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Ranch of the White Rock

Granted to:  José de Jésus Pico in 1840 by Governor Juan B. Alvarado

Size:  48,805 acres

Location:  San Luis Obispo County

The white sea spray splashing on the tall white rocks along this part of the central California coast gave the land its name of piedra blanca, or "white rock."


In the early 1800s, this part of the coast was under the control of the padres at Mission San Antonio de Padua.  The Indians who lived at the mission were often sent over to the ocean to gather sea food. 


By 1838 the lands had been taken from the missions by the Mexican government, which then had control of California.  José de Jésus Pico, who was serving as administrator of Mission San Antonio de Padua, asked Mexican Governor Juan B. Alvarado to give him the land along the coast.  The Governor granted him 48,805 acres of land on January 18, 1840. 


José de Jésus Pico, who was also known as "Topio Pico," was born in 1807 in Monterey, the capital of Mexican California.  His father was José Dolores Pico, who came from Mexico to California as a soldier in 1790.  His cousin was Pío Pico, who was governor of California in 1832 and 1845-46.

Like his father, Don José became a soldier and served from 1827 to 1831 in the Monterey Company.  In the mid-1830s, Don José helped Juan Bautista Alvarado in his unsuccessful attempt to make California an independent republic, separate from Mexico.  For this help, Governor Alvarado rewarded Don José with this grant of land, "south of San Carpoforo Creek to the Arroyo del Morena, and east from the ocean at high tide to the summit of the Santa Lucia mountains."  The grant included about 14 miles of coastline. 


Don José named his land Rancho de la Piedra Blanca, the Ranch of the White Rock.  Don José did not spend much time on his new rancho.  He had a house built there, he planted an orchard, and he put a herd of cattle on the rancho.  Then he hired some Indian vaqueros (cowboys) to take care of his cattle and property.

The rancho was in such a remote area and was so hard to get to, that  Don José with his wife and children chose to live in the pueblo (town) of San Luis Obispo. Don José visited his rancho several times a year at the time of the round-up, and to supervise the trading of hides to the ships that came along the coast.  At other times during the year, one of the Indian ranchmen would come to San Luis Obispo to give a report to Don José on how things were going on the rancho.

Later, Don José had some disagreements with the government officials and decided that it would be better to live at the faraway Rancho de la Piedra Blanca than in town.  Things went well for a little while, but when Don José criticized General J. C. Frémont, he was sentenced to death.  Fortunately for Don José, he had some good friends who had influence with the General, and he was soon released and pardoned.  Later, Don José and General Frémont became good friends.


In 1854, Don José Pico sold a half-interest in 1,000 acres of Rancho de la Piedra Blanca to Captain John D. Wilson, a family friend, for $1,500.  For a time, Don José continued to live on his part of the rancho, but he had become active in county government when California became a state.  His position as State Assemblyman from San Luis Obispo County kept him away from the rancho.

By 1865 Don José had many debts and needed money.  His entire herd of cattle and horses had been lost in the drought of 1863-64.  He sold most of the rancho that he still owned to George Hearst in 1865. 


George Hearst was a wealthy American who had made his money by investing in mines such as Nevada's Comstock Lode.   He wanted to own all of the land on San Simeon Bay.  Section by section he acquired the rest of Rancho de la Piedra Blanca from the heirs of Captain Wilson.  Hearst offered large sums of money to other landowners in the area, and soon he owned most of the coastal land in northern San Luis Obispo County. 

Hearst's holdings eventually included two more Mexican land-grant ranchos (Rancho Santa Rosa which had been granted to Julián Estrada in 1841; and Rancho San Simeon which had been granted to Jesús Estrada, Julián's brother, in 1842).  Hearst's property covered about 240,000 acres and had more than 50 miles of ocean coast line.  The ruins of Mission San Antonio de Padua were then completely surrounded by Hearst property.

Though George Hearst was busy with his mining interests, he took time to build up a large herd of cattle on his new rancho, and he set up a model dairy farm.  He also bred and trained thoroughbred horses there.  He built a ranch house, and a pier where coast steamers could dock.

Hearst visited his rancho often, and brought many guests to visit there.  His family and friends liked to camp on a hilltop overlooking the bay, at a place called Camp Hill.  George's son, William Randolph, was very fond of this spot.  In a letter written in the 1890s he said, "I love this place.  It is wonderful.  I love the sea and I love the mountains and the hollows in the hills and the shady places in the creeks and the fine old oaks, and even the hot bushy hillsides -- full of quail -- and the canyons full of deer.  It is a wonderful place.  I would rather spend a month here than any place in the world."


In 1919, William Randolph Hearst inherited this land from his mother, Phoebe Apperson Hearst.  He began work on a permanent house on his favorite spot, Camp Hill.  He planned this as a show place for his large collection of art and antiques.  He also had three big guesthouses built so that many friends could visit. 

Hearst called his home here La Casa Grande (The Big House) and the estate La Cuesta Encantada (The Enchanted Hill), but it has come to be known as "Hearst's Castle." 

Partly to amuse his guests, Hearst included a zoo on the grounds of his estate.  At one time, this zoo was the world's largest privately-owned collection of wild animals.  When the zoo was disbanded, some zebras were left to run free.  It is said that these zebras multiplied, and for some years could be seen living wild in the mountains behind San Simeon.

William Randolph Hearst continued to care for his land until his death in 1951.  However, about 1940 he sold 140,000 acres of the ranch (more than half the total area) to the U.S. Government for use as a training ground.  This became Hunter Liggett Military Reservation.


Soon after Hearst died, the estate was offered to the State of California.  In 1958 it became the Hearst-San Simeon State Historical Monument.  Each year thousands of tourists visit Hearst's Castle, little realizing that this was once Rancho de la Piedra Blanca, the Ranch of the White Rock.

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