Baghdad On The Freeway

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By that time Mexico’s Revolution against Spain, which had begun in 1810, had thrown California on its own resources. When supply ships stopped coming from Mexico, commerce was opened with the outside world. There was a ban on vessels from non-Spanish countries, but English and American captains began to appear along the California shore with rich cargoes and dubious intentions. One of their favorite smuggling points was the anchorage at San Pedro, where they took on tallow and hides from the growing herds of cattle in the Los Angeles basin. With the triumph of the revolution, all of Mexico was opened to foreign ships. And while smuggling continued out of the sheer joy of fooling the customs collector, there was a commendable rise in legitimate commerce.

Thus began the great era of the ranchos. As early as 1784 the governor had granted certain land concessions to a few retired soldiers. But not until the rise of the hide trade in the 1820’s did the cattle industry flourish. The growing number of settlers in California cast covetous eyes on the vast cattle range owned by the missions. California was no longer a frontier, they argued, and the missions had served their purpose. Already in decline from years of separation from Spanish support, the missions were closed by the Mexican Secularization Act of 1833, and their holdings thrown open. The result was a sizable land rush. Counting the earliest concessions, seventy ranchos were given out in the area now encompassed by Los Angeles County—most of them to occupation soldiers or their sons. Using the labor of former mission Indians, these men built an aristocracy based on land, cattle, and the hide trade. Their names—from Pico to Sepúlveda—are still written large across the face of Los Angeles.

Through the thirties and forties—the storied Days of the Dons—Southern California was a veritable paradise for these families. The necessities of life were abundant and competition unknown. As one old ranchero put it, “There were no courts, no juries, no lawyers, nor any need for them. The people were honest and hospitable, and their word was as good as their bond.” Though there were few luxuries, gracious living marked every household. Gay fiestas, fandangos, weddings, and bull fights relieved the daily routine of rancho life.

Each spring, starting at San Diego in the south and working up the coast beyond Santa Barbara, the rancheros gathered in successive rodeos, or roundups, to brand and separate their cattle. Families that had not met in months would ride all day to take part in the dancing and feasting, the display of bright costumes and feats of horsemanship.

Every year, with the appearance of Yankee trading vessels on the coast, the Los Angeles plain would come alive with oxcarts and pack mules piled high with cattle hides—the “leather dollars” of the Californians. On the cliffs above San Pedro, Spanish dons parleyed with New England captains, while in the harbor below sailors were tossing the hides aboard ship and trudging upward with boxes of fine silks, brocades, and the products of the world.

No wonder such a life beckoned many a pioneer American to settle on the “good land.” From the time Mexican independence threw California open to foreigners, adventurous Yankees began to arrive. Many of them took Mexican citizenship, accepted the Catholic faith, married the daughters of Spanish families, and won vast grants of land from the governor.