Wednesday, April 5, 2017

The Californio -- The Caste System

A reader wrote to ask if I knew anything about the class or caste system in Old California among the Californio?

Well, this is some of what I was taught and since read about Old California when it belonged to Spain and Mexico. I know that Spain's first contact with California was in the 1530s when Cortez's men ventured to Baja California (Lower California). It wasn't until 1542 that Spaniards sailed north to Alta California (Upper California). That was when Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo's expedition landed in what is today Santa Barbara.

It is said that coastal winds and strong currents made the voyage north almost impossible. And because Spanish sea captains failed to find safe harbors for their ships, Baja California became the northwest limit of Spanish colonization. It's also said that while they also converted native Indian tribes to Catholics and instilling a Spanish way of life was important to the Spanish at the time, their efforts to truly settle the area were really halfhearted at best. In fact, they claimed the area but really didn't do anything with it for more than 150 years. 

Imagine claiming territory for your own but not doing anything with it for the next 150 years. Of course, there were reasons that happened. A couple of those reasons were the Spanish crown's need to divert funds to wars and what they saw as other priorities. I had a great California History teacher who once told me that part of the reason that the exploration of California was placed on hold had to do with the initial reports from those first expeditions. Supposedly, according to my teacher, those reports painted California as a desert climate, as "a very dry place, filled with dense shrubs, a place where nothing will grow" 

Also, early reports spoke about how tough it was to travel because of the nearly impenetrable, dense thicket, which Californians know as "chaparral." Chaparral is California's most distinctive drought-tolerant, woody shrub, shaped by a Mediterranean-type hot, dry summers, and mild, wet winter climate. Chaparral covers most of California's coastal foothills and interior mountain slopes. Anyone who has tried to maneuver a horse through chaparral while moving cattle knows how tough it can be to get through manzanitas chaparral. And as for trying to get through the old-growth manzanitas chaparral with waist-sized trunks of days gone by, well it's no wonder that it frustrated the first explorers as it did. It's no wonder they didn't get to explore more of California at the time.
It was only after the Seven Years' War, which was from 1756 to 1763, that Spain decided to seriously attempt further exploration and attempt to control their holding of Alta California. Yes, it was more than 150 years later that Spain finally decides to truly colonize the area that the Spanish explorer Cabrillo claimed for the Spanish crown.

Their effort to colonize California was made through a combination of establishing Presidios which are military forts, and mission churches which were overseen by Franciscan priests, Catholic fathers, led by Junípero Serra.

In 1769, the first parties set north from Baja California, and the line of Spanish settlement along the coast was inaugurated when soldiers and priests established a Presidio and mission church at San Diego. By the end of the Spanish colonial period, California had three Presidios located at Santa Barbara, Monterey, and San Francisco. During this time they established 21 missions.

In addition to the missions and the Presidios, small pueblos sprang up. In fact, in 1777 the pueblo at San Jose was created, and in 1781 a group of forty-four Spanish settlers known as "Los Pobladores" founded the pueblo called "El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Ángeles de Porciúncula". 

In English that is translated to "The Town of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels of Porziuncola." Porziuncola means "Little portion of land". The river that was called the Porciuncula is today's Los Angeles River. Yes, the place we know as the city of Los Angeles.

The pueblos tried to attract settlers by offering land grants. Those pueblos were governed by an "Alcalde," who was a combination of a judge and a mayor. He was assisted by a council called the "Ayuntamiento" which was the elite there.

In the beginning, most "Californios" were of pure unmixed Spanish ancestry. In fact "Californios" are historically pure Castilian ancestry. Since the 15th century, through the Spanish colonization of the Americas, Castilians brought with them not only their language but also elements of their culture and traditions. Yes, this included a "caste system."

Castilians are actually inhabitants of a central region of Spain. Castilian is the source of the Spanish language. As for the term "Californio," it became watered down and was used to describe the mixed bag of people from Spain, Mexico, and even the United States. So no, it wasn't only the rich.

The first Spaniards in California were for the most part Castilians from central Spain. They were military personnel and Franciscan priests. As time went on Spanish California was populated by many of the soldiers who were once deployed to California from what is today Mexico. And according to mission marriage, baptism, and burial records, as well as Presidio troop rosters, several of the soldiers known as "leather jackets" were described as being born in Spain. 

Those Spanish soldiers were in California because they were assigned as escorts, mission guards, and other active military duty assignments. Many simply stayed once their military obligations had ended.

As for the civilians, while at first, they were the Castilian farmers and soldiers who arrived in California to create a colony, later the civilians were of mixed ethnicities. Those of Spanish and Native American mix was called the "Mestizo". Those of Black and Indian mix was often called the "Sonoran".

It's said that the term "mestizo" was rarely if ever used in mission records, the more common terms being used were "indio", "europeo", "mulatto", "coyote", and "castizo." And yes, these were caste terms. So yes, California had a caste system which was an extension of the caste system in Spain.

A caste system is a class structure that is determined by birth. It means that if your parents are poor, then you're going to be poor too. Of course, if your parents are part of the wealthy and elite, then you too are destined to be rich and part of the elite. Very seldom did a person from the lower class make it into the upper class. And even if one did, they may not be accepted at a higher level for a few generations.

This system is very foreign to Americans because we see all people as equal. All Americans have the opportunity to advance in life and are really only limited by their own personal drive and ambitions. There are many many stories in American history of people who came from poor families and went on to achieve success.

During most of the Spanish colonial era in California and elsewhere, Spanish society had a small number of pure-blood Spaniards at the top. This was the hierarchy of power and social status during most of the colonial period. Beneath them was the mixed-race "peons" who were the unskilled laborers and debtors who were held in servitude by their creditor. And yes, at the very bottom were the Native Indians and black slaves.

Whichever way one looked at it, the upper echelons of Spanish colonial society were dominated by Spaniards who held positions of privilege and political power that they were essentially born to. But even at that, there was a sharp split that existed between the wealthy born in Spain and those born in California.

While the relationship between the two groups was friendly, it could also be antagonistic. Those born in Spain looked down on those born in California. Yes, believe it or not, the wealthy born in California was seen as inferior. And yes, the Spanish crown's preference was for Spanish-born Spaniards for positions in government and church posts. This riled California-born Spaniards. And yes, this resentment helped fuel the wars for independence later.

Despite there being an overall prejudice against anyone who labored with their hands, Spanish craftsmen did so. In fact, Spanish craftsmen were employed for their skills. Although, Spaniards were likely to be the managers and foremen over the peons and the Indians who did the hard physical unskilled labor such as farming, planting, harvesting crops, herding cattle, and all other things agriculturally.

The "Californio" Vaquero was said to be of the upper class. With the introduction of the horse to the Americas by the Spaniards, horses became a status symbol. Horses represented wealth simply because horses were not cheap. But they also represented mobility, speed, and a superior physical vantage point. This in turn was said to project an air of Spanish superiority over the lower classes.

The "Californio" Vaquero was an extension of the Spanish Vaquero who brought their cattle-raising traditions as well as both horses and domesticated cattle to the Americas. Just as in Florida, how the legacy of the Spanish Vaquero there in the 1500s can still be seen there, the same can be said about California. Among those vaqueroes are the "mesteñeros", or "Mustang runners". They were vaqueros who caught, broke, and drove wild horses, called mesteños or mustangs, to market in Northern Mexico, Texas, New Mexico, and California. These Mesteñeros operated primarily in the Great Plains from Texas and New Mexico in the 1700s. But during the 1800s, they primarily operated in California's San Joaquin Valley.

The lifestyle and language of the Vaquero, their saddles and tack, their dress, and their traditions would all later merge with English cultural traditions and produced what we know as the American Cowboy. But the "Californio" Vaquero is vastly different than the American Cowboy in a number of ways.

Where the American Cowboy worked atop a horse and off to do groundwork during brandings and such, the "Californio" Vaquero did not. He was strictly a horseman and roper, the groundwork and herding of cattle were done by peons of lesser class. He was of such a class that he did not do such work.

Just as horses and arms were the keys to many military successes during the Spanish Conquest, horses and arms were considered to be signs of the superior social status of Spaniards. And while peons did not own horses, they were forbidden from owning arms of any sort. 

By Spanish law, peons, all of those of lowers classes were forbidden from owning guns or bearing any other sort of arms. Keeping the peons unarmed was a way to prevent armed rebellions.

Spanish laws to keep the people disarmed were created and in place to keep those in power in power. The enforcement of this prohibition was actually assisted along by the popular belief of the times that said bearing arms, like riding a horse, was a prerogative of the upper class and being Spanish.

As for the family itself, during that time it was patriarchal with the son following his father's wishes. As for women in Spanish California, while the caste system was prominent in Spanish colonial society, women had full rights of property ownership and control. That is unless she was married or had a father, the males had almost complete control of all family members.

A formal education system in California had yet to be created so it fell to the individual families to educate their children among themselves. While it was traditionally done by the mission priests, the upper classes also hired private tutors. In contrast, few early peons knew how to read or write.

So imagine this for a moment, by the time Mexico attained independence in 1821, only 20 private ranches existed in Alta California. The Californio rancho owners claimed about 8,600,000 acres. And if you look at the map above and then realize that Altoa California did not have the same borders as the state of California has today, you can see that those ranchos were massive kingdoms within themselves.

A New Map of Texas, Oregon, and California 1847

By 1847, that map had not changed that much, but still by the end of the Mexican era which only lasted 26 years, the number of land grants in California had increased from 20 to 800. So from the early 1820s until the California Gold Rush, Spanish, and Mexican rulers granted over 800 large tracts of California land. They were the real power in Old California.

Those who owned the ranchos lived in a grand style emulating the wealthy hidalgos in Spain. A "hidalgo" is a member of the Spanish or Portuguese nobility. And yes, just as Lords of a castle, they expected the non-rancho-owning population to support this lifestyle.

All in all, they were California royalty. These were all males and as Californio Vaqueros themselves, they rode everywhere which made them excellent riders. They indulged in fiestas, fandangos, rodeos, and roundups. As "Dons", which is Spanish and Portuguese for "Lords", the rancho owners also went from rancho to rancho to weddings, christenings, and funerals as royalty.

So yes, all in all, in Spanish California, in Old California, the Californios were actually the Spanish elite. They were at the top of the caste system which meant they were born to rule. And they did rule with an iron fist.

As for the general public, since there were really only two classes, the rich and the poor, the lower classes were little more than slaves to the wealthy landowners and politicians who actually only numbered a few.

Tom Correa


  1. Sad to see -it is Baja California, Mexico, NOT Baja, California. Without Baja California there would not have been an Alta California. The Californios were not just the rich few land owners but also the hundreds of mestizo vaqueros and arrieros who did all of the work and these people built what would be come Alta California. Many of their descendants live today all over Baja California-both norte and sur-many on roadless ranchos where they have lived for over 150 years and whose ancestors were the soldiers, mission workers and vaqueros of both Californias. It was their sons and daughters who followed el camino real northward to Alta California to become the founding families of Los Angeles and Monterey and all the other place names of today. For more information about these Californios, Harry Crosby's classic is "The Last of the Californios"....My name is Teddi Montes and I have "The Californio DNA Project"-several of these Californios are my ancestors.

  2. I am Brett Halsey, a direct descendant of the first elected mayor of Los Angeles, Juan Francisco Reyes. If you want to know the real "Californio" story, read my novel, "My soul To Keep".

  3. Hi there, Brett. It seems I have heard your name before. You wouldn't be that Hollywood actor that temporarily used the stage name Montgomery Ford, would ya? That man's real now was Charles Oliver Hand. I saw his Spaghetti Western film, "Today We Kill, Tomorrow We Die" a long time ago on YouTube where he played Bill Kiowa. Is this you? Please let me know. I think I might know all about you. I DO know that you are now more of a writer. I'm just checking to be sure since I'm a big fan of yours. You probably don't know who I am but my name is Benny and I have autism and I like Old Hollywood films. When I saw the name, Brett Halsey, I thought it looked familiar. I am 29 years old going on 30 and it's hard to believe that I have even heard of you. You became one of my favorite actors when I saw you do an episode of "A Word On Westerns" with Rob Word on YouTube. I also read on Wikipedia that Brett Halsey is also related to the admiral "Bull" Halsey and therefore took his stage name from him as that was his surname. Please tell me you're him. As always, Benny.

    1. Hello Benny,

      Yes, that's Brett Halsey. He was an wonderful actor and is still an outstanding writer. You would really enjoy reading his books. They are all very good reads. Check out his website for his books at

      As always, your friend, Tom

  4. I knew it was him! He's from Santa Ana, California and he was born on June 20, 1933 making him 89 years old still. He has also done the show "Follow The Sun" and worked on films in Italy. He also taught in San Jose, Costa Rica for a short period of time. I went to his website about a week ago and sure enough his book, "My Soul To Keep", was on there. So I guess I was right. Thanks for letting me know, Tom. As always, Benny.


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