Flag of California.svg
Total population
11.9 million[1]
Chicanos/Mexican Americans in California
(30% of California's population)

Descendants of Spanish & Mexican colonial ancestry
Regions with significant populations
 California11.9 million
Spanish (American Spanish, Mexican Spanish), English (California English, Chicano English), Caló, Indigenous languages of California, Indigenous languages of Mexico
Predominantly Roman Catholic
Related ethnic groups
Other Chicanos and Hispanos
of the United States:

Tejanos, Neomexicanos
Other Hispanic and Latino peoples:
Chicanos, Mexican Americans, Mexicans, Spaniards, Indigenous Mexican American, Spanish Americans, Louisiana Criollos, Louisiana Isleños
Other California Hispanics:
Basque Californians

Californio (historical, regional Spanish for Californian; plural: Californios) is a term for a Hispanic person native of California, who is culturally or genetically descended from the Spanish-speaking community that has existed in the Californias since 1683, of varying Criollo Spaniard, Mestizo, and Indigenous Californian origin.[3] Alongside Tejanos and Neomexicanos, Californios are part of the larger Chicano/Mexican-American/Hispano community of the United States, which have lived in the American Southwest since the 16th century.

The term "Californio" originally was applied to the Spanish-speaking residents of Las Californias during the periods of Spanish California and Mexican California, between 1683 and 1848. The first Californios were the children of the early Spanish military expeditions into northern reaches of the Californias which established the California presidios and subsequently allowed for the foundation of the California mission system.[4] Later, the primary cultural focus of the Californio population became the Vaquero tradition practiced by the landed gentry which received land grants creating the Rancho system.[5] In the 1820s-40s, American and European settlers increasingly came to Mexican California, married Californio women, and became Mexican citizens, learning Spanish and often converting to Catholicism, and are often also considered Californios, for their adherence to Californio language and culture.

There are 11.9 million Chicanos/Mexican Americans in California (30% of California's population),[1] making up the largest group of 15.2 million California Hispanics (40% of California's population).[6] 2004 studies estimated that between 300,000 and 500,000 Californios had ancestry descended from the Mexican and Spanish eras of California.[2]

Society and customs

Andrés Pico, shown in 1850 in traditional Californio Vaquero attire, served as a California State Senator and Adjutant General of California.


Alta California ("Upper California") was nominally controlled by a national-government appointed governor.[7] The governors of California were at first appointed by the Viceroy (nominally under the control of the Spanish kings), and after 1821 by the approximate 40 Mexican Presidents from 1821 to 1846. The costs of the minimum Alta California government were mainly paid by means of a roughly 40–100% import tariff collected at the entry port of Monterey.

The other center of Spanish power in Alta California was the Franciscan friars who, as heads of the 21 missions, often resisted the powers of the governors.[8] None of the Franciscan friars were Californios, however, and their influence rapidly waned after the secularization of the missions in the 1830s.

The Red Lone Star Flag of California was a symbol of the Californio Revolt of 1836, led by Juan Bautista Alvarado.

The instability of the Mexican government (especially in its early years), Alta California's geographic isolation, the growing ability of the Alta California's inhabitants to generally make a success of immigrating and an increase in the Californio population created a schism with the national government. As Spanish and Mexican period immigrants were succeeded in number by those that increasing lost an affinity with the national government, an environment developed that did not suppress disagreement with the central government. Governors had little material support from far-away Mexico to deal with Alta Californians, who were left to resolve situations themselves. Mexico-born governor Manuel Victoria was forced to flee in 1831, after losing a fight against a local uprising at the Battle of Cahuenga Pass.

As Californios matured to adulthood and increasingly assumed positions of power in the Alta California government (including that of governor), rivalries emerged between northern and southern regions. Several times, Californio leaders attempted to break away from Mexico, most notably Juan Bautista Alvarado in 1836. Southern regional leaders, led by Pio Pico, made several attempts to relocate the capital from Monterey to the more populated Los Angeles.[9]


The independence-minded Californios were also influenced by the increasing numbers of immigrant foreigners (mostly English and French, Americans were grouped with the "English"), who integrated with the Californios, becoming Mexican citizens and gaining land either independently granted to them or through marriage to Californio women; involvement in local politics was inevitable.[10]

For example, the American Abel Stearns was an ally of the Californio José Antonio Carrillo in the 1831 Victoria incident, yet sided with the southern Californians against the Californio would-be governor Alvarado in 1836. Alvarado recruited a company of Tennessean riflemen, many of them former trappers who had settled in the Monterey Bay area. The company was led by another American, Isaac Graham. When the Americans refused to fight against fellow Americans, Alvarado was forced to negotiate a settlement.

Ethnic variety

Californios included the descendants of agricultural settlers and retired escort soldiers deployed from what is modern-day Mexico. Most were of mixed ethnicities, usually Mestizo (Spanish and Native American) or mixed African-American and Indian backgrounds. Despite the depictions of the popular shows like Zorro, few Californios were of "pure" Spanish (Peninsular or Criollo) ancestry.[11] Most with unmixed Spanish ancestry were Franciscan priests, along with career government officials and military officers who did not remain in California.[12]

According to mission records (marriage, baptisms, and burials) as well as Presidio roster listings, several "leather-jacket" soldiers (soldados de cuero) operating as escorts, mission guards, and other military duty personnel were described as europeo (i.e., born in Europe), while most of the civilian settlers were of mixed origins (coyote, mulatto, etc.). The term "mestizo" was rarely if ever used in mission records, the more common terms being "indio", "europeo", "mulatto", "coyote", "castizo" and other caste terms. An example of the number of European-born soldiers is the twenty-five from Lieutenant Pedro Fages detachment of Catalan Volunteers. Most of the soldiers on the Portola-Serra expedition of 1769 and the de Anza expeditions of 1774 and 1775 were recruited from the Spanish Army infantry regiments then stationed in Mexico. Many of them were assigned to garrison the presidios, then retired at the end of their ten-year enlistments, and remaining in California. Because there were many more men than women among the Spanish soldiers and settlers, some men who stayed in California married native Californian women who had converted to Christianity at the missions.

Family and education

The family was characteristically patriarchal, with the son regardless of age, deferring to his father's wishes.[10] Women had full rights of property ownership and control unless she was married or had a father—the males had almost complete control of all family members.[8] A formal education system in California had yet to be created so it fell to the individual families to educate their children among them, traditionally done by the priests or hired private tutors; few early immigrants knew how to read or write, so only a few hundred inhabitants could.[13]

Women in Californio Society

Women in Californio society are often heavily romanticized as the young Spanish women that are so commonly seen in extravagant dresses in movies and television. They are commonly characterized by their beauty and fun loving nature, while also being very sheltered and protected.[14] While some women at the pinnacle of Californio social standing did manage to live this kind of life it was very rare among indigenous peoples, most of whose women worked to help their families both inside and outside the home. See the top gallery for an 1867 photograph of Josepha Bandini de Carrillo, the Californio daughter of Juan Bandini and wife of Pedro C. Carrillo.

The social life of Californio society was extremely important in both politics and business, and women played an important but overlooked part in these interactions. They helped facilitate these interactions for their husbands, and therefore themselves, to move up in the social and power rankings of Californio society. This ability to shape social situations was a sought after trait when looking for a spouse, as prominent men knew the power their new wife would have in their future dealings[15]

As women played a key role in the development of Alta California and its social interactions they continued this role into its transition from a Mexican territory to an American possession. As foreign non-Spanish speaking men moved into California, who wished to insert themselves into the upper echelons of already established social hierarchy, they began to use marriage with the women of established Californio families as a way to join this hierarchy.[15] Intermarriages between Californios and foreigners was common during the time of Mexican rule and quickly became even more common after the American annexation and Gold Rush in California. These intermarriages worked to combine the cultures of American settlers and merchants with that of the declining Californio society. These marriages though were not enough to prevent the descent into irrelevance of Californio power in California or the racism and attacks on the people of Mexican heritage later.


The Spanish colonial government, and later, Mexican officials encouraged through recruitment civilians from the northern and western provinces of Mexico such as Sonora. This was not well received by Californios, and was one of the factors leading to revolt against Mexican rule. Sonorans came to California despite the area's isolation and the lack of central government support. Many of the soldier's wives considered California to be a cultural wasteland and a hardship assignment. An incentive for the soldiers that remained in California after service was the opportunity to receive a land grant that probably was not possible elsewhere. This made most of California's early settlers military retirees with a few civilian settlers from Mexico. Since it was a frontier society, the initial rancho housing was characterized as rude and crude—little more than mud huts with thatched roofs. As the rancho owners prospered these residences could be upgraded to more substantial adobe structures with tiled roofs. Some buildings took advantage of local tar pits (La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles) in an attempt to waterproof roofs. Restoration of these Today, often suffer from a perception that results in a grander representation than if they had been constructed during the Californio period.[16]

The concession of land

Before Mexican independence in 1821, 20 "Spanish" land grants had been issued (at little or no cost) in all of Alta California;[10] many to "a few friends and family of the Alta California governors". The 1824 Mexican General Colonization Law established rules for petitioning for land grants in California; and by 1828, the rules for establishing land grants were codified in the Mexican Reglamento (Regulation). The Acts sought to break the monopoly of the Catholic Franciscan missions and possibly entice increased Mexican settlement. When the missions were secularized in 1834–1836 mission property and livestock were supposed to be mostly allocated to the Mission Indians.[16] Historical research shows that the majority of rancho grants were given to retired non-commissioned soldiers. The largest grants to Nieto, Sepulveda, Dominguez, Yorba, Avila, Grijalva, and other founding families were examples of this practice.[10]

Many of the foreign residents also became rancho grantees. Some were "Californios by marriage" like Stearns (who was naturalized in Mexico before moving north) and the Englishman William Hartnell. Others married Californios but never became Mexican citizens. Rancho ownership was possible for these men because, under Spanish/Mexican law, married women could independently hold title to property. In the Santa Cruz area, three Californio daughters of the inválido José Joaquín Castro (1768–1838) married foreigners yet still received grants to Rancho Soquel, Rancho San Agustin and Rancho Refugio.


In practice nearly all mission property and livestock became about 455 large Ranchos of California granted by the Californio authorities. The Californio rancho owners claimed about 8,600,000 acres (35,000 km2) averaging about 18,900 acres (76 km2) each. This land was nearly all originally mission land within about 30 miles (48 km) of the coast. The Mexican-era land grants by law were provisional for five years in order for the terms of the law to reasonably be fulfilled. The boundaries of these ranchos were not established as they came to be in later times predominately based on what could be understood as figurative boundaries. They were based on just where another granted owner considered the end of their land, lands or vegetation landmarks.[17] Conflict was bound to occur when these land grants were reviewed under United States control. Title to some grants under United States control were rejected[18] based on questionable documents especially when with predated documents, that could have been created post-United States occupancy in January 1847.[16][19]

Rancho culture

After agriculture, cattle, sheep and horses were established by the Missions, Friars, soldiers and Mission Indians, the Rancho owners dismissed the Friars and the soldiers and took over the Mission land and livestock starting in 1834—the Mission Indians were left to survive however they could. The rancho owners tried to live in a grand style they perceived of the wealthy hidalgos in Spain. They expected the non-rancho owning population to support this lifestyle.[10] Nearly all males rode to where ever they were going at nearly all times making them excellent riders. They indulged in many fiestas, fandangos, rodeos and roundups as the rancho owners often went from rancho to rancho on a large horse bound party circuit. Weddings, christenings, and funerals were all "celebrated" with large gatherings.[16]


Since the government depended on import tariffs (also called Custom duties and ad-valorem taxes) for its income there was virtually no property tax. Under Spanish/Mexican rule, all landowners were expected to the Diezmo, a compulsory tithe to the Catholic Church of one tenth of the fruits of agriculture and animal husbandry, business profits or salaries. Priest salaries and mission expenses were paid out of this money and/or collected goods.[16]

The mandatory Diezmo ended with the secularization of the missions, greatly reducing rancho taxes until the U.S. takeover. Today's state property tax system makes large self-supporting cattle ranches uneconomical in most cases.

Frequency of use of horses

Horses were plentiful and often left, after being broken in, to wander around with a rope around their neck for easy capture. It was not unusual for a rider to use one horse until it was exhausted, before switching its bridle to another horse—letting the first horse free to wander. Horse ownership for all except a few exceptional animals were almost community property. Horses were so common and of so little use that they were often destroyed to keep them from eating the grass needed by the cattle. California Indians later developed a taste for horse flesh as food and helped keep the number of horses under control.[16] An unusual use for horses was found in shucking wheat or barley. The wheat and its stems were cut from the gain fields by Indians bearing sickles. The grain with its stems still attached was transported to the harvesting area by solid wheeled ox-cart[20] (about the only wheeled transport in California) and put into a circular packed earth corral. A herd of horses were then driven into the same corral or "threshing field". By keeping the horses moving around the corral their hoofs would, in time, separate the wheat or barley from the chaff. Later the horses would be allowed to escape and the wheat and chaff were collected and then separated by tossing it into the air on a windy day so as to let the wind carry the chaff away. Presumably the wheat was washed before use to remove some of the dirt.[21]

The Indian work force

For these very few rancho owners and their families, this was the Californio's Golden Age, although for all the others much different.[10] Much of the agriculture, vineyards and orchards established by the Missions were allowed to deteriorate as the rapidly declining mission Indian population went from over 80,000 in 1800 to only a few thousand by 1846. Fewer Indians meant less food was required and the Franciscan Friars and soldiers supporting the missions disappeared after 1834 when the missions were abolished (secularized). After the Friars and soldiers disappeared, many of the Indians deserted the missions and returned to their tribes or found work elsewhere. The new ranchos often gave work to some of the former mission Indians. The "Savage tribes" worked for room, board and clothing (and no pay).[22] The former mission Indians performed the majority of the work herding cattle, planting and harvesting the ranchos' crops. The slowly increasing ranchos and Pueblos at Los Angeles, San Diego, Monterey, Santa Cruz, San Jose and Yerba Buena (now San Francisco) mostly only grew enough food to eat and to trade. The exceptions were the cattle and horses growing wild on unfenced range land. Originally owned by the missions they were killed for their hides and tallow.[23]

Leather and food

Leather, one of the most common materials available, was used for many products, including saddles, chaps, whips, window and door coverings, riatas (leather braided rope), trousers, hats, stools, chairs, bed frames, etc. Leather was even used for leather armor where soldiers' jackets were made from several layers of hardened leather sewn together. This stiff leather jacket was sufficient to stop most Indian arrows and worked well when fighting the Indians. Beef was a common constituent of most Californio meals and since it couldn't be kept long in the days before refrigeration, beef was often slaughtered to get a few steaks or cuts of meat. The property and yards around the ranchos were marked by the large number of dead cow heads, horns or other animal parts. Cow hides were kept later for trading purposes with Yankee or British traders who started showing up once or twice a year after 1825.[24] Beef, wheat bread products, corn (maize), several types of beans, peas and several types of squash were common meal items with wine and olive oil used when they could be found. The mestizo population probably subsisted mostly on what they were used to: corn or maize, beans, and squash with some beef donated by the rancho owners. What the average Native Americans ate is unknown since they were in transition from a hunter gatherer society to agriculturalists. Formerly, many lived at least part of the year on ground acorns, fish, seeds, wild game, etc. It is known that many of the ranchers complained about Indians stealing their cattle and horses to eat.[23]


From about 1769 to 1824 California averaged about 2.5 ships per year with 13 years showing no ships coming to California. These ships brought a few new settlers and supplies for the pueblos and Missions. Under the Spanish colonial government rules, trade was actively discouraged with non-Spanish ships. The few non-Indian people living in California had almost nothing to trade—the missions and pueblos were subsidized by the Spanish government. The occasional Spanish ships that did show up were usually requested by Californios and had Royal permission to go to California—bureaucracy in action. Prior to 1824, when the newly independent Mexico liberalized the trade rules[10] and allowed trade with non-Mexican ships, the occasional trading ship or U.S. whaler that put into a California port to trade, get fresh water, replenish their firewood and obtain fresh meat and vegetables became more common. The average number of ships from 1825 to 1845 jumped to twenty-five ships per year versus the 2.5 ships per year common for the prior fifty years.[23]

The rancho society had few resources except large herds of Longhorn cattle which grew well in California. The ranchos produced the largest cowhide (called California Greenbacks) and tallow business in North America by killing and skinning their cattle and cutting off the fat. The cowhides were staked out to dry and the tallow was put in large cowhide bags. The rest of the animal was left to rot or feed the California grizzly bears that were common in California. With something to trade, and needing everything from nails, needles and almost anything made of metal to fancy thread and cloth that could be sewn into fancy cloaks or ladies' dresses, etc., they started trading with merchant ships from Boston, Massachusetts, Britain and other trading ports in Europe and the East Coast of the United States. The trip from Boston, New York City or Liverpool England averaged over 200 days one way. Trading ships and the occasional whaler put into San Diego, San Juan Capistrano, San Pedro, San Buenaventura (Ventura), Monterey and Yerba Buena (San Francisco) after stopping and paying the import tariff of 50–100% at the entry port of Monterey, California. These tariffs or custom fees paid for the Alta California government. The classic book Two Years Before the Mast (originally published 1840) by Richard Henry Dana, Jr. gives a good first-hand account of a two-year sailing ship sea trading voyage to Alta California which he took in 1834-5. Dana mentions that they also took back a large shipment of California longhorn horns. Horns were used to make a large number of items during this period. (The eBook of Two Years Before the Mast is available at Gutenberg project[25] and at other sites.)

California was not alone in using the import duty to pay for its government as the U.S. import tariffs at this time were also the way the United States paid for most of its Federal Government. A U.S. average tariff (also called custom duties and ad valorem taxes) of about 25% raised about 89% of all Federal income in 1850.[26]

Other Languages
français: Californios
Nederlands: Californio's