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

Capt. John C. Fremont


Capt. John C. Fremont:  (1813-1890) John C. Frémont, one of the United States’ leading western explorers in the 1830s and 1840s, was born in Savannah, Georgia in 1813. He joined the U.S. Topographical Engineers in 1838 and earned a national reputation for his reports on the American West. In early 1846, Captain Frémont and a small mapping expedition arrived along the border of Mexican California.

Whether by accident or design, Frémont soon plunged into local political intrigue. After several dustups with locals, Frémont encountered a force of Anglo immigrants and disgruntled Californios who advocated a Texas style insurgency to force California into American hands. These agitators declared California as the Bear Flag Republic in June 1846 and Frémont declared himself the U.S. commander in California and led the insurgents and his regulars in a campaign to neutralize all Mexican resistance. The arrival of U.S. Commodore John D. Sloat and a naval expedition added momentum to the campaign, and, by the end of the summer [1847], all of California had fallen to U.S. forces.

Frémont then declared himself military governor of the conquered province. When Brigadier General Stephen Watts Kearny arrived later in the year, the men feuded and Kearny had Frémont arrested and hauled before a court martial. The sensational trial made an even greater celebrity out of Frémont, but he resigned his commission in the army in protest.

After the U.S-Mexican War, Frémont served as U.S. senator from California and, in 1856, became the first Republican candidate for president of the United States. He served in the Union army during the Civil War, and afterward was territorial governor of Arizona. He died in New York City in 1890.  (www.pbs.org/kera/usmexicanwar/biographies/john_fremont.html)

According to Juan Francisco Dana in the Blond Ranchero, “…Col. Fremont with about one hundred men and some Walla Walla Indians was marching south to claim the Mexican territory of California for the United States.  It was during the month of December [1846] that my father heard that the colonel and his men had left San Luis Obispo and were camped about three miles northeast of our casa.”  His father invited Fremont and six officers to lunch at the adobe.  Capt. Dana also offered Fremont…”a supply of fresh beef and thirty horses.”

Faxon Dean Atherton


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 merchant and Dan’s brother-in-law. During those eventful years, he kept a diary in which he faithfully recorded his experiences and impressions of Mexican California.  Atherton made many friends in California including Thomas O. Larkin with whom he was to be associated in several real estate and commercial ventures. In 1860 Atherton moved to California; he liquidated his assets in Valparaiso and reinvested his money in California. He included among his real estate purchases his estate in San Mateo County which he called Valparaiso Park; the land now forms much of present-day town of Atherton.

Atherton was one of the earliest visitors to the Rancho Nipomo in early March of 1838.  His visit was marked by tragedy, when his travel guide, Thomas Stuart, had a dispute and stabbed “Bill,” a black man employed by Dana.  Captain baptized Bill “at the point of death” and along with Atherton took Bill’s body and Stuart to the Mission La Purisima on March 10, 1838.

The Great Depression

“Migrant Mother,” 1936 (Dorothea Lange, photographer). Library of Congress FSA/OWI Collection.

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 Family History

WilliamAs 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.

Natural History of Nipomo

natural history of nipomoRancho 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.

If you would like to learn more about the natural history of Nipomo check out A Natural History of the Nipomo Mesa Region (available for purchase at the Dana Adobe or online).