The Grasses that Feed the Cows
In the late 1700s Spanish missionaries caused significant changes to the California landscape by introducing European plants and animals. Grazing lands were created by burning on lowland slopes to support large numbers of cattle, horse and sheep.
Prior to European settlement, grasses in the Monterey Bay area were primarily perennial bunch grasses such as purple needlegrass. Patches of native grasses can still be found, especially on rougher terrain that is inaccessible to grazing and cultivation. These grasses, though able to recover from a burn, do not tolerate repeated grazing. Thus exotic plants, originating in the Mediterranean, took hold and spread outward from Monterey—the main site of Spanish activity.
Accounts show that by 1846 landscapes had been noticeably changed and non-native species like wild oats, filaree, wild mustard, wild radish, foxtail, and burclover had taken hold on much of the coastal California landscape. This didn’t bother the cattle, who ate whatever grasses they found and ultimately helped create an industry based on leather, meat, and milk.
Changing Land Ownership and Three Early Divas of Dairy
While the influence of European grasses was dominating the landscape in the late 1840s, the political influence of Spain waned. When the Mexican government seized control of the missions from Spain, they divided the vast amount of land held by each mission into large land grants known as “ranchos.” In Santa Cruz, ranching and cattle grazing was concentrated in in two main areas: from the City of Santa Cruz to the San Mateo County line, and from Aptos to the southern boundary of the Pajaro Valley.
Unusual for the time, three women held ownership of significant ranching tracts in northern Santa Cruz. Rancho Refugio (twelve thousand acres along the north coast) ended up in the ownership of the three Castro sisters whose father, Jose Joaquin Castro, was a member of the 1775-6 Anza Expedition from Sinaloa, Mexico. Via marriage, the eldest sister, Maria Candida Castro Bolcoff was also owner for a time of Rancho San Agustin, which includes the area of present day Scotts Valley. The Castro sister’s properties would later become Wilder Ranch, Coast Dairies State Park, and part of Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park.