Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Abel Stearns: A Transitional Figure

The following is from a work-in-progress called The Town I Live In: A History of Fullerton.

Just as Pio Pico, the last Mexican governor of California, represents an important (and representative) transitional figure in California's history, stretching from the Native American Era to the Spanish Era to the Mexican Era, to the American Era, so does Abel Stearns, who once owned nearly all the lands that encompass present day Orange County, including Fullerton.  Who was he?  To answer this question, I just read a very interesting chapter on him from local historian Phil Brigandi's book Orange County Chronicles.  Here's a little bit about Abel Stearns, aka Horse-Face.

Abel Stearns, aka Horse-Face

He was born in Massachusetts in 1798, but was orphaned at age 12.  After spending his adolescence traveling on trading ships, he settled in Mexico in the early 1820s, where he became a Mexican citizen.  This was just after the Mexican War for Independence, and about 20 years before the Mexican-American War.  Stearns eventually moved to Los Angeles in the 1830s.  This was when Los Angeles (and all of California) was still a part of Mexico.  This was the era of the Californios--Spanish-speaking residents of Alta ("Upper") California.

In LA, Stearns opened a store dealing with cow hides and tallow (oil), which were the main exports of California in those days.  The wealthiest California landowners at this time were almost all cattle ranchers.  Abel became a sort of "middle-man" between the producers of cow hides, and the merchant ships.  He was very successful at this, eventually establishing a warehouse near present-day San Pedro in 1834.  The following year, he got into a knife-fight with a drunken sailor, who cut up Stearns' face pretty bad.  His ugly face earned him the nick-name "Caro de Caballo" aka "Horse Face".

What he lacked in beauty, he made up in wealth.  In 1841, at age 43, he married the 14-year-old daughter of a wealthy rancher.  Her name was Arcadia Bandini.  The following year, Horse-Face purchased his first rancho from governor Jose Figueroa, the 28,000-acre Rancho Los Alamitos, the first of many large ranchos he would purchase from debt-ridden Californios.  The loss of the Mexican-American War proved disastrous to Californios, but provided a nice business opportunity for the Yankee Abel Stearns.  By the late 1850s, Horse-Face had acquired the following ranchos: Los Coyotes, La Labra, Las Bolsas, Yorba, and San Juan Cajon de Santa Ana.  At the height of his weath, Stearns owned around 200,000 acres of Southern California land.

Several factors contributed to Stearns' decline.  The dwindling of the Gold Rush hit him pretty hard--he'd made a fortune selling beef to gold-hungry miners in the 1850s.  Then, there was a massive drought in 1863-64, which took a major toll on his cattle.  By the late 1860s, Stearns began selling off his vast holdings to pay off debts.  Along with his friend Alfred Robinson and other businessmen, he formed a real estate company, which sold off subdivided acreage to prospective settlers and town-builders.  Two of these town builders were George and Edward Amerige, who bought the land which would be called Fullerton.

Abel Stearns died a rich man in 1871.

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