Discover Our Shared Heritage Travel Itinerary
American Latino Heritage
Los Alamos Ranch House/Rancho Los Alamos (de la Guerra)
Los Alamos, California
During the late 1700s and early 1800s, Spain extended its New World Empire by colonizing Alta California on the west coast of North America. The Spanish founded four presidios, 21 Catholic missions, and granted vast amounts of rancho lands to private individuals to aid in the development of the region. At the same time the presidios and missions were being constructed, the Spanish Crown gave Spanish officials in Alta California the authority to grant large amounts of land within their jurisdictions to individuals interested in agricultural and ranching pursuits. Spanish ranchos numbered only 14 in 1820 and title to these lands remained in the hands of the Crown. Once Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, California became a part of Mexico, and the number of ranchos significantly increased. Under the Mexican land grant system, officials were encouraged to make more land grants that the individuals would own outright. By the 1830s, there were 47 private ranchos in California with the number increasing to 544 by 1845.
Under the Mexican land grant system, individuals who wanted land grants applied to the governor by listing their name, age, country, vocation, quantity and description of the land, and providing a hand-drawn map, or diseño, of the boundaries and natural features of the desired land. Most of the grants were for thousands or even tens of thousands of acres. On March 9, 1839, Governor of Alta California Juan Alvarado granted Jose Antonio de la Guerra y Carrillo the 48,803 acres that became Rancho Los Alamos. De La Guerra was a son of Jose Antonio de la Guerra y Noriega, the commandant of the Santa Barbara Presidio from 1815 to 1843. Jose Antonio de la Guerra y Noriega himself owned nearly 300,000 acres and had 50,000 heads of cattle in California.
The Chumash Indians lived in the Los Alamos Valley long before De La Guerra developed his rancho. The Los Alamos Chumash resided in villages throughout the valley until the early 1800s when many of them abandoned their villages to join the local La Purísima Mission, which is also featured in this itinerary. The Chumash helped construct La Purísima Mission and tended to the mission’s cattle herds. Like other American Indians living throughout California at this time, many Chumash, lacking immunity, came down with European diseases. Outbreaks of smallpox between 1804 and 1807, and in the 1840s, took a harsh toll on the Los Alamos Chumash. When the Mexican government secularized the mission system in the 1830s and started granting mission property to prominent Mexican citizens and new settlers coming to California, many Indians became the herders, laborers, artisans, and domestic servants on the newly established ranchos. In exchange for their labor, the Indians were allowed to live on the rancho lands, where they received protection, food, and some goods.
Chumash Indians from a rancheria (native village) on De La Guerra’s new Rancho Los Alamos estate, built the one-story adobe ranch house that still stands today. The Chumash used local adobe bricks made by mixing straw and water with the area’s abundant hard-packed clay. The mixture was poured into wooden molds to dry in the scorching sun. The thick adobe brick walls kept the house cool in the summer and warm in the winter.
The comfort of its adobe construction and the lavish hospitality of its landowners made the Los Alamos Ranchos House a favorite overnight stopping place for travelers passing along the El Camino Real between Santa Barbara and Monterey. The El Camino Real or Royal Road connected the former 21 Spanish California missions and presidios and became a primary route travelers followed to California. Visitors today can follow California’s Historic Mission Trail.
Throughout the 19th century, ranchos and rancheros (ranchers) occupied a central position in California’s society and economy. Initially, rancheros raised Spanish cattle for their prized hides and tallow. By 1848, as the gold rush brought a stream of people into California, the demand for beef became greater than the demand for hides and tallow. The newcomers needed to eat and they wanted beef. By the end of the 1850s, ranchers produced four times as many cows as they had in 1848.
The cattle boom lasted until the end of the 1850s when cattle prices dropped steeply. Disastrous floods and droughts plagued the area over the next decade. During this time, many rancheros found themselves heavily in debt forcing many of them to sell large tracts of acreage. In 1876, Thomas Bell, his son John S. Bell, and Dr. James B. Shaw (all from San Francisco), purchased 14,000 acres from Rancho Los Alamos and neighboring Rancho La Laguna, and a new chapter in Los Alamos’ history began. Both families allocated a half square mile from each of their new ranches to create the Los Alamos town site.
The Los Alamos Valley continued to prosper throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s. In 1938, the Pacific Coast Railway stopped running through Los Alamos, discouraging any major new development in the town. Visitors to Los Alamos today can see and experience much of the character and charm of a rural 19th-century California town nestled in the heart of the Santa Barbara wine country.