By Timothy R. Mullins II
Between his birth in circa 1734 and death in 1804, Manuel Nieto, a mulato man (person of mixed African and European descent), worked his way to the top of California society. Throughout his life, Nieto held the titles of father, husband, soldier, landowner, rancher, and most notably, richest man in California. His land, the largest land grant to any individual under Spanish rule, and legacy are tied to the modern-day Los Angeles area.
Birth to Later Years
Circa 1734, Josef Manuel Nieto Perez was born to man with the surname Nieto, a mulato man whose first name was not listed perhaps suggesting an illegitimate birth, and a teenager, Manuela Perez (born circa 1720), who was a Spaniard, in the Villa de Sinaloa, Mexico. It is speculated that his siblings were Crispen Nieto Perez and Juana Maria Nieto Perez.
A member of a company known as the soldados de cuero, or “the leather jacket troops,” Manuel Nieto first came to California as part of the Gaspar de Portola expedition in 1769. The purpose of this expedition was to explore the interior of California. In 1772, while holding the rank of Corporal, Nieto was stationed at San Diego’s presidio. Around this time, he married Maria Teresa Morilla (born circa 1756), 22 years his junior from Loreto, Baja California. While living in San Diego, the couple had their first of six children, Juan Josef Maria Nieto, who was born on February 6, 1781 at Mission San Diego. During Nieto’s tenure as a soldier in San Diego, which spanned from approximately 1772 to 1784, he served in other locations as well. Under the leadership of Captain Pedro Fages, he and his fellow soldiers marched to Monterey Bay, where he was stationed in February 1773. Also, in August of 1781, he escorted Los Angeles settlers to San Diego.
Stationed at Mission San Gabriel in 1784, Nieto petitioned Governor Fages––the same man who led him to Monterrey––for a land grant near the Mission, with the intention of grazing cattle. Such a request was expected considering the little pay that soldiers received. Approving the initial request, Governor Fages wrote a formal request to the Comandante General in Chihuahua, Mexico asking permission to grant Nieto land. Nieto’s request was approved with the following conditions: that he must respect the land belonging to other pueblos and missions, he must build a stone house on the land, he must stock cattle on the land, he needed to hire enough herders to manage his cattle, and he must accept that the land still belonged to the King of Spain. This colonial land concession, initially known as Rancho la Zanja, consisted of 300,000 acres ofland––the largest land grant that the Spanish colonial government had ever bestowed upon anyone––that spanned from the Santa Ana River to the East and the San Gabriel River to the West. On this land, Nieto established his homestead and expanded his family. Spanning the years of 1785 through 1796, he and his wife had five more children. Josef Antonio Maria Nieto was born on August 14, 1785 at Mission San Gabriel, Antonio Maria de los Santos Nieto was born circa 1788, Maria Manuela Antonia Nieto was born on August 4, 1791, Maria de los Santos Nieto was born circa 1795, and Antonia Maria Nieto was born on July 13, 1796.
Until his retirement as a soldier in 1795, Nieto worked as both a rancher and a soldier in the Mission San Gabriel area. During his tenure at Mission San Gabriel, Nieto partook in an undercover operation. He pretended to be a priest in order to capture subversive natives who were planning to kill the local priests. The mission was highly successful, especially given that there were no reported casualties. When Nieto officially retired from the presidio, he focused his efforts on ranching, and he successfully managed Rancho Los Nietos. As a result of Nieto’s ranching success, a small community known as Los Nietos developed on his land. This community consisted of his family, ranch hands, which included local Tongva people, and family friends.
Although highly successful in his ranching endeavors, Nieto could not secure all of his land. During the late 1790s into the early 1800s, Nieto and the priests of Mission San Gabriel disputed over his northern land. The priests argued that they needed this land, which was known as La Zanja de la Puente, to house their Tongva converts. Given the rules Nieto agreed to when granted his land concession, Governor Diego de Borica reduced the size of Nieto’s land down to 167,000 acres in 1803. Regardless of this drastic downsizing, Nieto still possessed the largest land grant in Spanish California history.
Death and Legacy
Upon his death in 1804 at the approximate age of 70, Manuel Nieto was the richest man in California in terms of land, cattle, and horses. With his death, all of his holdings were inherited by his wife and five living children (Juan Jose, Josef Antonio, Antonio Maria de los Santos, Maria Manuela, and Antonio Maria), with his oldest son, Juan Jose, serving as the estate’s executor.
For a brief stint, the family almost lost claim to part of their land in an 1834 lawsuit with Patricio Ontiveros, a soldier Manuel Nieto served with at Mission San Gabriel. Around 1809, the Nieto family allowed Ontiveros to build a house on their land due to Ontiveros’ status as a family friend, and after 15 or so years of living on the land, Ontiveros petitioned Governor Jose Figueroa to obtain possession of his portion of the Nieto property. The court upheld Nieto’s ownership of the land, but ordered that Rancho Los Nietos be divided amongst the living heirs. With this verdict, Governor Figueroa divided the land in the following manner: Juan Jose obtained Ranchos Los Coyotes and Los Alamitos; Jose Antonio’s widow, Doña Catarina Ruiz, obtained Rancho Las Bolsas; Doña Manuel Nieto Cota obtained Rancho Los Cerritos; and Antonio Maria de los Santos’ widow, Josepha Cota Nieto, obtained Rancho Santa Gertrudes, the location of the Nieto family home.
Sketch of Rancho Santa Gertrudes, which was used as evidence during the Ontiveros lawsuit Online Archive of California.
Unfortunately for Manuel Nieto’s legacy, each heir did not hold onto their land, as some could not afford the mortgage bills and others lost their land when they could not afford the expenses necessary to keep their land claim after the United States adopted California as a state. Nonetheless, Nieto’s historic land grant is truly significant, as it encompasses a vast portion of Southern California, including Rancho Los Nietos (modern-day Sante Fe Springs), Long Beach, Huntington Beach, Lakewood, Buena Park, Norwalk, Downey, Garden Grove, some parts of Whittier, and small towns such as Cerritos.
“Chapter 3: Ranches Under Spanish, Mexican and American Rule.” The Story of Cerritos. Cerritos Library, 2022. http://menu.ci.cerritos.ca.us/collections/local_history/cl_lhStory3.htm
Northrop, Marie E. Spanish-Mexican Families of Early California, 1769-1850. I. Vol. I. New Orleans: Polyanthos, 1976.
Orange County California Genealogical Society. Saddleback Ancestors: Rancho Families of Orange County California. Orange, CA: Orange County California Genealogical Society, 1998.
Sante Fe Springs Historical Committee. Images of America: Sante Fe Springs. GoogleBooks. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2012. https://books.google.com/books?id=yDpz GyXsBOAC&q=Nieto#v=snippet&q=Nieto&f=false.
United States Department of the Interior Heritage Conservation and Recreation Service, National Register of Historic Places Inventory–Nomination Form for Hawkins-Nimocks Estate/Patricio Ontiveros Adobe § (1982).