When the civil wars erupted in Mexico in 1810, California found itself cut off from Mexico, the source of supplies and primary market for surplus crops. During this period, illegal trading took place with the foreign ships that surreptitiously visited California ports. Seamen off these ships became the vanguard of American and Anglo-European settlers in California.
By the 1820s, the lagging economy of the area began to increase due to the changing administrative policies of the new Mexican government. Two of these policies had important local ramifications. The first was the legalization of trade with foreign ships in the ports of San Francisco and Monterey. The traders exchanged tea, coffee, spices, clothing, leather goods, etc., for tallow and hides. Under the stimulus of this commerce, the settlements around the bay became lively trade centers. The second change in policy to have far-reaching effects in California was the secularization of the missions and the establishment of large, private land grants (Broek 1932:40-46).
With the change of governmental control from Spain to Mexico in 1822 and the secularization of the missions, came changing land utilization and ownership patterns. In 1824, Mexico passed a law for the settlement of vacant lands in an effort to stimulate further colonization. Any citizen, whether foreign or native, could select a tract of unoccupied land so long as it was a specific distance away from the lands held by missions, pueblos, and Indians. The grantee petitioned the governor for a specific tract, which after investigation and if there were no objections, was granted.
Thirty-eight land grants were issued between 1833 and 1845 in the Santa Clara Valley, with all or parts of fifteen rancho grants located within San Jose’s current city limits. When a citizen was granted rancho land, he was required to occupy the property and to build a dwelling within a certain period. Many of the ranchos granted in the Santa Clara Valley had received provisional grants from the alcalde several years before the official petition to the Governor. Each rancho had a hacienda which was in many cases a self-supporting village, composed of the main rancho residence, laborers’ housing, corrals, grist mill (tahona), tannery, etc., surrounded by vineyards and cultivated fields.
Overseeing the immense acreage and herds of cattle, the California ranchero and his vaqueros spent many hours on horseback, the favored form of transportation. Cattle, allowed to range freely, were rounded up twice a year during a rodeo—in the spring to brand the calves and again during the late summer for slaughter. The rodeo was often an occasion for socializing with the neighboring rancho families. With fiesta and fandango; the rodeo festivities often lasted a week or more.
In the early years of the province, the slaughter, or matanza, was solely for domestic needs. Cattle supplied beef to be eaten fresh or dried for future use; hides for shoes, lariats and outerwear; fat for cooking; and tallow for candles and soapmaking. During the period of Mexican rule the matanza became more systematic and extensive. Hides were carefully stripped from the carcasses and the lard and tallow was rendered. The lard was retained for domestic use and the tallow was saved for export. In trade the tallow brought six cents per pound, from 75 to 100 pounds were obtained from each carcass. Hides brought from one dollar to $2.50 a piece, becoming known as “California banknotes.” The malodorous killing fields could be detected for miles and were presided over by the vultures, coyotes, and other scavengers feeding on the unwanted flesh (Daniels 1976).
With the relaxation of immigration regulations by the Mexican government in 1828, more foreigners began to settle in California, frequently marrying the daughters of local land owners. San Jose’s first “foreign” settler was Antonio Suñol, a native of Spain who arrived as a seaman on a French ship that weighed anchor in San Francisco Bay. Educated and resourceful, Suñol opened the first mercantile store and saloon in the pueblo in 1820. He also sold lumber, purchasing whip-sawn redwood from the Americans who were working in the San Mateo redwoods. Suñol’s store, having the only strong box in town, also became the first bank. As the only educated citizen in the pueblo, he became a leading businessman as well as politically prominent. He was the first post-master in 1826 and in the 1830s was chosen to be the attorney (sindico) and registrar for the pueblo. Throughout the early 1840s he served as sub-prefect of the district and in 1841 as the alcalde.
Always the gracious host, Suñol entertained the foreign visitors that passed through San Jose, no doubt encouraging many to stay to make homes and take advantage of the many business opportunities in the area. Of the approximately 700 people who lived in the pueblo in 1835, forty were foreigners, mostly Americans and Englishmen. The first overland migration arrived in California in 1841, and by 1845 the new American settlers had increased the population of the pueblo to 900.
The American presence in San Jose was rapidly changing the character of the pueblo from a Mexican village to a bustling American town. For example, Charles Weber, upon his arrival in the valley in 1841, established a general merchandise store, a blacksmith shop, a flour mill, a bakery, a salt works, a soap and candle business, and a restaurant/saloon that catered to foreigners. He also purchased a large rancho in the area. The presence of the growing American population prepared the way for relatively easy occupation of California by American forces in 1846.
By the time of America’s military conquest, the Anglo-American’s commercial conquest was well-established. The Mexican population of California observed the influx of European and American settlers with a sense of helplessness. The Mexican governor, Pio Pico, articulately expressed his concern for California’s future in 1846:
We find ourselves threatened by hordes of Yankee immigrants who have already begun to flock into our country, and whose progress we cannot arrest. Already have the wagons of that perfidious people scaled the almost inaccessible summits of the Sierra Nevada, crossed the entire continent and penetrated the fruitful valley of the Sacramento. What that astonishing people will next undertake, I cannot say; but in whatever enterprise they embark they will sure to be successful. Already these adventurous voyagers, spreading themselves far and wide over a country which seems to suit their tastes, are cultivating farms, establishing vineyards, erecting mills, sawing up lumber, and doing a thousand other things which seem natural to them (Hall 1871:143).
In the earlier Spanish period, San Jose was characterized as an agrarian village with little or no commercial activity. With the change to Mexican rule, foreigners began to settle in San Jose establishing small-scale commercial operations. As the Anglo-American population increased during the 1840s, the native Californians found themselves suddenly in the minority and their way of life seriously threatened.