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.
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.
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.
Mexican soldiers wore uniforms of dark blue wool jackets with scarlet collars and cuffs and brass buttons, matching wool trousers, and wide-brimmed black hats. But for protection from indigenous peoples’ arrows, the soldiers wore leather coats that hung to their knees. They carried long lances and leather shields as shown in this photograph. This display is in the San Francisco Presidio museum on the site of the original Spanish Presidio. Because the soldiers often herded cattle and horses, rode as escorts for the friars, and carried mail between presidios, the cumbersome leather coats were shortened to jacket length. The jackets were made of antelope hide with red felt collars and cuffs. Antelope-hide leggings or breeches covered the soldiers’ legs.
The clothing and decorations the indigenous people wore were all from nature— furs, grasses, shells, feathers, and even bear claws. Some California Native American customs and apparel have been preserved . A few years ago I watched Miwok and Pomo men, women, and children dance to drum music wearing beaded necklaces, feathers, and headdresses made of black-tipped feather shafts similar to those shown in a painting by Louis Choris, a French painter. I read the woven headbands were made with flicker feather shafts stripped of the wispy, feathery sides. Flickers are large, brown woodpeckers with a black feather bib. In the West, their feathers have reddish shafts ending in black tips. The photograph shows two feathers I found in my garden. The bottom feather is from a flicker’s tail.
Bull and bear fights were a common entertainment in early California. Vaqueros rode into the hills, searched for a grizzly bear, lassoed it, and dragged it back to a corral, which was often set up near a California mission. When a bull was dragged into the same corral, the bear’s rear leg was tied to one of the bull’s forelegs, and the two beasts were forced to attack each other. Somewhere I had read that these fights were the early origins of the stock market terms. The way the animals attack inspired the name. A bull thrusts its horns up, while a bear swipes its claws down. A bull market refers to a rise in stock prices while a bear market portends a downward trend. In her recollections of social life and customs in the 1830s, Captain Richardson’s daughter Mariana described watching such a fight when she was nine years old, the animals attacking each other as they tried to break away and escape. However, after checking on the Merriam-Webster website, I found another origin story. An old proverb warned it was unwise to sell a bear’s skin before catching the bear, meaning don’t buy something of no value. The term “bearskin jobber” came into use, “bearskin” was shortened to “bear,” and that term was applied to a stock being sold by a speculator or the actual speculator. Bull market might originate from the use of bulletin board notices for the early London Stock Exchange: the more bulletins on the board, the stronger the market.
I never realized how large the California territory was when Spain and then Mexico claimed the land. The region called Californias stretched past the Sierra Nevada Mountains and across the current states of Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, as well as some of Arizona. Baja California was also part of this area. The Republic of Mexico governed Nuevo Mexico and Tejas (or Texas) as well. This land fit like puzzle pieces next to what is now known as the Louisiana Purchase, which the United States purchased from France. The United States annexed the Mexican territories of Alta California and Nuevo Mexico after the Mexican-American War in the 1840s. Texas had become a republic but then joined the States as well. The United States actually compensated Mexico for these territories — a highly unusual action at the time for a victor in a war.
California was once called Alta California when Spain and then Mexico governed the territory. All of the Spanish names come from the Spanish explorers and pioneers who settled there from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Are you curious about California history and California people? I have been curious about California, its beginnings, and its annexation by the United States ever since I lived there. How could you not be curious about a state that was once a nation for a week? I don’t live there now, but my curiosity has never ended. I think it is hard to get the emotional attachment to California out of your blood once you have lived there. When I did live in the state, I started researching California history and began writing about Captain William A. Richardson, and the early settlement of California, especially around San Francisco. I learned about historical figures for whom streets and cities were named and about the northern California wilderness called Yerba Buena that grew into the metropolis of San Francisco. After leaving a time-consuming career in publishing, I continued my research and began a novel, writing about the Miwoks, Ohlones, California missions, ranchos, brigs, schooners, and the early settlers from Spain, Mexico, Britain, Russia, and the United States. In my story, I intend to give my readers through the eyes of one man and his family an insight into the daily lives of people who struggled to survive during this time of political upheaval and social change.
When I started researching California history, Captain William A. Richardson’s name surfaced several times connected to the founding of the city of San Francisco and the city of Sausalito. Streets were named after him as well as Richardson’s Bay near Sausalito. He was the first mate on a British whaler that sailed into San Francisco Bay in the early 1820s in need of water, wood, and provisions. A romantic story was attached to his jumping ship to stay in Alta California. As a result, his life in California revolved around the sea, sailing ships, and the beautiful, charming Spanish daughter of the commandant in charge of the San Francisco Presidio, the Spanish fort that Mexico then governed. An ambitious, driven man, he built ships and adobe houses, sailed north, south, and west, became a ranchero, and was the friend of many famous historical people.