Where can you attend a bullfight?

Bullfighting is still popular and legal in many countries—France, Spain (outlawed in some cities), Portugal, Venezuela, Peru, Colombia, and some cities in Mexico. This fact was a surprise to me. Another troubling surprise is how many are killed –tormented–for this “sport.” Worldwide, about 250,000 bulls are killed a year according to the Humane Society International. Many people attend bullfights, but outside the bullring, animal rights activists object to the bloody sport.

The largest bullfighting ring in the world is near the Plaza de México in Mexico City. Demonstrators frequently protested the events by waving banners with slogans such as “No more deaths!” They shouted “Torture is not art, it is not culture.” Recently, activists filed a lawsuit, and a judge issued a court order to suspend the events in Mexico City.

In the 1800s bullfights were common entertainments in the Republic of Mexico, which included the territory of Alta California. Pitting bulls against captured bears was also accepted as entertainment near the California missions after Sunday Mass and during week-long wedding celebrations.

Who Hasn’t Left Their Heart in San Francisco?

Three-masted sailing ship on San Francisco Bay with the city in the background

Tony Bennett, who died last month, made that song famous. It was my mother’s favorite song, especially after she visited the city and I moved there. Its history continues to fascinate me through my research about its early founder, Captain William A. Richardson. After the dinosaurs disappeared, the Miwoks and Ohlone people, the Spanish, the Mexicans, the Russians, the British, and finally the Americans wanted a piece of the place. With the 1849 Gold Rush, the world surged through the bay’s gateway to get to the “diggings” in the mountains. The city by the bay, in fact, all of California, still attracts people from around the world to visit or live there. But many are also leaving. They cherish the city and the state or at least their memory of them, but can no longer afford to live there.

José Vadi wrote in his essay collection Inter State: Essays from California, that he fears former Californians are becoming modern-day Okies, displaced by a new demographic, Californians with deep pockets. I joined the ranks of those modern-day Okies when I moved to the state of Washington a few years ago. But I have great affection for the years I lived in California and love to visit.

At the Helm

At the helm of schooner Suva on a sunny day

I had a fabulous time on the schooner Suva last year. It was the first time I had the chance to sail on a ship that size. Even though the schooner was only 65 feet long, it can sleep nine to ten adults for overnight sails. The Suva is similar to ships Captain William A. Richardson sailed on San Francisco Bay during the 1800s, although it was constructed during the Roaring Twenties era and shipped in 1925 from Hong Kong to Puget Sound. It is now a flagship of the Coupeville Maritime Heritage Foundation.

While on board, passengers can explore below deck to see the wheel house, galley, main salon, and the front cabin. You can also have a turn at the helm—with the captain standing close by. A volunteer crew of men and women, people who love the sea and sailing, cruise along with each sailing, to raise sails and educate visitors about the ship and sailing her. Under clear skies and a good wind, I had a wonderful afternoon out on the water.

Open-air Kitchens in Early California

Adobe brick oven for baking and five brick open fire pits for boiling

An adobe brick oven was used for baking bread and brick open-fire pits for stewing and boiling. This oven and the fire pits are at Mission San Gabriel Archangel in California.

in the 1800s, kitchens were busy all day. Stirring up a fire from smoldering ashes in the early morning was a priority. In Alta California, a cook or wife made hot chocolate drinks for the family. A ranchero drank his chocolate and then mounted a favorite horse which was already saddled and waiting. While the husband was checking on a herd of cattle or horses or on field workers, a wife, daughters, and servants prepared tortillas, collected eggs, roasted beef for a huge breakfast to be ready for her husband, sons, and workers. The prep work was done in the kitchen on large wood tables, and tortillas and breads were baked in the adobe brick ovens, while beef roasted on a spit.

Preparations for a midday meal and supper started immediately after breakfast. Grinding grain, killing and plucking chickens, picking vegetables and fruit if available filled the hours, keeping everyone busy all day. Other household chores were packed into the day also. Washing clothes, milking cows or goats, making cheese and butter, and sewing. All this daily work was necessary to maintain a family and its servants.

Did mariners and explorers in the early 1800s need passports to enter Alta California, a Mexican territory?

Three-story brick building on Ellis Island in New York City Harbor

Passports for individual people did not exist in 1822 when Captain William A. Richardson jumped ship on San Francisco Bay. Trading ships or warships visiting for trade or provisions handed Mexican authorities documents listing all crew members. Although Richardson himself had no passport at the time he landed, the California governor gave him permission to stay if he proved his worth, was baptized into the Catholic Church, and pledged loyalty to the Mexican government. In 1841, when John Bidwell, who later became a California state governor, staggered over the Sierra Nevada Mountains into Alta California in the first wagon train, he and his fellow Americans had to purchase passes in order to remain and settle there. Having lost most of their belongings on the arduous journey, they struggled to find enough money or items to trade for Mexican passports. They would have been imprisoned if they could not.

On an Ellis Island tour, I learned how immigrants were processed before being allowed to enter the United States in the 1890s. They faced the threat of being shipped back to their native country if they were ill, lame, or a criminal. Entering the country was a lengthy process. After a long ocean voyage, passengers were transferred from their ships to ferries that lacked food or fresh water and had to stay aboard them until Ellis Island authorities were ready to process new immigrants. These tired, hopeful, hungry people were questioned, poked and prodded by doctors, had their eyelids pulled back with buttonhooks to check for trachoma, and had to prove they could support themselves, not be a burden to their new country.

During the last two years, Americans returning from overseas were asked to get PCR tests for Covid-19 or be vaccinated to prevent the spread of a disease. There were grumblings and objections, but the process was so much simpler than the one immigrants had on Ellis Island.

Why was Indigenous Peoples’ Day established?

For many years a debate hung over the use of the word “discovered” when talking about Columbus Day. Italian Americans lobbied Congress in 1934 for a holiday to honor their heritage and recognize the contributions of their immigrant ancestors. However, Americans failed to acknowledge the role of the many people who lived in the Americas when the Italian navigator Christopher Columbus landed in the West Indies on the island the Lucayan people called Guanahani. Claiming the island for King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, Columbus renamed it San Salvadore. 

In 2021 President Joe Biden officially endorsed the second Monday of October as Indigenous Peoples’ day. Many states now observe this holiday instead of, or as well as, Columbus Day. I found this holiday a good reminder to reflect on Native American heritage and even to discover what tribes lived on the lands I’m now on.  An interactive map for the Canadian website Native Land Digital (native-land.ca) shows territories throughout the Americas that Indigenous people inhabited. You can learn about this nonprofit’s sources for its map on its website. When I clicked on the California state area, a box popped up listing the names of the many tribes that had dwelled there. I’ve researched several of them and found that each group had its own language, customs, ceremonies, foods, and tools depending on its location. For example, some peoples used locally-sourced clay to make pots while others living near marshes used reeds to weave baskets and mats. I feel I now have a better understanding of their lives and their world before Spanish explorers came. 

What might be California’s worst natural disaster in the future?

Earthquake, drought, or wildfire come to mind first. Every year, fire threatens to burn up acres of California. Right now, a scorching drought is drying up rivers and lakes across the West. The possibility of an earthquake remains in Californians’ thoughts especially since a “major” one hasn’t happened in some time. Not many people know that in the past, California suffered severe floods from prolonged rains during wet seasons. When I lived in California, the Sacramento Delta, formed by the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers, and the Russian River north of San Francisco frequently flooded during winter storms. I distinctly recall one January when it rained every day. And California rains pour like a full-force bathroom shower almost all day.

The worst natural disaster for California that climate researchers are predicting is a megaflood, sometime this century, caused by a month-long series of rainstorms. One happened in 1862 and before that, in 1841. San Joaquin Valley became an inland sea and the upper Sacramento River flooded the land for miles, forcing Native Americans to abandon their villages and cutting off Captain John Sutter at Sutter’s Fort for months. Cattle, horses, elk, and deer were stranded on islands surrounded by the rushing water. So many sought refuge on tiny mounds of dry land that some animals were washed away and drowned. In 1815 a flood changed the Los Angeles River’s course. Again in 1825, the seasonal rains flooded the river through marshland and forests and cut a new channel, draining the land all the way to the ocean. A month of storms today might bring feet of rain, enough to flood hundreds of miles of California. A megaflood would displace millions of people, destroy cities and towns, and cost billions to repair. Experts say such a dramatic event is becoming more likely because of global warming.

Why are wild horses dying in the West?

I read in Outdoor Life that in Western states, wild horses and burros are dying due to lack of water and grass for grazing. The same happened often in the nineteenth century in Alta California during droughts. Some of the horses Spanish conquistadors brought to North America escaped into the wild, and with no natural predators and a fast reproduction rate, they multiplied. During dry years the free-roaming horses competed with the ranchos’ cattle that grazed in the hills. Sometimes rancheros organized round-ups to chase the horses farther into the mountains or even to kill them by forcing them to stampede over cliffs. It seems like a drastic, cruel way to control the number of such beautiful animals, especially when you remember how many horses were trained to work for people. They carried riders in saddles around ranches and bareback in circuses. They hauled wagons over prairies and carriages in cities. Knights and soldiers rode war horses into battle. 

A zookeeper/writer friend, PJ Beavan, reminded me in her recent ZooFit blog about how instinctive horses are with people. They can tell a rider’s mood and even reflect it in their own actions. Through my research I learned how well rancho vaqueros and their horses were in tune with one another. They had to be when working with cattle and when so many threats surrounded them in the nineteenth century wilderness of Alta California. The horse was a valuable work animal that learned to hold a rope taut when a steer or a grizzly was lassoed. Their quick reflexes and natural instincts protected many riders from disastrous injuries or death. 

What is the connection between California’s US Route 101 and El Camino Real?

US Route 101 trails along the California coastline from San Diego and beyond the northern California border. As far as San Francisco, it follows much of the same route that the Spanish explorer (conquistador) General Gaspar de Portolá traveled from 1769-1770, when he led an expedition for the Spanish king. The path was labeled El Camino Real, the Royal Road. Franciscan friars trudged along hundreds of miles with the Spanish expedition and started to build a chain of missions in Alta California along El Camino Real, which stretched from Mexico City to the San Francisco Bay. The Royal Road sprouted branches leading east over mountains and desert to Santa Fe, which was also Spanish territory. Spanish and Mexican soldiers, settlers, fur trappers and traders, messengers, Native Americans, and the Richardson family rode along El Camino Real.

Today, Californians and tourists drive US Route 101, never realizing that a good portion lies on the route along which General Portolá guided his expedition. During his explorations, Portolá established the California cities of San Diego and Monterey. He also served as the first governor of Alta California. Of the twenty-one Spanish missions constructed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, some have disintegrated, but many people visit those that have been preserved and are still places of worship today.

Where did all the sea otters go?

I read recently that sea otters are being reintroduced into places where they once thrived. Thousands had swarmed around the coves and shoreline of San Francisco Bay where they were hunted for their thick luxurious fur. The indigenous people first took the furs for their winter clothing. When Spain ruled Alta California, the Spanish agreed to allow the Russian navy to anchor in the Bay in winter and bring Aleut hunters from Sitka to trap the animals. The pelts brought high prices and were sought by wealthy Russians for fur coats. Spain and later the Mexican government collected a hefty tax for each pelt. Tax collection for these furs evolved into one of Captain William A. Richardson’s duties.

Sea otters are now protected wildlife. Because their numbers were so reduced, their favorite food, sea urchins, overpopulated the kelp forests along the western North American coast. Without their otter predators, sea urchins devastate their environment and create what biologists label an urchin barren. In Canada, along the coast of British Columbia, sea otters are increasing and so the coastal ecosystem has improved significantly. The kelp forests are rebounding. Otters are now re-entering the Oregon and California coast, not in numbers as they were in the 1800s, but enough to help the ecosystem recuperate.