Mexican California, sometimes characterized as stagnant or sleepy, was actually a society in dramatic transition. Politically, the changeover from Spanish to Mexican control in 1821 brought new laws, new administrators, and a shift of power from missionaries to secular governors and powerful ranching families. Demographically, the emigration of Mexican settlers, Russian colonists, American fur trappers and homesteaders, and European entrepreneurs introduced new social complexities. Environmentally, the arrival of European weeds, crops, and animals — especially cattle and horses — transformed California's natural spaces. By the time the US-Mexican War broke out in 1846, much of California was unrecognizable to native groups that had witnessed the coming of the Spaniards less than 80 years before.
When the Franciscans erected their final California mission in 1823, they seemed at the height of their powers. In the 60 years of their operation, the 21 California missions had employed 142 priests and baptized 53,600 natives. Missions were at once churches, towns, schools, farms, factories, and prisons, often operated in conjunction with a nearby military presidio and agricultural pueblo.
But the vast lands controlled by the missions made them a target of Mexican republicans who, after gaining independence from Spain in 1821, began calling for the privatization of church property. Secularization began in 1834, with half of all mission lands to be turned over to local native groups, but distribution was haphazard. Native Californians were often never told that they owned land, and many drifted away, strangers in their own ancestral homelands.
The decline of the missions allowed for the rise of extensive ranching along the California coast and in the Sacramento Valley. To encourage agricultural development, the new Mexican government distributed more than 500 land grants to prominent families, using maps called diseños that roughly marked each grant's boundaries. This informal system of documentation would open the door to legal challenges by Americans after the US-Mexican War. Well-connected families (such as the Vallejos, Alvarados, and Peraltas in the north and the Carillos, de la Guerras, and Picos in the south) could secure grants for each family member, creating an elite class of rancheros who controlled hundreds of thousands of prime acres.
These families mainly raised cattle for an emerging hide-and-tallow trade with American ships that sold the hides to Boston tanneries and the tallow to South American candle and soap factories. These elite Californios — as they became known — held themselves apart from non-land-owning Mexicans and natives, intermarrying with each other and with the American and European entrepreneurs who began settling in California during the 1830s.
Just as they had for the mission system, native Californians provided most of the labor for the emergent ranching economy. They worked as vaqueros herding cattle, processed tallow in huge iron pots, tended gardens, and harvested crops. Spanish-speaking natives intermarried with working-class Mexicans, blurring already complicated racial categories.
Laborers were bound to their ranches in a state of perpetual peonage, with difficult working conditions and few alternatives. In response, some natives fled inland, joining mountain or desert groups and using their ranching knowledge to organize raids on livestock. Spanish became the common language for native groups throughout California struggling to survive in the face of massive social changes, environmental degradation, and rampant disease. Displacement and depopulation contributed to an intense process of what anthropologists call "ethnogenesis," the creation of new ethnicities and identities. Native groups combined, split apart, and recombined in new ways in response to perilous times.
In the 1830s and 1840s, increasing numbers of Europeans and Americans arrived in California. Some, such as Scottish sailor John Gilroy, left their ships, became Mexican citizens, converted to Catholicism, and married into Californio families. Others, like John Marsh from Massachusetts and John Sutter from Switzerland, made the treacherous overland journey to set up profitable ranches in the Central Valley.
Most American visitors to Mexican California portrayed it as a land of abundant resources underutilized by the "idle" Californios. "In the hands of an enterprising people, what a country this might be!" exclaimed Richard Henry Dana, Jr., in his popular travel memoir Two Years Before the Mast. Dana's account fed into preexisting conceptions that condemned Latin Americans as lazy, corrupt, and immoral due to their racial "impurity" and Catholicism.
These racial and religious biases fit snugly within a broader ideology of Manifest Destiny, the mid-19th-century notion that it was the United States' divine destiny to expand to the Pacific Ocean. With its abundant natural resources and useful ports, California presented a particularly appealing territory for annexation.
Presidents as far back as Andrew Jackson had considered ways to take California, but it was James Polk who found a way to justify war. In April 1846, border skirmishes with Mexico in Texas gave Polk an excuse to put Manifest Destiny into action. The U.S.-Mexican War lasted less than a year and gave the United States undisputed control of California, Texas, Nevada, Utah, and parts of four other present-day states. California was now under American control. Its changes had only begun.
National Parks Service. History of Mexican Americans in California
PBS. The U.S.-Mexican War
Francaviglia, Richard, and Douglas W. Richmond, eds. Dueling Eagles: Reinterpreting the U.S.-Mexican War, 1846-1848. Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 2000.
Hurtado, Albert L. Indian Survival on the California Frontier. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988.
Jackson, Robert H. and Edward Castillo. Indians, Franciscans, and Spanish Colonization: The Impact of the Mission System on California Indians. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995.
Monroy, Douglas. Thrown Among Strangers: The Making of Mexican Culture in Frontier California. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.
"1821-1847: Missions, Ranchos, and the Mexican War for Independence" was written by Joshua Paddison and the University of California in 2005 as part of the California Cultures project.