|Stories, Poems, & Essays|
Excerpted from The First Ranchers:
Exploration, Settlement, and Ranchero Life on the California Frontier
By Matt OBrien
"Although I have so often seen the feat of the lasso, I never was tired of looking on and wondering at the dexterity with which it is performed; nor could I ever comprehend exactly by what art a man at full gallop could throw a noose so as to catch a bull by the hind leg while he was flying from his pursuers at all his speed."
--Alexander Forbes, British Vice-consul in Monterey, 1835
It is rare to find among the accounts of visitors and immigrants to Spanish and Mexican California, one in which the writer did not express his admiration for the horsemanship of the californios. "The men are almost constantly on horseback, and as horsemen excel any I have seen in other parts of the world. From the nature of their pursuits and amusements, they have brought horsemanship to a perfection challenging admiration and exciting astonishment," wrote Edwin Bryant who crossed the Great Plains and arrived to California in 1846. The Englishman George Simpson, on witnessing rancheros roping wild horses remarked, "We could not help but admire the skill of the Californians in the management of their horses. One of the people, whether by accident or design, dropped his lasso, of which the other end was attached to a wild horse in full career, and following till he came up with it as it trailed on the ground, he stooped to it from his saddle and picked it up without slackening his pace for a moment."
The lasso, from the Spanish lazo, the use of which so impressed visitors to early California, was more commonly known as la reata, which was corrupted into the word lariat when Americans who moved west began to learn ranching skills from Spanish speakers. The reatas in use in California were of rawhide, several strands tightly woven together, and according to the French sea captain Auguste Duhaut-Cilly, who visited the East Bay in 1827, "as big around as the little finger and fifteen or twenty fathoms (60-80 feet) in length." The reata was an all purpose, ever-present tool, not only used with livestock, but in hunting, and as a weapon as well.
Another practice the californios employed in managing the cattle was known as colear, or tailing, which required a great deal of strength and skill on the part of the horseman. William Heath Davis recalled in his classic Seventy-five Years in California that sometimes an unruly animal, commonly a bull, would dart away from the herd at full speed. The vaquero would dash out, seize the animal by the tail and with the aid of his horse, send it rolling to the ground. "When it regained its legs it was completely subdued, tamely submitted to be driven back to the herd, and was not inclined to repeat the experiment."
Horsemanship for the californios while a source of pride and enjoyment, was a necessity for their way of life. "I have often witnessed a man and horse, made fast to a wild ferocious bull, dash at full speed down a fearful precipice which a practised pedestrian would have hesitated to descend," reported American naval lieutenant Joseph Warren Revere, in 1846. "Dismount a Californian, and he is at once reduced to a perfectly helpless state, and is of no use in the world. He can neither take care of his farm, nor hunt, nor move from place to place; and is, to all intents and purposes, a wretched cripple."
The outstanding horsemanship of the californios was not limited to the men. In 1860 after riding through the Santa Clara Valley, geologist William H. Brewer, newly arrived to California, wrote in a letter home, "I wish you could see those Mexican ladies ride; you would say you never saw riding before. Our American girls along could not shine at all. There seems to be a peculiar talent in the Spanish race for horsemanship; all ride gracefully, but I never saw ladies in the East who could approach the poorest of the Spanish ladies whom I have yet seen ride. I cannot well convey an adequate conception of the way they went galloping over the fieldssquirrel holes, ditches, and logs are no cause of stoppingjumping a fence or a gulch if one was in the way."
Later, at camp in the Diablo Range near Pacheco Pass, while Brewer was washing his clothes, "along came two women, one young and quite pretty, who were assisting as vaqueros. A rodeo took place near camp, and several thousand head of cattle were assembled, wild almost as deer. Of course it takes many vaqueros to manage them, all mounted, and with lassos. A rodeo is a great event on a ranch, and these women, the wife and daughter of the ranchero came out to assist in getting in the cattle. Well mounted, they managed their horses superbly, and just as I was up to my elbows in soapsuds, along they came, with a herd of several hundred cattle, back from the hills. I straightened my aching back, drew a long breath, and must have blushed (if a man can blush when tanned the color of smoked bacon) and reflected on the doctrine of Womans rightsI a stout man, washing my shirt, and those ladies practicing the art of vaqueros."
The californios had created a way of life in which the skills and activities required for making a living overlapped considerably with the skills and activities in which they engaged for pleasure. Because they needed to produce only food enough to feed themselves, they had Indian labor for what farming work there was, and the rich pastures of California were so productive, they were able to devote their work almost exclusively to raising livestock. In so doing they created a culture unique in historyone intimately tied to horses, cattle, and the open range. The American writer Bayard Taylor, who traveled through the East Bay in 1849, remarked, "Horses and mules are to (a Californian) what men, newspapers, books, and machinery are to us; they are the only science he need know or learn."
There is no better animal than the Californian cavallo. He presents all colorsfrom black to white, dappled, mixed and shuffled together in the most beautiful confusion. His head and neck are lightly madehis eye burns with that kindly yet unquenchable fire so peculiar to his progenitors, the Andalusian Arabian steeds. His chest is broad and full, his loins well knit, and closely laid to the ribs, his limbs clean, slender, and sinewy; the embodiment of the matchless wild horses of a green and sunny wilderness.
--Thomas Jefferson Farnham, American, 1840
To the visitors of Spanish and Mexican California, the Californian horse was something new. Everything about the horses-- their physical qualities, their abilities, their care, the customs surrounding their use, the saddles and tack of the Californians-- was different from their experience with horses, and often a source of amazement. But it was the training of these horses, in which the Californians were masters, that accounted for such a difference in the riding experience.
Many visitors marveled at how flawlessly horse and rider worked together among the herds and especially when roping. "They were expert in handling and managing cattle," recalled American Josiah Beldon, who arrived to California in 1841. "The horses also were well trained to it, seemed to understand it as well as a man could, catching cattle which were pretty wild, not many of them being kept about the ranches, but all used to run about the plains." And of course catching cattle was done with the reata for which American sea captain William Dane Phelps observed, "The saddles used are well fitted for the purpose. They rise high before and behind and have a knob on the fore part on which the rider can lay hold and secure himself and on which they can make fast or wind up their lasso. The horses are taught to lean over when checked against the direction in which the bullock draws and thereby secure themselves from being capsized by the sudden tug occasioned by the impetus of the animal when it is brought up by the lasso."
The Californian saddle had its roots in medieval Europe. The heavy saddles of the European knights and the lighter saddles of the Moors were combined to form a medium weight saddle suited to the needs of mounted cattlemen. The early American immigrants to California brought with them the traditional English style saddle which lacked the horn to which a rope could be tied. It was not nearly as useful as the Californian saddle with its leather housings which provided a stable working platform for the vaquero. Over the years it was modified to become the modern Western saddle used by ranchers and cowboys throughout the West.
For the californios their saddles and trappings were not just functional, they were a source of pride, as Davis recalled: "Their saddles were silver-mounted, embroidered with silver or gold, the bridle heavily mounted with silver, and the reins made of the most select hair of the horses mane, and at a distance of every foot or so there was a link of silver connecting the different parts together. Their spurs were inlaid with gold and silver, and the straps of the spurs worked with silver and gold thread."
The horned cattle of California which I have thus far seen, are the largest and the handsomest in shape which I ever saw. There is certainly no breed in the United States equalling them in size. They, as well as the horses, subsist entirely upon the indigenous grasses, at all the seasons of the year; and such are the nutritious qualities of the herbage, that the former are always in condition for slaughtering, and the latter have as much flesh upon them as is desirable The varieties of grass are very numerous, and nearly all of them are heavily seeded when ripe, and are equal if not superior, as food for animals, to corn and oats.
The Californian way of raising cattle was completely foreign to Americans coming from the eastern states. "The cattle here over the hills are very wild; they will run if they see a man on foot at the distance of forty or fifty rods off," wrote Brewer. "Sometimes an old bull will boldly make an attack, so it is unsafe to go through a herd alone and on foot. The rancheros consider it desirable that their cattle be thus wildthey are less liable to be stolen or caught by wild animals."
The cattle roamed freely without fencing of any kind, yet they were habituated to the control of man through frequent rodeos, when the cattle from the various ranges of the rancho would be herded together and brought to a spot known as the rodeo ground. Initially they would be kept there for a few hours and then allowed to disperse. Over time, the cattle became accustomed to this routine. "Then, whenever the herd was wanted, all that was necessary for the vaqueros to do was, say twenty-five or thirty of them, to ride out in the hills and valleys and call the cattle, shouting and screaming to them, when the animals would immediately run to the accustomed spot, presently the whole vast herd belonging to the ranch finding their way there," explained Davis.
Once a year, generally beginning in March in northern California, the cattle would be rounded up and the calves branded. Such an event would last for several days and end with a great celebration and fiesta. "On these occasions the vaccaros are in their glory, crack riders volunteer their assistance, and ranche owners congregate from far and wide to point out and take away such of their own beasts as have strayed and become mixed with those on the ranche," reported the English traveler Frank Marryat. "For a week previously, the vaccaros scour the mountains and plains, and collect the wild herds, and these are at once inclosed in the corrals. Fires are lighted near the corral, and in these the branding-irons are kept heated. The work is commenced leisurely, a few vaccaros enter the corral, the gate of which is formed of a bar of wood, easily withdrawn, to allow egress to the cattle." The first loop would be thrown around the animals head, and as horse, rider and head-roped calf exited the corral, "a second lasso catches the hind leg and he falls on his side, as if shot." Toward the end of the day, the vaqueros "have renewed their horses many times," and only the larger animals are left in the corral, "maddened by being driven round in the heat, noise, and dust, every opportunity is afforded for a display of good riding. Savage-looking cows show fight from every quarter, and make fierce charges at the horsemen...The dust and excitement increase rapidly now, and the cattle thump the ground with their ribs on every side, as their legs fly from under them. A groan, a hiss, and a smell of roast meat, as the hot brand touches them, and away they go, tail on end."
The calves, as well as bigger animals which hadnt been branded at previous roundups, were branded, earmarked, and castrated. Animals without marks were considered as belonging to the rancho on which they were found. The largest, most vigorous calves were not castrated and grew into bulls. "The rule among the old rancheros here was to preserve one bull for every twenty-five cows," recalled Davis. The proceedings were carried out under the oversight of juezes del campo, or field judges, who were elected by the rancheros to settle disputes and see that the regulations were carried out. Each rancho had its own brand which was required to be listed in the libro de registro. In order to adopt or change a brand, the permission of the governor was needed.
Around the mission of St. Ynes I noticed, as we passed, immense quantities of cattle-bones thickly strewn in all directions. Acres of ground were white with these remains of the immense herds belonging to this mission in the days of its prosperity, slaughtered for their hides and tallow.
During the matanza (commercial slaughter) season, which lasted from July through September, "all the trading vessels are on the move and have their agents out in all directions selling goods and receiving payments. This is in short the most busy period of the year, when all is bustle and animation," wrote the English sea captain James Douglas. Trading ships would come calling, and the rancheros would swing into action, as Prudencia Higuera recalled: "In the autumn of 1840 my father lived near what is now called Pinole Point, in Contra Costa County, California. I was then about twelve years old, and I remember that time because it was then that we saw the first American vessel that traded along the shores of San Pablo Bay. One afternoon a horseman from the Peraltas, where Oakland now stands, came to our ranch, and told my father that a great ship, a ship with two sticks in the center, was about to sail from Yerba Buena (now San Francisco) into San Pablo and Suisun, to buy hides and tallow."
"The next morning my father gave orders, and my brothers, with the peons, went on horseback into the mountains and smaller valleys to round up all the best cattle. They drove them to the beach, killed them there, and salted the hides. They tried out the tallow in some iron kettles that my father had bought from one of the Vallejos, but as we did not have any barrels, we followed the common plan in those days. We cast the tallow in round pits about the size of a cheese, dug in the black adobe and plastered smooth with clay. Before the melted tallow was poured into the pit an oaken staff was thrust down in the center, so that by the two ends of it the heavy cake could be carried more easily. By working very hard we had a large number of hides and many pounds of tallow ready on the beach when the ship appeared far out in the bay and cast anchor near another point two or three miles away. The captain soon came to our landing with a small boat and two sailors, one of whom was a Frenchman who knew Spanish very well, and who acted as interpreter. The captain looked over the hides, and then asked my father to get into the boat and go to the vessel. Mother was much afraid to let him go, as we all thought the Americans were not to be trusted unless we knew them well. We feared they would carry my father off and keep him a prisoner. Father said, however, that it was all right: he went and put on his best clothes, gay with silver braid, and we all cried, and kissed him good-by while mother clung about his neck and said we might never see him again." The next day her father returned with "four boatloads of cloth, axes, shoes, fish-lines, and many new things."