The 1850s and the Double D's: Drought and Depression
Livestock suffered most during California's dry years in the 1840s. In the 1850s, the focus widened to include the native California populations, particularly Indians and Californios. The decade of the 1850s was a period of adjustment where the newly-arrived Yankees established their economic, political and cultural dominance in California. It was a particularly violent period in the history of the Monterey Bay Region with murders, gunfights and lynchings commonplace.
In his brilliant, landmark 2007 book, Tiburcio, historian John Boesseneker describes in great detail the Monterey Bay Region of the 1850s, characterizing it as a "crucible of crime, corruption and racism."
I would mix drought into that crucible. Drought didn't cause racism, but it intensified and exacerbated the tensions between newly-arrived Yankees and resident Californians.
The Dry Years – 1855-1856
Unlike earthquakes or floods, droughts don't come suddenly. They creep in quietly, signaling themselves with harbingers that long-time residents recognize. One measure in Monterey was the level of El Estero, the lagoon that surrounded the community's cemeteries. In the fall of 1855 it was possible to walk directly from Monterey across the dry bed of the lagoon, "which has not occurred but once before since 1826" according to the Pacific Sentinel. By spring of 1856, the rangeland throughout the region was drying up, and hogs and cattle were dying on the Salinas plains, The Sentinel's editor was warning that California would soon be "down in her marrow-bones" leading to a "true crisis of our social, meteorological and political troubles.."
Vigilantism and Lynchings – 1856-57
The drought rubbed nerves raw, intensifying the anger and frustration throughout the region. The Yankees were frustrated by their lack of progress. For most, the Gold Rush had been a bust, and when they turned to the land, it was already owned, usually by someone with a Spanish surname. The drought drove down the price of cattle, and many of the Californio landowners slid into bankruptcy, Yankee lawyers waiting for them just like the vultures waiting for death to come on the plains.
It seemed to the Californios that everything was up for grabs—not only their land, language, culture and way of life. Some of the younger men, like Tiburcio Vazquez, began to vent their frustrations with violence, and the Yankees returned with violence of their own – mob violence and lynchings.
Lynchings are a peculiarly American institution, a unique form of extra-legal vigilante justice often beginning with an apprehension by a mob, a mock trial, and an execution usually by hanging. Historians of the genre have tabulated a total of 294 lynching in California between 1850 and 1870, with Monterey and Santa Cruz Counties accounting for 30. The vast majority of those lynched were Indians, Mexicans or Californios. (The late historian Phil Reader and I believe that the number 30 is low, and that there were more examples of summary justice in the region that went unrecorded.)
Watsonville Lynching, October 1856 – One 1856 example will suffice. A group of Spanish-speaking horsemen that were camped along the Pajaro River near Watsonville were suspected of stealing horses. A mob of "Americans" (I would use the term Yankees) rode out to their camp, and killed and captured them all. The following day another group of "Spaniards" rode through town and the mob re-organized and attacked them, driving all of them off except for one man who was wounded. They tied him to a flag staff, and after several discussions about whether to turn him over to the Sheriff or impanel a jury on the spot, he was "hanged without further ceremony."
1856 -- A "Hot, Windy, Dusty, Thirsty" year – 1856 wasn't just tough on the Californios. The grizzly bears in the hills being Santa Cruz were sickly, their hair "loose and falling off" as they came down to feed on a whale carcass that had drifted in to the beach below town. The local newspaper summarized the year as "strange, curious, volcanic, hot, windy, dusty, thirsty, murdering, bloody, lunching, and robbing…" The Yankees, through vigilante groups, had taken the law into their own hands, and by the end of the year the tide was turning in their favor.
1857 – The Hispanic Collapse
The year of 1857 began inauspiciously. On the morning of January 9, much of California experienced what seismologists believe was the largest earthquake in California's recorded history. Still commonly known as the "Fort Tejon" earthquake because of the damage done there, seismologists have now determined that it was a magnitude 7.9 with an epicenter near present-day Parkfield. Damage was focused along the San Andreas fault south of Parkfield, but residents in southern Monterey County ran terror-stricken out of their homes, and trees in the Salinas Valley whipped back and forth. The quake was felt throughout the region, though there was little damage in the immediate Monterey Bay Region.
Then, on February 16, the front wall of the mission church at Santa Cruz fell with a "terrible crash." (Some historians erroneously connect the mission wall's collapse with the January 9 earthquake, and it is certainly possible that the structure might have been weakened by the quake, but the two events are over a month apart.) Combine the mission church's collapse with its Spanish name being changed to "Holy Cross," and the replacement church's decidedly Protestant appearance, and all this can be seen as a symbol of the further erosion of the region's Spanish-Mexican culture.
And the lynchings continued. One of the more infamous was the lynching of Anastacio Garcia inside the Monterey County Jail on February 17 (see the chapter in Boesssenecker's Tiburcio on the Roach-Belcher feud). Watsonville had another particularly gruesome hanging in May of 1857, though the victim in this case was an "American."
The Panic of 1857 – Beginning in late 1857, the region's already weakened economy was hammered by the arrival of the effects of the Panic of 1857. Most economists consider the Panic of 1857 to be the world's first global economic depression, and in California, already weakened land and livestock values dropped even farther.
The Mega-Drought – 1856-1862
Some climatologists believe that the drought of the mid-1850s was actually the beginning of a drought that lasted almost a decade. The region's cattle industry was staggered, but hung on until the early 1860s when the region – and all of California – was visited by yet another deadly drought. Only this time it was snuggled between a huge flood and a swarm of fires.
Coming Next: The California Trifecta – Flood, Drought and Wildfire – Our next installment will explore the Great Flood of 1862, the desiccating drought of 1863-64 and the wildfires that followed.