On This Day: The Probate of Abel Stearns, 27 September 1871

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As noted elsewhere on this blog, Jonathan Temple was the second American or European to live in Los Angeles, arriving in the remote Mexican pueblo in 1828.  The following year, Abel Stearns, another Massachusetts native, settled in town.  Temple and Stearns grew up in towns, Reading and Lunenberg, that were only about forty miles apart, and they had another key facet to the lives in common.  Temple opened the first store in Los Angeles and Stearns then followed suit and the two men were the main merchants in the pueblo for years.

Another commonality is that each acquired ranchos along the coast south of Los Angeles.  Temple purchased Rancho Los Cerritos, owned by his wife’s relatives, in 1843, while Stearns acquired the adjacent Rancho Los Alamitos the year prior.  The men also married local women with Rafaela Cota of Santa Barbara becoming Temple’s spouse while Stearns wedded Arcadia Bandini, reputed to be a great beauty.  There was a substantial age difference, as Stearns was over 40 and Arcadia but 14.  The two were childless and remained married for thirty years until his death, residing in a large single-story adobe house on Main Street called El Palacio (The Palace, though the name was more than grandiose.)

Stearns probate testimony p1
This and the following five scans are of original documents from the probate of Abel Stearns and dated 27 September 1871, about a month after the Los Angeles merchant, political figure and land baron died.

In addition to his Los Angeles store, Stearns had a warehouse at San Pedro to receive imported goods and he built an early flour mill in the upper (northern) part of the pueblo.  In spring 1842 when California’s first significant discovery of gold took place north of Los Angeles near present Santa Clarita, Stearns was the first to send samples of the mineral to the United States mint in Philadelphia (Jonathan Temple’s half-brother, Pliny, later F.P.F., who came to town the year before, sent gold back east as well.)  One of Stearns’ gold shipments reputedly yielded $35,000, a small fortune for the period.

Over the years, Stearns held a number of political offices, including alcalde (basically, mayor) of Los Angeles after the American seizure of the pueblo in 1847; a member of the ayuntamiento [town council] and then the Common [City] Council; county supervisor; and state assembly member.  He was elected by locals to represent the Los Angeles region in the convention that wrote California’s first constitution in late 1849, not quite a year before statehood.

Stearns probate testimony p2

By the mid-1860s, Stearns amassed an impressive portfolio of real estate, especially ranchos in the region.  Adjacent and near to his Los Alamitos, he acquired Rancho La Bolsa Chica, Rancho Las Bolsas, Rancho Los Coyotes, and Rancho La Habra and the nearby Rancho San Juan Cajón de Santa Ana.  Most of these properties fall within west and north Orange County.  Further east, he owned Rancho Jurupa and Rancho La Sierra, near modern Riverside.

While cattle ranching was prosperous, ownership of lands like these was often profitable.  But, after the end of the Gold Rush by the mid-1850s and floods and droughts that followed in the first half devastated the local cattle economy, being land rich and cash poor brought ruin to many.  Stearns was, late in life, in dire financial straits, but was able to find assistance.

Stearns probate testimony p3

Stearns’ friend Alfred Robinson found some partners to form the Robinson Trust, which took control of what became known collectively as the “Stearns Ranchos.”  The timing was perfect, because, following the end of the drought and the conclusion of the Civil War in 1865, greater Los Angeles emerged from the economic doldrums and the first sustained growth period in the area took place.

The nearly 180,000 acres of the Stearns properties were subdivided and sold largely in 40-acre plots and there were plenty of new immigrants and local investors who purchased land from the trust.  Stearns was in near constant conflict with his partners over the handling of the scheme, but it not only succeeded in lifting him out of significant debt, but made him another fortune.

Stearns probate testimony p4

Stearns, however, did not live long enough to enjoy the fruits of his newfound success.  He died on 23 August 1871, basically leaving Arcadia Bandini de Stearns his sole heir.  His estate then went to the Probate Court, which was then also the Los Angeles County Court.  One of the appraisers of the late land baron’s property was F.P.F. Temple and he received papers issued for the Stearns probate.

Today’s highlighted artifacts are two original documents from that process.  The first is a four-page transcript, from 27 September 1871, of the testimony of Samuel B. Caswell and Charles H. Forbes concerning their views of Stearns’ sound mind and body when he issued his will.

Caswell deposed that Stearns “left a large property, both real and personal” and he acknowledged that the deceased made out his will on 12 March 1870 in his presence, as well as in that of Forbes and ex-governor Pío Pico.  He noted that “Mr. Stearns was in full possession of his mental faculties, and of perfectly sound and active mind and memory.”  There was no “restraint” or “undue influence” upon him that would lead to “fraudulent misrepresentations” so that he was “in every respect competent to make a valid will” providing for “an intelligent and free distribution of his estate.”

Stearns probate will certificate front

Forbes, who was Stearns’ clerk in recent years, followed by corroborating Caswell’s statements as to the validity of the will.  Moreover, he continued, “the document, in its body, is in my writing and was drawn under and according to the direction of Mr. Stearns.”  Forbes added that Stearns died while on a business trip to San Francisco and concluded that “as his bookkeeper and clerk, I had excellent opportunity to remark Mr. Stearns’ condition of mind” when he made out the document.  He concluded that Stearns “was in all respects a perfectly competent testator at the time of its execution.”

There is also a printed “Certificate of Proof of Will, and the Facts Found,” filed on the 27th, in which County Judge Ygnacio Sepulveda certified that Stearns’ will was admitted to probate and that the document was signed in the presence of Pico, Forbes and Caswell.

As noted above, Stearns’ heir was his widow Arcadia Bandini and she became a very wealthy woman as a result of the work the Robinson Trust did in those years before Stearns’ death.  A few years later, she married Robert S. Baker, a partner in stock raising with Edward F. Beale, the owner of the massive Rancho Tejon (one part-owned by Jonathan Temple.)  Beale and Baker also purchased a substantial portion of Rancho La Puente in the mid-1870s.  Baker, in 1872, acquired the Rancho San Vicente y Santa Monica.

Stearns probate will certificate

In 1874, Baker sold three-fourths of the San Vicente y Santa Monica to John P. Jones, a U.S. Senator and mining tycoon from Nevada.  Jones began the planning of the town of Santa Monica and wanting rail access from it to Los Angeles.  Finding that F.P.F. Temple’s Los Angeles and Independence Railroad was in the planning stages of a line from the city to silver mines in Inyo County, Jones became a majority stakeholder and supplanted Temple as president (the latter moved to treasurer) of the railroad.

Santa Monica was launched in 1875 as the Los Angeles and Independence line to Los Angeles was being built—it was completed in the fall just as Temple’s Temple and Workman bank went into suspension due to a crash in the state’s economy.  The downturn stymied the growth of Santa Monica and the Los Angeles and Independence, which was sold by Jones to the Southern Pacific in 1877.

Main St from Temple Block unatt 2 1880s
This unattributed photo, in the Homestead collection and from the 1880s, taken from the Temple Block, shows the Baker Block, with its imposing central tower on the east side of Main Street.  U.S. 101 goes through the site now.  Further up the street is the Pico House and Plaza.

As for Robert and Arcadia Baker, they built the Arcadia Hotel, a beautiful facility overlooking the Pacific at Santa Monica, and, in 1878, razed El Palacio to build the Baker Block, a large business building with distinctive architectural features.  The structure stood until the construction of U.S. 101 through downtown and the freeway runs through the site once occupied by the prominent commercial building.  The Bakers and Jones also gave land for a home for retired and ill soldiers that now is the Veterans Administration facility in Westwood.

Santa Monica from Hotel Arcadia 1890s
Another photo from the museum’s holdings and a circa 1890s view of Santa Monica, including the former line of the Los Angeles and Independence Railroad in the center, from the Hotel Arcadia.

Baker died in 1894 and Arcadia lived for almost another two decades as one of the wealthiest women in the region.  She resided in a fine home on the coast in Santa Monica until her death in 1912 at the age of 87, leaving an estate of up to $15 million, a huge sum for the period.  She had no will, surprisingly enough, and extended litigation ensued with many claimants with a settlement for relatives finally obtained.

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