Sunday, August 7, 2022

The Woman Who Founded Malibu, CA

By Michelle Shocklee

Research is one of my favorite parts of the writing experience. I adore digging into history and reading about people who left their mark on the world. Rabbit trails can often lead me astray from the original topic I was researching, but they can also lead to some really cool stuff!

That's what happened to me a few weeks ago. I needed to know some facts about Malibu, California, a place I've never visited. Roads, landscape, houses, etc. Nothing overly exciting. So I jumped on the Internet...and discovered a fascinating story AND a fascinating woman!

The Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu, California Photo: Alamy

First, a little history. 

Prior to European or even Mexican settlement, the area of Southern California was home to the Chumash tribe of Native Americans. With the Pacific Ocean beating against the beaches and cliffs, the Chumash called this area Humaliwo, or "the surf sounds loudly." (Hint: "mali-woo" is where the name Malibu came from!) By the mid-1500s the beautiful area had been discovered by Spanish explorers. Spain claimed the land, and Spanish priests and settlers arrived in the 1700s. They moved the Chumash people into missions, but those were ultimately taken over by Mexico in the mid-1800s. The Chumash were once again at the mercy of foreigners, and what remained of the tribe was relocated to a reservation near Santa Ynez. In 1990, 213 Chumash lived there.

Rhoda May Knight Rindge

The land (originally a large Spanish land grant) passed through several hands before it was purchased by Frederick Hastings Rindge, a wealthy Boston businessman, and his wife, Rhoda May Knight, in 1891. Wanting to escape the rapid growth and crowding of Los Angeles, Frederick and Rhoda were very much at home in the rugged wilderness of what we now know as Malibu. Back then, it was all hills and lush vegetation.

Frederick had always wanted a farm by the sea, and once he purchased the 13,315-acre Malibu rancho as the final Spanish land grant owner of the property, he established a cattle ranch. Sadly, Frederick passed away unexpectedly in 1905. Rhoda May, a mother of three, found herself in an unusual position of power for a woman in her day---at the helm of a major family estate.

The State of California and the Southern Pacific Railroad both had eyes on the Rindge ranch. Located on the coast, the property was highly coveted. To prevent trespassers, surveyors, and the like, Rhoda hired armed guards. She also followed through with her husband's plan of building their own small railroad on their property to thwart the efforts of the Southern Pacific. There was apparently an obscure law that stated if one railroad ran through a property, no other railroads were allowed to build on it. 

Next came 16 years of lawsuits brought on by the State and homesteaders surrounding her property that demanded she allow a public road through her property. The many suits cost her millions of dollars, leaving her land-rich but cash-poor. In the end, she eventually lost and the Roosevelt Highway, now called Pacific Coast Highway, was built. Determined to keep her family's legacy intact, Rhoda founded multiple businesses including famous Malibu Potteries, known for their gorgeous Malibu tile. 

A Malibu mansion today. Photo from Google 
Despite the success of the pottery, Rindge still struggled to balance her finances, even as her net worth was estimated in the many millions in 1928. Hence, Rindge's next venture was the Malibu Movie Colony—cottages built on her beachfront by movie studio carpenters that were at first leased  to movie stars such as Bing Crosby, Gloria Swanson, Gary Cooper, Lana Turner, Clark Gable, and others. Word quickly spread and Malibu soon became THE place to go if you were rich and famous!

Rhoda died in 1941, penniless and estranged from one of her sons. The battle for Malibu had cost her dearly. Today, she is known as the Queen of Malibu and the Founding Mother of Malibu. 

Your turn! Have you been to Malibu? Tell me about it!

Michelle Shocklee is the author of several historical novels, including Under the Tulip Tree, a Christy Awards and Selah Awards finalist. Her work has been included in numerous Chicken Soup for the Soul books, magazines, and blogs. Married to her college sweetheart and the mother of two grown sons, she makes her home in Tennessee, not far from the historical sites she writes about. Visit her online at


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  1. Thanks for posting today! I have never been west of Pennsylvania, even. The Pacific coast sounds lovely but I imagine I will get there only via the Internet. I found the detail about the reason for her building a railroad on her property interesting. It was sad that she lost so much trying to fulfill the dream she and her husband had.

    1. Thanks for sharing, Connie. Yes, it's sad that so many people, including native tribes, were always having their homelands taken away by the government. I've been to Malibu but didn't know the history about it. Now I'm curious to go back and see it with "new eyes."

  2. Thank you for sharing this amazing post!