Growing up in California conferred a bit of an advantage in that one could be aware of all the other layers behind the glitzy modern TV and Hollywood, West Coast/Left Coast, surfing safari/Haight-Ashbury layer that everyone with an awareness level above that of a mollusk knows. But peel that layer back, and there is another layer; the pre-World-War II layer, of Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles, of sleepy little towns buried in orange groves, Hollywood Boulevard a dirt track and Beverley Hills a wilderness; go back another couple of layers, and you arrive at a place that always seems to have had a dreaming, evanescent feel about it to me; California in the first half of the 19th century, a sleepy little backwater at the far end of the known world, a six-month to a year-long journey from practically anywhere else on the planet loosely defined as “civilization.”
In many ways, that California marked the high tide-line of the Spanish empire in the New World: when the great tide of the conquistadores washed out of the Iberian peninsula in the fifteenth century looking for gold, honor, glory and land, and roared across the Atlantic Ocean, sweeping Mexico and most of South America in consecutive mighty tides, seeping into the trackless wastes of what is now the American Southwest. That tide eventually lapped gently at the far northern coast, and crested in the 18th century, dropping a linked chain of twenty-one missions, four presidios or military garrisons* and three small pueblos**, one of which failed almost immediately. Mostly on the coast, or near to it, this was the framework on which hung the charming, but ultimately fragile society of Spanish (later Mexican) colonial society in what was called Alta, or Upper California.
It was a rural society, of enormous holdings, or ranchos, presided over by an aristocracy of landowners who had been granted their vast holdings by the king, or the civil government, who ran cattle or sheep on their holdings which were worked at by native Indians. The great holdings produced hides, wool and tallow, and their owners lived lives of comfort, if no very great luxury, and from all accounts were openhandedly generous, amazingly hospitable, devout – perhaps a little touchy about personal insult and apt to fight duels over it, but that could said of most men of the 18th and early 19th centuries. The climate was a temperate and kindly one, especially in comparison with much of the rest of that continent, winters being mild, and summers fair. The missions, which in addition to the care of souls had an eye towards self-sufficiency, did a little more in the way of farming than the rancheros; with great orchards of olives and citrus, and vineyards.
Far from the eye and control of central authority, they managed a fair degree of self-sufficiency; the scattering of structures from that era which survived to the 20th century set a kind of architectural tone to the whole area. Stucco and tile, courtyards, miradors and balconies, which looked back to cathedrals in Spain and Moorish castles in Grenada were adapted in adobe and brick, copied in stucco, and hung with church bells brought with great effort from the Old Country. Richard Henry Dana’s classic Two Years Before the Mast is an eye-witness account of the trade in hides with the rancheros, in the 1830ies, and Gwen Bristow’s novel The Jubilee Trail offers an accessible description of what it looked like in the 1840ies, as well as the difficulties involved in even traveling to such a distant fringe of the world. The immortal Zorro movies and TV show is set in this milieu, which is probably where most people know of this little, long-gone world.
The Spanish empire slowly lost its grip, and independent Mexico fought a rear-guard action for a while. I think they succeeded for a fair number of years, keeping their pleasant and gracious outpost, because of its very isolation, but other national powers waxed as Spain waned. The British had Canada to the north, and trade interests in the Pacific Northwest, the Russians had Alaska and even a tiny foot-hold at Fort Ross, on the coast of present-day Sonoma County, north of San Francisco. There was even a vaguely Swiss interest in Alta California, due to the presence of John Augustus Sutter, who founded an agricultural establishment where Sacramento is now – which inadvertently brought and end to the gracious life of the rancheros. The Spanish who ransacked Mexico and South America looking for gold, even sending a fruitless expedition far into the present-day American Southwest, eventually gave up looking for gold on the fringes of their empire. It is the purest sort of irony that gold in greater quantities than they had ever dreamed of was found, initially discovered during construction of a millrace for a saw-mill that Sutter had contracted to build at Coloma in the foothills, as he needed lumber for his various entrepreneurial projects.
*San Jose, El Puebla Nuestra Senora Reina de Los Angeles sobre El Rio Porcinuncula, and Branciforte
**San Diego, Monterray, San Francisco, Santa Barbara