Orange County's First Rancheros – Manuel Nieto and Juan Pablo Grijalva

One of the most common mistakes in California history is to speak of “Spanish land grants,” given by the King of Spain. In fact, no ranchos were granted during Spanish rule in California (1769-1821), though the governors were authorized to give concessions to a few individuals, allowing them to run stock in certain areas without transferring title. Two of these Spanish concessions took in part of what is now Orange County and their recipients were our earliest pioneer settlers.

José Manuel Perez Nieto (c 1734-1804) was born in Sinaloa and came to California as a Spanish soldier, perhaps in 1769 and certainly no later than 1773. He was stationed at several of the missions and presidios over the next 20 years. Nieto seems to have been an industrious man, and by the 1780s had his own herds of cattle and horses. In 1784, when Governor Pedro Fages made the first round of concessions, granting grazing land to several soldiers, and Nieto asked for his share:

“Sir: Manuel Pérez Nieto, soldier of the Royal Presidio of San Diego, before Your Worship with the greatest and due honor, appear and says: That in attention to the fact that I have my herd of horses, as well as of bovine stock at the Royal Presidio of San Diego, and because they are increasing and because I have no place to graze them, and likewise because I have no designated place, I request Your Worship’s charity that you be pleased to assign me a place situated at three leagues distance from the Mission of San Gabriel along the road to the Royal Presidio of San Carlos de Monterey named La Sanja [sic], contemplating, Sir, not to harm neither a living soul, principally the Mission of San Gabriel, nor even less the Pueblo of the Queen of the Angels. I humbly request of Your Worship’s superior government that it see fit to decide as I have requested, for if it is so, I shall receive a gift, and shall consider myself most favored….”

His petition was written for him, and “not knowing how to sign,” Nieto “made the sign of the Cross” at the bottom.

On October 21, 1784, Gov. Fages replied: “I grant the petitioner the permission of having the bovine stock and horses at the place of La Sanja, or its environs; providing no harm is done to the Mission San Gabriel nor to the Pagan Indians of its environs in any manner whatsoever; and that he must have someone to watch it….”

Because there was no formal grant, the exact boundaries of Nieto’s concession are a little vague. What’s more, they changed over time. Generally speaking, Nieto’s lands were located between the Rio Hondo and the Santa Ana River, from the foothills to the sea – 300,000 acres, mas ó meno. After retiring from the military in 1795, he seems to have begun a more extensive development of his rancho. At the start of that year he already had about 400 horses and the same number of cattle. He also began farming a small part of the land around that time, growing wheat and other crops. All this interfered with the stock – and more importantly, the irrigated farmlands – of the Mission San Gabriel, which asked Fages’ successor to restrict Nieto’s holdings. Governor Borica agreed, ordering Nieto to give up any land needed by the mission. This cut off the upper end of his rancho, but still left Nieto with about 150,000 acres all the way down to the sea.

Nieto made his ranch headquarters in what is now Santa Fe Springs, about where Los Nietos Road meets the San Gabriel River. He called his rancho the Santa Gertrudis. By the time of his death in December 1804, historian Robert Glass Cleland noted that “his extensive land holdings and enormous herds of horses and ‘black cattle’ made him the wealthiest man in California.”

Nieto’s son, Juan José Nieto (born in San Diego in 1781), seems to have taken over the management of the rancho. In the 1820s (and perhaps before) he allowed the Mission San Gabriel to graze cattle at Los Cerritos, and Las Bolsas, on the lower end of the rancho in what is now Orange County.

After California passed from Spanish to Mexican rule in 1822, the land laws changed, and the government began granting actual ownership to the rancheros. After half a century, in 1834, Governor José Figueroa agreed to grant the Nieto lands to Manuel’s descendants. Because Mexican land grants were limited to 11 leagues (about 48,000 acres) he made five separate grants – Santa Gertrudis, Los Coyotes, Los Alamitos, Las Bolsas, and Los Cerritos. The Bolsas was entirely within the bounds of modern-day Orange County, along with large portions of Los Coyotes and Los Alamitos and the tiniest corner of the Rancho Santa Gertrudis.

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Opposite the Nieto lands, on the other side of the Santa Ana River, lay the lands of Juan Pablo Grijalva, Orange County’s other Spanish ranchero. Where Nieto was a common soldier, Grijalva (1741-1806) was a trusted military officer (Nieto’s superior at the San Diego Presidio in the 1790s), thoroughly literate, and played a key role in one of the most important expeditions in the history of early California.

Grijalva came to California in 1775 with the Anza Expedition, which brought the first colonists to California and opened an overland route across the desert from Sonora. Crossing the Colorado River at Yuma, the expedition came across the Imperial Valley into Borrego Valley, then up Coyote Canyon leaving the desert behind. To protect the waterholes, Anza divided his party in three to cross the desert, keeping command of one group and placing Grijalva and José Joaquin Moraga in command of the other two.

During his first decade in California, Grijalva was stationed at the San Francisco Presidio. In 1786 he was transferred to San Diego and promoted to Alfaréz (Lieutenant). Following his retirement in 1796 he requested use of the lands at Las Flores (now a part of Camp Pendleton), but with the founding of Mission San Luis Rey in 1798, Las Flores became part of the mission lands, and Grijalva was forced to move his cattle elsewhere. He brought them north, either on or near the Nieto rancho. In 1801 he requested his own, adjoining concession:

“Sr. Lieutenant Commanding, Don Manuel Rodriguez – Don Pablo Grijalva, retired ensign of the cavalry, resident of the royal presidio of San Diego, presents himself before you asking for the tract of land of the Arroyo de Santiago to place there his cattle and horses, and this tract is distant from the Mission of San Juan Capistrano eight leagues, and from that of the San Gabriel nine or ten [leagues]. The distance that I ask is from the banks of the River of Santa Ana toward Santiago, the portion which is along the High-road, embraces an extension of a little more than a league, and toward the beach about five said leagues. From the highway, the Arroyo being above, to the house it will be about a league and a half, from there to the mountains about three leagues, and toward the south I ask as far as the Ranas, which will be about a league and a half. A favor which I hope to obtain from you.”

Lt. Rodriguez placed Grijalva in preliminary possession of the Rancho Santiago, subject to Governor José Joaquin de Arrillaga’s final approval. His report to the governor states in part:

“In consideration of the represented petitions, which through me, the promoted lieutenant Don Pablo Grijalva has addressed to you, soliciting a place wherein to put his cattle, build a house and corral; and in consideration of the power which the benevolence of your Excellency has deigned to confer upon me of decreeing  upon said petitions, I have pointed out to him the place Arroyo de Santiago situated in the contiguous bounds of the mission of San Juan Capistrano and San Gabriel, the distance from the one to the other being estimated at eighteen leagues, it is therefore nine leagues … to each of [the] said missions.

“There is not within a great distance of the place of Santiago any rancheria [village] whatsoever of natives. Wherefore, I deem that instead of doing injury to said place, he will be useful, and that neither of the two mentioned missions claims a right to it in conformity with the laws which assign to the mission or village of Christian natives two leagues and their environs.

“Should the benevolence of your Excellency approve of my decision, considering the justice which should attend Grijalva in having conceded to him a place wherein he might place the great numbers of cattle which he has in the immediate neighborhood of the Rancho of Manuel Nieto, for the reason that there has been some etiquette between the two, and for that which he has also had in the immediate neighborhood of this presidio [San Diego] to the injury of the pasture grounds for the horses of the service, I hope that you will deign to order the issuing to him of the corresponding title of possession of the place del Arroyo de Santiago, with the distances on the north as far as the Sierra range of mountains, on the east as far as the beach, its crossway being with the plains of the River of Santa Ana, which is distant from the Arroyo de Santiago a little less than a league and a half, and on the south as far as the place called las Ranas, which is also distant another league and a half, or that you will decide that which your superior Excellency will deem proper.”

Around this same time, Grijalva had an adobe built on a little hill overlooking the Santiago Creek, near what is now the intersection of Rancho Santiago Blvd. and Hewes Street in the City of Orange, but he seems to have continued to live in San Diego where he died in June 1806.

Juan Pablo Grijalva had no sons, so the Rancho Santiago was carried on by his son-in-law, José Antonio Yorba, and his grandson and namesake, Juan Pablo Peralta. Antonio Yorba had come to California as a soldier in the early days of Spanish colonization (not – as often reported – in 1769, but probably with the first reinforcements two years later). The Peralta family came with the Anza Expedition in 1775.

In November 1809, Sgt. Antonio Yorba asked Gov. Arrillaga for a new concession, explaining:

“That while your Excellency was Governor ad interim of Lower California, the deceased ensign Don Pablo Grijalva through Don Manuel Rodriguez presented a petition soliciting the place called Santiago for the purpose of building a home thereon in company with your petitioner, and uniting our animals and cultivating it, both of us for the common enjoyment of all the above mentioned benefits which the place may afford. I am aware and understand that the deceased has not mentioned me in the said petition but nevertheless inasmuch as I had so agreed to the contract of co-partnership with the said deceased, we have continued together to the present.

“In consequence of the death of the deceased ensign various persons have been placed in charge of the place, and now I and Juan Peralta have jointly agreed to settle the said place called Santiago, I for my part placing thereon one of my sons, both being married, for the purpose of taking care of the number of three hundred head of cattle and the corresponding number of horses which is the stock that will now be upon the said tract of land, beside the seed we contemplate sowing for our maintenance.

“In view of all the foregoing, reminding the goodness of your Excellency that I have a large family; my continued personal labors unobstructed by my sexagesimal age, are not to me sufficient support.

“Wherefore I pray and supplicate your Excellency be pleased to issue the grant of the said place of Santiago in favor of your petitioner, in order that in company with the said Juan Peralta, his labors may prove favorable and profitable to both petitioners, a benefit and favor for which he will be grateful and obliged to you.”

Gov. Arrillaga responded on July 1, 1810, ordering that Yorba and Peralta be placed in possession of the rancho. In 1839, Antonio Yorba’s oldest son requested a Mexican grant, to formalize the old Spanish concession. It does not seem to have been made, but through long occupancy the Yorba and Peralta families were recognized by the American government as owners of the Rancho Santiago de Santa Ana.


Robert Glass Cleland, The Cattle on a Thousand Hills (San Marino: The Huntington Library, 1951)

Wade Kittell, “Manuel Nieto, First Rancher in Downey,” The Downey Historical Society Annual, 1968-69

W.W. Robinson, Land in California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1948)

W.W. Robinson, The Old Spanish and Mexican Ranchos of Orange County (Los Angeles: Title Insurance and Trust Co., 1954)

Terry E. Stephenson, Caminos Viejos (Santa Ana: Press of the Santa Ana High School and Junior College, 1930)