Historian Walker Tompkins has called the Den vs. Hollister litigation “the legal drama of the nineteenth century.” Bitterly fought over a fourteen year period, the case involved some of Santa Barbara’s most prominent personalities and profoundly affected the future of the Goleta Valley. Even today, many place names and boundaries have their origin in the case.
The Den Estate
The roots of the case go back to March 1862, when Nicholas A. Den, a beloved physician and owner of Rancho Los Dos Pueblos, died at the untimely age of 50 due to pneumonia contracted while delivering a Canalizo baby in a freezing rainstorm. Den’s will, probated by his attorney, Charles Fernald, gave the portion of the Dos Pueblos ranch lying west of Tecolote Canyon to his wife, Rosa Hill Den. The remaining half of the Dos Pueblos ranch, extending east to Los Carneros Creek, was to be held in trust for Den’s ten children, who would each receive a one-tenth portion when he or she came of age.
The Great Drought
The years following Den’s death were hard for the county. A severe drought dried the creeks and denuded the hills. C.A. Storke later recalled that “the carcasses of dead horses, cattle and sheep lined Goleta’s roads and dotted the open valley. Vultures fattened and grew bold. Prayers for rain went up fervently; the superstitious secretly invoked charms, but to no avail.” The drought especially harmed the Den family. In 1864, the family was forced to sell 100 head of cattle, formerly worth $40 a head, for $3.50 each at the “Big Matanza” or public slaughter near Fernald Point.
The Sale of Tecolotito Canyon
To satisfy the family’s debts, one of the trustees for the minor heirs, Charles Huse, proposed selling a portion of the trust property to Santa Barbara’s civic leader, Colonel William Welles Hollister. Delighted by the opportunity to acquire the land, which he thought would be unavailable until the youngest Den heir came of age in 1882, Hollister offered to pay $10 per acre for 5,169 acres surrounding Tecolotito Creek. Hollister’s offer was handsome: following the great drought, cleared bottom land in the county was selling for $1.30 per acre; foothill land was assessed at only $.10 per acre. The Den family eagerly approved the deal.
Colonel William Welles Hollister
Hollister first saw Tecolotito Canyon in 1854, when he wintered there during the last leg of a fifteen-month trail drive from Ohio. He fell in love with the canyon and vowed to be successful enough to purchase it one day. After establishing a sheep ranch in San Benito County, whose county seat now bears his name, Hollister became wealthy selling wool during the boom years of the Civil War. Hollister returned to Santa Barbara in 1868 and began buying large tracts of county land, including the entire Lompoc Valley, in partnership with Albert and Thomas Dibblee. He also began to devote his enormous energies to improving Santa Barbara. He played a leading role in the construction of Stearns Warf, the Lobero Theater, the first public library, and the Arlington Hotel, the last of which made Santa Barbara known as a tourist destination. In partnership with Fernald and others, Hollister also established Santa Barbara College at State and Anapamu Streets.
After purchasing Tecolotito Canyon from the Dens, Hollister named his estate the
“Glen Annie Ranch” after his wife, Annie James Hollister, and proceeded to make it a showplace of Southern California. The avenue laid out by Hollister to join his ranch to the county road (and the county road itself) is now named Hollister Avenue in his honor.
The Lawsuit To Recover Tecolotito Canyon
In October 1875, Charles Huse filed a petition to be released from liability for his actions as the Den’s trustee. Believing that Huse had misused his powers, Kate Den Bell, Nicholas Den’s eldest daughter, retained San Francisco attorney Thomas B. Bishop to resist Huse’s petition. Bishop, who was an expert in finding loopholes in land titles, challenged all of Huse’s actions as trustee, including the sale of Tecolotito Canyon to Hollister. Bishop argued that the sale was invalid because Huse had failed to obtain court approval before consummating the sale. Hollister was aware that approval had not been obtained; indeed, he had been specifically warned by the probate judge that such consent was needed, but he elected to proceed anyway because the Den heirs – the only persons who could conceivably object to the transaction – had expressly approved the sale.
Fernald and E.J. Wilson represented Hollister, Ellwood Cooper and the Sturgis Brothers in the litigation. Like Hollister, Cooper and the Sturgis Brothers had purchased property from minor Den heirs. The case was tried before Judge Ygnacia Sepulveda in Santa Barbara in early 1877. The spectators in the packed courtroom vocally favored Hollister’s position as presented by Fernald. Although headstrong and domineering, Hollister was known to be a man of absolute integrity. He could have demanded a discount for the Den lands because of the clouded title; instead he had paid a substantial premium. When Bishop began his summation, spectators jeered him.
On March 29, 1879 Judge Sepulveda ruled in favor of Hollister and his co-defendants. The Dens successfully appealed, however, and the case was remanded for a new trial, this time in Santa Clara County. Hollister and the Sturgis Brothers retained Bay-Area attorney Henry Highton to represent them in San Jose. Cooper settled with the Dens, surrendering all of his property south of the county road (Hollister Avenue) west of Goleta.
Highton lost the retrial, although the court confirmed Hollister’s title to Winchester Canyon because he had purchased it from Den heirs who were of age. Hollister unsuccessfully appealed the decision to the California Supreme Court, which in 1890 ruled that the Den Estate was entitled to recover the Glen Annie Ranch.
Thomas Bishop received the Sturgis Brothers’ property and most of Hollister’s property as payment for his successful prosecution of the Dens’ case. Later known as the Bishop Ranch, these properties remained in the Bishop family until 1959.
Ellwood Cooper retained title to his acres in Ellwood Canyon until shortly before his death in 1918. Ten years later, one of the richest oil strikes in Santa Barbara County was made on the part of his property that he had ceded back to the Dens.
Charles Huse, whose handling of the Den estate triggered the lawsuit, later became implicated in a sweeping scandal involving Rancho Najalajegua. When Huse died in 1898, confined to an insane asylum, the Morning Press recalled his early public service and charitably stated, “We inter the evil with his bones.”
Colonel Hollister died in August 1886, while the second appeal was pending. After laying in state at the Arlington Hotel, his body was conveyed to the Santa Barbara Cemetery by a procession of mourners that stretched for three miles. Newspapers from coast to coast declared him to be one of California’s greatest pioneers.
After learning of the court’s final decision in the Den case, Hollister’s widow, Annie James Hollister, swore that no member of the Den family would ever set foot in her house. Fifteen minutes after Annie vacated the premises on November 20, 1890, the house mysteriously burst into flames and burned to the ground. Annie went to her grave in 1909 claiming that she did not know what caused the fire.
Bell, Kate Den. Swinging the Censer. Santa Barbara, 1931.
Provides the Den side of the Den vs. Hollister litigation
Tompkins, Walker A. Santa Barbara’s Royal Rancho. Santa Barbara: McNally & Loftin, 1960.
Even-handed account of the Den vs. Hollister litigation and its effect on the Goleta Valley.
Tompkins, Walker A. Santa Barbara History Makers. Santa Barbara: McNally & Loftin, 1983.
Includes biographies of W.W. Hollister, Nicholas Den, Ellwood Cooper and Charles Huse.
Tompkins, Walker A. Santa Barbara Past & Present. Santa Barbara: McNally & Loftin, 1980.
Good historical narrative of the city from its founding to the modern era.