Cave Johnson Couts' wedding fiesta in Old Town lasted a week, his marriage a lifetime

Saw beyond the cattle boom of the late 1840s

Cave Couts, “a strong-willed individual" with a tendency to “shoot first and examine the target afterwards."
  • Cave Couts, “a strong-willed individual" with a tendency to “shoot first and examine the target afterwards."

Born in Maryland in 1821, West Point graduate in 1843, Cave Johnson Gouts was one of San Diego's most prosperous cattle barons in the 1840s and, for the next three decades, one of its largest landowners. He lived like a California Don and became known as “Don Cuevas, Ranchero."

When he died of an aneurysm in 1874, the 52-year-old Couts owned Rancho Guajome (San Luis Rey), Rancho San Marcos, Buena Vista, and La Joya (La Jolla). Along with holdings in Old Town and “new" San Diego (downtown) and 8000 acres he purchased from the government, Couts owned over 20,000 acres of prime San Diego County land.

Couts came to San Diego as a soldier. After the Mexican War, he became commanding officer of Company A. First United States Dragoons. Couts provided the military escort for the survey team that drew up the United States/Mexico border. The line began three nautical miles south of San Diego Bay and went to the mouth of the Gila River, at its junction with the Colorado.

When he returned to San Diego, Couts fell in love. Ysidora Bandini didn't speak English; Couts knew no Spanish. They married in Old Town, April 5, 1851. The wedding/fiesta lasted a week, their marriage a lifetime. They had ten children, eight of whom reached maturity.

As a wedding gift, Ysidora's brother-in-law, Don Abel Stearns, gave her the Guajome land grant: all the country surrounding Mission San Luis Rey. Couts resigned his commission with the Army and built a thriving ranch on land that “had neither running water nor a tree in sight." His home, “built with the labor of 300 Indians," had the first piano and the first iron safe in California. Legend also claims that two of his paintings “had hung on the walls of Columbus's ships." Visitors to Guajome included Ulysses S. Grant, General Lew Wallace (who wrote Ben-Hur), and Helen Hunt lackson (author of Ramona).

Couts was judge of San Diego County. He served on the first grand jury in 1850, on the County Board of Supervisors six times. Between 1854 and 1859 he was justice of the peace for San Luis Rey Township. He also drew up the first subdivision map of Old Town's puebki lands.

“Used as the basis for San Diego’s first incorporation under American occupation," the map included street names, chosen by Couts. The first streets, Scott and Jackson, were Couts's “two great heroes." Taylor and Twiggs were generals; Robert Stockton was a commodore.

When the Land Act of 1851 passed, along with the "no fence law” — there were lawful and unlawful fences for livestock— settlers began moving into San Diego. Couts and Don Juan Forster “fought against the surrounding settlers as best they could. Not merely on the basis of cattlemen versus settlers, but as men interested in maintaining the old land grants."

In 1873, the settlers won their claims, but the cattle barons continued fighting. “In the true style of the 'Old West,' guns were strapped on, haystacks set on fire, dams and irrigation ditches constructed by settlers were cut, and survey stakes pulled and thrown away, as cattlemen expressed their disgust for this court decision." There were two murders. The author doesn't say if Couts, “a strong-willed individual" with a tendency to “shoot first and examine the target afterwards," harassed the settlers.

Couts is credited with several San Diego “firsts." He owned the first “American-built boat that sailed on San Diego Bay." He was one of the first to see beyond the cattle boom of the late 1840s. He diversified his ranch to include sheep and was “one of the earliest pioneers to recognize the full potential of San Diego County, particularly in horticulture." He planted the first large orange grove and in 1856 planted 400 grape vines and became among the first to make California wine.


  1. “The emigrants! Oh! Still they come. I never was in my life so annoyed. begging for sugar, flour, and god only knows how they have the face to push such entreaties as they do...their stories of Indian depredations on the Colorado, stealing their animals, etc. They up and, almost under my own eyes, steal my mules.” — Couts's journal
  2. "Our gorgeous little harbour is now seen riding four, five, and six of the ocean's pride daily.... The place promises to be of much importance. I have been busily engaged surveying it for the Council for some time. Nothing but their avariciousness will keep it from growing like a weed.” — Couts's journal
  3. In February 1859, Andres Pico of Los Angeles introduced a joint resolution in the state assembly, calling for the withdrawal of the southern section from the state. Pico's proposal [which sought to retain land-grant ownership] called for the separation of San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, San Bernardino, and San Diego Counties.... This proposed division was to be known as the “Territory of Colorado.” However, owing to the tremendous responsibility under which the federal legislature labored at that time [the threat of Civil War], the bill died in Congress.
  4. When attending Mass at the mission in San Luis Rey, it was necessary to provide one's own pillows and chairs (there being no pews or kneeling boards), so the Couts family sent their household help before them, and they in turn set up the chairs.... Mrs. [Helen Hunt] Jackson told the Indians that they were just as good as their white bosses and, as such, were entitled to use the chairs and pillows as well. Thus, as Dona Ysidora and her family arrived at Mass one Sunday, they found their chairs occupied by the household help, who refused to move. When asked why, they told her what the Reina Blanca [the “white queen,' i.e., Jackson] had said.

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