least not one that dates any further back than 1891. And though the Camino Real Association implies that the route of the highway conforms to the fictional historic road, the truth is that the fiction bent to the modern reality. More about that below. But for now the question remains: why did the engineers decide to build Route 2 over the Conejo Grade? From state highway documents I’ve read, it seems clear that engineers, being engineers, built the roads in the most practical places they could without regard to scenery, history, pressure from local governments and business, and certainly not to preserve any sense of history. The designers of the national system of highways and the Interstates followed the same bloodless number-crunching approach as the california engineers, a process well-documented in Earl Swift’s The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways. What were the criteria that made these engineers choose Conejo Grade? Convenience. Traveling from south to north in coastal Southern California, the path of least resistance out of the Los Angeles basin is over Cahuenga Pass into the San Fernando Valley. But once in the Valley, the dilemma is which way to get out again. San Fernando Valley is walled in by the Santa Monica, Santa Susanna, Simi, and San Gabriel mountains. There are three possible passages north: west through Calabasas and over Conejo Grade to Ventura County; northwest through Chatsworth and over Santa Susanna Pass into Simi Valley; and north through the Fremont Cut into the Santa Clarita Valley, then west along the Santa Clara River (Highway 128) to Ventura. These three passes out of the Valley are currently used by the 101, the 118, and the 5, respectively. According to Russell in Cattle on the Conejo, the highway engineers were planning to go over either Conejo Grade or Santa Susanna Pass. Conejo was the first passage used by stagecoaches; Santa Susanna wasn’t usable as a stagecoach route until a passage was blasted out of the rocks (All of this information courtesy of  Outland, Stagecoaching on El Camino Real). And the Fremont Cut was, even in 1910, still uncomfortably steep even for a car (Taussig, Retracing the Pioneers, stating that the Fremont Cut was the steepest road they travelled in their six week jaunt from San Francisco to New York). How did they choose between Conejo and Santa Susanna?

“There were two proposed routes leading north out of  Los Angeles, one through the Conejo and the other, farther inland, through the Simi Valley. We eventually heard that it was settled defmitely that the route would be through the Conejo. Almost immediately, however, I learned from a man who was on the routing committee that there was renewed  agitation to have it go through the Simi Valley, so it would be well for the Conejo and Oxnard people to meet with the Highway Conunission when the Simi people did. The greatest drawback to the Conejo route was the lack of a railroad to get the gravel for concrete on the job. The Simi people stressed this point heavily. Finally I said, “We have a creek with lots of gravel on the Conejo and it would be easy to get if it is suitable.” Then I added, “Commissioner, we have no railroad and we need an all-year road. If I can get you a signed agreement by the property owners from Calabasas to the top of Conejo Grade that they will deed you the land for a right of way wherever you want it, would that help?” He answered, “If the gravel proves suitable for road and you can get the rights of way, I think you will get the road.” The gravel was suitable and all but two landowners agreed to give the right of way, so the road came through the Conejo.”

Cattle on the Conejo, pp. 68-69 So Russell essentially did a good part of the engineers’ groundwork, so to speak, for them. I think there is something very reassuring about that story. It sounds like bluster, but it’s just practical enough to be true. Someday I hope to research the issue from the Highway Commission side and see what they say, if anything. But as long as we’re on the issue of Conejo, is there any legitimacy in the claim that Conejo Grade is on THE mythological Camino Real? According to Bancroft, the first Portola expedition left the San fernando Valley northbound over the Fremont Cut (though Fremont hadn’t made the cut yet, of course) and down the Santa Clara River to Ventura. On the return (southbound0 trip, they entered the San Fernando Valley from the northwest via Simi Valley over the Santa Susanna Pass. Russell continues to state that as of the mid-1950s, “Highway 101 from Cahuenga Pass to Calabasas, the original El Camino Real, is in substantially the same place it has been for at least sixty years. From Calabasas to the Conejo Grade, however, very little is on the same right of way as the original county road or the first state highway.” But I think Russell is referring to El Camino Real as declared by the Camino Real Association; in other words, the first state road over Conejo Grade. I would have said “paved,” but I’m not sure when it was paved. Undoubtedly, later expeditions used the Conejo Grade. And as I noted earlier, it was apparently the easiest grade to make a passable road over. But I think it is at least clear that the State Highway was not built to commemorate El Camino Real, at least along this stretch.

Posted by Scott Alumbaugh in California History, El CaminoReal, Non-Fiction, 0 comments


“The shepherds, the herdsmen, the maids, the babies, the dogs, the poultry, all loved the sight of Ramona.”


Ramona (1884)

I recently read Ramona, the 1884 novel by Helen Hunt Jackson that launched a thousand suburbs. The book was instantly popular, and reportedly has never been out of print. Ramona is the reason so many people traveled to California in the 1880s. They came to see the locations mentioned in the book. Once they were here, well . . . who could go back to Iowa once you’ve spent a winter in Southern California? The 1880s saw a land boom in So Cal, and Ramona was the means by which land promoters lured people out here. That, and a savage train rate war that brought the price of tickets from from to the Mississippi to California from $125 to $15, and even as low as $1 for a time.

I really wanted to hate the book. Dreaded reading it. Put off starting it because it seemed like it would be a chore. But I had to read it for two reasons. First, Ramona is the primary source of Mission Revivalism in late-19th century California. It is the reason the missions were rebuilt, and El Camino Real reclaimed, and, I suspect, why every year Fourth Graders all over California still have to build a mission model. Second, this upcoming week I am staying near Santa Paula, which is down the road from the primary geographic site associated with Ramona, Rancho Camulos. (In fact, Rancho Camulos still bills itself as the “Home of Ramona” and  runs a “Ramona Days” event every year.) I have arranged a special tour for family members, and it seemed to me I should at least have the courtesy to have read the book first.

Ramona Days poster

But I have to say that I ended up getting pulled into the novel, and but for some poorly drafted passages (see above), and the usual 19th century purple prose, I actually enjoyed it.

And no wonder. If it were a movie,  Ramona would be billed as Romeo and Juliet in the Garden of Eden. It combines the time-tested tropes of  star-crossed lovers and the fall from grace.  In this case, Romeo is Alessandro, son of a wise Indian chief and a model Nobel Savage; Eve is Ramona, blue-eyed, half-Indian maiden beloved of all, including poultry; the Garden of Eden is Rancho Moreno, one of the last of the great Ranchos, run under the iron grip of the quietly domineering hand of Señora Moreno, widow of one of the Mexican land grantees, and one of the dying breed of Californios. The fall from grace and expulsion from Eden comes when Ramona, raised to be Gente de Razon, wants to marry Alessandro, who, despite his good looks, is Indian, and thus Gente sin Razon, a person without reason. To the proud Señora Moreno, that makes him untouchable. You can read a decent summary here.

The book, as mentioned above, was hugely successful. It’s been made into a movie four times )the first Ramona was Mary Pickford); staged annually since the 1920s (with only a few years break during WWII) as an outdoor play in Hemet, California (with Raquel Welch, née Tejada, in the starring role in 1959); and most recently as a Telenova (around 2000). All of which an author normally thinks of as good things.

But in this case, Ms. Jackson, considered her book a failure.  She set out to write the book in order to draw attention to the plight of Native Americans in California: an Uncle Tom’s Cabin for Native Americans. But in doing so, she inadvertently created an idealized pastoral, pre-American culture of the leisure of rancho life of the Gente de Razon, and gave it the extra touch of pathos that disappearing cultures evoke. Her descriptions of life on the veranda )claimed to be modeled on the south veranda of Rancho Camulos), surrounded by citrus groves, the warm, languorous winters set against the backdrop of decaying mission ruins, all blessed by loving, paternal padres overpowered the social message that is just as carefully drawn. She created the myth of California that those of us who grew up here all share, what Carey McWilliams called our “Spanish Fantasy Past.”

And since then, Southern California has never been the same.

Posted by Scott Alumbaugh in California History, Fiction, 0 comments

Gente de Razòn

Gente de Razon

Gente de Razon

Gente de razón is a Spanish term meaning ¨reasonable people,¨or more closely, ¨people of reason.¨ It’s the term the colonial Spanish used to differentiate themselves from indiginous peoples they were subjugating acculturating. Bancroft throughout Volume I gives counts of colonial white, which he equates with gente de razón. In separate categories, he lists neophytes (converted indians) and gentiles (Indians still living in rancherías).

But you have to wonder who the reasonable people are in this first period of California’s western occupation.

Occasionally, a few indians, and even sometimes larger groups, escaped from the missions to live back in their native villages. Up until 1800, the Spanish government forbade troops from being used to return the Indians to the mission. The civil authorities were still under the impression that Indians ought to be free to choose whether to convert to Catholicism. Which seems reasonable.

But the Franciscans would sometimes insist, and soldiers would be sent to round up the escapees. Sometimes government officials would be concerned about this practice, so they would interview the captured escapees to ask why they ran away. The answer? Because they were overworked, underfed, occasionally flogged and forced to work in shackles, and they were afraid they would die if they stayed because so many of their relatives and friends were dying every day of various diseases. Which seems to me to make running away a reasonable response.

The priests were forbidden to punish returned runaways, and instead directed to treat them with extra kindness to entice them to stay. Bancroft is skeptical that this happened in every instance.

It’s interesting to note that many of the Franciscan missionaries who came to California left as soon as they could. Others sought to retire early claiming hardship. Still others were removed, some for insanity, and one or two because they were too punitive zealous to the natives even for Franciscans. In one case, a missionary (Padre Antonio de la Canception Horra) was deemed insane by his colleagues and sent back to Mexico. He sued to have himself declared sane, claiming that the real reason he was removed was because he complained about the poor treatment of the neophytes. After a lengthy review, the Viceroy and the Franciscans found there was no basis to his claims (Bancroft 587-596).

From other sources, I know that after 1800, the treatment of indians worsened, more died, and soldiers went more frequently and further afield to find runaways and to recruit more forced labor neophytes.

None of which really seems very reasonable at all.

Posted by Scott Alumbaugh in California History, 0 comments