Santa Margarita



Native Americans

  • Both Chumash and Salinan Indian tribes were found on the Central Coast of California. The Chumash were in the south and the Salinan Indians were in the north. The two tribes met in the Santa Margarita area. There are registered archaeological sites containing “lithic scatter” (crude stone tools). The scatter areas and their stone artifacts indicate Native Americans may have lived in this area around 6,500 years ago.


  • The Santa Margarita de Cortona Asistencia[1] was established in 1787 as an asistencia  or “sub-mission” to Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, then in the Spanish Las Californias Province.
  • The asistencia’s site was north of Cuesta Grade in the Santa Lucia Mountains near the present day city of Santa Margarita. 
  • The Santa Margarita Asistencia was secularized along with Mission San Luis Obispo in 1835, and suffered the same neglect that many mission properties did after that time.

Don Joaquin Estrada

  • In 1841, the Mexican Land Grant for Rancho Santa Margarita was issued to Joaquín Estrada. Estrada was famed for his “Rancho Hospitality”  for local Californios or persons of Spanish or Mexican heritage or place or birth or residence was California, as distinctly from residents who wert to California from the u.S. or elsewhere. The Californio era is generally thought to have begun with the first permanent residence in 1769 and lasted until Mexican cession of California to the U.S. in 1948.
  • In Estrada’s petition to the Mexican government for the Rancho Santa Margarita land-grant, Estrada mentioned the Asistencia building. The story is that he lived in fear that the church would try to take the rancho back because of the mention of the building, so he tried to burn it down. The surviving heirs of the Estrada family deny this and say that the major dono tried to burn the asistencia. Supposedly, Estrada felt such remorse that he chose to sleep in a coffin as penitence. The house where he lived still exists and is called the “Morgue room” to this day (Loftus, 2006).
  • During the decade prior to California statehood, local Californio leaders, along with Estrada, used the rancho to discuss strategy against Americans. During the Bear Flag Revolt in December 1846, Captain John C. Fremont arrested local Californio leaders at the Rancho Santa Margarita and released them only after securing their pledges of service to the US.
  • On April 4, 1854, Estrada’s patent to the Rancho claim was confirmed by the California Land Commission and on October 3, 1855, the district court of northern California also confirmed his claim. An appeal was dismissed in 1857. The official Land Office survey was the ranch was completed in February 1858. The survey map depicts the El Camino Real, the “old mission buildings” the ranch house, and a cattle trail running east-west on the eastern boundary line. (Brice,1858)
  • In 1854, one of the surveyors described the Santa Margarita thus: 

”…fine grass, with abundance of running streams in the bottom, the side hills clothes with live-oaks and cotton-wood and covered with a luxuriant crop of wild oats, (avena fatua) which was naturally preserved, and at the time of the visit (January) served as food for the multitude of deer and horned cattle, which found abundant sustenance here (Antisell) 

  • Henry Miller passed through the area in 1856 and wrote the following: 

“…hills and valleys were covered with wild oats and timber and offered a most refreshing aspect, till I arrived in the vicinity of the Santa Margarita Rancho, where I found the road strewn with petrified shells. I ascertained that the ground over which I rode and the hills to both sides of it, is composed of these seashells, some of which are of large size. A large and well preserved one, I picked up from amongst thousands, which weighed about 15 pounds.

Santa Margarita is located in a fertile valley, well watered, and served formerly as a storehouse of the missionaries of San Luis Obispo. This house is about 200 feet long with an adobe wall around it. There are a few houses of adobe scattered round, amongst which I observed still those petrified shells, which the natives burn and use for mortar and white wash. Leaving Santa Margarita, I descended a very picturesque Canada, full of oak, pine and other trees on which were climbing wild grapevines. All the hills on both sides were covered with wild oats.

  • After downturns in the local economy and personal debts, Estrada, like many Californios, was forced to sell Rancho Santa Margarita. He sold in 1861 to Mary and Martin Murphy Jr.

In Up and Down California, W.H. Brewer, commmented on May 4, 1861 about passing through the Santa Margarita area. “The mission of Santa Margarita was in ruins. It is the seat of a fine ranch which was sold a few days ago for $45,000. The owner, Don Joaquin de Estrada, lives now at Atascadero Ranch, where we camped. This last ranch is all he now has left of all his estates. Five years ago, he had sixteen leagues of land (each league over 4,4000 acres, or over 70,000 acres of land), 12,000 head of cattle, 4,000 horses, etc. Dissipation is scattering it at the rate of thousands of dollars for a single spree. Thus the ranches are fast passing out of the hands of the native population.”

  • The Murphys turned over running of the rancho, along with the adjacent Rancho Atascadero and Rancho Asuncion they also owned, to their son Patrick W. Murphy. He later served in the California Assembly and the California State Senate, and was a General in the California National Guard. He worked to restore the Rancho to a working agricultural ranch. Murphy erected a barn over the adobe and stone Santa Margarita de Cortona Asistencia to shield it from the elements.
  • In February, 1889 the town of Santa Margarita was incorporated.
  • On April 20, 1889 the Southern Pacific Railroad reached Santa Margarita from Templeton. All freight had to be loaded for stage transportation up and down the Cuesta Grade. Town boasted two hotels, several restaurants, lots of taverns, dance halls, blacksmiths, and ice cream parlors.
  • The end of WWI brought prohibition and prosperity. The automobile heralded in a new transportation age. In this area, the original Highway 101, followed the El Camino Real as it climbed over Cuesta Grade and turned East on Cuesta Springs Rd and passed through downtown Santa Margarita.
  • Highway 101 was the perfect road for seeing California. Town sported a motor inn, hotel, 6 gas stations, garages, pool halls, restaurants, fraternal organizations, taverns, a new schoolhouse and a baseball team.
  •  In 1957, Highway 101 was rerouted to bypass Santa Margarita a couple of miles west of downtown and prosperity faded. 

Today’s Community

  • Today, Santa Margarita is a rustic relic of the past.
  • It boasts a wide main street, western style storefronts, and exudes a strong sense community.
  • It is a bedroom community for San Luis Obispo.
  • It also has its own unique tourist trade as the gateway to the Carrizo Plains, and Pozo Valley.
  • It contains small shops, antiques, wineries, breweries, and a couple of unique restaurants.
  • Often, there are events at Rancho Santa Margarita and the Pozo Saloon. 

Things to Do 

  • Carrizo Plains
  • Pozo Saloon
  • Wineries
  • Dunbar Brewery

  • Joanna’s store


  • The Range Restaurant

The Porch 

Books and References:

Anderson, Burton. The Salinas Valley: A History of America’s Salad Bowl. Monterey County Historical Society. 2000. The New Home of Don Wilson’s Highway 101 Project.

Wikipedia, The Californias.

Wikipedia, Mexican Secularization of 1833.

Wikipedia, Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa.

Wikipedia, Rancho Santa Margarita.

 Wikipedia, Santa Margarita, California.,_California