Print version of chapter
Our road was now one of continued enjoyment
and it was pleasant riding among this assemblage of green
pastures with varied flowers and scattered groves and out
of the warm green spring to look at the rocky snowy peaks
where lately we had suffered so much.
John C. Fremont thus described Californias San Joaquin
Valley on March 27,1844, as he approached the Stanislaus River
at a point west of where Highway 99 now crosses it. While
not the first non-Indian to enter the great Valley, the explorer
was the first to do so under United States Government sanction.
A lieutenant in the Topographical Corps, Fremont was charting
the routes to and through California.
His party, which included Kit Carson and Broken Hand Thomas
Fitzpatrick, had spent a rugged January and February crossing
the Sierra in deep snow and with real hardships, coming close
to starvation when snowbound for a month. After resting at
New Helvetia (Sacramento), Fremont was enjoying thoroughly
a spring ride on horseback south to Walker Pass over a route
which gave him a sweeping view of the land now served by the
Modesto Irrigation District.
Fremont waxed almost poetic in writing about the beauty of
the landscape, commenting in his memoirs:
The lupine (is) a beautiful shrub in thickets, some of
them being 12 feet in height. Occasionally three or four
were clustered forming a grand bouquet about 90 feet in
circumference and ten feet high. The whole summit was
covered with spikes of flowers, the perfume of which is
very sweet and grateful. A lover of natural beauty can
imagine with what pleasures we rode among these flowering
groves, which filled the air with a light and delicate
He described the live oaks as "the most symmetrical
and beautiful we had yet seen in this country" and marveled
at the California poppy "of a rich orange color."
In subsequent days as he moved through what now is Stanislaus
County, Fremont noted that the beauty of the landscape "had
been increased by the additional animation of wildlife and
now it is crowded with bands of elk and wild horses and along
the rivers are frequent fresh tracks of grizzly bears, which
are unusually numerous in the country."
Fremont was not the first to describe in writing the area
between the Stanislaus and Tuolumne Rivers, which later was
to be known as Paradise Valley. However, his words were among
the most descriptive about its beauty and the richness of
Spanish soldiers and mission priests earlier had visited
the San Joaquin Valley. Among the first was Pedro Gages, who
left the coastal missions in 1772 to search the southern Valley
for Spanish Army deserters. He described the culture of the
Yokuts Indians who populated the Valley from Bakersfield to
Stockton in much more favorable terms than did some historians
of a century or so later who based their descriptions of the
"digger" Indians solely on the remnants of a people
devastated by the invasion of the white man.
Estimates of the number of Valley Yokuts range from Kit Carsons
1829 figure of "hundreds of thousands" to what probably
is the most authentic, 25,000 in 50 tribes. The latter estimate
was made by the foremost authority on Yokuts, Frank Latta,
who grew up in western Stanislaus County where his lifelong
study of the Yokuts began.
Heidi Warner, curator of Modestos McHenry Museum who
has made an independent study of the Indians of Stanislaus
County, has located more than 50 burial sites, some as large
as 45 acres, evidence that the countys Indian population
In a forward to Lattas handbook of Yokuts Indians,
A. L. Kroeber, a University of California anthropologist who
earlier had studied the Yokuts, describes them as "a
tall, well built people of open outlook
casual and unceremonious, optimistic and friendly, fond of
laughter, not given to cares of property or too much worry
about tomorrow; and they lived in direct simple relation to
their land and world, to its animals, spirits, and gods, and
to one another."
The Stanislaus River and Stanislaus County derive their name
from an exceptional member of this race, Estanislao.
Estanislao was born and raised at Mission San Jose. It is
assumed his parents were Yokuts, for by 1790 the Spanish had
swept clean of Indians all the western San Joaquin Valley
foothills and plains from the Carquinez Strait to Kern County
and as far east as todays Highway 99. The Indians were
taken to the missions presumably as "neophytes"
for conversion to Christianity and to perform the hard labor
for building and maintaining the missions.
Named for the Polish Saint Stanislaus, on whose birth date
he was born, Estanislao received a good education at the mission
and grew to be a tall more than 6 feet strong,
intelligent leader. He rose to the position of alcalde, the
missions chief administrative and judicial officer.
In 1825 when the people of the mission pledged their allegiance
to Mexico, Estanislao fled to the Valley, taking with him
many Indian neophytes who had become disenchanted with mission
life. Estanislao established his own tribal nation near the
present location of Salida. From there, he raided missions
In 1829 the Spanish sent two forces against him. The first
was routed by the Indians. The second was led by Lieutenant
Mariano G. Vallejo, who later as general became Mexican commandante
of California. Vallejo was repulsed until he set fire to the
woods surrounding Estanislaos complex fortifications
which included a system of trenches and barriers.
His forces literally burned out, Estanislao escaped and returned
to Mission San Jose, where he was pardoned and lived until
his death some seven years later.
In the spring of 1833 an epidemic variously believed to be
cholera, measles, or malaria wiped out entire communities.
A pioneer hunter and trapper, Colonel James J. Warner, had
noted in 1832 there were hundreds of Indians living along
the Tuolumne and Stanislaus Rivers about the San Joaquin River.
Many villages had 50 to 100 buildings. When he returned in
the fall of 1833, Warner saw only six or eight live Indians.
The first non-Indian to explore the Stanislaus area to any
extent was Spanish Lieutenant Gabriel Moraga, who first crossed
the Coast Range in 1806. Entering the Valley through the passes
southwest of Los Banos, Moraga followed the San Joaquin River
northward past the Merced, Tuolumne and Stanislaus Rivers,
all of which he named. Only Rio de la Merced River
of Mercy still is known by its original name. Moraga
called the Tuolumne Rio Dolores and the Stanislaus Rio Laquismes.
He also changed the name of Rio de la San Francisco to San
Joaquin to honor his father, Jose Joaquin Moraga, who had
entered the San Joaquin Valley from the north in 1776 and
followed the river southward. It is not known if the elder
Moraga reached the region now known as Stanislaus County.
Not long thereafter, the fur trappers arrived from Hudson
Bay and other companies in Canada and the United States. Traveling
in groups of 50 to 100, they found a rich harvest of pelts
along the Tuolumne, Stanislaus and other rivers of the Valley.
Jedediah Smith, the first American to enter California, trapped
along the Tuolumne from 1825 to 1827 and reported the stream
abounding with beaver and salmon.
In 1842 Dr. John Marsh, who had purchased "Ranchos los
Meganos" at the base of Mount Diablo in 1835, forecast
a tremendous agriculture future for the San Joaquin and Sacrament
Valleys, describing them as one magnificent valley
of supporting a nation" but at the time inhabited by
only 150 Americans and a few Indians.
The opinion was not shared universally. United States Senator
Daniel Webster of Massachusetts in 1844 asked the United States
What do we want of this vast worthless area, this region
of savages and wild beasts, of deserts of shifting sands
and whirlwinds of dust, cactus and prairie dogs? To what
use could we ever hope to put these deserts or these endless
mountain ranges, impenetrable and covered to their bases
with eternal snow?
What could we ever hope to do with the Western Coast
of three thousand miles, rock-bound, cheerless and uninviting,
with not a harbor in it? What use have we for such a country?
Mr. President, I will never vote one cent of the public
treasury to place the Pacific Coast one inch nearer Boston
than it is today.
Even as Webster spoke, the agricultural economy of the area
that would become Stanislaus County and the rest of California
was emerging. This economic base ultimately would make the
Golden State the nations largest in agricultural production
as well as in population.
Between 1836, when the Spanish secularized the missions,
and 1846, when the Americans took control of the state, the
Mexican Government issued some 30 land grants in California,
specifically for agricultural purposes, primarily the raising
of cattle. All but six of these grants subsequently were confirmed
by the United States Land Commission, a process complicated
by the vagueness by which they originally were measured and
described. Descriptions were from "this tree to that
tree" and measurements were by the "length of a
rawhide riata," which was subject to stretching. The
grants were limited to a maximum of eight square leagues,
a Spanish league being slightly more than 2.6 miles.
Five grants were located in what now is Stanislaus County.
Alfias Basil Thompson received 35,000 acres along both sides
of the Stanislaus River between the present sites of Oakdale
and Riverbank. It was on this ranch that William Tecumseh
Sherman, the Union Army general who in 1864 led the scorched-earth
march through Georgia, raised cattle during the 1850s. His
partners were Fred Billings, Henry W. Halleck and A. C. Peachy.
Rancho Del Rio Estanislao on the north side of the Stanislaus,
extending east from the Thompson Ranch well into Calaveras
County for a total of 48,888 acres, was granted to John Rowland.
Three grants were issued along the San Joaquin River. Velentin
Higuerra and Rafael Feliz were granted 35,000 acres for the
El Pescadero Ranch, which subsequently was the site of San
Joaquin City, a river-streamer stopping place which was replaced
by Vernalis with the coming of the railroad to the Valleys
West Side. This grant extended from about Banta to some distance
below Grayson. Immediately to the south was the Rancho del
Puerto 13,000 acres granted to Mariano Hernandez
and farther up river, extending into what now is Merced County,
was the Orestimba grant of 26,000-plus acres to Sebastian
One of the most famous of these grants was Las Mariposa,
which included the present towns of Mt. Bullion and Mariposa.
Awarded in 1844 to the former Mexican governor of California,
Juan Bautista Alvarado, it never was occupied by its original
owner primarily because of the threat of Indians. In 1847,
Fremont purchased the ranch, which was to be the site of the
1851 Mariposa Indian War. Fremont, the famed "Pathfinder,"
resided there when in 1856 he became the first presidential
nominee of the newly organized Republican Party, capturing
some 40 percent of the popular vote for what then was considered
a "third party."
Cattle were the prime product of these ranches, many of which
were not habitable until 1847 or later because of the constant
threat of raids by marauding Indians which continued in some
areas well into the gold rush days.
Of the original five grants in Stanislaus County, it appears
that only El Pescadero was occupied on a permanent basis during
those early years. Higuerra and Feliz drove some 1,300 head
of cattle, 350 sheep and 300 horses from the coast to locate
there in 1843. They were the first permanent non-Indian settlers
in the Stanislaus area.
The regions first planned colony was established in
January 1847 on the north bank of the Stanislaus River about
a mile and a half above its junction with the San Joaquin.
Two parties of Mormons, one headed by Samuel Brannan traveling
by sea and the other led by William Stout going overland,
joined to establish the City of New Hope. This was to be the
destination of the Mormon people moving west to the "promised
land of California" under the leadership of Prophet Brigham
It is fascinating to speculate what the Stanislaus region
would be like today had it not been for a chance meeting on
the Oregon Trail.
In his Valley of the Sun, historian Wallace Smith tells how
a pair of wild western mountain men, Jim Bridger and "Peg-leg"
Smith, who had traveled extensively throughout the West, came
across the main party of Latter Day Saints somewhere along
the Platte River. The Mormon leader queried the pair about
their San Joaquin Valley destination. So glowing were the
accounts of Bridger and Smith, the Mormon prophet recalled
his advance party from the City of New Hope. Young decided
that any land which was as wonderful as the two mountain men
claimed the Stanislaus River area to be would attract many,
many people. Young and his church followers were seeking isolation
from the "gentiles" who had persecuted them in the
East. And so, the region was to develop in other ways.
Free-ranging Castillian longhorns roamed the countryside
in great numbers. This was stock stolen from the missions
by marauding Indians, including bands of "neophytes"
who had fled, as had Estanislao and his people. These longhorns
were rounded up and branded by the early ranchers. The bands
of wild horses mentioned by Fremont in his 1844 diary were
from the same source.
At first, the market was not for meat, but for hides and
tallow. Jack Brotherton in his Annals of Stanislaus County
says the shipment of hides and tallow to San Francisco was
responsible for the start of regularly-scheduled steamer trips
up the San Joaquin and Tuolumne Rivers. The meat was left
for the coyotes, vultures and other scavengers.
The American taste for beef during the gold rush changed
this. Whole herds of cattle were driven to the mining camps
from the Valleys West Side and coastal ranches.
A new breed of cattle which was to replace the scrawny, stringy
Castillian longhorns came with the gold-seeking argonauts
of 1849. Some enterprising settlers saw their fortunes not
in the mining but in supplying the miners. Walter Crow brought
the first midwestern American cattle to California in 1850
with a herd of 500. Crow died shortly after arriving in the
state, but his four sons, James, William, Benjamin and Alfred,
drove the cattle to the Stanislaus region where they established
a ranch along Orestimba Creek. The family name is borne by
the town of Crows Landing.
From that time on, cattle were being driven into the state
and Paradise Valley. By 1854 there were many thousands of
cattle roaming free on the plains of Stanislaus. Early historian
George H. Tinkham quotes cattleman William K. Wallis as reporting
the county "was one immense pasture."
L. C. Branch, who in 1881 wrote the first history of Stanislaus
County, included an autobiography by Wallis brother
Thomas, who recounts his introduction to Paradise Valley cattle
when traveling from San Francisco to join his brother in April
When I arrived in Stockton, I found that no steamer would
leave for the San Joaquin River for two weeks and, as
there was no stage line or team coming this way, I concluded
to come across the country afoot. There were no houses
on the plains at the time, and wild cattle roamed over
them at freedom in vast numbers. When traveling between
the Stanislaus and Tuolumne Rivers, I saw a band of wild
cattle coming toward me, shaking their heads. I immediately
fell to the ground and crawled on my hands and knees for
a long distance until they had lost sight of me. I afterward
learned that they were infuriated by being caught and
branded, and would have killed me had they caught me.
Even as Wallis was crawling away from infuriated longhorns,
the decline of the livestock industry was approaching. The
extremes of weather and the influx of people doomed the Paradise
Valley cattle industry.
The decline began with the devastating floods of the winter
of 1861-62, which brought the entire economy of Northern California
and much of the rest of the state to a halt. The floods were
followed by three years of drought.
Transportation into Stanislaus County became easier with
the advent of river steamers and better roads. The population
swelled with newcomers settling on the prime riverbottom land.
In 1860 the census recorded 2,245 residents in Stanislaus
County. By 1870 the population had tripled.
The new king was to be wheat.
So rapid was the rise in wheat production that within five
short years, Stanislaus Countys production topped that
of all California counties. The state was the nations
leading wheat producer. Individual wheat farms of 50,000 to
100,000 acres were not uncommon in Paradise Valley.
Midwesterners, some disillusioned with the mines and other
coming to Stanislaus directly from their Plains States homes
to seek a new life, found Central California land ideal for
growing grains. The soil was fine loam easy to plow. The rainless
summers from May to October meant no worries about showers
at harvest time and the wheat heads were hard and dry. Once
harvested, the wheat could be left sacked in the fields or
in warehouses without worry. For many, farming proved to be
more profitable than digging for elusive gold.
As early as 1850 the richness of soil had been recognized
by a state legislative committee. It declared that the region
around Tuolumne City, a community just emerging on the north
side of the Tuolumne River a few miles above its junction
with the San Joaquin River, "will shortly be a sort of
Jauja, the golden city of the fabulous region where
rivers of milk and honey flowed and farinaceous fruits grew
A couple of years later, James C. Carson, an army sergeant
who while on furlough explored the San Joaquin Valley and
for whom the Carson River Pass are named, was more specific
and much less flowery in his evaluation of the soils
The traveler crossing this valley or traversing it in
any direction during the dry season would judge from its
parched appearance that it is a barren waste unfit for
any of the purpose of man. This was my opinion on my first
visit but being a practical farmer, I had a curiosity
to examine the soil, and the inducements offered by the
general aspects of the country to agricultural pursuits.
Carson referred to Central California as "the garden
In addition to the vagaries of weather and the influx of
people, two factors were significant in the transition of
Stanislaus farm economy from cattle to wheat. By 1864
the American Civil War had disrupted many traditional wheat-growing
areas, thus opening European markets to California producers.
Soon thereafter, the Franco-Prussian War created tremendous
new demands for wheat to feed starving people on the European
Continent. San Francisco financiers were quick to capitalize
on these events by encouraging the planting of California
Although wheat was firmly established as the countys
prime agricultural commodity by 1870, the crowning blow to
the cattle industry came that year when the states "no
fence" law was extended to Stanislaus County. This simply
declared that farmers did not have to erect fences to keep
livestock out. It was the responsibility of the stockmen to
fence in their herds. Those cattlemen who actually owned land
could not afford to enclose the vast acreages required for
grazing. Many stockmen had no land to fence as their cattle
roamed freely on unclaimed public domain.
In October 1870 the arrival of the railroad in Stanislaus
County facilitated the shipment of the crop. On the 27th
of that month, the first load of wheat to leave the San Joaquin
Valley by rail was shipped from Modesto to Oakland by M. M.
Although the boom in wheat production began in 1867, wheat
had been grown in the county for a decade and a half. As early
as 1852, when pioneer farmer Elihu Birrott Beard purchased
10,000 acres north of Waterford, farmers began experimenting
with the production of wheat, barley and other crops, including
produce for home consumption and for shipment by steamer to
Beard, whose son Thomas K. Beard was to be instrumental in
the 1913 creation of the Waterford Irrigation District, was
the first farmer in 1852 to practice summer fallowing of the
land for increased production. He encouraged the use of more
efficient mowers, reapers and headers and in the 1860s introduced
gang plows by which wheat growers could plow several furrows
An inventory of new equipment was developed in the 1860s
by the inventive farmers of Paradise Valley and surrounding
In 1860, only 22,500 bushels of wheat were produced in the
county. Production increased so fast that by 1870 more than
4 million bushels were harvested.
A newspaper report in 1868 proclaims: "That part of
the county between the Stanislaus and Tuolumne Rivers, an
area of 125 square miles and known as Paradise,
is one unbroken field of grain."
In the expansive literary style of the period, historian
Branch described what Paradise Valley was like in 1870:
This part of the county had, within a few years, developed
into a rich agricultural region. The largest herds of
cattle that once roamed over these plains had disappeared
from view; the long horn of the Spanish steer was no longer
in view. The farmer had taken the place of the vaquero,
the plow the place of the lariat. The branding iron and
the rawhide, the lasso and the rodeo had become relics
of the past. The first bright gleams of the glamorous
future were dawning over our people. The great valley
had become a unit in interest and alike in feeling. Agriculture
and grazing- the two conflicting interests no longer
crossed their swords in eternal warfare, but they were
now united, led by a common interest. All had become stock
breeders; all grain growers.
It is true there were no major battles between the cowboys
and the sodbusters such as those occurring in other parts
of the West. Circumstances had forced the change.
The droughts of 1873 and 1874 reduced production but did
not discourage wheat farmers, who bounced back in 1875 to
produce 3 million bushels with 410,000 Stanislaus acres
in production then 5 million bushels the following
year and 7 million bushels in 1878, a record unequalled until
As the new decade of the 1880s began, Branch wrote of traveling
for hours through vast fields of wheat: "In every direction
was wheat, not a house, tree or object of any kind in sight,
only wheat, wheat, wheat."
On this occasion, he described his first personal look at
the Centennial Harvester, developed in 1876 by David Young
of Stockton in response to requirements of growers in Stanislaus
and elsewhere, in this manner:
At last our eyes caught sight of queer looking object
in the distance, and curiosity as well as a desire to
see something besides wheat, led us toward it.
We were astonished at the sight, and looked long in wonder
and amazement at a combined header and thresher. Twenty-four
horses were pushing this immense machine over the ground
and as it passed along dropped sacks filled with wheat.
The horses were six abreast twelve each side the
tongue and the swath cut was, we judge, thirty
feet wide. The grain heads in the meantime, instead of
passing into the header wagon, went directly into the
separator and the grain was sacked and thrown off. It
was worth a long journey to see this wonderful machine
with its twenty-four horses trained like circus animals,
and all moving at the command of the man at the
wheel who guides the header by a tiller attached
to a wheel at the end of the tongue which acts as a rudder
for this agricultural ship.
While watching its operations the writer wondered if
on his next trip that way, he would not also see the grist-mill
attached and the machine throwing off sacks of flour!
One of the first in Stanislaus County to use the Centennial
Harvester was E. Cogswell, who in 1878 harvested 20,000 bushels
of wheat from nearly 1,500 acres in 42 days.
Growing wheat was a tough, demanding occupation, especially
at harvest time. The ground was plowed as soon as the first
rains of the fall would permit. Once the wheat was sown, the
success of the crop depended upon the weather. In a good year
harvest crews would move in after the rains had ceased and
the wheat heads had time to harden dry in the hot summer sun.
Handling teams of 12 to 24 mules or horses was an art in
itself, to which the muleskinner added an artistic vocabulary
when things did not go right. In 1868 one Stanislaus muleskinner,
Irwin S. Wright, simplified the task of controlling long teams
when he invented the "jerk line." He extended a
single rein down the left side of the team, attaching it to
the collar of the "near leader" in such a manner
that a jerk would pull the animals head to the right
and a steady pull would lead it to the left.
Central Californians who helped to expand the wheat yield
with new machines included George Stockton Berry. Starting
with a discarded portable steam engine, Berry built the first
mechanically-driven combine. Benjamin Holt of Stockton invented
the Caterpillar tractor. Although designed primarily to solve
the problems of farming the San Joaquin- Sacramento River
Delta peat soil, it soon became standard equipment for most
farming operations in Stanislaus County. In World War I, the
British worked with Holt to develop the first army tank.
The early combines were unique to the San Joaquin Valley
because the vast acreages to be harvested made the huge machines
practical; in eastern states where fields were smaller they
would have been impractical.
Even as the production reached its peak, new forces were
working to promote more diversified farming.
Ora McHenry, L. M. Hickman, J. B. Caldwell and others were
planting orchards, vines and vegetables. By the start of the
last decade of the 19th Century, McHenry was the
leader in the fruit industry, having some 100 acres in production.
And at Paradise Gardens, three miles from Modesto, Peter Lesher
in 1891 grew some 700 tons of fruit, primarily apricots but
also including 200 tons of peaches and 8,000 boxes of Bartlett
The same ingenuity, courage and determination that allowed
the taming of a wild Valley wasteland, converting it to the
states leading wheat region in a scant 30 years, were
to shape the future of Paradise Valley and much of the rest
of the state. This dramatic change was to come through the
development of the first fiscally-sound system of irrigation
by wisely using the water which flowed from the Sierra through
California to the sea.
But it was not going to be an easy task.