Traces of the Past – Rangelands




The Golden Hills of California is a unique ecosystem. Cool season grass species proliferate here. These grasses flourish with cool temperatures and short days during the rainy season from October to March. As the days lengthen and warm, annual grass species stop growing and perennial grass species go dormant. The result is that the grasses turn golden in the early summer and a buff color later in the year. 

Prior to the introduction of Old World grasses, there are about 300 species of native grasses and most were perennial species. These perennials turned green faster, stayed greener longer, and produced more biomass than either native or introduced annual species. This equated to more protein and higher value forage for both wildlife and livestock (USDA). On the Central Coast, examples of native perennial grass species are Bunch grasses, Needlegrass, and Three-awn. These once proliferated. 

Bossard and Randall noted the following about non-native and invasive plants that hitched a ride to California: 

These species mostly “originated from the Mediterranean region of Eurasia and North Africa. Exotic Mediterranean annual plants altered California’s native grasslands to such an extent that it has been called ‘the most spectacular biological invasion worldwide’” (Kotanen 2004).

The arrival and introduction of exotic plant species, which naturalized in on the Central Coast, can be divided into five periods of establishment and modes of entry:

  • Spanish colonization era (1769-1825) when greater than 16 species introduced by the colonists and missionaries became naturalized in California;
  • Mexican Period (1825-1848) when 63 alien plant species were introduced and naturalized due to trading networks between old Spanish settlements in Mexico and native California peoples;
  • Gold Rush Period (1849-1860) when 55 plant species arrived with imported supplies;
  • Agricultural Diversification and Development Period (1860-1925) when 158 now naturalized plant species were introduced with the importation of agricultural supplies, domestic animals, and seeds;
  • Population Explosion Era (1925-2002) during which 654 species became naturalized in California due to continued accidental and purposeful introductions accompanying intense urbanization and suburbanization. Move to natural history section? 

The Barley Yellow Dwarf Virus, introduced with barley perhaps 300 years ago, may have been a major factor in the conversion of California’s native grasslands to non-native grasslands (Borer, et al. 2007; Malmstrom, et al. 2005). The virus, spread by aphids, turns leaves yellow or bright red and is most damaging during drought conditions (Stromberg and Kephart n.d.). Plants infected with the virus produce far fewer healthy seeds than those not infected with the virus. Some plants, like wild oat (Avena spp.) may host the disease and spread the infection to surrounding plants.

With the introduction of Old World agricultural practices and plants and probable overgrazing, weedy species such as Wild oats, Filaree, Foxtail, Mustard spp., Wild radish, Yellow starthistle, Russian thistle, Kochia, Amaranthus spp., and Curly dock, found new plant succession niches to replace less competitive native species. Estimates are that 75% of current California weeds have Old World origins. (Anderson) 

California indigenous herbivores (herds of deer, elk, and antelope were found in California’s valleys. Agricultural development and loss of habitat drove these herbivores to the hills and mountains. According to most references, these herbivores did not occupy a niche in mountain ecosystems,

During the MIssion Period, livestock was driven overland from Sonora and Baja California or brought by ship. The domesticated stock consisted of Black Spanish Cattle, (insert photo) that were black, small boned and had long horns similar to a long-horned breed found on ranches today. The Rancho economy in California was based on ranching with the principal product being cow hides and tallow for export. The Spanish black cattle were ideal for this use. Also, oxen, horses, mules, sheep, goats, and pigs were also found on most of Alta California’s Ranchos. 

Under Spanish control, here were on only three Spanish ranchos in the Salinas area that were provisionally given permission to occupy and dwell on lands belonging to the Spanish Crown. These Ranchos were: Buena Vista, Salina, and El Tucho. (Anderson). 

After Mexico won independence from Spain in 1822, the Mexican government did not want the expense of maintaining the missions. Therefore, the Mexican government secularized the missions in 1835 and deeded the lands to Californio leaders or Mexicans who were particularly helpful during the revolution.  By 1846, eight million acres of California land was held by XXXX rancheros (Monterey County 2017 Crop Report). There were XXX Ranchos were created in the Traces of the Past Project Area with 34 in the Salinas Valley alone. The average size of a rancho in the area was XXXX. 

In the 1840s, the Central Coast Rancheros began to drive cattle over the Gabilan Hills to the east and into the San Joaquin Valley and up the valley to Gold Mining Country in the Sierra foothills to provide fresh meat to gold miners. Cattle were not raised for beef until after the Gold Rush began in 1848 when the price of fresh meat skyrocketed to $16-20.00 per head (Anderson). This move from a pastoral to single-purpose industry was very lucrative for about a decade, but other European breeds of cattle were better suited for meat production than the black Spanish breed.

During this time, “demand for beef in the gold rush communities made cattle prices skyrocket— from $4 a head to as much as $75 a head in San Francisco and to $30 a head if purchased at a distant rancho. Prices continued to rise until 186 when the cattle economy was devastated by torrential rains followed by two years of drought. The industry never recovered.” (Clovis)

History has portrayed the Ranchero as indolent and self-entitled, when perhaps, he was, more likely, the victim of circumstances. The reputation might have been true for a few larger, more visible ranchos, but some ranchos were quite small, such as some near the former San Antonio Mission, or were very remote, and life was not as idyllic as portrayed. (McGuinn?)

The tapering off of Gold Fever coincided with four factors that led to the end of the Mexican Rancho: 1) the loss of the Gold Mines meat market to more competitive supplies of fresh meat, 2) two natural disasters of unprecedented severity, 3) a general economic downturn that lasted almost three decades, and/or 4) the inability of the Ranchero to prove his land grant. 

The natural disasters consisted of an ARKstorm (Atmospheric River 1000 year flood) of 1961 and the second was the most devastating drought in recorded history from 1961  through1964.  Livestock herds were decimated throughout California, and the Central Coast was no exception. Estimated herd losses in Monterey County were from 70,000 prior to the drought to 12,700 after the drought. (Anderson)

The economy was rocked from the 1870s through the 1890s with the longest depression in recorded history (The Long Depression) and a series of shorter depressions and recessions.

Few of these Ranchos were mapped and documented boundaries were unclear since they often cited natural landmarks such as rocks, trees or watercourses that changed over time. Consequently, after the Mexicans ceded California to the U.S., in 1851, the new State of California formed a land commission to determine ownership of the Mexican land grants. The ranchos were surveyed using Mexican records but questions often remained about the actual boundaries. The Rancheros were required to prove the accuracy of the land grants. 

Rancheros had borrowed heavily during the Gold Rush decade; had lost their herds during the flood/drought cycle, and were not able to weather the economic storm of the late 1800s. Incoming settlers to California exploited these financial strains and dubious land deeds to their advantage. Consequently, many Rancheros, who could not pay their debts and/or prove their deeds were legitimate were forced to sell vast tracts of land to energetic, and sometimes conniving, settlers with great dreams of personal wealth and/or civic progress.

By 1865, the American Cattleman, using European breeds, had largely superseded the Mexican Rancho way of life. Since then, ranching in California has been much as we know it today.

An interesting side note: By 1892, Julius Trescony, the former owner of the Half-Way house owned 42,000 acres in the San Lucas area south of town. The Trescony family owns the oldest continuous cattle brand in the state. (Anderson)

“In 1941, crop report estimates showed  55,000 head of cattle (beef cows and calves) with a gross income of $1,750,000. By 1969, the crop report indicated 88,400 head of cattle with a value of $9,758,000. In 2016, cattle numbers dropped significantly to 24,900 head, but the value increased to $24,752,000.” (Violinini). 

“Despite the decrease in herd size, cattle production remains an integral part of the economic engine that supports Monterey County. Time will tell how changes in agricultural land use (grazing to grapes) and the declining interest in livestock production among younger generations will affect the industry in the future. Cattle may have moved off the valley or, but they will always roam the foothills of the Gabilan and Sierra de Salinas mountain ranges that encompass the great Salinas Valley. Some say the cattlemen are a dying breed, but others agree with the belief that “As long as there is one cowboy, taking care of one cow, it ain’t dead.”(Violini)

Books and References

Anderson, Burton, The Salinas Valley: A History of America’s Salad Bowl. Monterey County Historical Society. 2000.

Bossard, Carla, C., Randall, John, M., and Hoschovsky, Marc C. Invasive Plants of California’s Wildlands. University of California Press. November 2000.

Griffith, Stephen, M.  Restoring California’s Native Grasses. USDA, AgResearch Magazine. May 2004.

Clovis, Meg, former Cultural Affairs Manager for Monterey County. An Overview of Salinas Valley’s Agricultural Legacy. Monterey County Crop Report. Monterey County Agricultural Commissioner’s Office. 2017.

SSU Center for Environmental Inquiry, Rohnert Park, California. Coastal Prairies, Pre-History, and History, Early Europeans, Ranches, Agriculture, Invasive Plants.

Violini, Scott. Cattle Ranching in Monterey County. Monterey County Crop Report. Monterey County Agricultural Commissioners Office. 2017.