Thursday, October 11, 2012

How the Land was Lost: El Potrero

At the end of June 2012, I traveled back to my homeland in the Carmel area of California.  My goal was to discover more about Rancho El Potrero, the piece of land that was awarded to my 5x great-grandfather, Fructuoso de Jesus Cholom Real by Governor Alvarado of Mexico soon after secularization (when Mexico, then occupier of California, closed down the missions).

You can read a little about my previous knowledge of El Potrero here.  That was all written before I had set food on the land, when I realized (as several other folks already knew) that El Potrero had been pretty much left intact, along with several other Ranchos in that area, and ultimately became part of what is now the Santa Lucia Preserve.

Prior to the trip, I had been in touch with people at the Preserve to arrange a day for a visit.  The Preserve is private land, about 22 acres, which was purchased with the explicit goal of putting up about 300 homes, a golf course and a few other recreational buildings, but leaving the bulk of the land virtually untouched or, in many cases, rehabilitated back to native California plants and animals.  The Preserve is also made up of several Ranchos from the Mexican era, and has changed hands only a few times since then.  That fact alone has prevented development, a real blessing beneath the curse of stolen Native lands.  So yes, my 5x great-grandparent's land was still in much the same condition it was when they owned it; but, in order to get near the land at all, I needed permission.

It seemed easy at first, with folks at the Preserve sending me very welcoming emails in response to my queries, but when it came right down to organizing a day and time, no one seemed inclined to be very specific.

Ultimately, I flew out of Virginia without a firm date, but plenty of faith in the Ancestors.  I knew I would get to El Potrero one way or another.  In a secret place in my heart, I hoped to find Fructuoso's cattle brand, which (despite many books and papers on California rancho cattle brands) seemed to have been lost to the ages.  Why was this brand so important to me?  I don't have a clue.  I just really wanted that sign, that mark - something that was as essential to my ancestor as a signature, a graphic statement of existence, of saying "I am here, this is my mark."  I am pretty sure that neither Fructuoso nor his wife Yginia were literate, so anything actually handwritten by them doesn't exist.  The brand might be as close as I could get to a mark that they themselves had invented.  But I didn't say anything to anyone.  It was a wish inside a wish.  Privately, I worried that it was a silly thing to desire.  Or maybe just plain old nerdy.

My first stop was at The Monterey County Historical Society, a small parcel of land in the Salinas Valley that looks deceptively unimpressive but is a powerhouse of information.

The folks at MCHS, with whom I had emailed earlier, had taken my "wish list" of names, places and topics to research and already done some of the digging.   James Perry, Mona Gudgel and Barbara Brown, are enthusiastic guardians of their priceless collection, and every time I made a discovery, we all celebrated.  For three days, I became very much a part of the big table surrounded by bookshelves in their office: white gloves, pencils only, and oh joy, digital photos allowed!

It's funny how research works.  Part sweat, part luck, part Ancestral grace.  On that first day, I made a huge discovery - or perhaps I should say, I was blessed to be discovered by a miracle: the actual hand-written record of Fructuoso's registration of his cattle brand.

I had requested this particular big red "Spanish/Mexican Record" book for something else, but I noticed as I leafed through it (looking for the indexed page number) that this volume had a substantial number of cattle brand registrations, complete with each rancho's brand itself on the page.  I knew Fructuoso had run cattle (no big surprise; it's what he knew from spending his entire life in a mission that became rich from cattle hides, known as "Mission Dollars"); I thought, well, maybe there's a chance...

You see, there is very little information about Fructuoso's ownership of Rancho El Potrero.  As radical and wonderful as it was - a Carmel Mission Indian ending up with the "potrero" or "pasture" of the mission - most history books tended to gloss over this quickly.  The Mission brands are all recorded, of course.  Here is the Carmel Mission's brand during the Mission Era:

and most historical records rush right past that, on to the American ownership of the land by the Sargents, a famous family name in California both before and after statehood.

No one seems to recognize what a gigantic accomplishment it was for a former "neofito" (new convert), an Indian neofito at that, to own, manage, and prosper on the land of his ancestors after that land had been so deeply and devastatingly colonized!  Perhaps because Fructuoso was such an anomaly, maybe even an embarrassing reminder of the way California's missions stripped almost a million Indians of their homes (and 90% of their lives), he and his family have largely been forgotten.

This is what I love about mining archives.  Indians appear in the archives not as ghosts, but as living, breathing human beings.  In the Bancroft Library several years ago, I found a map (or "diseno," design) of El Potrero that even the Santa Lucia Preserve's historian had overlooked, making the land even more real in my mind (Fructuoso had passed on by then, but the "Joaquin Gutierrez" name on the diseno is his son-in-law, and all land records also add Fructuoso's daughter's name, Maria Estefana Real - although the land record below mistakenly identifies her as Maria Esteban!).

So I knew about El Potrero.  I knew that Fructuoso de Jesus (his baptismal name, meaning "Fruit of Jesus") Cholom (his native name as recorded in the baptismal records) de Real (a name gleaned from his daughters' later association with Padre Real of Mission Carmel) had owned this land, and that his wife Yginia Yunisyunis, and later his daughter Estefana Real, and some of her children, had lived on this land for over ten years.  Then, the land was lost.  Lost, stolen, sold under false pretenses - that part, I wasn't sure about.  That part, the historians gloss over.

One of the reasons I was skeptical, at best, about finding Fructuoso's cattle brand was a couple of xeroxed pages in my mom's papers.  The pages are a from a hand-lettered little booklet she found somewhere which give brief pictorial histories of the California ranchos, along with owners, cattle brand, small map, and a photo if available (I can't tell you the name of the booklet, because she did not record it, but I saw an actual copy of it at MCHS myself - kicking myself for not jotting down the citation).  Here is what the booklet had for El Potrero:

As you can see, in the upper left corner of the page is Sargent's cattle brand, and midway down the right side of the page is Joaquin Gutierrez's cattle brand.  Gutierrez was briefly, as I have said, Fructuoso's son-in-law, and took over the rancho after Fructuoso's death.  Although Fructuoso's name figures prominently in the center of the page, that's the only mention.  His cattle brand, as in all collections of rancho brands, is absent.

All this is proof of absence - something common in Euro-American stories about Native claim to land in the United States.  But the Mexican Records that I was privileged to view at the MCHS are amazing: a collection of thousands and thousands of hand-written documents, receipts, letters, reports, and scraps of paper all bound into about 15 volumes, complete with a hand-written index for each and every piece of paper.  Can you imagine the work this was to compile?!  James told me that it was a huge project done just prior to California Statehood by Americans who, in part, anticipated the coming court battles over land grants.

A sample of how the Mexican Record books are constructed from many different kinds of paperwork.

Plus, of course, these records are almost all in old Colonial Spanish (with a some important exceptions, as you'll see).  Between the calligraphy and old Spanish, Mexican Spanish, faded ink and torn or missing sections of pages, these records take deep concentration to read, and a lot of "scanning" happens, when researchers just run their eyes over the page hoping that some key phrase, name or word pops out.

But I didn't need to be that systematic this time.  Right there at the top of a page, in big black script, was a name that my whole body is attuned to recognize:  FRUCTOSO DE JESUS.

Do you see it?  In the left margin, the cattle brand Fructoso (as spelled here) registered for El Potrero.  This is his official record of registration!  It looks, in fact, like a stylized capital 'F' with a small 'o' attached to the foot, almost an abbreviation of his name.  There is some mention of a Senora Gertrudis Lugo, who may be a witness.  The date is October 1835 (I can't read the exact date yet), and the person signing the registration is Jose Maldonado, complete with his rubric, the fancy flourish every decent gentleman practiced as part of his signature.

I was stunned.  I put my hand, white cotton glove and all, on the page, and thought to myself, "Fructuoso was here.  177 years ago, he stood in a room not too far from where I sit, just inches from this piece of paper.  He may have even touched this paper himself, to check the brand, or to see his name written out...he was here.  And now I'm here.  Reading his name.  Seeing his cattle brand.  Witnessing, after all these years, what must have been a moment of incredible pride and joy for my ancestor: legal registration of his right to the land which had, at his birth, been home to the village of Echilat, where his maternal family originated.  Here was a Mexican official, signing off on it."

I wondered if Fructuoso could feel me there.  Was he just on the other side, looking back at me?  The document was like a mirror;  me on one side, Fructuoso on the other.  Was he thinking of his descendents?  Was he hoping they would one day see this?  Or was he simply in a hurry to get back to the business of running a ranch?

I took many pictures of this document, but I am also going to formally request a hi-res scan.  It is beautiful.  In so many ways.

Later, James brought me a huge stack of probate records for Fructuoso's estate.  Probate records?!  I had no idea that any record of any kind chronicled what I had always guessed was a land-grab by Americans.  Over and over, Isabel Meadows tells Harrington about Americans who would simply "esquate" (squat) on Indian lands, for which Indians had deeds and paperwork, and announce that it was theirs.  I had not realized how many Indians took these Americans to court, hoping that the justice system would work (I also found paperwork for another ancestor, Paula Garibay, who did just that; but many other examples exist throughout this archive, and this semi-organized resistance to loss of land is something almost unknown that needs to be studied).  Isabel herself says that Sargent kicked the Indians off El Potrero, with some details about a Chilean who was hired by Sargent to pretend he was buying the land from Indians so he could actually pass it on to Sargent (since Joaquin Gutierrez was a Chilean, this is a chilling thought, one that does not bode well for Fructuoso's daughter Estefana).

As it turns out, the mystery of what happened to El Potrero after his death was complicated and heart-breaking, and even with all of these records, I may never know the details for certain.  The probate records (all in English!) go on for years after Fructuoso's death, five years in which his two daughters Josefa and Teodosia argue that their mother, Yginia, basically cut them out of their inheritance by selling the land to Gutierrez without their permission.  There is no mention of Estefana, the third daughter, the one who was married to Gutierrez.  Did she profit from the sale of the land to her husband?  Did she cheat her sisters?  Or was she, too, taken advantage of by Gutierrez and Sargent?  Did Yginia really agree to sell the land of her own free will, or was she somehow tricked?  Why would she favor Estefana over her other two daughters?  It's true that Estefana and her children came to live on El Potrero, but some sources say that Josefa and Teodosia also lived on the land.  In fact, in order to run such a large rancho (an itemization of Fructuoso's assets lists hundreds of head of cattle!), many Indians must have lived and worked there, and it makes sense that my ancestor would hire and house his own.  So what happened between Yginia and two of her daughters?

It sounds messy.  The distribution of inheritance has never been easy, it seems; add to that all kinds of historical trauma and post-colonial stress disorder, and you've got serious damage going on by all parties.

Here's what I think happened, in the end:  by the time this court case was over, all of Fructuoso's impressive holdings - land, cattle, cash, tools - had to be sold in order to pay off the lawyers.  There was nothing left to fight about.  The patent to the land was awarded to Joaquin Gutierrez in 1862, but the whole case had taken so long that Gutierrez had already sold the land to Sargent, and Sargent was not going to give it back to either Gutierrez or the Real sisters Josefa and Teodosia; this court case went on through 1870.  I have not found Estefana in any record after this time period, although I have seen a date for her death that is many years down the road.  Likewise, Joaquin Gutierrez disappears from the records (he is not the same Don Joaquin Gutierrez who had a home in Monterey).  Josefa and Teodosia go on, raising children and grandchildren, living in Carmel and Monterey, for some years.

It tore me up to read all this, to see on the page how families destroyed each other over land, money, material things.

But during this same visit to MCHS, I also faced a huge pile of probate records for the James Meadows estate.

I mean, LOOK at the number of times this probate went through court!  that stack to the left of the three records is about 8 inches tall.

I have long wondered how the adult Meadows children (the offspring of their English father and Indian mother) ended up without much in the way of security after their wealthy father passed away; photographs of Isabel as a young girl and young woman show her dressed very expensively, her hair carefully styled, obviously the daughter of a wealthy rancho owner.  And why, in his old age, was Thomas Meadows dependent on his sister Isabel to pay for groceries and rent, and why was Isabel herself willing to move 3,000 miles across the United States to live and work with Harrington (the Smithsonian ethnologist) for five years in her old age?  Was she that dependent on her small income from Harrington?  Well, how else would an elderly Indian woman from Carmel make enough money to send home to her siblings and other family  members?

I really don't want to write this next part.  In fact, I am purposely going to be very brief, because it is so painful.  But the probate records say it all:  James Meadows left the bulk of his estate to Isabel, with other large chunks going to his other children and the grandchildren he was raising (his son Edward had died earlier).  However, James wrote in his will that he was purposely not leaving anything to his eldest son, Frank, because "I do not approve of his conduct or his mode of life."  And Frank Meadows took that will to court with a vengeance.

At one point (and please, remember I am going on quick readings of the material at this point), Isabel actually gave up the main portion of her inheritance to Frank simply to close the will (given that her father mentioned in his will that one of Frank's problems with bad "conduct" consisted of trying to strangle his sister Isabel, this may have been a move made out of fear for her physical well-being, also); at first, Frank agreed to this, but later, he changed his mind, and more legal wrangling ensued.  Years of this went by, and the same thing that happened to El Potrero happened to the James Meadows Tract, as his land was called.  Eventually, the money ran out.  Isabel had used all of her inheritance to fight her own brother.  In the end, no one won except the lawyers, and both land and money were gone.

Isabel, who had grown up rather privileged and without needing to worry about where her next meal came from, no longer had a home, and her status in the community must have suffered drastically.  In effect, she lost all of the white privilege granted to her by her father, and became just another poor Carmel Indian.  Like Estefana, like Josefa, like Teodosia, and all of their children.

It is all too familiar.  Then - and now.  In-fighting.  Back-stabbing.  How deep do the wounds of missionization go?  How much of the misbehavior in these two cases was the direct result of having to scrabble for daily survival in the missions, un-learning the collective village socialization and learning, for lack of a better phrase, how to look out for Number One?  How much was caused by the introduction of alcohol, violence, the decimations of diseases, and much-reduced resources for food and shelter?

Did we forget how to be human?  Can we remember?  (in time?)

A few days after my last visit to MCHS, my sister Louise and I finally traveled to El Potrero.  The Santa Lucia Preserve came through - although the person who really knew the history and the historical cites there was away on vacation, another employee named Chris became our guide, and he was wonderful.

More about that later.  I can't write about that visit and these legal wranglings in the same post - it would take away from the presence of the land.  For now, I'll close with the video I took of the heart of El Potrero, the place where we think Fructuoso and his family had their adobe, where they lived for many years, and built up a prosperous rancho together.  It's a much quieter place now, no doubt; and the land has mostly recovered from the damage done to it by cattle.  In fact, the land looks more like it did back when Fructuoso and Yunisyunis were born there, when it was their home village, and not part of the Carmel Mission at all.  I find some comfort in knowing that this land is protected, and is not even on the Santa Lucia list of available house sites; it's a historic cite, and marked as such.

And there is comfort, too, in knowing that this land endures despite all of the human grief and mistakes that have happened there. 

Listen to the wind.

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