Excavations at the Dana Jabonería
May 27, 2009
This article discusses the ruins of the jabonería, or soap factory, located on the east side of the Dana adobe in Nipomo, California. Constructed shortly after 1839 this soap works, an important constituent of Dana’s ranch industries, rendered tallow into soap for trade in California, Peru and the Atlantic Seaboard until about 1858.
The Dana adobe was constructed in 1839 on the eastern edge of the Nipomo mesa, an indurated sand dune stretching from Nipomo Creek to the Pacific Ocean. The town of Nipomo was initially occupied by the Chumash who occupied a territory from Topanga Canyon in Los Angeles County to a point north of Morro Bay in San Luis Obispo County.
This highly varied geographic region afforded a hunter gather life way both simple and complex, depending on location and available resources, for over 10,000 years (M. Rondeau 2003). Beginning in 1769, the passage of the Portola Expedition through Chumash territory marked the beginning of the end for this complex hunter-gather economy.
The founding of Mission San Luis de Tolosa (1772), Santa Ynez (1804), and Mission La Purisima (1787) the Chumash’s Nipomo territory, and the ensuing proselytization by Franciscan Missionaries replaced the hunter-gatherer economy with an agricultural one. Incorporation into the Missions system, and epidemic death rates left much of the Nipomo valley bereft of human occupation.
This changed with the granting of the 27,000-acre Nipomo Rancho by Governor Jose Maria de Echeandia to William G. Dana in 1835 and the subsequent construction of a three room, single story adobe in 1839 (Kimbro and Crosby 1999). Later remodeling re-styled this adobe into a rural version of the Monterey style adobe early in the 1850s. Immediately east and below the adobe is a soap factory or jabonería whose primary feature is a tallow vat.
Archaeological excavations for the purposes of providing interpretive exhibits on historical archaeology were carried out between 2004 and 2008 by Thomas Wheeler and a host of ardent volunteers.
Cattle Raising Traditions
To comprehend the role of tallow and soap during the Spanish and Mexican eras of California’s history it is important that we understand the cattle industry in California. The raising of cattle for hides and meat is an ancient tradition in the Old World that over several millennia was slowly forced westward toward the Atlantic fringe of the European and African continents from its early beginnings in Asia (T. Jordan 1993).
This westward migration was the result of the expansion of agricultural regions surrounding developing towns and cities across the European and African continents. The nature of a free-range animal economy is inimical to that of agriculture with which it directly competes for resources. By 1500 A.D. the raising of range cattle was a predominant industry only to be found in Ireland, England, Scandinavia, Spain and the Sub-Saharan Sudan (T. Jordan 1993).
The Spanish tradition of cattle husbandry, as it evolved to the forms practiced by Dana, descended down from the introduction of cattle by Columbus into the West Indies, to spread through Latin America from their importation by Cortes in 1520 A.D. Ultimately California cattle breeds derived their origins from these two sources, which originated from the Marísmas region along the Atlantic fringe of southern Spain, and the Extremadura region of west central Spain (T. Jordan 1993).
These cattle had adapted over many centuries to the free-range lands of central and southern Spain, and were well suited to the wild ranges of Latin America and, Alta California (L. T. Burcham 1981). Physically they were relatively short with long thin bodies, high narrow hips, long thin thighs, forequarters, and neat hooves. Most weighed between 400 and 500 pounds and varied from dark red, black, brown, or blue in color. Their heads were surmounted with wide spreading horns of a light color earning the name of longhorns. As they established themselves in California, they were frequently praised by visitors for their size and weight.
The sale of hides and tallow from California became an important part of the international export trade that linked California with Mexico, Peru, the Hawaiian Islands, and the East Coast of North America.
The early years of the Mission and Presidio communities were marked by restrictive trading regulations established by Spanish law. At this time, the most frequent ships to enter California waters were those under contract with Spain or ships originating from the United States and Europe involved in smuggling and the sea otter trade along the Northwest coast.
At about the time of the Mexican Independence in 1822 the sea otter fields were slowly becoming depleted from over hunting. Following Mexican independence, the apprehension of an established Russian presence in California, increasing anti-clerical sentiment in Mexico’s Government, and the pressure of Mexican colonialists for land, resulted in secularization of the Mission system, and the issuing of land grants of 3 to 4 square leagues to retired soldiers, those loyal to the government, and local elites. Such large tracts, necessary to provide sufficient range for cattle, resulted in the hide and tallow trade becoming the dominant industry in California between 1821 and 1846.
Overall, it has been estimated that between 1824 and 1848 one million hides valued at almost two million dollars and approximately thirty thousand tons of tallow valued at over two and one half million dollars were shipped from California ports. Hides were sent mostly to Boston, where they became the raw materials of shoes, boots, and hats. Tallow went primarily to Peru where it was used in the manufacture of soap and candles.
Products for Trade
Excavations at the jabonería, or soap factory, prompted a variety of questions regarding the role soap manufacture played at Rancho Nipoma, its importance to William G. Dana and his family, and their relationships to the world markets with which they traded. It may be assumed that the jabonería operated for about 20 years, between Dana’s initial occupation of the Rancho in 1839 to its abandonment in 1859, when the hide and tallow trade ceased to be of economic importance in California. The demise of this industry was likely caused by the development of a more lucrative market selling cattle for beef in the gold camps of the Sierra and the developing cities to the north, as well as a drop in the value of hides in the eastern markets.
At least once a year, typically sometime between Spring and early Fall, Dana would assemble all his three year old cattle and non-bearing cows at a Matanza. This event was usually held with all the surrounding rancho owners in attendance. Lacking fences, free-range cattle needed to be sorted out and separated to their various owners. These cattle were driven into corrals at the matanza or butchering grounds where those to be slaughtered were selected by the Majordomo. These were then dispatched with a lance and their hides removed and set aside to hold the meat removed during butchering. The cow was then butchered, removing the most desired cuts of meat as well as the three types of fats that would be processed into different products. After all the meat and fat had been removed from the carcass, the hide was taken by two cuereros or hide tenders to a flat area, staked out, salted and left to dry. Later it was folded in half from the neck to the tail in readiness for the ship traders.
Tallow was prepared in large iron kettles, or coppers, either at the matanza grounds, if wood was available, or at the rancho headquarters. These pots were quite large, measuring approximately 40 inches in diameter and between 2.0 and 2.5 feet deep and held approximately 25 gallons of tallow. They were similar to those used on whaling ships to try out whale blubber. "Our soap factory faced the road which was on the east side of the house. The old ruins are still to be seen." (Rocky Dana 1960:18-19).
The big boiler in the soap factory held five thousand gallons. We would put all fatty refuse into this boiler such as rendered lard and tallow, and boil it down. We got the lye from ashes and the alkali was brought over to us from the great San Joaquin Valley to the east of us. When the soap was made it was very much like Castile soap and was very good and solid. My Father exchanged it for hides and other produce among his friends (Rocky Dana 1960:21).
Three types of tallow were removed and separated during the butchering process. Manteca, the outer layer of fat, was removed from the breast, shoulder, haunches, and back and was considered the best grade of tallow. It was rendered separately and reserved for household cooking. Sebo consisted of the lower layers of fat which was extracted after the legs and loins had been removed. This form of tallow was rendered and was used for trading purposes. Riñonada was the fat removed from around the kidneys, stomach, heart lungs, liver, and intestines. This form of fat was sometimes mixed with hog fat and was used exclusively for making soap (G. Tays 1941).
In preparing tallow, Indian women, who were the typical workers for this job, cut the fat into roughly one inch square pieces. These were thrown into the large rendering pot and stirred continuously over a fire with a paddle approximately four and a half to five feet long. When the tallow had melted completely a membrane formed of small bits of fatty meat that had adhered to the fat. These were called chicharones (or crispies), which were a deep mahogany brown and considered quite a treat. After the fats had been melted down into tallow it was left to cool, at which point it was poured into leather bolsas (G. Tays 1941).
These bolsas consisted of a hide that had been thoroughly cleaned of all bits of meat and dried. All its projections including the legs, tail, and neck were removed and it was folded length wise and then sewed along its short and long sides with rawhide. This formed a sturdy bag for use in storing the tallow. When the tallow had been completely rendered and cooled it was poured into the hide bolsa held upright with four five-foot long stakes and then sewed shut and placed in a caretta. Completely filled, these bags formed a cylinder approximately five feet long and two feet in diameter. Typically weighing up to 200 pounds, they were carted from Rancho Nipoma to Cave (or Mallagh) Landing (now known as Pirates Cove) for trade to Peru. Some was retained for cooking and the manufacture of soap and candles.
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