VIDEO | 03:50
LA Times Today: Patt Says: California cattle have history with drought

LA Times Today: Patt Says: California cattle have history with drought

Watch L.A. Times Today at 7 p.m. on Spectrum News 1 on Channel 1 or live stream on the Spectrum News App. Palos Verdes Peninsula and Orange County viewers can watch on Cox Systems on channel 99.

In the far north of Mexico, modern ranchers are living through what California rancheros did more than 150 years ago.

As The Times described it, the drought is killing their cattle.

Drought is there, and it’s here, and it is now, and it was, more than 150 years ago.

At the dawn of the 1860s, as the eastern United States was ripping itself apart in the Civil War, Southern California was being ripped apart by alternating flood and drought.

In October 1859, it was 110 in the shade. In December, one foot of rain fell in one day. Livestock that had survived being parched and starved now drowned in the flood.

In December 1861, it rained more than 5 inches in one month. Southern California was an inland sea.

And then the sun came out again. And it didn’t leave for more than two years.

In the terrible drought of the Civil War years, rain almost never fell. L.A.’s economy was destroyed. It was an economy based on one thing only: cattle.

In good times, cattle were driven north to feed the ‘49ers in the Gold Rush. Then, they grazed here until round-up time … when they were slaughtered and their hides were carted down the San Pedro cliffs to the Yankee ships waiting to carry the hides to bootmakers in Boston.

So little actual money was in circulation then that Angelenos used hides instead. California dollars, they called them.

So when the drought hit, there was no Plan B for the economy.

Skeletal cattle staggered over the hills looking for food, and died where they fell, by the thousands.

The stench was so horrible that sailors could smell it from miles off the coast. The stench was so horrible that cowboys herded thousands of skeletally weak cattle and horses and sheep to the cliffs above the sea in Palos Verdes, and then drove the flocks to their deaths onto the rocks, so the sea would carry away the bodies, and the smell.

Land went on the block for unpaid taxes and mortgages. In 1864, four different corner lots in downtown L.A. went up for auction at 63-cents each … and there were no bidders.

Fortunes vanished with the herds. Two rancheros with a quarter-million acres between them could not put together less than $5000 to pay back taxes and lost many thousands of acres to someone who bought them for ten cents an acre. A man with more than 20-thousand acres lost them because he could not pay $154.

Then, on top of this came a smallpox epidemic – starting to sound familiar? As one local wrote, “there were many people who could not understand the importance of following government rules … quarantine regulations were ignored.”

The economy is more diversified now, but raising cows is still big business – more than wine grapes or almonds. The Sacramento Bee reported that dairy and cattle farmers are losing money, forced to sell off the herds they can’t afford to feed in the drought.

It will end, eventually – all droughts and all floods do.

But nature can seem to have a nasty sense of humor. Christmas 1865, the oldtimers noted that it didn’t just rain in L.A. It snowed.