Friday, July 14, 2023

The Count and the Rancher's Daughter

Like so much of Joan Didion's non-fiction, it reads like the juiciest of lore, but it's real and very accurate. In "Notes of a Native Daughter" (found in Slouching Toward Bethlehem), the Sacramento born and bred Didion, shares the storybook tale of a Sacramento rancher's daughter who meets a European prince on a Grand Tour of the European continent. As she writes on page 186: 

I want to tell you a Sacramento story. A few miles out of town is a place, six or seven thousand acres, which belonged in the beginning to a rancher with one daughter. That daughter went abroad and married a title, and when she brought the title home to live on the ranch, her father built them a vast house - music rooms, conservatories, a ballroom. They needed a ballroom because they entertained: people from abroad, people from San Franisco, house parties that lasted weeks and involved special trains. They are long dead, of course, but their only son, aging and unmarried, still lives on the place. He does not live in the house, for the house is no longer there. Over the years it burned, room by room, wing by wing. Only the chimneys of the great house are still standing, and its heir lives in their shadow, lives by himself on the charred site, in a house trailer.

That is a story my generation knows; I doubt that the next will know it, the children of the aerospace engineers...

So, what's the real-life basis for Didion's story? The Sacramento Bee, Thompson and West's 1880 History of Sacramento County, the U.S. Census (via the library's subscription to Ancestry), and various secondary sources tell us that our rancher's daughter is Alice McCauley, daughter of Virginia-born and Confederate sympathizer John F. McCauley. The "title" was Italian-born Count Julio (also referred to as Guilio) Valensin. Alice and Julio were married in Italy in the early 1870s, but eventually came back to the Sacramento Valley. The geographic location of where the ranch would have been, is more than "a few miles out of town," 21-miles southeast of Sacramento proper to be exact, just south of the Consumnes River and east of Galt near the extinct villages of Arno and Hicksville.

Alice and Julio did, indeed, live a lavish lifestyle, full of big houses and massive parties, attended by the Hearsts and various other wealthy families of Gilded Age California. It's also said (actually the Sacramento Bee said it) that Julio won a duel with another suitor for the affections of Alice. On the way less romantic side, the Bee also tells us that Alice was charged with treason for singing "Dixie" in 1861 in a San Francisco hotel, just after the start of the American Civil War. The charges were dropped after the family fled to Europe to stump for the southern cause.

Sacramento County Map, J.C. Boyd, 1903

Julio died young at the age of 46 from a burst appendix, but Alice lived to see two world wars, the Great Depression, the birth of the automobile and advent of human flight, dying in 1949 at the age of 101. A year later, her grand mansion was felled by fire. The lone son of Alice and Julio was Pio Valensin, who was born in Italy and the sole heir to Alice's ranch. When Didion wrote about the Valensins, Pio was still the owner of a roughly 4,500-acre spread of prime ranch land and hardly destitute to where he had to live in a house trailer.

Valensin Ranch, circa 1875. Thompson and West.

In the mid-1990s, the Nature Conservancy paid the descendants of the Valensins $12 million for the ranch, converting it into a massive nature preserve. 

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