The history of Merced County is not a history of great battles and gallant generals. It is a heritage of industrious pioneers who were seeking a good land to raise their families. The land was good to them.Long before the coming of the white man, the San Joaquin Valley was inhabited by the Yokuts Indians. They lived in small roving groups, living off the land. They were hostile to the occasional trapper or settler who traveled through the valley.
The early Spanish explorations and settlements were along the California coast. Little attempt was made to explore or settle the central valley. However, a number of raids by the Indians to steal horses from the missions resulted in a military expedition to recover the horses and explore the valley.
In 1806 Lieutenant Gabriel Moraga and a force of 30 men left San Francisco Presidio and entered the valley over the Pacheco Pass. They crossed the San Joaquin River and came to a creek swarming with butterflies. He named the area The Mariposa (the butterflies). They continued northward and after a tiring journey over a hot almost treeless plain came upon a sparkling stream of water. It was such a welcome sight that Moraga named the stream “EL RIO de Nuestra Senora de la Mercedes (River of Our Lady of Mercy).”
Lt. Moraga reported at the end of the expedition that the “area was unfit for farming” and recommended against establishing a mission or presidio.
In 1877 Jedediah Smith and 17 men (of whom only 3 survived the journey) spent all the summer trapping in the valley. In 1829 Ewing Young led a party of trappers, including Kit Carson, through the area. A third visitor was Joseph Walker who, in 1833, was the first to see the treat Yosemite Valley. The year 1844 brought General John C. Fremont into the valley to gain geographical information. A party consisting of himself, Kit Carson and Joseph Walker returned in 1845 for further exploration.
Settlement of the valley was aided by the issuing of land grants. In the days of the Spanish and later the Mexican rule of California, the governor had authority to give large sections of land to citizens for cattle raising and farming.
In order to receive ownership, all the settler had to do was ride over it, mark his boundaries, build a house on it and be visited by an official of the government.
The earliest land grant in this area was the San Luis Gonzaga Grant of 48,712 acres, which extended over the Pacheco Pass into the valley. It was granted in 1834.
The ranch was later owned by the Pacheco family. In 1848 they built an adobe home in the Pass, which was the first building in this area. It had portholes through which the family fought off marauding Indians. It later became a rest stop for travelers.
There are records of 30 land grants issued in the area, some of them quite large. After the Mexican War, American settlers came into the valley. Land was free for all except for the land grants already made.
Most of these land grant ranches were sold to the Americans for .50 to $1.50 an acre. John C. Fremont purchased 17,790 acres of the Juan Batista Alvarado Grant for $10,000. The grant was near the present community of Stevinson. Later Fremont decided the area near the present community of Le Grand would be better, so he “moved” the location of the grant and built a home there. Still later when gold was discovered near Mariposa, he “moved” the grant to that area. It became known as “ Fremont’s Floating Grant.”
With the gold discovery in 1849 miners streamed over the Pacheco Pass on their way form San Francisco to the gold fields in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. This led to the long pack trains of mules that daily could be seen traversing the valley to supply the miners with food and other goods.
The people in the coast communities and the miners in the mountains needed meat. Flocks of sheep, numbering in the thousands, were herded from New Mexico up through the San Joaquin Valley. The trip took months. They stopped for an extended rest near Los Banos to be fattened up on the grassy plains before being herded over the Pacheco Pass to slaughter houses in San Francisco.
Cattle by the thousands were also herded in branded, and then turned loose to graze. Regularly they were rounded up and herded to San Francisco or to the mines for slaughter.
In the early 1850’s farmers began raising wheat on the rolling plains of the valley. Whenever sufficient rainfall occurred, bountiful crops were raised. During the dry years the fields were used for grazing.
In 1852 the Valley produced approximately 113,000 bushels of wheat. Due to wars and crop failures in Europe there was a great demand for wheat and grain. By 1874 the Valley was producing 7 1/2 million bushels of wheat. With the tremendous growth, transportation to the mills and seaports became a major industry.
Hundreds of freight wagons, hauled by oxen traveled between Stockton and the ranches to the south. As many as forty outfits could be seen camped overnight sharing a single waterhole. The wagons seemed hardly to move, covering just ten miles a day.
Steamboats pulled huge barges of supplies on the San Joaquin River between Stockton and Firebaugh. They would stop anywhere along the river to pick up passengers or freight.
In the summer of 1858, the Butterfield Overland Stage began traveling over the Pacheco Pass and across the valley on their 2,000 mile route between San Francisco and the Missouri River. Rest stations were constructed about every fifteen miles along the route.
Two German immigrants, Henry Miller and Charles Lux, were butchers in San Francisco in the late 1850’s. They were brothers-in-law and they decided to form a partnership and develop a cattle and sheep ranch in the valley. In 1863 they purchased their first acreage near Dos Palos. The ranch was so profitable that they purchased additional acreage and within a few years the ranch encompassed a million acres. They’ established their headquarters in Los Banos.
Hundreds of thousands of cattle and horses bore their famous Double “H” brand, perhaps more than any other brand in the west. It is said that in order to keep stray cattle off of their property, they’ constructed a wooden fence 78 miles long.
Dairying in this area was introduced by C. H. Wiley, who in 1868 walked from Mann County to his new home near Los Banos, driving 11 Jersey heifers ahead of him.
There were 500 people residing in the area. When in April 1855, the State Legislature formed Merced County out of the southwestern portion of Mariposa County. In May, the people elected their first county officers and selected their first county seat, which was on a ranch owned by Turner and Osborne on Mariposa Creek. The first courthouse was a small building on the ranch. Court was held under the oak trees on the banks of the creek. The first county seat had no official County Seat and Government building was located on Snelling Ranch in September of 1855. The new and fast-growing city of Merced agitated for the relocating of the county seat to Merced. In 1872 a special election was scheduled to settle the issue. After a very active campaign, during which the town of Livingston was also considered, the people voted to move the county seat to Merced. The vote was Merced 566, Livingston 236 and Snelling 181. In 1874 construction of the county courthouse was begun. It was dedicated in May 1875.
This was the beginning. The decades that followed were a chronology of families and whole communities that migrated to the county to work the soil the Portuguese, the Japanese, and the Swedes.
Looking ahead to the future, our community will be an active participant as UC Merced grows and prospers in our region. We’ll continue being the busiest gateway to Yosemite National Park. We’ll be mindful of our rich agricultural heritage as our economy diversifies to meet the needs of our citizens.
For more information on Merced County, call the Greater Merced Chamber of Commerce at 209-384-7092.