hile the rest of the world poured into the northern mines in a mad quest for wealth, the native Californios generally stayed home and tended to their cattle.
These great, brooding beasts were born and bred on the range, half wild and armed with an impressive spread of horns. Descended from sturdy Andalusian stock that landed at Vera Cruz in 1521, over the next three centuries they evolved into 1,200-pound animals that could live on sagebrush, go days without water, and beat the tar out of grizzly bears.
Lean and raw-boned, they provided meat for the dinner table and a source of income for the Dons, who traded hides and tallow for a couple of Yankee dollars. One of the popular diversions of the day was to toss a bull and a bear into a pit in Los Angeles and watch them fight to the death.
Lively, coquettish Ysidora Bandini stood on the roof of her San Diego home admiring a column of gringo cavalrymen clattering by, when the railing she was leaning against gave way, tumbling her into the arms of Tennessee-born Lieutenant Cave Johnson Couts. It was fate indeed, for they were soon married. Couts became the son-in-law of Juan Bandini, the owner of thousands of acres and cattle.
The lieutenant's brother, William Blunt Couts, brought news from up north of the gold seekers' craving for fresh meat, and together they crafted a plan to deliver beef to this eager market.
During the spring of 1849 William and Cave Couts set out with a herd of some seven hundred head on consignment from Bandini and John "Juanito" Temple, already renowned as the richest man in California.
According to William Couts, "It was an awful job," but they managed to get the cattle up the coast to San Jose where they were offered at fourteen dollars apiece. Cave dickered with the buyers, finally getting twenty dollars, or about ten times what they would have brought in the days of hide and tallow.
Returning to Los Angeles, the brothers astounded the populace with their astronomical profits. While the grandees might not lower themselves to grovel for gold, they certainly did not mind turning a profit on cattle.
The next year, 2,500 head were driven north over the present-day Newhall Pass to the banks of the Santa Clara. Some went to Ventura and on to San Francisco, while others took a route suggested by Ygnacio del Valle through the San Joaquin Valley. The crafty Don not only realized a great profit; he charged grazing fees on his rancho in the Santa Clarita and also at El Tejon.
By this time the hundreds of thousands of miners would pay any price for a steak. The Couts brothers capitalized on this by charging seventy-five dollars a head.
Such prices sent the rancheros into an orgy of buying and attracted suppliers from as far away as Texas, where ranchers such as W.H. Snyder and Ranger Captain Jack Cureton trailed longhorns across mountains and deserts, through Cheyenne Indians and renegade Comanches to the Mother Lode country.
They developed a route known as the "Great Southern" or "Ox-Bow" that would later play a prominent role in outfitting cavalry posts by camel and in John Butterfield's dream of an Overland Stage.