May 10, 1861: Salinas Valley
[Today] we pushed on all day, facing the wind. We met a train of seven wagons, with tents and beds—a party of twenty-five or thirty persons from San Jose going to the hot springs, some on horseback. Two-thirds were ladies. A curious way for a “fashionable trip to the springs,” you say, but the style here. They will camp there, and have a grand time, I will warrant. We kept the left bank of the river, through the Mission Soledad. Before reaching it we crossed the sandy bed of a dry creek, where the sand drifted like snow and piled up behind and among the bushes like snow banks.
The Mission Soledad is a sorry looking place, all ruins—a single house, or at most two, are inhabited. We saw the sign up, “Soledad Store,” and went in, got some crackers at twenty-five cents a pound, and went on. Quite extensive ruins surround the place, empty buildings, roofless walls of adobe, and piles of clay, once adobe walls. It looked very desolate. I do not know where they got their water in former times, but it is dry enough now. We came on seventeen miles farther. Here we find tolerable feed and a spring of poor water, so here is a ranch.
Sorry as has been this picture, it is not overdrawn, yet all this land is occupied as “ranches” under Spanish grants. Cattle are watered at the river and feed on the plains, and scanty as is the feed, thousands are kept on this space, which must be at least four to six thousand square miles, counting way back to the Santa Lucia Mountains. The ranches do not cover all this, but cover the water, which is the same thing. We could see a house by the river every fifteen to eighteen miles, and saw frequent herds of cattle. The season is unusually dry, and the plain seems much poorer than it really is. In the spring, two months ago, it was all green, and must have been of exceeding beauty. With water this would be finer than the Rhine Valley itself; as it is, it is half desert. As to the actual capability of the plain, with water, the Pacific Railroad Reports state that “At Mr. Hill’s farm near the town of Salinas, sixteen miles east of Monterey, sixty bushels of wheat have been raised off the acre, and occasionally eighty-five bushels. Barley, one hundred bushels, running up to one hundred and forty-nine bushels, and vegetables in proportion” (VII, Pt. II, 39).
We passed through a flock of sheep, the largest I have ever seen, even in this country of big flocks. It was attended by shepherds, and must have contained not less than 6,000 sheep, judging from the flocks of 2,000 and 1,500 we have seen often before. Some of our party thought there must have been 8,000. Sheep are generally kept in flocks of not over 1,800 head.
High mountains rise on the opposite side, in the northeast, and still nearer us on the left. These latter were very rugged—from 3,000 to 4,500 feet high, black, or very dark green, with chaparral—yet not abounding in streams as one would imagine, although now only early in May. The Nacimiento and San Antonio rivers are the only tributaries of the Santa Margarita and Salinas valleys on the west side, this side of Atascadero Ranch—that is, only these two streams for a distance of 120 miles. And, from leaving the San Antonio, sixty-one miles back, we have not crossed a single brook or seen a single spring until reaching this ranch, where there is a spring.