A History of Rancho Santa Margarita

Provided by Kathy Loftus

Santa Margarita de Cortona Asistencia

Padre Juan Crespi first recorded the site of Santa Margarita de Cortona on his trip to Monterey in 1769. The lush, fertile valley of Santa Margarita has year-round flowing creeks due to an average rainfall of over 30 inches. This was a natural site for the padres to establish a extension mission. It was believed to have been used as an assistant mission for the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa. It was formally recognized in 1787, with a number of adobes structures in use. A days journey over the Cuesta Pass to San Luis Obispo and to San Miguel Mission–it was a perfect meeting place for Padres, and a layover for travelers along El Camino Real. The valley provided many crops and large herds of livestock were raised here, with the assistance of a large Chumash Indian population.

Built of rock and mortar, the Asistencia is one of the first uses of mortar in California, believed to be built in 1817. The Asistencia consisted of a chapel at the west end with six inner rooms and a granary on the east end. The rock tallow vats are still in place at the creek’s edge where tallow was rendered and hides were tanned, from the large herds of cattle that roamed the grass lands. These hides were often used in place of money. Today, there are still remnants of the red tiles used on the adobe’s roofs. The kiln where they were fired is still evident. When the Mission was flourishing, there were numerous adobe buildings upon the knoll, but today, only the ones that were covered in wood in the 1860’s remain.

Joaquin Estrada

A twenty-six year old Joaquin Estrada received a Mexican land grant of 17,735 acres in 1841 — considered on of the best land grants in all of California, it was named “Queen of the Cattle Ranchos”. Estrada became one of early California’s most prominent citizens, being elected to San Luis Obispo County’s first Board of Supervisors and became the county’s first Treasurer. In 1846, then Governor Pio Pico and General Jose Castro met at Estrada’s home to plan their defeat of the Americans and retain Alta California. It was less than a year later that Fremont came to Rancho Santa Margarita and arrested Estrada and his major domo, still believing their allegiance was to Mexico. Estrada was known for his lavish lifestyle and “Early California Rancho Hospitality“. He was famous for holding grand fiestas that lasted for weeks at a time. He even brought the first circus to the county to entertain his guests at the rancho. The severe droughts of the early 1860’s coupled with his lavish lifestyle, forced him to sell the rancho.

Patrick Murphy

Martin and Mary Murphy came to California two years before the Donner Party and settled in the Santa Clara Valley. They bought the ranch in 1861 for their son Patrick. Under Patrick’s reign the ranch prospered again with large herds of Mexican cattle. He also continued the “Early California Rancho Hospitality” of large fiestas and rodeos, and was famous for his generosity to all. He also purchased Rancho Atascadero and Rancho Asuncion, expanding his land holdings to over 70,000 acres. He was instrumental as a founder of San Luis Obispo County, serving in the California Assembly and was elected State Senator for four terms. His tremendous foresight, is evident in his establishing the town of Santa Margarita in 1889, along with a railhead, he was primilary responsible for the railroad coming the coastal route. He covered and expanded Estrada’s adobe house and other adobe buildings with white clapboard, they look much the same today as they did when Patrick Murphy reigned over the Rancho.  Patrick never recovered from the death of his wife and child in 1875. Once again, a levish lifestyle and the drought of the 1899-1900 forced the sale of the Rancho.

1900 to 2000

The Reis family from San Francisco bought the ranch in 1901. In 1904 they tore down the inner walls of the Asistencia and built a barn over it. More acreage was farmed and large numbers of sheep were run on the ranch. They owned the ranch until the time of William Reis’ passing, although the ranch was leased out for most of Reis’ ownership. William Reis willed the ranch to Stanford University. Stanford held it for a very brief period and sold it to the Robertson family from Texas who owned it from 1975 to 2000, when they sold it to Rob Rossi.


Today the 13,900 acre ranch is owned by three families the Rossi, Filipponi and Wittstrom. A major emphasis has been put into the stewardship of the ranch. With the use of cattle in a high densisity, short duration rotational grazing program, the ranch has seen perennial grasses comeback, a lush riparian habitat thrive and a large oak tree regeneration. Along with the grazing practices on the ranches grassland the ranches 975 acre vineyard was of the first safe harbor agreements using many conservation practices. To enable this better stewardship, the ranch has invested in fencing and water development projects. The ranch has been recognized for its management practices with several stewardship awards.

The ranch because of its unique history has become a favorite place for numerous fundraisers for non-profits in the county, it also hosts many tours and private events. Today as it was 150 years ago, the ranch is famous for its, “Early California Rancho Hospitality!”


~ by pcrailroad on November 19, 2008.

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