In the early Nineteenth Century, when private ownership was first applied to the land, Spain granted Rancho Rincón de los Bueyes to Bernardo Higuera and Cornelio Maria Lopez. Almost two decades later, Mexico, which had taken the area from Spain, granted nearby Rancho La Ballona to brothers José Agustín Antonio Machado (1794-1865) and José Ygnacio Antonio Machado (1797-1878) and to father and son Felipe Talamantes (1772-1856) and Tomás Talamantes (1793-1875).
Following is a brief history of these two ranchos through to their residential development. Mostly, it is names and dates – who got what parcel of land, when, and why. An effort is made to give some color of the times which have been idealized. In the 1920s and 1930s, articles were entitled The Romance of the Ranchos (1929), Halcyon Days of the Spanish Ranchos (1931), and Romance of a Rancho (1939).
Los Angeles itself was not a rancho, but a pueblo. The apocryphal story of its founding is that, on September 4, 1781, 11 men, 11 women, and 22 children left Mission San Gabriel, accompanied by the governor of Alta California, Felipe de Neve (1727-1784), soldiers, mission priests, and a few Native Americans a to settle a site along the Los Angeles River. With a speech by Governor de Neve, a blessing and prayers from the mission fathers, El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de los Angeles de Porciuncula (The Town of Our Lady the Queen of the Angeles of Porciuncula) was established. The truth is a bit more complicated, and it is well told by Nathan Masters in Happy Birthday, Los Angeles! But is the Story of the City’s Founding a Myth?
Decades after the Pueblo’s founding, its sovereigns – Spain then Mexico – granted ranchos Rincón de los Bueyes and La Ballona to the pueblo’s residents or their families, who had already been using the land for grazing livestock. Mexico honored Spain’s grant, and the United States honored both.
Establishing Title in the Ranchos after United States Sovereignty
Pursuant to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (ending the Mexican-American War) the United States committed to honoring the Spanish and Mexican grants. Unfortunately for the Californianos, the ranchos’ ownership and boundaries – informal at best by modern American standards – had to be proven. During the process, many grantees lost their land to legal fees and/or sharp dealing. Decades later, a United States Senate subcommittee investigated whether Mexican Land Grants in California were “corruptly and fraudulently turned over to … private interests.” The Senators commented on the will of José Bartolomé Tapia, the grantee of the Rancho Topanga Malibu Sequit (including today’s Malibu) which had gone to Irishman Matthew Keller, rather than to Tapia: “This will [Tapia’s] shows the simple honesty of these old native Californians. It is too bad that they fell easy victims to the American settlers.” (Subcommittee of the Commmittee on Public Lands and Surveys of the United States Senate, 1929-1930, p. 114.)
Most of these grantees (and their heirs) did better than Tapia, even if it wasn’t easy or fast. Historian W. W. Robinson summarized the claims process concerning Rancho Rincón de los Bueyes and Rancho La Ballona:
Rancho Rincón de los Bueyes
On December 5, 1821, Bernardo Higuera (1790–1837) and Cornelio Maria Lopez (1792-1850) petitioned military commander José de la Guerra y Noriega (1779-1858) to grant them Rancho Rincón de los Bueyes. Bernardo’s father, Joaquin Higuera (1755-1809) had been alcalde (mayor and chief judicial official) of the Pueblo in 1800. The petition, grant, and confirmation response are reported as follows:
Rincón de los Bueyes means “Corner of the Oxen.” It became known as such due to a large ravine at the south corner of the grant, which served as a natural corral. Today, La Cienega Boulevard courses through this ravine. (From John R. Kielbasa, Historic Adobes of Los Angeles.)
Rancho Rincón de los Bueyes’ northern limits are (starting from the northwest corner) Pico Boulevard (separating it from Rancho San Jose de Buenos Ayres) and Airdrome Street on the northeast (dividing it from Rancho Rodeo de los Aguas). To the east (heading south) Genesee Avenue then Fairfax Avenue divide it from Rancho Las Cienegas, then La Cienega Boulevard marks (roughly, since the road curves) the edge of Rancho Cienega o Paso de la Tiejera. Moving north from the southern tip, the border with Rancho La Ballona (along the west) follows a line to the top of the Baldwin Park Scenic Overlook stairs (marked on Arnaz’ 1875 survey as “6 Pile of Rocks”) from which point the limit line veers westerly in a straight line to the intersection of Overland Avenue and Pico Boulevard – running between Culver City’s Ince Boulevard and Van Buren Place, then following Faris Drive and Manning Avenue (until Manning turns north by Ashby Avenue).
1880 – Dividing the Rancho
Bernardo Higuera’s sons, Jose Secondino Higuera (1822-1880) and Francisco Maria Higuera (1823-1903), inherited portions of their father’s land grant. Francisco subdivided his section in 1880.
Historian Sister Clementia Marie told this story about Francisco Higuera:
Rancho La Ballona
Historian Andrew F. Rolle (1922-2021) describes how title to the Ballona Rancho – also known as the Wagon Pass Rancho – was cleared through decades of effort. Here’s an excerpt:
Partitioning La Ballona
In June 1854, Tomás Talamantes set in motion La Ballona’s breakup when he borrowed $1,500 from Benjamin D. Wilson and William T. B. Sanford. The note was to run for six months with interest at five per cent per month, and he secured it with a mortgage against his undivided quarter interest in the rancho. When Talamantes defaulted, his debt totaled $2,353.26 plus an additional $238.81 in costs. On December 31, 1855, Sheriff Alexander held a public auction in front of the Los Angeles Court House. Benjamin D. Wilson’s $2,000 bid prevailed.
In 1859, Wilson sold his quarter interest in La Ballona to John Sanford, James T. Young, and John D. Young for $4,500. The other three quarters of the rancho belonged to the Machados and to Felipe Talamantes’ heirs (Felipe had died in 1856). The ownership was “in common” – they all owned the rancho collectively, as if a corporation owned it and they owned shares in the corporation. As time passed, there were more “shareholders.”
In 1865, John D. Young petitioned the District Court so that he (and the other shareholders) would own specific within the rancho. Nearly two- and one-half years passed before the plat of the rancho and the other necessary documents arrived from Monterey and San Francisco and the division could proceed. (Wittenburg, Sister Mary Ste. Thérèse, The Machados & Rancho La Ballona (Dawson’s Book Shop, L. A., 1973), p. 48.) By that time, through inheritance and land sales, there were 32 owners, each of whom was entitled to a fair share of each of the four classes of land:
As Mar Vista historian Mark Crawford observed about the fourth-class land: “to cattlemen and farmers, what could be more worthless than beach property?”
When the court handed down its final judgment in 1868 the rancho had been pieced into 64 parcels of widely different shapes and sizes – as shown on the map below. Forty-seven years after its creation, Rancho La Ballona ceased to exist.
Although an American court had divided up La Ballona in 1868, it was not until December 8, 1873 that the United States government issued the final patent which confirmed the Machados’ and Talamantes’ title to nearly 14,000 acres.
The five Americans receiving shares in the partitioned La Ballona are listed before the Hispanic recipients:
John Dosier Young (1843-1915)
George Addison Sanford (1855-1941)
Anderson/Addison Rose (1836-1902)
Willis Green Prather (1828-1891)
How they came to own the land, and some of their personal, often interwoven, histories, follows.
Benjamin D. Wilson – Mortgagee to Tomás Talamantes
Wilson intended to continue west to China (unlike Workman and Rowland, who had married Mexican women). However, he stayed, explaining:
In 1844, Wilson married a Mexican woman, Ramona Anselma Yorba (1828-1849) at Mission San Gabriel. She was a daughter of Don Bernardo Yorba, the owner of Rancho Cañón de Santa Ana, who gifted them a chunk of that rancho as a wedding present.
The Westwood and University of California area was part of Rancho San Jose de Buenos Ayres, which Wilson bought from grantee Jose Maximo Alanis in 1858. Wilson and W. T. B. Sanford received the patent from the Public Lands Commission in 1866.
Wilson was the second elected mayor of the City of Los Angeles (1851-1852), served three terms as Los Angeles County supervisor (1853, 1861-4) and three terms as a California State Senator. In 1864, he led an expedition to a peak in the San Gabriel Mountains that later would be named for him, Mount Wilson. His Los Angeles home became an orphanage after he relocated to his “Lake Vineyard” property in today’s San Marino. Cecilia Rasmussen, in a 1993 Los Angeles Times article, tells the story, which includes Wilson’s grandson, George S. Patton:
It has been said that Benjamin D. Wilson “was known to the Native Americans as Don Benito because of his benevolent manner in his treatment of Native American affairs.” (Wikipedia, as of Nov. 29, 2020.) Through a 21st century lens, he does not seem so benevolent. In an interview recorded by Thomas Savage in December 1877, on behalf of historian Hubert Howe Bancroft, Don Benito recounted, with the same empathy (or lack of it), his hunts for marauders – whether animal or human:
Don Benito Wilson survived his campaign due to (in his words) a “civilized Comanche Indian, a trusty man, who had accompanied [him] from New Mexico to California” the “faithful Comanche, Lorenzo Trujillo.” (Except for Lorenzo Trujillo, General (“Old Blood and Guts”) Patton would not have been around for his military campaigns two generations later.) Find more on Lorenzo Trujillo at Riverside: Lorenzo and La Placita History and Agua Mansa: Californio Roots in the Inland Empire.
William T. B. Sanford – Mortgagee to Tomás Talamantes
Kentucky-born William Taylor Barnes Sanford (1814-1863) (the other Yanqui to whom Tomás Talamantes became indebted) was another rugged frontiersman who came to California across the Great Plains. A postmaster of early Los Angeles, Sanford gave Phineas Banning, the founder of Wilmington and the “father of the Port of Los Angeles,” his first job in California, clerking in Sanford’s San Pedro store. In 1856, Banning married Sanford’s younger sister, Rebecca Sanford (1837-1868).
In 1850, Sanford drove thirty tons of freight for Banning in a fifteen-strong wagon train through the West Cajón Valley into Utah, an unprecedented expedition from Los Angeles that opened trade with Salt Lake City. The trail he blazed over the mountaintop became known as “Sanford Crossing,” “Sanford Cutoff,” and the Sanford Pass Route.”
Although Benjamin Wilson and William Sanford both lent money to Tomás Talamantes, it was apparently Wilson alone who bought Tomás’ foreclosed quarter interest at auction in 1855. Any arrangements between Wilson and William Sanford to repay the latter are left to speculation.
In 1863, a boiler explosion aboard his brother-in-law Phineas Banning’s SS Ada Hancock killed William Sanford; he was 49.
John Sanford, James T. Young & John D. Young – Wilson’s Buyers
In May 1859, Wilson sold his quarter interest of Rancho La Ballona to his lending partner William Sanford’s younger brother, John Sanford (1820-1863) and also to James T. Young (1813-1866) and James’ seventeen-year-old son, John D. Young, for $4,500.
Wilson’s sale to John Sanford led to the establishment of the Sanford family ranch near Ballona Creek, which remained into the 20th century. According to a 1906 L. A. Times story, “half-wild” “halfbreed Mexicans,” “who resented the arrival of this first white family” in the Ballona Valley, rustled their cattle, cut off their hogs’ feet, and demolished their fences. The Sanfords were obliged to harvest their first crops armed with guns. John Sanford was murdered in 1863 by a stranger to whom he offered a ride in his buggy. The culprit, a notorious outlaw named Charles Wilkins, shot John in the back with his own pistol. Wilkins was tracked down in Santa Barbara, brought back to Los Angeles, and hanged by vigilantes who seized him from Sheriff Tomas Avila Sanchez. (L. A. Times, May 12, 1887.)
Cyrus Sanford (1827-1886), another brother who worked the Sanford ranch, lived and died violently. In 1857, Sanford and George Henry Carson (1832–1901) returned Phineas Banning’s horses after the thieves were pursued and at least one died in a gunfight. (L. A. Star, July 11, 1857.) Another story has Cyrus returning to the ranch one day when three “desperados” attacked him. These men had earlier roped a settler named Rains and dragged him to death behind their horses before tossing his corpse into a cactus bed. Cyrus killed two of his assailants and wounded the third.
Better documented is his September 1870 shooting of his drinking companion, Enoch Barnes. In his dying declaration to the sheriff, Barnes claimed “Sanford was in the habit of abusing his family when he was drunk,” and Barnes was trying to stop Sanford from returning home drunk. (L. A. Daily Star, Sep. 6, 1870.) In December 1870, Cyrus was sentenced to ten years in prison for the second-degree murder of Barnes. In 1872, Cyrus was released from prison when the California Supreme Court reversed his conviction because the judge’s instructions to the jury were oral rather than written. (People v. Sanford (1872) 43 Cal. 29.) It is not clear whether Cyrus was retried, but he apparently served no more time. Press accounts include a civil suit against his son, a trial for threats of violence, a notice disclaiming future debts by his wife Lucy A. Sanford and her children – who later got a restraining order against him and may have divorced him. It is said that Cyrus once was worth $100,000. But, by 1886, he had lost his wealth through a series of lawsuits and, despondent over this financial debacle, he committed suicide by shooting himself in the head.
George Addison Sanford (1855-1941) was another American who got his share of La Ballona through Wilson’s purchase of the foreclosed Tomás Talamantes’ land. He was Cyrus’ son and, thus, a nephew to William and John Sanford. George’s uncle John Sanford deeded him 912 acres of Rancho La Ballona in 1861 when George was a child of six. George’s allotment of third-class pastureland would encompass the first two subdivisions in Mar Vista and the community’s first business district. He spent his entire life on the Sanford ranch, located southwest of Inglewood Boulevard between Culver and Jefferson boulevards to McConnell Avenue in Del Rey. Ballona Creek flowed through the property and every year George flooded his pastures with a log dam – to the consternation of the neighboring ranchers. In 1906, the Machados (and others) petitioned the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors to force Sanford to break up his dam claiming the runoff was ruining their crops and turning a county road from Playa Del Rey into a bog. Sanford told them to move the road, as the dam had been established before the Civil War. (L. A. Times, May 12, 1887.) Sanford Street, which runs between the Marina Freeway and Ballona Creek, southwest of Centinela Avenue, is the only memorial in Ballona Valley to this pioneer family and their ranch. Weir Street, sort of a northern extension of Sanford Street between Inglewood Boulevard and Mesmer Avenue, is likely named for George’s dam.
Little is known about James T. Young other than that he was from Kentucky. (A “James T. Young” of Kentucky is memorialized at the Wilmington Cemetery; it is fair to assume that this is the same person.) After buying an interest in La Ballona from Wilson in May 1859, in September 1859, James bought a small adobe from Rafael Machado, a son of Agustín, and settled in Ballona to produce wine and cultivate fruit trees. James Young died before the 1868 final partition decree was handed down.
James’ son, John D. Young received the largest share of the one-fourth interest which Tomás Talamantes had forfeited and his father had purchased from Benjamin D. Wilson. The share, minus the fifty acres sold to Willis Prather, was divided between John’s mother Elenda Young (after whom Elenda Street in Culver City is named) and Addison Rose. “Since John D. Young already owned a portion of Ballona in his own right, he sold his inherited acreage to Addison Rose for $1,500.” (The Machados, p. 50.) In 1875 Young subdivided his acreage into 19 allotments. Three of these lots, Lots 6, 7, and 8, were again subdivided in 1880into four- and five-acre pieces.
It was John D. Young who filed the petition in the District Court that resulted in the fragmentation of Ballona Rancho in 1868. John lived the life of a wealthy rancher by steadily selling his acreage piecemeal. He entered his trotters and “roadsters” in horse racing events. He participated in civic life by representing Ballona Township as a delegate to the Democratic County Convention, and as an occasional member of a Grand Jury. He spent the last thirty years of his life in a townhouse on Figueroa Street in downtown Los Angeles; he died in 1915 at the age of 73.
Anderson Rose (1836-1902) was another Yankee pioneer from Missouri who got a share of the partitioned Rancho La Ballona. In the partition lawsuit, Young v. Machado, Rose’s first name is given as “Addison.” (Wittenburg, Sister Mary Ste. Thérèse,The Machados & Rancho La Ballona (Dawson’s Book Shop, L. A., 1973), p. 48.)
Rose was just sixteen when he made the perilous trek from his native Missouri to Northern California in 1852, a journey that involved fending off Indian attacks. He settled initially in El Dorado County, a fitting destination for a man in search of gold, and took up mining activities. Luthor Ingersoll’s Century History, Santa Monica Bay Cities (1908) called him “the first American settler on La Ballona.” Rose acquired thousands of additional acres in and around Ballona and elsewhere over the years. He bred cattle and draft horses, raised lima beans, sugar beets, walnuts, and other cash crops, and operated a dairy that produced cheese, butter, and, according to the Outlook, “the best milk tasted in Santa Monica.” He lived on a ranch in Palms for many years; his son-in-law was William Dexter Curtis, the son of Joseph Curtis, one of the three founders of the Palms community. Anderson Rose died in 1902, aged 66. Rose Avenue is named after him.
Willis G. Prather (1828-1891) became connected to the Sanford clan when he married Hannah Young (1844-1915) (also of Randolph County, Missouri) in Tejon, Los Angeles County, California. He was 32; she was 16. Willis’ brother, William Freeman Prather (1824-1898), had married Rebecca’s sister, Marilda S. Sanford (1830-1924) 11 years earlier.
Hannah Young’s mother, Amanda M. (Sanford) Young (1818- ), was the youngest of the Sanford siblings mentioned above. Hannah’s uncle was William T. B. Sanford – Tomás Talamantes mortgagee; John Sanford and Cyrus Sanford were her uncles. And Rebecca Sanford, who is mentioned above for her marriage to Phineas Banning, was the second-youngest. Thus, Willis Prather was (by marriage) a nephew of the Sanfords and of Phineas Banning.
Prather spent little time in the Ballona Valley. The only record of him being there is when his daughter died there at under one-year-old in 1867. He moved from Missouri to San Joaquin, California, sometime between 1850 and 1852; married in Tejon in 1860; was back in San Joaquin County in 1861, 1863, and 1868-1879. Later, he resided mostly in Walla Walla, Washington, where he died in 1891. (See Ancestry.com.)
What does Ballona Mean (and how is it pronounced)?
Many grew up with the Americanized pronunciation Buh-LOH-nuh. Others say By-OH-nuh. (Similarly, many use the Americanized pronuncation of Los Angeles instead of the original Spanish.) In the 1950s, Palms Historian David Worsfold urged the Spanish pronunciation BY-yona in his article entitled, Valley Named for Spanish Port: Resident Tells Origin of ‘Ballona Name’ (Evening Star News and Venice Vanguard, Aug. 10, 1955): “In the first census of Los Angeles in 1836 [Padrón] it was spelled Bayona by one of the very few citizens who could read and write and that is surely the correct spelling.”
Worsfold continued, “This is confirmed by a story told by the Talamantes family to A. G. Rivera, Los Angeles County Interpreter, that the local area was named for the Spanish city of Bayona from whence one of their ancestors came.” Generations earlier, historian Hubert Howe Bancroft used the spelling “La Bayona” in his 1888 California Pastoral.
As for the derivation of the Spanish city’s name, Worsfold wrote that it came from “good harbor”: “Bayona, Spain, and Bayonne, France, are located in the Basque country along the coast of the Bay of Biscay. The Basque word Baia means harbor and the word Ona means good, therefore Bayona means good harbor.”
Several histories, published and unpublished, of these ranchos’ evolution are referenced and linked above: