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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: Cave Couts-North County’s Anglo Pioneer

By Tom Morrow

Cave Johnson Couts was one of the first white men to settle in North San Diego County. His Rancho Guajome lies in Vista along N. Santa Fe Ave., near the Oceanside city limits and today is a County Historical Museum & Park.

Couts was born in November 1821, near Springfield, Tennessee. His uncle, Cave Johnson, was U.S. Postmaster General under President James Polk. Uncle Cave had his name-sake appointed to the Military Academy at West Point, where he graduated in 1843, near the bottom of his class. He served on the Western frontier assignments: as a dragoon officer until after the Mexican War at Los Angeles, Mission San Luis Rey, and Old Town San Diego from 1848 to 1851.

In 1849, Couts conducted the Whipple expedition to the Colorado River. He was a qualified surveyor — he documented and mapped California and Arizona’s southern boundaries with Mexico as outlined in the Guadalupe Hidalgo Treaty. It ceded large portions of Mexico to the U.S. as part of the settlement ending the Mexican War with the U.S. (the surveyor’s transit Couts used on that expedition is or was in the County’s Rancho Guajome Museum in Vista.

On April 5, 1851, Lieutenant Couts married Ysidora Bandini, daughter of Juan Bandini, who was a prominent Italian businessman in Old Town San Diego. Bandini had immigrated to America from Italy via Peru. In October 1851 Couts resigned his commission from the U.S. Army and soon after was appointed colonel and aide-de-camp on the staff of California Governor John Bigler (1852-56).

In 1853, he and Ysidora moved to North County on a tract of land known as the Guajome (pronounced: wah-home-ah) Grant, a wedding gift to Ysidora from her brother-in-law, wealthy Los Angeles businessman Abel Stearns. Now located in a large area of the present-day cities of Oceanside, Vista and as far east as San Marcos, the Guajome Land Grant took in a large portion of what previous were lands of the San Luis Rey Mission.

Couts built a large, rambling, 20-room, Spanish Colonial-style hacienda with two courtyards, an arcaded veranda, and other structures, including a chapel in a former small house. It was built with the profits from the cattle boom of the 1850s, when many California ranchos supplied the Gold Rush miners and associated new American immigrants with meat and leather.

Couts was appointed sub-agent for the native Luiseño people (San Luis Rey Mission Indians) in 1853. He used their enslaved labor to improve his properties in the area, including this one and nearby Rancho Buena Vista and Rancho Vallecitos de San Marcos.

The Rancho Gujajome hacienda and associated structures was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1970. It also is a California Historical Landmark and on the National Register of Historic Places. Today it is a County park and museum.

In 1854, Couts became County Judge, and in 1859, was appointed a member of the County’s first Grand Jury, He was aa leading political figure in San Diego County.

Over the years of Cave Couts’ later life, Rancho Guajome was widely celebrated for its hospitality. Not only was it a stagecoach stop for travelers, some used it as a destination. Ysidora entertained noted author Helen Hunt Jackson while she was collecting materials for her best-selling book, “Ramona.” Part of the story is supposed to have taken place in real life at the Guajome Rancho – especially some of the ill treatment of the Native Americans living and working around the rancho.

As Couts’ wealth grew, consisting largely of cattle, the passage of the fencing law eliminated “open range” grazing. This was a severe financial blow to Couts, and one from which he never fully recovered.

Couts was a controversial and colorful figure. People who knew him either respected and liked him, or outright hated him for his dealings and sometimes cruel methods and treatment, primarily to Native Americans. On one occasion, he reportedly got in a gunfight in Old Town with a former employee, who claimed he was owed unpaid wages. As the story goes, Couts shot the man in the back, but later a trial jury found him “not guilty” by reason of “self defense.” The verdict, no doubt, was the result of being influential in early California.

Couts died at the young age of 53 years and is buried in the Old Town cemetery in San Diego. A number of the Couts family relatives still live in the County.

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