Shirley Contreras: William Goodwin Dana left mark on Central Coast
Heart of the Valley

Shirley Contreras: William Goodwin Dana left mark on Central Coast

Nov. 16 Heart of the Valley talk to feature great-great grandson


Captain William Goodwin Dana, a Yankee who had sailed to China and India on one of his uncle’s ships, was born in Boston in 1797.

He arrived in Santa Barbara in 1825 as the master of the brig, “Waverly,” where he married Maria Josefa Carrillo, daughter of Don Carlos Antonio Carrillo at Santa Barbara on Aug. 29, 1828. Although the couple had 21 children, eight died in infancy.

In 1837, Dana was awarded the 17,888 acres Rancho Nipomo by Gov. Alvarado, and built a house for his growing family. From his home high on a hill, the Rancho extended as far as the eye could see in all directions, a necessity, as Indians were prone to steal horses and cattle.

The Nipomo Ranch was a resting place for the many Americans who happened to be passing through the county. In 1848, when the U. S. Steamship “Edith” went ashore between Point Arguello and Point Sal, Captain Dana took the officers and crew to his home where they were entertained for weeks until he could arrange transportation to Monterey.

This was a time when providing a traveler with meals, and lodging as well as giving horses free of charge was simply the way of life in California.

Furthermore, if the traveler appeared to be in need, in order to avoid the indelicacy of asking his condition or openly offering him money as a gift, his host would leave a bowl of money near his bed and the traveler could feel free to help himself.

When relations between Mexico and the United States deteriorated, both countries prepared for war, which began in April of 1846 with the battle of Palo Alto on the banks of the Rio Grande (Rio Bravo to Mexicans) and spread to Upper California.

In November of 1846, when torrential rains were pelting the California coastal areas, Lt. Colonel John C. Fremont and his group of soldiers began their march to Los Angeles. They took the town of San Luis Obispo completely off guard when they approached late at night when everyone was sleeping.

However, the sound of 300 equestrians galloping down the main street accompanied by the fierce war-whoop of the Walla Walla Indians quickly brought the confused townspeople from their beds. Giving no resistance, the entire population was captured, with the exception of two men who fled in terror through the darkness of night.

After spending their nights camping on the floor of the Mission San Luis Obispo de Toloso, the group continued south, passing through the Nipomo Rancho and onward toward Los Angeles by way of Santa Barbara, through the San Marcos Pass.

Dana, suffering most of his life from acute rheumatism, took no part in the political controversies of his time, but he was said to have favored the American cause.

In the first election for officers, under the Constitution of the State of California in 1849, Dana received the largest number of votes for the Senate, but because of informalities in the election, Don Pablo de la Guerra of Santa Barbara received the appointment.

Dana became county treasurer in the general election held in September of 1850, and was a member of the original board of supervisors when its first meeting was held on December 13, 1852. Since he already held the office of county treasurer, he was not eligible for any other office, resulting in William Beebee being appointed to take his place.

In 1852, Dana built the “Casa Grande,” the first hotel in San Luis Obispo. Its walls were made of adobe, and the roof was covered with sheet iron. The timbers used, had been hauled from Santa Rosa, with the flooring and doors coming from the East Coast.

Some rooms in this hotel served as the first courthouse in the county, but when Dana tried to collect the rents, the county refused to pay, saying that he owed them $167, and ordering that he not only pay up, but release the county from all claims and demands. However, the undaunted Dana, ignoring the demand, again presented a bill, but this time it was for $580.

When the county again refused to pay, Dana filed suit. In spite of the fact that the District Attorney defended the county, Dana won, but after the court costs were deducted, he was awarded $322.65.

The slipshod way of doing business was evident and a new order of things had come into being. The old patriarchal habits, although being fair, showed few records and no responsibility. This had to change. In all future transactions, strict accountability would be a necessity.

Dana’s rheumatism grew progressively worse and he eventually became confined to his house, paralyzed and helpless, until he finally died on February 12, 1858.

Dana was buried in the family plot in the Catholic Cemetery in San Luis Obispo. His son, John Francis Dana, served as Trustee of the Estate, a position he held for 20 years, until the property was divided among members of the family.

The public is invited to attend the free November Heart of the Valley event, scheduled to take place on Saturday, Nov. 16 at 10:15 a.m. at the Santa Maria Public Library when Joe Dana, great-great grandson of William Goodwin Dana will be the guest speaker.

Mr. Dana will give a presentation of “The Life of California Pioneer, William Goodwin Dana.” He will focus his talk on Captain Dana’s unique life journey from growing up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to sailing the Pacific as a sea trader to settling in California’s Central Coast. Since the seats are limited, we suggest that you get there early.


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