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Been there: The California Great Drought of 1862-65

The current California drought has had many predecessors, none worse than the Great Drought of 1862-65.

Scenes like this would have been common in 1862-65.
Scenes like this would have been common in 1862-65.


The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, as depicted in the Book of Revelation, are Conquest (or Pestilence in some interpretations), War, Famine and Death. Modern Americans haven’t seen much of the first three for quite a while, and many might argue that the fourth biblical horseman is not really apocalyptic – it’s just the natural order of things.

Instead of the biblical group, Santa Cruz (along with most of California) has its own Four Horsemen: fire, flood, earthquake – and drought. It’s been awhile, but drought’s hoof-beats can be clearly heard in this dry, sunny January of 2014. Oldsters like me remember the drought motto of 1977: “If it’s yellow, it’s mellow – if it’s brown, flush it down.” Those are words to live by, once again.

We can look back, however, to a historically severe drought, lasting from 1862 to 1865, that came to be known as the "Great Drought", and caused far more damage to our state than this one will. Why? – because none of our statewide water storage and distribution system was in place at that time. When the rains stopped in 1862, there were no reservoirs to store water, no deep wells and no pipelines.

What made the 1862-65 drought even worse was that it followed several years of above-average rainfall and one of the worst floods on record. The San Lorenzo River overflowed its banks and flooded downtown Santa Cruz, which led to the construction of our first flood-control project – Elihu Anthony’s “bulkhead”, whose location is preserved in today’s Bulkhead Street.  

Away from the towns, the huge ranchos of post-mission Mexican California were still home to huge herds of cattle, and the plentiful rainfall encouraged the rancheros to expand their herds. Many of them probably borrowed money to do so, gambling on continued favorable weather to produce profitable beef, hide and tallow sales later on.

One of those local rancheros was Joseph Majors, fellow trapper of Isaac Graham, and one of the earliest Americans to settle in our county. In 1862, Majors owned large tracts of ranch land on the North Coast, supporting sizable herds of cattle. By 1867, however, most of the land and cattle were gone – victims of the drought.

A traveler in California at the time, William H. Brewer, kept a journal in which he recorded evidence of the disastrous effects of drought. On his way up the Salinas Valley, he noted:

“The drought is terrible. In this fertile valley, there will not be over a quarter crop, and during the past four days’ ride we have seen dead cattle by the hundreds.”     

In southern California, where rainfall is even more chancy, the disaster was worse. Many of the long-established landowners in the area were bankrupted, selling off land and cattle for pennies on the dollar. It was the end of the rancho era of Old California, as the huge open cattle ranges were broken up into smaller farmsteads or bought up by speculators for future subdivision.

Sources (available at SCPL):



This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Bruce Tanner January 31, 2014 at 01:08 PM
I wonder if in 1862-1865 they had jets flown by anonymous agencies spraying systematic and massive patterns of aluminum, barium and strontium nano-particulates over the entire Eastern Pacific to soak up the moisture in the air and carry it over California without precipitating? If you research "geoengineering", you'll find the evidence is conclusive.

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