The Journal of San Diego History
SAN DIEGO HISTORICAL SOCIETY QUARTERLY
Fall 1969, Volume 15, Number 4
Rita Larkin, Editor
What’s a “vented cowhide?”
One hundred years ago (in 1869) José Antonio Serrano, or
Robert Kelly, or any one of the 16 Judges of the Plains in San Diego County at
that time, could have described it without getting off his horse to consult a
Few people today could explain such a term. A vented cowhide
sounds as though it were shot full of holes; or, if improperly preserved,
it might be kept in a drafty place to
minimize obnoxious odors. It might have been almost anything except what it
actually was, namely, a hide with its brand marks legally cancelled before being
offered for sale.
The inspection of thousands of hides to insure legal venting
was one of hundreds of now almost forgotten duties of the men who for decades
constituted the county’s most important branch of the state-sanctioned judiciary
– the Judges of the Plains.
On April 25, 1851, within months after the beginning of
statehood, the California legislature enacted “An Act concerning Judges of the
Plains (Jueces del Campo) and defining their duties.” These wholly American
officers were the inheritors of the judicial power of a Mexican-Spanish dynasty
whose ancestral roots began in historical loam as ancient and honorable as the
humus that nurtured the earliest common law.
Although the compulsory fence laws in California in the later
19th century, plus the advent of trains, trucks and automobiles, did much to
extinguish a need for services once rendered by Judges of the Plains, the
dignified position that these men held in the public consciousness, or
sub-consciousness, is easily detected and traced.
California’s first codes (effective January 1, 1873)
carefully provided that nothing therein “affects any of
the provisions of the following statutes:… All Acts regulating and
in relation to rodeos… All Acts in relation to Judges of the Plains
For more than one hundred years (until 1959) Judges of the
Plains were within the letter of the California law, taut through many later
years, not within its spirit.
It is unlikely that even one out of a thousand of the state’s
lawyers or judges in 1959 had any inkling of what was meant when the Board of
Supervisors of San Diego County, on January 3, 1859, appointed Cave J. Gouts,
and 19 other leading citizens of the county, to serve for one year in the
important but peculiar judicial posts provided by state law, and known as “Jueces
del Campo,” or “Judges of the Plains.”
Holding an annual rodeo was compulsory by law for “Every
owner of a stock farm” in early-day San Diego County. It had to be held between
April 1, and July 31. The identical rule applied in San Luis Obispo and Santa
Barbara Counties. More time was allowed for stock farmers “in the remaining
counties, but the yearly rodeo was also demanded from all of them.
It is apparent that there was an enormity of law breaking
before this statute, also, was removed from the books in 1959.
Regardless of how the wording of the rodeo statute looks and
sounds today, it was not an attempt to create a state monopoly of a big-time
professional entertainment extravanganza. It was just business; and big
The spring branding of a rancher’s new crop of calves and
other newly acquired stock could not be done legally until he had given notice
of his rodeo to his neighboring ranchers, and then held it. The latter event was
merely the gathering together of all the range stock that one claimed as his
own, whereupon “any stock owner, or his agent, shall have the
privilege of examining to his satisfaction the cattle so congregated, and to
separate such as belong to him.” After allowing time for all adjoining
farmers to make inspection, and claim their own animals, the statute decreed
that “the owner of the rodeo may proceed to mark and brand his cattle within eight
Too long a wait necessitated the calling of a new rodeo.
One or more Judges of the Plains were expected to attend each
rodeo, and the law required their attendance “when called upon by any
ranchero, farmer, or owner of stock.” They decided
all disputes about ownership and brands,
and the decision was final unless appeal was taken within twenty-four hours.
Although rodeos were maintained for very practical purposes,
there were two different kinds of entertainment that complemented, and then
almost superceded, the original round-up concept. Competitions of strength and
skill among the animal handlers from separate ranchos soon changed the meaning
of the word rodeo into something closer to the razzle dazzles of riding and
roping that attract paid admissions to sports arenas today.
Among the wealthy owners, and their friends, the rodeo season
emphasized money bags rather than saddle bags. The social calendar listed
countless days and nights of feasting, dancing and extravagant socializing. The
Judges of the Plains almost always took turns as host. Such names, for exampls,
as Gouts, Ortega, Crosthwaite, Hinton, Estudillo, Bandini, Arguello, Kelly,
Osuna and Carrillo, during San Diego’s first decade appear reoccurringly in her
social register as well as in her lists of the Jueces del Campo.
There were more important and continuous duties for Judges of
the Plains than merely to umpire rodeos. A simple example is the decree of the
San Diego Board of Supervisors in 1857:
“4th. It shall be the duty of all persons killing a beef to
advise a Judge of the Plains, not a relative, before so doing; to keep the
hide at least two days, so that any of the Judges of the Plains, or one
authorized by any of them, may examine the same; and it is hereby made their
duty to make such examination and to keep a record of the same open at all
times to the inspection of any citizen of the County, under penalty …” etc.
It was this same county ordinance, or resolution, that
penalized sellers of un-vented hides, and required hide buyers to keep public
records of such purchases.
The same ordinance provided:
“It shall be the duty of the Judges (of the Plains)
appointed for the County at Large to make and attend once a year a gathering of the
Horses together, and give notice of the time and place.”
Horses probably were as important to the county’s economy as
were cattle. Army quartermasters and stage lines purchased hundreds of head each
year, but the largest sale was to dealers near Fort Yum a who sold fresh beasts
to the thousands of gold seekers who arrived from south and east with exhausted
animals, or mere memories of the ones that had died in their traces along the
cruel trail The final days of journey, across Imperial Valley sands and up to more than
4,000 feet elevation by way of stifling, stony canyons, was the hardest of all
So horses were in demand, and their annual round-up from the open range a matter
of great concern to many citizens.
Possibly the most important of all the duties of Judges of
the Plains remains to be described. In order to understand the matter better,
however, and at the same time to grasp the history and real reason-for-being of
those somewhat extraordinary judicial officers, it is desirable to go back to
their origins in Spain many centuries ago.
The lawyers on the History Committee of the San Diego County
Bar Association made several efforts to discover the history of the Jueces del
Campo. Little was achieved until early 1967 when half a dozen letters were
written asking aid in the project from some of the nation’s libraries most
famous for collections on history of Latin America and Southwestern United
States. The answers are in the San Diego County Law Library files, and indicate
that our California system of Judges of the Plains “had roots as far back as
Visigothic times.” That could have been the 5th or 6th century, A.D.
From the Hispanic Foundation of the Library of Congress in
Washington, D. C., came the following letter whose information became the
compass for our quest.
March 31, 1967
Mr. Leland G. Stanford
Librarian and Secretary
San Diego County Law Library
1105 Front Street
San Diego, California 92101
Dear Mr. Stanford:
This replies to your letter inquiring about judicial
officers in California, known as Judges of the Plains who officiated at rodeos
and were somewhat like rural justices of the peace.
According to the Enciclopedia Universal llustrada (Madrid,
Espasa-Calpe, 1929), v. 34, pp. 1087-88, the alcaldes de la mesta, or “Judges
of the Plains” were recognized in Spain in 1273 by King Alfonso el Sabio. The
mesta or plain, had a form of government, courts, and they dealt with
affairs arising among the shepherds of the plains of Castile. The
system of alcaldes de la mesta was transferred to the Spanish possessions in
America and the regulations appear in the Recopilacion de Leyes de Indias
(Madrid, 1774) 4 v.
For further information on the above we are enclosing Xerox
copies of passages from The Mesta; a Study in Spanish Economic history,
1273-1836 (Port Washington, N.Y., Kennikat Press, 1964), written by Julius
Klein. You may also want to consult William H. Dusenberry’s The Mexican Mesta
(Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1963).
We hope this information has been helpful.
Very truly yours,
(s) Georgette M. Dorn
Hispanic Reference Librarian
The two books mentioned at the end of the above letter
present a detailed story of which the following few paragraphs are a brief
There was good reason for the wealth of Spain in the 15th and
16th centuries, as exemplified by such publicized matters as the vast Spanish
Armada, and by explorers’ ships such as those of Columbus, chartered to explore
and subjugate the new world.
The wealth of Spain, and of course the resources of her royal
court, were derived from the nation’s exceptional wool industry. The country was
truly the land of the golden fleece. The superb wool of the Spanish merinos
sheep was the finest known, and was exported to most of the cloth-making nations
of the world, at tremendous profit.
Millions of sheep, belonging to hundreds of influential owners, moved to
Spain each spring to the slopes of the mountains, and back each fall a few
hundred miles to the milder temper atured lowlands. The natural
result of such continuous, complicated, and often competing, drives was friction
between drovers, intermixing of herds, and more or less constant trespassing by
stockmen upon an entirely different segment of the population: the farmers and
villagers whose cultivated areas lay along the many routes of passage for the herds.
At an early date there developed a need for a special kind of
officer to handle with great dispatch the sudden quarrels that quickly
could result in murder and pandemonium. A system known as the “mesta” resulted.
It was not unlike the tremendously powerful labor union -to use a term quite
The special judges (alcaldes) of the mesta soon found their
counterparts in New Spain or Mexico, and particularly in areas well adapted to
sheep-growing as in the mother country. With Spanish conquest of Alta California
they entered our own area and for two centuries have been known as ”
Jueces del Campo,” or “Judges of the Plains.”
In San Diego County of mid-nineteenth century stock were
being driven in multitudes and in a manner not unlike the trouble-provoking
drives that demanded fast official action at an earlier date in Spain.
In the years following discovery of gold in Northern
California San Diego County furnished the meat, leather, and candles for San
Francisco, Sacramento, and all the mining towns in the Sierra foothills. Stock
continuously was being driven from and through our county toward those markets.
In the minutes of our County Board of Supervisors for their meeting of April 7,
1857, appears this statement:
“Unanimously ordered that the assessor be requested to
proceed forthwith, or send some deputy, to the District of San Luis Rey
Township, to assess the animals or stock generally, now daily being driven
from this county.”
In addition to local herds being driven northward, thousands
of head -particularly sheep-were sent through from Mexico. They crossed the
border on foot in western areas, and from points east of the Gulf of California
they were driven to the ferries at Yuma. The records show that thousands of
sheep sometimes were ferried into San Diego County in a single day. Thereafter
they were driven through mountain passes to the coast and thence toward San
In view of the centuries-long history of problems concerning
migrating stock it is quite understandable to find this provision in the
California law of 1851:
Sec. 5. All persons travelling with cattle, sheep, hogs,
horses, or mules, shall, in case said animals be not of their own mark and brand, be
obliged to procure from the person or persons from whom they obtain such
cattle, or from the justice of the peace residing nearest to the farm or place
where they may obtain the same, a certificate of the number and kind of such
cattle, and the mark and brand which distinguished the same; and they shall
allow such animals to be subject to the inspection of owners of lands through
which they may pass, and upon arriving at any city, town, or village, shall
present themselves to a judge of the plains, and state the number and kind of
such animals; and it shall be the duty of the judge of the plains to examine
the band or drove, and accompany them out of the precinct of such city, town
The games and social functions attending the rodeos,
therefore, frequently were only the glancing sunlight on rivers of smelling,
greedy animals driven by a villainous riff-raff in the hire of unscrupulous
managers and owners. The ones appointed to man the dikes against such tides
often were subjects of hate and violence.
Robert Kelly, who was one of the Judges of the Plains in 1856, was attacked by desperadoes on
one occasion, and was shot three times, non-fatally, before putting his
attackers to flight. That there must have been many such violent experiences is
suggested by the fact that in 1857 the State legislature gave to Judges of the
Plains the powers of sheriffs or constables in connection with arrests of
persons suspected of crimes involving livestock.
Although state law made no such provision, the policy in San
Diego County was to have three Jueces del Campo appointed “at large,” and
varying numbers of others for each of the major subdivisions of the County.
These latter, sometimes were called “township,” or “range,” or “district.”
In its meetings of April 7, 1857, and of January 5, 1871, the
Board of Supervisors, in addition to making appointments, laid down rules and
duties for Judges of the Plains. In the 1871 meeting the job for appointees “at
large” was described as follows;
It is further ordered by the Board that the three Judges of
the Plains at Large appointed for the year 1871 meet together at San Luis Rey
in the County of San Diego on the second Monday in February A. D. 1871 or
earlier if they deem it necessary to do so for consultation on all matters
appertaining to their duties as Judges of the Plains, and to adopt such rules
and regulations as maybe authorized by law governing and controlling their
action during their official term, and a portion of the Duties of the said
Judges at large, at their meeting so aforesaid, shall be and they are required
to appoint the time and places at which all rodeos for the County of San Diego
aforesaid shall be commenced and continued.
The first reference of any kind to Judges of the Plains in
meetings of San Diego’s Board of Supervisors was in minutes of their meeting of
November 7, 1853:
“A letter was received and read to the Board from Cave J.
Couts in reference to the Law creating ‘Judges of the Plains,’ their duties,
instructions &c., to be further considered by the Board.”
No Board action appears in its minutes until the meeting of
January 23, 1856. at which time the earlier letter writer, Cave Couts, was
himself a member of the Board. The minutes of 1/23/56 say:
“Moved and seconded that Cave J. Couts, M. M. Sexton and
Robert Kelly be appointed Judges of the Plains at large in San Diego County.”
At the same time others were appointed as follows: for San
Diego Township. Philip Crosthwaite and A. B. Smith: for San Luis Rey Township,
John Rains and Antonio M. Ortego (sic): for Agua Caliente Township. R. M. Lloyd
and Frank Stone: for Colorado Township, L. J. F. Jaeger.
At the April meeting. 1856, Ramόn G. de la Riva was appointed
an additional Judge of the Plains for San Luis Rey: and in July, Lorenzo Soto
for Agua Caliente. and G. P. Tibbetts for San Luis Rey: and in August, S. E.
Arguello for San Diego Township.
The Board meeting of April 7, 1857. specified many duties of
Judges of the Plains, most of which have been mentioned earlier in this
article. The appointees were then named for the year; at large, Cave J. Couts,
Robert Kelly, Henry Clayton; San Diego Township, Philip Crosthwaite, A. B.
Smith, O. S. Witherby: San Luis Rey Township, A. M. Ortega, Ysidro Alvarado, G.
P. Tibbetts, José Jesús Ortega, Ramόn de la Rivas; Agua Caliente Township, R. M.
Loyd (sic), Frank Stone, A. E. Maxey, J. R. Lasiter (sic); Colorado Township, L.
J. F. Jaeger.
For two full decades of San Diego’s history, 1856-1876, the
annual repetitions of appointments appear in minutes of the Board of
Supervisors. Thereupon the whole operation came to an official halt. An era
ended, even though the statute authorizing its continuance remained on the books
for another 80 years.
During the twenty years of hey-days for Judges of the Plains,
exactly 100 different men held the office in this county. A few of them served
as many as ten terms. The greatest number of appointees in any one year was 25,
At no time during the two decades mentioned did the number of
judges, and justices of the peace, in San Diego’s town and township courts even
approximate the size of the man-power organization that supervised her livestock
activities both in town and country.
When the statute about Judges of the Plains was eliminated in
1959 there passed from our very eyes, and within our own lifetime, the last
local vestiges of a colorful, once-dynamic judicial institution over a thousand
years of age. Like our buffalo of the plains, the Judges of the Plains were
inadequate for the problems of a newer day.
Leland Stanford is distantly related to the former governor
of California, Leland Stanford. He came to California from Nebraska, where he
was born, via Arizona, in 1906. His father, Ira W. Stanford, was in the dairy
Mr. Stanford has had a full career. He has been a sports
reporter, a law school teacher, a law writer, a practicing attorney, and at
present is county law librarian.
He is the author of several books, including “San Diego’s
LL.B.,” “Tracks on the Trial Trail,’ and “Footprints of Justice.”
His article on San Diego’s Judges of the Plains relates to a
significant but little known area of early law history in this county.