A Look Back at the Droughts That Made Californians Take Droughts Seriously

"The loss of cattle was fearful. The plains were strewn with their carcasses."
Author:
Publish date:
Harvesting carrots in El Centro, California, during the Dust Bowl. (Photo: Everett Historical/Shutterstock)

Harvesting carrots in El Centro, California, during the Dust Bowl. (Photo: Everett Historical/Shutterstock)

Californians, your forebears feel your pain.

As settlers' letters and diaries show, California has always dealt with periods of both drought and flood. Now, the settlers didn't begin installing rain gauges in large numbers until the mid-1800s, so it's hard to know exactly how severe their droughts were. The current drought California is facing stands as one of the worst on record, so it's possible that many of these pre-record dry periods weren't as bad as this one. Limited technology, however, made the effects of those droughts more severe.

Here at Pacific Standard, we looked up excerpts from these older letters to get a sense of how earlier Californians reacted to drought. They provide a fascinating peek into a time when water availability was a matter of life and death.

Some of the first writings we have recording Californian thirst come from the Spanish missionaries who colonized the coast in the 1700s and 1800s. Converted American Indians living in the Spanish missions, called neophytes, seemed to have suffered disproportionately. In 1796, one San Gabriel friar wrote in a letter, "In the year preceding this, we saw ourselves compelled to send half the neophytes for some months into the mountains to search for food ... whilst we maintained those staying here on half rations, and a little milk."

In 1796, one San Gabriel friar wrote in a letter, "In the year preceding this, we saw ourselves compelled to send half the neophytes for some months into the mountains to search for food ... whilst we maintained those staying here on half rations, and a little milk."

Drought hit again in 1831, when a San Gabriel ranch-owner wrote, "The Mission in sterile years can scarcely support its neophytes, as has happened in the last two years." By 1834, the governor abolished the mission system.

In 1890, the Historical Society of Southern California recorded the effects of the so-called "Great Drought," which lasted from the fall of 1862 to the winter of 1864-65. At the time, California didn't have much irrigated agriculture, which uses the most water in the state today. Instead, it had another water-intensive business: The raising of cattle on enormous, fenceless ranchos, over which the animals would roam, eating whatever wild-growing grass they could find. Of course, with little rain, the grass didn't grow, and the animals starved. By 1863, the society reported:

The loss of cattle was fearful. The plains were strewn with their carcasses. In marshy places and around the cienegas, where there was a vestige of green, the ground was covered with their skeletons, and the traveler for years afterward was often startled by coming suddenly on a veritable Golgotha—a place of skulls.... The great drought of 1863-64 put an end to cattle raising as the distinctive industry of Southern California.

Years later, during the Dust Bowl, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California published a report that tried to reverse-engineer an early rainfall record for California, taken from missionaries' diaries. At the time, California was in a six-year drought. With its 1931 report, the Metropolitan Water District tried to answer whether its current situation was extraordinary, or whether something similar could happen again. The report concluded that even worse droughts had hit Southern California in the past. Unlike in modern times, however, the government's reaction was not to conserve. In the 1960s, California embarked on major waterworks projects to bring more water to its people.

After that, California both recorded its rainfall more systematically and, eventually, built the vast infrastructure to cushion its population from the effects of drought. The way the average Californian experienced drought changed forever, but periodic dryness remains a staple of the state today.

Related