Before the Gringos Came to California by Ella M. Sexton


This is the story Señora Sanchez told us children as we sat on the sunny, rose-covered porch of her old adobe house at Monterey one summer afternoon. And as she talked of those early times she worked at her fine linen "drawn-work" with bright, dark eyes that needed no glasses for all her eighty years and snow-white hair.

"When I was a girl, California was a Mexican republic," said the Señora, "and Los Gringos, as we called the Americans, came in ships from Boston. They brought us our shoes and dresses, our blankets and groceries; all kinds of goods, indeed, to trade for hides and tallow, which was all our people had to sell in those days. For no one raised anything but cattle then, and all summer long cows cropped the rich clover and wild oats till they were fat and ready to kill. In the fall the Indians and vaqueros, or cowboys as you children call them, drove great herds of cattle to the Missions near the ocean where the Gringos came with their ship-loads of fine things and waited for trading-days.

"For weeks every one worked hard, killing the cattle, stripping off their skins and hanging the green or fresh hides over poles to dry in the sun. When dried hard and stiff as a board the skins were folded hair-side in, and were then worth about two dollars apiece. The beef-suet, or fat, from these cattle was put into large iron kettles and melted. While still hot it was dipped out with wooden dippers into rawhide bags, each made from an animal's skin. When cold and hard these bags of tallow were sewed up with leather strings, and thus they were taken to Boston.

"So much beef was on hand at such times that not even the hungry Indians could eat it all while it was fresh. The nicest pieces were cut into long strips, dipped into a boiling salt brine full of hot red peppers and hung up to dry where the sunshine soon turned the meat into carne seca, or dried beef. We put it away in sacks, and very good it was all the year for stews, and to eat with the frijoles, or red beans, and tortillas, which were corn-cakes.

"All we bought from the Gringos was paid for with hides and tallow, so it was well, you see, children, that my father owned ten thousand cattle; for counting relatives and Indian servants, we always had more than thirty people on our ranch to feed and clothe. We raised grain and corn and beans enough for the family, but had to buy sugar, coffee, and such things.

"Did we have many horses, you say? Yes, droves of them, and we almost lived on horseback, for no one walked if he could help it, and there were almost no carriages or roads. Neither were there any barns or stables, for the mustangs, or tough little ponies, fed on the wild grass and took care of themselves. Every morning a horse was caught, saddled and bridled, and tied by the door ready to use. All the ladies rode, too, and I often used to ride twenty miles to a dance with Juan, my young husband, and back again in a day or so.

"Sometimes we went to the rodeo, where once a year the great herds of cattle were driven into corrals, and each ranchero or farmer picked out his own stock. Then those young calves or yearlings not already marked were branded with their owner's stamp by a red-hot iron that burnt the mark into the skin. After that the bellowing, frightened animals were turned out to roam the grassy plains for another year. We had plenty of feasting and merry-making at these rodeos, and a whole ox was roasted every day for the hungry crowds, so no one went fasting to bed.

"Those were gay times, my children," and Señora Sanchez sighed and sewed quietly for a while till Harry asked her if they kept Christmas before the Gringos came.


"Yes, indeed," she said, laughing, "we kept Christmas for a week, and all our friends and relatives were welcome, so that our big ranch-house was full of company. Indeed, some of the visitors slept in hammocks or rolled up in blankets on the verandas. Our house was built round the four sides of a square garden, with wide porches, where we sat on pleasant days. There was a fountain in this garden, and orange trees, which at Christmas-time hung full of golden fruit and sweet white flowers. On 'the holy night,' as we called Christmas Eve, we hung lanterns in the porches, and everybody crowded there or in the garden for their gifts.

"No, we had no Santa Claus nor Christmas tree, but my father gave presents to all, even to the Indian servants and their children. A fan or a string of pearls, perhaps, for my sisters, the young Señoritas; a fine saddle or a velvet jacket for my brother; and red blankets or gay handkerchiefs for the Indians, with sacks of beans or sweet potatoes to eat with their Christmas feast of roast ox or a fat sheep. Afterwards we danced till morning came, or sang to the sweet tinkle of the guitars. Well do I remember, children, when the good Padres, or priests, at the Mission forbade us to waltz, that new dance the Gringos had taught us to like. I recall, also, that the governor only laughed and said that the young folks could waltz if they wished. So at my wedding, soon after, when we danced from Tuesday noon till Thursday morning, you may be sure we had many a waltz.

"Pretty dresses, Edith? Yes, gay, bright silk or satin ones, with many ruffles on the skirts and wide collars and sleeves of lace, or yellow satin slippers and always a high comb of silver or tortoise-shell and a spangled fan. And we had long gold and coral earrings and strings of pearls from the Gulf, and, see!" as she pulled aside her neck-scarf, "here is the necklace of gold beads that was my wedding gift. We had no hats or bonnets, but wore black lace shawls, or mantillas, to church, or twisted long silk scarfs over our heads to go riding.

"You will think the gentlemen were fine dandies in those Mexican days, when I tell you that they often wore crimson velvet knee trousers trimmed with gold lace, embroidered white shirts, bright green cloth or velvet jackets with rows and rows of silver buttons, and red sashes with long, streaming ends. Their wide-brimmed sombrero hats were trimmed with silver or gold braid and tassels. They dressed up their horses with beautiful saddles and bridles of carved leather worked all over with gold or silver thread and gay with silver rosettes or buttons. Each gentleman wore a large Spanish cloak of rich velvet or embroidered cloth, and if it rained, he threw over his fine clothes a serape, or square woollen blanket with a slit cut in the middle for the head.

"Los Gringos used to laugh at the Mexican and his cloak, and not long after they came the 'Greasers,' as the Americans called the young men born here in California, began to wear the ugly clothes the Gringos brought out from Boston. And so the times changed, children, and our people learned to do everything as the Americans did it and to work hard and save money instead of dancing and idling away the time.

"And the bull-fights, Harry? Oh, yes, there was a bull-fight every Sunday afternoon, and everybody went, as you do to the football games. The ladies clapped their hands if the sport was good, or if the bull was killed by the brave swordsman. And if the men got hurt or the horses,—well, we only thought that was part of the game, you see. El toro, as we called the bull, always tried to save himself; and if he was savage and cruel, that was his nature, to try to kill his enemies. The gay dresses and the music was what I cared for, and then all my friends were there, also.

"But you must be tired of my old stories; is it not so, my children? No, you want to hear about the dances, you say? Well, every party was a dance; a fandango or ball, if it was given in a hall where everybody could come, but at houses where just the people came who were invited we called it only a dance. Every old grandfather or little girl, even, danced all night long, and the rooms were hung with flags and wreaths. All the Spanish dances were pretty, and the ladies with their gay dresses and mantillas, and the gentlemen in velvet suits trimmed with gold, made a fine picture. At the cascarone, or egg-shell dance, baskets of egg-shells filled with cologne or finely cut tinsel or colored papers were brought into the room, and the game was to crush these shells over the dancers' heads. If your hair got wet with cologne or full of gilt paper, everybody laughed, and you laughed too, for that was the game, you know. Ah, there was plenty of merry-making and feasting in those days, children," and Señora Sanchez sighed again and went on with her "drawn-work," while the bell in the old Mission church near by rang five o'clock, and we children ran home talking of those old times before the Gringos came to California.