By John Hibble, Aptos History Museum
The native people who lived here and gave Aptos its name, lived on the land and were stewards of it. They may have been territorial, but they did not have the concept of land ownership. The first owners of this land would have been the King of Spain and the church. After the Mexican Revolution, the land was taken from the church and given to prominent local families for their service.
In 1833, the first private ownership of land in our community was granted to Rafael Castro by the Mexican Governor Jose Figueroa as a reward for his military and political service. The “Aptos Rancho” included 5,500 acres stretching from Borregas Gulch near Cabrillo College to Seascape Boulevard and inland over two miles. His father was granted Rancho San Andres to the southeast and his sister Martina, was granted Rancho Soquel to the northwest. In 1840, Aptos Rancho was increased to 6,685.91 acres by Governor Juan Bautista Alvarado.
Don Jose Rafael de Jesus Castro was born Oct. 15, 1803, at Villa de Branciforte, the town across the river from Mission Santa Cruz. He was the sixth child of 15 born to Jose Joaquin Castro and Maria Antonia Amador Castro. Rafael’s father Joaquin, at the age of five, had traveled with his parents to Alta California with the Anza expedition. Because of the Russian presence in the north, Juan Bautista de Anza brought 30 soldiers and their families from Sinoloa, Mexico in 1775, to help populate California, reinforce Monterey and to establish a mission at San Francisco.
As a young man, Rafael enlisted in the military and served 10 years in the Monterey cavalry where he attained the rank of corporal. During that time, he married Soledad Cota at the Santa Cruz mission in 1823. He was 20 years old and she was 15. Their marriage was a rocky one and they filed for divorce three times, but they never completed the process.
Rafael made the mistake of building his first house on the river near the confluence of Aptos and Valencia Creeks. In 1840, flood waters filled the adobe house and it was abandoned. The next house was a two-story wood-frame house with a porch on all four sides. The top floor was a dance floor and skating rink. There was a piano on each floor. This hacienda was located on the bluff above the creek. It once sat where the rear parking lot is now at 347 Spreckels Drive, and it extended out into Highway One where the northern/western railroad trestle crosses. It was reached by a long driveway off Wharf Road. Later, the abandoned house was known as Leghorn Castle for the flocks of chickens raised there. The house was destroyed by fire in 1920.
During the rancho period, a man’s wealth was counted in cattle and the Castros raised large herds for their hides and tallow which were traded to Yankee sailors. Travelers were even allowed to kill cattle for food as long as they left the hide. There were far more cattle than the small population could eat. As a result, the abundance of surplus meat led to an increase in the population of Grizzly Bears who fed on the leftovers.
Rafael held many public offices. Because he could read and write, he became a Juez de Campo, one who kept track of cattle herds and who settled questions of ownership. In 1835 he was Sindico of Branciforte and clerk of the election board. They voted him Alcalde in 1836. When it was determined that Branciforte didn’t have enough people to be an official pueblo, Monterey designated him an auxiliary Alcalde. In 1836 he worked for the Sindico and the following year held that office. In 1842 and 1843 he was the Justice of the Peace and Alcalde again in 1843.
In 1848, California was annexed to the United States as a territory and in 1850 became a state. The legal system changed. The official language changed from Spanish to English and the local Californios became second class citizens. Landowners were required to provide proof of ownership. Many San Francisco lawyers charged one third of the value of the land as their fee to represent the landowners. As a result, attorneys acquired large amounts of property in lieu of cash payment. Rafael was able to make it through the bureaucratic process on his own. His property was surveyed in 1858 by John Wallace, Deputy Surveyor to the U.S. Surveyor General, recorded in 1859 and his patent was confirmed by letter from President James Buchanan dated April 23, 1860. It was the oldest surviving grant at the time it was confirmed. (Case #172, Southern District.)
Rafael was an excellent businessman. He deeded some of his land to his children, but he was able to keep most of it for his retirement. With the coming of the Americans, Rafael gave leases for farms, mineral rights, logging, a lumber mill, a flour mill and a wharf. He utilized the services of promoters to help him find tenants. His lease terms always recovered the land for himself plus the tenant improvements. Rafael did sell a parcel of land to his son-in-law, Joseph (José) Arano, who married Castro’s daughter, Maria Augustia in 1862. Joseph opened the first grocery and post office in 1867 and built the Bay View Hotel in 1878.
In 1868, Rafael deeded land for the first school. He also gave land for a Catholic Church and cemetery. The chapel was dedicated in October of 1875. Claus Spreckels, Rafael Castro, Joseph Arano and others subscribed $100 each towards its total cost of $799.60.
In 1872, Castro sold 2,390 acres to Claus Spreckels the sugar millionaire, for $71,900. He sold 200 more acres before years end. They became friends. Over time, Rafael sold most of his holdings.
Rafael saw California go through tremendous change. When he was born, Santa Cruz was a mission to the local Indian population. He was a subject of the king of Spain until he was 18. He was a under the rule of Mexico for 27 years and of the United States for 30. He saw Aptos grow from a single hacienda and cattle operation into an industrious town across the river with a blacksmith and wagon shop, two stores of general merchandise, a butcher shop, a post office, a school, a church, a wharf with two fine warehouses and a sawmill. He saw the first bridge span Aptos Creek in the early 1860’s and the first train to run through the county in 1876.
Rafael Castro died May 14, 1878, leaving an estate of $64,484. He and his wife Soledad are buried in the cemetery between Resurrection Catholic Church and Aptos Center. His grave marker is inscribed in Spanish. He refused to speak English. According to the historian Bancroft, the Castro family was the most extensive in early California. Rafael could count his relatives by the hundreds. He had at least 60 cousins, 83 nieces and nephews. He raised 12 children and his grandchildren numbered more than 40.