For many years ranchos defined the early California lifestyle. Their impact remains with us today.
- 1 What is a Rancho?
- 2 Spanish Ranchos
- 3 What was the Rancho Period?
- 4 How Many Ranchos are in California?
- 5 What Was the Purpose of the Ranchos?
- 6 The Rancho Economy
- 7 Who Were the Rancheros?
- 8 Native American Ranchos
- 9 Who Worked on the Ranchos?
- 10 Vaqueros
- 11 Danger
- 12 Daily Life on California Ranchos
- 13 Free Time and Entertainment
- 14 California Rancho Houses
- 15 Ranchos and Hospitality
- 16 The End of the Rancho Period
- 17 Popular Ranchos in California
- 18 Learn More About Ranchos in California
What is a Rancho?
Rancho is a Spanish word that has many meanings, but most refer to a place where people gather. During the Spanish colonial period in the Americas it became associated with a place for raising cattle and other livestock. This is still its meaning today throughout Latin America.
In Spanish and Mexican California a rancho mainly meant a cattle farm. There were a small number of private ranchos during the Spanish period.
After it began colonizing California, the Spanish government established ranchos for grazing cattle near the presidios. These were managed by the military and were usually called Rancho del Rey or “the King’s Ranch.” Later, after Mexican independence, they were known as Rancho de la Nación or “the Nation’s Ranch.”
What was the Rancho Period?
Most ranchos in California originated as land that the Mexican government awarded to people after the breakup of the mission system, or secularization. This led to the rancho period in California.
When people talk about the “rancho period” in California, they usually mean the time between the 1830s and the 1850s. This is the time in which the Mexican government distributed lands that had been under the control of the missions to private individuals. It did this through a process of land grants from the territorial government in Alta California.
How Many Ranchos are in California?
Over a period of about 60 years, the Spanish and Mexican governments made about 500 land grants for ranchos in California. Of these, only about 30 originated during the Spanish period (1769-1822), while most came about during the Mexican era (1822-1848).
What Was the Purpose of the Ranchos?
During the Spanish period, the purpose of the ranchos was to raise livestock, primarily cattle, and provide food for the presidios. After Mexican independence, the ranchos mainly provided a livelihood for the people that owned and worked on them. Over the years, raising cattle and other livestock became the main activity in Alta California and created the rancho economy.
The Rancho Economy
The buying and selling of products made from cattle raised on California ranchos was what came to be known as the “rancho economy.”
Along with meat, cattle provided hides that could be converted into many products. Leather goods, such as saddles and ropes (reatas), were very important for the frontier life of Alta California. Hides would also be stretched and dried, then folded and stored, to be put on merchant ships from the east coast of the U.S. They would then be sold in cities like Boston, New York and Philadelphia for shoes or belts for industrial machinery.
Along with meat and hides, fat from the cattle was an important product. It could be melted into tallow for making things such as soap and candles. Because hides and tallow were so valuable, the hide and tallow trade became the foundation of the rancho economy. In this way, some rancheros or rancho owners, became very wealthy.
Who Were the Rancheros?
Rancheros were people who had been loyal to Spain or Mexico, and had shown that they were capable of farming the land in a productive way. The first rancheros were soldiers who had come to the region as early as 1769. Most, though, were settlers whose families had come to Alta California in the 1770s with Juan Bautista de Anza. After Mexican independence, they called themselves Californios, because they felt closely connected to the land of California.
Native American Ranchos
Although it was mainly Californios — as the Hispanic settlers called themselves — who requested lands under the new laws, a number of Indians also received grants for ranchos. Many of these were in Northern California, such as Olompali, near the town of Novato, Rancho Ulistac in Santa Clara, and Rancho Posolmi near what is today Mountain View.
Who Worked on the Ranchos?
Each rancho needed a staff of workers to operate it. There were people who maintained the household, cleaning, sewing and working in the kitchen. Depending on the types of crops grown on the rancho, there were those who worked in vineyards and orchards, or cared for crops like corn or wheat. Just like in the missions, there might also be carpenters, cobblers or blacksmiths for building or repairing tools.
But the main activity of ranchos was raising livestock, especially cattle. So the key workers on the ranch were the cowboys or vaqueros. They were responsible for protecting the herds, moving the cows to good pastures, as well as slaughtering, butchering them and processing their hides. The vaquero truly played an essential role on the rancho.
Because the did all their work on horseback, the California vaqueros earned a reputation as top-notch horsemen. Rancho visitors from the U.S. were often very impressed by the skills of the vaqueros. One traveler noted,
“The men are almost constantly on horseback, and as horseman excel any I have seen in other parts of the world. From the nature of their pursuits and amusements, they have brought horsemanship to a perfection challenging admiration and exciting astonishment.”
The majority of rancho workers were Native Americans. They performed almost all of the roles, including working as vaqueros. Most were Christian Indians who learned their skills while living at the missions. Some also came from non-Christian villages or tribes. They were also trained in the different rancho chores. Indian labor was essential to making the ranchos what they were.
Working on a rancho could be very hazardous. There were accidents and injuries when dealing with large domestic animals like horses and cattle, but there were many wild animals to contend with. Grizzly bears roamed the foothills and valleys of California and often preyed on cattle, while smaller animals like rattlesnakes were just as deadly. Sometimes hostile Native American groups would raid livestock herds. This would often lead to violence when the rancheros pursued the Indians to recover their livestock.
Grizzly bears roamed the foothills and valleys of California and often preyed on cattle, while smaller animals like rattlesnakes were just as deadly. Sometimes hostile Native American groups would raid livestock herds. This would often lead to violence when the rancheros pursued the Indians to recover their livestock.
Daily Life on California Ranchos
Daily life on the ranchos basically followed the same pattern as the routine at the missions.
Each day would begin with a breakfast of atole, a type of porridge. After breakfast each person would go to work on his or her particular occupation until midday.
At midday everyone would gather for lunch, often a bowl of pozole, a hearty stew. Lunch would often be followed by a nap or siesta, as was common all over Spain and Latin America. Sometimes workers and their families spent time socializing and relaxing.
They would return to their occupations around 3pm until just before sunset, which was they end of the workday. After work, people gathered for supper, which was often similar to the lunch meal. They then spent the rest of the evening together, until going to bed around midnight.
Free Time and Entertainment
Although life on a rancho involved plenty of hard work, there was also time for entertainment and socializing. Rancho dwellers enjoyed singing, dancing, playing cards and telling stories.
A very popular form of entertainment was the fandango. The fandango was named for a dance with origins in Spain. In Alta California and Mexico, the word “fandango” also came to refer to a party where people danced together. Men and women would dress in their finest clothes dance all sorts of dances including the jota vieja and the contradanza. Wealthy rancho families often organized fandangos that would last late into the night or early morning.
Family events such as baptisms and weddings were also important occasions for gathering together and celebrating. Wedding celebrations would often last for days at a time, and the family hosting the event would invite everyone living within many miles.
Some of the more popular forms of entertainment took place outdoors. As in most Spanish-speaking countries, bullfights were very popular. These weren’t as elaborate as those in the big cities of Spain and Mexico, but mostly involved releasing an angry bull in an enclosed arena. As the bull ran around, young men dressed in bright colors tried to avoid the bull’s horns. Sometimes the bull was killed, though other times it was set out to pasture.
Bear and bull fights were another popular pastime. A bull and a bear were tied together by one leg, and the two animals fought until the other was killed. Visitors to Mexican California mentioned seeing this sport take place in ranches and pueblos all over the territory.
California Rancho Houses
In the beginning, most rancho houses were simple huts of earth, grass and branches or reeds. As the ranchos became more successful, their owners were able to have homes made out of adobe bricks and even timber. These homes would be usually low, one-story structures, though larger or wealthier families would sometimes have two story buildings. Most homes had an inner patio or courtyard, where the family activity would take place, as well as an outdoor kitchen for preparing and cooking meals.
The Alta California rancho house would later inspire the home style throughout the western U.S. known as the “ranch style” house.
Ranchos and Hospitality
Visitors to Spanish and Mexican ranchos often commented on the hospitality of their hosts. Because of the distances between ranchos and the dangers of traveling in the open territory, ranchos always opened their doors to travelers. According to Teresa de la Guerra, a woman who grew up on a rancho in Southern California,
“Travelers knew that all Californio rancho owners freely offered hospitality to whomever happened to appear at their doorstep.”– Teresa de la Gerra
Guests would receive food and a place to sleep, and even horses to ride if they needed them. Hospitality and a warm welcome to visitors was a hallmark of rancho life on the California frontier.
The End of the Rancho Period
The era of California ranchos ended shortly after the U.S.-Mexico War. When California became part of the United States, rancho owners needed to prove to the U.S. government that the land belonged to them. Because it was very costly to hire lawyers to defend their property, most rancheros wound up selling off their land to pay their expenses. By the end of the 1860’s, most of the ranchos in California had been broken up and sold to new owners.
Popular Ranchos in California
While most ranchos in California were broken up over a century ago, you can visit some of their original sites to better understand life during the rancho era. Many have become state parks or historical monuments open to the public.
Rancho Camulos (Ventura County)
One of the most famous ranchos in California is Rancho Camulos, located in Ventura County. The name comes from the Chumash word for juniper. It was originally part of Rancho San Francisco, granted to Antonio del Valle in 1833. For more information, visit ranchocamulos.org.
Rancho San Pedro (Los Angeles County)
Juan José Domínguez received Rancho San Pedro before 1799. It was one of the earliest grants in Alta California and part of it has continued in the hands of his descendants. It was also the site of one of the battles of the U.S.-Mexico War. Visitors today can tour the Dominguez Rancho Adobe Museum. For more information visit dominguezrancho.org.
Rancho Petaluma (Sonoma County)
Home of Gen. Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, Rancho Petaluma was originally granted by Gov. Manuel Micheltorena in 1834. At the time it was built, Vallejo’s rancho adobe was the largest in northern Alta California. The adobe today is a state historic park open to visitors. Find more information at the California State Parks’ page on the Petaluma Adobe.
Pío Pico Rancho/Rancho Paso de Bartolo (Los Angeles County)
Originally granted to Crispín Pérez in 1835, this rancho eventually became the home of Pío Pico, Mexican California’s last governor. Pico used to call it “El Ranchito” since, although it was over 8,000 acres, it was small compared to the other properties he owned. Today the rancho adobe and surrounding property is a State Historic Park. Find more information at the California State Parks’ page on Pío Pico SHP.
Learn More About Ranchos in California
Townspeople and Ranchers of the California Mission Frontier by Jack S. Williams and Thomas L. Davis. An excellent introduction to the lives of settlers and rancheros in Alta California. Aimed at schoolchildren, it will be useful to anyone wanting to learn about the rancho lifestyle.
These were the Vaqueros by Arnold Rojas. An informative and enjoyable book full of tales of the California vaqueros by someone who lived the vaquero life.
Californios by Jo Mora. This beautifully illustrated book by artist and former vaquero Jo Mora is a wonderful, if somewhat romantic, introduction to rancho life.
Vineyards and Vaqueros by George Harwood Phillips. This in-depth, but highly readable academic study of Indian labor in Southern California provides many well-researched details about the rancho economy.
Carefree California: Cliff May and the Romance of the Ranch House. A book dedicated to the architectural style that has come to define the California suburbs: the ranch home. Cliff May, who made the ranch-style home famous, was a descendant of early California rancheros who wanted to pay homage to his ancestors’ lifestyle.
 Bryant, What I Saw in California, p. 447 qtd in Phillips, Vineyards and Vaqueros, 221-222.
 Testimonios, pp. 63-64