Island California. California, the Name
    The name “California” was first used in the a Spanish romance novel Las Sergas de Esplandián by Garcia Ordoñez de Montalvo, published 1510. The book contained references to an island called California. “Know, that on the right hand of the Indies there is an island called California very close to the side of the Terrestrial Paradise; and it is peopled by black women, without any man among them, for they live in the manner of Amazons.”
    The early cartographers portrayed California as an island and for many years, the error was copied from map to map. In reality, there are two Californias. The first (and first to be discovered) is Baja California (Lower California), a state in México. The second is the American state, California. During its Spanish days, the 1849 Gold Rush, and a while later, it was known as Alta California (Upper California). Only a political boundary separates the two Californias.

    Some say that Alta California was discovered by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo in 1542; perhaps a more conservative statement is to say that Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo discovered the west coast of Alta California, visiting San Diego harbor, 28 Sep 1542, and also Point Conception, San Pedro, Santa Monica, Ventura, and Catalina Island and the other Santa Barbara Channel Islands. Cabrillo died on San Miguel island. His pilot later sailed north to the area off the current California-Oregon border, however the entrance to San Francisco Bay was not discovered at that time. That harbor entrance would remain hidden for two hundred twenty seven years.
    We know that in 1539 Hernán Cortés sent Francisco de Ulloa up the coast of México and Ulloa sailed into the Vermillion Sea (now known as the Sea of Cortez) between the Méxican mainland and the more western Baja California. Ulloa reached the mouth of the Colorado River at the northern most part of the Sea of Cortez.
    The next year, 1540, the Hernando de Alarcón reached the Colorado River; it is possible that Alarcón was the first white man to walk on California soil, crossing the river in the Yuma area.
    In 1540 Melchor Díaz led a land expedition to the Colorado River looking for Alarcón. Díaz may have also crossed into California.
    This discoveries did not lead to immediate settlement of California but of course, there were the usual Imperial Spanish claims to the land under the right of discovery.

The Russians are Coming! The Russians are Coming!
    In 1578 a band of Cossacks crossed the Ural Mountains and conquered the Tartars of central Russia. The promise of furs, riches, and glory pushed them ever eastward. By 1706, they had swept across the whole of Siberia and had reached the Pacific Ocean. By 1745, the Russians reached Attu (the westernmost of the Aleutian islands). Here then was a potential threat to the Spanish claim to that unsettled land, California. Spain could promote settlement in California, new towns could afford harbor for Spanish ships, and to serve as outposts against any southward encroachments of Russia, who, from Alaska, could reach out toward California.

Cometh the Missions, Cometh the Californios
    México (La Nueva España, or New Spain) sent the Franciscan Padres to settle Alta California, establish missions, and to Christianize the indigenous Indian people. With the Padres came the soldiers and the workers and soon to follow, a small number settlers. It is these people and their descendents who became the Californios.
    Missions were built, some of them also had presidios or garrisons which provided protection not only to the mission, but to all missions in the district. San Diego, Santa Barbara, Monterey, and San Francisco all had presidios. The first comlpeted mission was San Diego, 1769. That same year, the Don Gaspar de Portola expedition “missed their turnoff” at Monterey Bay and proceeded too far north. In early November, Sergeant Jose Francisco Ortega was the first to see San Francisco Bay from a high ridge on the San Francisco peninsula.
    In all, twenty-one missions were built.
    “The Indians in the immediate vicinity of a mission were attached thereto by a sort of gentle enslavement. They were provided special quarters, were carefully looked after by the priests, their religious education fostered, and their innate laziness conquered by specific requirements of labor in agriculture, cattle raising, and simple handicrafts. It was an arrangement which worked well for both parties concerned. The slavery of the Indians was not unlike the obligation of children to their parents; they were comfortable, well behaved, and for the most part contented with the rule of the friars, who, on their side, began to accumulate considerable wealth from the well-directed efforts of their charges.”

California Missions (in Order of Founding)
    San Diego de Alcala (1769)
    San Carlos Borroméo de Carmelo (1770)
    San Antonio de Padua (1771)
    San Gabriel Arcángel (1771)
    San Luis Obispo (1772)
    San Francisco de Asís (1776)
    San Juan Capistrano (1776)
    Santa Clara de Asís (1777)
    San Buenaventura (1782)
    Santa Barbara (1786)
    La Purisíma Concepción (1787)
    Santa Cruz (1791)
    Nuestra Señora de la Soledad (1791)
    San José (1797)
    San Juan Bautista (1797)
    San Miguel de Arcángel (1797)
    San Fernando Rey de España (1797)
    San Luis Rey de Francia (1798)
    Santa Inés (1804)
    San Rafael Arcángel (1817)
    San Francisco de Solano (1823)

Out with the Old, in With the New
The Virgin of Guadalupe. or, Adiós España, Hola México

    Struggle for Mexican independence really began in 1810, with the “Los Insurgentes” movement. Padre Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla rallying the people under a portrait of the Virgin of Guadalupe led an insurrection of peasants against the Spanish in 1811. Ultimately, his peasant army was defeated and he was executed. Still, the insurrection pressed on and in 1821, independence from Spain was won. In 1824 México became a republic. Today, Miguel Hidalgo is considered to be the father of his country.
    The end of Spanish rule meant free trade for California with its neighbors. However, the “greed of politicians suddenly wrought the change which was to have come as the slow development of years.” The Spanish Mission period ended when in 1834 the mission lands were seized and secularized “by governmental decree, the Indians were declared free of obligation to the friars; the latter were stripped of their temporal powers, their funds seized under the guise of a loan, and their establishments often subjected to what was little short of pillage.”
    “It was hoped that in the course of years the Indians might become so adapted to thrift and industry as to be released from supervision and safely left to their own devices.”

Ranchos and America’s First Cowboys, the Vaqueros
    The sizure of mission land was devastating to the missions, however that action favored ranching in California because Mexican officials could award huge grants of mission lands to select individuals.
    Although Spanish Land Grants had been given since 1775 (a private land grant was made in that year to Manuel Butron), there was not a large number of land grants issued. In 1779, land grant procedure was codified and the “Reglamento” (Regulation) issued. California’s Governor was empowered to make private grants up to three square leagues. By 1790, there were only nineteen private rancheros in California.
    The products produced from cattle, both tallow and cowhides, were Caliliforia’s only significant trade items. The decline of the mission system caused a decline in Indian made mission products, even simplest items like blankets, tanned leather, wine, soap, candles, &c., needed to be imported. The Californios called the cowhides California Banknotes. The cowhides were in great demand in a rapidly growing United States. Sailing ships brought needed trade goods from the east coast to California, and returned home with those California Banknotes.
    With the government’s approval, the rancho system thrived. Like the plantation owners of America’s southeast, the rancho owners enjoyed a life of leisure, style, and grace. It was a good life dedicated to family and tradition. Yet it was built on the backs of those Californios, the poor ranch hands who maintained herds of cattle. Vast numbers of Indians provided the hard labor for the ranchos. They labored as vaqueros, often called America’s first cowboys. The vaqueros and the rancho servants toiled under extremely harsh conditions.

Guadalupe Vallejo Remembers
    It seems to me that there never was a more peaceful or happy people on the face of the earth than the Spanish, Mexican, and Indian population of Alta California before the American conquest. We were the pioneers of the Pacific coast, building towns and Missions while General Washington was carrying on the war of the Revolution, and we often talk together of the days when a few hundred large Spanish ranches and Mission tracts occupied the whole country from the Pacific to the San Joaquin. No class of American citizens is more loyal than the Spanish Californians, but we shall always be especially proud of the traditions and memories of the long pastoral age before 1840. Indeed, our social life still tends to keep alive a spirit of love for the simple, homely, outdoor life of our Spanish ancestors on this coast, and we try, as best we may, to honor the founders of our ancient families, and the saints and heroes of our history since the days when Father Junipero planted the cross at Monterey.  (Full Text)

Enter the Dragon
    In 1826, Captain Jedediah S. Smith, and his party of hunters and trappers, are the first Americans to go overland across the continent to California. They were the first, but certainly they were not the last.
    Capt. Frederick William Beechey of the English ship, Blossom, published a full account of his voyage to San Francisco and Monterey where in he writes of the necessity of Spain taking more of an active interest in the affairs of California if she wished to hold the country. “It is too important to be permitted to remain in its present neglected state,” thus forewarning of a possible seizure by some foreign power. (1826-1827)
    A non-Méxican settler could petition the authorities for citizenship, an act which required his pledge his loyalty to both México and the Roman Catholic Church. After a one year probation, he could receive citizenship and petition for a land grant.
    In 1833, further secularization of the missions by the Mexican authorities is accomplished, as well as further confiscation of mission property. “Under rules known as Prevenciónes de Emancipacion, the missions are secularized. All Indians, Christians for twelve years, all married men and widowers with families, and all such as are competent to make a livelihood, are gathered together in pueblos and initiated in the laws of self-government. To each family is granted house-lots, planting lots and pasture lands, and live stock. The mission churches are turned over to the parish clergy and the other properties are sold.” ††
    Slowly, the Yankee settlers trickled into California. Some came as merchants and because California didn’t have a real middle class or merchant class, they filled that void. Others came for land and after a year’s probation, they received their place in the sun.
    Capt. Beechey was right, California was in a “neglected state.” When the dragon entered, nobody noticed.

Richard Henry Dana, Jr.
~ Two Years Before the Mast ~
  1835 at Monterey, the Town
    “We came to anchor within two cable lengths of the shore, and the town lay directly before us, making a very pretty appearance; its houses being of whitewashed adobe, which gives a much better effect than those of Santa Barbara, which are mostly left of a mud color. The red tiles, too, on the roofs, contrasted well with the white sides, and with the extreme greenness of the lawn upon which the houses--about a hundred in number--were dotted about, here and there, irregularly. There are in this place, and in every other town which I saw in California, no streets nor fences (except that here and there a small patch might be fenced in for a garden), so that the houses are placed at random upon the green. This, as they are of one story, and of the cottage form, gives them a pretty effect when seen from a little distance.” [p. 86.]

  1835 at Monterey, The Costumes
    “The officers were dressed in the costume which we found prevailed through the country. A broad-brimmed hat, usually of a black or dark-brown color, with a gilt or figured band round the crown, and lined inside with silk; a short jacket of silk or figured calico, (the European skirted body-coat is never worn;) the shirt open in the neck; rich waistcoat, if any; pantaloons wide, straight, and long, usually of velvet, velveteen, or broadcloth; or else short breeches and white stockings. They wear the deer-skin shoe, which is of a dark-brown color, and, (being made by Indians,) usually a good deal ornamented. They have no suspenders, but always wear a sash round the waist, which is generally red, and varying in quality with the means of the wearer. Add to this the never-failing cloak, and you have the dress of the Californian. This last garment, the cloak, is always a mark of the rank and wealth of the owner. The ‘gente de razon,’ or aristocracy, wear cloaks of black or dark blue broadcloth, with as much velvet and trimmings as may be; and from this they go down to the blanket of the Indian; the middle classes wearing something like a large table-cloth, with a hole in the middle for the head to go through. This is often as coarse as a blanket, but being beautifully woven with various colors, is quite showy at a distance. Among the Mexicans there is no working class; (the Indians being slaves and doing all the hard work;) and every rich man looks like a grandee, and every poor scamp like a broken-down gentleman. I have often seen a man with a fine figure, and courteous manners, dressed in broadcloth and velvet, with a noble horse completely covered with trappings; without a real in his pocket, and absolutely suffering for something to eat.” [pp. 91-92.]

  1835 at Monterey, Economy and Trade
    “The Californians are an idle, thriftless people, and can make nothing for themselves. The country abounds in grapes, yet they buy, at a great price, bad wine made in Boston and brought round by us, and retail it among themselves at a real (12 ½ cents) by the small wineglass. Their hides, too, which they value at two dollars in money, they barter for something which costs seventy-five cents in Boston; and buy shoes (as like as not made of their own hides, which have been carried twice round Cape Horn) at three and four dollars, and ‘chicken-skin boots’ at fifteen dollars a pair. Things sell, on an average, at an advance of nearly three hundred per cent upon the Boston prices. This is partly owing to the heavy duties which the government, in their wisdom, with an idea, no doubt, of keeping the silver in the country, has laid upon imports. These duties, and the enormous expenses of so long a voyage, keep all merchants but those of heavy capital from engaging in the trade. Nearly two thirds of all the articles imported into the country from round Cape Horn, for the last six years, have been by the single house of Bryant, Sturgis, & Co., to whom our vessel belonged.” [p. 94.]

  1835 at Monterey, the People
    “Those who are of pure Spanish blood, having never intermarried with the aborigines, have clear brunette complexions, and sometimes even as fair as those of English women. There are but few of these families in California, being mostly those in official stations, or who, on the expiration of their terms of office, have settled here upon property they have acquired; and others who have been banished for state offences. These form the upper class, intermarrying, and keeping up an exclusive system in every respect. They can be distinguished, not only by their complexion, dress, and manners, but also by their speech; for, calling themselves Castilians, they are very ambitious of speaking the pure Castilian, while all Spanish is spoken in a somewhat corrupted dialect by the lower classes. From this upper class, they go down by regular shades, growing more and more dark and muddy, until you come to the pure Indian, who runs about with nothing upon him but a small piece of cloth, kept up by a wide leather strap drawn round his waist. Generally speaking, each person’s caste is decided by the quality of the blood, which shows itself, too plainly to be concealed, at first sight. Yet the least drop of Spanish blood, if it be only of quadroon or octoroon, is sufficient to raise one from the position of a serf, and entitle him to wear a suit of clothes, --boots, hat, cloak, spurs, long knife, all complete, though coarse and dirty as may be, --and to call himself Español, and to hold property, if he can get any.” [pp. 95-96.]

  1835 at Monterey, Loading Hides
    “The hides are brought down dry, or they will not be received. When they are taken from the animal, they have holes cut in the ends, and are staked out, and thus dried in the sun without shrinking. They are then doubled once, lengthwise, with the hair side usually in, and sent down upon mules or in carts, and piled above high-water mark; and then we take them upon our heads, one at a time, or two, if they are small, and wade out with them and throw them into the boat, which, as there are no wharves, we usually kept anchored by a small kedge, or keelek, just outside of the surf. We all provided ourselves with thick Scotch caps, which would be soft to the head, and at the same time protect it; for we soon learned that, however it might look or feel at first, the ‘head-work’ was the only system for California. For besides that the seas, breaking high, often obliged us to carry the hides so, in order to keep them dry, we found that, as they were very large and heavy, and nearly as stiff as boards, it was the only way that we could carry them with any convenience to ourselves. Some of the crew tried other expedients, saying that that looked too much like West India negroes; but they all came to it at last.” [pp. 107-108.]

  1835 at San Pedro, More Hides and the Pueblo de los Angeles
    “I also learned, to my surprise, that the desolate-looking place we were in furnished more hides than any port on the coast. It was the only port for a distance of eighty miles, and about thirty miles in the interior was a fine plane country, filled with herds of cattle, in the centre of which was the Pueblo de los Angeles, --the largest town in California, --and several of the wealthiest missions; to all of which San Pedro was the seaport.” [p. 118.]

Course of Empire
    On May 13, 1846 the U.S. declared war on México. The American southwest became part of the United States in 1848 when the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed.

California Bear Flag. The Bear Flag Revolt, 14 June 1846

The Gold Rush and the Death of the Ranchos

The Heritage of the Californios Culture


    †† Breithaupt, Richard H., Jr., Centennial Register of the Sons of the Revolution in the State of California

‡ Dana, Richard Henry, Jr., Two Years Before the Mast, A Personal Narrative of Life at Sea, 1840. Dana shipped as a common sailor (a seaman stands before the mast, the officers stand aft) in the brig, Pilgrim, bound for the California coast. The dates: August 1834 to September 1836.

† Vallejo, Guadalupe, Ranch and Mission Days in Alta California, Century Magazine, Vol. XLI, December 1890.  (Full Text)

    Recommended Book: Osio, Antonio Maria, The History of Alta California: A Memoir of Mexican California, Rose Marie Beebe and Robert M. Senkewicz (Editors)

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Fred Smoot