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November 26, 2013 > History Column: Cows

History Column: Cows

By Phil Holmes

Cows became an important part of the East Bay when the first herd of 600 arrived at Mission San Jose in 1797. They were driven here by Christian Indians from Santa Clara Mission 15 miles away. Four teams of oxen, three mules, four tame horses, two bulls and 28 steers came with them. Mission Dolores sent 60 cows, eight steers, two bulls and eight teams of oxen.

Padre Augustin Merino supervised the cattle business, but the herding, working and butchering were done by trained Indian vaqueros (cowboys). Dr. Georg Langsdorff noted the great herds of cattle in 1806, especially the bulls, running wild and making the country unsafe for people on foot. Vast quantities of hides and tallow were traded for goods, and hundreds of cattle were butchered for food. The pastures were good, and the original cattle herd increased to over 7,000 by 1810.

The Mission herd grew to some 12,000 cattle by 1833 and remained this size until about 1842 in spite of some ÓloansÓ to start herds on the nearby ranchos. Some of these cattle were driven to Oregon by Philip Edwards and Ewing Young in 1837. Mission San Jose was sold in 1846, and the herds ÒdisappearedÓ into private ownership. Very few went to the Indians.

The Mexican rancheros became the owners of most of these cattle. Raising cattle was the main industry on California Ranchos. The branding mark of the ranchero became his sign of ownership, his crest and a source of pride to the family. Every rancho had herds of wild cattle that roamed from the bay to the hills. They were loosely tended by ranch hands and Indian servants. Cattle from adjacent ranchos intermingled but were separated and marked at annual rodeos. Beef, served in a variety of ways, was the main food eaten by everyone.

The Matanzas or butchering seasons were a highlight of rancho life because they provided hides and tallow to trade for tools, shoes, clothing, jewelry and household furnishings. Fat cattle were rounded up, herded into corrals and butchered. Some of the best meat was saved for drying. Hides were stripped and dried and the fat rendered into tallow. Hides and tallow were hauled to landings on the bay and traded for products that made life more pleasant.

James Clyman camped at the Sunol ranch in 1845 while the rancheros and Indians were slaughtering cattle for hides and tallow. Fat cattle were worth $2 in trade for the hide and $6 for the tallow. The carcasses of 200 to 300 cattle had been hauled a few rods from the slaughter grounds and left for the vultures, bears and coyotes.

The gold rush provided a ready market for California cattle, but thousands were also shot or stolen. Jose Vallejo tried to hide some of his cattle in the hills for a while, but most of the local herds were driven to mining camps and butchered to feed the miners.

John HornerÕs 1847 potato crop was destroyed by cows. He fenced his next crop but had to sleep by the fence and scare hundreds of hungry cattle away with gun shots.

Early Californians had a unique method of milking a wild cow. A vaquero would lasso the cow by the horns and tie up a foot so it couldnÕt kick. The cow would be too mad to let down her milk, so a helper would hold the cowÕs calf on the other side and let it suck a little. The cow would then let down her milk for the calf, and the milker would take most of it.

Americans imported breeding stock and worked to improve the quality of the animals. Robert Blacow was one of the best-known stock-breeders in California. Stock raising was still the areaÕs third largest industry in 1876. John Hall of Alvarado was the outstanding stockman. The 1878 Atlas listed Henry Curtner, John Emart, John Hall, John Lowrie, Howard Overacker, A. Rankin, David Reynolds, Michael Rogan, and T. Walker as stock raisers. Five thorough bred shorthorns of M. B. Sturgis were pictured and named.

Cows were capable of disturbing the routines of everyday life even in 1876:

It was wash-day and Mrs. H. had just hung up her ÒthingsÓ to dry. A stiff wind was blowing, and this fat cow wandered along contentedly chewing her cud. She was attracted by the linen on the line, waving in the breeze. Mrs. Cow observed the spectacle and concluded it was a hostile enemy. She bowed her head, charged the line and captured a calico dress on her horns. The dress struck tight to the horns and the frantic cow bellowed through the streets of Mission San Jose with tail erect and foam flying from her mouth. She was last seen somewhere headed for the hills.

Niles became a cow town for a few moments in 1936 when Carl ZwissingÕs men were driving 200 head of his cows through town. The cows behaved well until they reached MarbleÕs Service Station. Then they started to wander through the geraniums in front of the newspaper office, and Òsome even tried to get a permanent wave in Marjorie MooreÕs Beauty Salon,Ó The riders finally got the herd moving, and the town returned to normal.

Cows continued to be an important part of the local economy, and cattlemen continued to produce beef in spite of perplexing problems. A $60,000 Hereford bull named T. Triumphant was stationed at the Mission Hereford Ranch in 1947. Cattle are still being raised on the slopes and hills of Fremont and Union City, but have been almost banished from the flatlands.

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