Usually when we think of Western historical romance set in California, our minds instantly go to the Gold Rush era. Men flooding into San Francisco, having one last rousing fling on the Barbary Coast, before heading out to the gold fields of the Sierra Nevadas. Meeting with heartbreak if they’re starring in a tragedy or love if they’re starring in a romance. (Let’s hope for their sake that it’s a romance!)
Southern California on the other hand, with Disneyland and Hollywood and acres and acres of citrus groves, doesn’t usually come to mind. But in the mid-1800s, Southern California was commonly referred to as the “Cow Counties” since it was full of cows, cowboys (and vaqueros) and ranches.
Today, California is famous for its produce—probably everyone in America has eaten produce from California at sometime in their lives. But Southern California is naturally unsuited to agriculture, at least without large scale irrigation. We just don’t get enough rain. However, with its wide open spaces, early Southern California was ideal pasture land for cattle. Mexican-era Southern California was a land of ranchos, with skilled vaqueros riding the herds.
In those pre-refrigeration days, only products that would keep over long distances were valuable for trading. Which left the main product of a cow—the meat—as being useless for trade, since California was quite some distance from the East Coast. Instead, the California rancheros sent more durable hides and tallow back East and left the rest of the carcasses to rot. (You can imagine the smell from that.)
With the arrival of the Gold Rush—and all those hungry miners—suddenly there was a huge local market for all that beef. Many Southern Californian ranchers grew rich selling beef to miners, just as their Northern Californian compadres grew rich selling miners tools, clothes, and other supplies. (Want to get rich during a gold rush? Don’t bother opening a mine—sell stuff to miners instead.)
But with booms come busts. As the flood of migrants to the gold fields slowed, so did the demand for beef, leading to a depression in the cattle market. And then in the early 1860s came a hundred year drought, much like the one afflicting California today. Ranchers slaughtered entire herds to keep the animals from dying of thirst and hunger, driving the cows out of the “cow counties.”
When the rains came again, the ranchos didn’t. But large scale irrigation did, leading to the massive citrus groves that helped make California famous, along with the tourism industry (yes, all the way back in the late 1800s!) which made California even more famous.
But even today, among the swimming pools and movie stars, you can still find working cattle ranches in Southern California. Not as many as we once had, but enough to provide a reminder and a link to Southern California’s “cow county” past.
Excerpt from The Farmer Takes a Wife (which is currently free!)
“Why do you think I want to marry Miss Moreno?” Marcus asked Miss Kemper. She’d made entirely the wrong assumption.
“I should think it very obvious. This is the first time you’ve ever danced with anyone. Why would you start dancing unless you were looking for a wife?”
“You’ve noticed that I don’t dance?” He didn’t think she’d ever taken any note of him.
“Well, you obviously do dance, and you do it quite well.”
The warmth in his middle bloomed into heat.
“No, you choose not to dance. Except that now you do.”
She’d gotten the part about looking for a wife right. She’d just misidentified the wife. “You think I should marry Miss Moreno. Is that correct?”
She was mouthing something to herself. “Hmm? Oh, yes, but I’m not suggesting that you marry Catarina tomorrow. Court her first and see if you suit. I could speak with her beforehand, if that would help.”
If he weren’t so in love with Miss Kemper, he might be tempted to be annoyed with her. What kind of a woman danced with a man, then assumed he should be courting someone else? This was even more muddling than when she smiled at him.
The music came to a climax before fading to nothing, the two of them slowing and stopping along with it. The rest of the couples burst into applause, but he merely searched her face. Was there any hope for him and his suit there? Or was she putting forth this nonsense about Miss Moreno to put him off as kindly as she could?
She wore an expression of mere politeness. Nothing more.
A flurry of motion from the edge of the room caught her eye. Miss Moreno was furiously waving her over, no doubt appalled Miss Kemper had danced so long with a “dirt grubber.”
It was hopeless—it had all gone too terribly wrong. It was as if he were looking on an entire field of blight, a whole season of planting lost to fate.
He’d tried, after two years of waiting, and he’d failed.
“I think I should head back over to Catarina,” she said. “It looks like she needs me.” She began to head off, waving at him over her shoulder. “Thank you for the dance.”
A small spark of hope flared, traveled up his throat, and flew from his mouth. “Miss Kemper.”
She turned back, inquiring.
He fisted his hands at his sides and kept his head high. He had braved a dragon to ask her to dance—he could ask for one thing more.
“Would you do me the honor of walking with me tomorrow after church?” Fast and stiff, but he’d said it.
She blinked as if he had said something unexpected. But then, slowly, she smiled. “Yes.” She blinked again before repeating more firmly, “Yes. I’d be very pleased to walk with you after church tomorrow.”
Genevieve Turner writes historical romance fresh from the Golden State. In a previous life, she was a scientist studying the genetics of behavior, but now she’s a stay at home mom studying the intersection of nature and nurture in her own kids. (So far, nature is winning!) She lives in beautiful Southern California, where she manages her family and homestead in an indolent manner.