Padres, Soldados, Dons and Vaqueros

By Richard Duree (Col. Richard Dodge, SASS 1750 Life)


Ruth Levin Duree and Richard Duree

Almost a full century before the American "Old West" began after the Civil War, Spain began to move toward expansion of her New World empire into one of the most remote parts of New Spain and the world at the time, California, and the American Southwest. Though New Spain had already existed for almost three centuries since Columbus' voyages, California was its outer fringes and was largely ignored in Mexico City until the Russian settlements in Sitka and their movements south raised an alarm in Madrid and Mexico City.

The Russians' Fort Ross was the final straw and the Spanish government decided to act. Though the areas now known as New Mexico and Arizona had been explored by Coronado and others years before, the Gaspar Portola expedition of 1769 was the first real, official effort to connect with California, 1,500 difficult miles away. With several Franciscan padres under the leadership of Father Junipero Serra, the expedition established a presidio at San Diego and proceeded to build a Mission to begin the Christianizing of the native population, a move deemed necessary to develop and control a useful labor force in order to establish a presence and prevent the Russian expansion.

San Diego was the first of a series of missions the Franciscans established on the 600 mile-long "el camino real" along the fertile California coast from San Diego to north of San Francisco Bay – a massive undertaking requiring great endurance and determination, as well as a wide range of expertise in the production of the necessities of life.

The padres and soldados (soldiers) were an interesting class of men. Many were actually born of the aristocracy, unfortunately not the first-born, who, in the tradition of the time, inherited the family wealth. Their siblings were left with few choices for a livelihood, among which were the military and the priesthood. Others not of the aristocracy, from the poorer regions of Spain, faced the same bleak future and the same options. The New World beckoned with its fabulous riches and opportunities backed by three centuries of productive plunder.

So they came, these educated and highly motivated men, trained in languages, arts, music, architecture, construction, agriculture, horsemanship, even swordsmanship. They came with all the skills necessary for building a new society in the wilderness that was California 35 years before Lewis and Clark made their epic journey.

One by one, the missions rose, each supposedly a day's ride from the next. The local Indians were enticed by whatever means were necessary to join the missions' work forces, to build the missions and provide the labor to produce the materials necessary for operating them. The padres became all-powerful, a situation described by many travelers and which was to eventually lead to the destruction and abandonment of the mission system.

And the bottom line of all this industry was to develop a source of trade for further enrichment of Spain. This meant one thing: cattle. The demand for hides and tallow was huge and an immense trade was to be developed.

California was a heaven for cattle raising. The climate was mild year round with limitless fertile and well-watered land. The proximity of the long coastline meant ready access by sea, and the native Indians were comparatively unwarlike, except for a few noticeable occasions. So, by the turn of the 19th Century, California was "open range" to hundreds of thousands of wild cattle, just as Texas would become. California's "Old West" had begun on the far edge of the Spanish empire.

The padres did their work well and the missions thrived. The California Indians proved apt pupils and skilled craftsmen. The padres taught them Catholic religious music and they became skilled singers and musicians. The padres taught them spinning and construction and metal work and they became tradesmen and artists. The padres, reluctantly, but of necessity, taught them to ride in the Spanish way – it was illegal for any but the aristocracy to ride horses – and they became "vaqueros."

Spain, perhaps more than any European country, counted horsemanship as a high art. Their skill at training the horse has few equals in history and it was taught to the California Indians, who quickly assimilated that skill and applied it to their task. The vaqueros were responsible for the care of those huge herds of cattle spread over hundreds of thousands of acres and they developed the practices that were adopted by the American cowboy sixty years later in the cattle business of Texas and the "Old West." That skill is with us still among many of the riders of California's still existing ranchos.

In 1821, Spain painfully lost her New World Empire to Mexico, just as England lost her New World Empire to the United States forty years earlier. Now California had a new master in Mexico City, a master that was more concerned with internal issues than in caring for far off California. The Mexican government was, however, not content to allow the padres to control the wealth produced in California and sent small parties of settlers into the area, armed with huge land grants, to take the economic reins from the Missions, even to the point of seizing them from the church, selling them to private owners and leaving them abandoned to fall into ruin. And to accompany and rule these new settlements came a series of cruel, incompetent and corrupt aristocratic governors.

Over the next 25 years, even beyond to the end of the 1850s, the "Californios" developed a unique culture and society. The wealth was concentrated into the hands of the landowners – "dons" they were called – and the labor force was the already-trained native Indians. One could not wish for a happier existence and the Californios created their own version of the "Old South." With the cattle business already well established, it was only a matter of time until the power of the padres was broken and the missions were relegated to forgotten status for the next eighty years, magnificent structures declining into tragic ruins.

Feats of horsemanship among the Californios are legendary. First, one must realize that there was no such thing as a "gunman" since there were almost no firearms, save a few old military muskets and pistols. Every man of the landed gentry, however, did sport a fine Toledo blade on his saddle. Without marauding Indians or outlaws to contend with, the Californios were able to concentrate on refining their mastery of the horse and they proceeded with patience to develop the finest saddle horses in the world. To the American cowboy, the horse usually was considered a tool to be dominated, used, abused and discarded. To the vaquero, the horse was a partner and a close companion. Training methods were highly sophisticated, gentle, time-consuming, and oriented to the horse's aptitude. It was not unusual to take five or six years to completely train the Californio horse and the Californio horse is without equal.

Beginning with the hackamore, the young colt was gently introduced to the saddle and tack and was actually ridden with the hackamore until three or four years old before the introduction of the bit. The Californio delighted in displaying a loose rein while executing the most difficult maneuvers with his mount, needing neither the discipline of the huge spade bit nor the potentially cruel Spanish spurs. Even today, it warms the heart of any horse lover to witness the performance of a California trained horse as it goes through its tasks with no visible cues or audible commands from the rider.

The most extreme sport of the time was the capturing one of the huge California grizzlies that inhabited the countryside in great numbers. These were not timid beasts; they were huge, aggressive, dangerous and numerous – the largest species of bears on the North American continent. Horses are by instinct deathly afraid of bears, yet the Californios – to display their superb horsemanship and roping skills – would toss their braided rawhide "reata" loops over the struggling beast's neck and extremities and drag it back to the hacienda to be matched with one of the rancho's fighting bulls in a gory fight to the death. Part of a horse's training was to position itself so that the rider was in both a position to cast his loop and to make a fast get away if the bear charged him.

Don Francisco Dana of the Dana family of Santa Maria tells of riding alone into the hills of his father's rancho to collect such a bear, being very cautious not to run into a group of them. He threw his loop on one and proceeded to drag it back to the hacienda. The struggling beast managed to strangle itself on the rope and Dana simply retrieved his loop and went back to find another! And he was not yet twenty years of age at the time.

The Californios led the laid-back, luxurious and extravagant life of the idle rich, wagering immense sums and even part of their land holdings on a horse race or some other such entertainment and many fortunes were won and lost with great aplomb. But win or lose, lush or flat broke, the Californio maintained an air of absolute aristocratic bearing with all the furnishings of his class.

He dressed in a fine brocade vest, a short Spanish-style jacket and knee-length "calzones" of fine silk, later replaced by full-length "calzoneras" which buttoned up the side and were left unbuttoned below the knee. A colorful sash bound the waist; elaborately tooled or stitched leather "botas" were wrapped around the leg below the knee, with a long knife thrust into the outside of the right bota. A flat-crowned Spanish-style hat crowned the ensemble and a Saltillo serape of the finest wool provided protection from the rain and wind. The Californio horseman was a magnificent and colorful sight.

Californio women were dressed in Spanish-style dresses of the finest fabrics, traded from merchant ships fresh from the Orient with silks, velvets, jewelry, and everything a discerning feminine eye could wish. The lovely senoritas were the equal of the men in presenting a colorful appearance.

Many "yanqui" merchants from New England found their way to the Californio paradise and, finding the place more than tolerable, chose to make it home. Imagine a shrewd New England businessman fresh from a New England winter, with lucrative business contacts in the East, coming into a place with an established and productive industry, an absolutely wonderful climate, a skilled work force, unlimited potential – and not a soul having the slightest knowledge or inclination to engage in the business of business. All one had to do to hang out his shingle was to become a Mexican citizen by learning Spanish, joining the Catholic church – and taking a Californio bride. Many a colorful story is told of courtships and weddings of lovely Californio seƱoritas of very tender age to wealthy, middle-aged Yanqui merchants. Many of those families live to this day in the same areas settled by their enterprising ancestors.

Life remained thus until the discovery of gold and the impudent invasion by the outside world. The 1850s were a tumultuous decade – a story unto itself. The worst elements of American society flooded the countryside, armed to the teeth and very willing to use force to take what they wanted – or to summarily dispose of anyone they wished. It was the time of Joaquin Murietta, Solomon Pico, Jack Powers, Captain Harry Love and the California Rangers, the Los Angeles Rangers, and the San Francisco Vigilantes.

During that time, many Southern Californio ranchers became wealthy selling their cattle to San Francisco merchants to meet the demand for meat by the multiplying hordes of gold seekers. Cattle drives from Southern California followed the "el camino real" 600 miles to San Francisco – far longer than the Texas to Kansas drives twenty years later, but without the hazards of weather and hostile Indians faced by the Texas drovers.

It was not to last, this Californio world; the greed of the invading Americans was as strong and unrelenting here as it had been on the East Coast fifty years earlier and the Great Plains twenty years later. With statehood, actually supported by many Californios, came American courts. One by one, the legality of the old Spanish and Mexican land grants was called into question by squatters and many of the old Californio families were dispossessed of land that had been in their families for decades. By the end of the 1850s, the destruction of the Californios' culture was nearly complete. The huge ranchos were turned into farms and the agriculture, which made California one of the wealthiest places on Earth, replacing the huge cattle herds. By 1860, California's "Old West" was over, while the American Old West of legend and song had yet to begin.

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