Los Angeles County
JOSEPH W. WOLFSKILL
“The history of a community is best told in the lives of its citizens, and when these citizens are men of forceful character, progressive and public-spirited, giving of the best in their lives not alone to the upbuilding of their own interests but to the establishment and maintenance of enterprises calculated to advance the general welfare of those about them, then indeed is such a career worthy of a place as the highest type of citizenship. Such qualities and characteristics have distinguished the Wolfskill family, established in Los Angeles county in February, 1831, and since that time proven a dominant force in the upbuilding of the western commonwealth and the development of Southern California.” These lines were written the secretary of the Historical Society of Southern California as preface for the biography of Joseph W. Wolfskill, published in 1907. “The pioneer, William Wolfskill,” said the same writer, “was a native of Kentucky, his birth having occurred in the vicinity of Richmond, March 20, 1789. His parents were of German and Irish extraction, inheriting from ancestors the spirit of sturdy courage and independence which prompted them to make for themselves and their children a home in what was then a wilderness. While he was still a child in years the family removed to Howard county, Missouri, then the center of an Indian country, and during the War of 1812 considerable trouble was experienced from the hostility of the red man.
“In 1815 William Wolfskill returned to Kentucky to attend school, and two years later was again located in the paternal home in Missouri, where he remained until he was twenty-four years of age. He received a practical training along agricultural lines and at the same time imbibed the spirit of the early day—the courage, independence and progressiveness which ever distinguished the pioneer. Young manhood found him inclined to push farther into the west and after leaving home in 1822 he went to New Mexico, spending one year in Santa Fe. He then went down the Rio Grande to Paso del Norte and trapped beaver with a native of New Mexico, who gave proof of his villainy by shooting Mr. Wolfskill in an endeavor to secure an insignificant plunder of hides, blankets and ammunition. However, the blankets, which were made of homespun, proved to be a most excellent armor and checked the bullet, which entered the flesh near the heart. Returning to Santa Fe, Mr. Wolfskill remained a short time, after which he went to Taos and fitted out an expedition to the Colorado river, where he engaged in trapping until June of the same year. He had many adventures with the Indians during this period in the southwest and many narrow escapes, but finally returned to his home in Missouri. His health had been impaired by the hardships he had undergone during this time and he found it necessary to remain in Missouri for a time. Later he engaged in buying up herds of cattle from western ranges and driving them to eastern markets, which occupation he found lucrative until the spring of 1828. At this date, he with others outfitted with a load of goods for New Mexico, and after reaching that point and disposing of the goods he pursued his way to California, arriving in Los Angeles in February, 1831.
“Henceforth Mr. Wolfskill remained a citizen of California and in the years following he gave no little attention toward the highest development of the state. The first schooner in California—El Refugio—was built by him at San Pedro, and in it he made one trip to the coast islands in search of otter, after which he sold the vessel, which finally went to the Sandwich Islands. He then turned his attention to that which occupied the greater part of his time throughout the remainder of his life—the cultivation of citrus fruits and grapes and the raising of stock. He planted the first orange grove in this section in 1841 and demonstrated the fact that Southern California possessed a climate that would produce the finest fruit in the world. In 1856 he planted two thousand trees a little southwest of what is now the Arcade depot, this being the largest orchard at the time in Southern California. For many years thereafter this ranch proved one of the most prolific orange bearers in the state, as many as twenty-five thousand boxes of orangs and lemons being shipped in a single year. The growth of the city has long since displaced the orange grove, but the early pioneers of Los Angeles remember it as one of the first fruits of eastern civilization. In addition to his efforts along this line, Mr. Wolfskill also gave considerable time and attention to the growing of nuts, at one time importing sweet almonds from Italy and attempting their growth. The climate here was evidently not adapted to their culture and this effort proved a failure, although in the cultivation of other nuts he was highly successful.
“ With the growth of the city Mr. Wolfskill found opportunity to improve his property and this he did , to the material advantage of his own property and that about him, finally disposing of one tract for the large sum of two hundred thousand dollars. To Mr. Wolfskill is owed much for the character of his citizenship, for no man exercised his talents and ability more than he to develop and advance the best interests of Southern California and particularly of Los Angeles. A man of broad mind and natural culture, he was intensely alive to the educational needs of his family. He established a private school in his own home, at the corner of Fourth and Alameda streets, which property he purchased in 1838, and there his children received a good education, as did also the sons and daughters of other pioneers. It has been truly said of him that his work in the development of this region, along every line of activity, was such as to win for him the esteem of his associates and the regard of all who have ever had reason to love Southern California. Personally he was man of many friends, for he was of a genial, kindly temperament, a fine conversationalist, and thoroughly alive on all questions of contemporary interest. He continued to reside at his Los Angeles home until his death, which occurred October 3, 1866. By his marriage in January, 1841, Mr. Wolfskill allied his fortunes with those of an old and honored Spanish family. His wife as Dona Rafaela Romero Lugo, of Santa Barbara.” They became the parents of six children: Joseph W., the immediate subject of this review; Mrs. Charles J. Shepherd; Mr. Frank Sabichi; Alice, who married H. D. Barrows and died in 1863; Louis, who died in 1884 and who married Louisa Dalton a daughter of Henry Dalton of Azusa rancho; and Rafaelita, who died in childhood in 1855. Mrs. Wolfskill preceded her husband to the grave four years.
Joseph W. Wolfskill was born in Los Angeles, September 14, 1844, and in this city was reared to young manhood, receiving his education in the private school which his father established. Upon the land now occupied by the Arcade depot and other buildings in that vicinity he engaged in horticultural pursuits until the growth of the city made the property too valuable thus to be utilized, when he began the laying out and disposal of large tracts, the first to be sold being one hundred acres known as the Wolfskill Orchard Tract, which was owned by Mrs. C. W. Shepherd and himself. Although he disposed of a vast amount property, Mr. Wolfskill still retained considerable city property at the time of his death. For many years he was identified with the business interests of Los Angeles, having a nursery at the corner of Wabash and Zonal streets in Brooklyn Heights, and also engaged as a florist at that place, his products being handled by a retail store located at 218 West Fourth street, Los Angeles. He met with uniform success in his work and was justly named among the men who have attained a high place in the citizenship of Southern California. He was a man of strong, unswerving principle, firmly grounded in all that goes to make the highest type of manhood, and merited the position of high esteem in which he was held by all who knew him. He served efficiently as a member of the city council of Los Angeles for two terms, acting on both the land and water committees. He was a stanch republican from the time that he cast his first vote for Lincoln, and gave his best efforts toward the promotion of the principles he endorsed.
In San Francisco, Mr. Wolfskill was united in marriage with Elena de Pedrorena, a native of San Diego, California, and the daughter of Victoria Estudillo and Hon. Miguel de Pedrorena, who was born in Spain and became a pioneer of San Diego, where he engaged as a rancher and stockman. He was very prominent in public affairs, serving as a member of the first constitutional convention of California, and his death, which occurred in San Diego, removed a citizen of worth and works.
Transcribed by Joyce Rugeroni.
Source: California of the South Vol. V, by John Steven McGroarty, Pages 188-192, Clarke Publ., Chicago, Los Angeles, Indianapolis. 1933.
© 2012 Joyce Rugeroni.