When Father Serra made the trip from Baja California to San Diego in 1769, he brought cattle with him. The first five missions established in California each started with 18 head of cattle, four hogs, and some chickens. In later years when a new mission was founded, it received gifts of cattle from the other missions nearby.
The small herd of cattle at each mission increased greatly over the years. At some missions, the herds soon numbered in the thousands and required many hundreds of acres of land for grazing.
Cattle raised on California mission lands were equally as important for their hides (skins) as for the meat. Cowhides were used in many ways at the missions. In addition, they were a leading item of trade for the mission community.
Merchant ships from the New England states and from Great Britain regularly sailed along the coast of western North America. At first they traded for furs, but by the early 1800s, hides and tallow (melted animal fat) had replaced furs as the leading trading products. New England merchants wanted the hides to take back to shoe manufacturers on the east coast of America.
In addition to hides and tallow, the missions traded their excess olive oil, wheat, barley, beans, honey, figs, wool, and cotton. But the cowhides were always the main article of trade. In fact, cowhides were called “California banknotes,” because they were used by the mission people like money to purchase goods from the trading ships.
The padres purchased things that could not easily be produced at the missions, such as large iron cooking pots, farm tools, musical instruments, gunpowder, church robes, coffee and tea, spices, cocoa, sugar and molasses, and silks, ribbons and lace.
In the early 1800s, hides were worth $1 each. By 1830, the value had doubled to $2 each. It is estimated that more than 300,000 hides were shipped out of California between 1831 and 1836.
A writer named Richard Henry Dana, Jr. was on a trading ship from Boston that called at San Diego in 1835. He used his journal from this trip to write Two Years Before the Mast, a book that has become a classic. In this book he describes his visit to Mission San Diego, and the collecting of hides as the ship sailed up and down the California coast. He tells about the dried, stiffened hides being thrown off a cliff, one by one, to the beach several hundred feet below. This happened near Mission San Juan Capistrano.
In order to prepare the hides for shipping, they were first scraped and then spread out on the ground to dry. The corners of each hide were staked to the ground so the hide would not curl up as it dried. Several days later, the hides were cured by soaking them for many hours in water with salt. They were then spread out again to dry. When the hides were totally dry, they were very stiff. More salt was put on them so they wouldn’t rot. Then they were folded in half with the hair side out, and they were ready to be shipped away.
Cowhides that were to be used to make things for the mission went through a process called tanning. This changed the raw hide into leather.
After the hides were cured, they were washed and soaked in clear water to remove the salt that had been used in curing. Then they were soaked in a solution of lime and water for three or four days, to soften the hide and loosen the hair. A knife was used to scrape off all the hair. After another washing, the hides were placed in the tanning vats, where they soaked in the tanning solution for at least three months, and sometimes as long as six months.
The tanning vats were deep pits in the ground, lined with adobe bricks. The tanning solution was made by pouring water through crushed oak bark, which released the tannic acid from the bark. More oak bark and water were added from time to time, to keep the solution active. After months of soaking in the tanning pits, the hides were again washed and then rubbed with grease and tallow to soften them. Finally, they were hung in a drying room.
Because the tannery usually had a rather strong odor around it, the tanning vats and the tannery workshop were often located outside the main quadrangle of the mission. A good example of the mission tanning vats can be seen today at Mission San Juan Capistrano.
In the tannery, the leather was made into many things that were needed at the mission. The work in the tannery was done by Indian men at the mission. The leather working skills that they developed were very important to the welfare of the mission.
The leather workers made sandals and boots. They made saddles, bridles, and reatas (ropes used to tie or lasso cattle). Workers at Mission Santa Inés were especially noted for the splendid saddles that they made, some decorated with silver. Leather was also used in making furniture, for the chair seats and backs. Hides were stretched over wooden frames to make beds.
Nails were in scarce supply at the missions, so rawhide strips (thongs) were used instead of nails. Rawhide strips held together the rafters and roof beams in most mission buildings. The strips were first soaked in water and then wound tightly around the places where rafters and roof beams crossed. When the rawhide strips dried, they made a strong binding that lasted many years. Strips of rawhide were also used to hold together the bundles of reeds that were placed beneath the roof tiles. They worked well, too, for attaching handles to wooden or metal tools.
The large record books in which the padres recorded all the business of the mission were bound in fine tanned calfskin. Some of these bound volumes can be seen today in the museums and displays at the missions.
Perhaps the most unusual use of cowhide at the missions was as a substitute for glass in the windows. When the hide was scraped very thin and greased heavily, it became translucent, allowing some light to shine through. The cowhide window panes kept the cold out, while still letting in some daylight.