Driving Through History: John Warner

Unlike Pio Pico and Mariano Vallejo, John Warner wasn’t born in California, but his life choices made him an important figure in Southern California history, from the days of the trappers to stagecoaches to the Civil War and beyond.

Today we’ve rounded up some biographical facts and three things to remember as we keep “driving through history.”

John Warner, 1879 (FindAGrave website)

To Stay In California

Born in 1807 and raised in Connecticut, Jonathan Trumball Warner headed west in the 1830’s, traveling along the Sante Fe Trail and eventually deciding to become a fur trapper. He joined Jedidiah Smith and trapped beaver; the fur trade led him to California and in 1832 he passed through Southern California back-country on his way to Los Angeles.

After fur-trapping in California for a while, Warner settled in Los Angeles and opened a store. He fell in love with Anita Gale (a sea captain’s daughter living in California as a ward of the Pico family), became a naturalized Mexican Citizen, changed his name to Juan Jose Warner, and got married. Around 1843, the Warner Family moved to San Diego, and the following year, he applied for a land grant. The land grant – Rancho San Jose del Valle or Rancho Agua Caliente – encompassed a trail into Southern California and Warner set up shop. Literally.

Warner’s Ranch

Jonathan T. Warner, Juan J. Warner, or John Warner – chose your favorite name – moved his family to an adobe building near some hot springs in the California hills of North County (San Diego County). If you’re traveling east along California Highway Lower 79 from Temecula, you’ll be heading toward his property. It’s also not far from Julian or Anza Borego, if those towns/landmarks help.

Warner established a successful cattle ranch and a trading post at the trail crossroads – connecting Los Angeles and San Diego to Yuma, Arizona. It couldn’t have been better timing. American soldiers – including General Kearny – passed by Warner’s outpost during the Mexican American War. After the conflict ended, Warner took steps to keep his ranch lands and business really started flourishing as the Gold Rush brought many people to California over the overland routes. Since he owned the only trading post between Sante Fe and Los Angeles along the Gila River Emigrant Trail, John Warner’s name, popularity, and wealth increased.

Remains of the Emigrant Trail at Warner’s Ranch. (Photo by RightCowLeftCoast – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Warner%27s_Ranch_-_17APR2017_-_4.jpg)

Research by historical societies suggests Warner’s adobe was destroyed by tribal attacks around 1851, and there’s speculation about when he moved his family to Los Angeles. For his role in the conflict, Warner received the honorary title “Colonel” and is sometimes referred to as Colonel John Warner.

In 1858 when the Butterfield Stagecoaches came to California, Warner’s Ranch was a stage stop, but evidence suggests Warner and his family weren’t living at the ranch permanently at that time.

To finish the history of Warner and his history at the ranch… In 1880, John Downey – a former California governor – eventually bought Warner’s Ranch and used the land for livestock grazing. (Note: Downey – not Warner – had the local Native American tribe evicted from the land.)

Politics, Writing, & Law

John Warner served in California’s state assembly from 1851 to 1852, representing San Diego County. Then, and throughout the rest of his life, he supported Native American rights and protection.

Warner moved away from the ranch and established himself and his family in Los Angeles by 1858 where he started the The Southern Vineyard newspaper. Mrs. Warner died in the late 1850’s, leaving John with several children, a struggling business, and another term in the state assembly – representing Los Angeles County this time. During the early days of the Civil War, John Warner supported the Union; U.S. troops established Camp Wright near his ranch, and he warned the authorities about Dan Showalter’s planned escape. (More on Showalter next week.)

During the 1860’s, he supported his family by writing articles about his adventures in the west and California. After 1870, Warner turned to law practice, but eventually met financial disaster there too. On a more cheerful note, he served as the first president of the Southern California Historical Society and helped write a history of Los Angeles County. John Warner died in 1895 and was buried in Rosendale Cemetery.

There’s A Road Named After Him Because…

There’s more than a road named after John Warner. The crossroads area in back-roads San Diego County is still called Warner Springs (remember the hot springs near his house?) and Warner’s Ranch buildings still stand. Well, sort of – they aren’t the structures John Warner built, but for those details and how to visit, you’ll have to click HERE.

So…why name a road after John Warner. Here are three good reasons:

  1. He owned the crossroads trading post between Sante Fe and Los Angeles.
  2. He represented two counties (at different times) in the state assembly in the early days of state history.
  3. He laid groundwork for historical studies of Southern California.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

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