Painting of a Vaquero roping cattle during 1830s Spanish California.
Painting of a Vaquero roping cattle during 1830s Spanish California (“The Cowboys.” The Old West, Time Life Books)

By Mike McCoy, Executive Director, Kern County Museum

Mike McCoy
Mike McCoy Executive Director, Kern County Museum

The southern San Joaquin Valley first came into European and American awareness as a grazing spot for cattle in the early 19th century. The development of Fort Tejon and Tejon Ranch in 1853 prompted interest in raising stock for the Sierra mining boom. These Mexican longhorns were allowed to free graze in the Spring down into the valley where there was plenty of grass and water.

White settlers however, stayed up at higher elevations to avoid the tule swamps and malarial conditions. Even the stagecoach route that rolled out of the Tehachapi Mountains between Havilah and Visalia skirted the valley and stayed along the Eastern Rim of the foothills.

By the end of the 1850s however, several hardy contrarians saw an opportunity in the valley lowlands for development. Samuel Bishop, who had lived at Fort Tejon for more than ten years wrote,

“There is a belt of land lying along the foothills of the Sierras, commencing from where Kern River enters the valley or plains, extending southeast and south, and thence west or northwest, forming a semi-circle of at least 75 miles, said belt of land ranging from one to six miles in width, making an average of three miles, which would contain 225 sections or 144,000 acres.” *

The “belt of land” described by Bishop was Kern Island, a swatch of land created by higher ground encircled by different tributaries of the Kern River. This alluvial fan of sand that had rolled down from the mountains attracted interest from visionaries who saw that controlling the river could lead to increased pasturage. Instead of seasonal grazing of cattle in the valley floor, the land could be reclaimed for farmland.

By the early 1860s, Kern Island was still a very isolated place compared to the rest of California. The state legislature took a cue from other states who had reclaimed swamps and offered land for pennies on the dollar in exchange for reclamation. Two brothers named Montgomery successfully bid on the southern San Joaquin Valley and pledged to drain the swamps and create a large canal between the San Joaquin River and the Kern that could accommodate shipping.

The Montgomery brothers, however, could not attract investors to their grand canal scheme and sold the land rights to a Visalia engineer named Thomas Baker. A former legislator, Baker was able to coax a bill through state government removing the shipping canal requirement. He then hired Indian labor to build a smaller irrigation canal North of Buena Vista Lake.

Baker, like the Montgomery Brothers, soon found himself overwhelmed with the smaller canal scheme. He tried selling land to recover his expenses but then had a great piece of good luck. A drought in 1864 sufficiently dried out his land that he was able to declare that it had been “reclaimed and improved.” He was therefore deeded 187,000 acres. He and his gifted land agent Julius Chester then promptly sold the land to new settlers and speculators for a solid windfall.

Baker recognized that the Kern River’s seasonal flooding and then drying up did not support consistent agricultural practice. The only practical use was seasonal grazing. The long distance from the Sierra mines and isolation from larger cities did not provide a marketing opportunity for crops. By draining the land, creating canal controls, and retention systems, the valley floor could be successfully farmed. By 1865 alfalfa, wheat, apples, grapes and sweet potatoes were harvested. Solomon Jewett planted more than 100 acres of cotton. Unlike larger cities in California that trace their initial start to the gold rush, Bakersfield’s development was and still is, firmly rooted in farming. 

Thank you to the California Historical Society for information for this article.

*Kern County Weekly Courier, March 29, 1870