In late September, 1542, a Portuguese captain of a Spanish fleet ordered the caravels San Salvador and Victoria to drop anchor in a Southern California bay. Then Captain Juan Rodriquez Cabrillo went ashore, where he questioned the Indians about a possible waterway that might connect the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. The natives of future San Diego indicated that no such strait existed. Captain Cabrillo continued his voyage of exploration northward to the present California-Oregon border before he gave the order to return to Mexico. On the homeward voyage Cabrillo died, and was buried on one of the Santa Barbara Channel islands.
Sixty years after this unsuccessful attempt to find a Northwest Passage, the rugged Basque, Captain-General Sebastian Vizcaíno, sailed up the California coast. He also failed to find a strait, and like Cabrillo, he missed San Francisco Bay. But Vizcaíno named the bays at San Diego, Carmel, and Monterey; and the capes Concepcion, Pinos, Año Nuevo, and Reyes. Then for 165 years the men of Spain forgot about California until Charles III received some rather disturbing, secret news: the Russians were coming southward from Alaska. The time had arrived for Spain to do something about California.
Even though Spain had not got around to establishing settlements in California, that did not mean she never intended to do so; she was not about to tolerate any intrusion. Orders were issued, and preparations were made to protect the territorial domain. In January 1769 exactly two hundred years ago defenders of the realm and the first of the Californios set sail from insect-infested San Blas. Their ships sailed into a rough, winter storm, and it took six weeks to make the voyage to La Paz in Baja California. Here, Father Junipero Serra blessed the caravels San Carlos and San Antonio before they sailed north under the command of Captain Pedro Fages. After this, Father Serra riding muleback and walking with a limp traveled almost two hundred miles to the old Jesuit mission at Loreto to join an expedition under the command of jovial, middle-aged Captain Gaspar de Portolá for the long trek up the Jesuit Trail to Alta California a journey that ended with Portolá’s discovery of San Francisco Bay.
The Spanish did not find any Russians; but they did find a rich land with plenty of water, grass belly high on their horses, herds of game animals, great flocks of water fowl, rolling hills that would support large cattle herds, peaceful Indians, and a temperate climate with the cold, white snow far in the distance on the high peaks of a mountain range Cabrillo had seen from his ship and had called las sierras nevadas, the snowy range. What more could any man desire? In this new Eden there were countless souls to save and endless leagues of free land to support missions, pueblos, and ranchos. This was a land to call home. All it needed was settlers, and within the next decade expeditions such as those headed by the incredible Sonoran, Captain Juan Bautista Anza, guided the first families of Californios across the Colorado Desert to their new home.
Isolated from Mexico by tremendous overland journeys and difficult voyages up the Pacific Coast, descendants of California’s first Spanish settlers quickly developed a culture of their own. At first, they lived in pueblos and presidios, and grazed their livestock on common ground. Each family knew everything about its neighbors, and the only break from pastoral provincialism came through outsiders: Yankee whalers, New Englanders interested in buying sea otter and seal furs for their China trade, Boston merchants involved in the hide and tallow trade, and a sprinkling of mountain men who had eased across the Sierra Nevada. Now and then, there was news of events in Mexico, such as the revolution of 1821, which cut ties with Spain and forced reluctant Californios to lower the imperial flag and raise the republican colors of Mexico.
By 1830, the total population of California numbered less than five thousand. But winds of change were in the air. The chain of missions entered a period of decline, and the Californios looked upon the great stretches of mission property as good ranch land that would soon be theirs. To add to the coming age of prosperity, active trading between California and New Mexico started with the opening of the Old Spanish Trail from Santa Fe and Taos. Added to this trade route was the natural extension of the Gila Trail, and increased traffic along the Sonora Trail that followed in the footsteps of Anza. Commerce along these routes, together with the sea trade and the acquisition of mission land, pushed the Californios into a period of affluence beyond their wildest dreams.
Land grants were easy to obtain. All a man needed was some proof of Mexican citizenship, a diseño (map) indicating the approximate boundaries of his rancho, a description of any prominent landmarks, and a willingness to build and live in a ranch house and to stock the rolling hills and lush valleys with cattle. No payment was required, and a man could claim as much as eleven leagues at 4.439 acres per league. Even this limitation soon vanished, and the ranchos of the Californios became enormous.
By 1844, Pío and Andrés Pico owned Ranchos Santa Margarita and Las Flores 133,440 acres that reached twenty miles northward from the present city of Oceanside to the approximate Orange County line near San Clemente, and east to the foothills and coastal mountains. In Alta California, the grand ranchos of the Peralta family included the area now covered by Berkeley, Oakland, Alameda, and part of the Santa Clara Valley. Don Jose Domingo Peralta’s Canada del Corte de Madera in the Santa Clara Valley was truly magnificent. It had its own chapel; a large, rambling, adobe ranch house with iron grilles on the windows; a bull ring; a private dock; and a fleet of barges for transporting goods and livestock on San Francisco Bay.
The large ranchos were not limited to persons of Mexican ancestry. If a foreign visitor became a Mexican citizen, he was welcome to apply for a land grant. This was the case with men like Sutter and Warner, whose empires became entry points for overland pioneers crossing the Sierra Nevada or the Colorado Desert. Other men sometimes became rancheros by marriage. John (Juan) Forster, the English trader, married one of Pío Pico’s sisters; and the American sea captain, Henry Delano Fitch, eloped with a daughter of Joaquín Carrillo. But these were not the first nor the last outsiders to marry into old Californio families, pay a twenty-dollar fee to become a Catholic, swear allegiance to Mexico, and settle down to the royal life of a ranchero. The dark-eyed women were gay and beautiful, and the living was easy.
Conspicuous consumption became a major force in this cattleman’s culture. Much like the Plains Indians, the rancheros tended to judge each other by standards of excess wealth and personal manhood. The quality of a man’s horses, the size of his cattle herd, the style and cost of his clothing, the richness of his riding gear (a single saddle with gold and silver inlay might cost as much as four thousand dollars), the size and beauty of his adobe ranch house and his more compact town casa, his horsemanship, his ability with a riata and lance, all were factors by which a man was valued and so was the size of his family.
Local pride in the number of offspring intrigued historian William Heath Davis, who recorded a conversation with Don Antonio María Lugo. In his eighties, Don Lugo had married for the third or fourth time; his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren were many. When Davis questioned him about the size of his family, the old man replied: "Don William, I have done my duty to my country."
Along with family pride and an emphasis on visible wealth, the Californios enjoyed a life of ease and pleasure. Majordomos and vaqueros did the hard work, and the ranchero concentrated upon a lifestyle that refused to be hurried. He gave and attended a multitude of fiestas. He participated in annual rodeos or roundups. He watched amateur bullfights or bear-and-bull fights; bet on cock fights and horse races; roped grizzly bears for sport; and saw to it that all family weddings, christenings, and funerals were carried out in the grand style befitting a Californio.
It was a time of gracious living in a good land, a time of pastoral grace. But the seeds of disaster had been sown as golden grains in the tailrace of Sutter’s sawmill. At first, it appeared that the discovery of gold in 1848 would simply add to the fortunes of the rancheros. Miners were more than willing to pay high prices for beef, horses, mules. Yet it was only a temporary affluence and foreshadowed the collapse of a way of life. By 1851, the United States Congress had passed its Land Act, requiring the Californios to verify their rights of ownership or give up their ranchos. To the rancheros, verification was a monumental task, since most of them had no more than carelessly drawn titles and maps from another time. All the burden of proof was placed on their shoulders, and the fact that they were in possession of the land meant nothing. Even though most eventually managed to prove ownership, the years of legal fees and court costs forced many to sell the very ground they had fought to save.
Legal contrivance, anti-Mexican attitudes, brazen land squatters, death from the smallpox epidemic of 1862, and the disastrous drought years of 1863-1864 brought the Age of the Californios to a close. Their languid culture simply collapsed beneath the weight of Yankee money, politics, and industrial power. Some of the great family names persisted, but the old times vanished along with the California grizzly and the vast open country.
Today, the name Pico is normally associated with a Mexican restaurant in San Francisco or a boulevard in Los Angeles. South of San Diego, the Rancho Ti Juan of the Arguello family was replaced by a squatter town that has become noisy, garish Tijuana, where big-name matadors draw gringo dollars to the Plaza Monumental de Tijuana on Sunday afternoons. In Alta California, Vallejo is a suburban freeway town on the highway to Sacramento, Tahoe, and Reno. And all that remains of the fantastic Peralta Rancho is the name of a junior college. The Californios are gone, and even the place names they left behind are mispronounced and spoken with a harsh tongue.