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An Introduction


For hundreds of years, the land that is now California belonged to the many groups of Indians who lived along the Pacific Ocean coast, in the river valleys, and in the mountains.  The earliest history of California is the history of these first Californians.

Only a few Europeans visited this western part of the American continent before 1750.  In 1542 Juan Rodríquez Cabrillo sailed into what is now San Diego Bay and claimed the land for Spain.  Sir Francis Drake sailed along the coast near San Francisco Bay in 1579, and claimed the land for England.  An exploring party led by Sebastián Vizcaíno came in 1602, visiting and naming San Diego Bay, Santa Barbara Channel, Monterey Bay, and other places.  After this, it was more than 160 years before other visitors came to the area.

By the mid 1700s, the rulers of Spain (who controlled what is now Mexico, then known as New Spain) decided that they also wanted to control the land to the north, California.  They sent an expedition headed by Gaspár de Portolá and Father Junípero Serra to establish Spanish missions.  The 21 missions built from San Diego to Sonoma between 1769 and 1823 brought about major changes in California.

In 1821 Mexico won its independence from Spain.  This meant that Mexico, rather than Spain, was now in control of California.  The government in Mexico was no longer interested in supporting the missions.  In 1833 they decided that all mission lands should be transferred from the Catholic Church to the pueblos (towns).  This transfer was called "secularization," and it was the end of  the mission period in California.

It was also the beginning of the "golden days" of the rancho period.


A rancho (rahn'-cho) was a tract of land used for raising cattle, sheep, and horses.  This Spanish word has come into the English language as ranch

The rancho period may be said to span almost one hundred years, from the 1780s when the first big land concessions were made, to the 1880s when the last of the ranchos was sold to subdividers.  About 500 private land grants were given by Spanish or Mexican governors between 1784 and 1846.

The "golden days" of the rancho period were the years from 1833 through 1846.  During these years, the people of the ranchos were the leaders of California's political and social life.  The "golden days" has been known as a time of fiestas and laughter, of great wealth and much leisure time for enjoying life.

By the end of Mexican rule in California in 1846, the ranchos covered 10 million acres and stretched from San Diego in the south to Shasta County in the north.  Individual ranchos ranged in size from less than 4,000 acres to nearly 50,000 acres.                           


The lands that were held by each of the Spanish missions were actually "concessions," land given for a limited time to be used in a certain way, and to be given back later.  The rulers of Spain considered that they  "owned" all of the land in California, and were only allowing the Catholic Church to use certain parts of it for the missions.

The Spanish governors in California had the authority to grant land permits to individuals.  These were use permits, and did not mean that the individuals owned the land.  However, these first use permits are commonly called "land grants."

The first use permits were granted by the Spanish governor Pedro Fages in 1784.  By 1822 about thirty use permits had been given, mainly in the Los Angeles area.  These early land grants were given to soldiers in recognition of their military service.  The permits were intended to be for disabled soldiers, but it seems that being a friend or relative of the governor was more important than any disability. 

Rules for the granting of land use permits under the Spanish governors stated that the land granted must not take any land from Indian rancherías (communities) or the missions, and must be four leagues (12 miles) or more from any pueblo or presidio (fort).  The land was to be used primarily for grazing cattle. 


When Mexico became independent from Spain in 1821, the Mexican government wanted people to settle in California.  To encourage settlement, they offered land. 

Mexican colonization laws passed in 1824 and 1828 allowed the grants of title to the land.  This meant that the person receiving the land actually owned it, rather than just being allowed to use it.  Many of the people who had received use permits from the Spanish governors now applied for Mexican grants for the same land, to make sure that they could keep their land.

From 1822 to 1846, hundreds of rancho land grants were given to individuals by the Mexican governors.  Mexican law stated that the grants could not exceed eleven leagues (a "square league" contained about 4,500 acres).  Actually, most of the ranchos were five leagues (about 22,500 acres) or less.  Some families, however, managed to get several adjoining grants so that they formed very large ranchos of 300,000 acres or more. 

The ranchos were located mostly along the western part of California, following the line of the missions.  The northernmost rancho grant was in what is now Shasta County, along the Sacramento River.

The missions were secularized (land taken from the Catholic Church by the government) between 1834 and 1836.  This meant that mission lands were then available to individuals. Many people asked the governor to give them land.  Between 1834 and 1842, more than 300 ranchos were granted, mostly from lands that had been used previously by the missions.

The plan for the missions had been that the land would be given back to the native people, the Indians who had lived there before the Spanish came.  For the most part, this did not happen.  A few Indians were given grants of mission lands, but most of these lost their land to Mexican ranch owners who traded liquor or sacks of goods to the Indians in exchange for their land.


About 8,000 B.C.     People first come to what is now California, eventually forming the Indian tribes that lived in California for thousands of years

1542     Juan Rodríquez Cabrillo explores near present-day San Diego

1579     Sir Francis Drake sails near San Francisco Bay

1602     Sebastián Vizcaíno explores the coast from San Diego toMonterey

1769     First Spanish mission established by Father Serra

1784     First land use permits for ranchos given by Spanish Governor Fages

1822     Mexico takes control of California; encourages settlement by giving land grants for more ranchos

1833     Missions secularized; more rancho lands opened for claim

1847     United States takes control of California, ending new grants of ranchos

1850     California becomes a state

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