History Pages: 5 - The Ranchos

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The Rancho San Vicente diseño

California’s next major shift began in 1821 when, after ten years of war, Mexico won its independence from Spain. Being lightly populated and far from the cities of Mexico, California was mostly neglected until 1833, when a new law took away most of the vast pasture lands previously reserved for use by the Missions. In 1834, after only forty-three years of existence, Mission Santa Cruz was reduced to an ordinary parish church. In the period from 1833 to 1846, much of the former mission land was carved up into large land grants called ranchos. The Pajaro Valley (south county) lands of Carmel Mission became another four ranchos. All of the ranchos were given away as land grants by a succession of governors, mostly to favored local residents and their children. These locally-born descendents of Spanish colonists became known as Californios, and they created the old-California lifestyle we’ve romanticized and celebrated; full of fiestas, fandangos and rodeos; vaqueros, caballeros and banditos. Another chunk of land, including the settlement around the Mission, was set aside for the establishment of the Pueblo de Figueroa (named for the then-current governor). The governor’s name didn’t stick, however, and before long the name reverted to Santa Cruz.

Figueroa wasn’t the only governor snubbed by the namers of Santa Cruz. None of the Alta California governors’ names are much remembered here in Santa Cruz the way they are in other parts of California. Figueroa, Alvarado, Vallejo, Castro, Chico and Pico are all familiar names on signs elsewhere, but not here. Santa Barbara has streets named for almost all of them, including Carrillo, de la Guerra and Micheltorena. Among the few examples here, there’s an Alvarado Street in Watsonville. Chico Avenue on the westside appears to be named for the town, which was named for the governor.

The Castro adobe in 1890

The original rancho grantees are likewise forgotten: do you know the names Buelna, Jimeno, Sanchez, Dodero, Escamilla? Didn’t think so. Even the Castro family of Branciforte, recipients of four separate rancho grants, is mostly forgotten. Not entirely, though - thanks to the efforts of the late Edna Kimbro and the volunteers at Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks, the old Castro Adobe near the Watsonville end of Larkin Valley has been preserved and donated to the state, now restored and occasionally open to the public.

Only one local Californio name can be found in the area where the family’s rancho used to be - Amesti Road in Corralitos. Rodriguez Street in Live Oak may have been named for the Rodriguez family that settled originally in Branciforte, but the casa of the Rodriguez Rancho Arroyo del Rodeo was in today’s Soquel village.

Some of the names of the ranchos themselves are easier to find. That’s because the boundaries of the ranchos were defined using geographical features, especially creeks (arroyos). Eight of the fifteen local ranchos were named for the arroyo forming one of its boundaries. All of these creek/rancho names remain today. From north to south: San Vicente (Davenport), Laguna (just south of Davenport), Zayante, Carbonera (north Santa Cruz), Rodeo (eastern boundary of Santa Cruz), Soquel, Aptos, Corralitos, Salsipuedes (east of Watsonville). Most of the creek names can also be found on a nearby road or two and maybe a community or neighborhood (e.g. Carbonera Estates). Other important places you’ll run into the rancho names are on deeds, surveys and parcel maps. Creation of the ranchos was the first subdivision of land in this area; most later divisions were based on the old rancho boundaries.

Even as the rancho system was being created, the seeds of its destruction were planted. The Alta California government decided to allow more immigration to California by loosening some of the restrictive policies previously enforced by the Spanish. A trickle of foreigners began to arrive in Santa Cruz during the 1830s, mostly Americans.

Further reading:

  • Hayes, Derek. Historical Atlas of California. (available at SCPL. Call number: CALIFORNIANA 911.794 HAY)
  • Images of the original hand-drawn rancho maps, called diseños, are viewable online. This link is to the Diseño del Rancho San Vicente. Other ranchos can be found using the search box provided.
  • Sortable table of all the California ranchos (Wikipedia).
  • The list of Santa Cruz County ranchos could be expanded with one that was originally in our county but moved to San Mateo County when the boundary was shifted in 1868. That one would be Rancho Punta del Año Nuevo. The rancho was owned for a few years by Isaac Graham.
  • Other places you can find the old rancho names and boudaries: USGS quadrangle maps, and also on the Santa Cruz County GIS system map. The County land survey system was built around the rancho boundaries.

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