Orange County Branch Newsletter
History and Heritage
From the Golden Era to the Demise of the Ranchos
Courtesy of Chris Jepsen/County of Orange, County Connection Newsletter, August 2015
A few gold flakes were found at John Sutter’s sawmill in Coloma, Calif., on January 24, 1848, providing the first inkling of a Gold Rush that would transform our state forever. Just days later, on February 2, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed, formally ending the Mexican–American War and making Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, Utah and Alta California part of the United States. California became the 31st state on September 9, 1850.
These events marked the beginning of the golden era of the ranchos, but ultimately also contributed to their demise. With tens of thousands of miners arriving in California, the ranchos suddenly had a market not just for cow hides and tallow, but also for beef. Rancheros’ fortunes grew exponentially. This era provided the stereotypes we now have of the ranchos: Grand fiestas at the Dons’ sprawling haciendas; Californio hospitality; ornate silver saddles; lovely señoritas dancing the fandango in dresses of imported silks and satins. In a sign of sudden wealth, fi ne imported furnishings often rested on the dirt floors of adobe homes.
During this era, Juan Pacifico Ontiveros sold 1,165 acres of his Rancho San Juan Cajon de Santa Ana to a group of German immigrants who founded the vineyard colony of Anaheim there in 1857.
Soon after statehood, a federal law was passed requiring all rancho owners to submit proof of ownership to the Land Commission, which would determine the validity of their claims. Although the Commission hearings only lasted through the early to mid-1850s, “appeals and courtroom battles continued for decades,” writes historian Phil Brigandi. “Many of the fi nal surveys and patents (deeds) were not issued until the 1870s and ‘80s.”
Ultimately, most of the claims were confirmed, but not before the rancheros spent a fortune in lawyer’s fees. The 1860s also brought a torrent of other woes to Southern California: Massive floods, a plague of grasshoppers, a smallpox epidemic, the winding-down of the Gold Rush, and fi nally, years of devastating drought. The cattle died and the people suffered. Soon, much of the land was sold to pay debts and taxes, or was simply given to the rancheros’ attorneys in lieu of fees.
Still other ranchos fell as a result of something like culture shock. Rancheros “understood horses, laws of the plains, and family obligations,” wrote historian Pamela Hallan-Gibson. “They knew the current price of cattle… and the steps to the varsoviana, a slow, graceful dance. They did not know, nor did they care, about American banking policies. Compound interest rates were a mystery and a shock. And when notes came due and could not be paid, they found themselves without land and their creditors without honor.”
Some of those who purchased the newly available land – like the Bixby, Irvine and Flint families – raised sheep, which required less land and water than cattle. Others used their land to start new towns. In 1871, lawyers A. B. Chapman and Andrew Glassell bought part of the Rancho Santiago de Santa Ana and established what became the town of Orange. William H. Spurgeon ended up owning some of the same rancho, and he founded the town of Santa Ana in 1869. The mustard grew so high on the unoccupied land that Spurgeon had to climb a Sycamore tree (near the corner of what’s now Sycamore Street and Third Street) to see what he was buying.
In the late 1860s, American settlers started arriving in what became Garden Grove. Presbyterian minister Lemuel Webber founded the temperance colony of Westminster on former Stearns Rancho land in 1870. And within a year, Columbus Tustin laid out a town, named for himself, on the old Rancho Santiago de Santa Ana.
Although descendants of the old Spanish and Mexican rancho families still live in Orange County today, the 1860s and the arrival of the Americans heralded the breakup of our vast tracts of open grazing land. Ranchos were chopped into smaller parcels, which were in turn further subdivided and re-subdivided until the modern era when much of Orange County was divided into rectangles just large enough for single tract homes.