Who settled California? What was their life like? What were the first towns?
By the 1760s, Spanish officials, especially King Carlos III of Spain, had understood that in order to secure a foothold in the territory, a military presence was not enough. They would need settlers.
- 1 De Neve’s Plan
- 2 The Anza Party
- 3 The First Towns in Alta California: San José and Los Ángeles
- 4 The Families
- 5 Spanish Towns
- 6 Daily Life in Towns
- 7 Children of Settlers
- 8 Danger
- 9 Settlers Enjoyed Themselves
- 10 Ranchos
- 11 A Unique Culture
- 12 You Might Also Like...
De Neve’s Plan
And although some soldiers had married native women from the missions, these couples were few in number. So the governor of California, Felipe de Neve, created a plan to bring more families to the territory.
Part of his plan was to find a way to people transport people and supplies up to Alta California by land, so that settlements would not only be dependent on ships and sea routes up the turbulent coastline.
Governor Neve set out to attract people from what is today northern Mexico to travel north and establish themselves in Alta California near the presidios and missions, forming towns like the ones in the rest of Latin America.
The Anza Party
The first group that came north was led by the intrepid military commander Juan Bautista de Anza, who, thanks to the help of native guide Sebastián Tarabal and chief Salvador Palma, had opened up a land route from what is today southern Arizona all the way to northern Alta California.
Along with a group of over 200 men, women and children, Anza left what is today southern Arizona in 1775 and traveled overland, reaching the San Francisco Bay region in 1776 and founding the Presidio of San Francisco that year.
For more information on presidios, read “Soldiers and Presidios in Alta California.”
The First Towns in Alta California: San José and Los Ángeles
Soon after, Governor Neve instructed José Joaquín Moraga, the commander of the Presidio of San Francisco, to bring a small group of families to establish a town about 50 miles south, along the banks of the Guadalupe River. On November 29, 1777 they founded the pueblo or town of San José de Guadalupe, named after Moraga’s patron saint, St. Joseph. San José would be the first civil settlement in Alta California, and evolve into what is today a city of over 1,000,000 inhabitants.
Governor Neve, not content with he amount of agricultural production from the Pueblo of San José, soon ordered the formation of another group of colonists. He asked military commander Fernando de Rivera y Moncada to recruit another group of settlers and soldiers from the provinces of Sonora and Sinaloa. They would come north with him, following the trail Anza had used.
In 1781 Rivera y Moncada arrived with 14 families and 60 soldiers, settling near the banks of the Porciúncula River (today the Los Angeles River) near the San Gabriel Mission. There, they founded the pueblo of Los Ángeles, the second civilian town in Alta California, and eventually the largest city on the West Coast.
These two pueblos would be the last large-scale settlements were attempted in Spanish Alta California, since the land route from northern Sonora that Anza had Rivera had taken became closed soon after.
Villa de Branciforte and the Hijar-Padrés Colony
In 1797, Governor Diego de Borica was however, able to bring seven or eight families to found Villa de Branciforte, near Mission Santa Cruz. Unlike San José and Los Angeles, Branciforte was beset by difficulties from its founding, and was eventually disbanded. The last organized settlement took place in Mexican Alta California, with the arrival of the Hijar-Padrés party in 1834, which was not well-received by the established settlers and eventually was disbanded.
The families that came to settle in Alta California might not have known how important they were to Spanish strategic goals, but they all came with a thirst to start a new and better life for themselves and their families.
Most came from the territories of Sonora, Sinaloa and southern Baja California. Most were of mixed ethnicity, while some were of full European, Indian, or African descent.
The men were mainly soldiers, though some had specialized professions like muleteer, carpenter, armorer or shoemaker. These professions were very important in order to have self-sustaining pueblos.
By the time the first towns or pueblos were established in Alta California, the Spanish had a tradition of town building stretching back thousands of years. From the times of the Phoenicians and Greeks, through the Roman occupation, the Spanish had absorbed the traditions of the peoples that had settled the Iberian Peninsula, blending them into a unique culture.
Later, during the Middle Ages, the establishment of new towns had become an important part of the Reconquista, as Christian kingdoms won back territories that had been taken during the Moorish invasion. It was especially during the late 15th century, when Spain became a unified nation, that the pattern for establishing towns was truly solidified.
The first towns in California were established during the reign of Carlos III, the king of Spain, who had a keen sense of the importance of towns.
Towns such as San José and Los Ángeles were generally arranged as a series of houses (for many years mainly huts) organized around a central plaza. There would also be a church nearby. Each family was provided a piece a land in town (a solar) on which to build a house, and a piece of land outside of town (a suerte) on which to raise crops. Just outside of town there were community lands to be used to graze livestock or for other purposes.
The town’s affairs were to be overseen by an alcalde, who was both a mayor and judge, together with a town council, called a cabildo or ayuntamiento, which was the typical arrangement in Spanish towns since the Middle Ages.
Daily Life in Towns
In accordance with the need to work the land, daily life in towns and settlements followed an agricultural rhythm, similar to that of native people at the missions. Families would wake up early and share a meal of atole, a type of porridge made from corn and prepared by the women. After breakfast, the men and older boys would go to work tending the ranchos or farms.
The duties would change depending on the seasons. If the rancho was larger or the family was more well off, they would also have the help of Indians who would be hired to work as cowboys (vaqueros) or farm hands.
While the men were working in the fields, women would attend to tasks around the home, though depending on the time of year and the necessity, they would also work in the fields.
Around midday everyone would take a break for a meal and a siesta and return to work around 3pm until sunset, after which time they would have supper.
Children of Settlers
Children participated fully in the labors of the rancho, doing tasks and chores suitable to their age. As they grew older, their responsibilities increased, and by the time they were teenagers, they could carry out most of the adult tasks.
Where possible, children attended school, especially the boys. However, on the frontier this was not always possible, especially for the poorer families, so it was common for children to grow up not knowing how to read and write, especially in the early years.
It was also not uncommon for children to grow up speaking not only Spanish, but also the local native languages, due to frequent contact with Indian people.
Children also grew up aware of the dangers of frontier life. Because of the lack of doctors on the frontier, infectious diseases could sweep through communities. Children were especially vulnerable to these illnesses and many families lost young children to epidemics.
Life on the frontier could be risky for other reasons. Alta California was home to a number of large predators, including grizzly bears, mountain lions and wolves, not to mention smaller dangerous animals such as rattlesnakes. Adults had to constantly be on guard against such animals, and men always went about armed with lances, knives and at times muskets or pistols.
Settlers’ relations with local native tribes also could turn violent, especially when natives resentful of the Spanish presence would attack settlements or steal livestock and horses.
Settlers Enjoyed Themselves
Despite the dangerous nature of frontier life, settlers knew how to enjoy themselves. People would pass their free time telling stories and jokes and singing. Many could play an instrument like the guitar. Whenever there was an occasion, families would organize parties that would last late into the night with much music and many types of dances. Wedding celebrations would last for days, and since everyone knew each other and were joined by family bonds, everyone in the local area would attend.
Often men would often display their horsemanship skills through various types of competitions and events. More violent types of frontier entertainment were also well-liked. Bullfights were especially popular, as they were all over Spain and Latin America. A particular type of frontier amusement was the bear and bull fight, where a bear and a bull were tied together and made to battle each other.
In addition to the small parcels of land that each settler received, from time to time the government would grant larger tracts to soldiers who had retired and served with distinction. These lands would become ranchos, and the soldiers would receive cattle and horses, and would plant crops such as wheat and barley.
After Mexican independence, and especially after mission secularization, the number of retired soldiers and settlers who received land grants multiplied, and many of the names of cities and towns in California are derived from the names of these ranchos.
A Unique Culture
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).