The Curious Case of Anaheim's Founding, Probably Mythological Goat

It's always a blast speaking before the Anaheim Historical Society, not just because it's my hometown crowd but also because the fine folks who belong are receptive to my diagnosis of our collective Sunkist memories. So, when I brought up the story of the hypothetical goat that created Anaheim and dismissed it as probably a fable, no one flinched.

It's a story that makes it into almost all the tellings of Anaheim's founding, and goes something like this: when  Germans bought the land in 1857 that became the first chunk of Anaheim, seller Juan Pacifico Ontiveros told them that the lot wouldn't be able to support even a goat. Those industrious Germans sure proved that dumb Mexican wrong, and Anaheim bloomed into the glorious city that it remains to this day (massive, looming staff layoffs notwithstanding).

The latter statement is the unspoken sentiment of these Anaheim and Orange County historians that tell the story again and again, a sentiment that plugs into their traditional telling of California as an untapped wilderness that floundered under Mexican rule and prospered only when gabachos came into power. Really: why else mention a goat, a goat that even those historians usually make sure to qualify with statements like “It is said” or “Tradition has it”?

Fact is, there is no primary document yet discovered that points to the goat's existence, and that goat story should be scrubbed until it pops up.

No documents of the Los Angeles Vineyard Society (the Germans who founded Anaheim) that I know of make mention of Ontiveros and his hypothetical goat. The one book that had the best chance of showing the world where this document may be is Virgina Carpenter's The Ranchos of Don Pacifico Ontiveros, but even Carpenter made sure to preface the goat story with the disclaimer, “It is said.” Even the head of the Anaheim History Room in the city's library acknowledges there is no primary document verifying this tale, just second-hand sources based on hearsay.

The oldest document I can find telling the tale of pathetic Ontiveros is an 1874 book called Semitropical California: its climate, healthfulness, productiveness, and scenery, written by Benjamin C. Truman. In it, Truman relays that “the ancient Californian who sold the original tract to the company, 1,165 acres at two dollars per acre, told the purchasers that it was not fit for a pasturage for goats.” Truman remarked that the land of the time was little better than cactus, and told readers they should “admire the energy, industry and skill” of the Germans “which has made such a wilderness blossom as the rose.”

If anyone finds a document older than this, let me know. In the meanwhile, let it be known that the retelling of Ontiveros' unverified hypothetical goat is just further proof of Orange County's Mexican-bashing ways. Seriously, haters: why else does such an unprovable tale keep getting told again and again? But what else would you expect in a county helped birthed into existence by the Klan?

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