California Agriculture in the Classroom

Cattle in California History

Grade Level(s)

3 - 5

Estimated Time

One or two, 50-minute sessions


Students will map the history of cattle migrating to California with early explorers and settlers and describe how cattle have been important to people throughout different times in history.


  • World map that can be projected onto a screen
  • Student reading: Cattle in California History
  • Student activity sheet: Cattle in California History

Essential Files (maps, charts, pictures, or documents)

Essential Links


beef cattle: cattle raised primarily for their meat

auroch: a wild Eurasion ox, the ancestor of domestic cattle

cattle drive: the process of moving a herd of cattle from one place to another, usually moved and herded by cowboys on horses

longhorn cattle: a breed of cattle known for its horns which can extend several feet

Did you know? (Ag Facts)

Background - Agricultural Connections

Thousands of years ago, the ancestors of modern day cattle roamed Europe, Asia, and North Africa. These wild cattle were known as aurochs [awr-oks] and were much larger than cattle raised on ranches today. People probably began taming aurochs around 10,000 years ago. The aurochs provided people with food, hides for clothing, and helped with farm work by pulling carts and plows. Over time, the careful breeding of aurochs gave rise to modern day cattle.

Cattle were first brought to North America by Spanish explorers. Christopher Columbus and a group of settlers sailed to the Caribbean [kar-uh-bee-un] islands in 1493 and brought with them cattle from the southwest region of Spain (longhorn cattle), which were known for their ability to survive in harsh climates. The cattle were an important source of food for the Spanish settlers as they made their new homes in the Caribbean.

In 1519, Hernando Cortez led another group of Spanish explorers from the Caribbean islands to the Yucatan [yoo-kuh-tan] Peninsula region of Mexico in search of gold and other treasures. Once again, the Spanish brought their cattle with them for food. The cattle roamed free and increased in numbers. As the Spanish explorers moved north through Mexico, so did their cattle.

Cattle first came to California from Mexico in 1773 when Spanish explorers Juan Bautista de Anza and Gaspar de Portola organized a journey from Mexico to California. The explorers brought 200 of the Spanish longhorn cattle to supply the California missions with food, hides, and tallow. Twenty one Spanish missions were built in California as military and religious stations when Spain was trying to settle the pacific coast of North America. These longhorn cattle played a role in sustaining the people who built those missions.

In 1821, Mexico won its independence from Spain and the Mexican government took over what is now California. Land that was held by the Spanish missions was divided into large land grants and awarded to Mexican ranchers. These Mexican ranchers raised cattle on parcels of land that were called “ranchos”. Mexican ranchos began to thrive and their cattle were valued for hides and tallow. Traders bought hides and delivered them to Boston on ships to be made into shoes and other leather goods. Tallow was sold to candle and soap factories in South America.

The Mexican-American War of 1846-1848 resulted in the United States gaining nearly one third of the land that was controlled by Mexico. This included areas that are now California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico. Shortly after the war, the California Gold Rush began when James Marshall discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill, in present-day Coloma, California. As large numbers of miners and merchants began moving to California, the demand for beef rose. Trucks and highways did not yet exist, so beef cattle were moved in cattle drives.

Depending upon the distance, cattle drives could take as long as two months. In order to keep the cattle healthy, the cowboys only moved the cattle 10 to 15 miles (16-24 km) per day. Driving a herd of 1,500 to 3,500 cattle required at least ten cowboys, with five to ten horses each, and helpers to manage the extra horses. Cowboys worked in shifts around the clock to protect cattle from thieves, predators, and to prevent them from stampeding. Cattle drives also required a “chuck wagon,” which is where the food was prepared. The chuck wagon was driven by the cook and pulled by a team of oxen. Typical food supplies in the chuck wagon included flour, baking powder, beans, sugar, coffee, molasses, salt, lard, bacon, and beef. Cowboys earned around forty dollars per month, this is similar to approximately $1,200 today.

The California strain of Spanish longhorn cattle was eventually phased out as a result of people consuming too many cattle without restocking the herds. Additionally, the longhorn cattle were bred with English cattle that were brought from the Midwestern United States to provide food for Gold Rush towns. Today, common breeds of beef cattle raised on California ranches include Black Angus, Red Angus, Hereford, and Shorthorn. Cattle continue to be raised to provide people with food and many by-products such as leather shoes, chewing gum, and soap, all of which remain useful today. Beef is an excellent source of zinc, iron, and protein (ZIP), which are important for good health.

Interest Approach – Engagement

  1. Make a list on the board of various items produced by beef cattle. Ideas include: hamburger, steak, roast beef, leather, and barbecued ribs.
  2. Ask the students what all of these items have in common. If needed, provide additional clues until they recognize that each item is produced by beef cattle.
  3. Tell the students that cattle are not native to California. Ask the students if they know how and when cattle were brought to California. Inform the students that today they will be learning about how and when cattle first came to California.


  1. Instruct students to read the Cattle in California History student reading. You can also read it as a class depending upon the reading level of your students. Students should highlight text regarding dates, places, and people involved in the migration of cattle. Paragraphs are numbered for easy reference. Display a world map on your whiteboard or screen and point out locations that are important in the text. You can also have student volunteers place sticky notes on the display map to help the class identify different regions as they read about them.
  2. Distribute the Cattle in California activity sheet to students and have them work in pairs. Instruct them to discuss important information from the reading and complete the questions.
  3. After students have completed the assignment, discuss their understanding of why cattle have been important to people throughout history and today.
  4. Show students the video, New York Steak and Green Beens which demonstrates the preparation of a healthy recipe with beef.

  5. Prepare a recipe using beef for your students.

Concept Elaboration and Evaluation:

After conducting these activities, summarize the following key points:

  • Cattle are not native to California, they were brought there for their beef and tallow.
  • Beef provides zinc, iron, and protein to our diets.
  • Many events in the history of California, particularly the gold rush, influenced the cattle industry and helped it grow and expand.

We welcome your feedback! Please take a minute to tell us how to make this lesson better or to give us a few gold stars!


Suggested Companion Resources


California Foundation for Agriculture in the Classroom partnered with California Beef Council to create lesson plans along with four professional video clips featuring elementary through high school students preparing recipes to educate students, teachers, and the public about beef, its nutritional value, and its proper handling and preparation.



CFAITC & California Beef Council

Organization Affiliation

California Foundation for Agriculture in the Classroom