Miguel Leonis, the King of Calabasas
(Kanbo, Lapurdi, 1836 – Los Angeles, California, 1889)
Miguel Leonis was one of the many Basques that migrated to California in the mid-19th century. He was known as “El Basco,” “The Big Basque,” or “the King of Calabasas.” The attorney Horace Bell famously described him as “of gigantic height and strength, a true beast blinded by ignorance, so uneducated that he wasn’t able to read nor write in any language.”
Leonis was born in Kanbo, Lapurdi, in 1822. He was the second son of Jean Leonis and Maria Etcheverry. Little is known about him until he arrived in Los Angeles in 1854. According to the Leonis family, he worked as a sailor on a ship that sailed to the U.S. He spoke no English, only Basque and French, and was illiterate. He was smart, though, and he possessed great ambition and a strong will to work.
It is believed that he quit his sailor job as soon as he arrived in Los Angeles to become a sheepherder. Sheepherding was a popular job among immigrants, because there were no language barriers when one worked alone in the mountains. The sheep boss provided herders with the equipment, food and shelter they needed for their jobs. Due to this frugal lifestyle, Miguel’s subsistence costs were at bare minimum, which allowed him to save enough money to eventually purchase his own sheep and cattle. By 1859, Miuel was the ranch foreman at Rancho El Escorpion, on the west side of the San Fernando Valley.
Rancho El Escorpion
Rancho El Escorpion was a Mexican land concession made to Odon, Urbano, and Manuel –Chumash Native Americans of Mission San Fernando. In 1859, Leonis was united in common law marriage to Maria del Espiritu Santo Chijulla, Odon’s youngest daughter. Espiritu had a three-year-old son from a previous relationship whose name was Juan Menendez. She and Leonis had a daughter together, Juana Marcelina, who died in 1880, at the age of 20.
By 1860, Leonis was leasing Odon’s lands and had his own registered livestock brand in the Los Angeles County. It was a big, stylized “E,” signifying his partial ownership of the El Escorpion.
In 1861, Leonis acquired the portion of El Escorpion that Jose Joaquin Romero had previously bought from Odon, Urbano, and Manuel in 1849. Miguel paid $100 for the land and then built multiple adobes and a big adobe barn on it. He later added two lime kilns so that he could supply lime to the Los Angeles area.
Miguel Leonis, a Tireless Suitor
There were no formal banks in Los Angeles during the 1860s, which forced farmers, ranchers, and businessmen to either travel hundreds of miles to the banks in San Francisco or San Diego, or to borrow and loan money from wealthy neighbors. It was customary for Leonis to loan money, asking for real estate or cattle as guarantees. If the money wasn’t returned on time, Miguel sued his borrowers to recover his loan. Over the years, he garnered a reputation as a tireless suitor. Nineteenth century Los Angeles records show dozens of cases in which Leonis was the plaintiff or the defendant.
In 1871, one year after purchasing Rancho Las Virgenes, Leonis bought the remaining land next to it, the Rancho El Escorpion, from Odon, Espiritu’s father. By the 1880s, Leonis owned a great section of the San Fernando Valley and some parcels in Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, and Ventura counties. Today’s Leona Valley in Los Angeles County was originally called Leonis Valley.
On Tuesday, September 17, 1889, Miguel Leonis, his stepson Juan Menendez, and two other men were traveling to Los Angeles in a coach packed with firewood. On their way up the Cahuenga Peak, the coach hit a bump in the road and swerved sharply, thrusting Leonis off the wagon and under it. Miguel’s right side of the body was run over by the rear wheel before the driver could even stop the vehicle. He broke his ribs and suffered internal organ damage, and although his jaw was spared, his face was badly injured by the wheel. Racked with pain, Leonis was taken to the closest building: the Six-Mile House store and saloon, that was operated by fellow countryman Laurent Etchepare and the French Martin Lebaig.
A doctor was called in from Los Angeles, but he could only but confirm that his wounds would be fatal. Leonis was then taken to his Los Angeles home, where he died three days later, on September 20, 1889. After his death, Leonis’s Native American common-law wife and his relatives in the Basque Country entered into a complicated 16-year legal battle over what they would inherit from his estate.
Testament to Court
Los Angeles press estimated that upon Miguel Leonis’death, his holdings were worth one million dollars. The property appraisal, however, valued it much lower at $303,000, a nonetheless hefty sum for that period of time. Two days after Leonis’s passing, the Los Angeles Herald published the contents of Leonis’ Last Will and Testament, that had been drawn up in 1886. He left $15,000 to his recently deceased brother, Jean Leonis. His wife, who was his “loyal home-maker for many years,” on the other hand, was bequeathed $5,000 in cash and another the rent of $5,000 he was about to invest and house and kitchen items. Leonis’s wish was that “Espiritu Chijulla never endure poverty for as long as she lived, due to her ignorance and lack of experience.” The rest of his properties were to be split between his brother and sister, both in the Basque Country. In the will, it was noted that if Espiritu tried to invalidate the testament, she would lose her part of the inheritance. But she went to court regardless, and claimed her right to half of his estate as Miguel Leonis’ wife.
Natalia (Nettie) Pryor was another claimant of Leonis’s estate. She was born on April 25, 1877 to Librada Mascarel Pryor. Her grandfather was the French immigrant Jose Mascarel, a long-time business partner of Leonis, and occasional agent. Nettie’s lawsuit was a delightful scandal in the Los Angeles newspapers for weeks. Eventually, the court declared Espiritu the lawful wife of Leonis, even when there hadn’t been any ceremony, and determined her to be the rightful owner of half of her late husband’s estate. As for Nettie Pryor, the court delivered that even if she were Leonis’s daughter, the latter had not clearly recognized her as such, and therefore, she held no legal rights to receive a share of his estate.
The 1891 court ruling declaring Espiritu as the legal wife of Miguel Leonis was endlessly appealed and cross-appealed to the point where the distribution of property was held up until 1905. At times, more than 40 attorneys worked on the case. In 1896 the California´ko Eskual Herria paper published a satirical article about the Leonis estate story. By the time the case closed, most of the wealth was spent in attorney fees. Espiritu Leonis died in 1906, a few months after receiving her share of the inheritance.
The Leonis Adobe Museum website: http://www.leonisadobemuseum.org/history-adobe.asp
Courtesy of The Leonis Adobe Museum
Map of the Spanish and Mexican ranches of Los Angeles County in 1919. On the top left, Mission San Fernando and the three main ranches the formed the San Fernando Valley at the end of the century: Rancho Ex-Mision de San Fernando, Rancho El Escorpion and Rancho El Encino. Historical Photo Collection of the Department of Water and Power, City of Los Angeles
Espiritu Chijulla. Unknown date. Courtesy of The Leonis Adobe Museum
Juana Marcelina Leonis. Unknown date. Courtesy of The Leonis Adobe Museum
Juana Marcelina Leonis, Juan Jose Menendez and Espiritu Chijulla in the 1870s.
Courtesy of The Leonis Adobe Museum.
Leonis’ livestock brand and ear tag, pointed by arrows. 1860. Courtesy of The Leonis Adobe Museum
Leonis Adobe, c.1905. The oldest photo of the farmhouse. The lady in black behind the fence is Espiritu. The man holding a horse in the vineyards is her son, Juan Menendez. Courtesy of The Leonis Adobe Museum
Leonis’ barn at Rancho El Escorpion in 1947. Historical Photo Collection of the Department of Water and Power, City of Los Angeles.
Six-Mile House Historical Photo Collection of the Department of Water and Power, City of Los Angeles.