Home on the range with cowboys and cattle
For most of the 1800s, the Antelope Valley was cattle country and sheep country.
The Valley’s biggest ranch, Mexican War hero Edward Beale’s Tejon Ranch that still covers hundreds of thousands of acres in the Tehachapi Mountains and on the Valley’s western end, contained 125,000 sheep in the 1870s and, after drought decimated its sheep herds in 1891, had 25,000 cattle and 7,500 sheep.
Around the edges of the Tejon Ranch and sometimes within its borders, from where Tejon owner Beale’s employees forced them out, were the homes of other ranchers whose cattle wandered freely across the unfenced, unsettled Valley.
“Big bands of cattle and sheep roamed over the valley,” recalled pioneer John Covington, who arrived in 1869 as a toddler and was to ranch among the southeastern slopes of the Tehachapis into the 1940s.
Covington’s mother and stepfather drove a herd of cattle up from Los Angeles in 1869 and tried out two spots on the flat land before settling at the southeastern edge of the Tehachapi Mountains.
The Valley was a natural place for ranchers to try raising cattle, though they would find that drought often interfered.
Cattle had been raised in the San Fernando and Santa Clarita valleys to the south since the founding of Spain’s California missions, and the Antelope Valley was on one of the trails that led northward: Up San Francisquito Canyon to Elizabeth Lake, over what is now Munz Ranch Road, then along the southern rim of the Valley to the Grapevine then Cañada de los Osos and into the San Joaquin Valley.
The Valley’s earliest reported cattle ranching was around Elizabeth Lake, where there was more grass and water than on the Valley floor and where cattle had been brought by the mid-1850s. The first rancher there is said to have been Pedro Carrillo, who was a California legislator in 1854 and 1855, the father of the first mayor of Santa Monica and the grandfather of actor Leo Carrillo, for whom a Malibu beach is named.
Rancher Francisco “Chico” Lopez raised cattle and sheep around Elizabeth Lake in the 1860s, then is said to have sold out in 1883 to Miguel Leonis, a 6-foot-4 rancher who amassed thousands of acres of Southern California in the late 1800s and gained a reputation for using the courts and hired gunmen to keep settlers off grazing land.
After Southern Pacific Railroad laid its tracks through the Valley in 1876, the range land began attracting farmers, both homesteaders who obtained land directly from the government and buyers brought in by promoters like M.L. Wicks, who in 1884 laid out Lancaster’s townsite and before that an agricultural “colony” west of Rosamond.
Many of the settlers were English, for whom American ranch practices were strange. A history prepared by Antelope Valley Union High School’s first class in 1912-13 reports an anecdote about two settlers who saw two cows, apparently wild, run past their home.
“They hurried for rifles and horses, and riding the beasts down shot them, not knowing to this day whether they bore any brand, for at that time such a thing was unknown to them,” the history reads.
“Not dreaming that there was any harm in what they had done, they nailed the hide to the front of the house to dry. Some days later Mr. Pogsford, the superintendent of the General Beale ranch, visited them but made no remarks or inquiries, and probably finding them innocent of their offense said nothing of the matter.
“The meat, however, the narrator adds, was so tough that the dogs would not eat it, and there was very little of it anyway, mostly bones.”
California’s periodic droughts cost the ranchers dearly.
An 1860s drought was witnessed by Margarita Hefner, a Spanish-speaking California native whose mother had brought her children to Elizabeth Lake in 1863 to escape a Los Angeles smallpox epidemic.
Writing in 1915, Hefner recalled: “Horses, cattle and sheep on the great stock ranges below were dying of starvation by the thousands. Great droves were brought up into this valley in vain hope of finding pasturage for them.
“But here, too, it was dry and parched and the poor creatures died in great numbers. Many a time have I seen 300 or 400 sheep left dead on the spot where a flock had camped the night before.”
The same thing happened in the 1890s when a drought drove out many of the Valley farmers who had settled in the previous decade.
“Drought conditions prevailed throughout California and food for stock was scarce,” Antelope Valley Union High School teacher Lucie Morris wrote in a 1934 history.
“Many cattle from the region of Newhall and Tehachapi were brought to Antelope Valley for pasture. This caused the Valley to be over-stocked, and although there have been wet years since, native vegetation and wildflower life have never been so profuse as formerly.”
Besides drought, the Valley’s ranchers also had to contend with rustlers. Ranchers published newspaper advertisements depicting their cattle brands and offering rewards for evidence leading to the conviction of anyone who stole or killed cattle marked with them.
The 1890s drought that drove out farmers left behind abandoned homes but opened the range again for the cattlemen. That changed, however, with the introduction of mechanized well pumps, first powered by gasoline engines and later by electric motors, which freed farmers from depending on rain and covered the Valley with thousands of acres of alfalfa.
In June 1913, the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce organized a barbecue, baseball game, rodeo and dance to draw 1,500 visitors who were chauffeured around the Valley in hopes of getting them to invest or settle.
The point was to show how the gasoline-powered well pump could make the desert green.