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Historical Figures

William Wolfskill


In February 1831, William Wolfskill, a trapper and explorer, traveled from the Mojave Indian villages near Needles through Cajon Pass into the Southern California valleys and on to Los Angeles.

Wolfskill's trip was a noteworthy one, since his course over the mountains is clearly defined. From Santa Fe to California, his route approximated more closely the trail later followed by the New Mexican caravans than did that of [earlier traders]. It might therefore be said that it was William Wolfskill who established the famous pack-train route known as the "Old Spanish Trail," used by the Santa Fe - Los Angeles caravans for nearly two decades. The Old Spanish Trail bypassed most of northern Arizona, passing through Utah instead, as had Fathers Escalante and Dominguez in 1776. Once each year, pack trains accompanied by a heavy (sic) armed guard, made the round trip over the trail. California bound, the caravans carried blankets, Mexican woolen goods, silver and all sorts of American-made wares from St. Louis. On the return trip, the traders brought back mainly Chinese goods, silks and the like, obtained from trading vessels on the California coast. They also drove back horses and mules.

Alice Fisher Simpson, writing in the Centennial issue of California Highways and Public Works (September 1950)

William Wolfskill, The Pioneer

By H. D. Barrows - 1902

William Wolfskill, 1798-1866><BR>

Of that notable group of American pioneers who arrived in 
Los Angeles about the year 1830, and who afterwards became 
permanent and influential citizens of this then almost exclu- 
sively Spanish-speaking province, I have already presented the 
Historical Society with brief sketches of John Temple, Abel 
Stearns and J. J. Warner; and I now propose to give some account of William Wolfskill. Mr. Wolfskill was born in 
Madison county, Kentucky, March 20, 1798, and was reared from 
the age of eleven to twenty-one, in what is now Howard county, 
Missouri, but which then was in the heart of the Indian country. 
The Indians of that region during the War of 1812 were so 
bad that the settlers had to carry their fire-arms at the plow 
and to be unceasingly on their guard, night and day. 

After the war, in 1815, William went back to Kentucky to 
attend school. In 1822, at the age of twenty-four, he started 
out in the world on his own account to seek his fortune, to 
penetrate still farther into the far West, and to find
With a party under a Captain Becknell, he went to Santa Fe, New Mexico. He spent the summer of 1822, at Santa Fe, and in the fall engaged in trapping beaver. He went down the Rio Grande to El Paso del Norte in January, 1823.

He was accompanied on this trip by a single companion, a New Mexican, who had trapped beaver with him the fall before. They caught what beaver they could as they proceeded down the river. The weather was cold, the ground being covered with snow; and to protect themselves from the cold they built a small brush house.

Within this, with a fire in front, they could lie down and keep warm. One night (the 27th of January, 1823) Mr. Wolfskill waked up and saw that the New Mexican had built a big fire at the door; but he thought nothing of it, and dropped asleep again. But some time after he was aroused to consciousness by receiving a rifle ball in his breast. He jumped up and rushed outside, where he stumbled and fell, and although it was moonlight he saw no one. He had first reached for his rifle, which had been lying beside him, but that was gone, only the shot-pouch remaining.

Supposing that marauding Indians had shot him and killed his companion, who was missing, he thought it was all over with him. At first he believed himself mortally wounded, which doubtless he would have been had not the ball been retarded by passing through his blankets and also through his right arm and left hand, his arms having been folded across his breast while asleep.

He was able to rise again, and he started back on foot for the nearest Spanish settlement, called Valverde (Green Valley" 1 twenty or twenty-five miles distant, where a small military force was stationed, and where he finally arrived late the next morn- ing, well-nigh exhausted cold, faint, and weak, from the loss of blood. He went to the Alcalde, who made the matter known to the guard.

Meantime, who should make his appearance but the New Mexican, who reported that he had been attacked by Indians, and that his partner (Mr. Wolfskill) was killed. But he was considerably astonished to learn that Mr. Wolfskill had got in before him.

He was compelled to go back with the soldiers at once (much against his will), and show them where Mr. Wolfskill had been shot.

There they found, in the snow, the footprints of the two trappers, and none others.

The New Mexican had told the soldiers that the Indians shot Mr. Wolfskill and had taken the gun, etc., and that he (the New Mexican) had shot several arrows at them. No signs of Indians were discovered, and of the arrows he had been known to have had beforehand, none were found missing.

They took him back to Valverde bound, and kept him confined several days, where he came near being frozen. He finally promised to go, and did go, and show them where the gun was hidden. He then pretended that he had shot Mr. Wolfskill accidentally, not being used to the hair-trigger of the rifle. He got on his knees, and opening his shirt, bared his breast and asked Mr. Wolfskill to take his life, if he had wronged him, etc. But the evidence was too strong to be evaded, or to be explained, except by his guilt.

He was examined by the Alcalde, who ordered him to be sent off to the Governor of New Mexico, at Santa Fe, for trial. But Mexican fashion is it not sometimes also an American fashion? his punishment was delayed, and he was kept going back and forward, under escort, between Valverde and Santa Fe; and at last, as Mr. Wolf skill afterwards learned, he was turned loose a denouement which in similar cases has been known to happen in the United States.

What motive the New Mexican could have had for thus shooting his companion, Mr. Wolfskill never could imagine, unless possibly it was for the sake of the old rifle, for that was about all Mr. Wolfskill had in the world, except a few old beaver traps; and there existed no enmity between them. They had never had any quarrel, or any cause for quarrel.

But an old Mexican a good-hearted man, with whom they had once stopped, up the river had warned Mr. Wolfskill to be on his guard against that man, "for," said he, "he is a bad man."

For so little cause, or for no cause at all, other than the instincts of a devilish heart, will some men attempt murder.

Mr. Wolfskill was of the opinion that the loss of blood, and his nearly freezing in that long tramp to the settlement, saved his life. The ball did not penetrate his breast-bone, and was soon afterwards extracted. He bore the marks of the wounds on his person to his dying day. In fact, it is a question if they were not the remote origin of the (heart) disease of which he died, although his death occurred many years after those ghastly wounds were received.

If this society could gather the multitudinous and exciting episodes of hair-breadth escapes of each one of the adventurous pioneers who came to this distant land, either overland or by water, the collection would be unique in variety and interest as well as in permanent historical value.

Mr. Wolfskill returned to Santa Fe, and about Christmas he went to Taos. In 1824 he, with others, fitted out a trapping expedition for the head-waters of the Colorado, or the Rio Grande of the West, as it was then called, returning to Taos in June. Soon after, with a Captain Owens and party, he went to Chihuahua to buy horses and mules to take to Louisiana. With many adventures, and with the loss of many of their ani- mals by attacks of hostile Indians, Mr. Wolfskill finally returned by way of the Mexican settlements, to avoid the Indians along the Gulf, and up the Mississippi, to his father's home, where he arrived in ill health, June, 1825. Thus ended his first expedition westward, he having been gone something over three years, and having penetrated as far as the tributaries of our great Colorado River on the Pacific Slope.

He soon, however, left for Natchitoches, where Belcher had promised to meet him on the Fourth of July of that year, with the mules of Capt. Owens, who had been killed in an attack by the Indians near the Presidio, del Norte in November of the previous year. These mules were to be taken East by Mr. Wolfskill and sold for the benefit of Capt. Owens' family. The latter were near neighbors of his father and they had authorized him to act as their agent. Not finding Belcher at Natchitoches at the time agreed upon, he traveled on west to San Felipe, where he found Belcher.

Mr. Wolfskill took charge of the mules, and proceeded with them across Louisiana and Mississippi to Greenborough, Alabama, where he wintered and sold the animals. In March, 1826, he left by way of Mobile and New Orleans and the Mississippi river, for his home in Missouri to make returns to the family of Capt. Owens. Here he found Capt. Young with whom he first went to Santa Fe, in 1822, and with whom he had trapped on the Rio Pecos and the Rio Grande of the West, etc., and engaged with him, after a brief stop at home, to go again to Santa Fe. Arrived there, Young was taken sick, and he hired Mr. Wolfskill to go with a party (Sublette, Peg-Leg Smith, etc., being of the number), that he, Young, had fitted out to trap on the waters of the Rio Gila. The party being only eleven men strong, was attacked by Indians and driven back to Taos. Young soon after started out with about thirty men for the same place, where he chastised the Indians, so that his party were enabled to trap unmolested.

During the winter, 1826-7, i n company with Wm. and Robert Carson, Talbot, and others, Mr. Wolfskill made a trip from Santa Fe to Sonora, to buy work-mules, mares, etc:, to take back to Missouri. He was at Oposura, Arispe and other towns in the northern part of that State. Talbot and himself gathered about 200 animals and started back with them by way of Taos; but they lost all but twenty-seven of them by the Indians. With these they finally arrived at Independence a little before Christmas. Most of this winter he spent at home, only making a short visit to Kentucky on business for his father.

The next Spring, 1828, he left home finally never after returning thither. He bought a team and started with goods on his own account for Santa Fe. There were about 100 wagons (in two companies), which went out at the same time. On arrival at Santa Fe he sold his goods to his old friend, Young, who had returned from his Gila expedition. Some time after, Young, with whom he had formed a co-partnership, made another trip to the Gila, while Mr. Wolfskill went to Paso del Norte after a lot of wines, brandy, panoche, etc., which he brought up to Taos in the spring of 1829. He remained in Taos the balance of this year, waiting the return of Young, who, it seems, had come on into California.

In 1830, as soon as the trading companies from the States got in, which was not till July, Mr. Wolfskill got ready himself for an expedition to California to hunt beaver, expecting to find Young somewhere in the country.

Of the company of twenty-two or twenty-three men, of which Mr. Wolfskill was the leader, which started for California at this time, Messrs. Branch, Burton, Yount, Shields, Ham and Cooper remained west of the Rocky Mountains, whilst the balance, soon after their arrival in California, generally returned to New Mexico or to the United States. Probably not one of this pioneer band is now living. Shields and Ham died soon after arrival in the country, and the others all died now many years ago: Yount in Napa, Branch in San Luis Obispo, Cooper in Santa Barbara, and Young in Oregon.

The party had intended to reach the Tulare and Sacramento valleys to make a winter and spring hunt. For this purpose they obtained a license from the Governor of New Mexico. Winter compelled them to turn south, and they reached Los An- geles in February, 1831. Here the party broke up being mostly without means. Some members fitted out with what guns, traps, etc., there were left, and went to hunting otter on the coast. Very few of the disbanded party had any intention of stopping in California permanently. But they must do some- thing to enable them to get away.

Mr. Wolfskill with several others went to work and built a schooner at San Pedro, with which to hunt otter among the neighboring islands. The timber was cut in the mountains and hauled a hundred miles or more to San Pedro. The schooner was named the "Refugio," and was larger than some of the fleet of Columbus.

At that time no one Was permitted to hunt fine-furred animals within the jurisdiction of Mexico unless he held a license from the Governor of a State or Territory. In New Mexico the provincial name of beaver is nutria (otter). From ignorance, or more likely carelessness, on the part of the Governor or of his secretary, the license of Mr. Wolfskill to hunt beaver (castor) was written nutria. By this inadvertence of the New Mexican officers, Mr. Wolfskill was possessed of a license to hunt the highly-prized sea otter, which license he could not have obtained from the then Governor of California. A strong objection was made by the officers here against the validity of a license given by the Governor of New Mexico; but through the interposition of Father Sanchez, who was at that time a power in the land, the objections were overcome. With this schooner, the "Refugio," Mr. Wolfskill and his party hunted along the coast of Baja California as far south as Cerros or Cedros Island. They had indifferent luck, and this was about the only trip they made with her; and they afterwards sold her to a Captain Hinkley, who took her to the Sandwich Islands.

Mr. Wolfskill then directed his attention to vineyarding and to general horticulture, which he followed with great success till his death, which occurred October 3, 1866. It was not, however, till some years after his arrival, that he finally made up his mind to settle in the country. He bought and moved onto his homestead vineyard (now known as the Wolfskill Orchard Tract), in March, 1838, with his brother John, who came to California the preceding year. The growth of the city compelled the dividing up of his extensive orchards, situated as they were near the heart of the city, some fourteen years since, and the old house which he built more than sixty years ago, and around which, to so many persons, both living and dead (for he always had a large number of people in his family), so many, many pleasant associations and remembrances have clung, is now being demolished.

Mr. Wolfskill married Magdalena, daughter of Don Jose Ygnacio Lugo and Dona Rafaela Romero Lugo, of Santa Barbara, in January, 1841, by whom he had six children, three of whom are still living, namely, Joseph W. Wolfskill, Mrs. Francisca W. de Shepherd, and Mrs. Magdalena W. de Sabichi. OS grandchildren there is a goodly number. Mrs. Wolfskill died in 1862, the eldest daughter, Juana, in 1863, and Luis, the youngest son, in 1884.

In the year 1841 Mr. Wolfskill planted an orange orchard, the second in California, the first being planted by the Mission Friars at San Gabriel.

In the same year (1841) he went to the upper country to look for a ranch on the then public domain. He selected lands lying on both sides of Putah creek (now in Yolo and Solano counties), and the next year he obtained a grant from Governor Alvarado in his own name, of four square leagues. His brother John took up stock to put on the rancho in 1842. The latter lived on the rancho thereafter till his death, receiving one-half of the same. Of the five brothers Wolfskill who as pioneers settled in California, only one, Mr. Milton Wolfskill, is now living in Los Angeles at an advanced age.

After the old Padres, William Wolfskill and Don Louis Vignes may be called the pioneer growers of citrus fruits in California, a business which is now worth many millions of dollars to the people of California, and especially to the people of Southern California.

William Wolfskill, who was of German-Irish ancestry, had a strong physical constitution and an immense amount of vital energy. During his long and useful life he saw a great deal of the world and picked up not a little of hard, sound sense. He was an extensive reader, and being possessed of a wonderfully retentive memory, he gained a store of information on most subjects of practical human interest that would not have shamed those who have had a more liberal education, and who may have passed their lives with books, instead of on the frontier.

He was a man of no mere professions: What he was, he was, without any pretense.

In religion he believed in the teachings of the New Testament, and, at the last, he received the consolations of the Roman Catholic church. But in all things he loved those prime qualities of human character, simplicity and sincerity. He was one of that large number, of whom there are some in all churches, and more in the great church of outsiders, who believe that a loyal, honest heart and a good life, are the best preparation for death. He was disposed, to as great an extent as any man whom I ever knew, to always place a charitable construction on the acts and words and motives of others. He believed (and acted as though he believed) that there is no room in this world for malice.

William Wolfskill was one of the very few Americans or foreigners, who came to California in early times, who never, as I firmly believe, advised the native Californians to their hurt, or took advantage of the lack of knowledge of the latter of American law, or of the English language, to benefit themselves at the expense of the Califomians. As a consequence, the names of "Don Guillermo" Wolfskill and a very few other Americans of the olden time, were almost worshipped by the former generation of "hijos del pais," who spoke only the Span- ish language, and who, therefore in many, many important matters, needed honest and disinterested advice.

Mr. Wolfskill was one of the most sociable of men. In his intercourse with others he was direct, and sometimes blunt and brusque; but in the language of Lamartine, "Bluntness is the etiquette of sincerity."

In reality he had one of the kindest of hearts. Finally, in honesty, and in most of the sterling qualities that are accounted the base of true manhood, he had few superiors.

I should add that most of the above facts of Mr. Wolfskill's life and especially the account of the building of the first vessel or schooner, the "Refugio," at San Pedro, about which conflicting versions have been promulgated were derived directly from his own lips in 1866; and therefore they may be depended upon as authentic.

In conclusion I am permitted to quote the following comments, in verse, on the foregoing paper, by Miss Gertrude Darlow, a talented member of the staff of the Los Angeles Public Library :


"It is from sturdy, stalwart sons like this
Our State has reared its splendid edifice ;
Men who explored life's hard and dangerous ways,
Who 'scorned delights and lived laborious days.'
The stirring incidents of such careers,
Their toils and struggles, varying hopes and fears,
Tenacious courage, honesty and pride ;
By all of these our past is glorified !


"Now, on the ground their rugged virtues won,
'Tis ours to forward what was well begun.
Cities have risen where they planted trees.
Old land-marks vanish. But the names of these
Brave Pioneers, ah let us not forget:
Time cannot cancel, nor we pay the debt
We owe to lives so simple and sincere,
Whose memories we should cherish and revere."

Also see:


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