History of Rancho Cienega del Gabilan

The Full Story

Gabilan Ranch is a working cattle ranch nestled atop the Gabilan Mountain Range in Monterey and San Benito counties of coastal central California. Our stewardship of the land began when Rollin and Arline Reeves purchased the ranch in 1929. The ranch is owned and operated as Gabilan Cattle Company by the Reeves, Baldocchi, and Boyle families.

The landscape is characteristic of those sections of the central California coast often referred to as “Steinbeck country”. In fact, John Steinbeck opened his novel, “East of Eden,” with a description of the Gabilan Mountains as “light gay mountains full of sun and loveliness and a kind of invitation, so that you wanted to climb into their warm foothills almost as you want to climb into the lap of a beloved mother.”  He ends his book, “Travels with Charlie,” atop of Fremont Peak with his dog Charlie to take a final look at his homeland before moving east.

Successive eras of volcanic action, erosion, and submersion under the sea, upheaval, and plate movement left the land the way we see it today. Rising at its highest point at Fremont Peak, the land forms a basin that captures winter rains. The rains charge the abundant springs, and they in turn feed the many streams that start on the ranch, supplying the Salinas, San Benito and Pajaro Rivers and enriching the lands below us. Much of the land is referred to as oak and grass savanna. The fields explode with wildflowers every spring, and in the summer their golden glow is dotted with mature native oaks.  The ridges are covered with huge-coned Coulter pines and red-barked madrones.  The steep canyons contain the typical California dense covering of chaparral that provides such good habitat for wildlife. The ranch is home to a wide array of fauna including blacktail deer, mountain lion, wild hog, coyote, Tule elk, bobcat, grey fox, raccoon, badger, cottontail and jackrabbit, numerous reptiles and a host of other critters. Among the many bird species, red-tailed hawk and golden eagles are usually present and bald eagles and osprey visit on their migrations.  Great blue herons stalk fish in the ponds, and great horned owls talk to us during the dark hours. Spring fed ponds support salamanders and frogs and house healthy populations of black bass and blue gill.

The first occupants of the land were the indigenous Matsun tribe, members of the Ohlone people. They camped along its creeks and left evidence of their presence in the bedrock mortars used for grinding acorns, a staple of their diet. The padres of nearby Mission San Juan Bautista ran cattle in the hills and were the first to claim the land. When the missions were secularized in 1834, this land became part of an original Mexican Land Grant named Rancho Cienega del Gabilan. The land was named for its abundant springs and wetlands (cienega) and for its numerous hawks (gabilan): The Spring of the Hawk Ranch. The Spanish word gavilan, or interchangeably gabilan, is narrowly defined as sparrow hawk but the phrase is frequently used more generally to describe a high hill as that of the hawk.  The highest peak in the Gabilan Range, now called Fremont Peak, is the north boundary of the ranch. It was known by the Matsun people as Hawks Peak and to the Mexicans as Gabilan Peak.

Gabilan Ranch is the heart of the original grant that encompassed 11 square leagues or almost 49,000 acres. Alto California Governor Manual Micheltorena made the grant to the first owner Antonio Chaves in 1834. Chaves was well placed politically serving as both Tax Collector to the administrative government and also Lieutenant to the senior military officer of Alto California.

Just a few years later in the mid-1840s trouble was brewing throughout California. Pio Pico, the last Mexican governor of Alto California, was plagued by the threat of revolt from the inhabitants of these vast lands so far from Mexico City. He also worried about invasion from the United States as a steady stream of immigrants crossed the Sierra Madre Mountains and poured into the Sacramento Valley.  Fifty wagons of settlers had arrived in 1845 and reports told that many more were ready to start the next spring.  It was also said that there were thousands of Mormons on the road who claimed California to be the land promised to them in the scriptures.  Governor Pico received further confirmation of this threat from the United States when in early 1846 a band of heavily armed men under the command of Colonel John C. Fremont rode into the capitol city of Monterey.

Colonel Fremont started his third expedition to the West in June of 1845 in St. Louis. His troop of some 60 men, including the famous scout Kit Carson and infamous mountain man Joseph Walker, were certainly trail hardened by the time they reached California in early 1846. Fremont was reportedly on a topographical mission with the stated goal to map the headwaters of the Arkansas River on the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. Having completed that duty, and without explanation, Fremont made a hasty trail straight to California, leading to much suspicion among historians about his orders and motives. At the time, the United States was close to war with Mexico over Texas and President Polk was known to be interested in taking California as well.  Historians agree however that Fremont was under orders not to start hostilities against a foreign government, but he certainly did everything short of that to stir things up for the U.S. cause.  And, once the war in California started he was in the thick of it.

After spending many weeks near Monterey, Fremont moved his troops to Gabilan Peak. Although no physical evidence has been found, historians believe the site of Fremont’s camp was on a hill called Yates that is approximately two miles north of Gabilan Ranch and Fremont Peak State Park. A few days before this move, Monterey-based Commandante-General Jose Castro had grown wary of these armed interlopers. He was already worried about their intentions and after reports that Fremont’s men had “roughed up” some locals, Castro was pushed into action. Castro sent word to Fremont ordering him to leave the territory immediately.

Historical reports tell us Fremont’s men were itching for some action, and Fremont himself may have relished a confrontation with a force considerably larger than his but one he considered inferior. For reasons never made entirely clear, instead of leaving as he was ordered, Fremont openly defied the Mexican government, threw up a rudimentary fort, and raised the American flag for the first time in California.  Fremont’s personal journal entries make it clear he was ready to fight if attacked. After learning of this blatantly hostile action, General Castro marched his forces to San Juan Bautista and prepared to engage.  Using field glasses from his lofty camp, Fremont was able to see the Mexicans drilling for an assault, and he ordered his men to finish the battlement and to prepare an ambush. Early the next morning the Mexican forces were on the mountain preparing to attack. Before leaving the safety of the forest for the open high ground, however, Castro’s troop suddenly stopped. According to Kit Carson’s account, there appeared to be a heated exchange among the officers.  Suddenly the Mexican troop turned around and moved back down the mountain, much to the disappointment of those waiting in ambush.

On the evening of March 10, 1846 Fremont evidently reconsidered his defiance and in the dark of night broke camp. The troop rode east along the ridge of Steinbeck Canyon, crossed San Juan Creek and then the San Benito River where they camped one night. The next day they entered the central valley through Panoche Pass.  He wrote in his journal they “growlingly” left the area and headed north to Oregon. The Mexican force arrived the next morning to find still smoldering fires and a broken saddle but no Americans.  A war with Mexico had been avoided, a least for a while. After leaving the Gabilans, Fremont continued to shape history, as he and his men became active participants in the Bear Flag Revolt and the making of the State of California.

During the Bear Flag Revolt, land grant owner Chaves gained notoriety by kidnapping U.S. Consulate Thomas O. Larkin of Monterey. In the subsequent Battle of Natividad, Chaves was wounded and three Americans were killed. When Castro and Chaves later fled to Baja, Chaves reportedly transferred the deed to Rancho Cienega del Gabilan to Jose Y. Limantour in what was regarded by historians as a cloudy transaction.  Much has been written about Limantour and his vast holdings, reportedly exchanged for the promissory notes he accumulated financing the Alto California government. All told he amassed over half a million acres through various land grants, including much of Yerba Buena (the city we know as San Francisco), Alcatraz Island, the Tiburon peninsula and Cape Mendocino. He spent years in the courts defending his claims, all the while collecting a 10% tax on revenues. In 1855 Limantour’s luck had run out when he was arrested for fraud and perjury. Rather than face a hostile American jury he jumped bail and returned to Mexico City where he lived comfortably until his death in 1885.

In 1857 Limantour granted a quitclaim deed for Cienega del Gabilan to former US Consulate Thomas O. Larkin. For some historians this transaction was as questionable as the one from Chaves to Limantour. Larkin acquired vast holdings including the city and port of Benicia, which he developed and established as the State capital for two years. In later years he became a major land speculator in San Francisco and was reported to be one of the richest men in America in the mid-1850s. 

After Larkin died of typhoid fever in 1858, Jesse D. Carr purchased the land from Larkin’s heirs. It took several trips to Washington D.C. over seven years for Carr to clear the title and achieve a patent on 48,780.72 acres in 1867, which was recorded June 29, 1868.  Carr built the old ranch house in 1867 and by 1869 had increased his herd of livestock to 10,000 sheep.

In 1883 Carr sold the central portion of Cienega del Gabilan, including our ranch, to Henry Reeve who created Alta Farms subdivision. Reeve in turn sold it in 1886 to Egbert Judson and John Shepard. Separately, Carr sold the western portion of the grant to the James Bardin family, and the Artherton Ayre family purchased the eastern section. Those families remain owners to this day. In 1901 Judson’s heirs sold the ranch to San Francisco Chemical Company, who in turn sold it to Gabilan Ranch Company. These later transfers appear to be insider transactions among Judson, Shepard and their heirs. Judson was an inventor and manufacturer of explosives, licensing the newly invented explosive “dynamite” from Alfred Nobel in 1867. Judson’s Giant Powder No. 2 became synonymous with dynamite in the U.S., and he subsequently sold the company to DuPont. Before he died in 1893 Judson became one of the largest property owners in San Francisco and a major philanthropist.

The ranch was subsequently sold to John S. Bryan in 1907. Bryan had married Jesse D. Carr’s granddaughter, also named Jessie, and the ranch was once again in the Carr family. The Bryans ran cattle on the ranch and made the ranch house their home. Jessie raised Arabians and reportedly made trips to Saudi Arabia to build her herd. After John’s death, the ranch was deeded to Jessie in 1920. She sold it almost a decade later to Lawrence A. Kelley in June of 1928. Kelley only owned the ranch for one year, but he expanded it by purchasing a parcel from Elmer Dowdy.

Rollin Reeves purchased the ranch from Kelley on June 6, 1929. One month later, the McCray parcel was added. Around that same time, a parcel in San Juan Canyon was sold. In the 1980s we purchased three separate parcels in Pescadero Canyon, bringing the ranch to its current size of just over 11,000 acres.

Rollin Reeves, a prominent physician practicing in Salinas, along with his wife, Arline, enjoyed the ranch throughout their lives. They instilled in their two children, Marilyn and William, a love of the land and the cattle business. Marilyn and William raised their families to have a passion and commitment to preserving the land as a working cattle ranch and to protecting and improving its natural habitat.  This dedication to the land has been passed along to the fourth generation who are now owners. In the past three years we’ve been blessed to welcome the arrival of the first two members of generation five.

In 1932 Rollin Reeves gave land to the State of California to be maintained for the people as Fremont Peak State Park.  The Park has commanding views of Monterey Bay, as well as San Benito, Monterey, Santa Cruz and Santa Clara Counties.  It is used by thousands of campers, hikers, naturalists, historians, and stargazers each year.  Sheltering the ranch on the north, Fremont Peak is the dominant view from anywhere on the Ranch and from much of the Salinas and Hollister valleys.

The Ranch has always been open to the California Oak Society, the California Native Plant Society, the Forest Stewardship Program and numerous scientific research efforts. Working in cooperation with the California Department of Fish & Wildlife, a herd of Tule elk was introduced in 1983, and a few years later wild turkeys were planted.  Both have thrived. The elk have expanded to neighboring ranches and split into two separate herds, and three groups of turkeys have been taken from the ranch to populate neighboring lands. 

Working with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, we initiated a program to improve native steelhead runs in Gabilan Creek, which starts on the ranch and flows into Monterey Bay at Elkhorn Slough. Livestock exclusionary fencing was added to both sides of the creek to protect important riparian habitats from fulltime access by cattle.

The ranch today remains a working cow-calf operation owned by 3rd and 4th generation members of the Reeves-Baldocchi-Boyle families. We also run Gabilan Tower Company which manages a high elevation broadcast tower and ground leases for companies with their own transmission towers. This important source of revenue allows us to take the long view on improving the overall quality of our soils and grasslands as well as develop holistic range management practices to improve the quality of our cattle herd.  Family members are elected to management positions with the goal to move people through terms in office and include as many as possible in caring for the ranch. To know something is to love it, and we want everyone in the family involved and dedicated to passing on our wonderful legacy to future generations. In 2013 the untimely passing of long time ranch manager and friend Oscar Thompson caused us to reassess our cattle operation goals. In July 2014 Jeffrey Mundell joined us as Ranch Manger, and his wife Amy and four children (Cora, Emma, Wade and Dutch) moved to the ranch in September. Jeff and Amy not only bring Vaquero sensibilities to our ranching endeavors but lots of ideas and energy to expand our holistic practices. Cowboy Ron Brown has perhaps the best job, getting to ride the herd daily.

In 2006 a conservation easement was granted to The Nature Conservancy. This non-development easement protects the conservation values of the land in perpetuity and makes it easier to preserve our family ranching heritage for future generations. We have benefited in many ways from this relationship and enjoy the enthusiasm of TNC folks, who have already discovered one entirely new species of manzanita on the ranch.

The family has long held beliefs about their responsibility to protect the land with which they have been entrusted. These are reflected in the Mission Statement adopted many years ago.

It is the mission of the Gabilan Cattle Company to preserve and enhance our family heritage by jointly owning and operating the ranch as a family business.  We shall manage the ranch in such a manner as to protect and improve natural resources, wildlife habitat, and scenic beauty, as well as provide a setting for rest, recreation and continued learning for all.  To support these desires, the Gabilan Cattle Company will run an efficient cattle operation with emphasis on holistic practices, creativity, sound management and family involvement.