The Rancho Era
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
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.