California’s First Ranchers

In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, I share an excerpt from my newest novel, Kit’s Mine, the story of how a native Californio dealt with the changing times of 1870 California as he partnered with a young woman seeking justice, too. Laws enacted for the betterment of the Eastern settlers failed to treat fairly the native ranchers struggling to adapt to their new country’s government and laws:

“I raised and trained all the horses on the ranch,” Michael said. “My parents owned the original stock, not Diego. Any horse is as much mine as his. I only took Midnight when I left, no mares. Diego should be willing to loan me another horse.”

“Why do you believe that?” Kit asked.

“Because it’s part of our Mexican heritage. The original rancheros swapped tired horses for fresh, no matter on whose property they grazed, no questions asked. Why wouldn’t he?”

“Well, will he?”

“He’ll want me groveling and begging for a favor first, so he can feel I’m at his mercy.” He raked his hair with both hands.

“I gather you and Diego don’t get along,” she said.

“We’ve fought since the day Mother first employed him to defend her land in court, just weeks after Father died.” He cleared his throat. “It’s been twelve years, and I still miss him.”

Kit stared into the flames illuminating their campsite, sensing his sorrow. An owl hooted, and the nighttime rustle of squirrels faded. “If you and Diego fight, why did your mother marry him?”

“The ranch was already too much for her to oversee alone. The new law went into effect requiring proof of title to her land, and she didn’t know what else to do.” Resentment colored his low voice.

“Which law?” she asked. “The California Land Act?”

“Yes, that was the one.” Surprise crossed his features. He couldn’t know her parents often discussed the complexities of that and other detestable laws over their campfire.

Michael continued. “Mother inherited her grandparents’ ranch. You see, the government in Spain gave it to them before Mexico declared its independence. The Mexican government never questioned her ownership. But when California became an American state, Mother had to prove she owned the land legally. It got complicated because she was considered Spanish, not Mexican.”

“What difference did that make? I thought America accepted everyone. Well, everyone except Chinese.”

“Oh, we were accepted as American citizens, just not landowners. Easterners settled on their pick of land, and demanded official deeds and documents. Mother didn’t have formal records, though her family lived on our ranch for decades. She hired a lawyer—Diego—and eventually won. Afterward, she owed him a fortune in legal fees. She married him to keep a roof over my head.”

Image courtesy of Calisphere Project.

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