A Meeting of Two Very Different Men by R Lawson Gamble

It was an unusual meeting between two unusual men, and it ended in the death of one. Their backgrounds could not have been more diverse, the route taken by each to their fatal meeting more circuitous. One staked a claim in North Santa Barbara County through perseverance and grit, the other found himself there almost by mistake. Here are their stories.

William Benjamin Foxen was an Englishman who came to America a mere boy, and thence to the coast of California as a sailor, a hunter, and a trapper. After many adventures he married a Spanish wife and, on land granted him by the Governor of Alta California, built his ranch. He was a rough man, formed by experience and the times, the stuff of survivors.

Augustin Davila came to Alta California an artist, accomplished in cathedral art, fresh from his studies in Mexico City, with the Hijar-Padres Expedition, which brought to Alta California settlers skilled in crafts, medicine, music and arts, talented artisans unlike the unfortunates in previous colonizing attempts conscripted for their misdeeds to populate the country. Davila painted the ceiling of Mission Santa Clara, the most ornate decoration in the country at the time, then accepted a position with Mission San Jose to paint “three new altars, doors, balustrades, the baptistry, the sacristy (a landscape), a niche, a pediment and the sanctuary”. He was an accomplished artist. He married thirteen year old Maria de Jesus Felix, who gave birth to a daughter a year later. He moved his family to Santa Barbara where they had two more children. In 1845 Davila received the grant of Rancho de Quati near Mission Santa Ynez.

William Benjamin Foxen, rough, outspoken, and opinionated, favored the Americans to occupy and control what he perceived to be an otherwise fluent and politically aimless colony, Alta California. His rancho and land grant lay in the valley soon to be traversed by Fremont and his American Army on their way to subdue Santa Barbara. Fremont stopped at Rancho Nipomo, owned by William Dana, who sympathized with the American cause, and who assured him of a warm reception at his next stop, Benjamin Foxen’s Rancho Tinaquaic. Fremont camped near there for two weeks and marched on toward Santa Barbara, guided, some locals suspected, by Foxen’s son over the Santa Ynez Mountains.

Taken by surprise, the small garrison at Santa Barbara fell, albeit gently, and the rancor of the Mexican inhabitants of North Santa Barbara County fell squarely on Benjamin Foxen much less softly. Eventually, after dodging insults, isolation, and even bullets, Foxen retreated to the safety of Santa Ynez mission to wait it out. His home was ransacked and burned. One day, having returned from the mission to gather what belongings he could, he heard alarm among his chickens and raced from the house with his revolver, no doubt expecting a fox in the henhouse, but found instead Señor Davila with a chicken in his arms.

We might assume David Davila had thought the farm deserted and the chickens left to their own devices, but for Benjamin Foxen, having endured much over the previous weeks, here was a thief personifying yet another grave insult to his honor. Words may have been exchanged, but ultimately, Foxen shot Davila, killing him.
Foxen was brought to trial. Two alcaldes were appointed and assigned to the case and they sentenced Foxen to four years in jail, but the mission fathers and others interceded and Foxen was soon granted a pardon.

(It is noted that it was probably the same Agustín Dávila who applied to the Academy of San Carlos in Mexico City for a scholarship to study drawing in Rome. Had he been selected, his career and life might have looked quite different…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: