Our History & Stories



Natural History of Nipomo

Rancho Nipomo once encompassed the vast majority of land between what is now Arroyo Grande and the Santa Maria River – an area blessed by rich soil and natural resources that enabled the establishment of towns whose economy was based in agriculture and natural resource extraction. The original land grant awarded to William G. Dana and his family by the Mexican government in 1837 included Nipomo and the Los Berros region. The area’s history is significant not merely because of the history that took place within its boundaries, but also because of its relationship with distant places. The movement of goods and people is what connected Nipomo and its vicinity to the world and made it an extremely dynamic location to live.


Northern Chumash History

Before the Danas began settling the area, its history had already begun with the Chumash people. Nipomo’s name has origins in the Chumash language, meaning “at the foot of the hills.” The Chumash people also played a major role in the later development of the region when William Goodwin Dana employed their labor. Among other things, they helped to clear the land to make it suitable for agriculture and build the Dana Adobe in 1839. The labor system under which the Chumash worked arguably established a precedent for later waves of workers that came from Europe, China, Japan, the Philippines, and Mexico.

The Danas changed the physical and social landscape of the region by participating in a worldwide trade network that spanned the Pacific and beyond. William Dana, being a trader, extracted natural resources from the surrounding environment to ship to distant places. When he moved to California, otter fur was his emphasis until the animal became nearly extinct. On arriving in Rancho Nipomo, the Danas and his laborers raised enormous quantities of cattle. They primarily used the cattle for their hides and tallow, which they shipped out of Port Hartford (now Port San Luis) to New England and elsewhere. There the leather and tallow became part of the industrial revolution when factories transformed it into goods such as shoes, soap, and candles. The family used their profit to order goods such as clothing, food, and alcohol that was manufactured in faraway cities. Even today it is difficult not to come across a piece of porcelain or glassware produced in nineteenth century China or England while walking around the grounds of the Dana Adobe.

Businessmen made fortunes whenever boomtowns developed in places such as San Francisco and they morphed into centralized locations where goods could easily be imported and exported to and from rural areas such as Nipomo. Pieces of Nipomo became part of the nineteenth century globalized trade network by way of these cities, while foreign goods found a new home in the town. The region became enmeshed in the world economy.


Dana Family History

As the Dana Family grew, they were increasingly involved with trade and politics. John Fremont stayed at Rancho Nipomo during the Mexican-American War – the conflict in which the United States gained control of California and much of the Southwest. The Dana family gave Fremont and his troops supplies for their trip to Santa Barbara. Following American annexation, Dana’s first son-in law, Henry Amos Tefft was a delegate to the state’s Constitutional Convention while many of Dana’s sons participated in local politics. By 1860, while his brothers were participating in local politics, Jose Ramon Dana was driving cattle to the San Francisco Bay area to be sold to Henry Miller – part of Miller and Lux Corporation that revolutionized the meat industry and turned it into the West Coast’s version of the factory system that was growing in New England.

The children of William Goodwin and Maria Josefa Dana began subdividing the original property as they reached adulthood. William Charles Dana was the first to do so when he married Modesta Maria Castro and moved to Los Berros (meaning “the watercress”) in 1861. The two built their own adobe home that still stands today. Other Dana children built their homes closer to the original Dana Adobe. When the Pacific Coast Railway extended its route from San Luis Obispo to the Santa Ynez Valley in 1882, the company built stations in Los Berros and Nipomo. The Dana Family began selling plots of land the same year, and the town of Nipomo developed. Los Berros also had a small housing tract develop, but never grew to the same extent as its neighboring town.

The introduction of transportation dramatically transformed the region. The Pacific Coast Railway enabled the movement of people and goods to and from the area during the turn of the century. Speculators planted thousands of eucalyptus trees around the Nipomo and Los Berros area, reportedly making it one of the largest stands of eucalyptus trees outside of Australia. Businessmen from Los Angeles developed quarries in Los Berros; while agriculturalists experimented with various crops around Nipomo that they shipped out of the region via railroad. These developing industries required labor. Initially immigrants from around Europe and China arrived and took up odd jobs, but by the turn of the century, racism and exclusionary immigration laws meant that Japanese immigrants were the main labor force in the Nipomo area. Federal immigration reform in 1924 essentially banned immigration into the United States, which left farmers scrambling for labor. The same decade saw the agricultural industry boom as cars became more readily available to transport goods and people, and roads along the California coast were improved. Each of which added to an increased labor need. Filipino immigrants found themselves filling the labor void, as the Philippines were a United States possession at the time and bypassed the newly created immigration laws. These immigrants worked in the fields and built the roads through Nipomo and the Central Coast, and have left a legacy still seen in the Central Coast’s Filipino community today.

Perhaps the most famous aspect of the region’s history is that which was created by the photographer Dorothea Lange. The economic hardship of the Great Depression and the environmental catastrophe of the Dustbowl, caused by improper farming, affected coastal California unlike any other region. Thousands of immigrants made their way to the state looking for work in the fields. They followed the crops north and south as they were ready for harvest at different times in the various geographic regions. Many found themselves in Nipomo and Los Berros hoping to find work in the region’s pea fields. Unfortunately, weather was not on the side of the migrants when frost killed the pea crop each year throughout the 1930s. Without an income, many of these immigrants were left stranded, some of which reportedly rented rooms within the Dana Adobe. Dorothea Lange captured these migrants on film and brought attention to the need for government intervention to help them. She unintentionally gave a face to an entire generation of people. Today, Lange’s “Migrant Mother” appears in most United States History textbooks as an example of the struggles society faced during the Depression. It is a photograph that captured a moment when collective action from citizens around the nation helped a group of 2,000 destitute migrant farm workers, and when government began to play a larger role in the lives of the everyday American.

Working through the hardships of the Great Depression, the Post-War era saw a period of normalcy for the Nipomo area. The nation’s economy gradually improved and this allowed an influx of new residents to the area. More houses were built for the new residents, and local organizations and businesses were formed. At first glance, it appears that the post-war era saw population booms and enormous change. However, regardless of the level of advancement the local population always maintains ties with its rancho style past that began with the Dana Family.


Dana-Thompson Letters 1862-1868

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  • January 23, 2014

The five letters in this collection were discovered in a book store in New York. The owner contacted the Dana Adobe about purchasing the letters. All of the letters were written in Spanish. This was not a classical Spanish, but the colloquial dialect particular to California in the mid-eighteen hundreds. The letters were translated by two Cal Poly history majors as a part of an internship to complete credits for

Famous & infamous visitors

Faxon Dean Atherton (1815–1877) A native of Masschusetts, Atherton first came to the Pacific coast in 1834 to engage in trade at Valparaiso, Chile. He settled in Valparaiso in 1840 and became a successful merchant dealing in hides and tallow, foodstuffs, and other commodities. Eventually he became one of the wealthiest men on the Pacific coast From 1836-38 Atherton worked as a clerk for Alpheus B. Thompson, an early California

Neighboring Rancheros

“Los Quatro Americanos:” (included Dana, see the Blond Ranchero, p. 74-79) Francis (Franicsco) Ziba Branch (1802-1874): Francis Ziba Branch was born in upstate New York in 1802 and left his family at an early age to make his own way in the world. In 1830, after various experiences including sailing ventures on Lake Erie, he joined, at St. Louis, a trading party bound for Santa Fe. While there Branch joined

Mi Casa Es Su Casa:
Being extended Dana/Carrilo Family, Friends, and famous Visitors to the Rancho Nipomo

They lived at the Adobe or on the Rancho: Maria Isabel Ayala (bapt. 19 Nov 1836—May 1918): Isabel’s parents were Juan Jose Gervasio Ayala and Maria Rafaela de Jesus Arellanes (or Arrellanos).  Her father was married to another woman at the time.  This couple also had another child, Juan de los Dolores Ayala, born in 1839 and died in April 1841 on the Rancho Nipomo.  Isabel’s family stories (and her

La Catrina

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  • November 12, 2013

La Catrina: Mexico’s grande dame of death Christine Delsol, Special to SFGate Published 10:41 am, Tuesday, October 25, 2011                    
Jose Guadalupe Posada’s original ‘La Calavera Catrina,’ circa 1910. Jose Guadalupe Posada’s original “La Calavera Catrina,” circa 1910. credit: Courtesy Mexican Museum Photo: Courtesy Mexican Museum In many years of traveling to Mexico I’ve often encountered a tall, elegantly attired female skeleton sporting an extravagantly plumed hat — in books,

Glossary of Huichol Symbols

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  • November 12, 2013

Glossary of Huichol Symbols – The Huichol Center for Cultural Survival and the Traditional Arts- SHAMANS – The spiritual leaders who are ambassadors to the gods, shamans preside over ceremonies, recite the divine passages, cure the sick, interpret dreams, etc. They are believed to have supernatural powers and insights in the metaphysical world that are considered out of reach for normal humans. SPIRIT GUIDES – Intermediaries between human and spirit

From Decline to Preservation and Restoration The Dana Adobe Episode 4 (of 4)

Rancho Nipomo 1999 In the 1970’s, The San Luis Obispo Historical Society, fearing total collapse of the building, took the drastic step of plastering all of the walls, inside and outside, with Portland cement. This created structural stability that would buy time to decide what further steps to take. Losing momentum, the building basically sat this way for the next twenty years. What was needed was a spark that would

From Decline to Preservation and Restoration The Dana Adobe Episode 3 (of 4)

Rancho Nipomo, early 1950’s Captain Dana would have been greatly saddened by the condition of the home he built for his family. The damage that was caused by numerous structural changes, abandonment, negligence, vandalism and the elements had taken their toll. This building was at one time the main center for agriculture, industry and administration between Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo. Now it was simply a derelict in the

From Decline to Preservation and Restoration The Dana Adobe Episode 2 (of 4)


As pointed out in episode 1, the unexpected death of Fred Dana in 1899 left the rancho physically and financially unable to sustain it self. This event forced Fred’s widow to sell to A.C. Fry who in turn sold to Lawrence Hourihan in 1902. It’s interesting to speculate the Adobe’s future had the rancho stayed in the Dana family. The Hourihans were successful farmers on the rancho and basically enjoyed

From Decline to Preservation and Restoration The Dana Adobe Episode 1 (of 4)


On the Mesa bluff in Nipomo overlooking Nipomo Creek and the Temattate Mountains, sits a historic and cultural treasure: The Rancho Nipomo Dana Adobe. This structure, whose construction started in 1838 and was completed in 1851, was the home of Captain William Goodwin and Maria Josefa Carrillo Dana. It sat on the 38,000 acre Mexican land grant that was awarded to them in 1837. Today it is a mere 125