200-Year-Old Pictures Tell a Chumash Indian Story

Times Staff Writer

Like creatures of the ark, Saddlerock Ranch's animals are here in pairs: llamas, emus, macaws, peacocks, camels and zebras. But these California immigrants are commonplace compared to the pictographs tucked amid the ranch's towering rock formations and grapevine-studded hills.

Archeologists say the drawings were made by Chumash Indians, the original settlers of the area, to depict a pivotal event in California history: Their encounter with Spanish explorers more than 200 years ago.

The rust-red artwork shows four men on horseback -- horses did not exist here until the Spanish brought them in the 18th century. One rider's headgear looks distinctly like the Spanish helmet that existed from the days of Hernando Cortes forward.

The images, protected from centuries of weather by an overhanging rock, are believed to represent the first meeting between Chumash Indians and a party of Spanish settlers who trekked from Mexico through California.

Historians think one of the four may be Juan Bautista de Anza, who led 240 men, women and children on a 1775 journey that ended with the founding of San Francisco.

One of the horsemen seems to hold a lantern. "That could have been a piece of metal that the Spaniards often brought on their travels, and referred to as 'sun dazzlers,' to impress the Native Americans who were unfamiliar with metal in their culture," said Gloria Ricci Lothrop, a Cal State Northridge emeritus professor of California history.

About 20,000 Chumash lived from north of Morro Bay to Malibu and on some of the Channel Islands. They produced some of the nation's most interesting and abundant rock art.

The drawings on this 982-acre property are pristine, unlike many pictographs in the state that have been defaced by vandals or obliterated by the elements. And they remain in private hands.

In the hills of Malibu, Saddlerock Ranch -- named for a striking stone landmark that looks like a saddle and can be seen from the U.S 101 and the Pacific Ocean -- was once part of the 8,000-acre Miguel Leonis ranch.

In the 1850s, Leonis was a Basque immigrant-turned-smuggler-turned-shepherd. He moved in with Espiritu Chijulla, daughter of a Chumash chief. Her family's 1,100-acre El Escorpion rancho belonged in part to her father, Odon, one of three Chumash Indians to whom the rancho was originally granted.

Odon was fond of Leonis, and deeded him his share for $1. Leonis then paid others market value for several parcels surrounding the rancho in the Las Virgenes-Malibu area. Leonis eventually became known as the "King of Calabasas."

By the 20th century, the land had been sold and subdivided. In the 1940s, civic leader and mining engineer Harvey S. Mudd, whose engineering school is one of the renowned Claremont Colleges, purchased a large chunk.

Mudd's daughter, Victoria, felt a spiritual connection to the land, which she tried to keep after her father died. "It was paradise," she said.

She ran a school for disturbed teenagers here in the 1970s and tried to make the soil more productive. But she wasn't able to come up with the money to buy out her three brothers.

"A Hopi Indian once told me that every time a line is drawn on a map, another barrier to their prayers is erected," Mudd said.

She and her brothers agreed to sell so their land would remain intact.

Ronnie Semler bought it in 1978, a few months after a brush fire had charred the acreage. Over the years, Semler and his wife, Lisa, have permitted researchers and students to view the pictographs. "I don't want to hoard it; I want to educate," Semler said.

Anyone who wants to see the pictographs needs an appointment. The Semlers also protect the drawings with chain-link and barbed-wire fencing that surrounds the ranch.

In 1982, the federal government tried to add the ranch to the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. Semler refused to sell, saying he wanted to live there with his new wife and growing family (which would eventually number nine children).

"That's when the federal government and local agencies tried to thwart my efforts," Semler said. "They refused to issue me building permits. I couldn't finish my house or build other structures."

He retaliated by planting 13,000 avocado trees, which made it harder for the government to purchase the land. Agricultural improvements boosted the price. Within a few years, the financially strapped government was off Semler's back.

But Semler remained bitter. In 1989, he rejected an attempt to designate the pictographs a national historic landmark. He has since mellowed.

The ranch's latest incarnation had its roots in a 1991 disaster when a bitter frost wiped out most of Semler's avocado crop, as well as many of his trees.

The Semlers started over as pioneering vintners, growing high-quality wine grapes. They harvested their first crop in 2000, hauling it to a winery in San Miguel, north of Paso Robles.

With the family enterprise producing 9,000 cases of wine this year alone, they hope to open their own winery on Saddlerock within a few years.

The property includes a large house for their large family -- the building permits eventually came through -- a waterfall and a private zoo. The Semlers imported the exotic animals to amuse their children and to help teach them responsibility.

Over the decades, the rustic rolling hills have served as a setting for movies and the Semlers' home has been rented for films and celebrity weddings.

The ranch's water tanks are covered with murals that tell the story of the land. Painted by artist David LeGaspi, Lisa Semler and the Semler children, they include copies of the pictographs, images of vanished Indians and present day-equestrians. The artwork depicts the ranch's evolution from a home of the Chumash and the arrival of the Spaniards to its present incarnation as a place for vineyards and bridle trails.

And Victoria Mudd's hopes have been realized, she said: No more lines have been drawn on the map. "Ron Semler has fulfilled that prayer [by] keeping the property intact."

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