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The trade in hides and tallow (melted animal fat) was the primary business activity in California during the rancho period.  A family's wealth was counted in the number of cattle they owned, and the value of the cattle was in the hides and tallow.  The income of the rancho depended on the hides and tallow.

Hides, known as "California banknotes," were used as money.  People on the ranchos traded the hides for all the things they needed.  They even used hides, as well as tallow and sometimes grain, to pay their taxes to the Mexican government.


During the years that Spain controlled California (1769-1821), only Spanish ships had permission to enter California ports.  However, ships from other countries, including American ships from New England, often slipped in like smugglers.  The American ships began coming to hunt sea otters, for the skins.  Soon they found that cattle hides and tallow were a more profitable trade, and that there were many items that people in the pueblos (towns) and ranchos wanted to trade for the hides.

After 1822, when Mexico took control of California, ships from other countries were permitted to trade here.  Every merchant ship was required to go to the customhouse in Monterey to have its cargo cleared and to pay duties, before it could begin trading along the California coast.  These taxes on imported goods were the main source of revenue for the Mexican government in California. 

The padres at the missions had used hides and tallow to make shoes and saddles, soap and candles.  The rancheros did not do this as much.  They sent most of the hides to New England to be made into shoes.  They sent the tallow to Chile or Peru to be made into soap and candles.  Then they purchased shoes, soap, and candles from the merchant ships.


It took much work to prepare the hides for shipping. First, each hide was stretched out to dry in the sun.  Holes were punched around the edges, so the hides could be staked to the ground to keep them from shrinking as they dried.  The drying made the hides very stiff.  They were then folded once lengthwise and stacked in bales.

As hides were collected from the ranchos by the merchant ships, they were stored in rough wooden buildings on the beach.  The harbor at San Diego had a good beach for storing and loading hides.  While the ship was off collecting more hides, several members of the crew were left at the hide house to prepare the hides for shipping, and to guard them from being stolen.  In addition to storing the hides, the hide house had a corner with a table, a cupboard, and beds for the men who worked there.

Before the hides could be shipped, they had to be cured.  This was done by fastening together piles of about 25 hides and letting them soak for 48 hours in the salty ocean water.  This soaking cleaned and softened the hides.  Then the hides were transferred to large vats where great quantities of salt had been added to the sea water.   After another 48 hours in the vats, the hides were pickled, or preserved.

Once again the hides were stretched out on the ground and staked down to dry in the sun.  While they were still wet, the work crew scraped the hides with knives to clean them.  A good hide-curer could scrape and clean 25 hides a day.  During the drying process, the hides were scraped and pounded several times.  When dry, they were again folded in half and stored in the hide house to wait for the ship to return.


The fat from the animals was melted down (a process called rendering) in large iron kettles heated over a low fire.  When heated and then cooled, the fat became white and solid.  It was then poured into bags made of hide.  Each bag held 500-600 pounds of tallow (20-30 arrobas, a Spanish measure equal to about 25 pounds).  The bags were usually carried by two men who shared the bag on their shoulders.

The largest market for tallow was in South America.  The merchant ships, which had to go around the southern tip of South America to get from California  back to the eastern U.S., sold tallow at ports along their route. 


Much of what we know about the California hide trade comes from the book Two Years Before the Mast written by Richard Henry Dana, Jr.  Dana was a young man in 1834 when he left his studies at Harvard University in Massachusetts.  He sailed on the brig Plymouth around Cape Horn of South America to California, arriving in January 1835.  He spent more than a year sailing up and down the California coast as the ship's crew gathered hides and tallow.  His book was published in 1840, after he had gone back to Harvard and become a lawyer.


In most of the harbors along the California coast, the merchant ships had to anchor several miles off shore.  They had to be ready to head out to sea if the wind got strong or a storm came up, as they could not risk being driven onto the shore.  The ship's crew used small boats to get from the ship to the beach.

When a trading ship came to California, it often made several runs up and down the coast, collecting hides and tallow.  Depending on the size of the ship, it would carry from 12,000 to 60,000 hides when it sailed back to the east coast, and it sometimes took more than a year to gather that many hides.

It was heavy work to load the hides onto or off of the ship.  The men carried the stiff, dry hides on their heads. This was called "tossing the hide."  They wore thick woolen caps on their heads to cushion the weight of the hides.  Dana describes carrying the hides: 

"The great art is in getting them on the head.  We had to take them from the ground, and as they were often very heavy, and as wide as the arms could stretch, and were easily taken by the wind, we used to have some trouble with them." 

At some harbors the hides had to be tossed down to the beach from the cliffs.  This was especially dangerous when hides would catch midway down on a rock or bush, and someone would have to climb up to free them.

When enough hides had been collected to fill the ship (along with the tallow, some otter and beaver skins, and animal horns), the ship had to be loaded for the journey back. The hides were packed very tightly in the ship's hold.


As the merchant ships made their way up and down the California coast, rancho people brought their hides to trade for goods.  The ship's crew often set up a trading room, like a store, on board the ship.  They used the ship's small boats to bring people out to the ship, as the rancheros did not have boats of their own.  The women often spent all day on board the ship, choosing the goods to purchase. 

Dana gives a list of the goods that the rancheros got for their hides. 

"...teas, coffee, sugars, spices, raisins, molasses, spirits of all kinds (sold by the cask), hardware, crockery, tinware, cutlery, clothing of all kinds, boots and shoes, calico and cotton cloth, silks, shawls, scarfs, necklaces and other jewelry, combs, furniture ... and, in fact, everything that can be imagined, from Chinese fireworks to English cart wheels."

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