Back Country Back Stories

The 1860 United States Census offers a glimpse into San Diego County life at a time when California was just twelve years removed from having been a part of Mexico. Below is part of a page from that census showing the household of one Henry Clayton.

Henry Clayton census

The census indicates that Henry is 45 years old and his occupation is listed as “Ranchero/Stock Raiser.” It also shows that he owned real estate valued at $12,000. That was big money in 1860, and his $3,000 in personal property was a pretty big chunk of change at that time as well.

The last column on the right shows Clayton’s birthplace as England. So, it might look like another case of an English boy who made good in California. But there are some complicated back stories behind these statements and statistics.

English immigrant Henry Clayton originally came to California as a surveyor with the Mexican-United States Boundary Commission. The commission was set up under the treaty that ended the U.S.-Mexican War in 1848 to establish the new boundary line between the two countries.

Clayton subsequently continued to work as a surveyor after the commission’s work was done. He served as surveyor of both San Diego City and County, as well as county assessor, for periods during the 1850s and 1860s.

His work as surveyor undoubtedly put him in contact with the Californio owners of ranchos originally granted by the Mexican government. And Henry Clayton wound up marrying one of them. The name listed immediately below Henry’s on the census form, written in period shorthand as “Maria Ant” with a tiny a in the corner, was in fact Maria Antonia Alvarado Snook Clayton.

Maria Antonia Alvarado was the daughter of a prominent San Diego family when she married Don Jose Snook, another transplanted Englishmen, in 1837. At his death in 1848, Don Jose was the owner of Rancho San Bernardo, covering 17,000 acres in north San Diego County.

In his will Don Jose left his widow Maria a life estate in the rancho, and she actively pursued her right to use the property in the first years after her husband’s death. Among other things, according to a 1997 essay by Ruth Collings in The Journal of San Diego History, Maria “added a fleur-de-lis to [her late husband’s original cattle] brand and registered it as her own. Lured by the high prices for beef in San Francisco, she sent cattle north for several years.”

In 1853 Maria married Henry Clayton, and her role in owning and running Rancho San Bernardo was apparently and unjustly eclipsed–in the mind of the census taker anyway–by that of her new husband.

But Maria remains more well-known in county history than the six other people listed as part of the Clayton household. Five of them are ranch employees, all natives of Mexico, ranging in age from 25 down to 14. The fourteen year-old, Antonio Bonia, is listed as a “monthly laborer,” as are two others, aged 25 and 16. Juan Navarro, 19, works as a “vaquero.” Another, listed only as “Alvarado,” is a shepherd. An 8-year old girl named Maria Alvarado appears to be a relative of one of the employees.

Sources for this post include the 1860 United States Census, the essay, “Joseph Snook: English Mariner, California Don,” from the Fall 1997 issue of The Journal of San Diego History and the 1908 book History of San Diego, by William E. Smythe.

NOTE: Schedule Change

Due to mounting work demands, starting today I’m going to an every-other-week schedule. So look for the next new post on February 1. Feel free, in the meantime, to enjoy past posts or check out my books, offered for sale under the “My Books” tab.

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