Names on the Signs in Santa Cruz: the Frontiersmen

In the 1830s, a group of American frontiersmen - hunters, fur trappers and mountain men - came west and settled down in Santa Cruz.

The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 added a huge, largely unexplored territory west of the Mississippi River to the United States. Immediately, groups of explorers, traders, hunters, fur trappers, Indian fighters and other colorful characters set out for the western frontier.

By the mid-1830s, quite a few of them had accumulated in the Monterey Bay area. One of these enterprising frontiersmen, Isaac Graham, opened a whisky distillery in 1836 at Natividad (now an area of strawberry farms just north-east of Salinas) so they’d have a place to socialize.

An ambitious Californio named Juan Alvarado persuaded Graham to organize his fellow frontiersmen into a company of riflemen to support Alvarado’s takeover of the California government. ‘Captain’ Graham’s Rifleros Americanos helped Alvarado become governor, but he and the Americans didn’t remain allies for long.

Sometime soon after the Alvarado coup, Graham and/or some of his friends moved north, establishing another distillery at Rancho Zayante. This group included one Job F. Dye, who many years later gave an account of his adventurous life.

The first Graham associate to make his mark in Santa Cruz was Joseph L. Majors. Majors became a Mexican citizen and, in 1839, married another of the Castro sisters, the poetically named Maria de los Angeles. That local connection benefited Majors later on, as he became a brother-in-law of El Ruso Bolcoff, Michael Lodge and William Buckle. Like them, Majors stayed to become a prominent citizen of Santa Cruz County.

More trouble found the foreigners in 1840. The presence of so many armed men of dubious loyalty made Governor Alvarado nervous, and he ordered a large group of them arrested and brought to Monterey. Those able to prove Mexican citizenship were released, including Majors, Lodge and Buckle.

The rest, 50-100 mostly American and British men, were accused of plotting to overthrow the government (ironic, coming from Alvarado).  The prisoners were put aboard ships, in chains, and sent to Mexico for trial.

This action caused an international diplomatic incident that became known as ‘The Graham Affair’. Most of the men were acquitted in 1841 and returned to Monterey. Some left California for good, but Graham and others returned to Rancho Zayante.
Over the next few years, things started looking up for the former frontiersmen. Majors and his wife moved to Rancho San Agustin, where he built a grist mill that sold flour as far away as Santa Clara and Monterey. He later built a water-powered mill at or near the site of the old Mission mill [see correction comment below], on Santa Cruz Creek (up the Laurel Street hill, near today's Babbling Brook Inn).

The creek soon became known as Majors Creek, but today is called Laurel Creek (it’s the creek that feeds Neary Lagoon). Majors and/or his descendants also acquired an interest in Rancho Refugio, where today’s Majors Creek forms part of the northern boundary of Wilder Ranch State Park and reaches the Pacific where Scaroni Road loops off from Highway 1, at what used to be Red-White-and-Blue Beach (the infamous private nude beach and campground).

The surrounding community used to be a train stop known as Majors.

Isaac Graham, meanwhile, built a water-powered sawmill on Zayante Creek (today’s Mount Hermon). To get his lumber to market, he built a wagon road to Santa Cruz, parts of which became today’s Graham Hill Road. Graham’s closest asscociate, Henry Naile, was later killed in a gunfight. Dye moved on to Tehama County. Many of the remaining frontiersmen returned briefly to prominence in the next major event of Santa Cruz history: the Bear Flag Revolt.

Further Reading:

  • Bancroft, Hubert Howe. Gutierrez, Castro, and Alvarado – Revolution: 1836. History of California, Chapter XVI (1886). [Free e-book at Google Books]
  • Bancroft, Hubert Howe. The Graham Affair, California, Volume 4 (1886) [Free e-book at Google Books]
  • Farnham, Thomas J. Life and adventures in California, and scenes in the Pacific Ocean (1846). [Free e-book at Google Books. A highly-romanticized account of ‘The Graham Affair’ begins in Chapter IV.]
  • Leonard, Zenas. Leonard's narrative: adventures of Zenas Leonard, fur trader and trapper (1839). [Free e-book at Google Books - includes a first-person account of the Walker Party’s journey to California]
  • Poitevin, Norman. JOB F. DYE - BIOGRAPHY, Museum of Art and History Research Forum (2007). Transcribed from an article in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, May 1, 1869.

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Ryan Tyler Morris September 09, 2011 at 08:59 PM
Henry Naile is likely buried in the mass grave area Old Holy Cross Cemetery, removed from the current site of Holy Cross Church prior to its construction. He had become a Catholic and Mexican citizen in 1844 in an effort to get partial title to the Rancho Zayante. During a dispute over a lumber mill contract in April 1846, Naile effectively challenged James Williams to a duel the day before Naile was shot dead in front of William Buckle's tavern on School Street. Williams shot first, but did not face much legal consequences if any due to an argument of self defense and the dynamic political situation of California that summer. Business partner Isaac Graham had claimed Naile's estate, stating that Naile had willed his portion of the Rancho Zayante to him the night before he was killed. Graham inferred that Naile was like an adopted son to him who he had raised from his youth, though the age difference between the two was 11 years at most. The estate went into probate for over a decade, Graham posthumously getting title to the Rancho Zayante. Henry Naile was Isaac Graham's most loyal friend, both in life and death.
W C Casey September 15, 2011 at 09:43 PM
That's a good idea. I hadn't thought of including headstones in the "signs" where historical names can be found.
Thomas Beall August 08, 2012 at 06:06 PM
If you ever find a male descendant of Isaac's I would like to know. His brother, John M. Graham, was my great-great-grandfather. Thank you. Thomas Beall
W C Casey August 08, 2012 at 07:23 PM
I have yet to delve much into local genealogy. The people to ask would be the Genealogy Society at the downtown library. There could well be someone around who claims descent from Isaac Graham. There's an entertaining, if not totally factual, biography of Graham online at <http://www.sptddog.com/sotp/isaac1.html>. You can also link to this document through Graham's Wikipedia article.
W C Casey January 30, 2014 at 03:56 PM
Correction: the location of Majors' water-powered grist mill was farther up Santa Cruz Creek, near Escalona Drive. The old mission mill site was acquired by the Feliz family (whose name was misspelled to become the name of today's Felix Street).


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