Local historian digs up stories of ‘forgotten’ settlers

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James and Nelly Vaughan at their home, near what is now the intersection of Mulholland Highway and Decker Canyon Road, around the early 1900s. The couple snapped up 160 acres for $1.25 per acre in a government land auction. They deeded some of the property to become Mulholland Highway in 1916, but the house is still there today, though much modified. Photo courtesy of Bill Clarke

Historian Patty Colman spoke to a full house at the National Parks Service Saturday about her work uncovering the histories of Malibu’s early settlers, particularly those whose stories have rarely been told.

By Susan Reines/Special to The Malibu Times

About 200 years ago, much like today, the U.S. government needed to make some fast cash. If the heady moments after winning the Revolutionary War were a party, the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the next were the “day after,” when reality set in that the infant government, in its freedom, would need a quick infusion of money to get off the ground.

The one thing the government had was land. Not that the country was empty-the unsettled West was populated by Native Americans-but the young government considered the land from Atlantic to Pacific its own, and soon property was being handed out to anyone with a few dollars and a shotgun.

Nelly and James Vaughan knew a good deal when they saw one. The couple snapped up 160 acres at what is now the intersection of Mulholland Highway and Decker Canyon Road for $1.25 an acre.

Professor Patty Colman has devoted years of research to detailing the lives of people like the Vaughans who moved to the Malibu area during the era of upheaval when the federal government began pushing Native Americans into missions and selling the land to colonists. Colman presented histories of the Vaughans and other settlers whose stories have been somewhat overshadowed by the more famous Rindge, Keller and Decker family histories to a packed room at the National Parks Service visitor center Saturday. She began researching early settlers a few years ago while working on master’s degrees in history and American Indian Studies from Cal State Northridge and UCLA.

Government land surveyors who divided America into townships and ranges to be sold to settlers didn’t get to Malibu until the late 1800s. By that time, the federal government had passed both the Cash Act and the Homestead Act.

The Cash Act, the act the Vaughans utilized, allowed people to purchase land for little more than a dollar an acre.

People could gain land even more easily under the Homestead Act. Homesteaders were the original squatters, the forefathers of the grand American tradition of getting what one wants by sheer will and force. A homesteader simply had to claim a piece of land not larger than 160 acres, pay a nominal filing fee and make improvements to the land while living on it for five years.

The first settlers of what is now Malibu’s portion of the Santa Monica Mountains used both the Cash and Homestead Acts, Colman found.

Malibu’s coastline was off limits for settlers because it was “rancho” land, meaning it had been deeded to an individual and was not for public sale. The King of Spain had deeded the Malibu Rancho to a man named Tapia in 1804, and it went through various private owners, including the notorious Keller and Rindge families.

But the canyon land farther east was up for grabs for settlers.

Colman’s favorite canyon settlers were true squatters-they didn’t utilize the Cash Act or the Homestead Act; they just settled. Cordelia and Henry Swinney never gained a government patent to any of their properties, but they contributed to Malibu history nonetheless.

Though Colman hasn’t been able to locate any Swinney descendents, she has learned much about the family through recorded court testimony. Cordelia was called as a witness during a famed legal battle between Malibu Rancho owner May Rindge and the U.S. government, in which Rindge fought to keep what became the Pacific Coast Highway from running through her property. The court called other settlers to testify about where they lived and what they were doing, providing today’s historians with what Colman calls a “gold mine” of information.

After the Swinneys lived briefly in Nicholas Flat, Escondido and other areas-even acquiring one property by trading with another family-they built a lumber house in Solstice Canyon, Colman learned from Cordelia’s testimony and other documents.

The family lived there for a year before surveyors determined the house was actually on Malibu Rancho land.

Living up to the rugged settler stereotype, the Swinneys were undeterred by the surveyors’ insistence that they abandon the house they had built. They simply took the house apart, moved it east and put it back together farther into Solstice Canyon. Colman said of Cordelia’s testimony about the move, “She says it like it’s so nonchalant. ‘No big deal, we just moved it across [the Rancho boundary].'”

The Swinney’s house was eventually purchased by the Kellers, who rebuilt it in stone after a wildfire ravaged the lumber frame. The home is now called the Keller House.

Colman has not found records of what happened to the Swinneys after they left Solstice Canyon.

The Vaughns died childless in the 1940s, Colman believes, but not without making their mark on Malibu-they deeded part of their property to the government for a road in 1916, and the Mulholland Highway was built in 1923.

Colman currently teaches U.S. History, American Indian History and Women’s History at Moorpark College in Ventura County and College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita. She is a contract historian with the National Parks Service.