A farm in the San Joaquin Township in the 1850s
A farm in the San Joaquin Township in the 1850s. The caption reads, “Ranch Residence of E. Drew, Near Elk Grove.” (National Park Service)

By Mike McCoy, Executive Director, Kern County Museum

Mike McCoy
Mike McCoy Executive Director, Kern County Museum

One of the most popular themes in classic cowboy movies is the conflict between the free ranging cowboy and the “sodbusters” who were changing the landscape of the West with their farms. This conflict played out in western states from the mid to late 19th century. The cattlemen tried to keep the West open to grazing rights and wanted open land. The farmers wanted security for their row crops, fruit trees and vineyards.

The early California cattlemen depended upon open range and available water for their cattle and sheep. They had been using the San Joaquin Valley for grazing since five Spanish ranchos were developed in Kern County in 1842. The Spanish, and then American ranchers, moved cattle from the foothills and mountains in the summer to the valley in the winter to take advantage of free grass and water through the 1870s. There are early chronicles in the mid 1800s that describe huge trail drives that moved cattle over the mountains to Los Angeles and to the mining towns of Northern California.

These early cattlemen were protected by law and placed the burden of fencing on the farmers. In the 1850s the law was on the side of the cattlemen. If a rancher lost an animal, he could sue a farmer for replacement. This was before barbed wire was invented so farmers could not successfully fence their property. Farmers tried to create barriers with scrap wood and brush to keep out cattle and sheep. They finally advocated for “no fence laws” that removed the requirement that they fence their farms.

The turning point in the conflict came about in California’s Central Valley by sheer force of numbers. There were literally more farmers than ranchers and therefore greater influence in the state legislature. Also, the farms, with the taming of the great central valley’s rivers and watershed, were turning into revenue machines for the development of towns. Cattle and sheep, with the need for free grazing and open land, were no match economically with the farmers developing new crops for the open market. With the development of the railroad and transportation corridors, the Central Valley began to connect farmers with eastern markets.

Early California Indian Vaquero (National Park Service)

One of the final nails in the open range coffin was the “No Fence Law” of 1874. The California legislature sent a clear signal to the cattle and sheep industries that the scale had tipped firmly in favor of the farmer. Although the cattlemen were here first, and the Spanish ranchos with their vaqueros and long horned cattle were the idealized portrait of the “Californio,” it was the farmer who built the state from the ground up. The small towns that were popping up in the valley beginning in the mid 1800s were supported by farmers. The newspapers, legislators, and business interests were firmly in the camp of the farmer. The free grazing cattlemen depended on land and water they did not own. The farmers on the other hand, had legal title to their farms and water rights.

The final result was the reinvention of the central California landscape. The San Joaquin Valley became the nation’s fruit and vegetable basket. Crops like cotton and potatoes soon dominated the national market. The development of the almond and orchard industry, along with wine and table grape vineyards, pushed the cattleman out of the central valley. While there is still a viable cattle and sheep industry in California, there will never again be the large cattle drives over the Tehachapi Mountains. There will never again be heard the crack of the vaquero’s quirt or the free ranging herds of cattle moving up to the mountains for summer.

(Thank you to the University of California Press and John Ludeke and the California Department of Food and Agriculture for background information.)

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