Opinion: Finding Meaning

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The Laguna Land Rush

Think Laguna land is crazy expensive? Hah! Back in the day, it was free. Today is the 160th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln signing Congress’ arguably best law—The Homestead Act. That act lead to the “Laguna land rush,” in which four families, linked by a shared faith, tied up the best land. It’s a great, though little-known, story.

It began with a vision: Thomas Jefferson foresaw a great democracy founded on land-owning yeoman farming families. This contrasted with the aristocratic plantation economy of the southern states where land was owned by a few but worked by slaves or share-croppers. Congress had long considered a homestead law but lacked the votes due to the Senate’s North-South deadlock. The South’s 1861 succession ended the deadlock, enabling the Homestead Act. Homesteading was the great American experiment, a historic granting of hundreds of millions of acres of land—including distant Laguna Beach—to farming families.

The Thurstons, first of Laguna’s founding families, settled Aliso Canyon in 1871. A son, George Thurston Jr., later homesteaded most of what became Three Arch Bay. The arrival of the railroad in the mid-1870s brought three extended families led by Harvey and Emily Hemenway, Andrew and Esther Thompson, and Henry and Elizabeth Rogers. In a short time these families would own most of Laguna Beach. The Hemenway group got the coastal land so deserve a closer look.

Harvey and Emily Hemenway homesteaded the area known today as Canyon Acres; their daughter Tina married Charles Salter and they had a homestead, plus Charles’ brother Gene had started and then abandoned the Aliso Canyon homestead taken over by the Thurstons. Harvey’s sister Elizabeth married Henry Goff who brought three brothers, Hub, Frank and Leon. Frank homesteaded on the coast north of the Thurstons, Lee to the south. Hub didn’t claim a homestead but his daughter Lulu claimed the land around Moss Point. Harvey’s other sister Sylvia Brooks Draper came with her sons Oliver, Nate, and Will. Nate homesteaded the area around Bluebird Canyon; his brothers homesteaded farms above his claim. In addition, Oliver’s daughter Lizzie married William Clapp and, naturally, they filed a homestead.

The Thompson group homesteaded Laguna Canyon beyond the Hemenways. The Rogers clan settled in the downtown area: parents Henry and Elizabeth Rogers filed a homestead in the hills while their son George purchased an earlier homestead by John Damron and subdivided today’s downtown area.

How do we know all this? It started with the late Beryl Wilson Viebeck (1922-2015) whose family pioneered in Santa Ana and whose uncle was George Rogers. Curious about her uncle, Viebeck became an amateur historian. Her research and map of Laguna’s thirty-nine homesteads is a notable contribution to Laguna history and can be seen at our Historical Society’s Murphy-Smith Bungalow.

And that’s how Laguna got its start: Jefferson’s vision, a shared faith, families working together. We live in an unsettled time, but knowing our past can guide the future. There’s meaning in that.

Skip fell in love with Laguna on a ‘50s surfing trip. He’s a student of Laguna history and the author of “Loving Laguna: A Local’s Guide to Laguna Beach”. Email: [email protected]

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