El Cajon Historical Society

Major Levi Chase, El Cajon's First Booster
by G. Carroll Rice

A Budget of Background

There was no legal question as to the ownership of the El Cajon Valley in 1868 when the Rancho El Cajon was acquired by San Francisco/Los Angeles businessman and land speculator Isaac Lankershim. A decision of the United States Supreme Court in 1856[i] had confirmed that the land comprising the Rancho El Cajon was the private property of the heirs of Miguel Pedrorena. However, by 1868, the valley was populated by nearly fifty farmers who had settled here under the impression that the land was open to ‘homesteading’ under the provisions of legislation signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862. In Los Angeles and to the north, the Land Commission, created to determine the claims of ownership of lands originally granted by the Spanish or Mexican governments were in fact valid, often found that the original grantees had no right to their properties which were re-granted to the U.S. citizens who squatted on them.

In El Cajon, the Pedrorena family had largely ignored the so-called ‘squatters,’ but when Isaac Lankershim purchased the Rancho, he engaged attorney Levi Chase to press his claims, ensure clear titles, and remove anyone opposing his ownership.

In spite of the Supreme Court ruling, some of the ‘homesteaders’ were prepared to challenge its validity in court. In response, Chase took action that resulted in the issuance of the land patent[ii] by President Grant in 1876, confirming once and for all time the rights of the Pedrorenas to dispose of the property as they saw fit and legitimizing the titles of those to whom they had sold.

As a fee, paid in advance and as an incentive to clear titles and establish boundaries, Lankershim granted Chase 7,624 acres on the south side of the valley. His efforts were not only successful and skillfully performed, but in the process Major Levi Chase became an enthusiastic experimenter and promoter of agriculture in the El Cajon Valley. Many of the early records are confusing, but piecing together those that are available presents us with the story of a remarkable man. 


A debt of gratitude is due to Jane Kenealy and the other Archivists at the San Diego Historical Society. Without their expert assistance, collections and advice articles such as this would be rare.

 Major Levi Chase was a newcomer to San Diego in 1868 when he was engaged by the Lankershim interests to oversee negotiations for the purchase of the Rancho El Cajon. Isaac Lankershim and Chase may have met in San Francisco the year before, but however the relationship began, his employment was the start of a career that earned him a considerable fortune and raised him to the position of the Southern California’s most prominent attorney. While he is memorialized by the Chase Elementary School and Chase Avenue passing along the hills that define the southern boundaries of the El Cajon Valley, his real legacy lies in his efforts toward orderly settlement and the promotion of the valley for agriculture and commerce. His enthusiastic leadership in the development of the El Cajon Valley was just one in a long list of achievements.

Levi Chase was born in Calias, Maine in 1823, one of six children of a prominent land owner and farmer. In his twenties, he left Maine to join a brother in the business of contracting for the construction of iron railroad bridges in the State of New York, and married his first wife, Elizabeth Wheeler. When two of the railroads failed to pay, the brothers lost their contracting business, Levi felt a need to continue his education and entered the Collegiate Institute in Nunda, New York, studied law, and graduated in 1846.

Levi and Elizabeth had a son, Charles and a daughter, Charlotte, but as happened all too often in those days, he lost his wife and daughter to typhoid fever in 1848.

He began the practice of law in Louisa County, Iowa, in 1850 and married Cornelia King in 1853. In 1861, at the outbreak of the Civil War, Levi Chase formed a cavalry unit of local men and was elected Captain. Supplying their own horses, the men were mustered into the service in the Union army as part of the First Iowa Cavalry. His unit was active in the campaign against Little Rock, Arkansas where his gallant service earned him a promotion to Major in 1863. He later commanded several posts, including a remount station at Little Rock. His health, however, was unequal to the rigors of war and in 1864 and he was discharged from the service as disabled. His health broken, he was unable to continue the practice of law or engage in business. Then, like so many men of his generation, he decided to move West and make new beginnings. In 1868, he moved to San Diego, reestablished his law practice and was recognized almost immediately as a prominent member of the bar.

Soon after arriving in San Diego, he was engaged by Isaac Lankerhim to deal with the Pedrorena family, other agents, the settlers who claimed land, and to clear the titles on parcels[iii] of the El Cajon Rancho. As his fee, he was granted 7,624 acres of land in the El Cajon Valley. In 1874, it was noted in Mrs. Hazel Sperry’s excellent compilation of facts about Major Chase, that after his ‘friendly partition’ of the valley he was awarded 3,786 acres as his entitlement, about half of his original grant.[iv]

In spite of frequent warnings by his colleagues in San Diego that he was wasting his money, Major Chase developed an enthusiastic interest in the development of his El Cajon Valley property. In true “gentleman farmer” fashion, while living at a beautiful home in San Diego, he had a weekend ‘cottage’ built on the southeast corner of today’s Chase Avenue and S. Anza St. and hired managers to supervise this development of his ‘Cajon Villa and Fruit Farm.’ Stables, a packing house, sheds, homes for managers and a bunkhouse for the ‘hands’ were among the improvements. Throughout the 1880’s he disposed of his unused lands at a considerable profit, and certainly invested heavily in the ‘Villa.’

 After reaping the profits from vast plantings of wheat, Major Chase recognized the fertility of the soil and began experimenting with new methods and cultivating equipment. Such innovations included the multi-plowshare ‘gang plow’ and a riding cultivator pulled by a team of six horses that ‘made the dust fly.’ Deeper cultivation brought richer soil to the surface and increased its potential yield. A well, with a steam-engine-operated pump enabled his experiments in dry and irrigated farming until water was available from the newly constructed San Diego Flume. Some crops, particularly the fruits and vegetables, increased with the introduction of plentiful water, while the vineyards continued to produce prize-winning raisin and table grapes without irrigation. His raisins, incidentally, were dried and packed at the ranch.

Since his property included a variety of soils and elevations (it extended into the foothills), his plantings expanded to include a variety of fruits, vegetables and grains.  By 1876 105 acres had been set aside for orange and other citrus fruit trees[v]. Other orchards contained peach, plum (table and prune), apple, pear, apricot and cherry trees. In adjoining areas he planted olives, quinces, loquats, and English walnuts. Except for some almond trees, all of his plantings proved successful, and his methods attracted state-wide attention.

Other local growers were certainly observers of Chase’s success, making more specialized planting and developing markets for their produce. By 1889, the San Diego County Producer Union had been formed, primarily through the efforts of George Swan and J.M. Asher. In 1890, the first carload of oranges was shipped directly from the Valley, largely from the orchards of Major Chase. His farmhands cared for the trees, picked the fruit and packed it in his own private packing house, stamped ‘Put up at Cajon Villa by Major Levi Chase, San Diego.’ (Earlier shipments may have been made since it was noted in an advertisement in the Great Southwest Magazine in 1890 that some El Cajon oranges had been purchased by Riverside County packers and labeled as Riverside fruit before shipment east.)

An El Cajon Agricultural Society had been formed in 1889, and while Major Chase didn’t participate in its activities, he was certainly involved with the El Cajon Fairs of 1889 and 1890, and in 1891 he won a prize for his oranges. He also exhibited at the State Citrus Fair in Los Angeles in 1891.

Little mention has been made of his large plantings of vegetables. Mr. Willis Parsons, grandfather of the present president of the Historical Society was one of the managers of the ranch. Her father often told her of riding with his father to San Diego to deliver fresh fruit and vegetables to the then-new Hotel del Coronado.

In addition to his cultivation of fruits and vegetables, Major Chase continued to plant large acreages of wheat, some for grain and some for hay. His philosophy of deep plowing and the use of the mechanized equipment of the time paid off handsomely.

In addition to his activities in El Cajon, Levi Chase became one of the most well-known and wealthiest attorneys in Southern California. His specialties certainly included real estate law, and it was said that he never had taken a criminal case.

Major Chase’s real estate transactions were not confined to the Chase Ranch or El Cajon. In 1874, he acquired 3,000 acres in the Lakeside area (Tract B, Rancho El Cajon) and was involved with land acquisition and sales in Coronado, Julian and the Warner Ranch.

The El Cajon Valley News reported that Major and Mrs. Chase were taking a trip around the world in 1891 and 1892. It may be assumed that his interest in his El Cajon properties was in no way diminished by his travels.

The Cajon Villa and Fruit Farm continued to thrive, even after the death of Major Chase of cancer in 1906. In 1910, his son Charles began the sale of the properties. When I was young, I was told by Montelle Springstead, of one of the older ranching families in El Cajon, that up until the time of World War I, Chase Avenue was fenced and closed on Christmas Day, an indication that the Avenue was still private property.

The influence of Major Levi Chase in the development of the El Cajon Valley was tremendous; his heartfelt dedication to his Cajon Villa and Fruit Farm  experiments set agricultural patterns that would last for another 100 years. Even today, removed as we are from El Cajon’s rural past, the very streets and city planning owe their origins to the surveys and land boundaries, ordered and influenced by the efforts of this remarkable man. There were, indeed, giants in those days.  

[i] Thomas W. Sutherland, guardian of the four Pedrorena children, filed the claim for the Rancho El Cajon with the Land Commission, in accordance with Land Act of 1851, in 1852. It was confirmed by the Supreme Court in 1856 and Patent granted in 1876. The case is listed as: United States v. Thomas W. Sutherland, Guardian of Victoria, Isabel, Miguel and Helina, Minor Children of Miguel De Pedroarena Deceased, U.S. Supreme Court, 60 U.S. 19 Howard 363 (1856) 

[ii] A land patent is a title to land which was originally acquired by a treaty. It is the only form of proof of absolute title to land in the United States of America.

[iii] The “Friendly Partition” refers to the agreement between the ‘homesteaders’ on the land, the Pedrorena family, and the Lankershim interests to allow the District Court to determine ownership and boundaries of properties within the former Rancho El Cajon. It is assumed that proper compensations were agreed to among the parties; it is known that some parties were dispossessed. This solution to the boundary problems occupied the attention and dedication of Major Chase for seven years. The litigation ended in 1874 and the process was completed by the issuance of the land patent in 1876.
[iv] Hazel Sperry, compiler, The Story of Major Levi Chase and the Chase Ranch ‘Cajon Villa’ in El Cajon. 1968, Manuscript in archives of the El Cajon Historical Society 

[v] Elliot, Wallace W. and Co., History of San Diego County, San Francisco, 1883. (Includes comments regarding 105 acres of Major Chase’s Cajon Villa and Fruit Farm, “Orange trees put out in 1876 now have from 800 to 1000 oranges on them.”

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