On May 22, 1971, Mary Louise James-Burns dictated her memory of her father Drury Woodson James and his La Panza Rancho. Her dictation was taken and put in writing by Mary Louise’s granddaughter Mary Joan Malley-Beamis.
While the story of “Drury Woodson James by His Daughter Mary Louise James-Burns” briefly outlines what Mary Louise James recalled about her father’s connection to the fabled La Panza Rancho, much of the rancho’s history was left untold.
Today, history can fill in the saga of this legendary land that reveals so much of California’s most colorful past.
As La Panza Ranch stands on the brink of new ownership, La Panza affirms the true treasure it is. The worth of La Panza far exceeds any amount that it costs.
This is the history of the La Panza Rancho.
Mission San Miguel, Arcangel
Mission San Miguel, Arcangel was founded in 1797 by Fr. Fermin Francisco de Lasuen, who succeeded Fr. Junipero Serra, the founder of a chain of missions spanning California from north to south. The era of the missions compelled the Native-American population of the area either into isolation or into cooperation.
In 1842, Mexican Governor Manuel Micheltorena granted to Pedro Narvaez nearly 26,000 acres of the El Paso de Robles Rancho.
El Paso de Robles Claim of Petronilo Rios
Historian Wallace V. Ohles, who attended and spoke at the 2002 family reunion of the Jesse James family in Paso Robles, California, wrote in his book The Lands of Mission San Miguel that in 1852, Petronillo Rios filed a claim for El Paso de Robles. His claim would take 14 years to be patented!
When California became a United States territory, and later a state, outstanding land claims had to be settled. The Board of Land Commissioners, sitting in San Francisco, rendered a decree of confirmation in favor of Rios in 1855.
Rios did not have clear title to the land he then sold to the brothers Daniel D. and James H. Blackburn with Lazare Godchaux in 1857. Rios received $8,000 from the Blackburns and Godchaux. Rios transferred the land, fully disclosing his receipt of the land from Pedro Narvaez and Gov. Manuel Micheltorena.
Rios did not receive his land patent until 1866. It was granted by President Andrew Johnson. That year Thomas McGreel [alternately McGreal] acquired one-half of the rancho for $10,000 from Daniel D. Blackburn. McGreel then sold his interest to Drury Woodson James for $11,000.
in 1860, D.W. James and John G. Thompson had purchased 10,000 acres of government land for $1.25 per acre. They stocked it with 2,500 head of cattle. This was the nucleus of the La Panza-Carissa Ranch, which in time grew to 50,000 acres.
La Panza – In Spanish, the word means “the paunch,” the belly and its contents.
The vaqueros of old Rancho La Panza used belly parts of slaughtered cattle as bait, to trap, lasso, or poison the California grizzly bear. From the bear hunting country surrounding the rancho, the captured bear was shipped north to battle bulls in the gaming arenas of San Francisco.
The Still House
“The picturesque old stone building is still called the Still House, although no gin or red eye was ever distilled there. It is the sole surviving member of a complex of buildings owned by Dr. Thomas Still, a pioneer at La Panza.
“Still, a physician born in Tennessee in 1833, brought the family across the plains in 1863 in an ox-drawn wagon, wintering at bleak Honey Lake in northeastern California. He first settled on a claim near Mt. Diablo, then moved to Sebastopol, where a sawmill accident almost cost him his hand [hidden in this photo]. Luckily his wife had bandages and pine oil handy and this rude treatment kept the fingers attached.
“From Sebastopol, he took his family to San Luis Obispo County in 1867 and to Palo Prieto (later Annette) in Kern County in 1872. The news of the gold rush at La Panza caused him to pull up stakes again in 1879. He went to La Panza, then a ‘lively town,’ and mixed the practice of medicine with farming and stock raising.
The Post Office
“He was also Postmaster of La Panza from November 4, 1879, when the post office was set up, until June 15, 1908, when it was discontinued. Actually, his wife, Martha, and daughter carried on as Postmistresses, for the sawbones was away on cases. Re-established April 29, 1911, the Post Office continued until April 20, 1935, when it was closed for good and mail delivered to Pozo instead…
“La Panza is a country of many legends and little (written) history. Old-timers will tell you of Mexicans and Indians mining gold there long before the 1878 rush. Today, Do La Guerra Canyon – once people with 250 miners – cannot even be located. In 1882 a prospector named Frank H. Reynolds mined on Navajo Creek but he is a ghostly figure…
The first official report of gold production was not made until 1882 when $5,000 was reported taken out. By 1886 the region was producing $9,164 a year bit it dropped to $1,740 in 1887. In 1888 and 1889 the sum of $3,000 and $6,200 respectively and the following year it was $8,800. Another drop occurred in 1891 to $1,785 and it continued to $1,097 in 1892 and a mere $600 the next year. Then it was $1,200, $3,000, and $3,000. In 1897 the figure was $2,500 as, ‘on account of the limited water supply the mines were worked only in the rainy season.’ It was an even $1,000 for the ‘Year of the Spaniards.’ No reports were made in 1899 or 1900, but in 1901 a puny $300 was mined. A revival in 1902 and 1903 brought it up to $2,399 and $1,840, then another slump sent production to only $630 in 1904 and $300 the following year. The last two years’ worth reporting showed but $316 taken out in 1907 and $124 in 1913.
“…After the gold rush petered out, this land reverting to sheep and cattle country again…
“Jim Jones and Jake Schoenfeld bought the ranch from D.W. James and added the Carissa Ranch to it, operating both spreads as one. With the death of Jones in 1903, the partnership was dissolved. His heirs took the Carissa Ranch and Jake kept the La Panza Ranch.
“Frank Fotheringham, who was born in Sutter Creek in 1861, came to La Panza after grammar school training in Sacramento and high school education in San Francisco. He found it a great sheep and cattle country already, going to work for his brother-in-law, Jacob M. Jones, who owned about 25,000 acres. Frank worked as foreman until he was 30. Then he became superintendent of Schoenfeld and Jones’ twin ranches, the Carissa and La Panza.
“When the ‘NO Fence’ law went into effect Fotheringham had to bring in enough wire from San Looey [San Luis Obispo] to circle 45,000 acres. He did a tremendous job in stringing it in only 6 months. In 1897 he leased different ranches to tenants, but after 2 years turned back into cattle range. As early as 1886 he had raised and fattened herds of cattle. He would ship them in feeders from Mexico and Arizona by the trainload. He would turn them out in a year ‘fat and fit.’ His own Durhams and Herefords were veritable butterballs, too.
“In the old days around La Panza, Frank used to see more deer, mountain lyons, coyotes, and grizzlies than human neighbors. And a few of his two-legged neighbors were anything but neighborly. Perhaps they wanted to imitate Joaquin Murrieta or Tiburcio Vasquez, both of whom hid out in San Luis Obispo’s backwoods. In any case, Frank first visited Los Angeles in 1883 at the tail end of a long chase of horse thieves who had raided his La Panza remuda and gone south with the stock. In 1916 Fotheringham finally bade La Panza adios, resigning from the ranch to go to Santa Marguerite to live.
“When the ranch was sold to Henry Cowell of the Cowell Lime & Cement Company of Santa Cruz & San Francisco around World War I, Walter Dunning became for many years foreman of the La Panza Ranch. When he died, his wife, Dolly Dunning, became foreman until Clarence Jardine took over. The ranch is now a 34,000 spread, eased by Jake Martens and Bill Vreden. Jake Martens is the managing resident partner. It is partly farmland, partly grazing land for cattle. Irrigation and alfalfa have been introduced but otherwise, it is pretty much the way it looked when whiskey men in muddy Levis were working with sluice boxes, rockers, and gold pans along La Panza Creek.
La Panza in 1960
“La Panza is pretty quiet now. Dr. Still’s inn, stage stop, and post office are gone, leaving only the old stone dairy. It is hard to realize that the road which winds past…was once one of the most heavily traveled stage roads between the Coast and the San Joaquin. Marica’s Saloon, the gathering place for the old-time California cattlemen and American Chinese and Mexican miners, is no more. It is gone with the miners and the outlaws. Tales of violence cling to the stones of the old house at La Panza, however. There is believed to be a grave in the long-forgotten graveyard where an outlaw was buried after losing an argument with one of his peers. And several miners are said to have been murdered for their caches of gold, their belonging scattered about their corpses and their tents or shacks torn up…
“Or O.M. McLean will tell you of the night his grandfather, Dr. Still, was called to the door by an urgent incessant knocking. When he opened it, a man asked him to come with him quickly to treat and wounded friend. When the physician asked him what happened, the visitor blurted out, ‘I shot a man.’ He quickly changed it to ‘A man has shot himself,” however. The wounded man was in bad shape and condition, but Dr. Still operated, successfully removed the bullet, and then warned the man’s friend that the gunshot wound might prove fatal if he were moved. Nevertheless, when the Doctor returned the next day to see how his patient was doing, he found that both men, on the run from the law, had disappeared afraid that he would report the incident to the sheriff.”
Excerpts from “La Panza” by Richard H. Dillon, The Grabbon Press, San Francisco, September 26, 1960
La Panza Today
The Carrisa Plains portion of historic La Panza: