The eighty years of the history of Upper California as part of Mexico, from 1769 (the first land expedition by Gaspar de Portolá and Fray Junípero Serra) until 1848 (the California Gold Rush), has been called the “Pastoral Age.” The structural base of the period was the latifundio, the large landed estate whose social and cultural center was situated in the large houses of the so-called ranchos. Historians such as Hubert Howe Bancroft, with his book California Pastoral, 1769–1848 (1888); novelists, especially Helen Hunt Jackson with her Ramona (1884); and the films of Hollywood have all mythologized that culture, so that today we commonly accept their depiction of the restful and pleasant life of old California, where all social problems were resolved by Zorro, that mysterious and powerful character who was a sort of Hispanic Batman.
The origin of the ranchos may be found in the land grants given to the first settlers by the Spanish Crown in the eighteenth century. When Upper California ceased to be a province of New Spain and became part of the Republic of Mexico, the ranches multiplied as a result of the appropriation of the mission lands carried out by the central government in 1838. Land owned by the missions was auctioned off and passed into the hands of well-to-do families.
From 1848 on, as the Californios were being stripped of their property, the ranchos disintegrated, and the groups that had provided manual labor—cowboys, laborers, shepherds, servants—moved to the urban centers or began to work in the mines; some of them joined the gangs of bandits that were beginning to form. As Joseph Henry Jackson observes, “These thousands of vaguely employed Mexicans found themselves displaced persons…[and] could rarely find anything to do but the most menial work. Others simply took what they needed as they could find it, and if this meant living off a society