José de Arnaz (1820-1895) was a traveler, merchant, medic, county supervisor, judge, supervisor of schools, druggist, banker, miller, tanner, farmer, vintner, and cattle rancher. At the age of sixteen, Spanish-born José shipped as a cabin boy to Havana, Cuba, where he stayed for three years, working as a clerk by day and studying medicine at night. He came west in 1840 as a “supercargo,” the person responsible for overseeing and selling a merchant ship’s cargo. In that capacity, he travelled from ranch to mission, visiting customers from San Diego to San Francisco. He settled in Ventura and Los Angeles.
The facts on this page come from several sources from during and after Don José’s lifetime. Contemporaneous newspapers reported on Arnaz occasionally. (In April 1850, Washington D.C.’s The Republic called him “Joseph Arnaz” when reporting his putative ownership of the Ex-Mission San Buenaventura.) In 1872, Hubert Howe Bancroft, who was compiling a history of California, sent one of his staff (Thomas Savage) to get Don José’s memories of his life and times, producing Recuerdos (memories) translated and reproduced here. (Arnaz’ Recuerdostell of trade, crime, and social life and customs in California before and after the Mexican-American War (1846-1848).) In 1883, Jesse D. Mason published his History of Santa Barbara County, California, with illustrations and biographical sketches of its prominent men and pioneers; it includes Arnaz, of course, and an extensive discussion of how (or whether) he got valid ownership of Ex-Mission San Buenaventura. Other facts are from lawsuits concerning Arnaz’ deceased wife’s property; the court opinions (from 1873 and 1876) generally recite facts alleged by her heirs without evaluating their accuracy.
Historian Luther A. Ingersoll gave Don José some attention in his 1908 California history book, while Sol N. Sheridan featured him prominently in his 1926 History of Ventura County. Neither historian closely cited his sources; the latter credits his brother, Mr. E. M. Sheridan, Curator of the Pioneer Museum. (Sol N. Sheridan, History of Ventura County, California (S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1926), foreword.)
A 1939 newspaper article, “Romance of a Rancho,” recalled Arnaz’ life story on the occasion of the upcoming demolition of his Los Angeles ranch. The unidentified author of that colorful history had the help of one of Don José’s daughters, Prexcedes Arnaz de Lavigne, “whose memory and whose research into old archives provided many facts.”
In 1965, the Ventura County Historical Society republished a translation of part of Recuerdos, and, in 1981, it published his will and a letter an illustrious neighbor, Thomas R. Bard, wrote to his sister describing Arnaz. Their publication is the source for the pictures at the top of this page. This author will do his best and try to link later researchers to original materials so that they can (as he has) build on past works.
Don José is better remembered in Ventura County (until 1873, it was part of Santa Barbara County) than in Los Angeles County. In 1926, historian Sol N. Sheridan wrote:
Ventura Granted/Sold to Arnaz – or not
In his 1883 History of Santa Barbara County, Jesse D. Mason wrote that the Ex-Mission San Buenaventura Rancho was
A quarter century later, historian Luther Ingersoll wrote that his “title was not recognized by the United States government.” (Luther Ingersoll, Ingersoll’s Century History, Santa Monica Bay Cities (1908), p. 32.) Perhaps the title was not recognized due to allegations that the grant was fraudulent. Josefa Arenas swore that her step-son Cayetano Arenas, an Arnaz neighbor in Ventura (Sheridan, p. 98), claimed he forged the deed of the Ex-Mission of San Buenaventura to Don José. He supposedly said he did it in exchange for “Portrero” (pasture) from Arnaz’ buyer, M. A. R. de Poli, who himself depended on good title. Here is what Josefa Arenas swore:
It is reported that the mission lands were “first rented for $1,630.00 per annum, and then sold to José Arnaz for $12,000, in June, 1846.” (Luther Ingersoll, Ingersoll’s Century History, Santa Monica Bay Cities (1908), p. 32.) The $12,000 purchase price amounts to nearly $473,000 in 2023 dollars.
The Catholic Church also attacked – successfully – Arnaz’ ownership of the San Buenaventura Mission itself – as distinct from the “Ex-Mission,” surrounding lands. And President Lincoln agreed, ordering Arnaz to return the Mission:
Ventura’s Founder/Subdivider and First Storekeeper
Sheridan reports that Arnaz advertised lots “in Leslie’s Weekly and in the Scientific American in 1846 – almost before the Mexican war had ended” (Sheridan, p. 89) and in the New York Herald (id., p. 391). Whatever the date, Arnaz is often credited as the founder of Ventura, California. (Its actual name is City of San Buenaventura, for the 48,823-acre Mission San Buenaventura.) Mason puts the date later. But both historians report that Arnaz “established the first store in the county” with Russell Heath (who was also sheriff) and a man named Morris. (Mason, p. 350.) Sheridan does not include Morris, saying that in the late-1840s, Arnaz and Heath
Marriage to Merced Abila & Residence in Ventura
In 1847, Arnaz married Maria Mercedes de Abila (1832–1867). Also known as Merced Abila (with the alternate spellings Avila and Avilla found), she would have been 14 or 15 years old at the time. They lived by the Mission San Buenaventura.
John C. Fremont
Arnaz’ Recuerdos describes an early-1847 encounter with Colonel John C. Fremont (1813-1890), who threatened his life during the Mexican-American War: “the only reception Colonel Fremont gave me was to tell me to prepare myself; that I was going to be executed!“. Arnaz and Fremont parted on good terms, although Fremont did not keep his promise to repay Arnaz for the horses, saddles, meat, and cattle Arnaz provided – something Arnaz notes in his Recuerdos and, apparently, in his will (“I declare that I hold a claim against the government of the [United States] if some day justice is practiced for me, what I obtain I leave a third part to the children of my first mate, another to the children of my second mate and the other to my wife [Maria Camarillo] de Arnaz.”)
Sheridan expands on Arnaz’ experience with Colonel Fremont:
Jonathan D. Stevenson
Arnaz’ 1848 experience with another Mexican-American war commander, Colonel Jonathan D. Stevenson (1800-1894) was worse, as told in Recuerdos:
Sheridan’s version of the story is more harrowing than Arnaz’:
Physician & Small Pox Savior
Sheridan writes that Arnaz was an “educated physician-although he never actively practiced. …. And the skill of Don Jose was always at the service of the early residents.” (Sheridan, p. 391.) “Arnaz … although he prescribed for the sick, and very likely furnished medicines also, never took one cent for his labors as a physician.” (Id. p. 90.) Elsewhere, Sheridan tells of an emergency in 1862 in which Don José did practice medicine:
Arnaz Rancho (Santa Barbara/Ventura County)
According to Mason, in 1859, Arnaz was elected County Supervisor of the First District of Santa Barbara. (Mason, p. 115.) He served until at least June 1861. (Id. at 119.) He was also a Santa Barbara County road commissioner. (Id. at 118.) When Ventura County seceded from Santa Barbara County in 1873, Arnaz’ holdings went to the former. They would include his Rancho Arnaz, which was built in 1863 for Don José. Sheridan adds a couple more titles to Don Jose’s portfolio around that time.
Jose de Arnaz’ closest neighbor, Thomas R. Bard (1841-1915), was yet to be known as an oil pioneer (1867), Santa Barbara County Supervisor (1868-1871), or United States Senator (1900-1905), when, on January 3, 1866, he wrote his sister about renting a ‘ horse carriage (formerly the Governor Alvarado’s carriage) from an “old Spaniard,” “Old Don Jose de Arnaz,” for a trip to Santa Barbara:
By the next year (1877), Bard would be “credited as the wealthiest man in Ventura” (Mason, p. 371), so he could afford to pay his neighbor – whom he called the “old Spaniard,” “Old Don Jose,” and the “old fellow.” When Bard wrote the above letter, he was 25 years old, and Don Jose was all of 45 years old.
Widowed – 1867
On about Christmas Day, 1867, Doña Maria Mercedes Abila de Arnaz died. She was 35 years old, and had given birth to twelve children during her 20-year marriage to Don José. Don Jose listed them in his will as follows: “Virginia, Elvira, Luis, Adela, Amada, Ventura, Manuel, Maclovio, Camila, Jose Maria, Eduardo and Mercedes; Adela, Camila and Mercedes are now dead.” (Arnaz’ will, as translated from Spanish in the Ventura County Historical Society Quarterly, Summer 1981.) Romance of a Rancho, omitted Manuel and Eduardo Arnaz from the list in 1939, stating “Children by his first wife were Elvira Arnaz and Ventura Arnaz Wagner, both living in Ventura; McIvio Arnaz, of Salinas; Amanda Arnaz Sepulveda, of Los Angeles; Virginia de Anguisola, Adella, Camilla, Mercedes, Jose Maria, and Luis, all deceased.”
Litigation over Merced Abila’s Estate
Shortly before her death, Merced Abila (as she was also called) executed a will leaving her property to her children and making Don José her executor. Her death was followed by litigation to enforce her will, creating the following historical record. In 1872,
In January 1873 the California Supreme Court left the Probate Court’s order intact, so José de Arnaz remained in control of all of the property. The decision was made, at least, for procedural reasons:
Son-in-law Manuel Anguisola returned to court on May 23, 1874 (this time with two Arnaz children, Elvira and Adela) alleging that the property Don José bought after he married Señorita Abila was all hers because he had used her separate property to pay for it. Manuel filed in the District Court (not the Probate Court), and he won.
In the District Court, the children alleged that:
When José de Arnaz married Merced Abila in 1847, he had no property (real or personal) of his own.
In 1848 or 1849, Merced inherited and was gifted, from her uncle, Antonio Ygnacio Abila, and from other relatives, as her separate property, six hundred head of cattle, three hundred horses, ten mules, ten oxen, and four thousand dollars in money.
Merced’s uncle was likely Don Antonio Ygnacio Avila (1781-1858) – the grantee of Rancho Sausal Redondo – which encompasses the present-day cities of Redondo Beach, Inglewood, Hawthorne, El Segundo, Lawndale, Manhattan Beach, and Hermosa Beach. The children further alleged that José had used his wife’s property to buy the following:
One-sixth interest in Rancho Santa Ana in 1854. (The date differs from accounts in Ventura County Historical Landmarks & Points of Interest (he paid $13,000 in 1846 for the 21,522 acre ranch) and from Sheridan’s version: “He was back in San Buenaventura in the very early sixties …. It was probably near about this time that he acquired his Santa Ana Rancho holdings.” (Sheridan, p. 91.))
One-half interest in Rancho Rincon de Los Bueyes in 1855. (The date differs from other records, which show him buying Secondino Higuera’s undivided half-interest in 1849 and Francisco Higuera’s interest in 1867.)
The children also alleged that, after Merced’s 1867 death, Don José:
Used the increase of livestock and the rents and profits from real estate to buy three thousand sheep, which he sold (in 1869 or 1870) for $9000.
Sold some livestock and land to support himself and his family, and to pay taxes and expenses. Specifically, he sold seventy-five acres of said Rancho Santa Ana for $550 in 1872 and a large parcel of said Rancho Santa Ana for $15,000 in 1873.
Finding in favor of the children and against Don José, the District Court decreed all property would be distributed to the children after the court took an accounting. Don José appealed.
In July 1876, the California Supreme Court reversed the District Court, holding that Merced had put all control in Don José’s hands and, if he was abusing it, that claim had to go to the Probate Court, not the District Court. (De Auguisola v. De Arnaz (1876) 51 Cal. 435, 438-439.) Don José was left to handle the property as he wished.
In his 1890will, Don José would tell a distinctly different story about his property, claiming he made nothing in his first marriage:
Don José also declared that the land he ultimately owned traced back to personal property he had before his first marriage:
Marriage to Maria Camarillo
In 1868, less than a year after losing Merced Abila, Don José married Maria Camarillo (1848-1916) the “sister of Don Adolfo Camarillo of Camarillo.” (Sheridan, p. 87.) “Mrs. Arnaz was a native daughter, born at the rancho of her farther, Don Juan Camarillo, in Ventura county in 1848.” (October 12, 1916, LA Times.) Maria was about 20; he was 28 years her senior. Maria’s seven children from their 28-year union are listed in his will:
By one account, Don José fathered another child: Maria del Rosario, by Maria Dolores Chihuya (?-1864):
There is reason to doubt Fernando Librado‘s story. Librado, at an advanced age when John P. Harrington interviewed him, could have confused facts, and it is fair to assume that Librado had little affection for the man who took control over the mission where he lived and where natives considered themselves slaves. (Breath of the Sun, p. 91, fn. 1.) Librado’s reference to Arnaz wife “Arenas” does not match either of Arnaz’ wives. “After leaving María [Dolores], José Arnaz returned to Ventura for a third time. He was married to a Los Angeles lady named Arenas. This was the time when he bamboozled people out of Ranch No. One up the Avenue [Ventura Avenue].” (Breath of the Sun, p. 92.) And this writer has found no other record of Arnaz marrying a Los Angeles lady or one named Arenas – or of him bamboozling.
For 1873, Mason lists Arnaz as owning 6,000 acres of land in Santa Barbara County. (Mason, p. 361.) A local paper, the Pacific Rural Press (1871-1922), described the property and said Don José wanted to sell:
A Wikipedia entry on Rancho Santa Ana reports (currently without any citation) that in 1874, “Arnaz sold the land to sea captain Richard Robinson, Judge Eugene Fawcett, Jr., and H.C. Dean, who subdivided the land and started the development of the Ventura River Valley.” Mason (at p. 418) wrote in 1883, “This forest-hooded rancho is principally owned by R. G. de la Riva, Captain Robinson, and Messrs. Fawcett and Dean.”
Arnaz apparently kept interests in the Buenaventura area, since he paid $19,407 in taxes there in 1874 (Mason, p. 364) and over $15,000 in 1876 (Mason, p. 369). He was also one of several who petitioned for a breakwater for the San Buenaventura Wharf in 1877. (Id., p. 370.) Also in 1877, Don José helped establish a school in Ventura County:
Move to Los Angeles (1885)
In 1885, Arnaz moved his family south to Los Angeles County, where he would reside for the rest of his life.
Don José established a 3100-acre rancho in rural Los Angeles County, where he raised cattle and grew grapes (among other crops). It covered most of Rancho Rincón de los Bueyes, which he bought from Secundino Higuera (in 1849) and Francisco Higuera (in 1867), the sons/heirs of the rancho’s original grantee, Bernardo Higuera. At the time, the area was called Ballona, Ballona Valley, The Palms, and Cahuenga Valley. The ranch, in the context of modern streets, covered much of the area below Pico Boulevard and Airdrome Street on the north, between Manning Avenue on the west and Genesee & Fairfax Avenues on the east. (“The Palms” subdivision (1886) was on land south of Arnaz’.)
Arnaz had a long connection with the El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles. As noted above, in 1848, he had an orchard and vineyard and vineyard in Los Angeles which Colonel Jonathan D. Stevenson’s troops looted and burned. The City had granted him property in Los Angeles in 1847:
Don José de Arnaz died on February 1, 1895 “At The Palms.” (L.A. Times, Feb. 4, 1895.) The Los Angeles Herald reported: “Funeral from his late residence Monday, February 4th, at 8 a.m. thence to Cathedral, where solemn requiem mass will be held. Interment at Calvary cemetery. Friends invited.” (L.A. Herald, Feb. 4, 1895.) Since “New Calvary Cemetery” (in East Los Angeles) was not dedicated until 1896, he was likely reinterred there when the Los Angeles Archdiocese moved the Calvary Cemetery.
Soon after his death, Merced Abila and Don José’s children finally received a distribution of her land (or its value). However, in October 1898, a granddaughter, Mercedes Anguisola, sued saying she was “fraudulently deprived of a legacy by the executrix of the will,” Doña Maria Camarillo de Arnaz. (L.A. Times, Oct. 6, 1898.) Mercedes Anguisola’s parents were Virginia Arnaz de Anguisola and Manuel Anguisola (who, as Virginia’s widower, had litigated concerning his mother-in-law Merced Arnaz’ estate). (The L.A. Herald, Oct. 6, 1898, wrongly reported the plaintiff was Arnaz’ daughter, but Mercedes was his granddaughter.) Mercedes claimed she was entitled to $500 upon her marriage. On October 23, 1898, the Los Angeles Herald reported that she had obtained a marriage license.) How that litigation ended is not currently known to this writer, but the rest of the story of Don José’s Los Angeles County Ranch is told on another page on this site.
Doña Maria Camarillo de Arnaz died in Hollywood, California on October 11, 1916. Her obituary wrongly says Don José had died in 1905 and is apparently just as wrong in saying that he “commanded the Federal troops at Ventura, following the taking of that city, by Gen. John C. Fremont. He was one of the most prominent surgeons in the State prior to his death.” It does contain names and addresses of Arnaz’ heirs that historians might find useful.