Thursday, April 25, 2013

Strange Connections

The Oaks, residence of J. Parker Whitney, Spring Valley Ranch, Rocklin, CA, c. 1889

Yesterday, I was tootling around the place trying to figure out whether spring was actually ever going to settle in and when I would be able to plant without fear of a late season hard freeze killing the seedlings. Our neighbor, Kathy, says it's not really worthwhile planting before Mother's Day, because there is almost guaranteed to be more freezing weather before the end of spring. And besides, the monsoon rains don't start until summer anyway. She thinks I started seedlings way too soon (at the beginning and middle of April, after all!) and that I should have waited.

Well, I get antsy. The landscape strangely looks like late summer California: dry yellow grasslands dotted with dark trees and grayish shrubbery. Of course the species are different, but the visuals are similar.

While puzzling all this out, I got to exploring some of the historical material about this area, and it is quite a tale. This area wasn't opened to homesteading until about 1900, though there were some pockets of squatters and interlopers before then. This area was subject to competing landgrant claims prior to 1900 as various factions sued and countersued in territorial and federal courts and Congress dithered the way they do.

Interestingly, the later claims were fought between a prominent New Mexico family, the Oteros who were intermarried with the Lunas, an even more prominent New Mexico family, and the Whitneys, a very prominent California family (though in these parts, they are attributed to Boston.)  Indeed, Whitney is an inescapable namesake in parts of Northern California, particularly in the Rocklin area outside of Sacramento, where physical remnants of his 30,000 acre Spring Valley Ranch can still be seen amid the suburban sprawl that has engulfed the western end of Placer County.

I knew the Whitney name was associated with the history of this area of New Mexico, but until yesterday, I didn't realize it was that Whitney, of Spring Valley Ranch in Rocklin, California. The name used here in New Mexico is commonly Joel Whitney (and his brother, James); in California, Joel Whitney was known as Parker Whitney (I don't think I ever ran across the name "Joel" as he went by his middle name "Parker".) James didn't really figure. And Joel Whitney is almost always referred to as a "Boston" businessman or capitalist, not a California rancher. Any mention in New Mexico of his California connection tends to be fleeting and often confusing.

Well, (Joel) Parker Whitney was born in Boston, but he went out to California in 1852 at the age of 17 to make his fortune in the gold fields. Of course by then the gold fields that hadn't already been worked out were already claimed, so there wasn't much opportunity for individuals to get rich from panning gold in California. Instead, Whitney made his fortune from "market hunting" -- which sounds dreadful, but very American on the Frontier -- and once he'd made his pile (by 1856 at any rate) he began acquiring the land around Rocklin that would become the immense Spring Valley Ranch.

In California, a lot of effort was put into "scientific" farming and ranching methods as everything was new, at least to the Anglos, and there was no point in trying to recreate the traditional farming and ranching methods utilized back east. Everything was different, particularly the weather, and farming and ranching practices of other regions turned out to be disastrous in California. Other means and methods had to be developed -- which they were at places like Spring Valley Ranch, which farmed scientifically and scientifically raised [sheep and] cattle.

California may still have been something of the Frontier in the later part of the 19th Century, but New Mexico was a backwater, or at least it was thought to be by the Anglos who were trying to make something of it. The odd thing was that New Mexico was the parent of Spanish colonial California, and the two stayed closely connected until the American seizure of the territory from Mexico, and even then, the Spanish connection throughout the Southwest was maintained under American suzerainty.

Whitney was Anglo to the max, of course, and in Rocklin, he had a free hand to do pretty much anything he wanted, and he did, as there were no prior European-American customs and traditions in Northern California to be overcome. That wasn't so in Spanish California, where very different traditions and customs were maintained, nor -- he would find out -- was it true in New Mexico where he attempted to establish and maintain an elaborate cattle empire on lands that had been granted to and were already in possession of Spanish descended (and locally prominent) sheep herders.

The details are somewhat complicated and obtuse, as legal and land ownership matters tend to be, but the gist of it is that Whitney purchased the greater part of the Baca land grant in the East Mountains of New Mexico, but the Baca grant had not been confirmed by American authorities by the time Whitney came around, and the Baca grant and some of its parts were claimed by others, including the Oteros who had bought it from the heirs of Bartolomé Baca, who had received it as a grant from the Spanish Crown in 1819. The portion that Whitney purchased came from the Antonio Sandoval grant of 1845, a grant that seems to have been made by Mexican authorities without either knowledge or reference to the previous Baca grant. Sandoval sold his grant to Gervacio Nolan. Whitney bought the interest of the Nolan heirs in the Sandoval grant in 1878.

It's possible Whitney had no knowledge of the Baca grant -- which encompassed about 1.5 million acres essentially the entirety of the Estancia Basin together with the eastern slopes of the Manzano Mountains. Whitney had only purchased the Nolan heirs' interest in the Sandoval grant which encompassed about a third of the entire Baca grant but which made no reference to that grant. It was Whitney's objective to run cattle on that portion of the Baca grant, and to that end, he sent his brother James to collect 25,000 head in Texas and move them to New Mexico.

At the time, perhaps unknown to Whitney, Manuel Otero was running 45,000 sheep on the same property, along with some cattle and horses. Manuel Otero had purchased the Baca grant in its entirety (but for those sections granted to the towns of Manzano, Torreon, Tajique, and Chilili previously) from the heirs of Bartolomé Baca  -- who had essentially come upon the grant documents by surprise when they opened a chest belonging to Bartolomé after his death. Apparently, in about 1833 Bartolomé ordered the abandonment of the ranch he had established with headquarters at Estancia Springs, due to repeated Indian raids that had resulted in the loss of nearly all the livestock and the deaths of several of his shepherds. The remaining Baca ranch staff was urged to move to the town of Manzano for protection.

Otero purchased the Baca grant in 1877 and promptly set out to run sheep on the land once again, and once again to utilize the Estancia Springs hacienda as headquarters.

Manuel Otero attempted to gain American confirmation of his ownership of the Baca grant but failed to do so, as the presiding judge determined that the grant was incomplete. This ruling would be appealed, but before it was, Manuel died, and his son, also Manuel, took over the Otero properties, including the Baca grant.

Manuel Otero the Younger had been educated in Germany, and upon his return to New Mexico, he married Eloisa Luna, easily one of the richest heiresses in the territory. The story of the Lunas and the Oteros is one of New Mexico's chief legends of the Rio Abajo -- which is not really part of this story, but it does help to show how strangely connected everything is.

Manuel the Younger had Jesus Chavez running the sheep ranch out at Estancia Springs, where one day, James Whitney came to call accompanied by some cowboys and perhaps his herds. James demanded that the ranch and the hacienda be turned over to him forthwith. Jesus put up little resistance, but he sent word to Manuel at his place called "La Costancia" near Belen. Manuel saddled up along with several of his vaqueros and set out for Estancia. Along the way, he met up with his brother-in-law, a doctor, and they proceeded to pay a call on James Whitney and his men who were in occupation at the Estancia Springs hacienda.

According to reports, the meeting was tense -- or perhaps it was cordial, accounts differ. At any rate, Otero demanded some sort of court order or other documentation from Whitney to prove ownership of the ranch and grant, but Whitney couldn't produce anything. Therefore, according to Otero, Whitney had no legal right to the property, though Whitney was in possession of it at the moment. Some reports say that Whitney and Otero got along quite well, despite the dispute over ownership, and in the course of the evening commenced to drink and play cards. But at some point, guns were drawn and fired. Both Otero and Whitney were wounded in the shootout, while one of Whitney's men was killed. Otero's vaqueros then took over the hacienda and property while Whitney's men retreated, loading the wounded James Whitney onto a wagon for the long and arduous trip to Santa Fe where he would be placed at St. Vincent's to recuperate.

Meanwhile, at Estancia Springs, Manuel Otero died of his wounds, despite the heroic efforts of his brother-in-law to save him. Manuel's death caused enormous outrage in the territory, as he and his family were among the most prominent New Mexicans. Whitney was considered a murderer and interloper, and he was put under arrest in his hospital bed at St. Vincent's.

Whitney's brother, Parker (called Joel in New Mexico), informed of these unfortunate events, made his way by rail out to New Mexico several weeks later. He was intent on liberating his brother from the New Mexican savages and taking him back to California.  This task was accomplished by strategy and clever equipment, including ropes and pulleys and such like, that allowed the wounded James to be hoisted out a window at night. James was hauled away from St. Vincent's by carriage and placed on Parker Whitney's private railroad car at Lamy, then called Galisteo Junction, 18 miles from Santa Fe where the rail depot was (one assumes that's where James made his escape by rail, as there was no rail depot in Santa Fe at the time). When James was discovered missing from the hospital in the morning, the governor was informed, and he sent a telegram to the sheriff in Las Vegas (NM) to halt the train and arrest James.

The train was halted just outside Las Vegas, and there was an encounter between Parker Whitney and Miguel Otero in which a gun was pulled. Parker Whitney's private car was decoupled and re-attached to a train headed for Albuquerque, and events took their course. At Albuquerque, a brief hearing before a judge was held on Whitney's private car, at which bail for James was set at $25,000 and he was released to the custody of his brother to return to California.

It was grumbled at the time, and it was probably true, that Parker Whitney had bribed the judge to grant bail, and it was widely assumed that this was the last that would be seen of the Whitney brothers in New Mexico.

But no, they returned the next year for the trial, which their attorneys successfully had moved from Valencia County, seat of the Oteros and Lunas and site of the gunfight, to Colfax County, where almost incredibly, they were able to empanel an all-Anglo jury, who acquitted James of murder, citing self-defense.

James promptly died.

Parker returned to his Spring Valley Ranch in California, but he pursued his claim to the Nolan interest in the Sandoval grant while Eloisa Otero -- now remarried -- pursued her late husband's claim to the Baca grant. Both claims went all the way to the United States Supreme Court, and both claims were ultimately denied as neither party could produce complete (enough) land grant documents to satisfy the court.

The final resolution of the Whitney claim was handed down in 1901, and in 1903, what became the New Mexico Central Railroad was laid through the Estancia and Galisteo Basins to connect the southern Santa Fe tracks to the Santa Fe tracks in the north. Homesteaders flocked hither, though there were already plenty of squatters.

Pinto beans and cattle became the primary crops of the region as hundreds of people settled on the rather bleak high plains to try their luck at last of the Frontier farming and ranching. Ultimately, there never would be a large population in the area. The land and weather are really too hard to support many people. Water is too scarce. The growing season is very short. Forage is slight.

In the 1930's and the 1950's this area suffered severe drought -- as it is suffering once again -- and unfortunate farming practices caused mini-versions of the Dust Bowl of the Great Plains. And once again, residents are experiencing extensive dust storms. It's not as bad -- yet -- as old timers remember, but just the chance that it might get that bad again is disturbing to people with long memories. Farmers have changed their practices, but still the dust rises.

So far as I can tell from what we've been told and the remaining signs of what used to be, our place was set near the southeast corner of what was probably a 160 acre spread. I can pretty much trace the former boundaries of this place by noting the locations of other old adobe houses and the present boundaries of surviving ranches which seem to have bordered this place when it was originally laid out.

It doesn't appear that this place was ever used to grow crops though there are signs that it may have initially been a horse or cattle ranch.

This house was originally two rooms, self-built of adobe manufactured on the property. In fact, there's still a pit near the house where I suspect the adobe came from. There were several additions over the years, mostly of adobe, but some of wood frame, that ultimately made the house fairly large -- well, large for us, at any rate, though it is no larger than a fairly typical suburban house today. The house we left in California was about half the size of this one, but it was quite tiny as California houses go.

Most of the land that once surrounded this place seems to have been sold off and subdivided in the 1950's when the last additions were made to this house. We've been told stories -- that we don't believe -- about who the place once belonged to, and we've heard some interesting stories about the lesbian couple that lived here and grew herbs and flowers before leaving the place abandoned about five years before we bought the wreck from an elderly woman who lived in Oklahoma.

While there is a lot of history here, and it's a lengthy history, it's not so complicated that it can't be unraveled. The surprising connections I've just now discovered between the old families of New Mexico and California's Whitneys is very intriguing. Before I retired, I did a lot of work in Rocklin and followed and documented the intense suburban development of what had once been (Joel) Parker Whitney's Spring Valley Ranch closely. For a time at the height of the real estate bubble, Rocklin was the fastest growing community in the nation. Suburban developments metastasized overnight. It was insane.

Now we're in a far calmer place.

Waiting for spring to settle in....

I've been looking into other aspects of the histories of (Joel) Parker Whitney, Spring Valley Ranch, and the historical connections between the Whitneys and the East Mountains and the Estancia/Galisteo Basins of New Mexico, and I may be revising this post in the by and bye. There is more to the story to be sure. But there are also many variations on the story, as each teller of the tale tells it somewhat differently. Sometimes the stories are radically different. Further, the biographical information about the Whitneys, the Oteros and so on differs almost as much -- depending on who is telling the tale.

In some ways, it's like an old time oral history that has been passed down through the generations, but which is told differently depending on who is recollecting and telling the story, and where the story is told. For example, I've found no mention at all in the California histories of the Whitneys' misfortune in New Mexico; it's as if it never happened (though there are a number of references to Parker Whitney's Colorado adventures, including some misfortune.)  On the New Mexico side, there is almost no mention of the Whitneys' California holdings and operations, and there is no apparent recognition by the story-tellers in New Mexico that the Spring Valley Ranch in California was the Whitney headquarters (as opposed to Boston, say). The Whitney's New Mexico episode went on for more than 20 years -- at least in litigation -- so I would think there would be some recognition of it in the Whitney histories, but I have yet to come across even one word about it in any California-based history of the Whitneys -- though there is still a great deal I haven't read. On the other hand, the New Mexico histories of the events that took place as the Whitneys and Oteros competed for the properties are so varied it's all but impossible to know what really happened.

It's a mystery...

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