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L.A. Then and Now

Indian Woman Won First Palimony Lawsuit

April 29, 2001|Cecilia Rasmussen

Long before live-in relationships became socially acceptable, a Native American woman with relentless determination won Los Angeles' first palimony case against a rich and powerful pioneer more than a century ago.

With the help of a U.S. senator and a prominent publisher and attorney who took up her cause, Espiritu Chijulla Leonis won the right not only to use the name of the man she lived with for 30 years, but also to take half of his fortune.

The court case gripped Los Angeles, in part because it was the first time anyone had claimed rights as a common-law spouse, and also because a Chumash Indian woman was suing the estate of one of Los Angeles' 10 richest men: Miguel Leonis, the "King of Calabasas."

Leonis, a 35-year-old shepherd from a Basque village in the French Pyrenees, arrived in Los Angeles in 1857, on the lam from smuggling and murder charges in his homeland.

Strong as a bull, he soon earned a reputation as a local hero, according to Horace Bell in a manuscript edited by Gerry Keesey Hoppe into a book called "Leonis."

When a steer escaped from a herd and tore madly through Los Angeles' central plaza, Leonis saw it heading toward a woman wearing a bright red dress. Jumping in front of the steer, he grabbed its horns and twisted it onto its back, breaking its neck.

What brought him into Espiritu Chijulla's life was another heroic act. Wandering into the fledgling city's small French Quarter, he saw two vaqueros whipping a man bent over and lashed to a hitching post.

The 6-foot, 2-inch Leonis grabbed the willow-branch whip and both vaqueros retreated from the huge, angry man. Leonis then cut the bound man free. His name was Jose Antonio Menendez, and to repay Leonis, he offered to sell him all his sheep and cattle for $1,000.

Leonis declined, but Menendez, a shady character eager to leave town before someone got a second chance to kill him (he would be shot dead the following year), decided to throw in his young son, Juan, and the boy's mother, Espiritu, whom he had won from a French baker in a card game.

Leonis accepted, and soon moved to Espiritu's family's 1,100-acre El Escorpion rancho, a former Indian village in what is now West Hills. It belonged in part to Espiritu's father, Odon, one of three Chumash Indians to whom the rancho was originally granted.

Leonis made the rancho prosper. He hired fellow Frenchmen to build limekilns and mine the limestone deposits to sell to builders. He raised sheep and made a killing in the wool market. And he began buying up shares of El Escorpion Rancho. He loved Odon, and the old man returned his affection, deeding him his share of the rancho for $1.

Fighting for His Land

By now a man of means, Leonis paid a fair sum for land surrounding El Escorpion in the Las Virgenes area. Defending what had become an 8,000-acre estate, he fought off cattle rustlers, squatters and all other comers with gun, guile, muscle and court injunctions.

Espiritu and Leonis lived together in apparent harmony. Their only child, a daughter named Marcelina, died of smallpox in 1879 at age 20.

The following year, a county survey determined that their home had been built outside El Escorpion's boundaries. The next year, the couple moved three miles south to Calabasas, and remodeled an abandoned 1844 adobe into a two-story Monterey-style home.

There, at the headwaters of the Los Angeles River, Leonis prospered, turning his home into a working ranch where he soon became known as the "King of Calabasas."

He had no tolerance for laziness. When he found Espiritu's son, a sheepherder, asleep on the job, he lassoed his ankle and dragged him down the hill, and told him never to come back.

By the early 1880s, Leonis had persuaded Horace Bell, a high-profile attorney and Leonis' chief adversary in many lawsuits, to be his attorney, and soon the illiterate Leonis began to win more suits against rustlers, squatters and land shysters.

In 1889, after celebrating his latest legal victory, Leonis fell from a wagon and was run over by it. He died three days later at the ranch house of his 17-acre orchard on the east side of the Los Angeles River, just south of today's Santa Ana Freeway where the Aliso Village housing project stands.

Espiritu's grown son, Juan, was one of the four men aboard the wagon, and after he testified at the inquest, rumors began to spread that it hadn't been an accident, but murder. Bell, standing up for his dead friend, refused to believe it was an accident; he maintained that it was murder by unknown enemies of Leonis. But the verdict was accidental death.

Leonis' death sent Espiritu on her 15-year journey through the legal system. In his will, Leonis denied that she was his wife. He referred to her as his "faithful housekeeper" and left her $5,000 in cash and $5,000 in trust, "to prevent her from being reduced to pennies during her lifetime by reason of her ignorance and inexperience," the will declared.

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