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The Rancho Era Experience 1820-1848


Life on the early California ranchos under Mexican rule may only have lasted for just under 30 years, but it shaped the culture of California and is evident today in the architecture, gardens, and festivities enjoyed as the core of the "California Style'. The powerful Mexican families who came to California and established ranchos of many thousands of acres, who offered work for the poor laborers and tried to convert the remaining Native Americans to Catholicism shaped a land that today bears street names, historic buildings, and statues in their names.

Historic accounts of life on the ranchos paints a picture of sprawling adobe haciendas with red tile roofs, and are glowingly described in the famous novel Ramona, written in 1884 by Helen Hunt Jackson : " Besides the geraniums and carnations and musk in the red jars, there were many sorts of climbing vines - some coming from the ground; some growing in great bowls, swung by cords from the roof of the veranda, or set on shelves against the walls. These bowls were made of grey stone, hollowed and polished, shining smooth inside and out. They also had been made by the Indians, nobody knew how many ages ago ."

"A wide straight walk shaded by a trellis so knotted and twisted with grapevines that little was to be seen of the trellis woodwork, led straight down from the veranda steps, through the middle of the garden, to a little brook at the foot of it. Between the veranda and the river meadows, out on which it looked, all was garden, orange grove, and almond orchard; the orange grove was always green, never without a snowy bloom or golden fruit; the garden never without flowers, summer or winter; and the almond orchard, in early spring, a fluttering canopy of pink and white petals, which, seen from the hills on the opposite side of the river, looked as if rosy sunrise clouds had fallen, and become tangled in the tree tops. On either hand stretched away other orchards - peach, apricot, pear, apple pomegranate; and beyond these, vineyards. Nothing was to be seen but verdure or bloom or fruit, at whatever time of year you sat on the Senora's south veranda."

The rancho era saw the first notable towns developed in California, commerce established by a merchant class, and a strong ranching economy established by the Mexican land owners. And the Mission system, no longer supported directly by the Spanish church, came to rely on these landowners and merchants as their new patrons, and in return for their role as benefactors of the Catholic Missions, the Mexican families gained even more power and prestige in the growing communities. The Mexican families were descendents of the first Spanish colonizers of the New World, and brought both old world and new world skills, abilities, and aesthetics to Alta California during the Rancho Era.

Along with this prosperity came increased trade through out California and merchant ships carrying supplies between Monterey and San Francisco to the north and down to Mexico. California's Pacific waters were also the highways for pirates and smugglers during the rancho era.

A famous autobiography from this time period records a sailors visit to the Channel and islands. It is titled "Two year before the Mast' and was written by Richard Henry Dana, Jr. in 1840 and recounts the story of his new World adventures from Boston to California on board a trading ship 1934-36. An excerpt from these noteworthy book is available in Coyote's Storytelling Center in the Camp. The following passage is a short excerpt from the longer chapter you can find in the Storytelling Center.

" California extends nearly the whole of the western coast of Mexico, between the Gulf of California, in the south, and the Bay of San Francisco on the north, or between the 22nd and 38th degrees north latitude. It is subdivided into two provinces - Lower or Old California, lying between the gulf and the 32nd degree of latitude .. and new or Upper California. " California was clearly recognized with different boundaries than today. Its southernmost point during the Rancho Era was the tip of the Baja peninsula, and the northernmost point was San Francisco Bay.