Yesterday at the Placerita Canyon Nature Center, a very thorough and very interesting presentation was made on the Francisco López gold discovery by Alan Pollack, president of the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society.
Pollack obviously spent considerable time trying to sort out fact from fiction and history from myth as he discussed early gold discoveries in California, those documented and asserted; the López family history and the very limited information known about Francisco; and then carefully covered several major sources of information about the discovery.
With respect to the first point, Pollack noted that, while the López discovery was the first major documented find, there was a very interesting document found that showed an 1838 deposit at the Philadelphia national mint of gold dust that was labeled as being from California. He noted that there were accounts that claimed earlier instances of the location of gold. Of course, who knows how many discoveries were made by the native Indians residing in what became California for thousands and thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans by 1770.
Pollack also discussed a bit of the López family genealogy to identify the Francisco was a cousin of Gerónimo and Catalina Lopez, the owners for decades of the López Adobe. Their son, José Jesús, in a 1916 interview stated that Francisco was college-educated and studies mineralogy, so that this training was obviously essential in his find. Francisco was also a part-owner of the massive Rancho San Francisco, encompassing today’s Santa Clarita Valley, which was the property of his sister and her husband, the del Valles. Although Francisco would up being part-owner of other ranches, including Tujunga and Cahuenga, he seems to have died in some obscurity, as no record of his death or burial site have been found and he is missing from even the most basic of public records.
As to the main sources of information, Pollack shared an image of a New York newspaper article from October 1842 that briefly discussed the discovery. He then spent some time going through later, more detailed sources, the earliest of these being a letter in 1867 by longtime Los Angeles merchant and land baron Abel Stearns and the last from 1930 surrounded the landmark status bestowed on the Placerita Canyon site said to have been the very spot on which López discovered the gold.
Stearns identified the find as from April 1842 and wrote that López and some ranch hands stopped in the canyon while searching for lost horses and, during a rest break, he dug up some wild onions on which were flakes of gold. This set off a rush, mainly composed of hundreds of experienced gold miners coming up from the northern mining state of Sonora in Mexico proper.
While Stearns noted that he sold gold dust to the mint in Philadelphia, there were others, too, that Pollack did not have time to discuss. One was merchant Pliny F. Temple, who sent dust to a brother in Massachusetts to buy goods to send back to Mexican California–these are documented by surviving letters dating from 1842 to 1844.
A rather interesting tale from John Murray discussed a Mexican mineralogist who showed pebbles having gold in them when he was visiting Santa Barbara and it was claimed that Francisco López was present when this took place, inspring his own search. Murray, however, claimed that the gold discovery was actually in 1841, though not specified as to date.
James M. Guinn, an educator and historian of early Los Angeles and southern California, wrote a lengthy 1895 article in the San Francisco Call, analyzing the known accounts and declaring that there was no way to know the absolute truth of what happened with the discovery, though he did say it was likely early 1842 and that López was the discoverer. Guinn also went on to state that while James Marshall, who found the gold in 1848 that launched the Gold Rush, received a small pension and a statue, López had been forgotten.
Interestingly, Isaac Given write a letter to Guinn, saying that he came to California from New Mexico at the end of 1841 with a group commonly known by two of its presumed leaders, Workman (the father-in-law of the above-mentioned Pliny Temple) and Rowland, and that he was shown gold dust from the discovery by Stearns. Other accounts, including one by a man alleged to have been 115 years old, assigned dates of 1838 and 1840 for the find.
Perhaps the most persistent of the chroniclers was Francisca López de Bilderrain, a relative of Francisco, who claimed that Catalina López, of the López Adobe, told her that she was present, as a young girl of 12 or 13, when the first anniversary of the find was observed in 1843. Based on this, Bilderrain, Catalina’s daughter Ramona López de Shaug, and Charles Prudhomme, a local history enthusiast, ventured into Placerita Canyon, where the tree said to have been the site of the discovery was pointed out based on Catalina’s recollection. Prudhomme wrote a 1922 article in the annual publication of the Historical Society of Southern California based on this version. Five years later, Catholic priest and church historian Father Zephyrin Englehardt reproduced Catalina’s account in a book he wrote.
Finally, there was a dedication of the purported discovery site on 9 March 1930, said to have been the 88th anniversary of López’s find. For that event, a couple of men prominent in the creation of the landmark status came up with a new wrinkle in the story, grandiosely called “The Oak of the Golden Dream,” in which Francisco was not only taking a break from hunting the roaming horses, but fell into a slumber, during which he had a dream of finding gold. Lo and behold, the gold was found.
An affidavit was secured from Bilderrain, stating that the information she received from Catalina López was true and that this was relayed to her at a 1914 family reunion. Meantime, local ranch owner Frank Walker donated the site of the tree for the dedication, which featured two plaques and speeches that went to great lengths to play up the importance of the discovery and to assure it a place in California history less overshadowed by the great Gold Rush of six years later. Pollack’s reading of some of the speeches brought a bit of laughter for its overwrought language!
Bilderrain added to the earnest attempt to redress the wrong perpertrated on Francisco López by writing another version that was submitted to the California State Library in July 1930, including the alleged exclamation of Francisco when he discovered the gold: something along the lines of “Gold! I have found it! Gold!!” She also claimed there were numerous celebrations in Los Angeles when the word reached the little village of the find, that an emissary was dispatched to Mexico City to alert the federal government, and other embellishments.
In 1959, Placerita Canyon Nature Center was dedicated and a reenactment of the discovery was presented. In later years, the long-vanished original plaques were replaced by new ones, including a designation of the site as a California state historic landmark and another by a local organization. The tree, purportedly 500 years old, still stands just a few feet north of Placerita Canyon Road.
As Pollack noted in his excellent telling, however, the “true history” of the discovery is really unknown, from the actual date, to the real location, and details associated with the event. He summed up by noting that the only person who could have told the story accurately was Francisco López, but he, evidently, left no version behind. Not surprisingly, as with many notable historical events, the story has become more embellished and expanded over time, but the “Oak of the Golden Dream” has moved into legend and will almost certainly remain there.