Snail's Postcard Post

Californio Days

Yes, this is a repost from September 1, because I was so excited to find that, with the back-to-school season, The Los Angeles Times was thinking about California history too. The travel section of today’s paper is devoted to the Missions! To read all the features, start here and use the link at the bottom of the page to tab through. Thanks L.A. Times! 

For those unfamiliar with the California missions, here’s the basic history lesson: The modern-day state of California was the northernmost territory of New Spain (the Caribbean and Mexico). With this large empire to manage, Spain hadn’t gotten around to developing “Alta California.” But in the mid-1700’s, Tsarist Russia threatened to expand southward from the Pacific Northwest, shaking Spain to stake out its territory. Beginning in 1769, a monk named Junipero Serra led a Franciscan order in establishing Spanish culture and Catholicism in “Alta California.” How did they go about this? The Padres rode donkeys north out of Baja California, building missions–combined churches/military forts/ranches–each a days ride apart, all the way up the coast to Sonoma (the southernmost point of Russian territory). Each mission was named for the saint’s day on which it was completed.

What the postcard’s description fails to acknowledge is that the word “mission” came from the padres’ belief that their divine duty was to convert Alta California’s indigenous peoples and bring them into the fold of Spanish civilization. Regional tribes were virtually enslaved to live at and work the missions. This meant attending mass, wearing European clothes, European-style farming, not being allowed to speak their own languages, etc. The padres’ idea was that after ten years, the tribes would see the benefits of their new lifestyle and be willing and able to run the missions independently, holding down Alta California on behalf of Spain.

Of course, things didn’t go exactly to plan. The padres remained at the missions for decades, beating the natives into submission every step of the way. As with all early European-Indigenous contacts, disease was rampant and deadly. Between March and May 1806, one quarter of the Bay Area mission natives died of measles. These conditions dragged on until 1836, when Mexico won its independence from Spain and disbanded the missions into ranchos (massive land grants). This is known as the Rancho or Californio era. img_3634At this time, the mission natives were offered Mexican citizenship, which many accepted. Those who did not faced a whole other ordeal when Alta California became part of the United States. Tragic, yes. But also a fascinating transitional period that continues to characterize the Golden State.


See the bell on the pole? 555 such bells are planted along El Camino Real, the road connecting the missions. The pole takes its shape from the padres’ walking crooks. On car trips as a wee snail, I confused the missions being a day’s ride apart with the bells being a day’s ride apartand could not believe how little ground the padres were able to cover back then. 

The bell here stands before the Estancia (active 1819-1834), a cattle grazing outpost of Rancho San Bernardino, itself an outpost of Mission San Gabriel. The Estancia was located in modern-day Redlands, which gives you a sense of the reach the missions had and the manpower (aka Native American slaves) they required to run.  

After a brief period as a rancho, the owners sold the Estancia to a Mormon community in 1851. It was the Mormons who established the city and eventually the county of San Bernardino. 

Reproductions of the old buildings–now collectively (mis)named the Asistencia– were completed as a WPA project in 1937, explaining this period postcard.IMG_8236

Mission San Gabriel had other industries along with cattle. Most notable was its winery.

IMG_8232IMG_8233In 1861, someone took a cutting from one of Mission San Gabriel’s grapevines (a vine planted in 1826), and transplanted it in the emerging city of San Gabriel. The cutting grew and grew, trailing out over 10,000 square feet! The Old Grapevine became a local gathering place, now called Grapevine Arbor Park, the oldest park in San Gabriel.

The city came to epitomize the rancho period as popularized (and romanticized) nationwide by the 1885 Helen Hunt Jackson novel Ramona. The city has been called “the birthplace of Ramona,” because Jackson began writing the novel while staying at San Gabriel’s former Grapevine Inn. Jackson took the heroine’s name from San Gabriel resident Ramona Shorb (who happened to be the cousin of General George S. Patton). 

But it took a while for this information to get around. Jackson died a year after Ramona was published, leaving fans with many questions. Many readers yearned to see the locations referenced in the book, but only knew they were somewhere in Southern California. In 1887, when the San Diego Unionnewspaper erroneously reported that an old adobe house was the location of Ramona’s wedding, fans came flocking to San Diego on the new Southern Pacific and Santa Fe Railway lines (a cheap trip because of the price war between the two railways). 

The house did fit the bill. Even before the piece in the Union, someone had scratched the name of Ramona’s husband, Alessandro, in the wall. The U-shaped house was built by the Estudillo family in 1827, and they lived there for the next sixty years. But by the time of the newspaper article, they’d just moved to Los Angeles, leaving the property in the charge of a caretaker. And the caretaker was commercially savvy, welcoming the tourists in and selling off the Estudillo’s belongings as Ramona memorabilia! 

Casa de Estudillo continued to draw tourists after restoration in the 1910’s under a San Diego railroad baron, and after another round of renovation under the State Park Service.  


Sometime after this postcard was published, a bride fainted after looking into the well. She believed she saw eyes gazing up from the water. The well was then filled in.

img_6438Woman playing guitar at Rancho Camulos. C.C. Pierce Collection.
From the postcard book Women of the West published by the Huntington Library.

Rancho Camulos–near Piru in Ventura Co., California–ran under two families from 1853 until the 1940s.

The C.C. Pierce photography collection is one of the most important when it comes to early California, especially the Los Angeles area. Once Charles Chester Pierce (b. 1861) moved to LA in 1886, he took up work at a succession of photo studios, capturing the boomtown on film. Around 1900–the same time as the above photograph–Pierce opened his own studio at 313 Spring Street. Not only was Pierce a photographer, but he collected the work of his colleagues (removing their names from the prints and stamping his own), which is why his collection is such a valuable resource.


I got this postcard in fourth grade, the year I learned California history in school. It is one of the first postcards I bought for myself. Night postcard views are unusual, and I liked this one’s worn beauty combined with a sense of eeriness. It reminded me of the song Hotel California:

There she stood in the doorway
I heard the mission bell
And I was thinking to myself
This could be heaven or this could be hell

Which missions have you visited?

This entry was published on September 7, 2014 at 7:21 pm. It’s filed under Historical, U.S.A. and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

One thought on “Californio Days

  1. Pingback: San Juan Bautista | Snail's Postcard Post

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