Scope and Content
Biographic Sketch of the Couts Family
Title: Cave Johnson Couts Papers,
Date (inclusive): 1832-1951
Couts, Cave Johnson
Extent: Number of pieces: 16,000
The Huntington Library
San Marino, California 91108
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[Identification of item], Cave Johnson Couts Papers, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.
Scope and Content
The Couts Collection, consisting of some 16,000 pieces, was acquired from Mrs. Ida Richardson in 1958. It contains the personal
and business papers of Cave Johnson Couts a (1821-1874) and Cave Johnson Couts b (1856-1943).
Biographic Sketch of the Couts Family
Biographic Sketch of Cave J. Couts a
Cave J. Couts a was born near Springfield, Tennessee in November, 1821. He was recommended by Rep. James K. Polk to the United
States Military Academy, which he attended from 1838 to 1843. For four years Couts served at posts in Louisiana and what is
now Oklahoma, during which time he rose from second lieutenant of Riflemen to first lieutenant of First Dragoons.
In November, 1847, in the closing moments of the war with Mexico, Couts was sent to Monterrey, Mex., too late to take part
in any real confrontation with the enemy. In June, 1848, after uneventful months of occupation duty, Couts' company began
a six-month march to California from Monterrey. Due to incompetent command the march proved to be one of foolish hardship
and privation, and Couts kept a journal chronicling the outrages to which his proud company was submitted.
Upon reaching California Couts was stationed at Los Angeles and San Diego for several months, and in late 1849 he headed up
the escort for the U.S. Boundary Commission survey team, which was mapping the U.S. border from San Diego to the Colorado-Gila
In 1851, after several more months of occupation duty in San Diego, Couts married Isidora Bandini, daughter of the very prominent
californiano, Juan Bandini. Shortly thereafter, in October of that year, Couts resigned his Army commission and took over the operation
of the San Diego County ranch Guajome, a wedding present of the bride's brother-in-law, Abel Stearns.
In late 1851 Couts was second-in-command of the volunteer force which brought under control the San Diego County Indian uprising
known as the Garra Revolt. In January, 1852 he was the presiding judge at the court martial of the man who instigated that
revolt, Antonio Garra. Couts was further involved with San Diego Indians as sub-agent for the county from 1853 to 1855.
As Couts turned his attentions toward setting up his ranch he put his primary efforts into raising cattle, with the help of
Abel Stearns. He proved quite successful as a cattleman, and acquired great wealth. He was later able to add the nearby ranches
Buena Vista and Los Vallecitos de San Marcos to his land holdings. He was also a very well-respected man throughout California.
A staunch Democrat, he was very active in county and state politics. He was several times a delegate to the state Democratic
Convention, and he held numerous county positions, including that of Justice of the Peace (which he held from 1853 to 1863).
With the passing of the No-fence Law in Sacramento in 1872 Couts received a financial blow from which he never recovered.
California laws had always favored the rancher, with his open-range method of cattle raising. This new law, which Couts fought
desperately, placed on the cattleman the responsibility for any damage to farmers' crops caused by his free-roaming cattle.
Thus, rather than farmers having to enclose their fields, ranchers had to enclose their cattle, or sell. Couts was forced
to sell his herds at ruinous prices. Two years later, in June, 1874, Couts died of aneurism at San Diego.
An interesting sidelight to Couts' papers is the Civil War material to be found in the correspondence he maintained with his
brothers and sisters in Tennessee. These letters give an informative view of the rigors of war in that state. Couts, as one
might suspect, was a strong Confederate supporter.
Biographic Sketch of Cave J. Couts B
Cave J. Couts b, fourth child of Cave J. Couts a, was born at Rancho Guajome in 1856. He received his schooling at St. Vincent's
Academy in Los Angeles and at Stewart College in Clarksville, Tennessee (now Southwestern Presbyterian University).
Couts became a civil engineer, and in 1883 he and his brother-in-law, Chalmers Scott, went to Guatemala and El Salvador to
work on the Central American Pacific Railroad. After his return in 1884 Couts was appointed Deputy Surveyor for San Diego
County, and he actively surveyed the public lands for more than twenty-five years.
In February, 1887 Couts married Elizabeth B. Clemens, niece of Samuel Langhorne Clemens. Their only child, Cave Johnson Couts
c, was born late that same year. In June, 1897 Couts and his wife were divorced. She later remarried, to Dr. Charles Schrader.
Couts' great pride, Rancho Guajome, was gradually acquired as a whole by him from other members of his family. The ranch had
been divided up among the family following the death of Couts a. In times of financial reverses the family turned to Couts
b for assistance, and in this way the land came into his hands. Couts had a strong sense of history, and the ranch retained
an atmosphere of early California well into the twentieth century. In 1927 he had the house and outbuildings completely restored.
Couts' sense of history also led him to buy and renovate the Casa de Bandini in San Diego, home of his famous grandfather,
Juan Bandini. Following its restoration in 1930 the house was opened as a hotel.
Couts owned or administered large parcels of land, a few of which gave him much worry and trouble. A heated battle over the
Rancho Buena Vista caused Couts, as administrator of his father's estate, years of litigation (1889-1907). His problems were
first centered around a dispute with the government over the final survey of the land, and later were focussed on an effort
to buy the lands of the original ranch excluded from the final survey. There was also a great deal of family disagreement
over the proper handling of the matter.
Another problem for Couts was the Ranchito Mine, a gold mine in the Julian District which he purchased in 1895. This was generally
regarded as the richest mine in the Julian area, but it proved to be a great disappointment to Couts. He got little more out
of it than debts and troubles, and he tried for many years to dispose of it, unsuccessfully.
In 1917 Couts nearly lost Rancho Guajome. In 1896 he had received a loan of a considerable sum from Richard O'Neill, Sr.,
manager of neighboring Rancho Santa Margarita y las Flores. At that time he had signed a note which amounted to a mortgage,
although there was an unwritten understanding between the two friends that the note did not constitute a mortgage. At O'Neill's
death in 1910 Richard O'Neill, Jr. inherited the Guajome note and insisted upon a literal interpretation of it. In 1917 the
issue came to a head in a bitter legal battle.
Couts had a great deal of civic pride, which led him into commitments for the betterment of San Diego city and county. Foremost
among these was his assuming the chairmanship of the committee which succeeded in establishing the famous Palomar Observatory.
Couts was also quite active in the southern California business world. He took part in many ventures in San Diego and Los
Angeles, and his business correspondence includes many prominent local figures of the early twentieth century. The death of
one of these figures, Arcadia (Bandini) Stearns Baker (Couts' aunt), involved a multi-million-dollar estate, including vast
holdings of Los Angeles County land. Couts, as an heir, was caught up in the partition suits, which dragged on for more than
nine years after the 1912 death of Mrs. Baker. Couts was a successful businessman, and he was a wealthy man most of his life.
His business activity remained brisk until shortly before his death at the age of 87 in 1943.