Tales of the Blue Oaks – Chapter Two


A Mule takes it for the Cause.

TALES OF THE BLUE OAKS © David A. Scharlach

In some ways, I guess, the price first paid for Rancho Murieta was one mule.  It’s a great story and helps explain who first owned Rancho Murieta. 

Mexico had won its independence from Spain in 1822.  Remember 4th grade?  I don’t either.  Anyway, Spain had controlled all of Mexico of course, including the province of Alto California with its string of missions.  Governor, Juan Alvarado wanted to do away with the powerful mission system, a vestige of Spanish rule.  He wanted a secular government.  (Interestingly, Mexico put Englishman W.E.P. Hartnell in charge of that project.  As a reward, he was given a huge chunk of land running on the south side of the Cosumnes River at Rancho Murieta.  But that is another story).  

Alvarado felt really threatened by all the Russians, British, Americans and others flocking into Alta California seeking riches.  Actually, less than a thousand people of European decent lived in Alta California in the mid 1830’s. But it worried him.  Something else was going on as well.

The folks in Alta California were getting kind of tribalistic, putting some social distance between themselves and the rest of Mexico.  They were calling themselves “Californios” and they had just a bit of an attitude.  Alvarado was one of them.  It was not unusual for some to invent a noble Spanish lineage to elevate their own status above other Mexicans.  It was cultural appropriation on the frontier.   

So now, John Sutter strides into Alvarado’s office in Monterey.  Sutter is looking to make his fortune as well.  He exudes class.  He is grandiose and convincing.  A few wine glasses of licor de Orujo later, he walks out as Don Juan Sutter and a promise of nearly 50,000 acres.  His part of the deal was to become a citizen of Mexico, become Catholic and build his fortified settlement up north.  In 1839, he constructed his adobe fort at the confluence of the Sacramento and another great river that Sutter himself would name the “American.”  I wonder what Governor Alvarado thought about that!   

The political stability that the government in Monterey sought was proving tenuous.  The pace of those Americanos and Europeans coming into Alta California continued to rise.  Three years before Sutter opened the gates to his fort, Texans had rebelled against the Mexican government.  They won their independence just one month after the fall of the Alamo.  But who remembers that?  Worse yet, someone explained to Alvarado what President James Polk meant by “Manifest Destiny.”

So, what does all this have to do with the first owner of Rancho Murieta?  I’m getting there!

It’s around 1845.  In a very unpopular move with Californios, Mexico appoints old-school Micheltorina as governor in place of Alvarado.  That sealed the deal with the Californios.    

Ex-governor Alvarado formed an army of Hispanic Californios and all those trappers and traders and rugged Americanos to start his own Texas style revolt.  They had even torn a page, or really a flag, from Texas history.   Ever wonder where the red and white colors came from, or that lone star on California’s flag or the word REPUBLIC at the bottom?  Yes, Texas!   

War broke out in 1846.  I have to mention here a fun little fact.  Did you know that the flag hoisted over Sonoma to symbolize the “Bear Flag Revolt was designed by William Todd, nephew of Abraham Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln?

Back to our story!

Sutter was a citizen of Mexico, a Mexican landowner, ran a Mexican fort and held the rank of brevet colonel in the Mexican Army.  Why are we surprised that Mexican Governor Micheltorina would come to Don Sutter for soldiers to help defeat the rebellion?  Still unsure how this rebellion would end, Sutter promises about 400 men and would eventually supply that number with almost half of them being Miwok and Nisenan Indians.

Midway through the war, Sutter asks Micheltorina for some land grants to pass around, ostensibly so that he could muster more forces.  The governor gives him 18 grants of “general title.”  They were typically about 9,000 acres each.  One of those grants was for Rancho de Sacayac, within which most of Rancho Murieta resides.  A couple of months later, Sutter will switch sides.    

Meanwhile, Sutter’s troops have meandered down to Cahuenga Canyon, North Hollywood where Warner Brother’s Studio now sits! Sutter is not with them, of course.  They set up camp a distant earshot from Micheltorina’s army of about the same number 

You set the Indians aside for a moment and realize that the enemy smell just as bad as you do.  They speak American English, sing the same songs and drink the same rot-gut whiskey.  Both sides take positions against each other just past the range of their two or three small cannons.  Both sides fire, the rounds fall short.  Both sides run out of cannon balls and race out pick up the other guy’s to fire back again. 

So Sutter’s men start to consider how to salvage this campout.  They take a vote on it and decide its time to pack up and go home.  The only casualty suffered by Sutter’s men was a wounded mule.  Micheltorina’s army lost a horse.  So ended the Battle of Cahuenga!

The folks signed the treaty ending the Mexican-American War in 1848 at Rancho Guadalupe Hidalgo.  No one knew down there that just nine days earlier, gold had just been discovered in California.

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo allowed recipients of Mexican land grants to prove up or “patent” their lands under U.S. law.  Many did so.  But there was no provision for anyone holding a land grant given to them by John Sutter.  He had given a handful of “general title” deeds to some of his friends.  Sacayac was given to the fort’s blacksmith, John Chamberlain and subsequently resold three or four times.

So, you see, the very first owner of Rancho Murieta was John Sutter himself.  His testimony would be considered in Case No. 184 when the U.S. Supreme Court took up Sutter’s right to give away Mexican land.  Next stop, I’ll tell you about the larger-than-life characters that owned Sacayac before SCOTUS turned thumbs down.