Secularization and the Ranchos, 1826-1846

by MaryEllen Ryan and Gary S. Breschini, Ph.D.

This essay is oriented toward missions San Luis Obispo and San Miguel, but the pattern of events was similar in Monterey County.

The rich and valuable lands held by the missions had long been a sore point among newly independent Mexican citizens who felt that all California lands, not only the government sponsored pueblos and the few grazing tracts granted to a select group of favorites, should be opened up to settlement. Consequently, increasing pressure was brought upon the government to recognize the temporary intention of the missions under the old Spanish Laws of the Indies governing their original establishment, and to support colonization attempts such as those envisioned by secularization proponents Jose Maria Padres and Jose Maria Hijar. Governor Echeandia issued decrees in 1826, 1830, and 1831 that weakened Indian dependence of the missions and set in motion the process of secularization of the 21 Alta California missions. The orders were immediately revoked by his successor. They were replaced by a secularization law adopted by the Mexican Congress in 1833. Finally, Governor Figueroa's proclamation of August 9, 1834, defined an immediate plan for secularization and dispersement of mission property.

The secularization plan provided to each mission resident head of family a lot 100 to 400 varas square and entitlement to the use of mission common lands, as well as a portion of the mission livestock, chattel, tools, seeds, and property. A civil administrator was appointed to inventory and apply the remaining mission property to pay outstanding debts and incurred expenses of secularization and civil maintenance. The padres were given charge of the church itself, its library and furnishings, and allowed a dwelling at the mission, and were to receive an annual salary as curates. The mission assets were also to cover church expenses and servants, as Indians were freed by the decree from their role as personal servants to the padres.

In spite of the decreed purpose to release mission Indians from conditions of near slavery and dependence and to open the land for settlement by petitioners, the immediate effects of secularization throughout California were to deprive a large percentage of the remaining mission Indians of their rightful property, and to disperse mission property quickly, frequently without regard for legal process, to a relatively few fortunately situated individuals. Few studies have been done of the precise manner in which mission property was redistributed, but Leonard Blomquist in a 1943 thesis relied exclusively on prestatehood documents of the period to piece together the following (greatly abbreviated) account for Missions San Luis Obispo and San Miguel.

Prior to Echeandia's 1831 decree, Mission San Luis Obispo properties were already suffering from a loss of laborers, due to the aged, greatly depleted mission community. Constant raids on the mission herds by non-missionized eastern tribes, as well as by soldiers attracted to each of the continuous insurrection movements against the comic-opera government had reduced the wealth of the livestock to a fraction of its former numbers. Between 1831 and 1834, the buildings crumbled from lack of repair, tremendous losses in livestock were attributed to thievery and illicit dealing between neophytes and traders, and the church itself was robbed of valuable sacristy articles. In addition, the padres were plagued by traders who set up camp near the mission and sold aguardiente (a type of strong distilled liquor) to the natives. Things did not improve with secularization, as among the first results of civil control was the appearance of a schoolteacher appointed by the governor. The schoolteacher proceeded to scandalize and physically threaten the resident padre, who retreated to Mission San Miguel and refused to return.

By 1835, Manuel Trujillo had been appointed mayordomo (superintendent), responsible for reviewing the neophytes petitions for mission food and goods. Trujillo was soon maligned by Father Abella, who, with the padres from Mission San Antonio and Mission San Miguel, drafted a letter to the Governor at Monterey claiming to represent Indian complaints over their poor treatment at Trujillo's hands, and requesting that authority be returned to the mission padres. This was apparently a great surprise to the Indians who delivered the document, who thought they were entering a complaint about the distribution of horses between ranchos. Investigations consisting of interviews with the Indians away from Trujillo's presence showed that the Indians were unwilling to complain, and were at that point satisfied with the administration. In 1836 the mission assets were inventoried by Trujillo and Santiago Estrada, and were shown to have increased during Trujillo's administration. The mission assets underwent a steady drop from that point until 1837, when there was nothing at all left in assets other than the crumbling buildings themselves.

In 1837, Rancho Santa Manuela, containing the Arroyo Grande mission dwelling erected in 1809 was granted to Francis Branch, an American born Mexican citizen living in Santa Barbara. He erected a log and tule house and brought his Mexican wife, Manuela Carlona, and their child to the rancho the same year. In 1839 Miguel Avila petitioned for Rancho San Miguelito, former mission lands on San Luis Bay. This was granted with several boundary adjustments and conditions in 1842.

In 1839, Governor Alvarado appointed William Hartnell to the newly created post of visitador (an inspector whose duty it was to see that the regulations of secularization were carried out as ordered at each mission). Hartnell visited Mission San Luis Obispo on July 30-31, 1839. He reported on the mission holdings, and listened to Indian fears that the Rancho Corral de Piedra, on which were gathered all of the mission cattle previously assigned to them from the mission property, would be granted out from under them. Following his visit, he urged Governor Alvarado to comply with the wishes of the Indians and grant them the rancho, that they might continue to raise cattle there.

In 1840, Alvarado attempted to correct abuses of the secularization process that were decimating the resources of many missions by reducing the power of the administrator, and retained Hartnell to install and enforce the new system. Hartnell resigned under the pressure, and returned to his home near the present site of Salinas. In April 1840, horse thieves from the Colorado River country drove 1,000 of San Luis Obispo's dwindling herd at a run to the Colorado River, killing most of them and finally abandoning the remainder under pursuit. Many of the collected survivors were lost on the return journey to San Luis Obispo. In October of the same year, Alvarado granted permission to Rafael Villavicencio to gather wild cattle from mission lands for his own use on his rancho near Cayucos. In November, Alvarado ordered the Indians still residing on Mission San Luis lands (numbering 170 in Hartnell's 1839 report) to prepare to take up residence with San Miguel Mission Indians, either in habitations of their own construction at San Miguel or in the rancherias (Indian villages) already existing there. He followed this order by granting the Indian's cattle ranch, Corral de Piedra, together with the cattle on it, to Jose Maria Villavicencio in December. (Villavicencio was well acquainted with the desirable mission land, as it was he who had brought secularization orders to Mission San Miguel in 1831.) The following spring, Joaquin Estrada petitioned for and received Rancho Santa Margarita, the mission wheat farm, which at that time, with its ruined chapel and warehouse building and the numerous Indian houses of adobe that surrounded it, was home to 100 Indians and their 300 cattle, 200 horses and 800 sheep, the entire remains of the once vast livestock herds. In 1842, Alvarado ordered small plots of the reduced mission lands near the mission complex reserved for "deserving" neophytes, while he prepared to colonize larger tracts with settlers. His successor, Governor Micheltorena, placed the mission under the jurisdiction of the Catholic Church in 1843.

In 1844, San Luis Obispo became a pueblo for colonization purposes, governed under the authority of the ayuntamiento (municipal government) at Monterey, and in 1845 the sale of certain missions was authorized by Governor Pio Pico. Under these regulations Mission San Luis Obispo was sold to Captain John Wilson for $510, leaving one acre containing the church, the priest's residence, and two gardens, along with the 4,157 acre Laguna Rancho in the hands of the Catholic Church.

Mission San Miguel fared little better during the same years. More of Blomquist's supportive data depends on reminiscences of the governmental figures involved and less on prestatehood documents, than with San Luis Obispo, perhaps somewhat coloring the facts. By his own account, the administrator of San Miguel spent his period of duty there between March 1837 and July 1842 rebuilding the mission herds, creating discipline and order from insolence and chaos, and improving the harvest to the point that the surplus exceeded all capacities to store grain and corn. However, when Hartnell visited in 1839, the San Miguel neophytes intercepted him at Rancho Paso de Robles with pleas to remove Ynocente Garcia from his post as administrator, as they feared losing the best of their allotted lands and mission property. The lands they cited were the Santa Rosa, where the neophytes kept all the cattle and horse herds (near present day Cambria); Rancho Asuncion, where there was a good house and garden; Paso de Robles with its large granary and fields sown to wheat and barley; and San Simeon, where there was a house, granaries, a chapel, the mission sheep, and grain fields that supplied the major part of the mission crop. They were more willing to part with the inland properties; Estrella, where Garcia was already allowing local rancheros to take hides from mission herds, Cholam, Canamo, Guerguero, and certain coast lands northwest of San Simeon.

Padre Moreno had written complaining that he had never received his salary as ordered, and was forced to purchase knives for the annual matanza (cattle slaughter) with his own funds, as the mission warehouses contained "no more than the poles." When inventoried early in 1837, mission holdings comprised the mission complex, shops for iron work, hats, shoes, woodworking and weaving, a soap house, soap-making vats, and a separate adobe tannery building. Of particular value was the vineyard, of which Alfred Robinson had spoken some years earlier, with its 4,000 bearing vines, and a tile roofed, three compartment adobe dwelling. Hartnell left Garcia with a long list of instructions including restrictions against the severity of lashings, orders restoring the Indian craftsmen and musicians to the mission complex from the ranges and fields where they had been deployed, and orders to pay the padre his salary and make his rooms habitable by repairing the roof. Four months later none of the orders had been complied with, and more violations had been added.

When granted to the Catholic Church in 1844, the mission holdings consisted of the abandoned church, minus its furnishings and records which had been taken for safekeeping by secular priests two years earlier, its garden, and two vineyards to the north. The Christainized Indians were granted three of the properties they had told Hartnell they did not want, Gallinas, Nacimiento, and Estrella, all adjoining the mission. Presumably, these were the lands upon which the San Luis and the San Miguel Indians were to consolidate their houses in 1840. A year later a decree was issued ordering the San Miguel Indians to occupy these lands or lose them; one month later the abandoned mission and nine adjoining leagues of arid land were appraised and ordered sold at public auction. There was no sale at that time, but William Reid and his family occupied one of the buildings to hold a claim for Padre Gomez, secular priest at San Luis Obispo. The following year, Reid and two partners purchased the property from Governor Pio Pico as he fled south upon receiving word of the American conquest. The sale was later declared invalid, and Reid with his family were brutally murdered at the mission in 1848 during a period of shocking violent crimes all over the new country.

The remaining San Miguel Mission ranchos were distributed as follows: Ynocente Garcia's son, Trifton, with Mariano Bonilla, government appointed clerk at San Miguel, petitioned for Rancho Assuncion in 1839, but were denied. They petitioned for lands including Rancho Guerguero, upon which Bonillo was residing in 1839, and this was granted in 1842. His managers suffered repeatedly from Indian raids, some with fatal consequences, until he sold the rancho to Francis Branch in 1847. The Rancho Santa Rosa, so desired by the Indians who had herded the mission cattle there in 1839, was granted to Julian Estrada in 1842. His brother Jose Ramon Estrada received the other greatly desired Indian cattle ranch, San Simeon, but was required as a condition of the grant to compensate the Indians living in the house there from commissary supplies of the San Luis District--presumably the products of both missions--which he controlled as prefect. Rancho Cholam was granted to Maurico Gonzales in 1844, but was abandoned quickly as it lay directly in the path of Tulare (Yokuts) Indian raids. Rancho Ysabel and Rancho del Paso de Robles were granted in 1844 to government officials then residing in Monterey, but they too suffered depredations of stock from the persistent Tulares. Rancho Assuncion, lying adjacent to San Luis' Rancho Margarita, and containing mission buildings, gardens, cattle, and sheep, was granted to a third Estrada brother, Pedro, in 1845, and a fourth Estrada brother managed the rancho for him as he attended his militia duties in Monterey (Blomquist 1943). The relationship of the four Estrada brothers to Joaquin Estrada, who received Rancho Margarita from San Luis Obispo holdings, and Mariano Estrada, who inventoried the mission holdings and himself received Rancho Buena Vista of Mission San Carlos holdings, is not explicated.

While such meticulously researched information is not available in as detailed and synthesized form for the other three overview area missions, their secularization and rancho period history followed similar lines. By the end of the Mexican period in 1846, 77 grants were situated within the overview area, and of these fully three-fourths could be estimated to be former productive mission lands. By the time all the mission lands had been distributed, the Indians for whom they had been held in trust were consolidated onto solares (town lots) within the new pueblos, adjoining the old mission grounds and frequently including former mission gardens and buildings; or they resided in rancherias, landless tenants on the vast cattle ranches created from their lands, their cattle, their grain, and operated now by their labor.

The earnest settlement of Alta California by private petitioners for grants from the national domain began with secularization and was completed for the most part within a scant few years. The new land policy was so much more liberal than that followed previously that fully 700 private claims were conceded by Mexican governors between 1833 and 1846. The procedure to be followed in obtaining a private grant was laid out with formality and care, but the actual process was subject to variations imposed by distance to the archives and offices of the Mexican government in California. No less significant were the realities that the lands encompassed by a grant were vast, boundaries were vague, and family ties between officials and petitioners carried more commitment than did the officially stamped papers that accompanied the proceedings.

The grant applicant first filed a formal petition with the governor describing and mapping the grant, verifying its availability, and assuring the applicant's status as a Mexican citizen. The application was forwarded to a local official for verification. When verified, the governor signed the grant application with his approval, authorizing the grant and ordering an official survey of the property. Upon confirmation of the survey, possession was effected. The survey boundaries, carelessly defined and of little practical significance at the time, were to become a major source of dispute after American annexation.

The life of the California ranchero became much romanticized in subsequent literature, but in fact the operation of a self-contained successful stock ranch, singularly dependent upon the hide and tallow products of its cattle, followed a highly structured social and physical organization. A typical rancho layout would include a main family house, with attached vaquero and domestic workers quarters. Nearby would be adobe or prickly pear fences, corrals, ovens, gardens, and functional outbuildings. Scattered over the acreage were houses for Indian laborers, a slaughtering ground, and a landing if on the coast. An army of Indian help formed the backbone and foundation of a successful rancho. Small rancherias might be scattered over the estate, or an established village of Indians displaced by mission secularization might be located on the rancho. Laborers to support the seasonal requirements of the rancho, particularly the annual matanza (cattle slaughter), were recruited from the rancherias. The 1852 California census gives an indication of the labor supply available to an individual ranchero during the month of June. Following names of heads of households known through supportive documents to be operating successful ranchos during the 1840s, a list of 11 to 32 Indians of all ages and both sexes appears, often with the occupation "laborer" or "vaquero" following adult male listings. The domestic help lived closer in to the main complex, supporting the ranchero's household as well as the numerous and long-staying visitors to the country. The vaquero was much more than a "cowboy," and enjoyed an elite status as a highly trained descendant of a skilled family line. The ranchero himself was patriarch to a vast extended family, whose social and domestic customs carried on the traditions of Colonial Mexico.

Money was virtually nonexistent in the frontier economy, as all obligations and transactions were carried out with the ubiquitous cattle hide, or "California bank note" as it was known to the traders. The rancheros manufactured almost nothing themselves, but slaughtered huge numbers of their herds in preparation for the periodical visits of the Boston trading ships. The hides were accepted as currency, valued in trade at two dollars apiece, while tallow was valued at six dollars per 100 pounds. This bought articles of every description from the trading ships: staple foods, clothing, fancy goods, furniture, or tools; at roughly a 300 percent markup over prices paid at Boston.


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