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Organising an Epic

The Lodge house on Rancho Soquel, taken by Tom King.

Powell did not divide his seven-volume epic history into chapters but he did have four divisions in the first two volumes, each bookmarking an important epoch in California history, namely the start of the Spanish period, Mexican period, American colonial period, and finally statehood and beyond. But after this last bookmark, he appears to have felt that this aspect of the chronology was at an end and he discontinued it for the remaining five volumes. The problem with this, however, is that it really front-loaded the book with these relatively arbitrary placeholders, while ignoring equally important moments in the story that he was telling.

Therefore, I made the executive—and admittedly presumptuous—decision to redivide both volumes of the book into seven parts each that better correspond to the stories being told rather than important moments in California history. This also works better now that the elements of storytelling and suspense that Powell attempted but failed to instil in his writing has been somewhat restored. Ultimately, I think Powell would have accepted this decision.

The second book is still in the process of editing but the first book is nearing completion and its seven sections are all finalized. Thus, the book will be broken into the following parts:

The Tragedy of Martina Castro

I should make a quick comment about the name of the first volume, given above. This book is quite completely a tragedy of the Castro family, who suffered the lost of thousands of acres of land through trickery, bribery, subterfuge, and fraud, most of which was probably not knowingly directed by Martina Castro, although she certainly played the lead role in the debacle. Martina was born a Spanish citizen, lived half of her life as a Mexican citizen, and never learned English or how to write. These facts are important in understanding the tragedy that was her life after California statehood in 1850. While Martina caused most of the trauma that underlines this story, she is also the paramount victim of her own mistakes.

Part 1: At the Edge of the Empire – This title has a lot of meaning buried in it. It refers to three separate empires in fact: Spain, México, and America. Granted the latter was never technically an empire and México was only briefly one, but the idea of empire certainly permeates all three cultures. And in all these cases, California is on the periphery. And the story of Santa Cruz in the first eighty years of its existence is very much one of a settlement on the edge of a vast empire. This section is also the only one in the first book to not heavily focus on Martina Castro or her properties.

Part 2: Echoes from the East – This title also has a few meanings, although one of them is quite obvious. This section begins with John C. Frémont returning to California and the beginning of the Bear Flag Revolt. So the blatant illusion is to the arrival of the Americans in California. However, the more subtle reference is to the abundance of Europeans that had settled in the Santa Cruz area by 1845—it was a surprisingly high amount—and their influence over the region as it transitioned from Mexican territory to U.S. state.

Part 3: In Defense of My Own – This is Martina’s core story and, as such, serves as the heart of the book. Despite promises otherwise, the United States government was very heavy-handed in how it managed Spanish and Mexican land grants and Martina especially had a difficult path to proving the legality of her lands since the Rancho Soquel augmentation, at least, had rather sketchy paperwork and dubious legitimacy. This section, therefore, focuses on her personal struggle and the struggles of her lawyers to confirm her two land grants in her name. As a secondary thread, it is in this section that we first meet and learn about Frederick A. Hihn, who will prove important to the remainder of the book and, indeed, much of the second book.

Part 4: Soquel in the Balance – Martina did something rather rash in early 1855: she sold all of her land and claims to the Catholic Church, spitting in the face of the Land Claims Commission and all of the people who had already purchased or received a part of Rancho Soquel. This proved to be a massive headache for all parties involved and this section serves as a long-winded summary of many of the land transactions that occurred between 1855 and 1858.

Part 5: Enter the King – This section is really Frederick Hihn’s story. Martina is largely out of the picture by this point but the repercussions of her decisions are still being felt by everybody. Hihn is at the forefront of the effort, seeing the potential of Soquel as a source for lumber and as a thoroughfare for a highway to San José. Much of this section deals with the later aspect, but land transfers continue throughout, further confusing the issue. By the end of the section, the stage is set for the massive lawsuit regarding the partitioning of Rancho Soquel and Shoquel Augmentation.

Part 6: Road to Partition – This is a fun title that plays on the name of the well-known graphic novel and film, Road to Perdition. And that is absolutely intentional. The partition in question is of Shoquel Augmentation, which was split into many small parcels and became a bit of a feeding frenzy among land speculators and industrialists. The name also alludes to the Soquel Turnpike, which was finally completed during this time. And it is a direct reference to perdition, the ruin of Martina Castro’s family in the wake of these land exchanges and court battles and the rampant corruption that led so many people to exploit Martina Castro.

Part 7: Divided and Conquered – The division of Martina’s land grants satisfied nobody. Every party involved desired more land or different land and this led to years of appeals and juridical wrangling. But the end result was clear: Frederick Hihn somehow managed to take a good portion of both properties despite entering the quagmire late and never being directly associated with the principal participants, namely the Castro family or the Catholic Church.

Epilogue: In the Matter of the Estate of Martina Castro, Deceased – Not to give away too much of the story, but Martina Castro eventually died. But just because she was gone didn’t mean that her heirs wouldn’t fight over her dispossessed claims for another few years. This comparatively short addendum to the main story takes place in the mid-1890s, when her still-living children and several grandchildren fought to reclaim their long-lost heritage. About half this section was pulled out of earlier parts of Powell’s book that dangerously projected descriptions given in the 1890s to events that occurred fifty years earlier. The other half is pulled from Powell’s volume 5, which covers the 1890s more generally.

Like all of these diary entries, all of this content is subject to change, but the intent will not shift from this. Powell has drawn a beautiful tapestry of history and my goal is to draw that out in a more accessible and less repetitive way. Adding a little bit of metaphor and poetry to the titles certainly breathes a bit of life into sometimes rather dull sections of the book, but they also act as waypoints in the journey—something to track your progress as you read. And this is certainly a journey that no one has read with quite this much detail before!

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