According to family lore, soon after Carolina and Antonio De La Ossa came to the San Rafael Valley in 1880, he wanted to move on to Guaymas. Carolina, on the other hand, believed they had uprooted themselves enough so, as one might say, “she nailed that man’s boots to the floor.” And thus, a local family settled and grew in what is now Santa Cruz County.
Many locals share a connection to the De La Ossa family, which was originally spelled “De La Osa,” meaning “of the bear.” Local families with the surnames Gardner, Lorta, Padilla, Quiroga and others all claim the De La Ossa pioneers as kin.
The family hailed from the West, Antonio from California and Carolina from La Paz, Baja California. The De La Ossas are thought to have originally emigrated from the Basque Country in the Pyrenees Mountains in the 1700s.
Antonio’s father, Vicente, was the owner of a land grant, the Rancho El Encino, in the San Fernando Valley, where the family farmed and raised cattle. After a heyday of supplying beef to the gold miners to the north, their fortunes declined when cheaper beef started to be imported from the East, and a drought made ranching a lot tougher. Vicente and his wife, Rita, turned to operating the 11-room ranch house as an inn. In 1867, five years after Vicente’s death, Rita sold the ranch. The Rancho El Encino (meaning “The Oak”) is now a California State Park.
When Antonio and Carolina arrived from California, Antonio worked as a freighter for the Southern Pacific Railroad, which had just reached Tucson on its way to connect to existing lines in Texas. He then hauled supplies to the local mines, and ore from the Blue Nose Mine to the nearby smelter.
In 1886, he bought 30 heifers in Sonora and started ranching in La Noria. La Noria, which means “the water wheel, or spring,” was the original name of the small community, which was considered a part of Mexico until the first border fence, built at the turn of the 20th century, went right through the middle of the village.
While the original U.S. Post Office was named La Noria, the name was changed to Lochiel by Colin and Brewster Cameron, the well-known cattle barons of the San Rafael. Named in honor of the brothers’ hometown in Scotland, the name went back and forth several times over the years, finally settling on Lochiel.
The De La Ossa acreage ran along both sides of the frontier and, in those days before barbed wire fencing, the range was open and available to all, so there was competition and confusion on and beyond each cattleman’s private property. According to De La Ossa descendants, when the Cameron brothers owned the San Rafael Ranch (originally the San Rafael De La Zanja land grant), they continually tried to lay claim to open land and drive the smaller ranchers out of the valley, creating ill will among the homesteaders. They were not successful in overpowering the De La Ossas.
Antonio sold their cattle in Tombstone and Nogales. He also ran a butcher shop in La Noria/Lochiel, where he sold meat to the mines of Mowry and Washington Camp. Some of the De La Ossa sons set up their own homesteads and stayed in the area.
The year 1893 brought to a head changes that made homesteading harder and harder to sustain in the San Rafael. A national depression, overgrazing, and especially a severe drought that had begun in the mid-1880s, killed cattle, bankrupted homesteaders, and changed the nature of ranching.
Some ranchers lost between 50% and 75% of their stock in 1892-3. Wealthier cattlemen bought up and consolidated ranches and many who had run their own operations went to work for these new, larger spreads. Rather than raising beef cattle to maturity to ship to market, many turned to cow-calf operations. Herds of cows and select bulls were kept for breeding, and most calves were sold to be fattened elsewhere.
The drought of that year is often considered to be part of a 20-year drought that began in 1885, much like the drought we find ourselves in today, which some consider to have begun around 2000.
In 1902, Antonio De La Ossa died in a horse accident, and Carolina continued with the help of her sons, especially Rosamel, the second-to-youngest of the 13 children.
By the time the drought ended in 1904, the De La Ossas had only one cow remaining. So, they started over. The 1917 list of Forest Service grazing permitees shows “Mrs. C De La Ossa” as grazing 164 head on public land, in addition to an unknown number on the family’s land. Data from 1934 show the De La Ossas as being major stock raisers in the Lochiel area. The original adobe house that was their ranch headquarters is still standing in Lochiel.
Over the following decades, De La Ossas ranched and cowboyed on other local ranches. Family spread out into surrounding countryside, including Duquesne, Washington Camp and farther afield in Santa Cruz Valley and beyond.
The De La Ossas still own property and a ranch in the Valley. Most of the handful of residents in the Lochiel area still bear the pioneer name.
Editor’s note: Part 2 of this series features two great-grandchildren of Antonio and Carolina, brothers Arnulfo and the late Onofre De La Ossa, whose wife, Maureen, continues to live on, and participate in, ranching at the San Antonio Ranch.