Californios and Buckaroos

Ranching is an endemic way of life on the Central Coast and has evolved in tandem with California.

Native Americans managed wild herbivore herds with controlled burns to create park-like pastures throughout the Central Coast.

The Spanish padres and military survived on meat and milk from cattle, sheep and goats. They traded for hides, tallow, and used wool to weave fabric. All were free range. Livestock proliferated to the point that rangeland was overgrazed. Horses were free-range, too, and early adventurers describe riding a horse until it was tired. They would stop, catch a free-range horse, release the horse they were riding and be off without a break. Periodically rangeland would be jeopardized by the ever-increasing populations and thousands of horses, cattle and sheep would be destroyed. 

After Mexicos independence from Spain, Mexico ceded large tracts of land to those who had assisted with the war. These new landowners became the Californios who would run cattle on open range to be commercially traded in tallow and hides.

During the Gold Rush, meat prices soared. Californios possessed a ready source of beef in their large herds of cattle. They borrowed large sums of money to drive beef herds from their largely unmapped ranchos on the California Coast north to the gold country. Ranching changed from a pastoral pastime to a singular focus on beef production. This sounds so dryly inconsequential on paper. However, the Californios took substantial risk to shift from extensive to a more intensive agriculture. 

The Risk was not successful. Unfortunately, the fates were not kind to the Californios. The Gold Rush ended in 1855 when mining technologies evolved to eliminate the individual working a claim. Large corporations began to peel away the earth with hydraulic guns.

Furthermore, flood and drought contributed to the demise of the Californio. In 1861/1862, an Atmospheric River generated a 1000-year flood or an ARKStorm that devastated most of California. The preceded one of the worst droughts in recorded history. What herds were drowned during the flood were later destroyed because of lack of water.

Within the first couple of years of statehood, California legislators intentionally passed laws to facilitate the repartitioning of the ranchero system to create land for settlement. Californios were required to prove title and boundaries to their land grants. The process was laborious, expensive and time-consuming. Many of the Californios were not able to prove their title. Some were not able to remain solvent long enough to prove their title. Others were not able to remain solvent. The bottom line is that the majority of the Mexican land grants did not survive until the turn of the century. 

However, the Californio legacy lives on. The names of the Mexican land grants are subliminally etched into our memories. The Californio life style has been romanticized and elevates modern ranching beyond a business enterprise. It is infused with an ethos that belongs to a former century. The skill of the vaquero and boldness of the buckaroo have been preserved.

Today, many ranching families are able to trace their ancestral roots to Spanish colonial days, Mexican Ranchos and/or early Californian settlers. These families are guardians of a special culture and keepers of an important part of California history. 


Interesting stats for my Cattle buddies. The study area* covered 13.5 Million Hectares in California 

40% (195,000 ha) was converted to development between 1984 to 2008.
– The majority of the conversions were to rural residential development.
49% of conversions was through agricultural intensification
37% of unconverted rangeland was protected by a voluntary tax incentive program (i.e., the Williamson Act)**. 
24% of unconverted rangeland was protected through conservation easements
38% of unconverted rangeland had no protection from conversion
– An important point is that when prime Ag land is absorbed by urban development, then, the nearby subprime land will be converted from rangeland to irrigated Ag land on the edges of urban development.

* Includes the Central Valley, Central Coast, Kern County. Excluded far northern and southern areas and desert regions.

**Note: this statewide program was transferred to counties in 2009 and only 20% of the counties have continued it. 

Books and References

Cameron, D. Richard. Whither the Rangeland?: Protection and Conversion of California’s Rangeland Ecosystems. PLOS. August, 20. 2014.

Niman, Nicolette Hahn. Defending Beef, The Case for Sustainable Meat Production, The Manifesto of an Environmental Lawyer and Vegetarian Turned Cattle Rancher. Chelsea Green Publishing. October 31, 2014.