Californio Society

Californios, elite families that received large land grants from Spain and Mexico, flourished during the 1830s to 1880s. The hand-drawn diseño maps underscore their vital connection to land ownership. Read full overview

30 exhibition items

View all

About the Images

Californios, elite families that received large land grants from Spain and Mexico, flourished during the 1830s to 1880s. The hand-drawn diseño maps underscore their vital connection to land ownership. The more formal surveyed maps that followed US acquisition of California show changing values regarding land ownership. As Californios lost land and power in the late 19th century, they tried to adapt to these changes by using social networks to maintain their identities as elites. The formal portraits were one way to bolster this image. Photographs of the Ramona Pageant from the 1950s testify to the mythologizing of California's Mexican and Spanish pastoral heritage less than 100 years later.


The wealthy Spanish Californian families called Californios were the first group to receive large-scale benefit from California’s rich agricultural resources. Many were given land grants from Spain. After 1821, other families received land title from the newly independent Mexico to encourage settlement in what was known as Alta California.

Californio wealth was closely tied to their land holdings and provided credit at local markets. Californios cultivated orchards and crops, but large-scale cattle ranching on large ranchos was key to their wealth. As the paintings show, even small-scale Native American and Mexican rancherias contributed to the management of cattle.

Nearly all aspects of Californio society were connected to its relationship to the land. This is reflected in diseños, hand-drawn maps, which mark the natural geography of the land. Diseño del Cayuma includes sketches of trees and waterways and provides a key in the lower left corner explaining details of the land.

With the Gold Rush, and the end of the US-Mexican war in 1848, a massive influx of settlers laid claim to Californio land. Californios were forced to prove their land title in court, incurring large legal fees.

Under the US legal system, official surveyor maps replaced imprecise diseños as legitimate markers of land ownership. The official 1884-85 surveyor map of Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Bernardino counties charts the grids of land with straight lines and careful measurement. Court cases often took over a decade to settle. Many Californio families were forced to sell off their land piece by piece in order to pay mounting legal fees.

As transcontinental rail transportation moved westward, railroads pressed the US government for large land grants. Californios’ holdings grew smaller, as the official map of land granted to the railroads by 1875 makes clear.

Californios depended on labor supplied by Native Americans and Mexicans. In exchange, they would provide shelter and lodging, further intertwining laborers to the land and patriarchal relationships. The photograph of Indian “John” and his family at the Santa Rosa Rancheria highlights the identification of this Native American family to the rancho. In contrast, Californios such as Julia, wife of Joaquin Bolado, and Juan Ignacia Cantua are photographed in studio portraits as individuals.

Towards the end of the 19th century, immigrants from around the world were flooding into California. Many Californios married American and European settlers to secure their land and class status. The stately portrait of Dona Ramona Carillo de Pacheco de Wilson is a good example. Her title, Dona, and her elegant attire denote her elite Californio heritage. Her marriage to a Scottish settler and US military official would continue to secure her status in the early years of American control.

As the 19th century came to a close, Californios found their political clout vastly reduced and their past already becoming mythologized. Helen Hunt Jackson’s 1884 novel Ramona told the tragic story of a Californio orphan girl who married an Indian. Written to create sympathy for the plight of native Californians, it was instead received as the portrait of an idyllic past. This romanticized vision persisted well into the 20th century.

The 1950s-era photos of light-skinned actors in the popular Ramona Pageant illustrate contemporary racial biases rather than the cultural reality of early Californio society. During this period, the Bracero Program was in full force. Increased border regulations and immigration concerns began to separate California’s future from its Mexican past. Commercialized tourism surrounding the Ramona myth, shown here in the photographs of the curio room at Ramona's marriage place (which never existed), reinforced the curiosity of modern Californians about its Spanish pastoral past. Today, descendants of Californio families still live in the state, and their names—Sepuvelda, Yorba, Pico, Vallejo, Peralta—mark the streets and towns of modern California. Californio society, however, is gone forever.

Read full exhibition overview

Note about picture captions

The original captions on some of the historical photographs may include racial terms that were commonplace at the time, but considered to be derogatory today.


Land grant: a gift of real estate made by a government or other authority to an individual. It may be as a reward for services, or as incentives to develop undeveloped land in a relatively unpopulated country.

Diseño: an informal, hand-drawn map made by Californios to mark out their properties. Diseño means "drawing" or "sketch" in Spanish.

Surveyor map: an official land map created for legal purposes and drawn by trained professionals.

Tintype: a positive photograph made on a sensitized sheet of enameled iron or tin.

About this exhibition: