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The Cattle Business
Before the Gold Rush, the main reasons a few cattle were raised in California was as sources of hides and tallow. That all changed when the Mother Lode country became infested with hungry miners. The miners’ demand for beef prompted a sudden cattle boom beginning in 1849. Robert Flint Jr was one of a number of stock men who achieved a profitable livelihood through the acquisition, fattening and sale of cattle. He ended up a wealthy man for his times.
According to Lloyd Blinn, the grandson of his sister, Mary (Flint) Blinn, he got his start by selling butter, eggs and other commodities to the miners.1 If so, he soon got into the business of purchasing cattle in Baja California and driving them north.“. . . At that time two and three year old steers could be bought down there at from ten to fifteen dollars a head and you could hire good vaqueros for fifteen dollars a month One could double his money on a deal of this kind as long as he could get the cattle. Later it was impossible to get them on account of drouths. . . .”2“The steers came from the ‘black cattle’ that had been introduced into Baja California by the missionaries as early as 1710. As each new mission was established older missions seeded a herd for the new establishment . . .”3
The following refers to what was perhaps Robert’s first cattle drive from Baja:“. . . I thought I had better write you a few lines to let you know that Robert has got back safe and sound and in good health. he told me that he was agoing to write home, [?] but I thought prehaps he might neglect it as he have a good deal of buiseness to to attend to and I know that both of you are anxious to hear from him. He went eight hundred miles into Mexico and bought cattle. the road he had to come was worse than crossing the plains. he had in some places to drive from two to four days without warter, which was very hard on his cattle. he lost a great many; he started with 500 head and arrived here with two, one hundred of which are cows. he keep his cattle about sixty miles from [Volcano]. . . . he intend to keep his cows and commence driving cattle—that is, buy down below and take them up into the mountains and sell them to the butchers. . . .”4
Robert’s letters were written from various California places in the mid 1850s. One from January 1855 is from “Mokelumne River”. It was to Pirney who was still at Volcano.—“Before this I had exspected to see you, but the wether has been such that I cannot leave the cattle. grass do not grow and the cattle ramble very much. a few old cows have perished by old age and poverty—two bad companions. . . .”5
He is apparently considering expanding his holdings; or was he hinting that Pirney should invest?—“I forget wether I have Mentioned Mr Harkness Name to you. his ranch joins Mine and he wish to sell. there are two quarters laying on the Mokelmne river, a house and enclosure of forty five acers part of which has been croped to barley, a good salmon fishery, also a good garden with some grapevines, a good Chance for a ferry on the Mokelmne river as it is the most direct road betwen Sacramento City and Stockton. for futher particulars enquire of Doc. Jones. pleas to anwer this givin your opinion of coming down . . .”6
The next March he wrote a brief letter from “San Joaqune Co” to Pirney who had returned to Canada.—“. . . times are good here. Money plenty; Cattle high. I shall have but a few this year to Sell—about fifty. . . .”7
The following September William Jones was minding Robert’s cattle, while the latter had gone to Mexico for more. Jones’ letter is datelined “Dry Creek, Amadore County”.—“. . . I am living now down in the Valley at Robberts taking care of his Stock while he is gone down South after more Cattle. . . . Robbert Started down South three weeks ago last Thursday and expected to be gone three or four months. he thinks of bringing a good many Cattle with him. . . .”8
There follows a six-year gap in Robert’s letters. On 24 Jun 1862 he wrote from San Luis Obispo. In this letter he mentions that Doc Jones has been busy enclosing a pasture with two miles of fence (see “Jones”) and he complains about difficulties with Mr Anthony in Valparaiso (see “Indiana”) Perhaps during the preceding period he had been getting established in San Luis Obispo Co. Subsequent letters are headed “San Juan”, “San Juan Rancho”, “San Juan Capistrano”, etc.
Flint, R (1863).
Robert G Flint Jr's handwriting.
In place of declining opportunities in the gold fields, the major marketplace for cattle was now turning to the burgeoning towns of San Francisco and Sacramento. Meanwhile, Robert’s life was not without adventure. In the letter to his mother the beginning of which is reproduced above, he describes his experience during a cattle drive to San Francisco.—“I received your kind letter today and will answer it imediatly to avoid the charge of neleget, which I in part diserve, for delaying to answer the last so long after it was received, but the reason was I had just started with a drove of cattle, and hoped to realize anoughf to come and see you. . . . The last time I was going to San Francisco with a heard of fat cattle, I was on guard with the cattle and they stampeaded. That is, they take fright and jump to there feet, and the first you know they are running over one another, and anything that’s in their way. well, this time it was very dark and rainy and in the mountains. I was on a good horse but he fell and spilt me, and the cattle went on. the next morning we found the horse; he fell the second time and this time over a bank twenty feet high, and broke his neck. Well, I thought the door to kingdom come was pretty wide open for me, but I passed that time and others. . . . why only the other day a confounded mule that I got on got mad about it, and commenced jumping up and down. well, the reins broak and I fell, and he kept jumping up and down and that on top of me, in a very careless manner. I though he wanted to ram me into the earth, but it was a very hard place, although if he did not succeed one way he came near it in an other, but I am pretty well, except an ocational pain in the side.”9
There is another gap in my letters of Robert’s, from 1863 to 1872. According to the “Great Register of the County of San Luis Obispo”, Robert George Flint, 53, stock raiser, local residence Estrella, became a registered voter on 9 Jun 1868. In the registers for succeeding years, his age and residence remained unchanged. In the 1870 census for Hot Springs P O, Salinas Twp, San Luis Obispo Co; Robert G Flint, 53, born England, was a stock raiser, with real estate worth $3200 and a personal estate of $54,600. He lived with his young wife “Elisa” (Eliza), 29, born in Canada; their 8-mo-old daughter Hannah M, born in CA; Eliza’s sister Elizabeth Elson, 20; and a cook, Henry Robinson, 39, born in England.
In a letter of 31 Mar 1872, Robert seemed to be reasonably well satisfied with the way things were going.—“. . . I cannot complain of things this year, as the prospects bids fare for an abundant crop of grass all over the State. we hve better than I have seen in ten years. . . . of later years I do not drive cattle to Market if I can sell at home, and I think I save Money and time by it. . . .”10
Apparently Robert had been dabbling with sheep production, for he wrote in 1874—“. . . Now I have Sheep since June 1866 and have Not realised from them a dollar up to this time; it takes some time to create a paying buisness. however, it begin to assume an appearance this year [that] we shall have a fair clip of wool. . . .”11
He also writes, cryptically, “. . . I am looking at the Goats.” At the time of this letter, disaster loomed on the horizon for the cattle business—“. . . the Cattle buisness has paid something. [but] in that I Made one Mistake: I should have drawn somthing from it every year and laid it on one side; then twenty years would have amounted to some thing. instead of doing that, I went and increased the amount of Stock untill I have Not room for them and, should the Legislature pass the No fence law Making it nessary to heard Cattle as Sheep, I shall have to Move My Cattle to some other place. up to this time, Cattle havae been free commoners; should the law pass that is all done away with. . . . I supose we shall have to Move four or five thousand Cattle to Lower Cal, at least it look so at present. I am Now about to Start for the city and its vecinity to look for a feild to put Cattle in as it will take time to sell them with the present outlook—there will be a great Many cattle thrown on the Market this year. . . .”12
Under an 1850 law, farm animals were allowed to roam freely and if anyone wanted to raise a crop without the danger of it being eaten by herds of livestock, they had to put a fence around it. With the so-called “No Fence” law, stock men would be required to fence their animals in, rather than crop-raisers having to fence them out. This was an indication of the growing importance of cultivation in California relative to animal husbandry. The law did indeed pass in the legislature and ranchers were faced with either the high expense of fencing large grazing tracts or of selling their cattle at ruinous prices. The No Fence law put paid to the already waning California cattle boom. Robert Flint, however, managed to stay profitably in business right up until the time of his death.
Flint, R (1878).
In 1878 he wrote to his brother from a hotel in San Diego—“. . . I received you letter of Mch 31st some three days ago on My way down here; I am going to Lower Cal. for cattle. . . .”13
In the 1880 census Flint, Robert G, 65, stock raiser, b England, was alone again, his wife Eliza having passed away, their 5 children having been farmed out among Canadian relatives, and Eliza’s sister Lizzie having married a neighbor.
The Agricultural Schedule accompanying the census form gives an idea of his holdings and operations. His bovine assets (during 1879) included the following:
Died, strayed or stolen and not recovered
He also reported 50 horses, 4 pigs and 12 chickens that produced 35 doz eggs but no mules or sheep. Perhaps he had given up on mules after the “confounded mule” incident he described to his mother in an 1863 letter. And maybe the sheep he discussed with Pirney in an 1874 letter never did become profitable.
The following acreages were listed for Rancho San Juan: unimproved, woodland and forest—5000 A; other unimproved including “old fields” not growing wood—20,000 A. No tilled acreage, permanent meadows, permanent pastures, orchards or vineyards.
Monetary worth of Robert’s assets at that ranch was given as follows: Value of farm, including land, fences, and buildings—$80,000; of farming implements and machinery—$150; of livestock—$30,000; Cost of building and repairing fences in 1879—$1000; Cost of fertilizers purchased in 1879—$0; Amount paid for wages for farm labor during 1879, including value of board—$5000; Weeks hired labor in 1879 upon farm (and dairy) excluding housework—52; Estimated value of all farm production (sold, consumed, or on hand) for 1879—$20,000. Seemingly his hired help did not live with him, since none were included in his census household.
Robert was strictly a stockman; there were no products of the soil, dairy or apiary. No hay or seed. No milk sold; no butter or cheese made or sold. No cereals, beans, peas, beans, flax, hemp, sugar, hops, potatoes, tobacco, orchards, nurseries, vineyards, produce, or bee or forest products.
In the last letter I have from Robert Flint Jr, written about two months after the 1880 census, he was still at it—“. . . I left on the 1 rst of July for Lowe[r] Cal, and returned a week ago. . . . leave tomorrow for Nevada to try and find Some Cattle left years ago, and Meet a band of Cattle coming from Lower Cal, which started the 18th July from the line between Lower & Upper Cal. . . .”14
In Aug 1878 Robert had granted a mortgage loan to one John A Patchett, which was discharged on 21 Feb 1882. On the same date he granted Patchett another mortgage, but there doesn’t seem to be record of its discharge. In Aug 1884 he approved a mortgage for a John C Croal, which also doesn’t seem to have been discharged.15
By the time of his death in November 1885, Robert Flint Jr had acquired (or accumulated) two vast ranches in central California—Rancho San Juan near the present town of Shandon and Rancho Nacimiento near San Miguel.
1 Interview by L N Bronson for an article, “California Poorest Land He Had Seen”, in the London, Ontario Free Press. The article was sent to me years ago by my mother and her accompanying note says it is from Sep 1967.
2 Meadows (1965), p 21. 10 Flint, R (1872).
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11 Flint, R (1874).
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