Big Sur was then, as it is now, an ethnically blended and multi-lingual community. In the early 1860s, a couple of vaqueros who worked at Captain Cooper’s ranch, Manuel Innocente, a Chumash Indian, and David Castro, homesteaded near Rancho El Sur. They say that the only other inhabitant of the Big Sur Valley at this time, was a hermit named John Davis, who is said to have filed his claim in 1853.
In 1848, a Yankee sailor named William Brainard Post, arrived on the coast. Born in 1830, Post was the son of a retired Essex, Connecticut, sea captain, and his ancestors had come to America on the Mayflower.
Before moving to Big Sur, Bill Post farmed in the Carmel Valley. One day, while visiting Loretta and James Meadows at their Carmel Valley ranch, he met Loretta’ thirty-year-old sister, Anselma, who was of Rumsen-Esselen descent. Bill and Anselma were married in 1849.
“Along the bays and ocean beaches whales were often seen washed up on shore,” wrote Malcolm Margolin in The Ohlone Way, “with grizzly bears in ‘countless troops’ – or in many cases Indians – streaming down to the beach to feast on their remains.”
At the time of the Civil War, before the widespread use of kerosene, almost every lamp in America burned whale oil. In 1860, a group of about eighteen whalers came from Faial Island in the Azores Islands, to the coast of California. A few months later, the established a whaling station at Point Lobos, five miles north of the Post’s homestead on Soberanes Creek (in present-day Garrapata State Park). It was one of sixteen shore whaling stations established on the California coast in the 19th century.
In time, the small community of whalers and their families grew to include as many as seventy residents. The top of Whaler’s Knoll made an excellent spot for sighting the gray whales that migrate along the California coast from December to May. A whaler stationed atop the knoll, would raise a flag when he spotted a whale, as a signal to the men down in the cove to row out and give chase.
Bill Post found work at the whaling station. But the whalers spoke Portuguese and the language barrier (and the putrid stench of the whale processing) proved to be an impediment to the development of friendships between neighbors. In 1870, Antonio Victorino, one of the whalers, started a dairy farm near San Jose Beach and soon brought his wife and eight children from the Azores to the coast south of Carmel.
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In Sobranes Canyon, Bill Post fought off grizzly bears and mountain lions. He hunted deer to feed his family and sold their hides in Monterey.
The first of the Post’s five children, Ellen B. Post, was born in 1851. She married an English immigrant named Edward Grimes. Their wedding was on Christmas Day of 1879, at Joseph and Lola Gregg’s ranch in the lower Carmel Valley. It is said that the first Christmas tree in the Carmel area was decorated for that occasion. The bride’s father, W. B. “Bill” Post, dressed as Santa Claus.
Ellen Post and her husband, Edward Grimes, homesteaded five miles south of Posts, in what is now called Grimes Canyon at what is now called Grimes Point. In his journal, Sam Trotter wrote that their ranch was, “so neat and tidy and homelike, I hated to leave.”
Ellen and Edward Grimes’ daughter, Isabell, once said that her earliest memories were of her father placing her on a feather pillow in front of him on the saddle as they traveled on horseback along the narrow trail through the canyon.
Bill and Anselma Post’s second child, Frank, had an encyclopedic memory and was a natural-born storyteller. Frank Post was a living repository of the oral history of Big Sur in his generation, and he lived to be 92 years old.
Frank Post said that his maternal great-great-great grandmother, a Rumsen Indian, was still alive when he was born in 1859. She is said to have lived more than 130 years. Apparently, Marshal Morris located her in the 1870 census in Monterey County, and the special interest story was picked up newspapers across the country. The Saturday, October 23, 1869, issue of Albany Democrat, of Albany, Oregon, reported:
“The Monterey Gazette says that there is now residing in Carmel Valley, an Indian woman who was married and the mother of two children when the Carmel Mission church was built – 100 years ago, June 1. All the material for this edifice was carried to the spot on the shoulders of Indians, and this woman brought her share of the labor. The church she toiled to build now lives in ruins, but she lives on, and at nearly 140 years old, she is noted for her fancy sewing and fine beadwork.”
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Frank Post was often asked to repeat the tale of how his father, William Brainard Post, came from Connecticut to California:
“Dad’s mother gave him a watch his father used to carry to sea. It was of English make. The works ran on little chains. He always wanted it covered with silver. The jeweler thought it ought to have a gold case but father insisted on silver.
“Father tried to sign on a vessel in Boston, but it was full-handed. It later disappeared. Then two wheelers came in, the Brooklyn and the Hibernia. He signed on the Brooklyn as a cabin boy, being too young to go before the mast. He sailed the Atlantic – to Scotland, the Azores Islands, the Cape of Good Hope, Australia, New Zealand, the south Sea Islands, Honolulu, Bering Sea, then back to lower California. At Magdalena Bay he got a permit to go ashore and a friend was along with him. He came to an old ranch house, where the two boys stayed overnight. The next morning, they found the vessel was gone. A wind had come up and it had gone around a bend in a point. Father returned to the ranch, not having found the vessel, and stayed there until he had no shoes left on his feet. Either he had to hike over land, be eaten by coyotes, die of thirst, or get on another ship.”
Eighteen-year old Bill Post walked barefoot, more than 100 miles to La Paz, Baja California Sur, Mexico. Frank Post continued his story:
“They got a ship at La Paz. It was a government vessel with guns, and it took them a board. They signed articles as able seaman. But the proviso was that they were to be left off at the first port in Alta California. The ship was called the Mizzen Top and San Francisco was their destination. At the time, San Francisco was called Yerba Buena. It was a mere village in the sand hills. As it turned out, father was dumped off at the beach at Monterey. He was penniless. But he could read and write Spanish.
“He spent the first night in Monterey at the old brickhouse near the wharf. This was in March 1848. He fished in the bay with an old fisherman and peddled fish in town for four bits or a dollar. He was living from day to day. The Gold Rush started in 1849. He left for the Gold Fields and panned for nuggets. He returned to Monterey as poor as when he had left.”
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When Bill Post got back to Monterey, he found himself walking through a ghost town – everyone had gone to the gold fields. After he and Anselma married, they farmed in lower Carmel Valley near Anselma’s sister Loreta’s farm, where they first met.
In 1858, the Posts moved down the coast to Soberanes Creek, on the old Spanish San Jose y Sur Chiquita land grant, where there was good grass for grazing cattle. His young wife was nearing the end of her first pregnancy when they arrived, so Bill Post immediately begin building a cabin, as fast as possible. Frank Post remembered:
“At Soberanes, dad was building a hut in the creek bottom. He hadn’t quite finished the roof. Rain was coming and I was expected. Dad hurried to finish the roof that day. Sure enough, I was born – under a roof.” The Posts called their home La Lobera, in homage to the sea lions that lounged on the rocks offshore.”
Bill Post’s wife, Anselma, was Indian. It was her habit to go off into the woods by herself and sometimes she would be gone for several days. Her husband and children were accustomed to this, so it rarely concerned them.
But one particular night, when Frank Post was only four years-old, a terrible storm woke him. He was worried about his mother because she had gone off on one of her Indian walkabouts. Then a mysterious bright light appeared in his bedroom. He got out of bed and quietly followed the light outside and up the steep trail. Just before he got to the top of the ridge, the light disappeared.
In the darkness and the downpour, he found his mother uninjured, but trapped beneath a fallen tree. Somehow, the four-year-old child was able to lift the heavy tree trunk off of his mother, high enough for her to get free, and they ran home together in the pouring rain.
When Frank Post told this story eighty years later, his eyes welled up with tears.
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California was hit by a severe drought in 1864 – there was almost no rainfall, that year. Desperate ranchers from the surrounding areas drove their cattle down the coast to graze and Bill Post’s small herd was starved out.
In 1866, Bill Post, one of the earliest squatters on the old Spanish San Jose y Sur Chiquito land grant, prior to its American confirmation, sold his claim on Soberanes Creek to David Castro, for $100. The land is now part of present-day Garrapata State Park.
David Castro was the best roper on the coast and held the position of chief vaquero at Rancho El Sur. A year later Castro sold out and moved twenty-five miles down the coast to the canyon that now bears his name – the future site of Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn.
The Soberanes Creek homestead was purchased by Jose Antonio Esequiél Soberanes, Sr., for whom the creek is now named. Esequiél’s Catalonian grandfather had marched with the Portola expedition in 1769. His mother was the sister of Encarnación, the wife of Captain John Rogers Cooper, of Rancho El Sur. The Monterey townhouse Esequiél and his wife, Maria, purchased in 1860, Casa Soberanes, is now part of Monterey State Historic Park.
When Esequiél bought the Post’s ranch on Soberanes Creek, he built an adobe covered with clapboard siding at the mouth of the creek that now bears his name. He stocked the ranch with cattle from his father’s Rancho los Ojitos, situated near Bradley, California, on a site that was later flooded to created Lake San Antonio, in 1965.
According to local folklore, once, when Esequiél was driving his cattle from Rancho los Ojitos to Soberanes Creek, a grizzly bear attacked, and he killed the beast with his pistol.
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Bill Post moved his family to Castroville in 1866, where he opened the first butcher shop in town.
He bought 200 acres of land, grew a crop of grain, and sold it for ninety cents a sack. He built the first grain warehouse at Castroville Landing farmers from all over the valley brought their grain to Post’s warehouse. Flat bottom boats would come up the Elkhorn Slough to load the grain and take it to market.
Castroville, today the “Artichoke Capital of the World,” is only three miles from the shores of the Monterey Bay. But Bill Post found that he missed the sound and the smell of the ocean, so much so, that he took a job at the Castroville Landing (now Moss Landing) building wharfs at the harbor.
In 1876, David Castro moved down to Big Sur to build a house and clear the land on his new claim. The following year, Bill Post returned to Big Sur and bought 160 acres from David Castro’s alcoholic father Cristobal. David Castro hoped that by moving his father further down the coast, it would make it harder for the old man to obtain alcoholic beverages. But David Castro was wrong – old Cristobal, resourceful and motivated, managed to keep his liquor cabinet stocked, no matter how remote the location.
Over the next decade, Bill Post and his sons built a New England-style house on top of the hill overlooking the Big Sur Valley and painted it red. It still stands, across the highway from the entrance to Post Ranch Inn. Bill Post’s ranch was a working ranch where the family raise cattle and hogs. They cultivated an apple orchard that produced 20-ounce pippins that the family sliced and dried. Then, donning their newest boots, they’d squash the dried apples pieces into barrels, and they were shipped to markets across the country. Bill Post built a cider house and apiary, and planted hayfields, and vineyards in the meadow by the pond. He joined with the other local ranchers for the annual round up and cattle drive up to Monterey and made the long trip to San Francisco each year to order tools, clothing, medicine, and food staples.
On December 9, 1889, the Post’s house became the first post office in the area – the neighbors called it “Post’s Post Office.” Bill Post was the postmaster until 1905. In 1910, the name of the post office was changes from Posts to Arbolado (literally “wooded” or “forested”). But it sounded too much like “Alvarado” – the name of the main street in downtown Monterey, resulting too much confusion, and was ultimately changed to “Big Sur,” in 1915.
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Bill and Anselma Post’s son Frank married Annie Pate. Annie’s father, Edmund Pate, lived at Pates Fork, and raised hogs at his ranch, not far from Point Sur, along a branch of the Little Sur River.
Annie’s sister, Ida Belle was still unmarried. Peter Christian Nelson, a German immigrant, was one of the first assistant lighthouse keepers at the Point Sur Light Station. One day, not long after his arrival at the new job, Peter happened to espy fair Ida astride her pet pig, riding over the hill from her parents’ home. They say it was love at first sight. They were married in 1895. Peter and Ida lived together in one of the houses at the Point Sur Light Station. Years later, the Nelsons were stationed at lighthouses in Pacific Grove and Sausalito.
Frank and Annie Post homesteaded at a spot just south of Mule Canyon Creek, later the location of the Trail Club’s cabin which, today, is the site of the restaurant, Nepenthe.
Frank Post’s mother Anselma instructed her children in what were then called “folk” or “Indian” remedies. The resourcefulness of her eldest son, Frank is chronicled in the July 20, 1889, issue of the Monterey Cypress:
“Last week while a young man named Burns and a companion named Frank Post, were out fishing, a rattlesnake bit the former. Post killed the snake and placed a piece of the reptile flesh on the wound, he then took Burns on his back and carried him a distance of two miles over a very rough country, having at times to crawl with his load on his hands and knees. On arriving at the camp of a party of hunters, Burns’ leg was found to have swollen fearfully and the poison had so taken a hold of his system as to cause his jaws to set. Post, however, set himself to work finding some rattlesnake weed, made a tea of the same and after pouring some down the wounded man’s throat, placed the balance on the wound; this treatment alleviated Burns’ sufferings to a considerable extent, and Post proceeded in search of saddle horses, which he found after walking five miles. Returning to camp he found his companion out of danger and after applying more of the weed took Burns to his home at W. B. Post’s where the latter is reported having completely recovered from the bite.”
Late in life, Bill Post suffered from chronic respiratory and sinus issues – what the doctors at that time called chronic catarrh. In April of 1896, he had a bad attack, which left him partially deaf. A decade later, he moved to Pacific Grove. He lived to be 77-years old, dying in 1908. He is buried at the El Carmelo Cemetery in Monterey.
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In the 1870s, several Indian families tried homesteading in the southern-most region of remote coast, forty miles north of San Simeon and fifty miles south of Carmel. But they didn’t speak English and couldn’t read the papers they were signing, so many were cheated out of their claims.
Gabriel Dani (pronounced DAY-nee) grew up in Danville, Vermont, 80 miles south of the Canadian border. As a young man he joined the Mormon wagon trains bound for Utah. There, he met Elizabeth Brown, who had recently arrived from Yorkshire, England. They were married in Enterprise, in southwestern Utah, in 1860. They settled in Parowan, Utah, where their first two daughters were born. In 1868, they joined a wagon train headed for California. According to family legend, they settled at Sutter’s Mill where Gabriel worked in the mines, but the country was not to his liking.
The Dani family traveled by ship to southern California, settling in Wilmington, near the port of San Pedro. In 1871, the moved north to San Juan Bautista, 20 miles northeast of Castroville, where they had two sons.
The Dani family arrived in the southern part of the Big Sur coast in the 1876. At first, they lived on the parcel later settled by José de los Santos Boronda, a native of Monterey, who was among the first settlers in the area. Their son Isaiah was born there in November of 1876. The following year, they moved a few miles east, settling along a stream that now bears their name. Their daughter, Violet Lucia, was born there in April of 1878.
By the end of the decade, they had a working homestead in what is now the town of Lucia, California. A family photograph, circa 1900, shows Gabriel Dani missing his left arm, which was lost in a threshing machine accident.
The investigative journalist, Ehud Yonay, wrote about Gabriel and Elizabeth Dani in the December 1980 issue of New West Magazine:
“In 1876 they took their kids and their pack mules west of King City, over the Santa Lucia mountains, where the government had land available for homesteading. After several days of hard walking, they stopped on a magnificent ridge overlooking the Pacific Ocean in a wild territory the Spanish missionaries in Carmel had called el pais grande del sur, “the big country to the south,” which the locals dubbed Big Sur. They cut and split local redwoods to build a cabin and went on to have five more children. At the suggestion of a Mexican midwife, they named one of the girls Lucia, after the mountain range. Years later, the US post office named the local post office after her, and the name stuck to that spot long after both Lucia and the post office were gone.”
Gabriel and Elizabeth Dani had eleven children. Their daughter, Lucia, a “person of size,” like her mother and sister. She was 6’2” tall and weighed 305 pounds. She never married. She was twenty years old before she made her first trip to town – to King City, fifty miles away – where she first saw bicycles and trains. The July 15, 1899, issue of the San Francisco Call newspaper reported:
“Strange to say, during her entire stay in the city of three days Lucia was not contented. After she saw all there was to see, she calmly remarked that she enjoyed the old ranch and rural life better than metropolitan life … Gabriel Dani, the father of the girl, is about 70 years old, a native of Vermont and by religion a Latter Day Saint or reformed Mormon … he asserted that when 16 years old Lucia tipped the scales at 239 pounds, and he believes she will grow much larger. He has a girl now 17 years old and weighs over 170 pounds and a son who weighs 195 pounds and is 6’6” tall … Gabriel Dani and his family have departed for their little seacoast home, probably never to return to civilization during the father’s life.”
In 1905, Gabriel, now in his 70s, his wife Elizabeth, and their daughter Lucia, moved to San Lucas, on the Salinas River, south of King City, where Lucia worked at the local hotel. After Gabriel’s death in 1908, Lucia and her mother moved to Monterey. Elizabeth lived to be 85, dying in 1931. Lucia lived her final years in King City. She died in 1947.
Gabriel and Elizabeth’s son, Ty (Isaiah Dani), lived in their house Lucia and ran the ranch until 1925, when he sold it to Gordon Moore. Today, the Dani family homestead, situated just south of the Lucia Lodge, is now part of the Immaculate Heart Hermitage, owned by the Camaldolese Congregation of the Order of Saint Benedict.
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The Dani’s nearest neighbor, Wilbur Judson Harlan, an uninhibited fellow with a drooping mustache, was twenty-eight years Gabriel Dani’s junior. Born in 1860, in Rushville, Indiana, Harlan had moved with his family to Kaufman, Texas. After the death of his mother in 1878, he headed west to Santa Cruz, California, when he found employment at a local nursery.
While working on a threshing crew in the Salinas Valley, he made friends with a German immigrant named Phillip Smith. In 1885, the two friends walked down the coast in search of land for homesteading. Wilbur Harlan walked all the way to Lucia, fifty miles south of Carmel, where he found his “home place,” across the canyon, just north of the Dani’s homestead. In 1885, he constructed a cabin out of hand-split redwood logs. He built his fireplace of bricks, which he packed in on the backs of mules. When he ran out of supplies, Wilbur Harlan hiked over the mountains into the Salinas Valley, to “provision up.”
Returning from one such trip to town, Harlan discovered Agapito Manuel Lopez, the employee of a nearby homesteader, building another dwelling just fifteen feet away from Harlan’s cabin. Lopez’ intention was likely to intimidate Harlan into vacating the yet un-surveyed land. It’s unknown how Harlan resolved the conflict, however on May 1, 1889, he filed a claim for his 162 acres in Lucia. Two months later, he married his neighbor Gabriel Dani’s twenty-three-year-old daughter, Ada Amanda, whom he had been courting for some time.
Ada was born in Beaver County, Utah, in 1867, just months before her parents came west to Wilmington, California (near Los Angeles), where her father, Gabriel Dani, found work as a stagecoach driver. (One presumes he still had both arms when he took this job.) The Dani family tried living in San Francisco, Petaluma, and then San Juan Bautista, before they finally settled in Lucia. Ada attended the Redwood School in Lucia, which had been built by her father, Gabriel.
Wilbur and Ada Harlan didn’t need any hired hands – they had three daughters and seven sons in eighteen years. When they ran out of room, in 1901, Harlan built a bigger family home – this time out of redwood lumber, commercially milled at a sawmill and delivered by ship to nearby Big Creek Landing. From there, it was hauled by mules to the remote ranch location. The Harlan home was a landmark for miles around. In December 1926, the place burned down in a fire.
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Wilbur Harlan’s grandson, Gilbert Harlan, remembered how, once the first rains of autumn began, the early settlers in the Lucia area lit fires to clear brush and fallen limbs.
Not everyone embraced this practice. George Gamboa, grandson of homesteader Sabino Gamboa, recalled that his father and uncle were “terrified of fire,” preferring to laboriously clear the brush by hand.
The Indians on the coast had selectively and deliberately set fires for centuries, clearing dead brush and wood, and allowing new vegetation to grow in its place. The job of burning, like that of gathering most food and firewood, was performed by the women of the tribe.
In July 1774, a Spanish captain at the Monterey Presidio wrote that Indians “to the south,” (probably Carmel Valley) had set fire to the grasslands and that the smoke was visible from Monterey.
The first post office in Lucia opened in 1900, in Gabriel Dani’s living room, and served about sixty-five local residents. His daughter Lucia was the first postmaster. In 1906, her sister Ada was appointed postmaster and the post office moved to the Harlan home. Ada’s daughter, Lulu May Harlan was the next postmaster in Lucia until the post office was closed in 1932.
From 1922-1934, Ada’s son George hauled the mail on horseback from Jolon to the Gorda post office in Pacific Valley. He remembered:
“[T]here was supposed to be delivery once a week and the ride was theoretically one day out one day back, but this depended on the number of pick-ups and deliveries. Ordinarily, I would use one pack mule, if I had a big load parcel post I might need as many as seven animals. I remember seeing 1,400 pounds one week.”
The Harlan and Dani families raised wheat in Lucia, which they ground to flour and sold or traded at the market. They made salt by evaporating sea water. They drove their cattle and pigs over the Gamboa Trail, near Cone Peak, to the market at King City. Their hogs had to be pretty well-fed to make the seven-day trip over the mountains and still be fat enough to sell when they arrived. It was easier with cattle, as they could graze along the way and make it to King City in just three days.
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In the 1860s, California senator and newspaper owner George Hearst consolidated a quarter of a million acres in the Hearst Family Ranch on the coast near San Simeon. His son, William Randolph, inherited “the ranch” and spent much of the family fortune on artwork. In 1919, he began the construction of an opulent castle that was never completed.
William R. Hearst aggressively (some say ruthlessly) pursued the acquisition of property north of San Simeon. Hearst’s objective was to own all the land between Cambria and Carmel. Fortunately, he fell short of his goal, only amassing some 240,000 acres.
Hearst owed a great deal in back taxes and the Great Depression wiped his fortune. In the late 1930s, he sold off large sections of property in the Santa Lucia Mountains to the federal government, including the present day 165,000-acre Fort Hunter Ligget Military Installation, and adjoining national forest lands.
In the December 1980 issue of New West Magazine, Ehud Yonay related the following story:
“By the time the city slicker got to the top of the hill, he had loosened his tie and was holding his jacket in his hand. He’d stopped for a brief rest in the clump of redwoods just below the house, but as soon as he stepped out into the sun he started to sweat again. Cursing the damned wilderness and the people in it, he stepped up to the door and flashed a big city slicker smile for the old man who opened it. Well into his seventies, Wilbur Harlan could still spot a hustler. The city slicker introduced himself as a land agent for William Randolph Hearst. Mr. Harlan may have heard of him. Perhaps Mr. Harlan had also heard that Mr. Hearst was building himself a little spread down by San Simeon and was looking to expand a little bit. Would Mr. Harlan consider selling his land Mr. Hearst? Mr. Hearst sure would appreciate it. Old man Harlan said he wouldn’t. The agent said Mr. Hearst sure wouldn’t appreciate the news. Mr. Harlan said that was too bad. The land agent skedaddled down the hill. A day later he was back. Mr. Hearst could appreciate Mr. Harlan’s position and would be willing to double his offer. Harlan again said nothing doing, and the agent again disappeared down the hill, muttering something Harlan couldn’t hear but could well guess the nature of. This was in the midst of the depression, and money was scarce.
“A few days later another man lumbered up to Harlan’s redwood house. He was no ordinary hustler – Harlan could see that, right away. Now, here was someone to watch out for. The man introduced himself as Mr. Hearst and said he came to work out a deal for the land. “You don’t seem to understand, Mr. Hearst, but I live here because this is where I want to live and where my family will live after I’m gone. This land is not for sale at any price,” Harlan said, and there must have been something in the way he said it, because shortly thereafter Hearst left, and that was the last Harlan heard of his offers…
“Today no fewer than four generations of Harlans live within earshot of the place where old man Harlan told the most powerful man in the country at the time that his money was no good at Lucia – not for buying land, anyway.”
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