Monday, January 11, 2016

California's Santa Clara Valley-Then and Now

While recently working on a story, I had occasion to research the history of the Santa Clara Valley. Today that area which is just south of the San Francisco Bay is known as South Bay. Part of it also makes up a section of Silicon Valley, a prominent electronics research and manufacturing region. However, the landscape today is far different from what it was 150 to 200 years ago. 

San Jose looking from the north toward center of the city.

Although most of Santa Clara Valley is highly urbanized now, at one time it was largely agricultural. The first Spanish name given to the area was "Llano de los Robles" ("Plain of the Oaks") in 1769 by José Francisco Ortega. The name by which we know it today was after the Spanish Franciscan mission built by Father Junipero Serra, Mission Santa Clara de Asis founded in 1777. It served, and relied upon the labor of, the first documented inhabitants of the land, the native Ohlone.

Mission Santa Clara de Asis
However, the missions were formed while Alta California was still under Spanish rule. When Mexico broke from the Spanish crown in 1821, eventually the region was forced to recognize the new government. The Mexican government soon began selling off church lands in a process known as "secularization." The original intent was to return church lands to the native population. The practice involved selling church lands to the highest bidders. By 1839 only 300 Indians remained at the Mission Santa Clara. The rest of the land was sold into large ranchos owned by the wealthy Californios, the rural land owning gentlemen of Alta California. That era lasted until the end of the Mexican-American War, the discovery of gold and the influx of Amercans from the eastern United States.

Like most of California, the earliest agricultural activity by Europeans in the Santa Clara Valley was cattle. Next saw wheat cultivation. But, due to its mild climate, good soil and water supplied by an artesian aquifer, the Santa Clara Valley came into its own as a land of orchards and farms producing a large variety of fruits and vegetables. Because of the railroad having been extended to the region, the produce could be shipped all over the nation.

With its scenic beauty resulting from thousands of acres of blooming fruit trees this valley was known as “the Valley of Heart’s Delight” because of its high concentration of orchards, flowering trees and plants.

Valley of Heart's Delight, about mid- 20th century
When the water table dropped wells were pumped. Many orchards were small with housing and fruit growing in a dispersed pattern. Santa Clara County was soon producing almonds, apricots, carrots, cherries, pears, plums, prunes, tomatoes and walnuts. 
Santa Clara Valley
The last half of the 1870s saw the establishment of seed farms. In 1874, R. W. Wilson began a seed-producing company based in Santa Clara. Due to poor health he sold the operation in 1877 to Charles Copeland Morse and A. L. Kellogg. Morse built the company up, and in 1884 bought out Kellogg and incorporated as C.C. Morse & Co.

As fields were cultivated, a shortage labor developed. In the nineteenth century those needs were met by Chinese and Japanese immigrants, then later in the century by Italians and other immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, especially ad canneries were built. During the twentieth century there were an influx of Filipino immigrants and increasing numbers of immigrants from Mexico who during World War II became the dominant agricultural workforce.

Although the urban areas of the Santa Clara Valley have little resemblance to the region as it existed 150 to 200 years ago, there are occasional hints that speak of the Valley’s past. While burgeoning business interests and strong political views dominated north in San Francisco and surrounding cities, and the sentiments of resentful Californios and immigrants for the South turned the Los Angeles, San Bernardino and El Monte regions into hotbeds of sedition, particular prior to and during the Civil War, the Santa Clara Valley fed the nation.

 Zina Abbott is the pen name used by Robyn Echols for her historical novels. Her novel, Family Secrets, was published by Fire Star Press. Her novelette, A Christmas Promise, along with the first two novellas in the Eastern Sierra Brides 1884 series, Big Meadows Valentine and A Resurrected Heart, was published by Prairie Rose Publications. Too Old for Christmas, was self-published in 2015.

Please visit and follow the Zina Abbott’s Amazon Author Page by clicking HERE.

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  1. Helen Hunt Jackson was sent by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to report on the status of the Mission Indians in the late 1870's. It led to her writing "Ramona" after her initial report was ignored along with her book "A Century of Dishonor". She wrote a lot about Father Junipero.
    Truly enjoyed this post. Thanks. Doris McCraw/Angela Raines-author

    1. No,the way they treated the native peoples were not good. The story of how so much land in California became formed into large ranchos is the usual grasping for greed those of European descent were so go at--at the expense of the native people. Thank you for your comments.

  2. I enjoyed this post! Since I grew up in the southern part of the state I really learned nothing in school about farther north except for the gold discovery at Sutter's Mill and the San Francisco earthquake. Thanks!

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Kathryn, I also was raised in California and learned what passed for California history in school. I do not recall learning much beyond the local Indian cultures (we even learned to make baskets), the mission period, the gold rush and something about the railroads. I probably forgot most of what I learned.

      But, for sure there is a lot more to the state's history than that. I suppose because U.S. involvement in California didn't really get started until the Mexican-American War, it seemed to me like there wasn't that much that went on in the 1900s in California outside the gold rush. Boy, did I discover that is the furthest thing from the truth once I started digging deeper than what they teach you in school. What was happening in the Santa Clara Valley in the 1860s, the time of my latest story, is very benign compared to what was happening in San Francisco and points south. (I wish they had an edit feature for these comments.)

  3. California's history is fascinating. I loved the images-- especially the one with the fruit trees in bloom. Beautiful!

    1. California is as diversified state as anyone would ever want to find. That image of trees in blossom--now you will find them over where I live in the San Joaquin Valley. The center of the state is what now feeds much of the nation as well as the world. I live across the street from an almond orchard.

      It is sad that so much of Santa Clara county is now buried in urban sprawl, but I can understand why. The proximity to San Francisco and Oakland is a draw plus the climate cannot be beat. However, we drive over that way occasionally--as a union steward for several years I used to represent rural carriers in some offices over there--I passed areas under cultivation on my way up the freeway. Gilroy in the south of the Santa Clara Valley is still known for all the garlic grown there. Yet I don't think this region received much mention in the history books past the chapters on the mission period.