Orange County's Great Drought of 1864

Rain finally hit Southern California earlier this week–flash floods in the Inland Empire, downpours in Long Beach, 0.001 of an inch in Fullerton. It inspired reams of social-media snark in our parched region, bitter humor to make sense of a historic drought that has gone on for three years now with no signs of deliverance in the near or far future.

Meteorologists keep telling us we're suffering the worst dry spell on record, and they're right in a sense–data with the Western Regional Climate Center, California's official tracker of weather figures, goes back only to 1895. But in the annals of Southern California exist detailed accounts of an even-harsher drought that fundamentally changed the region: a two-year debacle that hit its driest days 150 years ago, in what a rancher of the era described as “perfect devastation.”


Orange County as we know it exists because of the Great Drought of 1864. It wrecked Southern California's cattle industry, then one of the largest in the world and the heart of the area's economy, and forced ranchers to unload their land at fire-sale rates. Developers swooped in and divided their newly acquired properties into lots that evolved into the cities of today. Those settlements, in turn, drew in Americans who pushed out the state's original Californio families. Enough people came to make Orange County's secession from Los Angeles County in 1889 a natural. And those residents transformed pastoral OC into a suburban paradise that brought us national acclaim–and also sowed the seeds for our current water crisis.

Envisioning the Southern California of those days is almost impossible. The 1860 U.S. Census estimated that only about 7,000 people lived in all of Los Angeles County. Towns barely numbered in the double figures, so cattle barons had the run of hills and meadows, letting their ganado roam freely from San Clemente to the Tejón pass and most of modern-day Los Angeles. American observers of the time romanticized this era as a simpler, carefree time–but disasters would soon destroy everything.

No one expected a drought when it began in the early months of 1863. Southern California had just passed through two years of punishing floods, deluges that nearly wiped out Anaheim and left most of OC a shallow lake for weeks. Hundreds of thousands of cattle had drowned; smallpox epidemics put everyone on edge. Such troubles further strained the finances of Californio ranchers, just 15 years removed from the Mexican-American War and long embroiled in court battles against developers and judges who didn't accept the validity of their Mexican land grants.

The rains at least left behind verdant grasslands that allowed the ranchers to rebound, although the glut of cows and steer made prices for meat and hides drop dramatically. But by the spring of 1863, the Californios knew something was about to go terribly wrong. “It is the opinion of the rancheros that we shall have the worst year known for a long time,” wrote an American businessman who lived in the area. “We have had very warm weather, and what little grass we had is all dry and burnt. . . . There is absolutely no grass, and it is the opinion of the ranch men [that] the cattle will commence dying within a month.”

Southern California's economy soon buckled. Lands were left fallow because there was no water for crops, drastically increasing the cost of produce. The Santa Ana, San Gabriel and Los Angeles rivers were reduced to gulches; their tributaries virtually evaporated. Ranchers took out loans or mortgaged land to stay afloat. Desperate cattlemen started selling livestock at bargain prices–$2 per head was on the high end of the scale–or left the state altogether with their herds. Even this proved too costly; ranchers were reduced to slaughtering tens of thousands of cattle solely for their hides and horns, until even that wasn't profitable.

And still, the rain didn't come.

“The weather is now unusually warm,” according to the Los Angeles Star in January 1864, “assuming in the day time, a temperature almost that of summer heat, withering every remnant of vegetation and leaving not a green spot on the whole plain.”

Hope appeared in February 1864 in the form of a couple of cloudbursts, leading a newspaper editor to proclaim, “At last, through hope and fears, and smile and tears, we have evidence . . . that God has not forgotten us in our needs.” But those showers were followed by dust storms and Santa Ana-like winds that, a historian would write decades later in biblical tones, made it so that “the earth once more became iron and the sky brass.”

The drought's effects were ghastly and visible to all. “Thousands of carcasses strew the plains in all directions,” reported the Los Angeles-based Southern News, “and the sight is harrowing in the extreme. . . . Famine has done its work, and nothing can now save what few cattle remain on the [Southern] California ranches.” Census figures showed that the population of cattle in Los Angeles County went from 70,000 in 1860 to about 20,000 by 1870.

With no income, the pioneering Californio families of Orange County and the few Americans who lived here before the Mexican-American War were forced to sell their ranches en masse. Pio Pico, the last Mexican governor of California, ceded control of his Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores (nowadays Camp Pendleton, San Onofre and slivers of South County), to brother-in-law Juan Forster. In western Orange County, Abel Stearns was forced to give up almost all of his ranchos to a trust that subsequently turned the property into Los Alamitos, Seal Beach and Westminster. In the canyons, William Wolfskill sold his Rancho Las Lomas de Santiago to investors, who in turn brought in James Irvine; he subsequently gained control of Rancho Santiago de Santa Ana and Rancho San Joaquin from other Californios and created the Irvine Ranch. Lawsuits against almost all the other remaining, financially weakened OC Californios picked off their holdings, like vultures feasting on carrion.

Those few local Californios who did weather the drought–Jose Antonio Serrano, Jose Sepulveda, the Yorba and Ontiveros families–now faced a new economy in which cattle was no longer king. They sold off their ranches to investors, and the opening of Orange County for agriculture and development commenced in earnest. To sustain that, though, Southern California's lords began looking toward the Sierra Nevadas and the Colorado River for our water instead of working with the region's natural, sparse precipitation patterns.

“Never before or since has [Southern California] suffered as it suffered during those dry years,” wrote Robert Glass Cleland in his seminal 1941 study, The Cattle On a Thousand Hills: Southern California, 1850-1880. “But out of the land's misfortunes came a major economic revolution and a new Southern California.”

And here we are–again in drought.

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