This 1967 report from the California Land Company, the initial development affiliate of The Newhall Land and Farming Co., provides some clarity to the complex land dealings during the early decades of the Rancho San Francisco, which encompassed 11 square leagues, or a little over 48,000 acres, extending from today's Piru on the west to the edge of today's Canyon Country on the east. (A Mexican league was 4,428.4 acres.)
The secularization of ex-Spanish mission lands began in 1833 and reached the Santa Clara River Valley in 1834 when Antonio del Valle, a Mexican soldier and a widower, was put in charge of Mission San Fernando and the lands under its control including the Rancho San Francisco ("RSF"). In 1837, Antonio passed the mantle to José Lopez, father of the woman who would become Antonio's second wife, Jacoba Feliz. (Gold discoverer Francisco Lopez was a relative.) In 1839, Antonio took ownership of RSF in the form of a land grant from California Governor Juan B. Alvarado.
Upon Antonio's death in 1841, RSF went to Antonio's widow and children. After buying out some of his siblings, Ygnacio del Valle, the eldest son by Antonio's first marriage, ended up with an undivided 5/11ths share. (Rather than each heir receiving a little plot of land, "undivided" means each owned a percentage of the entire rancho, not unlike shareholders in a corporation.)
RSF was primarily a cattle ranch. It fared well during the early years of the 1849 gold rush when cattle prices were high. It suffered when the boom went bust in 1856-57 and cattle prices plummeted.
By this time, Ygnacio was a civic leader in downtown Los Angeles who had served in the new state legislature. He was politically and fiscally astute — more so than his stepmother and her new husband, José Salazar, who controlled the other 6/11ths interest in RSF. Jacoba and José Salazar borrowed money from the prominent trader and financier William Wolfskill and from others at the typical usurious rates of the time, putting up RSF as collateral. Since their interests were undivided, they were mortgaging the entire rancho. They expected to repay the loans when cattle prices rebounded. They didn't rebound.
Wolfskill foreclosed — but not before working out a deal with Ygnacio whereby Wolfskill would pay off the Salazars' other creditors and preserve Ygnacio's 5/11ths interest. Jacoba and José Salazar were out. The new owners were Wolfskill, Ygnacio, and Ygnacio's brother José, who owned a separate parcel that became part of the transaction.
Evidently it took time to clear the title; related legal actions were still being filed into the mid-1860s. But Ygnacio was now free to complete his dream home at the west end of RSF in the Camulos area. (Known today as "Rancho Camulos," it was never a separate rancho within the meaning of Spanish and Mexican land-grant ranchos. It was part of RSF and had been a Tataviam Indian village named Caamulus or Coaynga.) Begun in 1854, construction of Ygnacio's hacienda-style adobe home was completed in 1861, and Ygnacio moved his family there permanently at that time.
They barely had time to enjoy it when the drought hit. It essentially didn't rain from 1862-1864. The cattle died. It was a financial struggle that spelled the end for many old Mexican land-grant ranchos.
Salvation came in 1865 in the person of Thomas Bard, agent for the Philadelphia & California Petroleum Company. Black gold had been discovered in Pennsylvania in 1859, and there were whispers of it in the hills of RSF. Bard offered to buy out Wolfskill and Ygnacio and José del Valle for $53,320 — more than 4 times the appraised value of 25 cents an acre just a decade earlier. How quickly the three men jumped at the opportunity is not recorded, but the land sale was recorded.
Bard sold back the 1,300-acre Camulos area to Ygnacio alone for $500.
Bard immediately flipped RSF to Robert H. Gratz, a Philadelphia businessman who presumably represented the oil company. According to Robinson, Gratz transferred title to the oil company in 1869, but 1868 is likelier because the oil company, not Gratz, leased land to Sanford Lyon by way of an indenture dated November 30, 1868. By 1872, the oil company had given up the search — which is ironic, considering oil was discovered in large quantities in nearby Pico Canyon just four years later and eventually on the RSF itself.
Bard's career took a different path. In 1872 he was helping to organize the eastern portion of Santa Barbara County into a new county called San Buenaventura (colloquially, "Ventura"), and he later served in the U.S. Senate.
Meanwhile, a pair of Santa Barbara attorneys named Charles Fernald and J.T. Richards picked up RSF for $33,000 in an 1873 sheriff's auction, but they didn't make payments and lost it. Another sheriff's auction was scheduled but called off when a private buyer was found.
On January 15, 1875, Henry Mayo Newhall paid a whopping $90,000 for the Rancho San Francisco. Why so much? Because he knew something few others seemed to comprehend. The railroad was coming.
Postscript: In 1879, Ygnacio del Valle mortgaged his Camulos property to Newhall for $15,776. Ygnacio died a year later, leaving the burden to his widow and children. Newhall let it go.
Additional source: Ruth Newhall 1992.
— Leon Worden 2022
Photocopy of report in Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society archives.