Guide to the Steele Family Collection (1851 – 1971) – History

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John Steele (1591-1664), son of Sir Richard Steele, was the first of the Steele family in America.  He immigrated to Massachusetts from England in 1631.  He went on to become one of the founders of Hartford Connecticut.  His descendents continued to emigrate to New York, Ohio, and California.

The first member of the family to come to California in 1849 was General Frederick Steele (1819-1868), a West Point graduate and hero of the Mexican and Civil Wars.  In 1853 he returned to Ohio and told his brothers of the opportunities in California, convincing them to make the journey and settle there with their families.

George Steele (1825-1901) and Rensselaer Steele (1808-1886), his cousin and brother-in-law, came in 1855 settling in Petaluma in Sonoma County.  They were followed a year later by Edgar Willis (E.W.) Steele (1830-1896), his parents, Nathaniel Steele III and Dameras Steele, and the family of Rensselaer.  In 1857 Isaac Chapman (I.C.) Steele (1820-1903) and his family arrived.  The family supported themselves through farming and various odd jobs.  In 1857 George, Rensselaer, E.W. and I.C. leased ranch land in Point Reyes and began their work in the dairy industry.  The brothers quickly began shipping cheese, via boat, to sell in San Francisco and formed the Steele Brothers’ Firm.

The Rancho Punta de Año Nuevo originally in Santa Cruz County was leased, with the option to buy a portion of the land, to the Steele Brothers in 1862, by Clark and Coburn.  Isaac and Rensselaer immediately began construction on what would become Green Oaks and Cascade Ranch on the land that extended from Gazos Creek to the Santa Cruz County line adjacent to what is currently Año Nuevo State Reserve.  The Steele brothers set up five dairies: Pocket Dairy at Pebble Beach Hill; Dairy in Whitehouse Canyon; Green Oaks run by I.C. (the house is now on the National Register of Historic Places of San Mateo County); Cascade run by Rensselaer; and Cloverdale run by E.W.  The dairies main product was cheese, but in the dry season they produced butter.

In 1866 the original lease was up and Clark and Coburn retained control of Pocket Dairy and Cloverdale.  The brothers were able to purchase 7,060 acres, the land from Gazos Creek to the Santa Cruz County line.  Rensselaer remained at Cascade; he later divided his land between his children, Ella and Rensselaer Junior.  Meanwhile the three brothers purchased land in San Luis Obispo.  After legal troubles, much of that land had to be sold, but George and E.W. continued to reside in San Luis Obispo; while Isaac remained at Green Oaks setting up Finney Dairy on his property which was converted to grain in 1875.

I.C. was one of the founders of the Granger’s Bank in San Francisco and was on their Board of Directors.  The Bank eventually failed and I.C. lost a significant investment.  He was also a Master of the State Grange, one of the first directors of the Granger’s Business association, and supervisor of San Mateo County.  He married his cousin, the sister of Rensselaer, Hulda Emeline Steele (1826-1896) and together they had three children Fred N., Effie N., and George H.  In the 1890s he split his remaining land between his three children.  Fred received Green Oaks, George received Año Nuevo Rancho, and Effie received New Years Point Ranch, and continued the dairying business, focusing on butter production.  The Finney Dairy was given to, S.J. Finney, the husband of his sister-in-law, Mary B Steele (sister of Rensselaer and widow of Osman N. Steele, I.C.’s brother, a deputy sheriff shot during anti-rent riots in New York).

Edgar Willis Steele had one son, E.W. Jr., with Emma A. Smith.  He was an incorporator of the San Luis Obispo Water Company and of the Bank of San Luis Obispo and was president of that organization.  He also held the seat of Director of the Granger’s Business Association and a member of the order of Patrons of Husbandry as well as a member of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, the Chosen Friends, and the Knights of Honor.  He remained in San Luis Obispo until his death.

George Steele was part of the Steele Brother’s Firm, but remained in Marin County as a practicing lawyer.  He served as the County’s Judge from 1863-1866.  He was elected to the convention that framed the California Constitution, and served on the Judiciary Committee and the committee on Corporations.  After several defeats he was elected as the Republican candidate for State Senator from 1884-1888 from the San Luis District.  He lived on his Ranch in San Luis until his death.

Catherine Baumgarten, married William Steele, the grandson of I.C. Steele and together with Wilfred H. Steele (Another Grandson of I.C. and cousin of William) the two conducted research into the Steele Family History.  Catherine continued to live at Green Oaks Ranch after the death of her husband in 1956, and began efforts to carry out his dying wish to have part of the ranch preserved as a historical site.  Wilfred lived in San Jose and worked for Ford Motor Company.  Their research followed the family origins back to Sir Richard Steele and lead them to Dehli in Delaware County, New York and Hartford, Connecticut.  Catherine gift-deeded the land of Green Oaks to the San Mateo County in 1967 and donated the original papers of General Frederick Steele to the Library at Stanford.


1631    John Steele immigrates to Massachusetts

1849    General Frederick Steele visits California

1855    George and Rensselaer come to California (Petaluma, Sonoma County)

1856    E.W. Steele, Nathaniel Steele III, Dameras Steele, and Rensselaer’s family move   to California

1857    I.C. Steele and family move to California

1857    George, Rensselaer, E.W. and I.C. lease land in Point Reyes; form Steele Brothers Firm; Start dairy business

1862    Lease land on Rancho Punta de Año Nuevo; set up five dairies

1866    Original lease up; brothers purchased 7,060 acres of the land from Gazos Creek to the Santa Cruz County line and continued with dairying and farming

1967    Green Oaks Ranch gifted to San Mateo County by Catherine Baumgarten Steele


Steele, C. B. and Steele, W. H. (1971). The Steeles of Point Año Nuevo:  Their ancestry and kinships. 

Steele, G. H. (1948).  The Steeles of California and their forbearers.

Cunningham, A.  (1967).  Historic old ranch offered to SM County as park.  Palo Alto Times, July 12, 1967.