671 South Oakglen Avenue, Nipomo, CA 93444 dana@danaadobe.org 805.929.5679

Jim Beckwourth – Blazing a trail in history

The DANA Adobe keeps the memory of mountain man James P. Beckwourth alive by illuminating his footprints on the Central Coast
BY JOE PAYNE

*STANDING ALONE
For a time, the Dana Adobe was the lone outpost for travelers in between Mission San Miguel and Mission Santa Ines.

American frontier history is filled with iconoclastic characters of independence and freedom. Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, and Jim Bowie, to name just a few, are all remembered and lauded as folk heroes and have come to symbolize the American dream.

One man, James B. Beckwourth (1798-1866), was dismissed for generations as a liar in regard to many of his exploits. Beckwourth might have taken some creative liberties with details, but scholars have verified the man’s remarkable story, which included time on the Central Coast at places like Mission San Miguel and the Dana Adobe in Nipomo. Ignored in the past mostly because of his race, modern history books are starting to include references to the freed slave who became a prolific explorer, Crow chief, trapper, and all-around mountain man who saw most of the western United States while it was still Mexico.

The Dana Adobe Nipomo Amigos (DANA) is a nonprofit that began in 1999 for the express purpose of restoring the Dana Adobe—Captain William Dana’s house and rancho—and creating an educational center that teaches about Nipomo’s cultural and ecological history. DANA’s lifeblood is its team of volunteer docents who lead tours and give presentations at the historic house, which is almost completely renovated.

One docent, Helen Daurio, took an interest in James P. Beckwourth when she learned he was a guest at the rancho during the Mexican-American War. Beckwourth was hired by the military as a courier, passing mail from Monterey to San Francisco and then to Nipomo, where he and a courier from San Diego would swap bags and then make their journeys all over again. Beckwourth was considered the best man for the job, Daurio explained.

“He was selected because of his courier experience in the Southwest, primarily in New Mexico [and] all the way down to Chihuahua,” she said. “He was an awesome rider and he knew Indians; he was one of them. As he would say, he could ‘play the fox’ when he needed to.”

A recent talk by Daurio at the Dana Adobe highlighted how exceptional Beckwourth’s story was. She began by describing how talented Beckwourth was at storytelling himself—he was a mountain man who was always ready with a tall tale.

“Pretend you are sitting at a campfire and the sun is setting, and the light is reflecting [on] the craggy mountain man faces, and a voice breaks out, ‘Hey Jim! Tell us how you got those gnarly legs!’” she said. “So, Jim clears his throat and begins to tell a tale about how he ran 90 miles away from Indians, or he may tell about the time he went ’round and around a mountain top so many times that the [legs of the] horses of the men who were chasing him … grew longer and longer on one side.”

Daurio continued to detail a life that was full of impossible exploits and strange happenings. Born to Jennings Beckwith (Beckwourth later altered his last name) and a slave Beckwith owned, James P. Beckwourth grew up in Virginia and the frontier of Missouri. His father freed him in his mid-20s; an already adept frontiersman, he took off into the wilderness that is now the western United States.

“He had some problems finding his way,” Daurio said. “He works in a mine for a while and is not sure about his direction, but because he lived on the edge of the wilderness for so long, he had acquired skills in hunting, and he perfects those [abilities] and ends up becoming a skilled hunter.”

*NEGLECTED, NOW REMEMBERED
Long neglected in American frontier history, James P. Beckwourth has received a place of distinction as of late, including at the Dana Adobe, where he spent time as a courier.

PHOTO COURTESY OF THE PLUMAS COUNTRY MUSEUM

A mountain man could sustain himself with hunting alone if good enough at it. Beckwourth would go on long hunts deep into the wilderness and then set up shop with his furs, trading for whatever he needed, and getting to know the various mountain men, settlers, and Native Americans.

“He would go and trap for furs and then open a store [and] sell his wares, and then get bored because he always had to be outdoors, always seeking that elusive fame,” Daurio said. “What Jim was always looking for was fame and renown, and he never got it. It just eluded him time and time again, until now I think.”
Beckwourth’s search for acceptance and renown found him a home among the Crow tribe. After being told that Beckwourth was really a Crow Indian who was kidnapped at birth, the tribe adopted him into the community. He never corrected the mistake and lived wholly as a Crow.

“One of the Crow women notices he has a mole on his eyelid and she says, ‘My son had a mole right where you have one; you are my son,’” Daurio said. “So, he was immediately embraced by this culture; he is given horses, supplies, wives; he begins to live with them, dress like them, and he participates in their battles.”
Beckwourth eventually climbed his way up the ranks of the Crow hierarchy to achieve the title of chief. Each time he ascended a level, he earned a new name, eventually being known as Chief Medicine Calf, a title of respect and renown.

“According to Jim—and I believe this to be true—he says that one of his missions was to try and improve the Crow quality of life by increasing their skills at trapping, discouraging war, and, most of all, discouraging alcohol,” Daurio said.

The Crow trappers, she explained, would accept meager payment for their furs, and most mountain men would pay them in alcohol, which had a destructive effect on the Native American population. Learning went both ways, though, as Beckwourth learned much from the Crow about survival skills, knowledge of the land, and language.

“When he is with the Crow he learns a lot of Native American dialects,” Daurio said, “and this is what’s going to help him throughout the rest of his career.”

Growing up speaking English, French, and Spanish, Beckwourth was able to pick up many different Native American tongues on his journeys across California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and into modern-day Mexico. As a result, he was always able to talk his way out of hostile encounters with Native Americans or frontiersmen.

*TALKS ON THE VERANDA
Dana Adobe docent Helen Daurio recently delivered a talk about frontiersman James P. Beckwourth from the veranda of the Dana Adobe in Nipomo.

PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER

This was a skill Beckwourth needed, as he was a prolific horse thief. He happened to be in Mexican territory when the Mexican-American War broke out, and saw fit to bring more than 1,000 horses back with him for the American military.

“There has been argument over [whether] he understood what he was doing in the rebellion, and he knew what he was doing,” Daurio said. “This guy was well educated, he quoted Shakespeare. He was also ready to take advantage of any time he could steal horses.”

Beckwourth’s abilities didn’t remain secret to those in high power with the United States military. He was hired in various ways by the military, though he never enlisted. He made an excellent courier, slipping unnoticed through vast stretches of hostile wilderness.

“They needed to get messages from Monterey to San Diego, and who was better to do it than Jim?” Daurio said.

Beckwourth spent months as the Central Coast courier, leaving Monterey on a Monday and eventually arriving in Nipomo on the following Sunday.

“At the same time a guy leaves from San Diego, stops in L.A. and Santa Barbara, and then is here,” Daurio said. “They swap satchels here and then they ride back so the military has clear communications of what is going on in the war.”

Beckwourth and Capt. Dana were close to the same age, though from vastly different backgrounds. At the time of their meeting, Dana was established with his house, shop, and a large family.

“There were small boys of 8, 10, or 11 when Jim was here,” Daurio said, “and how big their eyes must have been when they saw Jim riding down from the north; they would have seen him from the cupola.”

Beckwourth was a renowned storyteller, but also a prolific lover. He had at least 11 wives, including several during his time with 
the Crow.
“I wonder, was he able to charm Maria Josepha Dana like he did the other women? He must have had a word or two in Spanish, of course,” Daurio said. “The Captain, who was very much in the political scene of the area, I’m sure they maybe had a glass or two of the Captain’s brandy and talked about what was happening up north, who was on the move.”

Jim also spent much time at the Mission San Miguel, which was owned by a ranchero at the time. He had the unfortunate luck of being the first responder to the infamous San Miguel Mission Massacre. Eleven people were killed, including the Reed family and their servants, all for the small sack of gold Reed was too willing to gloat about in front of his traveling guests, a pack of outlaws looking for easy profit. Beckwourth arrived at San Miguel by night and discovered the massacre.
“That was in 1848, and when that happened, I think for Jim, it must have resonated early experience,” Daurio said. “When he was 9 years old, his dad gave him a job; he was charged with taking corn to the mill. So, he takes the corn—and it’s his first manly job, so he wants to show off—and he stops by at his friend’s house. As he rides up to his friend’s yard, he sees bodies—they had been massacred.”

“He said that that memory was one always fresh in his mind,” she continued. “Throughout his life, that was one of those horrible events that shaped and molded his thinking, and again, it resonated with the San Miguel Massacre and the Sand Creek Massacre.”

Several years after his experiences on the Central Coast as a courier, Beckwourth was hired again by the military as a guide and scout for a mission into Cheyenne and Arapaho territory. Little did Beckwourth know he was leading the American troops to Sand Creek, the site of a friendly Cheyenne encampment numbering more than 100 people—all of whom were massacred by American troops.

“Jim had been a guide for that army contingent and was witness to what happened, and so he was asked to testify on what he saw,” Daurio said. “His testimony helped set the record straight, and that [killing Indians] was something the U.S. wouldn’t be party to.”

*Visit the Rancho
The Dana Adobe Nipomo Amigos (DANA) welcomes the community to come enjoy the Rancho Nipomo and Dana Adobe at 671 S. Oakglen Ave., Nipomo. The historic location is open on Saturdays and Sundays from 1 to 4 p.m. and Mondays through Fridays by appointment. Docent and group tours are available by request. Cost is $5, students free with ID. More info: danaadobe.org, 929-5679, or marina@danaadobe.org.

Beckwourth was known in his time, though obviously discriminated against because of his ethnicity and infatuation with Native American life. He met up with a writer named Thomas D. Bonner who wrote the book The Life and Adventure of James P. Beckwourth. Beckwourth himself never received a penny of profits he was promised to receive, but his book did get sold and read extensively on the East Coast and in Europe.

When testifying before Congress about the Sand Creek Massacre, Beckwourth was already an old man in his 60s. It was one of the last things he did. His book was panned as nothing but lies, causing his testimony to be doubted. However, what he reported was incontrovertible to the harsh reality of the situation.

History is a trail blazed by individuals. Most walk the road well trod, but some march to the beat of their own drum and make a new path. The Dana Adobe Nipomo Amigos is all too aware that before Nipomo was a city, it was a path through the wild, with a lone rancho standing by the road.

“We are still talking about these things because it is important to understand where we came from,” DANA Executive Director Marina Washburn said. “I think we are all seeking that, to better connect.”

The Dana Adobe offers many regular opportunities to connect with local history, both of the Dana Adobe and the native Chumash as well. Regular tours, presentations, talks, and even concerts are held at the historic location, all aimed at keeping the memory of people like James P. Beckwourth alive.

“What we offer, and will continue to offer here at the rancho, is educational programs and activities that continue to be available and accessible to the community,” Washburn said. “Not just the building, but the heritage park and the education center.”

The Dana Adobe is a living piece of rancho California history. Before there was a Nipomo, or Santa Maria, or San Luis Obispo, there was the rancho, where people like Henry Tefft, John C. Fremont, and James P. Beckwourth stood.

“It’s all part of the community we live in,” Washburn said. “It’s the stories of how these streets got named and how the town grew, and the people who left their footprints here in the same place that we are leaving our own footprints now.”

Contact Arts Editor Joe Payne at jpayne@santamariasun.com.

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 ignite the flame of preservation and restoration.

Her name was, Lisa Van Der Stad, a resident of Nipomo Her energy and resourcefulness was boundless as she took the adobe under her wing. She was not daunted by the prospect of preserving and restoring the Dana Adobe. She was great at organizing and gathering together interested parties. She was also the first Executive Director of the Dana Adobe Nipomo Amigos (DANA). This non profit organization’s goal was to restore and preserve the structure and surrounding property. In addition to many other accomplishments, she led the way in getting the adobe declared State Historic Site#1033. Now there was new momentum.

It was decided that c1851 would be the restoration period of significance. That was about the time the building was completed as we see it today. During the restoration process, any post 1851 changes would be converted to that period. Lisa and her staff were successful at obtaining a state grant that enabled them to kick start extensive restoration projects. These successes continued until Lisa moved from the area in 2004.That same year, DANA took over ownership of the property from the Historical Society.

After Lisa left, Kathy Kubiak, also a Nipomo resident, took the reins as Executive Director. Kathy’s expertise and dedication was responsible for keeping the restoration process moving. During that period, budgets were small but Kathy was very skilled at organizing volunteers. Under her direction, restoration of several interior rooms was completed in

In 2008, under the leadership of Executive Director, Marina Washburn, a California Cultural Historical Endowment state grant became available (CCHE3). This grant funded extensive restoration projects and helped purchase the 29 acre parcel surrounding the adobe. The Land Conservancy funded the balance of the purchase price of the property. This was followed in 2009 by awarding of CCHE4 grant. This grant enabled us to complete the restoration of the Dana Adobe and anticipate completion prior to December 2013. Additional funding has been provided by the Hind Foundation, the Maxine Blankenburg Foundation, Peg Miller, the Woods Family Foundation, and Bill Deneen. Plans for outbuildings including barns, blacksmith shop, furniture shop and the original Tallow Works are being made.

In 2009, DANA collaborated with San Luis Obispo County about the purchase of a 100 acre parcel between the adobe and Thompson Avenue using Quimby (mitigation) funds. DANA signed a 99 year lease with the County to manage and maintain the property as open public space. It will be used for hiking, equestrian, recreational and nature education purposes. The combination of the two properties will give the adobe much of its original view shed. This feature alone makes the Dana Adobe unique among state historic sites. Another major project under way is a nature and education center that is being funded by the Nature Education Facility state grant supported by Proposition 84. DANA’s project, Stories of the Rancho: Culture, Ecology, Stewardship, was one of only 44 awardees out of 300 applicants. This award was the only one in San Luis Obispo County and one of four in Ventura, Santa Barbara, and San Luis Obispo counties and the only non-profit. When completed, the facilities will include a Visitor’s Center for nature education, events, curation and display of artifacts, a Chumash Village and trails. This will be a first rate facility that will be widely used by the community and will be a keystone feature of a planned, destination California Rancho Period Historic Park

Visitors are welcome to stop by on Saturday and Sundays from 1 to 4 for docent led tours or by appointment. This is a great opportunity to see restoration in progress. We look forward to seeing you.

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 middle of a field. If something wasn’t done soon, it could be lost forever.

Fortunately, this was not going unnoticed. Interest and support was building at the San Luis Obispo County Historical Society and on September 9, 1954 they took possession of the adobe. The purchase price from the Grisingher family was unstated but believed to be $500. The property consisted of the footprint of the house, a six foot apron around the house and an easement from Oak Glen Avenue. This event marked the very first step toward saving the building and the property.

The Historical Society now had the adobe but the question was-what to do with it? This was a large building and the damage was vast. A historic restoration would be ideal, but the place was literally in danger of falling down. Simply stated, the project was so overwhelming the Historical Society didn’t know where to start. Not much was done for the next few years, but finally in the late 1950’s someone stepped forward.

Fred Dana’s son, Alonzo, took a leadership role in saving the adobe. He used his family affiliation and membership in the Historical Society to launch an effort to save the structure. He was successful at getting society members and community groups like the Rotary Club, Boy Scouts and Cal Poly students involved. Community members would show up for workdays and tackle the most important issues, like repairing the roof and filling holes in adobe walls. A lunch was prepared so it was a social event as well. This was a great start at saving the structure, but, was it enough?

By the time the 1970’s rolled around, it was becoming apparent that a more aggressive approach was needed to keep the structure standing upright. Keeping the building from falling down had been the priority up to this point but it was a losing battle. Volunteers decided to apply the most common procedure during that period for protecting adobe walls and keeping them from falling down. This consisted of plastering all the walls, inside and out, with Portland cement. This was a drastic step but it worked. The cement gave the building the structural stability that was needed. Now, time could be taken to repair trouble spots without fear of collapse. However, this method also had some drawbacks and was never meant to be a permanent solution. First of all, adobe has to breathe and the cement shell sealed in moisture that would destroy the adobes over time. In addition, the condition of the walls was no longer visible. For a restoration, all of the concrete plaster would have to be removed.

By the end of the 1970’s the idea of a historic restoration was considered not feasible and the goal was to make the building useful for future generations. Most of the original flooring was removed, including the veranda, and concrete slabs were poured. In the interior the slabs were covered with Spanish tiles. The two small rooms at the ends of the veranda were demolished and re-built with stabilized bricks. It was decided that a full time caretaker was needed. A water and septic system was installed and some interior rooms were converted into caretaker quarters.

The Historical Society had done its job. The Dana Adobe had been saved from destruction. Now it was time to consider what the next steps should be. This process would last almost until the 21st century. Yes, the old building was still there, but it was a concrete ghost of itself and it was not living up to its potential. What was needed was another Alonzo Dana; someone who could spark the interest and enthusiasm to bring the Dana Adobe back to its former glory.

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 life on the Central Coast as many of us do today. However, their idyllic lifestyle came to an abrupt halt in 1906. Nathaniel Hartnell, the nephew of the treasurer of Monterey County, showed up at the rancho seeking employment. Mrs. Hourihan and her oldest daughter escorted Hartnell out to a harvesting operation. Without warning, Hartnell drew a revolver and shot the daughter, killing her, and then fled. After authorities were notified, riders were mounted and a couple of days later Hartnell was killed in the ensuing shoot-out. The reasons for his actions were never learned.

The Hourihans were so traumatized by this event that they left Nipomo. Their daughter Helen, however, decided to stay and they deeded the property to her. She soon married into the Grisingher family of Guadalupe. They lived on the property until 1916 at which time they took up residence in Guadalupe. They owned and farmed the property for the next 100 years. The adobe was never to be owner occupied again. It might be said that this tragedy eventually led to abandonment by the owners. Structures that are not owner occupied rarely get proper, if any, maintenance.

For the next 20 years the property was heavily farmed. In 1936 in the midst of the Great Depression, the adobe would benefit from one of Franklin Roosevelt’s new deal policies. It was called the Historic American Buildings Survey (H.A.B.S.Report). Its goal was to employ out of work surveyors, archeologists, photographers and other professionals to catalog historic buildings throughout the nation. The adobe was included and the information in these reports has been vital in today’s restoration process. They included detailed drawings and photographs of everything that was there in 1936. These reports are still on file at the Library of Congress in Washington DC. Information in the report also stated that the building was occupied by itinerant farm workers.

As the years rolled by the old building continued to deteriorate. A 1949 LA Times photo shows it in a terrible state of disrepair. Windows and doors boarded up, large sections of plaster falling off exposing adobe bricks to the elements. In the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s break-ins, looting and vandalism were common. Rumors of buried treasure prompted numerous hunts, digging up the grounds and adobe walls searching for gold. Vagrants burned original door and window frames for firewood. Eye witnesses have told me personally that if you were looking for a place to do something that you weren’t supposed to do, the Dana Adobe was the place to do it. Surely the old girl would not survive this abuse.

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 acres, but is the only existing Rancho period adobe in California that still has its original view shed. It is not only one of the most important historic buildings in San Luis Obispo County but in the state of California as well.

Captain Dana and the Rancho Nipomo story are well documented and often told. What is less known is why the structure was almost lost forever, who came to its rescue and how it is now being brought back to its original glory. This is that “story” and it begins on February 12, 1858.
On that date, in the master bedroom at the Dana Adobe, Captain William G. Dana died. His death started a chain of events that slowly, at first, then at an increasingly rapid pace, led the building and property to decline and near ruin. Over the next 100 years changes made to the house by successive occupants, vandals, looters and the elements brought the building to its knees. For the next 22 years, Maria Josefa along with sons William Charles, John Francis and other members of the family, ran ranch operations. It is documented that weather and economic conditions were difficult during this period. In 1880, Maria Josefa moved to Casa Grande, a fine home on Mallagh Street in Nipomo built for her by her sons. At this time, her 31 year old son Fred, and his family took occupancy of the adobe. Sadly, Maria Josefa was only able to enjoy her new home for three years and died in 1883.

By the time Fredrick Albert and Manuela Munoz Dana and family moved in, the Monterey Colonial style home was no longer in vogue. Styles had changed and the house was in need of some modernization. They did what anyone would do. They made some changes. Fred added several new interior and exterior doors. A double sided fireplace was installed between two bedrooms. In the south wall, an exterior window was made into a door and, adjacent to it, a window was added. In coming years this would prove to be a near fatal flaw. Structural stability was apparently not a consideration during these changes.

The Fred Dana family enjoyed their home until 1899 when Fred was killed in a buggy accident. The property was heavily in debt and Fred’s widow did not have the means to continue running the rancho. In 1900 the property was sold to A.C. Fry and family. Before moving in the Fry’s made additional changes. The culmination of these many structural changes eventually contributed to weakening of the structure.

In 1902 the property was sold again to Lawrence Hourihan and family. The Hourihans proceeded to occupy the house and farm the surrounding property. It is unknown what, if any, changes were made by the Hourihans to the house.