It can be said that Nicolas Den is one of the most important people in the history of Goleta. He landed here by chance and never left. Over the course of his life, he changed Goleta and Santa Barbara for the better. It’s remarkable there isn’t a street, or anything in the area named after Den. We won’t cover all his accomplishments on this page, but we’ll hit the highlights and tell you where to learn more.
Nicholas Augustus Henry Den was born into a wealthy family in the County Kilkenny, Ireland in 1812. He studied medicine here, at Trinity College in Dublin. At the age of 22, just before he was to graduate, he got news that his family had run into serious financial problems, and they were unable to finance his final term. But just as that door suddenly slammed shut, another door opened. A cousin running a successful business in Newfoundland was requesting the assistance of young Nicholas. After the sour disappointment of his medical education ending prematurely, the wild unknown opportunities across the sea sounded very appealing to him. He booked passage immediately for the New World.
When he got to St. John’s, Newfoundland, he eagerly went right to work for his cousin. Unfortunately, the work required of him was little more than being his cousin’s servant, and this did not sit well with Den. Accustomed to being an upper-class citizen, he quickly tired of being bossed around and forced to do dirty jobs for very little pay. After all, he was just months away from being an M.D.! So, when he was ordered to polish his cousin’s muddy boots, he snapped and swung the boots at his cousin’s face, knocking his cousin to the floor with a vicious blow. A fight ensued and Den left his cousin unconscious on the floor. Realizing he could be jailed for his attack, he rushed to the waterfront and signed on the first ship available as a deckhand under a false name.
Young Nicholas soon found himself in Boston where he spent a long, miserably freezing winter working odd jobs. Working on the docks, the Yankee sailors were constantly raving about the year round sunshine, the beautiful Spanish women, and the choice land, free for the taking in California. He couldn’t return to Ireland a failure, so in 1836 he got a spot on the brig Kent, a hide and tallow trading ship that was headed for California. He signed on as a regular deckhand, but when the captain learned Den was college educated, he was promoted to supercargo, the ship’s bookkeeper, which was much more to Den’s liking and his skill set.
About five months later, they were on the west coast. The first stop for the Kent was required to be Monterey, the capital of Alta California, and Den was already impressed by the land. As he met the people in town he was overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity of the Californios. During a business transaction, young Den met one of the most important men in the future of California, Thomas Larkin, and a long lasting friendship began that day. Den mentioned his desire to possibly stay and settle in Monterey, but Larkin was quick to suggest he continue down to Santa Barbara instead. Larkin had stayed with a friend there named Daniel Hill and he had loved it.
The Kent resumed working its way down the coast and in the stormy December of 1836, they sailed into the calm of the Santa Barbara Channel. Den was stunned by the beauty of what is today known as the Gaviota Coast, it reminded him of pictures he had seen of the French Riviera. They soon arrived at Santa Barbara, a small, dusty pueblo of 900 people.
The beach was crowded with ox carts loaded with cowhides for trade. Nicholas went ashore to keep records of all the transactions; California hides and tallow for hardware, liquor and other dry goods. The interpreter for all the trading was a distinguished gentleman named Daniel Hill, the same guy Larkin in Monterey had mentioned. Hill had married into the Ortega family, one of most important Santa Barbara families, and he was well respected in the community. Den and Hill got to talking and an invitation to a dinner at Hill’s home that evening was accepted.
Nicholas Den walked to Hill’s beautiful home in Santa Barbara (211 East Carrillo) and enjoyed a wonderful feast followed by brandy and cigars. The more they talked, the more Den and Hill realized they had a lot in common. Hill suggested Den stay in Santa Barbara, since a doctor was desperately needed, license or not! Nicholas was so enchanted with the quaint little town and the Hill family that he decided then and there he would not be travelling on with the Kent. Nicholas did not realize it, but at the dinner table that night was the future love of his life, Hill’s 9 year old daughter Rosa. The Kent sailed without its supercargo, and Nicholas Den was no longer a man of the sea, he was ready to become a Californio. Daniel Hill invited Den to ride with him up to his in-law’s ranch at Tajiguas Canyon, where he was building a new home for his family.
The long ride up through the Goleta Valley, over the Gaviota Coast and into Tajiguas Canyon was life changing for Den. Hill pointed out the sights along the way, including the fertile Dos Pueblos Canyon and its flowing creek. The lush, green canyon reminded Nicholas of Ireland and he decided that day he had to become a ranchero and make this his home. With help from his new mentor Daniel Hill, Nicholas was signed on as an apprentice vaquero at the Ortega family’s sprawling Refugio Ranch. There he would work long hard days and learn the things required of a Californio, including espanol. The acquisition of the Dos Pueblos Ranch became his sole ambition in life.
There was no better place to learn the ways of a California ranchero than an apprenticeship at the Ortega family’s 26,000-acre Refugio Ranch. For the first year of Den’s life in California, that ranch was his home, school and church. He also worked at the new Tajiguas home of his friends the Hill’s, and all the other Ortega homesteads hidden in the canyons along the coast. He took to speaking only Spanish, and in his letters back to Ireland he began spelling his first name in the Spanish style, Nicolas. All steps towards becoming a Californio.
About once a month, Nicolas would spend a day in Santa Barbara, doing what he could to help folks with health problems. Despite never actually getting his degree, Den was the closest thing Santa Barbara had to a doctor, so he was very busy, and popular in the small town. A respected man worthy of the title Don Nicolas. Bloodletting was his specialty, but he delivered lots of babies and helped with the outbreaks of smallpox, dysentery, pneumonia and the syphilis that was decimating the last of the Chumash. He studied the Chumash language and became enamored by the herbs the Chumash used for medicine. Den became a friend of the Chumash and soon an expert on the natural medicines his new home had provided the natives for centuries.
In addition to all his other activities, Nicolas began farming on a small parcel west of Dos Pueblos as a squatter. He grew produce that he traded for goods and services in town or with the visiting trading vessels. When the cash poor Den was offered 500 head of cattle at a discounted price, the padres at the mission stepped up to pay for the herd as a thanks for all his medical help. He built a corral on the Dos Pueblos land he was squatting on and took another step towards becoming a California Don. As his herd increased, so did his wealth, and in 1840 he bought a small city lot on today’s State Street. When his bid to build a home there was refused because he was not a naturalized citizen, he filed the necessary documents and in 1841, Don Nicolas Den became a Mexican citizen.
Now that he was a Mexican citizen, Nicolas applied for a land grant. As insane as this sounds nowadays, the government was just giving away huge tracts of California land to qualified recipients. Den applied for his precious Los Dos Pueblos, 15,500 acres of prime coastal real estate extending from today’s Fairview Avenue to Las Varas Canyon, just below El Capitan Canyon. The rancho was crossed by 12 seasonally running streams. As far as land grants went, this was a relatively small one to ask for.
The application process required a hand drawn map, or diseno, of the grant requested. This was Den’s diseno drawing of his dream ranch. In 1842, he was awarded the grant and his destiny was fulfilled, he was now a California Ranchero. There was an official ceremony at the site with the Hill family and some local officials. After the formalities were finished, Den was asked where he would like to build his home. He pointed to the bluffs and stated he would build his casa where the natives had lived for centuries.
Young Rosa Hill spoke up and said that the natives lived on the bluffs because their livelihood was from the sea. But a ranchero should live inland, where the fog doesn’t cover the sun most the day. The others agreed, and Nicolas concurred, he would build his home inland, protected from the fog and winter winds and beside El Camino Real. He already knew that he would spend the rest of his life there with Rosa….
And so, the following summer, Don Nicolas Den was married to Rafaela Rosa Antonia Hill y Ortega, daughter of Daniel Hill and Rafaela Ortega de Hill. “Dr. Den” had become the most eligible bachelor in town with his blue eyes, golden hair and college education, but everyone knew Rosa Hill would be the lucky one. Unfortunately for all the Santa Barbara socialites, the ceremony was very low key, and it had to be held at the Santa Ines mission, since Rosa lived at Tajiguas.
The young newlyweds, (the groom 31 and the bride 16), moved into the brand new home Nicolas had built for them in Santa Barbara on the corner of State and Figueroa, the site of today’s La Arcada building. Senora Den enjoyed her new large adobe, one of the finest in town, thanks to the skills of Den’s new father-in-law, Daniel Hill. It featured a wood floor, a shingled roof, real glass windows, and the only full sized glass French doors in town. Den provided the upmost in modern comforts and several hired servants for his new bride, and they would be needed since she would be pregnant for most of the next two decades!
A few months after his marriage, Den’s younger brother Richard arrived unannounced in Santa Barbara from Ireland. Nicolas had not seen any of his family for ten years. Richard had gotten his doctorate in medicine, and he had made the long journey as a ship’s surgeon. Like Nicolas, Richard came for a short visit, and ended up staying for the rest of his life, making quite a career for himself as a doctor in Los Angeles. Their other brother William had also come to visit, but he died a few years later in San Francisco.
With his personal life in order, and his bride comfortable in her new townhome, Don Nicolas began to focus on expanding his Dos Pueblos Ranch. He built an adobe ranch house up away from the beach and near the highway as instructed by his young wife.
The Dos Pueblos Ranch cattle brand was simple enough, just Den’s initials joined together. He also had a second brand made for his wife and future children, and every third calf was branded with that one, ensuring their future livelihood. Don Nicolas became a successful cattle rancher and expanded his land holdings into the Santa Ynez valley and the Arroyo Burro area. In 1844 he became a father to his first child, Catarina Maria Den.
While Den was busy ranching, he was still active in town. Around this time, the people elected Den as alcade, or mayor, of Santa Barbara. Quite an honor for an Irishman that landed here on a whim. Unfortunately, his new duties would keep him away from his Dos Pueblos ranch more than he liked, since California was heading into a very unsettled political period. The Mexican governor had been forced out of office and his replacement, Pio Pico, declared a “Decree of Confiscation” on all mission properties.
Governor Pico and others believed the mission priests were still loyal to the Catholic Church in Spain. The Mexican government ruled that half the mission lands should be given back to the native people, but that never happened. Instead, most mission property was bought up by government officials or their wealthy friends. The California missions had some very prime real estate that the corrupt politicians sold for premium prices.
One by one, the missions were being sold off or rented out. The beautifully ornate churches were being made into military outposts, housing units, stables for livestock, or simply demolished and left in ruins. Father Duran, who gave Den the money to buy his first cattle, begged him to do something to save the Queen of the Missions. Don Nicolas, a devoted catholic, teamed up with his father-in-law Daniel Hill, and in early 1846 they leased the Santa Barbara mission, and its real estate, from Governor Pico for $1200 in gold for one year. Father Duran was able to keep his church going uninterrupted. Santa Barbara is the only California mission that was able to remain under the control of the Franciscan priests since the day of its founding, thanks to Nicolas Den and Daniel Hill. This saving grace was not a bad business deal for Den either, since the mission lands included the huge San Marcos Rancho and over 2,000 cattle and sheep that came with it!
The 35,000-acre San Marcos Rancho that came with the mission lease (#34) was perfect for Den’s expanding cattle herd. The Santa Ynez River flowed through it, there were plenty of springs in the hills and the valley floor had plenty of grasslands. The only downside were the predators. Cougars, bobcats, packs of coyotes and huge grizzly bears were all plentiful, and rattlesnakes were everywhere. Den could hire men to clear out the dangerous beasts, but before he would spend all that time and resources on this property, he would want to own it, rather than lease it. The political climate was stormy, and his lease could be nullified overnight. Pico offered to sell the ranch at an astronomical price, but Den had more cattle than gold, so he needed an investor.
His brother Richard had become a successful doctor in Los Angeles, and he was so adored there that he had unlimited credit for any venture he saw fit. In 1846, he agreed to partner with Nicolas to purchase the mission lands, terminating the previous lease. This allowed Don Nicolas to begin working the massive San Marcos Rancho immediately. Years later, the brothers would get in a legal battle over this ranch and their relationship never recovered.
1846 was a very busy year for Nicolas Den. California was in the process of becoming part of the United States and acting as the alcade for Santa Barbara, Don Nicolas had to deal with the tense situation. His calm and reasonable demeanor were instrumental in keeping the peace in town when a small American military presence camped in town and declared martial law with a strict curfew. While the local men resented the Stars and Stripes flying over their town, the senoritas were enamored by the gringos. When a large group of Mexican nationals came up from Los Angeles to fight the Yankees, the local women warned the small group of American soldiers, and they escaped towards La Cumbre Peak. The Californios set fire to the foothills in an effort to smoke the Yankees out, starting a massive wildfire. Den rushed into town to diffuse the situation and was promptly arrested with all other local gringos. When the hostile Angelinos learned that alcade Den was the brother of their chief surgeon, Don Ricardo Den, they released him and all the other prisoners and headed back south.
Den realized as the Commandante of Santa Barbara he would have to move his family back into town to avoid further problems, at least until this war was settled. Despite some close calls, Santa Barbara never had any bloodshed and a few months later, in April of 1847, a cease fire was signed by both sides. California officially became a state in September 1850.
Back at Dos Pueblos, Den had built his family a comfortable adobe that he called the Casa Grande. Not nearly as extravagant as the town house, it was still regarded as a showplace on El Camino Real.
The casa was surrounded by lush landscaping and acres of orchards providing peaches, pears, pomegranates, apricots, figs, apples and olives. The head gardener was Pedro, a native of one of the Chumash villages at Dos Pueblos. Inside, expensive Oriental rugs, mahogany furniture, Irish silverware and an endless supply of fine china custom made in Great Britain. It was very comfortable and the scene for countless fiestas and grand dinners. The Den home would stand on the west rim of the canyon until demolished in 1936.
The following year, gold was discovered in northern California and all hell broke loose, literally. Nicolas and his brother Richard were both tempted by the powerful lure of easy money, and they both went up to see the madness for themselves. Don Nicolas was disgusted by the lawlessness and greed that were the order of the day, but he found another way to get rich without panning for gold. All those gold crazed men were starving for beef, and Dos Pueblos had plenty of that. He hurried home and immediately rounded up a thousand head of cattle and had his men drive them north. For hide and tallow, Den got $2 a head, for beef in Gold Country he got $50 a head! His brother also profited greatly by being Dr. Den for all these desperate men that gladly paid in gold nuggets.
Herd after herd of Dos Pueblos cattle were assembled and driven north and Don Nicolas made hundreds of thousands of dollars over the next year. Unfortunately, he had to spend most of his time in the San Francisco area, arranging deals for his massive beef sales. While in northern California, he made lots of connections in the state, and he became one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in California. He was put under intense pressure to run for office, but he insisted he was a ranchero, not a politician.
With all the gold nuggets and desperate men floating around California, Santa Barbara and Goleta were eventually infested by thieves. The most successful of them being the suave and debonair Jack Powers, who listed his occupation as a gambler. He had been in the American regiment stationed at Santa Barbara and his military career had taught him how to lead and organize men. In 1850, Powers decided to make sleepy Santa Barbara his base of operations for his new project, highway robbery. Well dressed, sophisticated and an excellent rider, he got a job as wrangler for the De La Guerra family. This gave him easy access to a supply of fast ponies that were used to wreak havoc and escape quickly on El Camino Real. In a move he soon regretted, Nicolas Den leased a parcel of Arroyo Burro land, near today’s Foothill Road bridge, to Powers and that became his base of illegal operations. Powers and his gang were soon in complete control of Santa Barbara, and he became Den’s arch enemy. Powers tried to steal livestock and land from Den and hired assassins that attempted to kill Don Nicolas. The town became so dangerous for Den and his family, he sold his beautiful home to the Catholic church for a bargain price and moved out to Dos Pueblos permanently. Power’s men killed Den’s right-hand man, but in the end, Don Nicolas was able to peacefully force Powers to leave town. There is much more to this story, but that sums it up for the sake of brevity.
In the 1850’s, the post Gold Rush San Francisco was crime ridden and gang infested, so vigilante groups were formed to clean up the town, resulting in further lawlessness. One fugitive of vigilante justice was a heavy-set judge named Ned McGowan, and he was on the run from the hangman’s rope when he ended up at Rancho Dos Pueblos. He had a $20,000 bounty on his head when he was discovered on the beach and brought up to the Casa Grande. Den was no fan of vigilante justice, so he agreed to let him stay. Since their adobe was right by El Camino Real, and bounty hunters were out in force, they agreed to let McGowan hide out in the wilds of the upper Dos Pueblos Canyon, which nearly killed him.
When things cooled down a little, they let him camp in their huge corn field, where he lived for 6 weeks. The Dens provided him with food, drink and writing supplies, and he became like family to the servants and the children of Rancho Dos Pueblos. He was eventually granted a fair trial and released. His writings from the Dos Pueblos corn field were published as a book entitled Narrative, dedicated to Nicholas A. Den. It was an instant best seller and was reprinted for nearly a century afterwards.
By 1860, Don Nicolas Den was one of the wealthiest men in Santa Barbara County. His ranch holdings continued to expand when he bought the Canada Del Corral Rancho from an Ortega heir, extending his range all the way to Refugio Bay. Even though he and his brother Richard weren’t getting along, they bought the Tequepis Ranch together, and that put Nicolas in control of over 114,000 acres total of California land. Nicolas and Rosa now had nine healthy children and they were living the good life. Den liked the finer things in life and spared no expense when it came to entertaining guests at his Casa Grande.
Apart from the main Casa Grande was a cookhouse where their chef, Jacobo, prepared meals that made Dos Pueblos table famous for exquisite gourmet meals. Jacobo was a California Indian with culinary expertise and an unlimited budget that made any ingredient in the world available to him. His creative skills and Den’s palate created meals that would seem unimaginable in early California. To make the meals even more unforgettable to his guests, Den had a cellar dug into the west wall of the canyon where he stored ice blocks imported from Alaska, preserved with sawdust and salt. An ice cold drink or a fruit smoothy on a hot summer day was unheard of back then, but Rancho Dos Pueblos had them!
The Dens made a habit of having a string ensemble play for most every meal, usually guitarists and violinists that worked and lived on the ranch. But the big events happened almost every Sunday after church services, when the vaqueros would bring in a freshly slaughtered steer and barbecue it slowly on a huge spit over seasoned Oak firewood. Inevitably, a rodeo would break out, and the rancheros would compete in traditional Spanish equestrian events. The Den boys became very adept at horse-riding themselves, holding their own in the competitions. The biggest fiesta of the year that would bring guests from all of California would be the Fourth of July, because Don Nicolas wanted his kids to be raised as Americans.
California Dons were known for their extravagant lifestyles, and Don Nicolas followed suit. He made several trips to Europe, sent one of his sons to school in England, and imported the finest things from all over the world. He brought fashion designers from Europe, he imported silk from China, and he sent the materials to Paris to custom make clothes for his family. This was the heyday of Dos Pueblos, and the Dens lived like royalty. Pictured above is his first born, Catarina Magdalena, or Kate, who would leave her own mark on Goleta History.
Having nine children to raise, Dona Rosa needed some help around the house, and Nicolas made sure she had plenty. All the household staff and their families lived on the ranch, about 50 people total. There were gardeners, maids, babysitters, cooks, and a butler. The ranch laundry had a separate building and a laundress that made her own soap from tallow to wash all these people’s clothes. The staff came from China, the Philippines, Mexico, Portugal and a large contingent of Chumash.
Den was very sympathetic to the remaining Chumash and although he was a devout Catholic, he never tried to convert them, and he seemed to regret the treatment they received during the mission period. Don Nicolas offered them jobs and he treated them medically for no charge. The Chumash that worked for Den were allowed to live on his ranch in their traditional ‘aps, or huts, like their ancestors had lived in for centuries. A strong bond was formed between the Don of Dos Pueblos and the remaining Chumash in the area.
In 1862, Don Nicolas Den had 10,000 head of cattle and owned the ranchos of San Marcos, Dos Pueblos, Cañada del Corral, and Tequepís. He had survived the transition from Mexican to American rule and the lawless post gold rush years. He was at the pinnacle of his life, with another European trip planned and his powerful friends hoping he would pursue a life political. But that would all end on a cold rainy night in March. Don Nicolas was sick in bed with a severe cough when a Chumash neighbor came down from El Capitan Point to ask for medical help. Unable to refuse a call for medical help, Nicolas dragged himself out of his sick bed and rode through the harsh weather to assist the Canalino woman with her childbirth. He was too late to save the baby, but he saved the woman’s life. Soaking wet and chilled to the bone, Den started back to Dos Pueblos as the cold dawn was rising. When he returned home, he collapsed in his bed and never got up again, a victim of double pneumonia. Don Nicolas Agustus Den was survived by his loving wife, Rosa and their 10 children.
Despite the poor communication available in those days, the funeral for Nicolas Den was well attended by all walks of California life, from the most powerful blue bloods to the humblest Canalinos. All joined together to give the well-loved Don of Dos Pueblos one final farewell as his remains were placed in the holy cemetery of the Santa Barbara Mission. From an Irish college dropout on the run from the law to a prominent Santa Barbara Don, his short 50-year life was a wild American adventure. Always an honorable gentleman that treated everyone with respect, his name should be remembered. His young wife and ten children would go on to live long, prosperous lives and Rancho Dos Pueblos would have many more interesting chapters in history.
For an excellent read and lots more Nicolas Den stories we highly recommend The Royal Rancho by Walker Tompkins.
Sources: Walker Tompkins, Thompson and West, Owen O’Neill, Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site, Wikipedia, Santa Barbara Historical Museum, Goleta Valley Historical Society, Ancestry.com, “Tierra Adorada”, Walter Hawley, Russell Ruiz, Wikipedia, History.com
Categories: Goleta History