Neighborhood Spotlight: West Hills a paragon of family-friendly suburbia

Once part of the vast holdings of Miguel Leonis, a former ranch hand who gained control of part of the San Fernando Valley thanks to a questionable common-law marriage, the neighborhood of West Hills is now the epitome of San Fernando Valley suburban living.

A hundred years before the first suburban ranch homes began to creep up the sides of the Simi Hills, Leonis drifted into the west end of the Valley and was taken on at the rancho as a shepherd.

There the Basque immigrant and former smuggler met Maria Espiritu Chijulla, the daughter of the Chumash owner of the holdings, and eventually took her as his common-law wife.

The Chumash had been in the region for millennia, of course. El Escorpion rock is said to be a place of spiritual importance to them, and the nearby Cave of Munits is rumored to have been the home of a great shaman. That fact did not preclude the San Fernando Mission from granting Espiritu's father more than 1,000 acres of land that rightfully belonged to his people. After his death, the land became Leonis’.

When Leonis himself died after being run over by a wagon in the Cahuenga Pass in 1889, Espiritu was shocked to discover that he had not listed her in his will as his wife, but as his servant, with no claim to his estate. While she fought for her rightful inheritance, real estate speculators began to eye the San Fernando Valley with increasing enthusiasm, and the rancho was sold piecemeal by Leonis’ relatives.