The history of our region’s romanticized Spanish/Mexican interlude has been earnestly chronicled. Dario Oreña’s tome Reminiscences of Early California, written in 1932 when Oreña was 76, contributes a unique first-hand narrative of that culture, unencumbered by outsiders’ bias. For that reason alone, it is an invaluable addition to any California history shelf; for anyone interested in our ranching history, it is an essential account.
Oreña was born in 1856 at his father’s La Espada ranch, west of Lompoc, the grandson of Capitán José de la Guerra, Santa Barbara’s leading citizen. As a teenager, he attended the Franciscans’ Santa Ynez College with 50 other boys from Ventura to San Luis Obispo. They played with nearby Chumash boys from whom they learned how to make and use bows and arrows. After working in San Francisco in the mercantile business and in Santa Barbara’s first bank, Oreña joined the family’s cattle ranching business on their extensive ranches: La Espada, San Julian, Los Alamos, La Zaca, Corral de Quate, as well as the entire Cuyama Valley. He writes: “No one who did not live in the old days can realize how important was the cattle industry to the California of the early and middle parts of the [1800s].”
In this very readable 87-page book, Oreña details the conduct of spring rodeos on those ranches, including the skilled horsemanship of the vaqueros, especially Chiquito Olivera. Oreña explains how riatas were made from stretching cow hide then smoothing and braiding it into rope. He also describes how to make tallow candles from a tin mold—the only form of illumination until the 1860s—and how the adobes were heated with oak bark coals in a large metal brasero (bowl). Oreña outlines the building of the adobes themselves and the repair of the 1840 Los Alamos adobe after a series of earthquakes in 1902.
My favorite descriptions are of the Cuyama Valley. The Oreñas shared their Spanish Ranch there with wild antelope. They sold cattle to Mayo Newhall, who returned the next year to buy more because “something about the weeds that grew in the Cuyama gave the animals a delicious flavor to be had nowhere else.” When the 1877 drought struck, coastal stock were herded through the Cuyama to the San Joaquin Valley where water and alfalfa, brought by eastern settlers, were available. “All day and most of the night, herds of cattle and sheep were in motion. … one might see endless tiny dots … these were the sheep which had given out and had been left to die. Coyotes and buzzards hung on the flanks of the great army.” Oreña, along with his father, brother, and 18 vaqueros, spread out along their valley to protect their grazing lands.
Today, when I look out at the thousands of acres of carrot and onion farms that make up the former Oreña grazing lands in the Cuyama Valley, I like to imagine those 21 vaqueros spread out over countless miles in 1877. I wonder what weed flavored Mr. Newhall’s cattle. I watch my neighbor, Jenny King Hardin, very talented on horseback, and I think of her Oreña ancestors in this valley. Their descendants, like Jenny, are white today, and the vaqueros are often women, yet the culture of early California cattle ranching as described in Oreña’s Reminiscences still informs their lives, every day.
Oreña’s great-grandson host a book-signing of Reminiscences of Early California Wednesday, June 8, at 6:30 p.m. at The Book Loft (1680 Mission Dr., Solvang). The book is available at Tecolote Book Shop in Montecito and the S.B. Historical Museum, and online July 1 at blurb.com/bookstore.