War and the Making of History: The Case of Mexican California, 1821-1846

Article excerpt

At times, the historian of Mexican California, as would the scholar of any other historical subject, must play the philosopher and contemplate the riddles that comprise humanity's existence. What seems accurate often is not, the historian discovers; and what is not accurate sometimes is. To compound matters, what is and what is not accurate, or what only seems to be accurate, depends on circumstance. Where dwells the historian--and how income, education, race, and sex shape his or her faculties--can determine the reach and limits of perception. All the more, the historian's sensibilities may reflect the time and era in which he or she resides; the past--the thing contemplated by the historian--becomes a site of contemporary yearning and angst rather than an accounting of what occurred years before. (1)

Such is the case with Mexican California. Indeed, the ranchero--the proprietor of landed estates in the nineteenth century--embodies why the pursuit of accuracy presents challenges. For some time, the ranchero has figured prominently in many histories about Mexican California. But the question arises whether the ranchero deserves so much attention. The evidence shows otherwise and suggests that war, with the soldier at arms, may offer a better way to interpret life in Mexican California.




Before girding for the fight, as would suit any person going to war, we must first address the ranchero's shortcomings. Many scholars argue that the rancheros dominated the economic and political life of Mexican California. The ranchero was "the 'big man' [who controlled] family, labor and land," declares one scholar, summarizing at one stroke what other historians have long argued. (2) The ranchero's herds provided food. Indians and non-Indians found employment on the ranchero's property. At appropriate times, the ranchero staged fiestas to show his generosity and share the land's bounty with workers and neighbors. (3) Scholars apparently have good reason to say that matters unfolded as they did. The Mexican Californians who helped produce the recuerdos--the oral histories compiled in the late nineteenth century by the historian Hubert Howe Bancroft and his staff--speak often of the ranchero's influence. And scholars, who remain true to the sources, draw their conclusions accordingly.

Some rancheros certainly had great influence, but was it always thus? Did they all command as much power as scholars say? The example of Los Angeles, the most populous settlement in Mexican California, suggests not. If by "ranchero" we mean the individual who held title to his property, there were few such people to begin with. According to the Mexican census of 1844, sixteen people in the Los Angeles area meet our definition of ranchero. The number is significant, but hardly the figure one would imagine. Moreover, the men who did own landed estates, or at least toiled on a rancho, often failed to impress the citizenry of Los Angeles come Election Day. Of the sixty-two men who served in municipal government between 1821 and 1848, the year that Mexico formally ceded California to the United States in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, fifteen men--nearly one-fourth of the total number of men who sat in office--had some connection to the cattle business. Of these, only five owned ranchos. (4) The other ten men worked in ranching but did not have title to the property; they worked for the proprietors, or apparently leased a portion of the estate for their own purposes. Four of the fifteen sat as alcalde, the chief magistrate and mayor. Another four served as sindicos, a position that required the occupant to press charges against delinquent residents or collect fees. The largest number, seven, were regidores, aldermen of sorts who represented a particular district.


Farmers, on the other hand, seemingly earned more respect from compatriots. …