The Past in California's Landscape

The Past in California's Landscape
By David Hornbeck

During a recent visit to Mission San Juan Bautista, I stood looking at a display of mission artifacts when a man next to me leaned over and asked, "Were the Spanish as important as all this indicates?" I assured him that the Spanish had a far greater impact on California than most people realized. In our subsequent conversation, I was astonished to learn just how little he knew about California's past, particularly before the Gold Rush. To him, Spanish settlement of California was like reading a romantic novel, interesting but a little unbelieveable. Thinking back to that conversation now, I wondered how many others are unaware of California's unique past. Most people know that the Spanish were the initial European settlers in California, but few have any specific knowledge about Spanish exploration and settlement or their contributions to the present-day cultural landscape. Spanish names are seldom out of sight in California, yet their historical validity has become lost, distorted, or confused in the multitude of Taco Bells, red-tiled roofs, and sprawling housing tracts replete with Spanish motif. The past seems to be held in abeyance, used only as an ornament to decorate the present-day landscape.

Californians have little awareness of their very special history. The continuity of time is not reflected in their present cultural landscape. For many, California's past began with a cavalcade of argonauts in search of the illusive golden fleece. The factual history, for some reason, is usually associated with the East and somehow was implanted in California with the appearance of Anglo miners, merchants, and farmers. The backward glances seldom extend to the time before Anglo settlement. An initial chauvinism on the part of early Anglo settlers may account for this tendency; more likely, however, the rapid, almost perpetual change of the present blurs any sort of historical reality.

Without this sense of the past, Californians hasten to fabricate one, one that can be experienced daily. In lieu of an accurate history, the Californian surrounds himself with manufactured legends and made-up traditions, assisted by an ever-growing number of literary romanticists who seldom distinguish between fact and fable. If one looks away from the twentieth century, beyond the artificial past that pervades the present, he will find that California is alive with an authentic and unique heritage--a heritage that is part of the contemporary landscape, a heritage that began before Plymouth Rock.

Long before settlement of Jamestown in 1607, Spanish explorers had sailed the California coast and recorded its grace and elegance. Francisco Ulloa charted the Gulf of California in 1539. He was quickly followed by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo who, in 1542, discovered San Diego Bay and sailed on to explore California's north coast. In 1595, Sebastian Cermeho, Captain of the Manila Galleon, sailed along the California coast, adding to Cabrillo's lucid account. Juan Vizcaino also charted the California coast in 1602, giving Spanish names to prominent features and was the first to describe the beauty of Monterey Bay.

The tempo of Spanish exploration of California intensified after settlement of San Diego in 1769. In the same year, Gaspar Portola and his small party stumbled across California's rough coastal mountains in search of Monterey Bay, guided only by Vizcaino's elegant, but 167 year old description. Shortly afterwards, Pedro Fages struggled through and described parts of the Lower San Joaquin Valley. Both the Potola and Fages expeditions took place before the Boston Tea Party of 1773. Juan Bautista de Anza established an overland route to California, beginning at Tubac, Sonora, and ending at Mission San Gabriel in 1775, a distance of some 1000 miles, through some of the most hostile and desolate country in North America. In 138 days, de Anza guided 240 colonists and 1000 head of livestock to California. Daniel Boone, in the same year, established the Wilderness Road through the Cumberland Gap, a distance of 200 miles, taking only 23 days. Before the Declaration of Independence was written, Manuel de Ayala charted San Francisco Bay and measured its depth; and Father Garces, in hopes of converting the heathen Indian, searched through parts of the Central Valley describing its barren flatness. Further north, Gabriel Moraga explored the Sacramento Valley while Lewis and Clark trudged across the Great Plains.

The efforts of Spanish explorations were quickly inscribed on the California landscape. Settlements at San Diego, San Francisco, and Monterey were integral parts of the cultural landscape before Washington encamped at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777-1778. In all, nineteen missions, four presidios, and three pueblos embellished the California landscape before the purchase of the Louisiana Territory.

Beginning in 1786, the first of over 500 ranchos were issued to private owners. Tightly controlled under Spanish rule, the number of ranchos increased under Mexican rule, beginning in 1821, and became Mexico's contribution to the California landscape. So important was the rancho that, by the time Commodore Sloat raised the American flag over Monterey Bay in 1846, the amount of land contained in these baronial estates was greater than the area of Massachusetts, Delaware, and Rhode Island combined. Before the first Americans reached pastoral California by land in 1827, the ranchos with their vast herds of cattle were supplying hides to Boston shoe manufacturers in exchange for manufactured goods. Boston, however, was not the only link between California and the United States. As early as 1832, Los Angeles was in    regular, if tenuous, contact with St. Louis through the Spanish and Santa Fe trails.

The Spanish and Mexican influence on the California landscape was not eradicated upon arrival of the Anglo settler; the slate was not wiped clean; and the Anglo did not encounter a pristine environment. The newcomer had to accommodate within his frontier settlement scheme an already established landscape. The legacy of the early Spanish settlers is still with us in so much of today's landscape. Most obvious are the myriad Spanish place names that are inscribed on the face of California and the Spanish-style architecture used to romanticize and ornament the landscape. Many cities established by Spanish-Mexican pioneers have continued into the twentieth century as prominent centers in California's urban network.

In addition to these very visible features, the California landscape abounds with less visible vestiges of Hispanic occupance. Within most urban areas, there are usually a number of restored adobes, presidios, missions, and plazas, most often renovated for nothing more than commercial proselytizing. These attempt to infect tourists thoroughly with the charm and legends of the halcyon days of California and to perpetuate a mythical past. Unnoticed in the rural areas, however, are the crumbling, weed-covered irrigation canals that preceded the vast water network of today. Moldering remnants of rancho adobes, once the focus of enormous cattle empires, lie within a short distance from where most Californians live. Narrow, circuitous roads leading to small coves along the coast are still in use, but unknown to most who travel over them is the fact that these roads were once the lifeline of the rancho, used to transport large quantities of hides and tallow to Boston ships waiting offshore.

Many subtle elements of Hispanic heritage go unnoticed by most Californians in their scamper to overtake the California dream. Food habits, building technology, Mediterranean agriculture, irrigation practices, water laws, color and decoration of homes--these are only a few of the Hispanic attributes that permeate the present-day landscape. Individually, some may seem unimportant, even trite in twentieth century California, but together they form an integral part of the landscape, a part that imbues a richness that belongs only to California.