The Flint brothers, William Wells Hollister and a whole lot of sheep

The first in a series of articles about the history of Hollister as the city marks its 150th anniversary.
San Justo Bylaws. Courtesy of the San Benito County Historical Society.
San Justo Bylaws. Courtesy of the San Benito County Historical Society.
San Justo Homestead papers. Courtesy of the San Benito County Historical Society.
San Justo Homestead papers. Courtesy of the San Benito County Historical Society.

In this valley east of the Gabilan Mountains, it took less than 80 years for the home of the Mutsun Indians to be transformed into San Benito County, filled with ranches, farms and mines.

While San Juan Bautista was the most important city in the area—really, the only substantial city east of Salinas for most of those 80 years—the founding of Hollister brought about a critical shift in the political and economic center of the area. In fact, it took less than two years for Hollister to go from a dusty ranch to a city and the seat of the newly minted county of San Benito. 

And it all began with sheep.

In 1853, brothers Benjamin and Thomas Flint and their friend Lewellyn Bixby left Maine for Ohio, then drove 2,000 sheep from there to the Los Angeles area, going into business as Flint, Bixby & Company. 

They would soon join forces with William Welles Hollister, a man with a similar story. Known as “Colonel,” a nickname he inherited from his father, in 1854, Hollister and his brother Joseph and sister Lucy Brown drove 6,000 sheep to Santa Barbara. 

Flint, Bixby and Hollister all became rich selling wool and meat. But the men had something in common besides sheep—they all gained and consolidated power by purchasing Mexican land grants around the state, including the 34,620-acre Rancho San Justo, which encircled San Juan Bautista and covered a large part of present-day Hollister.

When Mexico gained California from Spain in 1821, they dissolved the missions and divided up the church lands. Mexico intended for half the property to go to the Mission Indians, with the rest to be used to lure in settlers. Unsurprisingly, the Native people got nothing, and the land mainly went to military officers and friends of the Mexican governor, Juan B. Alvarado.

Alvarado had given Rancho San Justo to Jose Castro, Governor of Baja California, in 1839. Castro sold it to Don Francisco Pérez Pacheco, one of the largest landowners in the state, in 1850. Pacheco Pass and Pacheco State Park are both located on land he once owned.

In 1851, California was now under American control, and Mexican grant owners were forced to prove the legitimacy of their claims. In many cases, it was more expedient for claimants to sell their land rather than fight for it in court, creating a lucrative land market for prospective ranch owners.

Pacheco sold Rancho San Justo to Flint, Bixby and Hollister in 1855, with Hollister putting up half the money for the purchase. 

Rancho San Justo was remarkably successful. An article in the California Farmer in 1859 placed the holdings of the ranch at around 20,000 sheep, “all No. 1 and extra quality stock.” The author set the wool production at 100,000 pounds a year with a value at the time of $25,000.

The partnership dissolved in 1861, after a disagreement between the Flints and Hollister. Flint gave Hollister $10,000 in exchange for choosing the half he wanted. They divided the land and sheep evenly, and the Flints took the land located east of the San Benito River, leaving Hollister with the land to the west. Hollister soon became unhappy with the deal, claiming tens of thousands of dollars in losses. The Flints offered to swap parcels and Hollister accepted. 

In 1868, Hollister moved back to Santa Barbara, where he still had a ranch. He sold his 20,773 acres to the newly founded San Justo Homestead Association, which then split it into 50 parcels. The lots sold quickly at auction; the first lot sold for $6,500.

They called the town they created “San Justo” at first, until association member Henry Hagen objected, saying “the saints monopolized the name of nearly every place in the state.” He proposed “Hollister” and, over John Hollister’s objections, the name was voted on and accepted.

Once Hollister was formed in 1872, it quickly outstripped San Juan Bautista of its importance to the area. San Juan had been the supply base for the mines, farms and ranchers, but Hollister was closer to a lot of these interests. Many of the merchants who had made San Juan a success were now moving to Hollister and opening businesses there. 

An advisory election was held in 1873, and by a 200-vote margin, it was decided that San Juan would no longer be part of Monterey County.  

As it happened, city leaders in Salinas privately agreed to throw their support to this move in return for voters in the prospective San Benito County supporting Salinas as the new county seat for Monterey.

After the vote, an editorial in the San Jose Mercury News published on Oct. 4, 1873, made a simple case for the change. “Monterey County contains 9876 square miles of territory, 1584 of which lies east of the Gavilan mountains. These mountains form a natural barrier between two sections, the local interests of which are widely divergent.”

Another explanation is more self-serving. With rich agricultural land, vast ranches and one of the most productive quicksilver mines in the country, there was a strong desire among civic leaders and business interests to keep the riches east of the Gabilans closer to home rather than share it with the rest of Monterey County.

In January 1874, when E. C. Tully’s bill to create San Benito County passed the state Assembly, opposition to the county split increased out of a concern that by creating a new county, the residents of San Benito would escape their share of debts owed by Monterey county.

Following the passage of Tully’s bill, San Benito County held its first election in March 1874 to appoint city leaders. Frank Rose became sheriff, M. C. Briggs became district attorney, H. M. Hayes became county clerk, and Thomas McMahon became treasurer.  

San Juan Bautista, which just 10 years earlier had been proposed as the seat of Monterey County, was left behind, becoming a ghost town as Hollister, by an overwhelming majority vote, was declared the seat of San Benito County, guaranteeing the growth it has seen ever since.


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Robert Eliason

I got my start as a photographer when my dad stuck a camera in my hand on the evening of my First Grade Open House. He taught me to observe, empathize, then finally compose the shot.  The editors at BenitoLink first approached me as a photographer. They were the ones to encourage me to write stories about things that interest me, turning me into a reporter as well.  BenitoLink is a great creative family that cares deeply about the San Benito community and I have been pleased to be a part of it.