Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Staff Picks: Highlights from the CHS Collection for American Archives Month

Every October the American archival community celebrates American Archives Month in order to celebrate and raise awareness of the value of archives, archivists, and the diverse collections in repositories across the country representing our collective history.

The CHS collections comprises a diverse body of materials which document the environmental, economic, social, political, and cultural heritage of California and contribute to a greater understanding of the state and its people. The collection includes:
  • 50,000 volumes of books and pamphlets 
  • 4,000 manuscript collections; 
  • 500,000 photographs; 
  • Printed ephemera, periodicals, posters, broadsides, maps, and newspapers; 
  • The Kemble Collection on Western Printing and Publishing; 
  • 5,000 works of art, including paintings, drawings, and lithographs; 
  • Artifacts and costumes 
For this year’s American Archives Month, we asked a few of our Exhibitions and Library & Archives department staff members to choose a piece (or collection) from the CHS archive, and to interpret it in their own word, or describe why it’s meaningful to them. First up is Jaime Henderson, CHS’ Digital Archivist, who chose 1930s images of Los Vaqueros lands.

Images of Los Vaqueros lands

From Horse Pasture Hill looking W. toward Black Hills across Dario Place, Photographs of Los Vaqueros lands, Contra Costa and Alameda counties, circa 1935, PC-026_12, California Historical Society

A man wearing jodhpur pants tucked into high boots leans against an outcropping of rocks, possibly a walking stick or telescope gripped in his hand, gazing onto a valley dotted with low trees, dark hills and an even darker sky looming in the background. Another image shows a low mountain range in the distance, gnarled, leafless oak trees in the foreground. Like many great California landscapes scenes shot by well-known photographers, the image is well-composed and captures the natural exquisiteness and moodiness of the state’s terrain. But unlike Yosemite or Big Sur, the landscape, although stunning, is not obviously identifiable. That is until I take a closer look at the caption which provides such preciseness of place. The caption contains a series of letters and numbers that I am able to identify as surveyor coordinates. Names of places such as Black Hills, Brushy Peak and the surnames of landowners, Dario and Cabral provide a few more clues. Eventually, I piece together that the land is a rural valley situated in eastern Contra Costa county and portions of northeast Alameda County. The region today looks remarkably similar to the landscape captured in the photographs years ago.

The photographs shown here are only four examples of a collection of twenty-five platinum prints held in the archives of the California Historical Society. The collection, Photographs of Los Vaqueros lands of Contra Costa and Alameda counties, records both visually and geographically, this pastoral parcel of land situated in the shadow of Mount Diablo toward the northwest and flanked by low, grassland hills to the east and the rugged Black Hills to the west. Although the photographer is unknown, the captions, most of which include geographic coordinates, suggest that the photographs were taken as part of a surveying project of the Los Vaqueros lands, most likely undertaken in the mid-1930s as ownership of the lands passed from their much-revered owner Mary Crocker to family members and friends after her death. The time period in which the photographs were taken marks the beginning of drastic change to the communities built in Los Vaqueros, although this change is not reflected in the region’s natural landscape capture in the photographs.

Inside caves near Brushy Peak, Photographs of Los Vaqueros lands, Contra Costa and Alameda counties, circa 1935. PC-026_01, California Historical Society

The first Californians deeply understood the majesty of what would come to be called Los Vaqueros. Archeologists have found evidence of human activity in the region dating back nearly 10,000 years, making Los Vaqueros lands one of California’s earliest known sites of human activity. For centuries, groups made long-term use of the land for hunting, occupation, and community building. Before the arrival of the Spanish to the greater Bay Area and Delta region, the Volvon peoples of the Miwok tribe and the Ssaoam peoples of the Costanoan tribe seasonally hunted, gathered, traded and lived in communities in what would become Los Vaqueros.

The land's natural features, most especially the caves and outcroppings of rocks located in the most eastern part of the region, are described in the Native Californians' creation myths where Coyote, in deep grief over the loss of his son, walks through the sandstone walls creating the holes and gorges of the Vasco Caves (1). Many of the Native Californians' creation stories were depicted in rock art on the walls of the Vasco Caves. As it was when the Native peoples inhabited the land, the land is still considered sacred among Native Californian groups and the pictographs are still visible on the caves' canvases. 

North side of lake, Photographs of Los Vaqueros lands, Contra Costa and Alameda counties, circa 1935, PC-026_08, California Historical Society

In the years following the founding of Mission San Jose in 1797, large herds of cattle belonging to the mission were grazed in the Los Vaqueros lands, introducing the practice of large-scale livestock ranching to the region. The practice continued once the land was granted to three brothers-in-law and officially named CaƱada de los Vaqueros (Valley of the Cowboys) in 1844. The region’s excellent pastures gave rise to battles over grazing rights and litigation over the ownership of lands throughout the second-half of the 19th century. Through these disputes practice of large scale grazing continued, taking effect on the landscape, spreading non-native grasses eroding natural drainage and impacting native tree species (R to R, pg. 8). Ranching on the lands only began to phase out in the mid-1870s as the land grant began to be subdivided into smaller tenant farms and ranches, prompting a shift that incorporated grain cultivation with livestock ranching. The introduction of a more diverse agriculture and immigrant families of German, Italian, French and Basque descent helped to transition Los Vaqueros from a valley of isolated, ranching cowboys to a community of family farms that developed out of their reliance on shared skills, resources and crops. The transition marks both a natural change for the region, but also the development of a communal identity amongst the Los Vaqueros residents. Between 1900 and 1935 the Los Vaqueros community, geographically isolated from the social and civic changes occurring in the greater Bay Area, created network of multicultural residents that relied on each other for economic, social, and emotional support.

Much can be said in regards to the stability of land ownership in Los Vaqueros to facilitate the growth of community spirit. Most residents were tenant farmers who rented that land from Mary Crocker. Crocker may not have spent much time on the land, but had hired the much admired Charles Lamberton to manage the tenant holdings. The pair provided a sense of stability that allowed tenants to invest in the land and commit to its community. In 1918, while the land was under Crocker’s ownership, an article printed in the Byron Times praised the rolling hills and valleys of Los Vaqueros “one of the most beautiful pastoral spots of the Golden State.” (2)

The long-lasting effects of the economic Depression of 1929, coupled with the untimely death of Mary Crocker in an automobile accident brought about an end to many of the tenant family farms and community oriented existence of Los Vaqueros. Crocker’s heirs sold the land and new owners did not uphold many of the lease agreements with the tenant farmers who had helped build the Los Vaqueros community (3). Some of the land had remained in the hands of its original owners who had acquired it in the later part of the 19th century, but by the 1960s and 1970s much of the Los Vaqueros lands had been returned to grazing pastures.

From hill looking across Stanley Cabral’s grain field toward Black Hills, Photographs of Los Vaqueros lands, Contra Costa and Alameda counties, circa 1935, PC-026_17, California Historical Society 

Today the land, located in the Diablo Range in the shadow of Mount Diablo, is sheltered from the crush of Interstate 580 cutting through the Livermore Valley moving thousands of commuters to and from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta communities and the San Francisco Bay Area and the ever-developing suburban housing tracts that sprawl further and further into the deep east of the East Bay. Two major civic initiatives have protected the land from the encroachment of development and have allowed the land to retain its pastoral beauty that had earlier been celebrated in the Byron Times. In 1988 Contra Costa county voters approved funding for the Contra Costa County Water District’s (CCWD) Los Vaqueros Reservoir project.

The reservoir was completed in 1998 and was expanded in 2012, growing its capacity to provide water for over 500,000 customers while also protecting the natural and historic resources located in the watershed (4). The CCWD has also partnered with East Bay Regional Park District to steward the Vasco Caves Regional Preserve, providing protection to both endangered and native species and plants of the Los Vaqueros region and preserving sacred native California sites, including the 10,000 year old rock art found on the walls of Vasco Caves depicting the creation myths that took place on the Los Vaqueros lands.

This post was written by Jaime Henderson, Digital Archivist at the California Historical Society.


(1) Ziesing, Grace H. ed., From Rancho to Reservoir: History and Archaeology of the Los Vaqueros Watershed, California. Report prepared for the Contra Costa Water District (1997), 19.
(2) Byron Times, (1918), 58.
(3) Ziesing, From Rancho to Reservoir, (1917), 124. 
(4) Los Vaqueros Project History. Contra Costa Water District. Retrieved 2018 March 14 from https://www.ccwater.com/435/Los-Vaqueros-Project-History.

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