Lesson Plan

Californio to American: A Study in Cultural Change

Rancho Los Alamitos (Ranch of the Little Cottonwoods)

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Grade Level:
Middle School: Sixth Grade through Eighth Grade
Literacy and Language Arts,Social Studies
Lesson Duration:
90 Minutes
Common Core Standards:
6-8.RH.2, 6-8.RH.3, 6-8.RH.4, 6-8.RH.5, 6-8.RH.6, 6-8.RH.7, 6-8.RH.8, 6-8.RH.9, 6-8.RH.10, 9-10.RH.1, 9-10.RH.2, 9-10.RH.3, 9-10.RH.4, 9-10.RH.5, 9-10.RH.6, 9-10.RH.7, 9-10.RH.8, 9-10.RH.9, 9-10.RH.10
Additional Standards:
US History Era 2 Standard 1A: The student understands how diverse immigrants affected the formation of European colonies.
Curriculum Standards for Social Studies from the National Council for the Social Studies


1. To describe the history of California prior to 1848 and its early Californio culture;
2. To relate how the Californios were changed by the coming of the Americans;
3. To analyze documents and plans that describe Californio architecture
4. To explain how the architecture of buildings can reflect basic changes in the way people live.
5. To investigate properties in their own community listed in or potentially eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places.


Time Period: 19th century
Topics: The lesson could be used in units on the history of westward movement or multiculturalism in America. The lesson can help students understand how Americans modified the Californio building style, at the same time adopting aspects of that style and way of life. 


Surrounded today by all the bustle of a metropolitan area, Rancho Los Alamitos (Ranch of the Little Cottonwoods) began as an outpost shelter for vaqueros (cowhands) away from the main ranch property. The rudimentary structure was situated on a small hill overlooking thousands of acres of open space. The land, with its natural spring, was once part of the Indian village area of Puvungna. Later, Californios, Spanish settlers in what is now the state of California, erected several small adobe dwellings in the midst of their cattle ranges. Successive owners made changes to one of these adobes until it was transformed into an elegant 18-room ranch house. Today, Rancho Los Alamitos provides a tangible example of the physical and cultural change that took place in the region from the Spanish colonial days through the Mexican territorial era to the modern American period.

Lesson Hook/Preview

In 1542, Juan Cabrillo was sent to California from the newly conquered Spanish province of Mexico to search for gold. He sailed along the coast of Alta (Upper) California and prepared the first written description of the region. Because Cabrillo's exploration party failed to find gold, the Spanish more or less ignored the region for the next two centuries. It was not until 1769 that the first permanent European settlers arrived, led by Gaspar de Portola and Father Junipero Serra. Within the next decade, missions and presidios, or military forts, were established along the coast at San Diego, Monterey, San Gabriel, and San Francisco. In 1781, the pueblo, or town, of Los Angeles was created. By the end of the century, nearly a dozen more missions had been established in California.

Most Spanish settlers established themselves on ranchos, or ranches, where they soon developed a distinct culture centered around cattle-raising. To stimulate colonization, the Spanish, and later the Mexican, government issued huge land grants. During the Spanish period these were awarded mostly to retired soldiers. A grant entitled the individual to live on and work the land, but it did not convey ownership. One soldier, Manuel Nieto, was granted 167,000 acres on which he raised cattle. Today, a small piece of this land grant is preserved and open to the public as Rancho Los Alamitos Historic Ranch and Gardens.

In 1821, after the Mexican government took control of California, the number of land grants increased as did the number of residents of non-Hispanic birth or descent. Some land grants were awarded to foreigners—mostly Americans—who were willing to become Mexican citizens. Many Californios (Spanish settlers in what is now the state of California) had little use for Mexico and engaged in sporadic revolts during the 1830s and 1840s. Then came the Mexican-American War and the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. Under this agreement, Mexico ceded huge tracts of land in the Southwest to the United States. Called the Mexican Cession, these territories together constituted the largest single land acquisition by the United States since the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Although the rancho system was maintained, within 20 years control of most ranchos had passed into the hands of Americans by purchase, force, or fraud.

In 1846, approximately 11,500 of California's 14,000 non-indigenous residents were of Spanish or Mexican descent. By 1850, two years after the discovery of gold in the northern part of the territory, Spanish-speaking Californians were only 15 percent of the non-Indian population; by 1870, only 4 percent. However, change came more slowly in the southern region of California. The few Americans who had settled in Southern California prior to its transfer to the United States to some extent had attempted to integrate themselves into the local culture. Frequently, they married into prominent Californio families, learned at least rudimentary Spanish, and converted to the Roman Catholic religion. Until the 1870s, Mexican Californians remained a sizable portion of the residents and voters in Southern California. Eventually, however, the press of the growing population of non-Hispanos and economic changes destroyed an old way of life.


Getting Started Prompt
Map: Orients the students and encourages them to think about how place affects culture and society
Readings: Primary and secondary source readings provide content and spark critical analysis.
Visual Evidence: Students critique and analyze visual evidence to tackle questions and support their own theories about the subject.
Optional post-lesson activities: If time allows, these will deepen your students' engagement with the topics and themes introduced in the lesson, and to help them develop essential skills.


Spanish missons

Additional Resources

Library of Congress
"California As I Saw It"—First Person Narratives of California's Early Years, 1849-1900, part of the Library of Congress's Digital Collections consists of the full texts and illustrations of 190 works documenting the formative era of California's history through eyewitness accounts. It is an extensive resource on California history during the pre-Spanish era, Spanish conquest, and cession to America. The site includes full-text primary sources, photographs, maps, and a bibliography.

The Library of Congress's Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo page includes a brief introduction, a historic map of the area used for the negotiations, and pages of the actual Treaty.

The Avalon Project at the Yale Law School 
The Avalon Project offers digital versions of documents relevant to the fields of Law, History, Economics, Politics, Diplomacy and Government. Included among these documents is the text of the 
Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

The Story of Cerritos: A History in Progress
This web page offers an extensive history of the city of Cerritos, California, which is located within the original Nieto grant. Of particular interest are chapters titled, "Spanish Exploration and Settlement" and "Ranches under Spanish, Mexican and American Rule."

City of Los Alamitos
This website includes a page on the History of Los Alamitos. It provides brief information on the Nieto land grant and the eventual establishment of the township of Los Alamitos.

Early History of the California Coast--A National Register of Historic Places Travel Itinerary
This National Register of Historic Places Travel Itinerary links National Parks with places listed in the National Register that illustrate early periods of Coastal California's history. The over 45 historic places highlighted, including Rancho Los Alamitos and Los Cerritos Ranch House, in this itinerary can teach us about the contributions of the various people who settled in what became the United States of America.

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Last updated: October 12, 2018