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Two events signaled the end of the happy, carefree days of life on the California ranchos. The first was the increase in American settlers when the United States acquired California from Mexico in 1847.  The gold rush of 1849 brought even more Americans.  The second was the unusually dry weather that brought droughts to southern California in the 1860s and 1870s.


During the 1840s, American explorers and settlers came to California.  People in the east heard of the rich land and fine harbors here.  They hoped they could have a good life in the west.  Tensions began to develop between the Mexican government and the increasing number of Americans in California.

In 1846 a group of Americans living near Sonoma (north of San Francisco) took matters into their own hands.  They captured a herd of horses that belonged to the Mexican government.  They also captured General Mariano Vallejo, commander of the Mexican troops at Sonoma, and his headquarters.  They declared that California was an independent republic.  They raised the first "bear flag" at Sonoma.


Soon after the Bear Flag Revolt, American warships captured Monterey and San Francisco.  This was the first of several battles between Mexico and the U.S. over California.  The war ended in January 1947.  Mexico granted California and much of the rest of the southwest to the U.S. for the sum of fifteen million dollars. 


The discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill near Sacramento brought thousands of people to California.  Once their dreams of getting rich quick were dashed, many of them turned to the land.  Since there were no fences marking rancho boundaries, some people claimed land simply by setting up a tent camp or small cabin ("squatting") on the land.  

Perhaps they didn't know that someone else owned the land.  Or perhaps they didn't care.   The squatters built fences across rancho lands so that the cattle did not have good grazing places.  Few of the Spanish rancheros (rancho owners) were interested in the gold rush.  They were happy with their land and cattle.  They did not realize that they would soon lose their land.


The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo between the U.S. and Mexico promised that the property rights of the Mexicans in California would be protected by the U.S. government.  The government did not keep this promise.  Not only did they not protect the rancho lands from squatters, but they said that the rancheros had to prove that they owned the land.

In 1851 the U.S. government set up a three-member Board of Land Commissioners in San Francisco to consider land claims.  The rancho owners were required to show papers to prove just what land they owned.  Any land not claimed or claims not accepted would become public land and could be taken by new settlers.

Many of the rancheros had no papers proving that they owned the land.  Maps of the land boundaries showed streams or rocks or trees, many of which were no longer to be seen.  The rancheros had no proof of where the boundaries were.

Other rancheros did not understand that they had just two years to make their claims.  They did not speak English.  Some never filed any claim at all.  Some hired American lawyers to help them, but often these lawyers simply took money from the rancheros without any intention of helping them. 

Those who had some proof that they owned the land presented this proof to the Land Commission.  It took many years (an average of 17 years) and a lot of money before the Land Commission issued a decision that the owner could keep the land.  This decision was called a patent.  Some rancho families lost their land through debts while they were waiting for the Land Commission to make a decision.


The end of the ranchos came later in the south than in the north, because the lack of gold and water made southern California land less interesting to American miners and farmers.  However, other people were moving into southern California.  Many rancheros lost part of their land or cattle at card games or horse races by placing bets with their land as the stake.

But it was the weather in southern California that did what the lawyers and land squatters did in northern California.  The weather brought the crushing blow to the Spanish Dons.


In November 1861 there was a lot of rain in southern California.  Rivers and streams overflowed their banks, causing flooding.  Trees were uprooted, homes were destroyed, and many cattle drowned.

The heavy rains of that winter were followed in 1862 and 1863 by a drought.  For many months there was no rain at all.  Streams turned to dust.  No grass grew on the hills where the cattle had grazed.  The ground was dry and cracked.

By 1864 many rancheros in the southern part of the state had lost their herds of cattle.  Since the cattle had been their only source of income, their fancy silver saddles and their land were soon taken to pay their debts. 


In 1869 the first railroad in southern California began running between San Diego and San Pedro.  Rancheros and vaqueros (cowboys) liked to race their horses along the railroad tracks, trying to outrun the locomotives.  For a short distance, the riders could out-run the train.  But over a longer distance, the locomotive was always the winner. 

The railroad was a symbol of the change overtaking California, a change that meant the end of the rancho period.  In the long run, the rancheros could not survive in the face of American settlement.


Some of the rancho owners were able to prove that they owned their land.  They received patents protecting their claim to their ranchos.  Both in northern and southern California, some ranchos were passed on in the family of the original owner.  The "golden days" of the rancho were over, though.  Many more American settlers were coming to California, and the rancho way of life was doomed to disappear.


One by one, the great ranchos were divided and sold.  New owners changed them from cattle ranches to sheep or crop lands.  Towns were established.  The land around the towns was divided again and again as more homes were built.

Today most of the rancho lands of the 1830s and 1840s are covered with cities.  Some of the cities have the same name as the rancho had ... Rancho Cucamonga, Rancho Palos Verdes, Los Alamitos, Rancho Bernardo, Rancho Santa Fe, Santa Margarita.

Here and there in these cities, a few of the adobe rancho houses are still standing, protected as historic landmarks by the State of California.

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