History Pages: 7 - The Frontiersmen

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The Frontiersmen

Shopping center on Graham Hill Road

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. The first to record his visits to California was Jedediah Smith. Smith visited San Jose and Monterey, but came no closer to Santa Cruz. A second early arrival in California who later wrote about his adventures was James O. Pattie. Like Smith, Pattie probably got no closer to us than Monterey (in 1829-30).

By the mid-1830s, a number of these enterprising frontiersmen had accumulated in the Monterey Bay area, including Isaac Graham, Job Dye, Prewitt Sinclair, Joseph L. Majors, William Ware, Henry Naile, and possibly others. Graham opened a distillery at Natividad (now an area of strawberry farms just north-east of Salinas) so they’d have a place to socialize. In 1936 an ambitious young Californio named Juan Bautista 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 capture Monterey and declare himself governor, but he and the Americans didn’t remain allies for long. Dye later recounted his adventures in a Santa Cruz Sentinel interview. Another member of the group was George Nidever, who doesn't seem to have come to the Santa Cruz area, but published a memoir.

The first Graham associate to make his mark in the Santa Cruz area was Majors. He 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.

Trouble found the foreigners in 1840. The presence of so many armed men of dubious loyalty made now-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 the area, finding a new home (with the help of Majors) and establishing a new distillery at Rancho Zayante.

USGS map showing Majors naming

Over the next few years, things started looking up for the former frontiersmen. The Majors grist mill at Rancho San Agustin sold flour as far away as Santa Clara and Monterey. He later built a water-powered mill upstream from the site of the old Mission mill, on Santa Cruz Creek (near the upper end of today's Laurel Street). 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 flows through 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 associate, Henry Naile (aka Neale or Nyall), was later killed in a gunfight in front of the Eagle Hotel on the Mission Plaza. Dye left the area for a number of years before returning to live out his life in Corralitos. Some of the other 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", History of California (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]
  • Pokriots, Marion Dale. The Joseph Majors Story (available at SCPL)
  • Stuart Thornton, Graham Hell, Good Times online, accessed June 8, 2023.

Next: History Pages: 8 - The Wagon Trains