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What Kind of Cattle Did the Mission San Gabriel Raise?

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Among the livestock brought to the New World on Columbus's second voyage were cattle. Something completely new there, where there were no large animals, wild or domestic, they had a long way to go to get to the West Coast of the North American continent and the missions of California.

Iberian Cattle

The cattle Columbus brought were from Spain and Portugal, and were likely a mixed lot of local breeds, such as the Mirasmena and the Mertolenga. Once in the islands, they crossbred freely and fused into what are known as Creole cattle, "creole" meaning born in the New World of parents from the Old. These animals were brought along on further Spanish voyages of exploration and conquest to Mexico, where they spread across the country from east to west with the new settlements. They changed very little along the way, as there were no native animals to influence them.

Native Wild Cattle

The indigenous peoples of the New World, who the Spanish erroneously called "Indians," had no domestic animals other than the dog, the turkey, the guinea pig and a couple of camelids, the llama and the alpaca. The only bovine species present was the bison, which roamed the northern continent in huge numbers. As Spanish settlers moved north, they encountered these huge wild cousins of their own livestock, but the bison showed no interest in the domestic cattle and the settlers made no attempt to domesticate the bison because the massive grazers were so aggressive in their own defense. Westward to the Pacific coast of Mexico, there weren't even any bison.

Texas Longhorns

As the Spanish pushed north into what would become Texas, they brought their cattle with them. Some escaped their owners and became feral, adapting easily to the wild life. Their horns, which were like those of the Iberian breed called "ganado bravo," better known as fighting bulls, became longer for use in defense against predators such as cougars and wolves, which had been absent in the islands, and those cattle became the ancestors of the Texas Longhorns of today.

California Cattle

On the western side of the Sierra Madre Mountains, starting on the coast of what is now the Mexican state of Sonora, in the year 1769, an expedition led by Father Junipero Serra and Gaspar de Portola moved north and founded the fourth in the chain of California missions, San Gabriel. They arrived with several hundred head of cattle that were undoubtedly the same homogenized mixture of Iberian breeds brought from Spain almost 200 years earlier. These cattle ranged semi-wild in the San Miguel Valley with minimal management from both Spanish settlers and native peoples under them. Like their Texas cousins, they developed long horns and irascible tempers to protect themselves from predators, including grizzly bears. The California Longhorn of Mission San Gabriel was the basis of California's thriving hide-and-tallow trade, its only marketable product until the discovery of gold in 1849.