The “California Bank Note”

Cattle ranching was big business in San Diego County for a long time. But how many people know that for at least a century or so, cattle were raised not so much for their meat, but for their hides and their fat?

As California passed from Spanish to Mexican control in the early 1820s, “The chief economic activity consisted of exporting hides and tallow. Mexican independence in 1821 opened California ports to foreign trade and coincided with the expansion of the American shoe industry,” according to a 2009 book, 240 Years of Ranching, a comprehensive study on the county’s ranching history prepared for the state parks department.

By the late 1820s, notes the study, as many as 40,000 cattle hides were being shipped annually from San Diego to New England to be made into shoes and other leather goods. Tallow, the product of rendered cowfat, was shipped to South America where it was turned into candles and soap.

These products not only brought big money, they literally were money in those days in the relationship between county ranch owners who raised and sold the cattle and the sailing ship captains and merchants who bought them. As another historian of the period pointed out, “Contracts and promissory notes were usually made payable in cattle, hides, or tallow…even the smallest amount of merchandise—a few yards of cloth, a pound of sugar, a box of raisins, a handful of cigars—was purchased with the standard currency of the province, the ubiquitous cattle hide, known from Alaska to Peru as the ‘California bank note.’”

Sources for this post included the books 240 Years of Ranching, by Sue A. Wade, Stephen R. Van Wormer and Heather Thomson, History of San Diego:1542-1908, by William E Smythe, and The Cattle on A Thousand Hills, by Robert Glass Cleland.

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