• Cheryl Anne Stapp

The Old Rancho del Paso


This Sacramento Valley ranch is long gone, but its colorful history is legend…and its fame still reverberates in the names of streets, parks, and neighborhoods to the north of California’s capital city.

Long ago, this landscape was grasslands and oak trees; home to abundant antelope, deer, elk, and swarms of grasshoppers. Bears fed in the fish-filled streams; millions of wildfowl darkened the skies when they took wing. Then in 1839 Swiss citizen John Sutter arrived in a round-about-voyage via Hawaii, and established a trading post west of a great northward curve in the American River. Other adventurous men soon joined him. One of Sutter’s early associates was John Sinclair, a Scot who had followed Sutter from Hawaii with the intent of ascertaining whether Sutter was a suitable trading partner for Sinclair’s employer, a respected Hawaiian merchant and sea captain named Eliab Grimes.

Sutter, though, was in debt to several Hawaiian traders. Sinclair and Grimes helped him solve the problem. As a reward—and with the authority vested in him by California’s Mexican government—in 1843 Sutter deeded the rolling grasslands across that great bend in the river to John Sinclair, Eliab Grimes, and Eliab’s nephew Hiram, as partners. The Grimes relatives stayed in the Islands; John Sinclair took possession as the resident manager of the 44,000-acre Rancho del Paso. However, the senior partner, Eliab Grimes, wanted an iron-clad title: he acquired a formal Mexican land grant for the exact same land in December 1844, in his name alone.

John Sinclair married a young Englishwoman named Mary Eyre, a wagon-train immigrant. The couple raised wheat and cattle and sheep, had a daughter, and were prospering when the gold discovery in 1848 lured thousands of fortune-seekers, whose callous disregard for property legitimately owned by others brought ruin to many a valley rancher. Eliab Grimes had died and willed his majority interest in Rancho del Paso to his nephew Hiram; the Sinclairs sold their partnership interests to Hiram in early 1849, and departed for New York. Later that same year, Hiram Grimes sold the ranch to Samuel Norris. Norris owned the property until he was so deeply in debt to his attorneys Lloyd Tevis and James Ben Ali Haggin that he lost it to them in May 1862.

James Haggin raised thoroughbreds, and in 1873 he hired veteran horse trainer John Mackey. Mackey’s skill combined with Haggin’s wealth and enthusiasm made the rancho famous in the 1880s and 1890s: Haggin’s horse Ben Ali won the Kentucky Derby in 1886, and in 1890 Salvator set the record for the mile with a time of one minute and 35.5 seconds. Haggin quit racing in 1891 but continued to breed and sell racehorses on the former Rancho del Paso until 1905.

Although the ranch was now known locally as Haggin’s Rancho, Tevis was still half owner. In 1910 the pair sold it to the Sacramento Valley Colonization Company, who sub-divided the land and sold it to individuals for farms and home sites. The original land grant was bounded by modern Northgate Blvd. on the west, Fair Oaks Blvd.-Manzanita Avenue on the east, U Street above McClellan Park on the north and the American River on the south. Today the vast, pastoral acreage of the old Rancho del Paso contains sprawling housing developments, major shopping districts, businesses of every kind, congested roads, and diminishing rural neighborhoods.

© 2019 by Cheryl Anne Stapp. 

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