What type of culture developed among settlers in Alta California? What did they call themselves? How did they live under Mexico and Spain? And how did they respond to American rule?
In time, soldiers, settlers and their descendants began to develop a unique culture in Alta California. The fact that Alta California remained fairly isolated contributed to a sense of pride at their uniqueness among Hispanic residents. They came to call themselves Californios or hijos del país (sons of the land). This was often to distinguish themselves from officials who would be sent from distant Mexico City.
Some of the hallmarks of this special Californio culture were hospitality and welcoming and toward strangers and travelers, a great respect for the value of family relationships, and a strong sense of self-reliance.
Californio culture was also a horse culture. Young children learned to ride from an early age. Visitors to Alta California commented about horsemanship of the Californios. “There are probably no better riders in the world. They are put on a horse went only four or five years old. Their little legs not long enough to come halfway over the sides, it might almost be said to keep on him until they have grown to him” (Richard Henry Dana, Richard Henry Dana Jr.: Two Years Before the Mast ).
Despite their sense of local pride, Californios generally saw themselves as loyal members of the Spanish empire. Later, they accepted Mexican independence from Spain and swore allegiance to the new country. According to testimonies from Californios later in the 19th century, their lives did not change a great deal with the new government, at least initially.
With time, however, a growing sense of estrangement from the central government began to take root, especially amongst more prominent members of Californio society. The distance from the capital in Mexico city, the geographical isolation, and the sense of resentment towards government meddling in local affairs begin to make themselves felt more strongly amongst the people who had grown up in Alta California.
Resistance to the Central Government
In the 1840s, resistance to the imposition of governors from the outside became violent. Califoria-born hijos del país such as Juan Alvarado, Pío Pico and José Castro led an uprising against Mexican-born governor and army general Manuel Micheltorena. After a series of confrontations, Micheltorena eventually left the territory. This resulted in the naming of Pío Pico as governor of Alta California in 1845.
Although the Californios asserted their identity what they saw as interference by the Mexican government, they never declared independence from Mexico. During the 1840s, though, Alta California, with its excellent weather, fertile land and hospitable inhabitants, became the object of great interest for Anglo-Americans from further east.
Throughout the 19th century, Californios had generally been very welcoming of immigrants, especially those who were willing to settle in the area and marry into local families. Most of these had come by ship from the East Coast of the U.S., and had assimilated into Californio society. They learned Spanish and adopted Roman Catholicism as their religion.
By the mid-1840s, however, the number of Americans entering the territory increased exponentially, and many were not willing to be absorbed into Californio society. With the success of Texas’ separation from Mexico and inclusion into the U.S., many newcomers saw this as a viable model for Alta California.
The U.S. – Mexico War
When war broke out between the U.S. and Mexico 1846, immigrants from the U.S., who hoped to take Alta California from Mexico, had the full backing of U.S. military power. President James K. Polk sent the U.S. Army and Navy to seize control of Alta California.
Many Californios fought hard against the American takeover. Others believed it better to adapt to U.S. rule, as they had adapted to Mexican rule. No matter what side they chose, the war was over soon. By 1848 Californios were officially under the jurisdiction of a new government. The U.S. and Mexico signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ceded a large amount of territory in Northern Mexico to the United States.
The years immediately following the conclusion of hostilities between in the U.S. and Mexico were particularly challenging to Californios. With the discovery of gold in the Sierra foothills, hundreds of thousands of treasure-seekers and prospectors flooded into the territory. Very soon California’s Hispanic residents were in the minority.
Under U.S. Rule
After having been the dominant class of people in Alta California since the 18th century, Hispanic Californians now found themselves on the margins culturally, linguistically and economically. Their land holdings became the target of squatters and unscrupulous real estate speculators. They found themselves struggling to defend their interests. Without understanding the U.S. legal system, they often had to rely on unscrupulous lawyers to defend them. Many families didn’t have cash. So despite their large land holdings, they wound up selling off portions of their land simply to be able to pay their legal bills. By the 1870s, many Californio families had lost everything.
The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo offered full citizenship rights to Alta California’s Hispanic residents. Nevertheless, Californios were often viewed with suspicion by their new neighbors. They were labeled as lazy or shifty or uncivilized. Much of this stemmed from the language barrier that existed between both groups. Most Californios did not speak English and very few of the new immigrants spoke Spanish.
Nevertheless, most Californios did their best to adapt to the new circumstances. Many of their children became fluent in English and even married Anglo-Americans. Some of the more prominent families, such as the Picos and the Vallejos, were able to retain some of their land holdings, and even become active in public service.
Revival of Californio Heritage
In the early twentieth century, Californians began to develop an interest in their state’s Spanish heritage. Some of it stemmed from the popularity of novels such as Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona. Her novel sought to correct injustices against California’s Indian population and looked fondly on the Hispanic past. Some of it was undoubtedly due to the successive waves of immigrants. Many of them wanted to show that California was not only a place for the descendants of Northern Europeans. Cities such as Santa Barbara began to organize festivals and parades to celebrate the heritage of the Californios.
Today thousands of people can claim Californio ancestry. There are organizations, such as Los Californianos, that aid descendants in researching their ancestry and maintaining pride in their family histories. They organize events and actively participate in commemorations of early California history. They often serve as docents at historical sights, or fighting to maintain and preserve historical buildings and artifacts.
Through their efforts, they remind people of the rich heritage of the early settlers of the California frontier.