4th Largest Unofficial City in America!

A Province of Mexico

 Go to SFV Mexican Era Sites (1821-1848)

 Background History

The Mexican era begins and ends with two wars.

The Californio era is famous as it defines what we think of as the romance and hospitality of grand estates and unique culture. But it only lasted 25 years!

Mexico fought for its independence from Spain (1810-1821) like the Americans did from England. For the Californios, Spain had been a neglectful overlord. The earliest settlers had been left to fend for themselves when supply ships didn’t show. They developed a hardiness and independent spirit cut off from the rest of the empire — what didn’t kill them made them stronger, for sure. Isolated as they were, these mixed-race settlers became a new kind of people, adopting the name Californio. They were the generations born in Alta California province.

The Californios snubbed royal edicts forbidding trade with foreign ships — really, who was going to stop them? Spain didn’t patrol the waters. Instead, they developed a lucrative black market to furnish their homes. They needed everything! Anything made of metal was highly desired, as well as nails, pots, needles. Their life was based on leather — so fancy cloth and thread to keep up with fashion made the womenfolk happy. The Californios themselves had no ships to venture out beyond their shores. It was American sea captains who saw the value of trading cattle hides to Boston tanneries and the tallow (fat) to South American soap and candle factories. They hauled away shiploads of horns. This transformed California into one big industry, supporting the laid-back lifestyle of the elite cattle ranchers.

Under Mexican rule, the first thing to go was the heavy yoke of the Church monopoly controlling vast lands and wealth. Breaking up the missions and religious authority meant the Indians were free to go. The original intent was to give half the land back to them and divide the rest with everybody else. That’s not quite how it worked out though, as just a few well-connected Californio families ended up with the lion’s share. The government divided up the state via 500 land grants to get it into production. The land was considered worthless since there was no property tax. But every member of a family could get a land grant, so their holdings became about as immense as the 21 missions!

The Indians were the rightful “owners” of the mission buildings. But after the padres were dismissed and the soldiers sent home, Governor Pio Pico sold off the missions in private sales — which would help finance the pending war after the US invaded Mexico to take Texas.

In just 65 years since Gaspar de Portola and Fr. Junipero Serra had arrived, the natural environment had been altered to such an extent that it wasn’t possible for native people to go back to what their life had been. Thousands of Longhorn cattle and horses decimated native plants and replaced pronghorn and deer. European plants were invasive and had to be tended. Most Fernandeno Indians found themselves marginalized within the boundaries of their original homelands. They became rancho workers just to have a place to go — peons really, for they were only offered room, board, and clothing, but no wages. Their free labor built the new ranching economy.

It’s hard to visualize the immensity of the herds that swelled during the Californio heyday. Each year they doubled naturally on the unfenced land. Now that the population finally had a commodity worth trading, it was full speed ahead. Each rancho only raised enough food to feed itself. The vast orchards and crops of the missions were left to ruin and rot. It was all about cattle and sheep, and the horse/vaquero (cowboy) culture that developed around it. And they needed vast amounts of land because each steer required 50-100 acres just to feed it. Fernandeno Indians who had been trained in horse husbandry found work.

Beef was on every menu. You wanted steak for dinner? Go out and slaughter a longhorned steer and cut a choice one. There was no way to preserve the meat. Carcasses were left where they dropped, feeding the grizzly bear population (now extinct) and other scavengers. Rancho properties were surrounded by carcasses and cow heads in varying states of decay. The hides were staked out to harden in the sun — nicknamed California dollars. The fat was cut off and put into cowhide bags for shipping. The horns piled up. All of this work was done by Indian laborers. Once or twice a year a trading ship arrived, and then they moved all the goods down to the port. What a day of happiness that must have been!

Forgive a snarky observation here: with all this beef on the hoof and wasteful practice, how hypocritical the outrage of the ranchers when hungry Indians helped themselves to cows. It was acceptable practice for passing travelers to kill a cow for a meal. Horses were allowed to run free with ropes atached so they could be caught and borrowed if necessary. Though many of the Californios had native ancestors, their general attitude had hardened considerably towards the people they had disenfranchised. This, in spite of the fact that it was Indians trained at the missions who kept the ranchos going. In a caste system based on skin color, the dark-skinned people were at the bottom. The ruling class didn’t participate in manual labor or much enterprise. They married among themselves, looked down their noses at those without land, and overlooked the misery directly under foot. They were emulating the landed gentry of old Spain.

In spite of breaking apart the missions and abolishing the missionary overlords, the Mexicans didn’t reject Catholicism. Indeed, Americans or men of any nationality making their way to this strip of coast would have to convert and become Mexican citizens. Mexico kept a pretty tight rein on emigration, though not as strict as Spain. But if they survived the journey by sea or overland, then foreign white men found there was only one way to marry into the land-rich families. But in spite of having become Mexican citizens, they found themselves in a very advantageous position when the American army showed up during the “United States Invasion Against Mexico,” as the Mexicans called the war (1846-1848).

The era of the cattle baron Dons ended when they became American citizens who couldn’t speak the language, understand the laws, comprehend free enterprise, or hang onto their lands. Seemed that history was repeating itself to this group of “native” Californians.