- Joe A. Stout Jr.
Wolfskill, William (20 March 1798–03 October 1866), frontiersman, trader, and rancher, was born in Boonesborough, Madison County, Kentucky, the son of Joseph Wolfskill, Jr., and Sarah Reid, farmers. In late 1809 the family moved to Boone’s Lick, Howard County, Missouri. William was sent back to Kentucky in 1815 to attend school for two years and then returned to Missouri, where he remained. In May 1822 he joined William Becknell’s second Santa Fe trade expedition. In New Mexico, Wolfskill and fellow Kentuckian Ewing Young trapped near the Pecos River until December 1822. The next year he trapped along the Rio Grande to Paso del Norte (present-day Juárez), and in 1824 he and a few friends headed up the Colorado and San Juan rivers, possibly being the first whites to pass through southern Utah. Because of a gunshot wound he received in 1823, he returned to Boone’s Lick in June 1825 to recuperate. Home only a month, Wolfskill headed then to Louisiana and Texas, where he secured mules he drove to Alabama and sold for good profit. In 1826 he returned to Santa Fe, where he trapped and traded until 1827, when he returned to Missouri. In the spring of 1828 he bought a freight wagon and joined a wagon train heading for the Taos–Santa Fe region. Recognizing that he needed Mexican citizenship to continue and widen his business activities, especially into California, Wolfskill applied for Mexican citizenship in 1829. He officially became a Mexican citizen and a Catholic by fall of the next year.
Between 29 September 1830 and 5 February 1831 Wolfskill made his first trip to Mexican California and pioneered a new trail in the process. The trip took him in a westerly direction to the San Juan River, then near present-day Durango, Colorado. He crossed the Colorado River near present-day Moab, Utah, and arrived at Los Angeles in February. Trapper-trader George Yount accompanied the expedition and helped the group win the confidence of Indians in southern Utah, who allowed them safe passage through their area and the right to hunt game along the way. In California, Wolfskill and others constructed a sixty-ton, seventy-foot-long schooner that he dubbed Refugio, from which to hunt sea otter along the coast, a vocation he attempted for a short time. During 1833 he purchased land near Los Angeles, where he tended grapevines. He entered into a common-law marriage with María de la Luz Valencia; they had two children. In order to support his family Wolfskill took up carpentry, a trade he had learned in Missouri. As he became financially able, he bought more land and launched full time into growing fruits—including in 1841 one of the first orange groves in the region—and vegetables and experimenting with grapes produced for brandy and wine. He continued this enterprise until his death. In 1837 Luz Valencia left California with another man and left Wolfskill with the two small children. In 1841 Wolfskill married Doña María Magdalena Lugo, daughter of Don José Ygnacio Lugo and Doña Rafaela Romero, a prominent Mexican California family.
Acquiring land in the Sacramento Valley, where he helped one of his four brothers, John Reid Wolfskill, get started in agriculture, William Wolfskill became influential and, by the standards of the time, quite affluent. He and Magdalena had six children. Although he generally remained aloof from politics, he served briefly as a public administrator in Los Angeles from September 1865 until his death. He was very successful in growing oranges and in the introduction of the persimmon and the Italian chestnut to his region in California. During the 1860s his vineyards had an estimated 85,000 vines. After his death in Los Angeles, Wolfskill’s sons continued the orchards. In 1880, when President Rutherford B. Hayes visited California, he traveled to the outskirts of Los Angeles to see some of the Wolfskill orchards and ranches. Wolfskill was a frontiersman and pioneer not only of the Santa Fe trade but also of California’s production of fruits, vegetables, and wines.
Little about Wolfskill has been published. For additional biographical details, as well as considerable information about California before it became part of the United States, see Iris W. Engstrand, William Wolfskill, 1798–1866: Frontier Trapper to California Ranchero (1965).