Tuesday, July 21, 2020

So How Did The Spanish End Up In California?


Every once in a while, I'm asked a short question that takes a long answer. This one comes from a reader who tells me that her family enjoys the California Vaquero ranching traditions of days gone by. She wants to know how the Spanish ended up in California. 

Spanish conquistadors were the first people from another continent to arrive in California. Some confuse their arrival in California as simply a quest for land and expansion. In fact the Spanish monarchy sent those conquistadors to look for gold, silver, spices, and valuables, while looking for a shortcut to the East Indies. Believe it or not, Spain's arrival in the Americas and later in California was all about looking for a shorter route to Asia.  

What was Christopher Columbus looking for when he reached the Caribbean? Asia. Some folks simply don't understand that Columbus was not looking for a new continent. The known world did not know the Western Hemisphere, the geographical term for the half of Earth, actually sat between Europe and Asia. He was simply trying to find a shortcut to Asia for Spain.  

Did he fail in his quest to find that route? Yes, because he never did find what he sought -- and Spain needed. While he, like many explorers of that age were truly fascinated by the works of Marco Polo and believed the earth is round, it is a fact that Columbus stumbled into the Bahamas purely by accident. It's true. Christopher Columbus, the man who was the son of an Italian wool maker, a man who went to sea and later ended up studying navigation and mathematics in Portugal, found the Caribbean island that he named Hispaniola by accident.

The Spanish monarchy provided him with crews for three ships -- the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. On August 3, 1492, he set sail from Spain. On October 12th of that same year, his ships found land. But it was not the East Indies, which is the lands of South and Southeast Asia. 

When he made landfall, he really believed that he had reached India. In fact, that's the reason why he called the natives who he encountered "Indians." He believed he had found the land that he was looking for. In reality, it was not the land of spices and riches that he had hoped for. But that didn't stop him from believing that he found Asia.

Columbus sailed from island to island for months in what we now know as the Caribbean, all the while looking for a friendly trading port. What was he in search of? He searched for "pearls, precious stones, gold, silver, spices, and other objects and merchandise whatsoever" found in the East Indies to take back to his Spanish benefactors. 

Disappointed, by January of 1493, he returned to Spain after leaving dozens of men behind in a small settlement on an island which they named Hispaniola. That island is present-day Haiti/Dominican Republic. He returned to Spain after failing to find riches or Asia. He would sail west again later in 1493, 1498 and in 1502. Again and again with a determination to find a direct ocean route west from Europe to Asia. He died never knowing that he had discovered two continents which were to be called the "New World." He died believing he found Asia.

For some reason, people have this idea that Columbus thought he found a New World and that was the prize. That wasn't the case. Asia was the prize because of the riches that Asia held. In the 1400's, reaching Asia from Europe was considered nearly impossible. The land route was not only long, it was seen as filled with all sorts of danger including all sorts of hostile bands and rogue armies.

Portugal was an empire at sea and had solved the land route problem by sailing south along the West African coast and around the Cape of Good Hope. Portuguese conquistadors colonized the African coast and would later meet African Chiefs wanting to sell their own people into slavery. African Chiefs sold their people to Muslims as slaves for centuries before meeting Europeans. Muslim armies having black and white slaves was not unknown to the Portuguese and the Spanish. After centuries of war with the Muslim Moors starting in the 8th century, the Moors were finally expelled from the Iberian peninsula in January of 1492. That was when the Catholic Monarchs defeated the last Moor stronghold of the Kingdom of Granada.

The war with the Moors was costly to all, but especially for Spain in its last ten years in the war for Granada. Because of that, Spain wanted its explorers to find riches to rebuild their coffers. Portugal was seen as a power from the early 1400's, and had already established a sea route around the horn of Africa by the late 1400's. To say the Portuguese explorers didn't get around would be a real understatement since it's believed that a Portuguese explorer arrived in Newfoundland in North America in 1472. Yes, twenty years before Columbus arrived in the Bahamas. 

When Columbus presented his plan of sailing west instead of south and around Africa to reach Asia, both Portugal and England were not interested in bankrolling his expedition. That wasn't the case with Spanish monarchs Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile who were sympathetic to his idea. To them, Columbus' plan made sense considering the world was believed to be smaller at the time. To the known world, if the earth is indeed round, then Asia lay to the west. 

Why not sail west across the Atlantic instead of heading south and around Africa to go east to get to Asia? His logic was sound, even if his math wasn't. Remember, he incorrectly argued that the circumference of the Earth was much smaller than it is in reality. He believed that a journey to Asia would be possible by going west. All he needed to do was prove it. Needless to say, that didn't happen even though Spain backed his efforts for four attempts. And no, Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella did not get any of the riches that were promised them by Columbus.  

After Columbus failed to find his new trade route to Asia in 1492, and instead landed in the Caribbean, there was all of a sudden a whole new set of continents that were completely unknown to every mapmaker in the known world. Whether Columbus knew it or not, he did in fact make every map of the known world complete wrong in 1492. While he didn't know that he didn't get to Asia, his accidental find of the Western Hemisphere changed the way every power in Europe, Asia, and Africa viewed the world. 

Think that's no small feat? Imagine being a mapmaker and needing a name for the places that were recently found and only known as the "New World" -- but no one knew what to call it? And what about the people who assume Columbus did in fact find a place in Asia? Why not call that area "Columbus" after the person who accidentally found it? Remember, no one knew that that part of the world even existed until he happened upon it.  

Well, that's where Amerigo Vespucci comes in. The "Americas" are named after Amerigo Vespucci because he was the first person to recognize North and South America as distinct continents. Remember, these were continents previously unknown to people in Europe, Asia, and Africa. 

Prior to Vespucci's discovery, it's a fact that explorers, including Columbus himself, assumed that the "New World" which he bumped into was actually part of Asia. It was Vespucci that changed that. He made his discovery while sailing near the tip of South America in 1501. As for getting to have his name attached to his discovery, that wasn't Vespucci's doing -- it was done by a mapmaker.

North America and South America are the two continents named after him because a German clergyman and amateur cartographer by the name of Martin Waldseemüller made it happen. In 1507, Waldseemüller proposed that a portion of Brazil which Vespucci was known to have explored with the Portuguese be named "America." The name "America" was considered a "feminized version" of Italian Amerigo Vespucci's first name. Waldseemüller wrote, "I see no reason why anyone should justly object to calling this part ... America, after Amerigo [Vespucci], its discoverer, a man of great ability."

Of course, as with most things, there is a reason why the name "America" stuck. That has to do with  Waldseemüller's maps selling by the thousands. He sold thousands of copies of his map all across Europe. Soon, everyone was calling the newly discovered continents "America". In was in 1538 that a mapmaker by the name of Gerardus Mercator applied the name "America" to both the northern and southern continents of the "New World". Because of that we have "North America" and "South America." And because of those mapmakers, those continents have been known as such ever since. All to name areas on maps previously known as "Mundus Novus" -- which is Latin for "New World".

After the 1492 "discovery," the Spanish began extending their empire into the Caribbean by using using Hispaniola, Cuba, and Puerto Rico as their bases to operate from. During that time, both Portugal and Spain would send their explorers to continue the effort of finding a trade route to Asia. Remember, the "New World" was not seen as the prize. Asia trade and the riches it held was the sought after prize. Those riches were the reason for the Age of Discovery. 

But, while a shorter trade route to Asia was seen as the ultimate prize, those empires would soon start laying claim to the "New World" found by Columbus. For the Portuguese, their influence extended to Brazil by 1500. Not too many years later Portugal established trade with China and Japan. 

Conquistador is the Spanish and Portuguese word for "conqueror." Conquistadors were professional soldiers schooled in European military tactics, firearms, the use of sword and pike, as mounted cavalry and as infantry. They specialized in combat fighting and survival in the worse conditions. While all were soldiers, many were knights, explorers, noblemen, of the Spanish Empire and the Portuguese Empire. 

Conquistadors were not restricted to Spain. In fact, conquistadors in the service of the Portuguese throne expanded the Portuguese Empire to South America, Africa, Asia, India, China, the Persian Gulf, and the East Indies. Spain sent conquistadors to the Americas in search of gold, silver, jewels, and land. The first Europeans to reach California were Spanish conquistadors commanded by Hernán Cortés. 

Hernán Cortés waged a campaign of conquest against the Aztec Empire from 1519 to 1521. From those conquered lands of the Aztec Empire, Spanish conquistadors expanded Spain's holding from Central America to what is today southern and western United States and Mexico. In the Spanish colonial era, Mexico was called "New Spain." Mexico City was founded in 1524 on the site of the ancient Mexica capital of Mexico-Tenochtitlan.

In 1533, Cortés sent conquistadors up the Pacific coast. Believe it or not, he too was looking for a shorter route to Asia. Instead of a shortcut to Asia and the East Indies, his conquistadors found a peninsula which they thought was an island. At first, they thought they found the mythical island of California named in a Spanish book of the time. Because of that, they named it that. Yes, that's how California got its name.

Why did they think it was an island when it wasn't? It's because they assumed the peninsula was actually an island when it was not. What they found was actually Baja California. It was later that Spanish conquistadors exploring the Pacific coast divided California into Baja and Alta California. Baja California later became part of what is now Mexico. 

It wasn't until 1542, that Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo led an expedition from New Spain (Mexico) up the Pacific coast. He and his expedition were the first Europeans to visit Alta California. Alta California became what is today the state of California. And yes, he too was in search of a shortcut to Asia. 

Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo was thought to be Portuguese, but is known to have explored the West Coast of North America on behalf of the Spanish Empire. He was the first European to explore present-day California, navigating along the coast of California from 1542 to 1543. While he went north up the Pacific coast, he is said to have only reached the area known today as San Diego, California.

There was a reason that he only reached as far north as San Diego. The California coast has extremely strong southern ocean currents. It's said that ships used to have to use a zig-zag course when heading north up the coast. Traveling south was done in half the time because it was a straight line south down the coast with the flow of the ocean currents. Spanish explorers, those conquistadors who settled lands for their empire, also struggled against winds that blew from the northeast along the California coast. Because of the combination of strong ocean currents that flowed north to south, and winds blowing sailing ships of the time off course, the steep cliffs and treacherous rocks along the coast threatened ships trying to make that journey.  

As for England's claim to California about that time? It should be noted that Spain had conquered the Philippines, naming them after King Philip II. Spanish ships brought spices and riches from the Philippines to newly created ports in New Spain (Mexico). Those ships carried silver and gold headed for Spain.

England's Queen Elizabeth I sent raider Sir Francis Drake to attack and rob those Spanish ships. Near what is known as Drake's Bay in Northern California, Sir Francis Drake stopped for a short time to repair his ship. He supposedly claimed that land for England. Of course, Spain sent more ships and England never pursued that claim.

Spanish explorer Sebastián Vizcaíno was considered a brave man who made a name for himself in the Spanish military during the Spanish invasion of Portugal in 1580. He was sent to New Spain (Mexico) in 1583. From there he sailed to Spain's holdings in the Philippines. In 1596, Vizcaíno charted Baja California with three ships and a small detachment of troops.

In 1601, the Spanish Viceroy in Mexico City, appointed Vizcaíno as the General-in-charge of a Second Expedition to locate safe harbors in Alta California. In 1602, Vizcaíno led an expedition from Acapulco, Mexico, north up the California coast while looking for a safe harbor. Spanish Manila galleons returning from Manila in the Philippines needed safe harbors on their return voyage to Acapulco.

Besides seeking a safe harbor, Vizcaíno was ordered to map in detail the California coastline which Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo had first explored 60 years earlier. He departed Acapulco with three ships on May 5, 1602. His flagship was the San Diego and the other two ships were the San Tomás and the Tres Reyes.

On November 10, 1602, Sebastián Vizcaíno entered and named San Diego Bay. Then he said north, and named such prominent California coast features as the Santa Barbara Channel Islands, Point Conception, the Santa Lucia Mountains, Point Lobos, Carmel River and Monterey Bay. Yes, the safe harbor he found and named was Monterey Bay.

It's said that he actually renamed many of the place that Cabrillo had already charted and named in 1542. During his 1602 expedition, Sebastián Vizcaíno was separated for one of his three ships, the Tres Reyes. Its commander was Martín de Aguilar. He is believed to have continued north after losing sight of Vizcaíno. It's believed that that Aguilar reached the coast of present-day Oregon as far as Cape Blanco. Some say Aguilar reached Coos Bay.

When I was in college, I remember being told how Spanish explorer Sebastián Vizcaíno reported that he found "a bay so big that all of the ships of all of the great powers of the world could fit within it." My teacher believed that Vizcaíno was actually reporting his discovery of San Francisco Bay. And though Sebastián Vizcaíno's reports of California were confirmed in the diary of Antonio de la Ascensión, a Carmelite friar and chronicler, a mapmaker, who traveled with Vizcaíno's 1602 expedition, the Spanish government assumed that Vizcaíno was talking about Monterey Bay. Believe it or not, the Spanish government is said to have assumed that Vizcaíno had embellished his discovery of such a large bay. The reason? They believed he did it so to justify asking for more funds for another expedition. Imagine that.

Vizcaíno's voyage did create a desire by Spain to establish a settlement at Monterey Bay. But, as surprising as it may sound today, the Spanish didn't make a move to create settlements in California for the next 167 years. While that is true, there may be a reason for that. In Vizcaíno's reports, he also said something about the California landscape that may be the reason why Spain halted all plans to create settlements in Alta California.

Besides reporting about how it was difficult to reach from the sea because of its jagged coast, Vizcaíno is said to have mentioned California's chaparral. Chaparral is a shrub primarily found in California and in the northern part of the Baja California. It's an extremely hardy plant that grows in California's Mediterranean climate after wildfires. Chaparral covers anywhere from 7 to 10% of the entire state of California depending on what you read.

The name "chaparral" comes from the Portuguese and Spanish word "chaparro" for evergreen oak shrub. Vizcaíno wrote that California is covered with it. For those familiar with chaparral, it is tough to navigate through on horseback. And while it makes extremely dense barriers, chaparral is an impediment to raising cattle. Vizcaíno wrote that because of the chaparral, the ground in California is not good for growing crops. Imagine that? California soil not being good to grow crops?

After Vizcaíno's 1602 expedition north, Spanish explorers didn't return to Alta California for more than 150 years. Spain's reasons for avoiding establishing settlements in Alta California are many. Alta California was seen as being difficult to reach by sea, its deserts and high mountains blocked feasible land routes, hostile Native Indians tribes hindered expeditions, and there was little incentive to settle Alta California because it was seen as being not good for growing crops. Those are the reasons that the Spanish stopped exploring California after Vizcaíno’s expedition.

I find it interesting that Spain's colonization plans for Alta California were canceled by 1608. I also find it interesting that Spanish interest in really colonizing Alta California was revived  because of Russian fur trading and colonization of Alaska in the 1760's. To keep the Russians from expanding south along the North American West Coast, the Spanish took another look at Alta California.

To help them in the settling of that unknown lands, Spain looked to Franciscan missionaries to convert Native Indians to Catholicism as they did for over a hundred years in Baja California. To help the Franciscans do that, the Spanish monarchy funded both the construction and the operation of the missions. Those missions were meant to expand Spanish rule in Alta California. 

The first Alta California mission and military presidio was established in San Diego in 1769 by Franciscan friars Junípero Serra and Gaspar de Portolá. In 1770, the second mission and military presidio was founded in Monterey. The city of Monterey, California, was founded on June 3, 1770. It was the capital of Alta California under both Spain and Mexico. San Jose, California, was the first pueblo founded in Alta California in 1777. Some believe it was Los Angeles, but the pueblo of Los Angeles was founded a few years later in 1781. 

In 1804, Governor Diego de Borica officially divided Alta (upper) from Baja (lower) California's by defining their official borders -- making their border just south of San Diego.  As for the borders with the United States, it was the Adams-Onís Treaty of 1819 between the United States and Spain established the northern limit of Alta California at latitude 42°N. 

By the way, the area encompassing all of what was known as Las Californias, "The Californias," was twice or more the size of Texas at one time. While latitude 42°N remains the boundary between the states of California, Nevada, Utah, Oregon and Idaho to this day, most of the lands of those states grew out of Las Californias.  


As for control of the missions? By Spanish decree, the mission property was to pass to the mission's Native Indian population, the people of their area, after a period of ten years. It was determined that it would take that long for Native populations to become subjects of the Spanish crown. During those ten years, the priests were to act as mission administrators with the land in trust. 

Well, that's not exactly how things worked out. Though the priests would assert that they native population owned the property and the livestock, those Franciscan friars didn't want to relinquish their control over the missions even after Alta California passed from Spain to an independent Mexico in 1822. Sadly, the transfer of property from the Catholic church to the residents of the area never did take place under the Franciscans. And to add to the problems, conflicts between the church and the government kept growing over land boundaries, natural resources, and livestock which was said to be mission properties. 

There were 21 Spanish missions established in California between 1769 and 1833. They were founded by Spain using Catholic priests of the Franciscan order to evangelize Native tribes and make them subjects of Spain. Those missions introduced European fruits, vegetables, cattle, horses, ranching, and technology to that frontier. It was the missions that led to the creation of the New Spain (Mexico) province of Alta California which became part of the Spanish Empire. Mexico won its independence in 1821, and Alta California became a territory of Mexico in 1822. Mexico did not send a Governor to California until two years later in 1824. The friars continued to run the missions until 1833.

Besides the mission system, Spain handed out huge land grants to help populate and stabilize Alta California. What took place during the Spanish rule was carried on later by the Mexican governments when it came to their rewarding retired soldiers in an attempt to keep them in California which was really considered a frontier in those days. Those large land grants, known as "ranchos," were for those retired soldiers to raise cattle and sheep, build local economies, and create a society akin to that in Spain. 

The building of the ranchos, and later the ranching itself, and even the domestic work in the homes of those huge estates were primarily done by peon laborers and Native Indians most of who grew up on the missions and learned farming and caring for the livestock from the friars. The Native Indians who were born in Spanish California, they spoke Spanish from birth. As the mission system was ending, the majority of cared for Native population either returned to their tribes or found work with the ranchos. 

As for the word "peon," it is a Mexican word which originally meant "someone who was an agricultural worker in servitude to his landlord." A peon is also defined as "a person with little authority, often assigned unskilled tasks, or an underling or any person subjected to capricious or unreasonable oversight."

The peons and Native Indians working on a rancho may have been laborers, but many were not seen as unskilled at all. Because of the mission system, most were seen a very knowledgeable of agriculture and livestock. Since hides and tallow from the livestock were the primary exports of California until the mid-19th century, ranchos needed knowledgeable skilled workers. As hide, tallow, wool, and textiles expanded, California leather products were being exported to neighboring United States, as well as to South America and Asia. 

To increase the population of Alta California, Spain sought to relocate some of its subjects from Sonora, Mexico, to that area. They were very few and met with a great deal of animosity by those already there. Many actually returned South. The economy looked promising and the ranchos became very successful, even though trade was restricted to foreigners. In fact, it's said that under Spanish rule and later the Mexican government, ranchos prospered and grew. 

The difference between a California Vaquero, also known as a Californio Vaquero, versus that of a Texas Cowboy in say 1840 was a matter of influence. The Texas Cowboy and his cattle handling techniques were more akin to the Mexican Vaquero culture. In contrast, the California Vaquero's habits and techniques were influenced out of closer ties to the Spanish Vaquero culture of Spain than that of New Spain (Mexico). 

The California Vaquero was unlike the Texas Cowboy in another aspect. While the Texas Cowboy may have been a drifter or seen as an easily replaceable laborer by ranchers in Texas, the California Vaquero was seen as highly skilled who was usually born and bred on the rancho that he worked for. 

The Spanish Vaquero culture of Spain, that of the caballero ranchero, the gentleman rancher, a man of good family, breeding, or social position, flourished in Spanish California. This was the case even though there were really only about 460 large ranchos by way of land grants, that's including the mission property that was lost by 1833. 

It should be noted that after generations of Californios, while some were descendants of the original Spanish explorers, settlers, and those retired soldiers, most were of mixed ethnicities of Spanish and Native American. With the exception of the Franciscan friars, and the government officials and military officers from Spain, there were very few Californios who were actually what anyone would consider of "pure" Spanish ancestry by the time California became part of Mexico in 1822.   

California's mixed ancestry did not stop the California ranchero, the rancher, from trying to live in a style more like that of the wealthy hidalgo nobility of Spain. This included a busy social life. In fact, some have described what took place as a sort of "horse bound party circuit" between the ranchos. Using any reason for a celebration, besides weddings and baptisms, fiestas and fandangos were common place. Rodeos sprang from roundups and soon competition between Vaquero of different ranchos was taking place. Yes, no different than the beginnings of rodeo that were taking place in other parts of the west. 

It's said the California Vaquero generally married young, and raised ranch families. Their children were educated on the ranch, worked along side of the peon and the Native American laborers, learned about farming and livestock whether it was sheep or cattle or goats, learned to ride at very early ages, were taught to work horses, and were raised with the intention of inheriting the family rancho. All of that took place in a completely different environment for raising cattle than that of Texas, Arizona, and Mexico. 

California's milder climate allowed for more intensive grazing with less open range. Cattle in California shipped locally without the need to be driven hundreds of miles to railroad lines. There was no such thing as open ranges or long cattle drives of hundreds of miles to get their cattle to market. Let's keep in mind that as early as the 1840's, Texas cattle were taken over the Shawnee Trail to Iowa, Missouri and Ohio, to get them to markets. In many cases, besides losing cattle to Indians, herds driven to market looked fairly worn out by the time they arrived. That sort of toil and hardship simply didn't take place in California where cattle being driven to local markets had a better chance of keeping their weight and selling for more. 

As for horses, they were extremely plentiful in Spanish California. Horses were so plentiful that those in the wild competed for grazing with the cattle. And in some situations, to stop them from taking grazing from cattle, they were shot for food. Later during the California Gold Rush, it was common for horses to be used as a food source for California Indians. 

Because they grew up with horses, it's said that the California Vaquero were excellent riders, understood horses, and were more patient when it came to the training of horses when compared to the vaquero found in Texas and Mexico. Because of the milder climate, California Vaquero spent more time in the saddle working their horses than others in harsher climates. 

Because of both the California climate and the unique culture, the California Vaquero developed a different style of riding. For example, the Texas style of riding was more like the Anglo riders in America than that of the California Vaquero style. That again has to do with the influence of Mexico on Texas versus the influence of Spain on California.

The California Vaquero is said to have had a much more horse and livestock handling culture with a stronger direct Spanish influence more so than that of Texas which had more of a Mexican influence. It is said that from those California ranchos, the cattle ranchers, and their lifestyle, came a unique Californio culture. And imagine, this all came about because Spain was looking for a shortcut to Asia.

Of course, it really should be noted that the California Vaquero were being called "buckaroos" by English-speaking newcomers to California as early as the mid-1820's when our American traders showed up on the scene. Since "Va" is pronounced as "Bah" in Spanish, the word "buckaroo" is the anglicized version of the word "Vaquero." It's actually the same as how "McCarty" reins are the English language miss pronunciation of "Mecate" reins. No, that type of reins were not named after anyone by the name of McCarty.  

For Americans arriving in California, besides seeing a Mexican government in constant change and turmoil to the point of being completely ineffective and corrupt, they learned that the Californio Vaquero were not above teaching their ways of horsemanship. But, Americans wanting to learn their ways had to understand that they needed to speak Spanish. Even though trade with the United States was becoming more and more common by the 1830's and 1840's, few in California knew how to speak English. 

As time progressed, some California Vaquero traditions held while other sadly died away. Today, the "buckaroo" style of riding shares many similarities with the California Vaquero of days gone by. And yes indeed, today the words "buckaroo" and even "vaquero" are still used in some places out West -- especially by those American Cowboys living the California Vaquero ranching traditions.

Tom Correa

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