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New Century Magazine for December 1890

RANCH AND MISSION DAYS
IN ALTA CALIFORNIA. — PART II

By Guadalupe Vallejo


Related Museum Links

Early History of California

Early History of San Francisco

"Ranch and Mission Days in Alta California," by Guadalupe Vallejo

"Life in California Before the Gold Discovery," by John Bidwell

William T. Sherman and Early Calif. History

William T. Sherman and the Gold Rush

California Gold Rush Chronology 1846 - 1849

California Gold Rush Chronology 1850 - 1851

California Gold Rush Chronology 1852 - 1854

California Gold Rush Chronology 1855 - 1856

California Gold Rush Chronology 1857 - 1861

California Gold Rush Chronology 1862 - 1865

An Eyewitness to the Gold Discovery

Military Governor Mason’s Report on the Discovery of Gold

A Rush to the Gold Washings From the California Star

The Discovery as Viewed in New York and London

Steamer Day in the 1850s

Sam Brannan Opens New Bank - 1857


The principal sources of revenue which the Missions enjoyed were the sales of hides and tallow, fresh beef, fruits, wheat, and other things to ships, and in occasional sales of horses to trappers or traders. The Russians at Fort Ross, north of San Francisco, on Bodega Bay, bought a good deal from the Missions. Then too the Indians were sent out to trade with other Indians, and so the Missions often secured many valuable furs, such as otter and beaver, together with skins of bears and deer killed by their own hunters.

The embarcadero, or “landing,” for the Mission San José was at the mouth of a salt-water creek four or five miles away. When a ship sailed into San Francisco Bay, and the captain sent a large boat up this creek and arranged to buy hides, they were usually hauled there on an ox-cart with solid wooden wheels, called a carreta. But often in winter, there being no roads across the valley, each separate hide was doubled across the middle and placed on the head of an Indian. Long files of Indians, each carrying hide in this manner, could be seen over the unfenced level land through the wild mustard to the embarcadero, and in a few weeks the whole cargo would thus be delivered. For such work the Indians always received additional gifts for themselves and families.

A very important feature, was the wheat harvest. Wheat was grown more or less at all the Missions. If those Americans who came to California in 1849 and said that wheat would not grow here had only visited the Missions they would have seen beautiful large wheat fields. Of course at first many mistakes were made by the fathers in their experiments, not only in wheat and corn, but also wine making, in crushing olives for oil, in grafting trees, and in creating fine flower and vegetable gardens. At most of the Missions it took them several years to find out how to grow good grain. At first they planted it on too wet land. At the Mission San José a tract about a mile square came to be used for wheat. It was fenced in with a ditch, dug by the Indians with sharp sticks and with their hands in the rainy season, and it was so deep and wide that cattle and horses never crossed it. In other places stone or adobe walls, or hedges of the prickly pear cactus, were used about the wheat fields. Timber was never considered available for fences, because there were no saw-mill and no roads to the forests, so that it was only at great expense and with extreme difficulty that we procured the logs that were necessary in building, and chopped them slowly, with poor tools, to the size we wanted. Sometimes low adobe walls were made high and safe by a row of the skulls of Spanish cattle, with the long curving horns attached. These came from the matanzas or high Spanish came the matanzas, or slaughter-corrals, where there were thousands of them lying in piles, and they could be so used to make one of the strongest and most effective of barriers against man or beast. Set close and deep, at various angles, about the gateways and corral walls, these cattle horns helped to protect the inclosure from horse-thieves.

When wheat was sown it was merely “scratched in” with a wooden plow, but the ground was so new and rich that the yield was great. The old Mission field is now occupied by some of the best farms of the valley, showing how excellent was the fathers’ judgment of good land. The old ditches which fenced it have been plowed in for more than forty years by American farmers, but their course can still be distinctly traced.

A special ceremony was connected with the close of the wheat harvest. The last four sheaves taken from this large field were tied to poles in the form of a cross, and were then brought by, the reapers in the “harvest procession” to the church, while the bells were rung, and the father, dressed in his robes, carrying the cross and accompanied by boys with tapers and censers, chanting the Te Deum as they marched, went forth to meet the sheaves. This was a season of Indian festival also, and one-fifth of the whole number of the Indians were sometimes allowed to leave the Mission for a certain number of days, to gather acorns, dig roots, hunt, fish, and enjoy a change of occupation. It was a privilege that they seldom, or never, abused by failing to return, and the fact shows how well they were treated in the Missions.

Governor Neve proposed sowing wheat. I have heard, in 1776, and none had been sown in California before that time. At the pueblo of San José, which was established in 1777, they planted wheat for the use of the presidios, and the first sowing was at the wrong season and failed, but the other half of their seed did better. The fathers at San Diego Mission sowed grain on the bottom lands in the willows the first year, and it was washed away; then they put it on the mesa above the Mission, and it died; the third year they found a good piece of land and it yielded one hundred and ninety-five fold. As soon as the Missions had wheat fields they wanted flour, and mortars were made. Some of them were holes cut in the rock, with a heavy pestle, lifted by a long pole. When La Pérouse, the French navigator, visited Monterey in 1786, he gave the fathers in San Carlos an iron hand-mill, so that the neophyte women could more easily grind their wheat. He also gave the fathers seed-potatoes from Chili, the first that were known in California. La Pérouse and his officers were received with much hospitality at San Carlos. The Indians were told that the Frenchmen were true Catholics, and Father Palou had them all assembled at the reception. Mrs. Ord, a daughter of the De la Guerra family, had a drawing of this occasion, made by an officer, but it was stolen about the time of the American conquest, like so many of the precious relics of Spanish California. La Pérouse wrote: “It is with the sweetest satisfaction that I shall make known the pious and wise conduct of these friars, who fulfill so perfectly the object of their institution. The greatest anchorites have never led a more edifying life.”

Early in the [nineteenth] century flour-mills by water were built at Santa Cruz, San Luis Obispo, San José and San Gabriel. The ruins of some of these now remain; the one at Santa Cruz is very picturesque. Horse-power mills were in use at many places. At the time that the Americans began to arrive in numbers the Spanish people were just commencing to project larger mill enterprises and irrigation ditches for their own needs. The difficulties with land titles put an end to most of these plans, and some of them were afterward carried out by Americans when the ranches were broken up.

One of the greatest of the early irrigation projects was that of my grandfather, Don Ygnacio Vallejo, who spent much labor and money in supplying San Luis Obispo Mission with water. This was begun in 1776, and completed the following year. He so planned to carry the water of the Carmel River to Monterey; this has since been done by the Southern Pacific Railway Company. My father, Don J. J. Vallejo, about fifty years ago made a stone aqueduct and several irrigation and mill ditches from the Alameda Creek, on which stream he built an adobe flour-mill, whose millstones were brought from Spain.

I have often been asked about the old Mission and ranch gardens. They were, I think, more extensive, and contained a greater variety of trees and plants, than most persons imagine. The Jesuits had gardens in Baja California as early as 1699, and vineyards and orchards a few years later. The Franciscans in Alta California began to cultivate the soil as soon as they landed. The first grapevines were brought from Lower California in 1769, and were soon planted at all the Missions except Dolores, where the climate was not suitable. Before the year 1800 the orchards at the Missions contained apples, pears, peaches, apricots, plums, cherries, figs, olives, oranges, pomegranates, At San Diego And San Buenaventura Missions there were also sugar canes, date palms, plantains, bananas, and citrons. There were orchards and vineyards in California sufficient to supply all the wants of the people. I remember that at the Mission San José we had many varieties of seedling fruits which have now been lost to cultivation. Of pears we had four sorts, one ripening in early summer, one in late summer, and two in autumn and winter. The Spanish names of there pears were the Presidenta, the Bergamota, the Pana, and the Lechera. One of them was as large as a Bartlett, but there are no trees of it left now. The apples, grown from seed, ripened at different seasons, and there were seedling peaches, both early and late. An interesting and popular fruit was that of the Nopal, or prickley pear. This fruit, called tuna, grew on great hedges which protected part of the Mission orchards and were twenty feet high and ten or twelve feet thick. Those who know how to eat a tuna, peeling it so as to escape the tiny thorns on the skin, find it delicious. The Missions had avenues of fig, olive, and other trees about the building, besides the orchards. In later times American squatters and campers often cut down these trees for firewood or built fires against the trunks, which killed them. Several hundred large and valuable olive trees at the San Diego Mission were killed in this way. The old orchards were pruned and cultivated with much care, and the paths were swept by the Indians, but after the sequestration of the Mission property they were neglected and ran wild. The olive-mills, and wine-presses were destroyed, and cattle were pastured in the once fruitful groves.

The flower gardens were gay with roses, chiefly a pink and very fragrant sort from Mexico, called by us the Castilian rose, and still seen in a few old gardens. Besides roses, we had pinks, sweet-peas, hollyhocks, nasturtiums which had been brought from Mexico, and white lilies. The vegetable gardens contained pease, beans, beets, lentils, onions, carrots, red peppers, corn, potatoes, squashes, cucumbers, and melons. A fine quality of tobacco was cultivated and cured by the Indians. Hemp and flax were grown to some extent. A fine large cane, a native of Mexico, was planted, and the joints found useful as in the blanket factory, and for many domestic purposes. The young shoots of this cane were sometimes cooked for food. Other kinds of plants were grown in the old gardens, but these are all that I can remember.

In the old days every one seemed to live out-doors. There was much gaiety and social life, even though people were widely scattered. We traveled as much as possible on horseback. Only old people or invalids cared to use the slow cart, or carreta. Young men would ride from one ranch to another for parties, and whoever found his horse tired would let him go and catch another. In 1806 there were so many horses in the valleys about San José that seven or eight thousand were killed. Nearly as many were driven into the sea at Santa Barbara in 1801, and the same thing was done at Monterey in 1810. Horses were given to the runaway sailors, and to trappers and hunters who came over the mountains, for common horses were very plenty, but fast and beautiful horses were never more prized in any country than in California, and each young man had his favorites. A kind of mustang, that is now seldom or never seen on the Pacific coast, was a peculiar light cream-colored horse, with silver-white mane and tail. Such an animal, of speed and bottom, often sold for more than a horse of any other color. Other much admired colors were dapple-gray and chestnut. The fathers of the Mission sometimes rode on horseback, but they generally had a somewhat modern carriage called a volante. It was always drawn by mules, of which there were hundreds in the Mission pastures, and white was the color often preferred.

Nothing was more attractive than the wedding cavalcade on its way from the bride’s house to the Mission church. The horses were more richly caparisoned than for any other ceremony, and the bride’s nearest relative or family representative carried her before him, she sitting on the saddle with her white satin shoe in a loop of golden or silver braid, while he sat on the bear-skin covered anquera behind. The groom and his friends mingled with the bride’s party, all on the best horses that could be obtained, and they rode gaily from the ranch house to the Mission, sometimes fifteen or twenty miles away. In April and May, when the land was covered with wild-flowers, the light-hearted troop rode along the edge of the uplands, between hill and valley, crossing the streams, and some of the young horsemen, anxious to show their skill, would perform all the feats for which the Spanish-Californians were famous. After the wedding, when they returned to lead in the feasting, the bride was carried on the horse of the groomsman. One of the customs which was always observed at the wedding was to wind a silken tasseled string or a silken sash, fringed with gold, about the necks of the bride and groom, binding them together as they knelt before the altar for the blessing of the priest. A charming custom among the middle and lower classes was the making of the satin shoes by the groom for the bride. A few weeks before the wedding he asked his betrothed for the measurement of her foot, and made the shoes with his own hands; the groomsman brought them to her on the wedding-day.

But few foreigners ever visited any of the Missions, and they naturally caused quite a stir. At the Mission San José, about 1820, late one night in the vintage season a man came to the village for food and shelter, which were gladly given. But the next day it was whispered that he was a Jew, and the poor Indians, who had been told that the Jews had crucified Christ, ran to their huts and hid. Even the Spanish children, and many of the grown people, were frightened. Only the missionary father had ever before seen a Jew, and when he found that it was impossible to check the excitement he sent two soldiers to ride with the man a portion of the way to Santa Clara.

A number of trappers and hunters came into Southern California and settled down in various towns. There was a party of Kentuckians, beaver-trappers, who went along the Gila and Colorado rivers about 1827, and then south into Baja California to the Mission of Santa Catalina. Then they came to San Diego, where the whole country was much excited over their hunter clothes, their rifles, their traps, and the strange stories they told of the deserts, and fierce Indians, and things that no one in California had ever seen. Captain Paty was the oldest man of the party, and he was ill and worn out. All the San Diego people were very kind to the Americans. It is said that the other Misdons, such as San Gabriel, sent and desired the privilege of caring for some of them. Captain Paty grew worse, so he sent for one of the fathers and said he wished to become a Catholic, because he added, it must be a good religion, for it made everybody so good to him. Don Pio Pico and Doña Victoria Dominguez de Estudillo were his sponsors. After Captain Paty’s death the Americans went to Los Angeles, where they all married Spanish ladies, were given lands, built houses, planted vineyards and became important people. Pryor repaired the church silver, and was called “Miguel el Platero.” Laughlin was always so merry that he was named "Ricardo el Buen Mozo." They all had Spanish names given them besides their own. One of them was a blacksmith, and as iron was very scarce he made pruning shears for the vineyards out of the old beaver traps.

On Christmas night, 1828, a ship was wrecked near Los Angeles, and twenty-eight men escaped. Everybody wanted to care for them, and they were given a great Christmas dinner, and offered money and lands. Some of them staid, and some went to other Missions and towns. One of them who staid was a German, John Gronigen, and he was named “Juan Domingo“ or, because he was lame, “Juan Cojo.“ Another, named Prentice, came from Connecticut, and he was a famous fisherman and otter hunter. After 1828 a good many other Americans came in and settled down quietly to cultivate the soil, and some of them became very rich. They had grants from the governor, just the same as the Spanish people. It is necessary, for the truth of the account, to mention the evil behavior of many Americans before, as well as after, the conquest. At the Mission San José there is a small creek and two very large sycamores once grew at the Spanish ford, so that it was called la aliso. A squatter named Fallon, who lived near the crossing, cut down these for firewood, though there were many trees in the cañon. The Spanish people begged him to leave them, for the shade, but he did not care for that. This was a little thing, but much that happened was after such pattern, or far worse.

In those times one of the leading American squatters came to my father, Don J.J. Vallejo, and said, “There is a large piece of your land where the cattle run loose, and your vaqueros have gone to the gold fields. I will fence the field for you at my expense if you will give me half.“ He liked the idea, and assented, but when the tract was inclosed the American had it entered as government land in his own name, and kept all of it. In many similar cases American settlers in their dealings with the rancheros took advantage of the laws which they understood, but which were new to the Spaniards, so robbed the latter of their lands. Notes and bonds were considered unnecessary by a Spanish gentleman in a business transaction, as his word was always sufficient security.

Perhaps the most exasperating feature of the coming-in of the Americans was owing to the mines, which drew away most of the servants, so that our cattle were stolen by thousands. Men who are now prosperous farmers and merchants were guilty of shooting and selling Spanish beef “without looking at the brand,” as the phrase went. My father had about ten thousand head of cattle, and some he was able to send back into the hills until there were better laws and officers, but he lost the larger part. On one occasion I remember some vigilantes caught two cattle-thieves and sent for my father to appear against them, but he said that although he wanted them punished he did not wish to have them hanged, and so he would not testify, and they were set free. One of them afterward sent conscience money to us from New York, where he is living in good circumstances. The Vallejos have on several occasions received conscience money from different parts of the country. The latest case occurred last year (1899), when a woman wrote that her husband, since dead, had taken a steer worth twenty-five dollars, and she sent the money.

Every Mission and ranch in old times had its calaveras, its “place of skulls,” its slaughter corral, where cattle and sheep were killed by the Indian butchers Every Saturday morning the fattest animals were chosen and driven there, and by night the hides were all stretched on the hillside to dry. At one time a hundred cattle and two hundred sheep were killed weekly at the Mission San José, and the meat was distributed to all, “without money and without price.” The grizzly bears, which were very abundant in the country, — for no one ever poisoned them, as the American stock raisers did after 1849, — used to come by night to the ravines near the slaughter-corral where the refuse was thrown by the butchers. The young Spanish gentlemen often rode out on moonlight nights to lasso these bears, and then they would drag them through the village street, and past the houses of their friends. Two men with their strong rawhide reatas could hold any bear, and when they were tired of this sport they could kill him. But sometimes the bears would walk through the village on their way to or from the corral of the butchers, and so scatter the people. Several times a serenade party, singing and playing by moonlight, was suddenly broken up by two or three grizzlies trotting down the hill into the street, and the gay caballeros with their guitars would spring over the adobe walls and run for their horses, which always stood saddled, with a reata coiled, ready for use, as a saddle bow. It was the custom in every family to keep saddled horses in easy reach, day and night.

Innumerable stories about grizzlies are traditional in the old Spanish families, not only in the Santa Clara Valley, but also through the Coast Range from San Diego to Sonoma and Santa Rosa. Some of the bravest of the young men would go out alone to kill grizzlies. When they had lassoed one they would drag him to a tree, and the well-trained horse would hold the bear against it while the hunter slipped out of the saddle, ran up, and killed the grizzly with one stroke of his broad-bladed machete, or Mexican hunting knife. One Spanish gentlemen riding after a large grizzly lassoed it and was dragged into a deep barranca. Horse and man fell on the bear, and astonished him so much that he scrambled up the bank, and the hunter cut the reata and gladly enough let him go. There were many cases of herdsmen and hunters being killed by grizzlies, and one could fill a volume with stories of feats of courage and of mastery of the reata. The governor of California appointed expert bear hunters in different parts of the country, who spent their time in destroying them, by pits, or shooting, or with the reata. Don Rafael Soto, one of the most famous of these men used to conceal himself in a pit, covered with heavy logs and leaves, with a quarter of freshly killed beef above. When the grizzly bear walked on the logs he was shot from beneath. Before the feast- days the hunters sometimes went to the foothills and brought several bears to turn into the bull-fighting corral, The principal bull- fights were held at Easter and on the day of the patron saint of the Mission, which at the Mission San José was March 19. Young gentlemen who had trained for the contest entered the ring on foot and on horseback, after the Mexican manner. In the bull and bear fights a hind foot of the bear was often tied to the forefoot of the bull, to equalize the struggle, for a large grizzly was more than a match for the fiercest bull in California, or indeed of any other country. Bull and bear fights continued as late as 1855. The Indians were the most ardent supporters of this cruel sport.

The days of the rodeos, when cattle were driven in from the surrounding pastures, and the herds of the different ranches were separated, were notable episodes. The ranch owners elected three or five juezes del campo to govern the proceedings and decide disputes. After the rodeo there was a feast. The great feast-days, however, were December 12 (the day of our Lady Guadalupe), Christmas, Easter, and St. Joseph’s Day, or the day of the patron saint of the Mission.

Family life among the old Spanish pioneers was an affair of dignity and ceremony, but it did not lack in affection. Children were brought up with great respect for their elders. It was the privilege of any elderly person to correct young people by words, or even by whipping them, and it was never told that any one thus chastised made a complaint. Each one of the old families taught their children the history of the family, and reverence toward religion. A few books, some in manuscript, were treasured in the household, but children were not allowed to read novels until were grown. They saw little of other children, except their near relatives, but they had many enjoyments unknown to children now, and they grew up with remarkable strength and healthfulness.

In these days of trade, bustle, and confusion, when many thousands of people live in the Californian valleys, which formerly were occupied by only a few Spanish families, the quiet and happy domestic life of the past seem like a dream. We, who loved it, often speak of those days, and especially of the duties of the large Spanish households, where so many, dependents were to be cared for, and everything was done in a simple and primitive way.

There was a group of warm springs a few miles distant from the old adobe house in which we lived. It made us children happy to be waked before sunrise to prepare for the “wash-day expedition” to the Agua Caliente. The night before the Indians had soaped the clumsy carretas great wheels. Lunch was placed in baskets, and the gentle oxen were yoked to the pole. We climbed in, under the green cloth of an old Mexican flag which was used as an awning, and the white-haired Indian ganan, who had driven the carreta since his boyhood, plodded beside with his long garrocha, or ox-goad. The great piles of soiled linen were fastened on the backs of horses, led by other servants, while the girls and women who were to do the washing trooped along by the side of the carreta. All in all, it made an imposing cavalcade, though our progress was slow, and it was generally sunrise before we had fairly reached the spring. The oxen pulled us up the slope of the ravine, where it was so steep that we often cried, “Mother, let us dismount and walk, so as to make it easier.” The steps of the carreta so low that we could climb, in, or out without stopping the oxen. The watchful mother guided the whole party, seeing that none strayed too far after flowers, or loitered too long talking with the others. Sometimes we heard the howl of coyotes, and the noise of other wild animals in the dim dawn, and then none of the children were allowed to leave the carreta.

A great dark mountain rose behind the hot spring, and the broad, beautiful valley, unfenced, and dotted with browsing herds, sloped down to the bay as we climbed the cañon to where columns of white steam rose among the oaks, and the precious waters, which were strong with sulphur, were seen flowing over the crusted basin, and falling down a worn rock channel to the brook. Now on these mountain slopes for miles are the vineyards of Josiah Stanford, the brother of Senator Leland Stanford, and the valley below is filled with towns and orchards.

We watched the women unload the linen and carry it to the upper spring of the group, where the water was best. Then they loosened the horses, and let the pasture on the wild oats, while the women put home-made soap on the clothes, dipped them in the spring, and rubbed them on the smooth rocks until they were white as snow. Then they would spread out to dry on the tops of the low bushes growing on the warm, windless, southern slopes of the mountain. There was sometimes a great deal of linen to be washed, for it was the pride of every Spanish family to own much linen, and the mother and daughters almost always wore white. I have heard strangers speak of the wonderful way in which Spanish ladies of the upper classes in California always appeared in snow-white dresses, and certainly to do so was one of the chief anxieties of every household. Where there were no warm springs the servants of the family repaired to the nearest arroyo, or creek, and stood knee-deep in it, dipping and rubbing the linen, and enjoying the sport. In the rainy season the soiled linen sometimes accumulated for several weeks before the weather permitted the house mistress to have a wash-day. Then, when at last it came, it seemed as if half the village, with dozens of babies and youngsters, wanted to go along too and make a spring picnic.

The group of hot sulphur-springs, so useful on wash-days, was a famed resort for sick people, who drank the water, and also buried themselves up to the neck in the soft mud of the slope below the spring, where the waste waters ran. Their friends brought them in litters and scooped out a hole for them, then put boughs overhead to shelter them from the hot sun, and placed food and fresh water within reach, leaving them sometimes thus from sunrise to sunset. The Paso Robles and Gilroy Springs were among the most famous on the coast in those days, and after the annual rodeos people often went there to camp and to use the waters. But many writers have told about the medicinal virtues of the various California springs, and I need not enlarge upon the subject. To me, at least, one of the dearest of my childish memories is the family expedition from the great thick-walled adobe, under the olive and fig trees of the Mission, to the Agua Caliente in early dawn, and the late return at twilight, when the younger children were all asleep in the slow carreta, and the Indians were signing hymns as they drove the linen-laden horses down the dusky ravines.

Go to Part I of “Ranch and Mission Days.”


The Century Magazine
December 1890

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