In the Placerita Canyon State Park, about 45 miles from downtown Los Angeles in the Santa Clarita Valley, there is an ancient, gnarled coast live oak. Running past it is a shallow stream and an overpass. Under the overpass is a muddy tunnel featuring brightly colored murals that can be viewed if you don’t mind getting your shoes dirty. The panels tell the truncated history of the canyon — from natural habitat to California Indian homestead to rancho. The last panel reads “A Dream Come True: Gold!” While most Californians believe that gold was first discovered by James Marshall at Sutter’s Mill in 1848, they are mistaken. The first documented gold strike was in fact in this lonely canyon six years before, and the legend of its discovery has grown into the stuff that dreams are made of.
In its most florid version, the story of the discovery takes on the form and fancy of a fairy tale. It is March 1842, and rancher Francisco Lopez is rounding up stray horses on the sprawling Rancho San Francisco. At noon, he stops in what was then known as San Feliciano Canyon to take an afternoon siesta. He chooses a magnificent live oak to rest under and, lulled by the rushing waters of the nearby stream, falls asleep. While napping, he dreams that he is floating in a pool of liquefied gold. Upon awakening, he sees a wild onion growing in the dirt. Suddenly hungry, he takes out his trusty knife and pulls the onion out of the ground. He is amazed! Clinging to the roots of the onion are little nuggets of gold! He climbs on his horse and gallops to the tiny pueblo of Los Angeles to tell of his discovery, and soon the whole town is “seething with almost incredible excitement.”
As with all myths, different versions of the tale vary in specifics. Some say Lopez and two employees were actually rounding up sheep or cows. Some say he was served lunch by a servant before falling asleep, and that he dreamed of being fabulously rich in golden hues. He dug up the gold-dusted onion because his wife had asked him to, because his lunch of dried beef was bland or because he was moved by a Native American spirit. While these embellishments are lovely — and excellent bait for tourism and funding — the available facts present a narrative that is admittedly not as cute but undoubtedly more historically illuminating.
For centuries there had been rumors of gold hidden in California’s rolling hills and deserted valleys. There were numerous tales of secret gold mines discovered by California Indians and shady Spanish padres. Many historians believe there can be little doubt that some gold had been discovered in California before 1842. According to pioneering 19th-century state senator and historian S.N. Androus, the seeds of Lopez’s discovery were sown during a trip to Santa Barbara in 1841:
In 1841, Andres Castillero, the same person who afterward discovered the New Alameda quicksilver mine in Santa Clara County, while traveling from Los Angeles to Monterey, found near the Santa Clara River a great number of water-worn pebbles, which he gathered up and carried with him to Santa Barbara. He there exhibited them, said they were a peculiar species of iron pyrites and declared that, according to Mexican miners, wherever they were found there was a likelihood of gold also being found. A ranchero named Francisco Lopez, who was living on the Piru Creek, a branch of the Santa Clara River, but happened at the time to be at Santa Barbara, heard Castillero’s statement and examined his specimens.
Lopez family lore has it that Francisco was a trained mineralogist who had studied mining and French at university in Sonora, Mexico. A member of the aristocratic and famed Lopez family, who helped settle the San Fernando Valley, Francisco rented a portion of the Rancho San Francisco. The rancho had been granted by the Mexican government to his relative, Antonio Del Valle, in 1839. Having seen Castillero’s discovery, it makes intuitive sense that Francisco probably was consciously searching for gold instead of just happening upon it. The first mention of the golden onion is not found until 1867, in a letter written by California pioneer Don Abel Sterns to the Society of Pioneers in San Francisco. “With his sheath knife, [Lopez] dug up some wild onions,” Sterns wrote, “and in the dirt discovered a piece of gold, and searching further found some more.”
Regardless of how it happened or when it happened (some debate that the gold was actually found in 1841), or exactly what portion of the rancho it happened on, Francisco’s discovery soon sparked a mini gold rush. According to 19th-century California chronicler J.M. Guinn:
The news of this discovery soon spread among the inhabitants from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles, and in a few weeks hundreds of people were engaged in washing and winnowing the sands of these gold fields. The discoveries of gold places in that year embraced the greater part of the country drained by the Santa Clara River, from a point 15 or 20 miles from its mouth to its source, and easterly beyond them to San Bernardino.
In April 1842, Francisco and two other men wrote to California governor Juan Batista Alvarado, requesting the right to mine the site:
To his Excellency, the Governor —
The citizens Francisco Lopez, Manuel Cota and Domingo Bermudez, residents of the Port of Santa Barbara, before Your Excellency with the utmost submission, appear saying that His Divine Majesty having granted us a placer of gold on the 9th day of March last, at the place of San Francisco, appertaining to the late Don Antonio del Valle, distant from his house about one league toward the south, we apply to Your Excellency to be pleased to decree in our favor whatsoever you may deem proper and just, forwarding herewith the specimens of said gold.
Wherefore we pray to Your Excellency to be pleased to give us the respective permission to undertake therewith our labors jointly with those who may wish to proceed to said work.
Excuse the use of common paper in default of that of the corresponding stamp.”
April 4, 1842.
(“Fran'co Lopez, at the request of Domingo Bermudez, who does not know how to write.”)
According to the Los Angeles Times, on April 13, 1842, a placer grant to the men was authorized by the Mexican government. News of the discovery soon spread around the country, appearing in East Coast papers including the New York Observer:
A letter from California, dated May 1, speaking of the discovery of gold in that country, says: They have at last discovered gold, not far from San Fernando, and gather pieces of the size of an eighth of a dollar. Those who are acquainted with these 'placeres,' as they call them, for it is not a mine, say it will grow richer, and may lead to a mine. Gold to the amount of some thousands of dollars has already been collected.
Within the first two years of its discovery, it is estimated that $80,000 to $100,000 worth of gold was found in the canyon. Lopez and his partners are said to have made a profit of around $8,000. The manual laborers who sifted for gold in the canyon streams made an average of $2 a day. In an 1897 article in the L.A. Times it was reported:
By December 1843, two thousand ounces of gold had been taken from the San Fernando mines. Don Antonio Coronel informed the writer that he with the assistance of three Indian laborers, in 1843, took out $600 worth of dust in two months. There was a great scarcity of water in the diggings and the methods of extracting the gold were cruel and wasteful. One of the most common was panning, or washing the dirt in a batea, or bowl-shaped Indian basket.
The first coin minted from California gold in Philadelphia was taken from the Francisco Lopez load. Mining in the area continued, and San Feliciano Canyon — which eventually became known as Placerita for the “placer” mining that took place there — is said to have become an early tourist destination. But with the explosive Marshall discovery of gold in Northern California in 1848, and the legendary gold rush that followed, the small mining operations in Southern California were soon largely forgotten.
Francisco would die a wealthy landowner in 1900, his discovery so overshadowed by Marshall that his obituary in the L.A. Times didn't even mention his find. Mining continued in Placerita Canyon throughout the 19th century, yielding around $500 a day for the rough-and-tumble miners who continued to work the site with “old-fashioned appliances.” The land soon passed into the hands of a man named W.W. Jenkins. The secluded rural canyon became the home of reclusive mountain men like former ship captain A.C. Harmon, an octogenarian miner who was found dead in his shack in the canyon in 1908.
The canyon was eventually purchased by rancher Frank R. Walker. In 1920, Frank and his wife, Hortense, moved into a small cabin in Placerita Canyon with their 10 children. To supplement their income, the couple rented out their rustic land to early film companies, and the canyon became a popular location for B-grade Westerns. In 1930, the tale of Francisco’s find nearly forgotten, Frank claimed to have made a fascinating “discovery” on his property. According to him, he had “discovered” a mound of granite rocks by a centuries-old oak tree — which he claimed marked the spot of Francisco’s discovery.
This suspicious “discovery” neatly coincided with an affidavit sworn by an elderly Lopez family member, Francisca Lopez de Belderrain. In the affidavit, she originated the tale of Francisco’s noonday nap and confirmed that the ancient oak was the exact spot where the siesta occurred. This tale was eagerly embraced by auto touring clubs and historical societies, and in 1930 a temporary plaque honoring the newly monikered “Oak of the Golden Dream” was installed near the tree. Five years later the dubiously sourced site was officially named a California State Landmark No. 168.
Embellishments to the story continued. Historical society leaders such as Adolfo G. Rivera introduced Francisco’s dreams of gold into the tale, and also claimed that a year after the discovery, a grotto had been dug and a high mass had been held in honor of the find. The ranch became a popular tourist destination and continued to be used as a film location. A 1950 visitor recalled:
Today, the smaller plaque marking the golden oak has been moved a few yards to the clump of incongruous sycamores, presumably by one of the motion picture companies that shoot their Westerns in the canyon. But no one can miss the oak. It stands regal and fabled past a prop prospector’s cabin and a prop mine shaft, and it doesn’t matter if the marker is in a bunch of pussy-willows. There is legend in its boughs.
The odd miner still came to try their luck at placing. “Every year while there’s still water in the creek, 100 or more prospectors, professional amateurs, pack back to Placerita to pan for gold,” the L.A. Times reported. “They get 'color' but scarcely more.”
In 1956, Placerita Canyon was officially dedicated as a state park. Abutting it is the Golden Oak Ranch, now commonly known to TV and film crews as Disney Ranch. Trails snake around the Placerita Canyon State Park, and a trail called the Heritage Trail takes visitors on an easy, peaceful walk from the park’s nature center to the heavily memorialized Oak of the Golden Dream, which has definitely seen better days. On a recent visit, a bus of schoolchildren played in a portion of the park’s stream, pretending to pan for gold. “I found it, I found it!” one child cried as she held up a promisingly sparkling rock.
The dream lives on.