Up to the time of the Gold Rush, when California economics centered almost exclusively in the cattle industry, black cattle and beasts of burden numbered in the tens of thousands. In the early 1860s, it was said that every acre of grass, from the ocean to the mountains, was being grazed, and the rancheros had untold wealth.

The Central Coast area was ideal for raising cattle. The hills of grass and wild oats planted by the missionaries years before provided ample grazing feed for the ever-increasing herds.

When the tide of prosperity began to recede in 1860, the rancheros paid little heed. The money made through the sales of cattle had served them well, and there was no reason to believe that life could ever be different, so they continued to spend their money like there was no tomorrow. 

Then came the phenomenal rains of 1861. 

No one could remember ever having seen so much rain. One storm lasted 70 days, with one downpour lasting 20 hours. With more than 50 inches of rain falling, many of the farmlands were flooded out. 

Even though a later study of California rainfall statistics showing that years of excessive rainfall are almost always followed by years of drought, no one could have foreseen the devastation caused by the drought that followed the notorious heavy rains of 1861. 

By early fall of 1862, when marshy lands began to dry up and with watering holes running low, the rancheros began to worry. However, the worst was yet to come.

Still, though, the hope of spring rains was prevalent. No one had ever seen an entire winter without rain. The usual spring rains would come, grass would grow and the cattle would be saved.

However, that was not to be.

Spring of 1863 brought hot winds and millions of grasshoppers to eat what little vegetation remained.

Even though a few showers fell in the fall, they didn't provide enough moisture to help the grass grow. Fields that had been plowed and planted the year before became dust. 

When the Santa Ynez and Cuyama rivers dried up, buzzards, grizzlies and wolves came down to feed on the cattle which were dying by the thousands. There was no grass within 400 miles.

Those who had the financial means, such as the Foxens, were able to move their stock to the Tulare Lake area where there was ample water coming from the high Sierra run-off. Most were not so fortunate. 

In hopes of breaking even, rancheros slaughtered their cattle in record numbers, selling them for what the market would bear. The price was destine to drop even lower as the drought continued to wreak havoc.

As the situation grew worse with starving cattle dropping like flies, dried up water holes became littered with dead carcasses.

In February of 1864, of the 200,000 cattle listed on the Santa Barbara tax rolls in 1863, only about 5,000 were left to eat the grass that sprouted when the drought was finally broken. 

Many who were compelled to mortgage their lands to provide the necessities of life for their families, lost their property through foreclosure, while others lost them at the gambling tables or through dealings with dishonest or inept attorneys. 

Although the days of the rich rancheros were over, within five years a new new type of dairy cattle weighing twice as much as the skinny, long-horned Mission cattle, was introduced to the Central Coast. 

Natural catastrophes, always a part of California, continued to plague the area, but somehow, persistence and determination always took hold and the rugged pioneers managed to weather the storm.

Shirley Contreras lives in Orcutt and writes for the Santa Maria Valley Historical Society. She can be contacted at 934-3514 or at shirleycontreras2@yahoo.com. Her book, “The Good Years,” a selection of stories she’s written for the Santa Maria Times since 1991, is on sale at the Santa Maria Valley Historical Society, 616 S. Broadway.

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