by Paul R. Spitzzeri
About 70 people were at the Chino Hills Community Center this evening for my talk, sponsored by the Chino Hills Historical Society, on Merced and Francisca Williams, the teenaged heirs (this happened in California with its holdover of Spanish and Mexican law allowing for women to own real property in contrast to most of the rest of America at the time) of the 37,000-acre Rancho Santa Ana del Chino.
Only 17 and 15 when their father, Isaac Williams, died on 16 September 1856, the young women quickly married two of the ranch employees, John Rains and Robert Carlisle, respectively. It seems clear that the Southern-born and bred gents were expected to assume control of their wives’ inheritance. What was not anticipated was how tumultuous the lives of the two couples was in the following several years.
In terms of context, Isaac Williams built a successful enterprise at Chino largely because of the booming beef trade during the Gold Rush. By his death, however, the rush was basically over, lessening the demand for cattle, while better breeds were being imported from places like Texas. A national depression in 1857 may also have had something of an impact. Then between 1861 and 1865 the dual destruction of flood and drought severely curtailed the cattle industry and the regional economy was struggling.
Though Merced and Francisca were joint owners of Chino, that arrangement did not last long, likely because of friction between their strong-willed husbands. Soon after the Williams estate was settled in 1858, Rains arranged to sell his wife’s half-share to her sister (really to Bob Carlisle) for $25,000, the proceeds of which were largely used to buy Rancho Cucamonga, northeast of Chino.
From that point, Rains poured huge sums into adding vineyards to his new domain, as well as a fine brick house. He acquired interests in two San Diego County ranches and bought the Bella Union Hotel in Los Angeles (which he’d part-owned in the early 1850s during his first sojourn in the town.) All of this was done during the end of the decade and early in the following one and the timing couldn’t have been worse.
By late 1862, the situation was getting dire, especially as the floods of the prior winter gave way to the crippling drought. Rains amassed major debts, borrowed money to stave off further problems, and he and Carlisle both were sued by the state for back taxes owed. That November, Rains left Cucamonga to go to Los Angeles to find more financial relief, but vanished. It took nearly two weeks, but his mangled body was found in an area known as Mud Springs (now San Dimas.)
The case went unsolved, though likely suspects included a gang of thieves infesting the region, his wife and her close friend Ramon Carrillo, and Carlisle, among others. Several people died in the next two years with some connection of Rains, including a man lynched on a ship at San Pedro as he was being sent to San Quentin Prison on an unrelated matter; a new owner of a ranch in modern Pomona who was ambushed out of mistaken identity; a Latino executed for another crime but who claimed he was being blamed for the Rains murder while mentioning Carlisle by name; and Carrillo, who was murdered seconds after he left Cucamonga after a three-weeks stay with Merced Rains.
Merced even had a protective guard of Union Army troops (it was 1864 and the Civil War was one, so Union soldiers were in the region because of its large population of Southern with strong support of the Confederacy.) Several months after John Rains’ death, Robert Carlisle recruited several friends to join him as he badgered Merced into giving him her power of attorney. This meant that Carlisle was in effective control of both Chino and Cucamonga.
In 1865, however, an effort was made in court to strip Carlisle of the power of attorney on the grounds of mismanagement, fraud and other charges. A judge ordered the revocation and appointed Los Angeles County Under-Sheriff Andrew J. King as Merced’s attorney. While this was reason enough for Carlisle to loathe King, he also hated him because the under-sheriff had been responsible for investigating the murder of John Rains, which was never solved.
At the Bella Union Hotel during a wedding celebration, Carlisle confronted King in the bar and attacked him with a knife, inflicting a serious wound on the latter’s hand. The next day, King’s brothers arrived at the hotel (readers of this blog may recall a “Curious Cases” program on the Kings, including an 1855 fight in El Monte that featured the King brothers killing a neighbor to avenge the murder by that man of their father.)
With little time wasted, an epic gun battle broke out in the hotel bar and on Main Street, leaving Frank King and Carlisle dead and Houston King severely wounded, though he recovered. The battle was so significant the Common [City] Council banned the carrying of weapons in town limits, except for police officials and passers-by, though the ordinance was amply honored in the breach.
Merced Rains saw her situation worsened, especially after a foreclosure of a mortgage taken out by her late husband on Cucamonga took place, leading eventually to the loss of the ranch to Los Angeles banker Isaias W. Hellman. Merced, married twice after John Rains’s death, was essentially financially ruined and lived over forty years after John Rains. In 1907, she died at the home of her daughter Fannie and son-in-law, attorney and former California governor Henry T. Gage.
As for Francisca Carlisle, her fate was far different than that of her sister. She retained ownership of Chino and, as the regional economy recovered and expanded, leading to the area’s first significant growth boom from the late 1860s to mid 1870s, she reaped the benefit. The ranch was ably managed by Joseph Bridger, while Francisca and her children by Carlisle moved to Los Angeles. She married Dr. Frederick MacDougall, who was mayor of Los Angeles and nearing the end of his term when he died in 1878.
Francisca, a wealthy widow in her mid-40s, shocked her family and raised eyebrows in Los Angeles when she went to San Francisco and eloped with Edward Jesurun, who was nearly 20 years her junior. The marriage lasted, however, and Francisca continued to enjoy a significant amount of wealth after she sold Chino in 1881 to copper mining magnate Richard Gird. She died in 1924 in Palo Alto near San Jose in circumstances diametrically opposed to those of her sister.
If people know this story at all, it’s usually approached from the perspective of the “male leads,” that is, John Rains and Robert Carlisle, though an excellent book, Doña Merced and Rancho Cucamonga, puts her in the spotlight. Yet, Francisca Carlisle’s story went largely untold and it seems that her life in conjunction with that of her sister really deserves more attention.
The role of women, especially young ones, with property is notable, especially because the expectation was that men, husbands or otherwise, were expected to assume control of that property. In this case, John Rains and Robert Carlisle proved to be less than stellar in the management of the property, well, at least, Rains—though Carlisle’s potential role in his brother-in-law’s death and his machinations with his widowed sister-in-law are notable.
It was a remarkable story and it was great fun to share it with an eager audience. Hopefully, we’ll be able to continue the story of the Chino Ranch, which is a near neighbor to the Rancho La Puente of William Workman and John Rowland, at a future presentation.