Times Past

‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’ applies to SLO’s early days, too

William Rich Hutton’s survey of the Rancho El Chorro submitted to the U.S Land Commission in 1852. Hutton had worked with Lt. E.O.C. Ord in surveying Los Angeles. He came to SLO County to be the best man at his friend Henry Tefft’s wedding to Eliza Josefa Dana. He was the first surveyor of San Luis Obispo, the Dana and the Branch Ranches.
William Rich Hutton’s survey of the Rancho El Chorro submitted to the U.S Land Commission in 1852. Hutton had worked with Lt. E.O.C. Ord in surveying Los Angeles. He came to SLO County to be the best man at his friend Henry Tefft’s wedding to Eliza Josefa Dana. He was the first surveyor of San Luis Obispo, the Dana and the Branch Ranches.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

Charles Dickens was referring to the French Revolution in “A Tale of Two Cities,” but the description can just as easily be applied to a comparison of the 1850s and 2019.

During the 1850s, a series of events accelerated the the divisions that resulted in the Civil War breaking out in April 1861. Many of the issues were the same. The Mexican-American War, 1846-1848, had not only nearly doubled the size of our nation, but also brought in large numbers of non-English speaking people. Then as now, California and Texas were at the heart of the resulting tension.

Texas had entered the Union in 1845 as a slave state. The preponderantly Hispanic population became a second-class group of vaqueros and household servant as the cattle empires were formed.

California, as Mark Twain would later remark, became “the great exception.” Large quantities of gold were found in the American River in January of 1848 while the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was still being negotiated. The treaty, in which Mexico technically “sold” its claims to the Southwest was not finalized until February 1848.

One of the chief issues of that treaty was the status of Spanish and Mexican land grants awarded between the 1790s and 1846. The treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo stipulated that these grants were never to be violated.

That land constituted the best agricultural lands in California.

This might not have become an issue were it not for the Gold Rush during which the world literally rushed to California in search of the precious metal. These millions of Argonauts had to be fed. The former mission cattle lands of Southern and Central California provided the only option until wheat and barley could be grown on the often flooded land of the Delta and the northern San Joaquin Valley.

Racial fault lines began to erupt as newly arrived U.S. citizens’ resentment grew over the rapidly increasing wealth of the Californio rancheros. The Californios, exemplified by Julia Estrada of the Rancho Santa Rosa’s seemingly ostentatious display of affluence with embossed silver saddles and his brother Joaquin Estrada’s fandangos at the Rancho Santa Margarita with hundreds of guests lasting weeks at a time, caused some resentful gringos to ask “who had won the war?”

American statehood ultimately resolve the issue on Sept. 9, 1850. California became a state without going through the process stipulated by the U.S. Land Ordinance of 1784 and 1787. The Roman goddess Minerva became our state symbol because we, like the goddess, were born fully grown, meaning that we never had to become a territory in order to apply for statehood.

Almost immediately after statehood, California’s U.S. Sen. William Gwin introduced legislation requiring all land grantees to prove the title to their lands with full documentation of the original grant and created an Anglo-American style survey of the boundaries with sections based on a grid derived from a common baseline and meridian hundred of miles in length.

Since the original surveys were done with Spanish and Mexican meets and bounds surveys, the expectation was that the Mexican landholders would never be able to prove their title.

Ultimately. most of the titles were in fact proven, but by that time virtually of the Hispanic grantees had lost their lands.

This process was accelerated by the high cost of title research and hiring a land surveyor. There were only a handful in California in 1851. The creation of county government required to achieve statehood imposed land taxes, which in many instances were $1 per acre for poor land, $2 per acre for “middling” land and $3 per acre for good land. The new county assessors, anxious for revenue, assessed a great deal of the land at $3 or more per acre, retroactive to early 1849 when the counties were created.

The Californios, despite the value of their herds borrowed money at exorbitant rates of interest, not understanding the consequences of their actions. By the mid-1850s, the majority of the Californios were underwater and began to seek remedies like succession from the State of California and in many instances political violence culminating in the Civil War.

Dan Krieger is professor of history, emeritus at Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo--He is Past President of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com.
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