California gold rush land values

Rancho Providencia Map

A map of the Rancho Providencia

In the very early days of settlement before the gold rush California land values were of little account. Before 1846 land was worth less than a penny per acre. Mexico gave land away and encouraged people to occupy it. From 1846, and the advent of the War with Mexico, until 1849 there was little change and except for spots near pueblos, missions and springs, the value of cattle and other stock far outweighed that of the land they roamed. Starting at about 1850 and lasting for the next fifteen years land in Santa Barbara County, which ran higher than the average for the state, was around one thousand dollars per square Spanish league or less than twenty-five cents per acre.

From December 24 of 1862 until January 17 of the following year it rained continuously causing a great deal of flooding. Then the rains stopped. The next two years were so dry they earned the title of the Great Drought. By 1864 a number of fine ranchos, with perfect titles and approved surveys, were sold for ten cents an acre. The widespread destruction of livestock from the drought was deplored as a great public calamity. To the old California ranch owners it was a serious affair. They depended on the sale of the increase in their cattle to pay their costs of living, and when the cattle were gone the land had to be sold to pay for those same costs.

Because of this devastating drought many of these ranchos came into the hands of Americans and other immigrants who divided them into farming tracts of from forty to one hundred and sixty acres and resold them. The land now could be put to much better use than the raising of cattle. The cultivated farmland yielded much larger results than ever before. Thus what had been a calamity to a few turned into a blessing for many and a great boon to the state as a whole. The same land once considered expensive at twenty-five cents an acre now grew in value to a minimum of one hundred times and some of it as much as one thousand times its former value.


  1. I always find it fascinating how one person’s misfortune becomes the blessing for another. What the prospectors thought was worthless rock turned out to be the biggest bonanza the state had seen. It also came at a time when silver, which had been the standard that propped the state up had just been devalued. In many ways Cripple Creek might have been the salvation of the state. (There are other considerations, but I think this holds up)

    • So true, Doris. In the Washoe around Virginia City they threw out the silver ore because they were looking for gold. When someone had that ore assayed it started a whole new mining boom.

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