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Truth or Tall Tale? The Enigmatic Saga of Lewis F. Moulton

From the Land of Lincoln to the New England seacoast, Panama, San Francisco, and the rolling hills of a former Spanish land grant, this California land baron lived life large.

Attention novelists and screenwriters: If you’re looking for an epic story, check out that of Lewis Fenno Moulton.

Not that his life features the controversy and ignominy of Los Angeles oil tycoon Edward Doheny, whose wheelings and dealings would inspire the 1927 Upton Sinclair novel Oil!, which in turn would inspire the 2007 motion picture There Will Be Blood.   

But Lewis Moulton’s story does have a larger-than-life quality that, augmented by his legendary reputation of fairness and an ultimately happy family existence, would play out well in the grand epic storytelling of, say, the late James Michener. All the same, problems in telling Moulton’s story must be disclosed. For when consulting Samuel Armor’s 1921 History of Orange County, certain details are at definite odds with what Moulton’s daughters, Charlotte and Louise, will state during their interviews for the Orange County Pioneer Council and California State University at Fullerton Oral History Program in the early 1990s.

Armor’s introduction of the then-67 year old land baron, however, is both accurate and commendable. "The steady increase in population and the tendency toward intensive cultivation of the land have had much to do with the dividing up of the great ranches of the early Spanish grants into small tracts. Noteworthy among the few large tracts that still remain intact is the great Moulton ranch of 22,000 acres which lies southwest of El Toro. Lewis Fenno Moulton, its original proprietor and owner, still directs its affairs with the ability and energy that have always characterized his undertakings."

As we continue to read Armor’s account, however, we realize that some of what he says occasionally skirts the actuality of Moulton’s life, and other times makes some possibly fabulist assertions.

Moulton Heritage, With a Grain Of Salt

"Prominent in the early colonial affairs of New England," Armor continues, "the Moulton family has contributed many representatives who occupied important posts in the stirring political and military affairs of that day. One of the bravest of these was General Jeremiah Moulton, who served with distinction in the Revolutionary War, and was one of the most zealous of the colonies' defenders. Sharing in this patriotic spirit were other members of the family, Samuel Farrar, who participated in the Battle of Concord, and Samuel Fenno, whose name is associated with the events that led up to the Boston tea party."

A son of Gen. Moulton, Jotham, would “display the same spirit as his forbears” in “the second war with the Mother country.” He is also remembered as “a physician by profession” who resided with his wife, the former Lucy Farrar, in Bucksport, Maine. One of their children, Jotham Tilden Moulton, would attend Bowdoin College and Harvard Law School, then return to Maine to practice his profession “for several years before removing to Chicago, Illinois, where for many years he occupied a place of distinction in its legal circles. In addition to his large practice he served as a master in chancery of the United States Court at Chicago, and was as well known in its journalistic circles, being one of the first editors of the Chicago Tribune. His high professional standing brought him into contact with all the great men of that day and locality, and among the friendships he prized most was that of Abraham Lincoln, who was one of his classmates in law college.”

This last statement seems an extraordinary claim, not the least because most of us remember the sixteenth president of the United States as having something of a rough-hewn education. However, it is within the realm of possibility, given that Moulton and Lincoln were both Illinois-based lawyers during the same period of time, that the two men would have known each other.

Whatever the case, J. Tilden Moulton—as he was professionally known—is documented as having married twice. While living in Maine he had a daughter, Hadassah, with his first wife, Ann Cooke. At some point, however, a second marriage occurred, for according to Armor: "During his residence in the East, he had been united in marriage with Miss Charlotte Harding Fenno, a native of Massachusetts, but who was reared and educated in Connecticut."

He Said, They Said

"Mr. and Mrs. J. Tilden Moulton were the parents of two children," Armor continues, "Irving F., for many years vice-president and cashier of the Bank of California, but now retired, residing at San Francisco, and Lewis Fenno, the subject of this sketch." This information is corroborated by his .

As for the subject himself? "He was born at Chicago on January 17, 1854, and spent the first years of his life in the parental home there, one of his early and cherished memories being of Abraham Lincoln, who frequently came to the Moulton home."

Once again, there’s that Lincoln reference! And something, curiously, that neither Moulton sister mentions during their interviews in the 1990s.  

Back to Armor. "Unlike his father, his inclination did not lie in the way of training for a professional career, and as soon as he had completed the grammar school course he set about to earn his own living, the father's death when Lewis was but a young lad also making it expedient for him to learn to make his way in the world. His first work was packing shingles on Chicago wharfs, and later, after the death of the father, the family removed to Boston, Mass., and here he was employed by a storekeeper to run errands, earning a dollar and a half per week. At the age of fifteen he began working on the old Daniel Webster farm near Marshfield, Mass., remaining there for three years."

But here’s what daughter Charlotte says about her father’s beginnings during her May 28, 1991 Pioneer Council interview: "[Dad's] father was an attorney, but when he was ten years old, and his brother Irving was seven years old, his mother and father came to a parting of the ways. She returned to Boston, her hometown, with her boys."

As for younger sister Louise’s account, given March 16, 1994? "When my father was ten years old, and his brother Irving was seven, their parents parted and his mother took the boys and moved back to Boston, Massachusetts, to be near her family."

According to online genealogical records, J. Tilden Moulton, born in 1808, did not pass away until 1881, when his oldest son, Lewis, would have been 27.

Neither Charlotte nor Louise mention their father packing shingles on Chicago wharfs, nor running errands for a shopkeeper or working on the legendary Daniel Webster farm. But they do agree with Armor that in 1874, 20-year-old Lewis Moulton decided to leave Boston for California, boarding a steamship to the Isthmus of Panama, whereupon he traveled by train across the tropical land bridge, then boarded another steamship traveling to San Francisco.

In many ways the young Bostonian was no different from so many other men who were leaving the east coast in search of opportunity. But as we shall see in a future installment of El Toro & Before, Lewis Fenno Moulton—with a combination of vision, perseverance, partnership, and luck—became one of the state’s greatest and most respected landowners...though not without keeping some secrets.

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