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Ox Carts of San Diego

Created: 16 April, 2010
Updated: 26 July, 2022
9 min read

A Bit of San Diego History:
By Albert Simonson

 The 1850 first county tax roll hit our mountain rancheros pretty hard on their “carretas.”

Illustration by Bonnie Gendron

They were valued at 50 pesos each, much more than ox carts at other ranchos. They must have been good, sturdy ox carts, with rancho-style solid wheels and extra features like quick-disconnect yoke hitches. The owners were listed as “Guillermo y Sandoval”, i.e. Cockney Bill Williams and Julio Sandoval.

In those days, rancheros and vaqueros built their own ox carts, which were used for everything from hauling grain to wedding parties to bringing rancho lovelies down to Old Town dances, called fandangos. Parking was easy because there were only eighteen in the county. There were twice as many carros, 4-wheeled wagons, mostly in the pueblo where roads were better.

The Gastelum family from Ensenada took a round trip in an ox cart from home to Sonoma on the carretera called El Camino Real. It took them two years and they stayed at nearly every rancho, mission, and presidio along the way. Rancheros were hospitable folk and they enjoyed hearing all the news from visitors. The Gastelums, too, enjoyed the friendly visits. There is now a Dorian’s department store at the site of their ranch house, and no ox carts in sight.

For super antiquity, stroll down Gastelum Avenue to the 1886 prison near the fishermen’s harbor. There you will find “el hombre de Ensenada,” a narrow-faced fellow who was laid to rest facing the sunset, 5500 years ago.

One thing those mountain rancheros had was good timber for those massive solid wheels. Usually two or three thick pieces made up each wheel. Also, our Cockney Bill was a good carpenter, in demand as a stage carpenter at the mission theater. Wooden pegs and rawhide held things together. He was a pretty good instructor to mountain Indians, although he spoke Spanish with a horrible Cockney accent.

Spanish carts had world-class spoked wheels, way too delicate for our California carreteras. There are many variants around the world, derived from Egyptian and Meso-potamian designs. Turkish carts, oddly, have wheels and an axle which rotate as a unit. These are not good on turns, but great on the straightaway. This is a good feature, because oxen annoyingly lunge to the side to snatch roadside grass, but that rigid wheel assembly keeps them on the straight and narrow.

A peculiarity of early California and the rest of New Spain is that the rancheros did not put a contoured yoke across the necks of the oxen. Instead, a straight yoke was tied with rawhide to the horns of the oxen. This is a California solution to the irksome snatching-at-grass problem.

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The first ox cart I ever saw was at the Mayan ruins of Iximché in the Guatemala highlands. It was a rumbling, lumbering apparition with gigantic oxen, very high wobbling wheels, and a rawhide bucket swaying to and fro, filled with boiled animal fat for the occasional lube job. Animal fat is not as sticky as Pep Boys’ grease, but it does permeate the wooden bearings like the sintered bushings in your car. To lube the bearings, you just pull the wooden pin out and wobble the wheel outward and slather the fat onto the axle shaft.

You can still see ox carts at San Miguel Mission and Santa Barbara Presidio. One of the best is in San Diego’s Old Town at the Seeley Stable. It is reported to have been found under a haystack at Sutter’s Fort, where the California Gold Rush began. This is a high-mileage, no-frills, 1806 vintage vehicle with severely worn-down lumpy wheels.

These wheels are among the oldest surviving in California, sturdily built by mission Indians at San Jose. Conchita Ramirez, fleeing wild-eyed forty-niners, rode this cart to San Diego in 1849, taking 3 months to do it with lots of visits along the way. Each wheel is a 5-inch slice of a big tree. Six-by-six timbers form the frame with fine mortise-and-tenon joints, now professionally restored. The wheels had wide treads to reduce wear. It was an ancient craft to build durable vehicles with only wood and rawhide, both renewable resources, and little or no iron.

With oxen, the 100% organic tailpipe emissions were minimal, except for  greenhouse gas generated by the cud-chewing power source. Still, emissions were way better than an SUV like the Ford Extinction.

Cockney Bill and Julio had ox carts at both their ranchos – Volcan de Santa Ysabel (Julian) and Valle de las Viejas (Alpine). We know more about his Viejas carts because Viejas was the major supplier of grain to the army and because a very trusted civic leader remembered the grain transport. This is how Ephraim Morse described the diorama of his memories to downtown colleagues at the chamber of commerce, as reported in the San Diego Union of 6/1/1900.

“The Mexican ox cart was very much in evidence in those early years. With an ox hide for the bottom and plenty of straw in place of springs, and an Indian driver for the oxen who walked in front as a guide for the oxen to follow, the whole family would pile in. As time was no object with them, the gait of the oxen was quite satisfactory.

“In 1853 more grain, principally barley, was raised in the little valley of Viejas than in all the rest of the county. It was hauled in to Old Town, over a wild, broken country without roads for more than half the distance. Only Mexican carts, which by the way were built on the ranch, with their solid block wheels, drawn by oxen, their yokes lashed to their horns, could be used on such a trip. Long stretches of road, then first opened by those primitive trains, are now traveled daily on mail coaches. The grain brought 3 cents per pound.”

Morse said the ox cart road from the Viejas rancho went through “Mesa del Arroz” or “Grassy Mesa,” now Alpine.  It passed just south of the present town to Rancho Secuan and Rancho Jamacha, then the only non-Indian house along the road. Both ranchos had been established by Apollinaria Lorenzana, San Diego’s first known schoolteacher, often called “La Beata” for her goodness.

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A good watering stop was the spring at San Jorge, which can still be seen on museum grounds at Bancroft Drive and Memory Lane in Spring Valley. The road then followed Chollas Creek along present Route 94 to what is now San Diego’s downtown, then called New Town. Grain was delivered to a quartermaster depot near Pantoja Park for transshipment to various outposts.

Another important ox cart road connected Old Town with the ship landing at La Playa, Morse added. It passed through what is now San Diego’s airport. When a ship from Manila and Canton or even Boston came in, the ladies went shopping – in  ox carts. For men there was often Madera wine and leather goods.

At the time of his speech, the retired Morse and his wife lived near the old road in Alpine. His wife once taught in the old schoolhouse in Old Town State Park, and you can see her portrait photo on the wall.

In about the same year, a Conejo Indian, “Old Leno,” described how it was to harvest the grain crop when he was a boy at Viejas.

“We worked, all of the Indians, from the first light of day until it was too dark to see the grain any more. The days are very long in summer, and we had no water except what the young squaws would sometimes bring to us, though of course they had to work too. We had a small canvas apron on the front of us, and we reached out and pulled the grain toward us and we cut it with a reaping hook and piled it, and the sleds came through the fields and picked it up – and all day and every day we worked so for many weeks. And the pay was fifty cents a day. But the land was better then than it now is and we did not have to bend down to the grain.”.

Oxen had a long run as man’s power source. Assyrian carved panels show Israelites leaving Jerusalem with ox carts. A three-oxpower Minoan cart model has been unearthed in Crete. Ancient Byzantium dominated the Bosporus Strait, which in Greek meant ox crossing (bous-poros). The university town of Oxford arguably means just that – an ox ford, hence a strategic spot.

Younger readers may not know exactly what oxen are. They are not born as little oxlets, but as bull calves. Young bulls are afflicted with the same vexatious behavioral aberrations as teenage boys, owing to testosterone saturation. Luckily a firm hand and a time honored surgical procedure bestow the blessings of lasting reasonableness and contentedness. 

Both Californios and immigrants from “the States” came to love their oxen on overland journeys. They were slower than horses or mules, but gifted with plodding strength, calm nerves, and an ability to survive on scant forage with their four stomachs.

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Ox carts are still a popular feature of traditional Oaxaca parades. Their oxen wear garlands of bright flowers draped over their heads and yokes. Less festive for the oxen is the power steering feature – slender reins tied to their nose-rings.

Just think if we had a team of oxen and an ox cart wobbling and rumbling along in one of our parades, with some eminent citizen seated regally on a buttock-embracing heap of straw over a rawhide floor. . . .

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