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Before 1769, the land in California was divided among many groups of Indians.  The ancestors of these first Californians had lived on the land for hundreds of years.  Each group claimed a certain area for their villages and as hunting, fishing, and food gathering territory.

When the Spanish sent soldiers and missionaries into California to build the missions, they claimed ownership for Spain, ignoring the rights of the Indians to the land.  Each mission and each presidio (fort) was allowed the use of certain land.  The land did not belong to the Church, but to the government.

UNDER SPAIN 1784-1821

When California was governed by Spain, it was possible for individuals to be granted the right to use large areas of land.  The one requirement was that the person must be a "veteran," having served as a soldier in the Spanish army.

Thus the first rancheros (owners of ranchos) in California were soldiers who decided that they wanted to stay in California after they finished their terms of service in the Spanish army.  Being granted the use of grazing lands for his cattle was considered a kind of retirement reward for the soldier, a thank-you from the government of Spain for the service the soldier had given.

The Spanish officials wanted these first rancheros to live in the nearest pueblo (town) rather than on the rancho land.  The land was to be used just for grazing cattle and horses.  However, it seems that most of the first rancheros built small houses on their land anyway.

UNDER MEXICO 1822-1846

When Mexico took control of California, it became much easier to get rancho lands.  The Mexican government wanted people to settle in California.  There was a lot of empty land.  There were just two requirements for those who wanted to apply for a land grant:

(1)    be a Mexican citizen

(2)    belong to the Catholic Church

The person who met these requirements could pick out the land that he or she wanted.  Land that was considered good was land that had a stream on it to provide water, a flat place to build a house, and tall grass for grazing cattle.

Some people who were not from Mexico qualified for land grants by first changing their country of citizenship and becoming Mexican citizens.  These "naturalized" citizens could receive the grant of land inland, but did not qualify for land along the sea coast.  Coastal land, considered more valuable, was reserved for those born in Mexico.

Other people who were not Mexican citizens could qualify for land by marrying someone who was a Mexican citizen.  Those who were not Catholics had to become part of the Catholic Church in order to own a rancho.


The person who wanted to own a rancho went through a simple process.

(1)    The applicant prepared a petition requesting the land, and promising to build a house and have at least 150 head of cattle grazing on the land.

(2)    A map, called a diseņo, was attached to the petition to show the location of the land.  Rancho land was to be at least four leagues (12 miles) from a pueblo, a mission, or an Indian village.

(3)    The governor reviewed the petition.  If the applicant was a Mexican citizen and a Catholic, and if no one had objected to this grant, the governor wrote "let the title issue" on the petition.

(4)    The land grant paper was prepared, signed by the governor, and delivered to the applicant.

(5)  As a final step, the alcalde (mayor) of the closest pueblo gave his permission.

The applicant was now the owner of the land. 

Rancho land was free to those who qualified.  It was a gift from the government.  Government officials sometimes rewarded their friends with large land grants.


The diseņo that accompanied each land grant request was usually a quickly drawn, crude map.

Natural landmarks such as streams, hills, gullies, or clumps of trees were used to describe the boundaries of the rancho.  Sometimes rocks were piled up and used as a marker, or sticks were stuck in the ground.  This caused problems later, as piles of rocks and sticks would get moved over the years and it would be impossible to tell just where the boundaries were.

The unit of measurement used in mapping rancho lands was the "league."  A league was equal to about three miles.  When used as a unit of area, the league (square league) was equal to 4,439 acres.

Two men on horseback would measure the land.  They used a lariat or reata (a long rope used as a lasso) with a stake tied to each end of it.  The reata was about 50 yards long.  One horseman would plant one of the stakes in the ground and hold it there.  The other horseman took the other end of the reata and rode off.  When the reata was stretched to its full length, the second horseman put his stake in the ground.  Then the first horseman rode past the second one, carrying his end of the reata, and kept going until the reata again was stretched to its full length.

The two men repeated this process until they had measured all the boundaries of the rancho.  The distances between the landmarks were written on the diseņo.


The person who received the grant of land could choose a name for his or her rancho.  Often the name chosen was that of a saint, because the land grant was made on that saint's day.  This resulted in a number of instances where ranchos in various parts of the state were given the same name.  For instance, there was a Rancho San Antonio in Alameda County, another Rancho San Antonio in Los Angeles County, and a third in Santa Clara County.  There was a Rancho Santa Margarita in San Diego County and another in San Luis Obispo County.

Other ranchos were named for some particular feature of the land.  Some interesting names are:

Rancho Pescadero -- Fishing Place

Rancho Arroyo de la Alameda -- Stream by the   Grove of Poplar Trees

Rancho Caņada de los Osos -- Valley of the Bears

Rancho Cucamonga -- Sandy Place

Rancho Cerritos -- Little Hills

Rancho Tres Ojos de Agua -- Three Springs of Water

Rancho Punta de los Lobos -- Point of the Wolves

Rancho Milpitas -- Small Cornfield

Rancho Mariposas -- Butterflies

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