Wednesday, January 20, 2021

José Sepúlveda’s El Refugio

Portrait of Don José Andrés Sepúlveda, circa 1856 by Henri Joseph Penelon (Courtesy Bowers Museum, via Santa Ana Public Library)

A tiny sketch of an adobe ruin in western Santa Ana, labeled “Refugio,” appears on the 1936 pictorial map of "Orange County Adobes, Old Roads, Trails, Ranchos & Springs," created by Gladyce E. Ashby and Fred C.Groos as part of Works Progress Administration (WPA) project 3105. This adobe belonged to Don José Andrés Sepúlveda (1803-1875) and was one of the best known and earliest homes between Los Angeles and San Diego. Despite its significance, this historic site hasn’t garnered much attention in the last few generations and until now its exact location has long been unclear. 

Detail of WPA wall map. El Refugio at upper right.

The initial portion of the adobe was built by José Antonio Yorba II. He had inherited the land from his father, who died in died 1825. It’s likely the house was built sometime after his father's amended will was finalized in 1830.

The Orange County California Genealogical Society’s book, Saddleback Ancestors, describes Jose Antonio Yorba II initially building a home called Santa Ana Abajo near the Santa Ana River. “Its comfortable rooms provided adequate accommodations for Jose and his wife, Josefa Verdugo, all the little Yorbas, and the many cousins and travelers stopping by to visit. Later however, Jose II needed still more space and built another house… at the edge of his property in the southwest part of the future city of Santa Ana.”

This second adobe is what would later become known as El Refugio. Saddleback Ancestors goes on to describe the new house’s accommodations: “The sleeping quarters offered to visitors were always the pride and joy of the señora of this hospitable ranch. Usually the beds had snowy white counterpanes and lace-trimmed pillows, and everything about the bedroom was immaculately clean. The couch beneath this finery was simple, just dried bullock’s hide stretched on a rough frame of wood. It was a characteristic of the Californians that the chief expense of the household of even the poorer families was lavished on the bed though the other furniture may have been meager.”

In 1854, Jose Antonio Yorba II’s son, Domingo de la Resurreccion Yorba, sold 1, 400 acres of the Rancho Santiago de Santa Ana – including the second adobe – to Rancho San Joaquin owner José Antonio Andrés Sepúlveda for the cost of  $6,000 plus a hundred heifers, fifty steers, and fifty fillies.

José Andres Sepúlveda, circa 1860s (Courtesy Seaver Center via Anaheim Heritage Center)

“Perhaps better than his contemporaries, José Antonio Andrés Sepúlveda, with his vast landholdings, reckless wagers, prodigal hospitality and fancy costumes, epitomized those qualities from which the myth of romantic California was eventually fashioned,“ wrote California historian Sr. Mary Joanne Wittenburg, SND. Sepúlveda had been granted the massive San Joaquin (which later became the main portion of the Irvine Ranch) in 1842. 

Once also in possession of the Yorba adobes, Sepúlveda expanded the larger one significantly, named it El Refugio (The Refuge), and moved in. At the time, he was at the apex of his life. The Gold Rush (bringing countless hungry mouths to feed) had driven beef prices into the stratosphere and money flowed like water for cattlemen. Sepulveda owned about 102,000 acres, about 12,000 head of cattle and about 3,000 horses.  

Namesake of El Refugio. (Courtesy Bowers Museum)

El Refugio took its name from a black and white lithograph of Nuestra Senora del Refugio or ‘Our Lady of Refuge,’ which hung in a gilt frame inside the family’s home chapel. Along with other artifacts from El Refugio, this lithograph was later on display at Bowers Museum. Georgie van der Leck, Sepulveda’s granddaughter loaned a large number of artifacts to Bowers in 1936, 1946 and 1952. Many of these items were returned to the family (specifically to Viola van der Leck Lantz) in 1968, but some items, including the lithograph, still remain with the museum.

Pitcher with inner chamber for ice. From El Refugio. (Courtesy Bowers Museum)

The “Adobes of Orange County” survey by C.E. Roberts (part of the same WPA project as the aforementioned map) calls El Refugio the best known of the five adobes in the "Santa Ana Group," which also included the A.T. Bates and Julian Chaves adobes. Roberts writes,…

"Old timers recall that the adobe buildings were quite extensive and in the shape of an L; that there were great corrals to the southeast and that there was a famous spring to the west. Tony Yorba, son of Domingo, says that his father built the row of rooms running east to west and that Sepúlveda added the long L running to the south. …This adobe has achieved fame partly by its unusual dimensions and mostly from its association with the hospitable and wealthy Don José Sepúlveda. Here [Los Angeles] Sheriff [James R.] Barton and his men [stopped and] breakfasted before they were killed by the bandit [Juan] Flores, and here were celebrated many a christening, wedding and rodeo feast with a gathering of the powerful Sepúlveda clan.”

Martina Espinosa, a.k.a. La Chola Martina, in later years (Courtesy Huntington Library)

Indeed, early folklore (by which we mean bunk) also holds that Juan Flores’ supposed San Juan Capistrano sweetheart, Martina Espinoza Burruel, (who in wackier versions is also a brujah/witch) tampered with the guns of Barton and his men at El Refugio that morning in 1857, thus helping seal their fate when ambushed later that day. (More likely true is the tale that Sepulveda warned Barton not to continue on with such a small posse.)

And while El Refugio often served as a country manor in which to entertain guests, historian Jim Sleeper points out that it was not likely a spot for roundups being so far from Sepúlveda’s main cattle operations. 

In an article for the May 28, 1936 Santa Ana Journal, historian Terry E. Stephenson wrote, “A favorite sport at El Refugio was the bear and bull fight. There was nothing tame about these fights, as described by J. E. 'Judge' Pleasants, who while living in the Santiago Canyon in the ‘60s was often a  guest at the Sepúlveda home. He often aided the Sepúlveda young men and their vaqueros in roping a grizzly in the Santiago hills, to be carted to El Refugio and there to be held for the fight with a wild bull.”

José Antonio Andrés Sepúlveda later in life.

Like most Rancho adobe homes, El Refugio had a cluster of other adobes around it which housed ranch hands and served various industrial purposes. It has been suggested that a number of these smaller buildings (not just the first Yorba adobe here) may have predated El Refugio.

In a document provided to the Bowers Museum, Georgie van der Leck stated that the main El Refugio adobe had twenty-two rooms.

Pioneer Edgar P. Stafford shared his own boyhood memories of El Refugio in the Orange County Historical Society’s third History Series volume: “The main living room was on the north. There was an annex extending to the south which was used first for help and then as a storeroom and a harness and saddle room, and last a room for horses.”

Stafford also recalled using an adjacent spring as a swimming hole. He describes the spring as seemingly bottomless and located “one hundred yards or so south of West First Street, near Daisy Street. Mexicans in earlier days had put up a dirt wall around the spring . It was surrounded by creek willows.”

El Refugio was also where Sepulveda’s fabled race horse, Black Swan, went to retire. However, the horse only lived for about a year after that, dying of tetanus.

Detail from Rancho Santiago de Santa Ana 1868 partition map. El Refugio in upper left.(Courtesy Orange County Archives)

Sepúlveda continued to make El Refugio his residence as late as March 1871, when part of the house was destroyed by fire. By that point, he had sold the Rancho San Joaquin and put ownership of his Rancho Santiago de Santa Ana holdings into the hands of his daughter, Ascension Sepuveda de Mott. She, in turn, sold the property to Captain John West in December 1874. The part of the house that survived the fire was leveled around 1876, but the site was still easily identifiable well into the 1880s.

Sepulveda Tract map, 1874 (Los Angeles County)

So where in western Santa Ana was El Refugio located? Most attempts at identifying the exact spot have come in the form of vague maps or interviews with (or articles by) early residents that are subject to the haziness of their distant memory. Almost all evidence points to it having been somewhere along a quarter-mile stretch of what’s now S. Raitt St. Pinpointing exactly where is trickier.

Some recent sources indicate the adobe was roughly 1/2 to 3/4 of a mile south of First St, and about the same distance west of Bristol Ave. Similarly, Stafford recalled it being “about a quarter of a mile east of Bristol Street and about the same distance south of First Street.”

1947 aerial view of Artesia St. (Courtesty Orange County Archives)

In a July 1969 article for the Pacific Coast Archeaologial Society's PCAS Quarterly, historian Jim Sleeper placed the site of El Refugio at another nearby location: the southeast corner of today’s First Street and Sullivan St. Among his sources, Sleeper cites the 1868 partition map of the Rancho Santiago de Santa Ana, which shows Sepúlveda’s house and corrals. On the 1868 map, he makes particular note of a “belt of sycamores” extending across the rancho and ending at El Refugio. Also, “immediately east of Sepúlveda’s place was a road which passed northward to Los Angeles and southward to the house of Cogate (?) Sepúlveda (near Bristol and Edinger). Henceforth meandering southeast, the path was labeled ‘Road to San Joaquin.’ A second trail intersected a quarter mile below Refugio, its northeasterly extension being the ‘Road to Santa Ana’ (Abajo), near the present West Chapman Bridge in Orange. … The southwesterly leg ran to the estancia in Costa Mesa, by now called the Diego Sepúlveda house.”

Sleeper is known for his meticulous research, so it’s surprising to find that a close comparison of the 1868 partition map and a modern USGS topographical map actually (mis)places El Refugio right around 120 S. Raitt St., near the intersection of W. Walnut St. 

West Santa Ana map from 1936 WPA report on Orange County adobes.

C. E. Roberts’ 1936 WPA adobe report offers a third possibility, less than a quarter mile away, that seems the most promising of all. Roberts refers to a map of the Sepulveda Tract filed with the County of Los Angeles in 1874 (which was likely copied from an even earlier map), which shows that El Refugio “was situated at the southern end of Artesia Street.” Today, Artesia is Raitt Street and has been extended significantly. 

Judge Pleasants second wife, historian Adelina Pleasants, echoed Roberts’ assessment when she recalled El Refugio in the March 11, 1937 edition of the Santa Ana Register as being “a short distance east of the south end of Artesia Street. …Mortimer Hubbard of Tustin assisted in levelling the old adobe wall and is [the] authority on the exact location.” 

1938 aerial view of Artesia St. (Courtesty Orange County Archives)

Likewise, in an article about ranchos in the Nov 22, 1939 Santa Ana Register, Stephenson wrote, "Don José Sepúlveda… eventually built his adobe ranch house at a point near the south end of South Artesia street in Santa Ana today." 

In a September 25,1928 Santa Ana Register article, pioneer dairyman J. T. Raitt described details of the land west of Santa Ana as it appeared upon his arrival in the late 1880s: "One fourth mile south of First Street and just west of Artesia street there was an old spring known as the Sepulveda spring. In the early days this was the source of the water supply for large herds of cattle, especially in the dry season, and as late as 1905 this spring was still running. Before that time in an endeavor to stop the flow of the spring a dyke six feet high was built up around it but proved unsuccessful in stopping this flow." That spring is shown of the 1874 Sepulveda Tract map, with a large adobe immediately to the east of it. Combined with J. T. Raitt's description, this would again put the adobe approximately at the northeast corner of Raitt St. and Myrtle St.

Pre-1889 map showing adobes and the confluence of the Santa Ana River and Santiago Creek. (Filed with County of Los Angeles. Copy from Orange County Archives.)

There’s also an undated map (recorded prior to 1889 in Los Angeles County's Deeds, Book A, pages 1105 and 1106) that looks like it might have been traced from an earlier Mexican-Era map but with markings added in English. It shows the corrals north (not southeast) of the adobe and refers to the complex as “Indian Ranchero,” but it seems to basically match Roberts’, Pleasants’ and Raitt’s observations. These sources, taken in combination, put the main adobe’s location about ¼ mile south of 1st St. and ¼ mile west of Bristol at what’s now the northeast corner of Raitt and Myrtle St. The two adjoining lots at this location today are 415 and 423 S. Raitt St. They are both currently vacant and owned by the City of Santa Ana. 

Intersection of Raitt and Myrtle Streets, Santa Ana, 2018. Note vacant lots. (Photo by author)

In February 2020, the City was awarded a $1.6 million state grant to develop a 1.9-acre park on these lots over the next two years. Initial park plans called for a "a skate area, exercise area, tot lot, butterfly interpretive garden, walking loop, open space and restroom. The project additionally include[d] drought tolerant landscaping, a river-rock bio swale and a picnic area."

Initial plan for park at El Refugio site. (Courtesy City of Santa Ana)

In May 2020, Manny Escamilla, a local historian and former planner with the City, wrote to the mayor and city council about the naming of this park: “I've attached the relevant research and background provided by Chris [Jepsen] to be included in the public record… If at all possible I believe that the park should be named in honor of the El Refugio adobe, ...[and] that the final design incorporate a historical marker if possible within the existing funding level, or provide a space in which a future marker may be placed pending additional funding."

The City agreed, and plans are moving forward for a new “El Refugio Park” at the site. Considering the importance of the site, one would assume that appropriate archeological oversight will be provided during the grading process. One can only imagine what remnants of the Rancho Era that may be uncovered in the process.

The closest thing to a historical marker so far, located up Raitt St. from El Refugio at Walnut St. (Photo by author)

[For more about Sepulveda, see Jim Sleeper’s, “The Many Mansions of Jose Sepulveda,” in Pacific Coast Archeological Society Quarterly, Vol. 5, No. 3, July 1969. For more about the practice of fiestas and bear/bull fights at El Refugio, see Terry E. Stephenson’s classic, Shadows of Old Saddleback. Thanks to historian Eric Plunkett and to Katie Hess of the Bowers Museum for their contributions to this article. Several pertinent research institutions were closed to the public for COVID-19 lockdowns while I was working on this article. If more information becomes available to me after things reopen, I will update this post with whatever else I've learned on the subject.]

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