Friday, July 31, 2020

People: The Awaswas and the Californios

The Mexican government had been out of power in California for fourteen years by the time that the first proposals for a railroad in Santa Cruz County began circulating in the Pacific Sentinel around 1860. The royal Spanish government that preceded it had been replaced nearly forty years before. And earlier still, the Native American Awaswas people once dominated the region from the Pajaro Valley to Point Año Nuevo. So why does the legacy of the Native American period and the Spanish and Mexican occupation of the Californias hang so heavily over local railroading history? Well, it's all in the names.

The Castro Adobé and surrounding livestock paddocks on Rancho San Andrés, originally owned by José Joaquín Castro. [Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks – Colorized using DeOldify]
Before California was forcibly colonized in the eighteenth century by Spanish conquistadors and Franciscan missionaries afraid of Russian and British encroachment on their claimed territory from the north, the land was peopled by diverse Native American tribes who lived along the coast and up river and creek valleys throughout the future state. The area of Santa Cruz County, which initially stretched north of Pescadero, was not an especially populous region. Remote, windswept, geographically separated from the interior by heavily-forested steep mountains with roaming grizzly bears and mountain lions, it was not the kindest environment for year-round settlement. Most of the Ohlonean tribes, especially the Awaswas who dominated the northern side of Monterey Bay, stuck close to the coast where the environment was less dangerous and there was adequate land for hunting, fishing, and minor agricultural activities, as well as establishing year-round villages.

Sketch of Ohlone dancers at Mission San José, 1800s, by Wilhelm Gottlief Tilesius von Tilenau. [Bancroft Library]
Living on the coast, however, made the Awaswas vulnerable to seaborn invaders. Although the Spanish were the first to explore the coast, the Russians were likely the first to directly interact with the people as they hunted seal and otter down the California coast in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Spanish, however, were the first to establish permanent settlements within the Awaswas domain. In the 1760s, the Spanish Empire sent out a settlement party led by the explorer Gaspar de Portolà i Rovira and the Franciscan father superior of the Californias, Junípero Serra y Ferrer. Following the establishment of several principal missions along the coast between San Diego and San Francisco, Portolà set to work founding secondary missions as waypoints for travelers and as places to gather potential native converts (neophytes). Juan Crespí, another priest, established the location for a mission in the heart of Awaswas territory on October 17, 1769, but it was not until August 28, 1791 that a physical mission dedicated to the Exaltation of the Holy Cross was consecrated on the west bank of the San Lorenzo River. Following several floods, the mission was moved above the floodplain and reconsecrated atop Mission Hill in 1794.


Painting of Mission Santa Cruz. [Romero Institute]
The Spanish presence in the area prompted a quick and deadly decline for the Awaswas people. Before the mission at Santa Cruz was established, many Awaswas peoples were taken to Mission Santa Clara or further afield to Carmel and San Francisco. Mission Santa Cruz completed the job by gathering all the remaining Native Americans together at the mission, where the population was decimated by disease, violence, and malnutrition. A substantial portion of the Awaswas people of the region were dead or had fled to distant communities by the time that the county's Catholic-held land was secularized around 1839. Most of the small population that remained lived on former mission lands on the West Side or in the Potrero, largely abandoned and forgotten by the Mexican and, later, American peoples who dominated the political and cultural life of the region.


The Branciforte Adobé, last surviving structure of the former pueblo Branciforte, 1902.
[Edna Kimbro – Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks – Colorized using DeOldify]
In 1797, a new type of community was organized across the San Lorenzo River from Mission Santa Cruz. The Spanish government, wishing to reward loyal but aging soldiers while protecting its sparsely settled frontier, began granting large properties to its veterans. Initially, these were small farms centered at el Pueblo de Branciforte on the bluff on the east side of the river. While elsewhere in California the government began granting larger tracts for cattle ranches, the settlers in Branciforte had to content themselves with the small parcels they were given, with their meager wealth supplemented frequently with raids into mission lands and illegal seizures of unallocated land elsewhere in the region. Over the subsequent thirty-six years, the small settlements facing each other across the river vied for political power, control over resources, and physical possession of land and the tiny remnant of native peoples. These people of European or mestizo descent, as well as similar peoples elsewhere in the Californias, became the first Californios.


Sketch of Rancho Zayante, 1840s, from Vischer's Pictorial of California.
Within a few decades, Santa Cruz-area Californios had staked claims across the coast but lacked official recognition for their lands. For three of these properties, they adopted names from the Awaswas such as Zayante, Soquel, and Aptos. These names have since lived on, reminders of an earlier age mostly forgotten. As land grants were legitimized by first the Mexican and later the American governments, the names were transferred into documentary history, obtaining a formality and historical quality that has ensured their survival. Thus, when the early narrow-gauge railroads first passed through the ranchos that had adopted these names in the 1870s, they in turn gave the names to railroad stations along their lines:
  • Zayante, named after Rancho Zayante and Zayante Creek, which in turn was named after the Sayante tribe of Awaswas, became a remote hilltop station of the South Pacific Coast Railroad above Zayante Creek north of Felton
  • Soquel, named after Rancho Soquel or Soquel Creek, which in turn were named after an Uypi (later Osocalis or Zoquel) tribal chief, was the original name given by the Santa Cruz Railroad to Capitola station when the station still sat on the west side of the Soquel Creek railroad bridge
  • Aptos, named after Rancho Aptos or Aptos Creek, which in turn were named after the Aptos tribe, sat between the County Road (Soquel Drive) and the Santa Cruz Railroad's tracks in the town still named after it.
A curious truth of these three ranchos is that all have an entirely Awaswas name, with no longer Spanish form like nearly every other rancho in the county has. They were some of the earliest ranchos granted in the county, with two owned by members of the Castro family—Soquel and Aptos—and the third eventually owned by an in-law of the Castros.

Diseño for Rancho Aptos. [Bancroft Library]
The Mexican government was at first hesitant to give out copious quantities of land to settlers, regardless of how long they had occupied said land. The Spanish had made some land grants but it was usually conditional and granted only for the life of the beneficiary. The ranchos they established were usually one square league—just over 4,000 acres. The difficulties in winning independence from Spain followed by the tumultuous years of the Mexican Empire delayed the granting of further ranchos until the late 1820s, when new laws were passed and the ability to grant land given to the territorial governor of Alta California. However, it was the secularization of the mission land that accelerated the process, especially within the Santa Cruz area.

Diseño of Rancho San Vicente on the North Coast of Santa Cruz County. [Bancroft Library]
Unlike the Spanish, the Mexican government granted land in perpetuity, which the United States government later upheld in many instances. Grantees were given one year to cultivate the land, either through agriculture or through industry, and were required to build a home upon the land in which they were required to live for that first year. Lacking the machinery to easily cut redwood timber, most of the early rancho homes in Santa Cruz, as elsewhere throughout the state, were made of adobe. It was also required to define their boundaries before either the Mexican government or, later, the American government would accept the grants. José Bolcoff, a Russian settler and husband to another member of the Castro family, served as Santa Cruz's surveyor during the 1830s and 1840s. It was he who mapped many of the boundaries for the roughly two dozen recognized ranchos that soon spread across the county from the coast to the peaks of the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Map showing the comparative sizes and compositions of Mexican ranchos in Santa Cruz County.
[Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History]
A total of twenty-three ranchos were located in Santa Cruz County at the time of statehood, the northernmost being Rancho San Gregorio, which later became part of San Mateo County, and the southernmost Rancho Bolsa del Pajaro. With the exception of the three ranchos mentioned above, the names of these properties were evenly split between Spanish descriptions of places and the names of saints upon whose feast day the place was discovered or christened. Almost as soon as the land was surveyed, grantees began leasing and subdividing their lands between tenants and new owners. This process reached a peak shortly after the United States annexation of Alta California, so that by the time that the railroads first arrived in the county, little of the land was still owned by the original families of the grantees.

Excerpt of a 1918 United States Geologic Survey map of the middle portion of Santa Cruz County.
[University of California, Santa Cruz, Digital Collections]
Railroad companies borrowed names from their surroundings regularly when founding stations, and such was the case with those that operated within Santa Cruz County. The names of ranchos, the rights to some of which were still going through the courts and the names still in common discussion within the county, provided a convenient source for station names:
  • Los Gatos, now a substantial town north of Santa Cruz in Santa Clara County, was originally derived from Rancho Rinconada de los Gatos
  • Pajaro and Vega, along the Southern Pacific Railroad's Coast Division mainline just across the Pajaro River from Watsonville in Monterey County, were named after Rancho Vega del Río del Pájaro
  • Aromas, split between Monterey and San Benito Counties and just across the Pajaro River from Chittenden, was named after Rancho Las Aromitas y Agua Caliente
  • Laguna, later Nuga, was either named generally for the nearby sloughs or specifically after Rancho Laguna de las Calabesas, which was located nearby outside of Watsonville but never confirmed as a legitimate grant by the US government
  • San Andreas, the original named of Ellicott station, was named after Joaquín Castro's Rancho San Andrés, now La Selva Beach
  • Rincon, above the San Lorenzo River and now a popular mountain bike gathering point, was named after Rancho de la Cañada del Rincón en el Río San Lorenzo
  • Laguna Creek (Southern Pacific) and Lagos (Ocean Shore Railroad) on the North Coast were named after Rancho Arroyo de la Laguna
Although not formally a station, a freight stop was established near Swanton for the San Vicente Lumber Company, which was named after Rancho San Vicente, the original grant upon which Davenport is located.


Molino on the Loma Prieta Branch, 1890s. [Aptos Museum]
Spanish words were frequently adopted by the railroads to describe new stations where other established terms were not available or already in use elsewhere. Along the Loma Prieta Branch alone was Molino, Loma Prieta, and Monte Vista, more than half of its official station names. Meanwhile, on Los Gatos Creek was Alma, Oleoso, and Eva, while the tracks south of Gilroy included Carnadero and Nema. However, Spanish names based on common words did not become commonplace within the San Lorenzo Valley, with only Siesta as an example, nor along the Santa Cruz Branch, where can be found only Manresa, named after the similarly-named city in Spain and birthplace of Saint Ignatius of Loyola. But in both these latter cases, the names were selected for specific marketing reasons, Siesta as Fred Swanton's mountain retreat, and Manresa as a Jesuit seaside resort.

Painting of an idealized Awaswas village along Aptos Creek by Ann Thiermann.
[Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History]
The Ohlone, Spanish, and Mexican periods still hang heavily upon the Central Coast of California, and the early railroads borrowed from that heritage when establishing its many stops throughout Santa Cruz County and its immediate surroundings. While some of the places such as Soquel, Aptos, Zayante, Pajaro, Aromas, and Los Gatos still survive today as places, others like Loma Prieta, Rincon, or San Andreas have mostly fallen away, lost to the wilderness or to suburban sprawl. But many of the names still survive on maps, as the names of businesses and streets, and in the memories of people who came before and wrote down their recollections for future generations. The railroading history of Santa Cruz County is rich, and a large portion of that is due to the peoples that came before it.

Citations & Credits:

  • Clark, Donald T. Santa Cruz County Place Names: A Geographical Dictionary. Second edition. Scotts Valley, CA: Kestrel Press, 2002.
  • Powell, Ronald G. The Tragedy of Martina Castro. The Secret History of Santa Cruz County I. Santa Cruz, CA: Zayante Publishing, forthcoming.
  • Rizzo, Martin Adam. "No Somos Animales: Indigenous Survival and Perseverance in 19th Century Santa Cruz, California." Unpublished dissertation. Santa Cruz, CA: University of California, 2016.
  • Whaley, Derek R. Santa Cruz Trains: Railroads of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Second edition. Santa Cruz, CA: Zayante Publishing, forthcoming.

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