California Road Scholar: Pastoral Era Writing

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February 1, 2013 · Posted in Commentary 

Carlotta--from Hitchcock's "Vertigo"


By Phyl van Ammers

If people today think at all about the pastoral era in California, which is just about never, they think of a movie character: Carlotta Valdes in Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.”  Valdés is a surname of Asturian (Northern Spain) origin.  Both in North and South America the spelling Valdez is very common.  Juan Valdés is a fictional character that sells Columbian coffee on television.  There is a city of Valdez in Yolo County.  No Californio woman named Carlotta Valdes lived in San Benito County near the San Juan Bautista mission during the pastoral era.

Anyone who has seen the film thinks of Carlotta’s portrait.  An unknown artist, possibly a movie studio artist, painted a fair- haired woman posed next to a marble column.  The ambiguous background is comprised of ominous teal sky over what could be dry hills and dark olive trees and a reflective poo..  She wears a low cut violet satin dress and an elaborate ruby and gold pendant hangs from a thin gold chain. She carries a bouquet.  Her expression is wary.   Hitchcock placed the portrait in San Francisco’s Palace of the Legion of Honor.

The California pastoral era lasted from 1769 to 1854.  (Hubert Howe Bancroft, Volume XXIV, published in 1888 by The History Company.  Victorians wrote Bancroft’s history. (This chapter is available free on-line at

Under Mexico’s Colonization Act of 1824, as amended in 1828, any qualified citizen could be granted a ranch of from 4,428 acres to 48,708 acres.  Each was a minor principality, presided over by a grandee ranchero, supervised by a mayordomo and operated by crews of mestizo and Indian vaqueros who cared for the cattle.  Labor was almost free and fencing unknown.  Food was so abundant that no stranger was turned away but in all of California during the pastoral era, there was not one school, newspaper, post office, theater or art gallery.

Alfred Hitchcock – for his 1958 film Vertigo – added a tower to the Mission San Juan Bautista in San Benito County using scale models, matte paintings and trick photography at the Paramount Studio in Los Angeles.  He had the tower’s staircase assembled inside a studio.

Vertigo is a re-telling of the Greek legend of Orpheus and Eurydice.  In the Greek story, Orpheus – who traveled with Odysseus in Homer’s epic poem the Odyssey — travels to the underworld to soften the hearts of Hades and Peresophone to allow his wife Eurydice to return with him to earth and the gods allow him to bring his wife with him on one condition: he should walk in front of her and not look back until they had both reached the upper world.  He looks back, and she’s lost forever.

Hitchcock adapted the novel D’entre les morts (1954) by Pierre Boileau and Pierre Ayraud.  The story concerns a former detective who suffers from vertigo, who is hired to follow the wife of a friend who is puzzled by her strange behavior. The detective becomes obsessed with the woman, eventually falling in love with her but unable to explain her strange trances and her belief in a previous life. When she falls to her death from a tower, he is unable to save her due to his fear of heights and experiences a psychotic break. After his partial recovery he encounters a woman who is nearly the image of his dead love, and the obsession begins again.

At the film’s opening, Scottie, played by James Stewart, loses his footing while chasing a suspect over rooftops, falls, and hangs over the street below, suspended only by a sagging rain gutter. Looking down, he experiences a sense of vertigo brought on by his fear of heights. Trying to pull Scottie to safety, a fellow officer falls to his death, and the incident causes Scottie to quit the force.

Hitchcock does not explain in the film how Scottie survived the sagging rain gutter.

A former classmate, shipping magnate Gavin Elster asks the ex-policeman to play detective and shadow his wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), who has begun behaving strangely. Gavin asks Scottie if he believes that “someone dead, someone out of the past, can take possession of a living being.”

Scottie trails Madeleine from the Brocklebank Apartments at 1000 Mason and Sacramento to a cemetery in the Mission Dolores (The oldest building in San Francisco) where she lays the flowers at the grave of Carlotta Valdes. The monument says, “Carlotta Valdes born December 5, 1831 died March 5, 1857.”  Peculiarly, no one removed the fake cemetery monument for many years.

Scottie then tracks her to a museum (the Palace of Legion of Honor, where she sits staring at a portrait of the Carlotta. She wears the same necklace as the woman in the painting.  Her blond hairstyle is the same.

He then follows Madeleine to a hotel where he learns that she goes every now and then just to sit in a window.

The “hotel” was the Harry J. Fortmann Italianate mansion built in 1880 at Gough and Eddy in the Western Addition, so this is another puzzling sequence.  It is now an athletic practice field.  The house did not exist in 1853.   An 1860 photograph of the Western Addition shows rough land and a few early Victorian houses.  No streets can be discerned. In the film, Madeleine mysteriously sits in the window of a house that did not exist, built on a street that may have been platted, but which did not really yet exist during her life-time.

Scottie finds a bookstore owner at the “Argosy” bookstore (The actual bookstore was “The Argonaut,” located at 786 Sutter) who tells him the backstory of Madeleine’s ancestor Carlotta.  She had married an American who got custody of their son and abandoned her.

The real and the film name for the bookstore reflects the name the Gold Rush adventurers who sailed around the Horn to California gave to themselves.  It’s also a name for the pioneers who traveled overland in their Prairie Schooners.  In Greek mythology, Jason and his Argonauts (“Argo” Latin Genitive Argus, means “swift,” and “naut” – naútēs in Ancient Greek means “sailor.”)  In the Greek myth, Jason and his Argonauts sailed to the land of the Colchis on the Black Sea to retrieve the Golden Fleece, the wool of a golden haired ram.   The 19th century Argonauts’ invasion of California led to the end of this state’s pastoral era.

Madeleine attempts suicide by throwing herself into the Golden Gate.  Scottie rescues her and, instead of taking her to her husband Gavin or to a hospital, takes her to his own house at 900 Lombard Street.  This is the beginning of obsession.  He drives with her through Big Basin Park where she marks with a gloved finger the ring on a cut redwood that shows when she was really born.  She goes with him to the mission.   Scottie chases Madeline up the tower but can’t make it to the top in time because of his vertigo.  To his horror, he sees Madeline’s body fall.  At a hearing after his death, the coroner clearly blames Scottie but says: “He did nothing.  The law has little to say on things left undone.”  Scottie becomes insane.

He later sees the woman who played Madeleine and falls in love with her.  She is already in love with him and allows him to have her hair bleached.  He buys – on a retired cop’s salary – the expensive Edith Head-designed suits Madeleine had worn.  Jimmy Stewart acts the part of a man deranged by the past well.  At the end of the movie, he once again chases the woman up the tower where the sight of a nun dressed in black frightens her, and she again falls to her death.

A sense of the real pastoral era can be evoked by visits to the mission in San Benito County, to adobe houses that remain, and by reading American literature about the time.

Easterners sometimes find the summer hills ugly because it rains in summer in their states.   The hills are not ugly.  They are yellow from a distance, tawny closer up. To appreciate the West, Wallace Stegner wrote, “You have to get over the color green; you have to quit associating beauty with gardens and lawns; you have to get used to an inhuman scale.”

Americans leveled many of the sharp hills.  They built suburban tracts on their faces, and the houses have lawns and gardens.  Glimpses of rancho-era California are rare.

To get to the city of Pittsburg, I drive over Kirker Pass Road from Concord.  From the road, I see the sharp weird hills of the Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve.  No developer built on those hills, although there were once mining villages set in it, and a cemetery is still there.

A walk in Briones Regional Park in Contra Costa County is not much different from a walk taken on the Rancho Boca de la Cañada del Pinole (“mouth of the Pinole Valley”) during California’s pastoral era would have been like.  The park is part of the 1842 Mexican land grant to the widow of Felipe Briones.  The Briones began the tradition of cattle ranching in the region, which continues to today.

In summer, the Briones hills are hot, sand colored, and the oaks and the shadows beneath the oaks are dark.  You may see black-tailed deer, coyotes, squirrels, and turkey vultures.  Cattle stopped their grazing and ran towards you and then past, fast, and they are big,

In January the Briones hills are green.  Dark-leaved California bay laurels pungently scent the air.  The sun is a diamond and brilliant light edges the leaves of the oak trees.   The sky is as blue as Hippie paintings from the 1960s.  Red-tailed hawks wheel through the surrealistic sky. Step-like patterns on some hillsides start as natural undulations in the soil.  In winter and spring, the slippery clays creep downhill.  Cattle crossing the hillside walk on the undulations and flatten them.

By 1850, Happy Valley Road, which runs along the edge of the Briones property, was the main thoroughfare from Martinez to San Jose and then on to San Francisco.  I took Happy Valley Road from Lafayette as far as Bear Creek Road.  On Google maps, the road looked relatively straight but in real life it twists and turns, and some of the turns are hairpin turns.  Bear Creek Road goes up to Alhambra Valley Road, which twists and turns to the John Muir National Historic Site, to Highway 4 into Martinez.

Americans visiting California before it became an American state did not see the pastoral era as idyllic, although later American writers romanticized the period.

Faxon Dean Atherton’s pioneer settlement became an extremely affluent town on the San Francisco Peninsula.   He worked as a clerk for a Boston merchant from the time he was 15.   Boston was the center of the California hide and tallow trade.  He went to Chile, and then to San Francisco and Santa Barbara.  He amassed a great fortune with his shipping business and purchased tracts that became Hayward, Watsonville, Milpitas and the area of Fort Hunter Liggett.

From the ages of twenty-one to twenty-seven, Atherton lived on the California coast and worked as a clerk from 1836-1838, and he kept a remarkable diary.  (The California Diary of Faxon Dean Atherton 1836-1839, published by the California Historical Society, 1964).

Near Monterey, Atherton stopped at William Hartnell’s Rancho.  Hartnell by then had transformed himself into Guillermo Eduardo Petty Arnel” and became a ranchero.  He owned Rancho Alisal (“Alisal” means grove of sycamores”)  now the City of Salinas, where John Steinbeck would be born in seventy-one years.

Atherton wrote:  The land attached to it is well watered and about 20 acres under cultivation, the remainder being pasture land on which he has about 1500 head of cattle which increased about 1/3 yearly.  There is a beautiful brook (which) runs through the whole of his farm.  Its banks being covered with tall sycamores makes it a cool and pleasant retreat during the heat of the day.  It appears to me to be as pretty a situation as I have ever seen, and if it was in my own country, where there is not only law, but justice, I have met with none which I should prefer to it.”

About San Juan Bautista – near the Vertigo Carlotta’s ancestral home — he wrote,

“This Mission is one of those that have been taken from the management of the priests and put under that of an Administrador.  It appears to be going to ruin as fast as the elements, and the inordinate desires of the Administrador for gain, can make it.  Formerly it had 2000 Indians attached (to) it, church, dwelling houses for the Indians, and large store houses in good repair.  Now both church and dwelling houses are in ruins; store houses fallen to pieces, and not more than 50 or 60 Indians belonging to it.  Supped with the Padres who has been very unwell but is now better.”

Richard Henry Dana, in his Two Years Before the Mast (published in 1841), visited California on a trading ship – the cattle were “California bank notes — ” and wrote, “In the hands of an enterprising people, what a country this might be!”

“The government of the country is an arbitrary democracy; having no common law, and no judiciary. Their only laws are made and unmade at the caprice of the legislature, and are as variable as the legislature itself. They pass through the form of sending representatives to the congress at Mexico, but as it takes several months to go and return, and there is very little communication between the capital and this distant province, a member usually stays there, as permanent member, knowing very well that there will be revolutions at home before he can write and receive an answer; if another member should be sent, he has only to challenge him, and decide the contested election in that way.

“….In their domestic relations, these people are no better than in their public. The men are thriftless, proud, and extravagant, and very much given to gaming; and the women have but little education, and a good deal of beauty, and their morality, of course, is none of the best; yet the instances of infidelity are much less frequent than one would at first suppose. In fact, one vice is set over against another; and thus, something like a balance is obtained. The women have but little virtue, but then the jealousy of their husbands is extreme, and their revenge deadly and almost certain. A few inches of cold steel has been the punishment of many an unwary man, who has been guilty, perhaps, of nothing more than indiscretion of manner. The difficulties of the attempt are numerous, and the consequences of discovery fatal. With the unmarried women, too, great watchfulness is used. The main object of the parents is to marry their daughters well, and to this, the slightest slip would be fatal. The sharp eyes of a dueña, and the cold steel of a father or brother, are a protection which the characters of most of them—men and women—render by no means useless; for the very men who would lay down their lives to avenge the dishonor of their own family, would risk the same lives to complete the dishonor of another.”

North of Briones Regional Park and across the San Francisco Bay from it is the Petaluma Adobe State Historic Park, established as the center of General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo’s 66,00-acre (100 square miles) working ranch between 1836-1846.  The Adobe is made of adobe brick and Redwood.  The building began with tree nails and rawhide lashings to hold the beams together and Vallejo added over time iron nails, hinges, glass windows, and a hand split shingled roof.

He had not completed the structure because, during the Bear Flag Revolt of 1846, U.S. Army Colonel John Charles Fremont captured Vallejo.  Despite his treatment, Vallejo maintained his American sympathies and went on to serve in the first state legislative body. When he and many others attempted to validate their Mexican land grants, he found his way blocked and eventually lost a ruling in the U.S. Supreme Court. Stripped of much of his influence and fortune, he wrote his five-volume “true history” of California, while living on a small portion of his once vast holdings. Vallejo donated this history to H. H. Bancroft, the famous Californian historian.  Vallejo wrote:

“ After distributing the horses as they thought most advantageous to their plans, gentlemen under Captain Fremont’s command took the road leading through the Napa Hills to Sonoma and at dawn on the fourteenth of June they surrounded my house located on the plaza at Sonoma.  At daybreak they raised the shout of alarm and when I heard it, I looked out of my bedroom window. To my great surprise, I made out groups of armed men scattered to the right and left of my residence. The recent arrivals were not in uniform, but were all armed and presented a fierce aspect. Some of them wore on their heads a visorless cap of coyote skin, some a low-crowned plush hat, [and] some a red cotton handkerchief. As for the balance of the clothing of the assaulters of my residence, I shall not attempt to describe it, for I acknowledge that I am incapable of doing the task justice. I suspected that the intruders had intentions harmful not to my [property] interests alone, but to my life and that of the members of my family. I realized that my situation was desperate. My wife advised me to try and flee by the rear door, but I told her that such a step was unworthy and that under no circumstances could I decide to desert my young family at such a critical time. I had my uniform brought, dressed quickly and then ordered the large vestibule door thrown open. The house was immediately filled with armed men. I went with them into the parlor of my residence. I asked them what the trouble was and who was heading the party, but had to repeat that question a second time, because almost all of those who were in the parlor replied at once, “Here we are all heads.” When I again asked with whom I should take the matter up, they pointed out William B. Ide who was the eldest of all. I then addressed that gentleman and informed him that I wanted to know to what happy circumstance I owed the visit of so many individuals.”

General Vallejo called his home Lachryma Montis (“mountain tear,” a rough Latin translation of the Indian name for the spring and pool the Indians called Chicuyem, or crying mountain.)  It is a Carpenter Gothic Victorian style house located on the corner of West Spain Street and Third Street West in Sonoma and is part of the Sonoma State Historic Park.

In 1884, Helen Hunt Jackson wrote the novel Ramona, adapted in four films after Jackson’s death, which led to revival of Mission architecture, restoration of the missions, and drew tourists to California.  It portrays the life of a mixed-race Scots-Native American girl, who suffers racial discrimination and hardship after the Mexican-American war.  A free download:

The fictional Senora Moreno’s house …” was of adobe, low, with a wide veranda on the three sides of the inner court, and a still broader one across the entire front, which looked to the south. These verandas, especially those on the inner court, were supplementary rooms to the house. The greater part of the family life went on in them. Nobody stayed inside the walls, except when it was necessary. All the kitchen work, except the actual cooking, was done here, in front of the kitchen doors and windows. Babies slept, were washed, sat in the dirt, and played, on the veranda. The women said their prayers, took their naps, and wove their lace there. Old Juanita shelled her beans there, and threw the pods down on the tile floor, till towards night they were sometimes piled up high around her, like corn-husks at a husking. The herdsmen and shepherds smoked there, lounged there, trained their dogs there; there the young made love, and the old dozed; the benches, which ran the entire length of the walls, were worn into hollows, and shone like satin; the tiled floors also were broken and sunk in places, making little wells, which filled up in times of hard rains, and were then an invaluable addition to the children’s resources for amusement, and also to the comfort of the dogs, cats, and fowls, who picked about among them, taking sips from each.”

Many United States migrants had looked down on the Hispanic occupants of California when they arrived in the region. The new settlers from northern and mid-western states disparaged what they saw as a decadent culture of leisure and recreation among the elite Latinos, who had huge tracts of land, lived in a region with prevailing mild weather and unusually fertile soil, and relied heavily on Native American laborers. The new settlers favored the Protestant work ethic. This view was not universal, however. American settlers and readers in other regions were taken by Jackson’s portrayal of the Spanish and Mexican society. Readers accepted the Californio aristocracy as portrayed and the Ramona myth was born.

In 1902, Faxon Dean Atherton’s (mentioned above) daughter-in-law Gertrude Atherton published The Splendid Idle Forties — a collection of stories about what life had been like “Before the Gringos Came.”  You can read it on-line for free, at

“Caballeros, with silver on their wide gray hats and on their saddles of embossed leather, gold and silver embroidery on their velvet serapes, crimson sashes about their slender waists, silver spurs and buckskin botas, stood tensely in their stirrups ….

“And caballeros were not the only living pictures of that memorable day of a time forever gone.  Beautiful women in silken fluttering gowns, bright flowers holding the mantilla from flushed awakened faces, sat on their

impatient horses as easily as a gull rides a wave. The sun beat down, making dark cheeks pink and white cheeks darker, but those great eyes, strong with their own fires, never faltered. The old women in attendance grumbled vague remonstrances at all things, from the heat to intercepted coquetries. But their charges gave the good duenas little heed. They shouted until their little throats were hoarse, smashed their fans, beat the sides of their mounts with their tender hands, in imitation of the vaqueros.”

The real San Juan Bautista mission, later an incorporated city under the Americans, neighbored a ranch house built by two brothers, Dr. Thomas Flint and Benjamin Flint, and their cousin Llewellyn Bixby.  One of Llewellyn’s daughters – Sarah Bixby Smith — wrote Adobe Days, which begins with a description of her early childhood on the San Justo Rancho.

Bixby, his brothers, and Col. Hollister arrived with the first American sheep at the end of California’s “pastoral era.”  They purchased three very large ranchos over time: San Justo, part of the secularized Mission San Juan Bautista lands, and Los Cerritos and Los Alamitos in Southern California.  Their story of an American pastoral time begins during the Gold Rush.

It had taken Llewellyn fifty- three days to reach San Francisco in 1850 through the Isthmus of Panama.  He and his companions set out immediately to Sacramento and then to the Volcano Diggings, where they met up with Benjamin Flint.  After a week, he took a job in a local butcher shop, and then he and the Flints bought the business.

On Christmas Day, 1852, they started back home to Maine, carrying a heavy load of gold on the trip down the coast, over the Isthmus, until they placed it in the mint at Philadelphia.

On March 8, 1853, the cousins returned to California by rail, horseback, emigrant wagon and foot.  The trip took ten months.

At Terre Haute, Indiana, they organized the firm of Flint, Bixby and Company and bought flocks of sheep, which increased to 2,400 head.  They arrived in San Bernardino on January 1, 1854.  They drove the sheep north along with Colonel Hollister, who had made the journey with them, and bought the Rancho San Justo, part of which is now located in the City of Hollister.  The firm centered their sheep-raising business on Rancho San Justo for 40 years.

The Mexican government granted Rancho San Justo, one of three ranches attached to the Mission San Juan Bautista to General Jose Castro.  He sold San Justo to Francisco Perez Pacheco in 1833, and Pacheco sold it to Flint, Bixby & Co. in 1855.

The other ranchos listed in San Benito County are Bolsa de San Felipe granted to Juan Alvarado in 1840 and sold to Francisco Pacheco, and San Benito, granted to Juan Alvarado in 1842 and sold to Francisco Garcia.  (This is now San Ardo.)  Mexico granted Cienega de los Paicines, in 1842 to Juan Alvarado. (This is present day Paicines, once called Tres Pinos, often mispronounced by locals as “Tres Penis.”)  Lomerias Muertas was an 1842 grant to Juan Alvarado, sold to Jose Castro.  (This land is south of Gilroy.)  Rancho Ausaymas y San Felipe – also a grant to Pacheco – was along what is now the Pacheco Pass.

In Vertigo, Scottie falls in love with a ghost, but the ghost is fictional. If ghosts are fictional, Carlotta is Über -fictional.  The real Ramona was an illiterate Southern California Indian.  The characters in The Splendid Idle Forties are made up.

There was, however, a real girl who wrote about the end of the pastoral era, after California became a state.

Sarah Bixby Smith, one of Llewellyn’s three children born at San Justo, spent her early childhood at San Justo within walking distance of the San Juan Bautista Mission and built a large ranch house divided into three parts so that three families could live in it.

In 1866, Bixby, Flint & Co. bought the great Rancho Los Cerritos and a part interest in Los Alamitos and a half interest in the western part of Rancho Palos Verdes. The family moved to Los Cerritos for a time.  In Adobe Days, Sarah wrote:

“The garden did not contain even one palm tree, or a bit of cactus, nor do I remember a eucalyptus tree, a variety belonging to a later importation.  There were two large bunches of pampas grass and two old century plants, which we desecrated in the usual child fashion by scratching names and pictures on the gray surface.  There were no annuals.

“Orange blossoms, honeysuckle, lilac, and lemon verbena, roses, oleander and heliotrope made a heaven of fragrance.  For years the bees had stored their treasure in the wall of grandfather’s room, which, being a wooden addition to the house, offered a hollow space; the odor of the honey mingled with that of the old leather bindings of his books in the room, and with the flowers outside.  The linnets, friendly, and twittering, built about the porch, and the swallows nested under the eaves; the ruby-throated and iridescent humming birds darted from flower to flower and built their felt-like nests in the trees, and great lazy, yellow and black butterflies floated by.

“And children wandered here and played, or climbed the spreading tree for the heavy figs bursting with their garnered sweetness, or picked crimson kernels from the leathery pomegranates, or lying under the green roof of the low-spread grapevines, told fairy stories while feasting.  There seemed no limit to our capacity for eating fruit, and I never knew any one to suffer.  One morning at an eating race I won with thirty-two peaches, not large ones, fortunately.”

Visit:  the Petaluma Adobe, the Avila Adobe on Olvera Street in downtown Los Angeles, Los Cerritos, Los Alamitos, Briones Regional Park, General Vallejo’s Victorian house in Sonoma, the Ramona Bowl Amphitheatre (You can buy tickets to the Ramona play at



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