Couts, Cave Johnson, 1821-1874

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Cave Johnson Couts (1821-1874), a native of Tennessee, was an army officer ordered to Monterrey, Mexico who was later sent to California and led the escort for the U.S. Boundary Commission in 1849. Couts married Isidora Bandini (daughter of Juan Bandini) and became the owner of the large Guajome Rancho in San Diego County. He was engaged in the cattle business, and his son, Cave J. Couts, Jr. (1856-1943) became a civil engineer and worked as a deputy surveyor for San Diego County before he began managing the Guajome Ranch.

From the description of Papers of Cave Johnson Couts, 1832-1951. (Huntington Library, Art Collections & Botanical Gardens). WorldCat record id: 122570739

Military officer, lieutenant in the 1st U.S. Dragoons, serving in the Southwest during the Mexican War and after. Couts briefly established Camp Calhoun in 1849 at the location of the later Fort Yuma.

From the description of Couts diary [transcript], 1846-1849. (Arizona Historical Society, Southern Arizona Division). WorldCat record id: 41139040

Couts married a daughter of Don Juan Bandini, and they lived at Rancho Guajome near Oceanside.

From the description of ALS, 1857 December 5 : San Diego, to General J.W. Denver, Washington City. (Copley Press, J S Copley Library). WorldCat record id: 16744364

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 River junction.

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.

From the guide to the Cave Johnson Couts Papers, 1832-1951, (The Huntington Library)


Cave Johnson Couts was born near Springfield, Tennessee on November 11, 1821. His uncle, Cave Johnson, had him appointed to West Point, where he graduated in 1843. He served on the frontier until after the Mexican War, when he was stationed in Los Angeles, San Luis Rey, and San Diego from 1848 to 1851. In 1849 he conducted the Whipple expedition to the Colorado River.

On April 5, 1851, he married Ysidora Bandini, daughter of Juan Bandini of San Diego. In October of the same year he resigned from the army and was soon after appointed colonel and aid-de-camp on the staff of Governor Bigler. In 1853 he moved to a tract known as the Guajome grant, a wedding gift to his wife from her brother-in-law, Abel Stearns. Having been appointed sub-agent for the San Luis Rey Indians, Colonel Couts was able to secure all the cheap labor needed for the improvement of his property. His business affairs were managed with skill and military precision, and he became one of the wealthiest men in Southern California. He purchased the San Marcos, Buena Vista, and La Jolla ranchos, and also government land, amounting in all to about 20,000 acres. As Colonel Couts' wealth consisted largely of cattle, the passage of the "no fence" law was a severe blow to him, and one from which he never fully recovered. He died at the Horton House in San Diego, June 10 1874.

From the guide to the Cave Johnson Couts [Diary], 1849, (University of California, Los Angeles. Library. Department of Special Collections.)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
referencedIn Bandini Family Papers, ca. 1834-1927 University of California, Los Angeles. Library Special Collections.
creatorOf Cave Johnson Couts Papers, 1832-1951 The Huntington Library
referencedIn Dobyns, Henry F. Dobyns papers, 1950-1993. Arizona Historical Society, Southern Arizona Division
referencedIn Dennis, Reid W.,. Reid W. Dennis collection of California lithographs, 1850-1906. Stanford University. Department of Special Collections and University Archives
referencedIn Bandini family. Papers, ca. 1834-1927. University of California, Los Angeles
creatorOf Cave Johnson Couts [Diary], 1849 University of California, Los Angeles. Library Special Collections.
referencedIn Stearns, Abel, 1798-1871. Papers of Abel Stearns, 1821-1935. Huntington Library, Art Collections & Botanical Gardens
creatorOf Couts, Cave Johnson, 1821-1874. Couts diary [transcript], 1846-1849. Arizona Historical Society, Southern Arizona Division
referencedIn Augustus S. Ensworth Ledger, 1860 September-1865 January San Diego History Center Document Collection
referencedIn Bancroft, Hubert Howe, 1832-1918. Personal observations during a tour through the line of missions of upper California : ms. S, [187-?]. UC Berkeley Libraries
creatorOf Couts, Cave Johnson, 1821-1874. Papers of Cave Johnson Couts, 1832-1951. Huntington Library, Art Collections & Botanical Gardens
referencedIn Benjamin Davis Wilson Collection, 1836-1941, 1847-1894 The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens Manuscripts Department
creatorOf Couts, Cave Johnson, 1821-1874. ALS, 1857 December 5 : San Diego, to General J.W. Denver, Washington City. Copley Press, J S Copley Library
referencedIn Documents pertaining to the adjudication of private land claims in California, circa 1852-1892 Bancroft Library
creatorOf Wilson, Benjamin Davis, 1811-1878. Collection of Benjamin Davis Wilson, 1836-1941 (bulk 1847-1894). Huntington Library, Art Collections & Botanical Gardens
creatorOf Couts, Cave Johnson, 1821-1874. Cave Johnson Couts diary, 1846 Sept. 1-1849 Nov. 22? UC Berkeley Libraries
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
associatedWith Baker, Arcadia Bandini Stearns person
associatedWith Bancroft, Hubert Howe, 1832-1918. person
associatedWith Bandini family. family
correspondedWith Bandini family. family
correspondedWith Bandini Family family
associatedWith Couts, Cave Johnson, 1856-1943. person
associatedWith Couts family. family
associatedWith Dennis, Reid W., person
associatedWith Denver, James William, 1817-1892. person
associatedWith Dobyns, Henry F. person
associatedWith Ensworth, Augustus S. person
associatedWith Forster, John, 1814-1882. person
associatedWith Garra, Antonio, fl. 1851. person
associatedWith Graham, Lawrence Pike, 1815- person
associatedWith Griffin, John S. (John Strother), 1816-1898. person
associatedWith Hardcastle, Aaron B., fl. 1852-1861. person
associatedWith Hayes, Benjamin Ignatius, 1815-1877. person
associatedWith Johnson, Charles Robinson. person
associatedWith Morse, Ephraim W., 1823-1906. person
associatedWith Palomar Observatory. corporateBody
associatedWith Pendleton, George Allan. person
associatedWith Robinson, Alfred, 1806-1895. person
associatedWith San Luis Rey Mission (Calif.) corporateBody
associatedWith Stearns, Abel, 1798-1871. person
associatedWith United States. Army corporateBody
associatedWith United States. Army. Cavalry, 1st. corporateBody
associatedWith United States. District Court (California) corporateBody
associatedWith Warner, Jonathan Trumbull. person
associatedWith Whipple, Amiel Weeks, 1817?-1863. person
associatedWith Wilson, Benjamin Davis, 1811-1878. person
Place Name Admin Code Country
Oceanside (Calif.)
United States
United States
San Diego (Calif.)
United States. Army
Southwest, New
Southwest, New
San Diego (Calif.)
Gila River, Ariz.
Rancho Buena Vista (Calif.)
Gila River (N.M. and Ariz.)
Los Angeles (Calif.)
Rancho Guajome (Calif.)
California, Southern
California--San Diego County
San Diego County (Calif.)
United States
California--Los Angeles County
Indians of North America
Cities and towns
Indian reservations
Real property
Discoveries in geography--American
Cattle trade
Gold mines and mining
Mexican War, 1846-1848--Diaries
Overland journeys to the Pacific
Civil engineers
Land tenure


Birth 1821

Death 1874



Ark ID: w6kh1fj6

SNAC ID: 73598795