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Daily Life on a California Rancho

19th century ranchos

What was life like on a California rancho in the early days?


Working on a rancho could be very hazardous. There were accidents and injuries when dealing with large domestic animals like horses and cattle, but there were many wild animals to contend with. Grizzly bears roamed the foothills and valleys of California and often preyed on cattle, while smaller animals like rattlesnakes were just as deadly. 


Daily life on the ranchos basically followed the same pattern as the routine at the missions. 

Each day would begin with a breakfast of atole, a type of porridge. After breakfast each person would go to work on his or her particular occupation until midday.

At midday everyone would gather for lunch, often a bowl of pozole, a hearty stew.  Lunch would often be followed by a nap or siesta, as was common all over Spain and Latin America. Sometimes workers and their families spent time socializing and relaxing.

They would return to their occupations around 3pm until just before sunset, which was the end of the workday. After work, people gathered for supper, which was often similar to the lunch meal. They then spent the rest of the evening together, until going to bed around midnight.

If a family was well off, they could also hire Native Americans Indians to work as vaqueros or farm hands.

Free Time and Entertainment

Although life on a rancho involved plenty of hard work, there was also time for entertainment and socializing. Rancho dwellers enjoyed singing, dancing, playing cards and telling stories.

A very popular form of entertainment was the fandango. The fandango was named for a dance with origins in Spain. In Alta California and Mexico, the word “fandango” also came to refer to a party where people danced together. Men and women would dress in their finest clothes and dance all sorts of dances including the jota vieja and the contradanza.  Wealthy rancho families often organized fandangos that would last late into the night or early morning. 

Family events such as baptisms and weddings were also important occasions for gathering together and celebrating. Wedding celebrations would often last for days at a time, and the family hosting the event would invite everyone living within many miles.

Some of the more popular forms of entertainment took place outdoors. As in most Spanish-speaking countries, bullfights were very popular. These weren’t as elaborate as those in the big cities of Spain and Mexico, but mostly involved releasing an angry bull in an enclosed arena. As the bull ran around, young men dressed in bright colors tried to avoid the bull’s horns. Sometimes the bull was killed, though other times it was set out to pasture. 

Bear and bull fights were another popular pastime. A bull and a bear were tied together by one leg, and the two animals fought until the other was killed. Visitors to Mexican California mentioned seeing this sport take place in ranches and pueblos all over the territory.

California Rancho Houses

In the beginning, most rancho houses were simple huts of earth, grass and branches or reeds. As the ranchos became more successful, their owners were able to have homes made out of adobe bricks and even timber. These homes would be usually low, one-story structures, though larger or wealthier families would sometimes have two story buildings. Most homes had an inner patio or courtyard, where the family activity would take place, as well as an outdoor kitchen for preparing and cooking meals.

Ranchos and Hospitality

Visitors to Spanish and Mexican ranchos often commented on the hospitality of their hosts. Because of the distances between ranchos and the dangers of traveling in the open territory, ranchos always opened their doors to travelers. According to Teresa de la Guerra, a woman who grew up on a rancho in Southern California, “Travelers knew that all Californio rancho owners freely offered hospitality to whomever happened to appear at their doorstep”

Guests would receive food and a place to sleep, and even horses to ride if they needed them. Hospitality and a warm welcome to visitors was a hallmark of rancho life on the California frontier.

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