Cotton Production and Processing in Spanish and Mexican Period San Diego

Susan M. Hector, Ph.D.

Since cotton is not grown in San Diego county commercially today, most people don’t realize that it was a crop plant during the early historic period. The earliest Spanish and Mexican settlers in the area were familiar with cotton agriculture, spinning, and weaving because cotton was a major commercial, domestic, and cultural product in Mexico – dating back many centuries prior to Spanish occupation of the New World.

  1. Evidence for Cotton Agriculture in San Diego During the Spanish and Mexican Periods

Workshops for textile production were located at every mission, since each was intended to be self-sufficient. In a letter dated December 21, 1792, Father Lasuen wrote that the weaver Antonio Henrique taught weaving to the neophytes throughout the California mission system and his Native wife taught the Native American women and girls how to spin (Brandes et al. n.d.: 24; Schuetz-Miller 1994: 187). Beginning at Mission San Diego, she taught carding, spinning, and weaving at the southern Missions (Webb 1952: 210). Henrique made spinning wheels, warping frames, looms, combs, and taught the weaving of woolen cloth at the Native mission workshops (Engelhardt 1920: 147). According to Engelhardt, he taught the neophytes how to weave different types of woolen cloth, including “Sayal Franciscano”, a coarse fabric also known as sackcloth worn by the missionaries (and probably the native people). The 1783 mission inventory listed six pairs of carding instruments (Brandes n.d.: 56).

In a report from 1797, the mission in San Juan Capistrano stated that the native women pick and spin wool and cotton. Alfred Robinson visited Mission San Luis Rey in 1829, and noted that “one or two hundred young Indian girls [were] busily employed spinning, each one with her spinning wheel…” (James 1916: 11). He also mentioned that weavers were making blankets for the use of the mission and inhabitants.

Cotton was grown in San Diego at the mission as well. But cotton growing, as well as other agriculture, was not successful in San Diego until a reliable water supply was secured. Initially, the padres believed that water from the San Diego River would be adequate for their fields and orchards. However, this was not the case, and by 1783 they decided to seek a more reliable water source. In 1795, the padres found a spring upstream and built a ditch to the mission fields (McMorrow 1968: 63). But it proved inadequate. The padres decided to construct a dam and aqueduct. Mission dam and flume were built between 1813-1816 (McMorrow 1968: 64 – 65). Finally, these provided a reliable source of water to the mission fields. The padres irrigated approx. 356 acres (McMorrow 1968: 67). The mission started growing cotton in 1819, but that year was a poor yield (Mumford 1927: 159); in 1820 conditions improved and 14 arrobas (approximately 350 pounds) were harvested (Archibald 1978: 175).

According to M. Duflot de Mofras, attaché of the French legation to Mexico from 1841-42, “The cotton raised is of a superior quality, but men are wanting to cultivate it…” (Engelhardt 1920: 244). The 1834 inventory, taken at the time of secularization, listed a cotton harvest stored at the mission:

bulk cotton, listed as:

25 arrobas algodon

This bulk cotton was stored in the textile shop with the spinning wheels, carders, and looms (Engelhardt 1920: 341). We do not know if this cotton, which was grown in mission fields, was for internal production or export (the mission grew hemp which was exported to Mexico for ropemaking). An arroba is approximately 25 pounds, so that is 625 pounds of cotton. It takes less than a pound of cotton to make a shirt, so based on my experience growing, spinning and weaving cotton that’s a lot of cotton – plenty to spin and weave at the mission and to trade.

Cotton was also grown in at least one other location that had fields affiliated with Mission San Diego (McMorrow 1968: 67). In a letter from 1820, Francisco Maria Ruiz [Commandante of the San Diego Presidio] said that the padres grew cotton at the mission and at San Jorge [San Jorge was not identified by the author but it is Spring Valley at Neti or the Bancroft Ranch House; there is a large spring there as well as the rancheria] (Mumford 1927: 159). Meti (Neti) was a Tipai village, and between 1777 – 1809 there were 29 people baptized from Rancheria de Meti alias San Xorge, or San Jorge, or Meti (Merriam 1968: 168). The majority of the people at Meti were not baptized and opposed the Spanish; they were one of the leading tribes in the uprising of 1775 (Adema 1993: 8-9). However, the padres selected the Meti area, which they called El Aguaje de San Jorge and Las Fuentes de San Jorge because of the plentiful spring water, for their cattle and sheep pasturage (Adema 1993: 10). They also planted crops there (Adema 1993: 11).

  1. Type and Origin of Cotton Grown in San Diego During the Early Historic Period

Two species of cultivated cotton are native to the New World: Gossypium hirsutum and Gossypium barbadense. G. hirsutum was domesticated in southern Mexico, while G. barbadense was domesticated in South America (Fryxell 1988: 167, 172; Teague 1998: 18). G. hirsutum has a shorter staple and the seed is covered with fuzz or tuffs of fiber. G. barbadense has a smooth black seed and a longer staple. Cotton was domesticated over 3,000 years ago in the tropical New World, and selection was based on fiber length, ease of removing the seed, ability to grow under specific conditions, and lint color. In ancient Mesoamerica, cotton was cultivated in many colors that are rare today, with the preference for white cotton that can easily be dyed. Another term for G. hirsutum is Upland cotton, referring to the highlands of Mexico near Guatemala which is most likely near its area of origin (Brubaker and Wendel 1994).

Over the centuries, Upland cotton was traded into the American Southwest, where it was cultivated by the native people of Arizona and New Mexico beginning approximately 2,000 years ago. As a tropical plant, domestication of cotton in the Southwest had to accommodate shorter day length, cold winters, and drier conditions (Fryxell 1978). Plants that successfully could set bolls were selected, and over time a type of Upland cotton was developed that could be spun into fine yarn and woven into fabric in areas outside cotton’s tropical place of original domestication.

An important feature of G. hirsutum, or Upland cotton, is its tolerance for soil salinity (Fryxell 1978: 171). The wild origins of this species are as low growing perennial shrubs on tropical beaches, so it can grow in conditions and locations that would not be acceptable to other types of cotton. Tolerance for poor soil, cooler temperatures, short day length, and annual set of bolls guaranteed the successful spread of Upland cotton into more temperate climates.

Because Upland cotton seeds are not easily separated from the fiber, ginning was necessary. The native people of the Southwest used tied twigs as cotton beaters, or ginned the fiber between a smooth stick and base of stone or ceramic (Teague 1998: 22). The subspecies of Upland cotton grown in the native Southwest is often referred to as Gossypium hopi after the Hopi people of Arizona; this type has many unique characteristics that differentiate it from other types of Upland cotton.

The Spanish missionary Kino who entered what is now Arizona in the early 1700s noted that the Tohono O’odham and Akimel O’odham grew and wove high quality cotton (Castetter and Bell 1942: 103). Font also noted that cotton was planted along the Gila River during his journey in 1775-1776, and later explorers noted continuing cultivation into the mid-19th century (Castetter and Bell 1942: 104). But there was no cultivation of cotton by the native people who lived in the desert; cotton needs frequent irrigation to grow well.

So, in the American Southwest where there was a long tradition of cotton cultivation and use (Arizona and New Mexico), the Spanish and Mexican missionaries did not have to introduce the crop or instruct in spinning or weaving. That was not the case in San Diego, where the native people used other fibers for textile production (e.g., yucca, agave, milkweed, dogbane).

It is most likely that the cotton grown in San Diego entered the area from the south, rather than from the east. Cotton was grown at the missions in Baja California, which were established before Mission San Diego (Mission Santa Maria de Los Angeles, Mission San Jose Cumundu, Purisima de Cadegomo, Santa Rosalia de Mulege, San Ignacio, San Francisco de Borja, and San Fernando de Vellicata), according to Palou (Mumford 1927: 161). Assuming that the cotton seed grown at Mission San Diego had its origin among the missions of Baja California, we can focus on the most likely type from that area.

Upland cotton represents approximately 90% of the cotton grown today. Although G. barbadense (also called Sea Island, Pima, or Egyptian cotton) has a longer staple and a smooth seed, its yield is lower than Upland cotton. The reader should take note of the confusing fact that “Pima” cotton was not the species grown by the Pima Indians but is a variety that was named after them. Pima cotton represents approximately 8% of the cotton grown in the world.

A study by Wendel et al. (1992) compared 538 samples of cotton to determine the variations in genetics. One of the collection locations was Baja California (Region 20; Wendel et al. 1992: 1294). They found that there was variability between and within geographic regions, but noted the low level of genetic diversity in Upland cultivars. The samples from Baja California were most similar to those from other locations in Mexico (Puebla, San Luis Potosi, Tamaulipas, Sinaloa, Colima, Guerrero, Michoacán, Morelos, Oaxaca, and Chiapas), Guatemala, and modern Upland cultivars (Acala for example) (Wendel et al. 1992: 1295). This group, called Region A by the researchers, represents a distinctive genetic signature. Interestingly, many of the other genetic groups identified have clear colonial antecedents of either British, Spanish, or Dutch indicating influences over cotton cultivation and productivity. For example, in southeastern United States, the green-seeded Mexican highland stocks were day-length neutral and interbred with black seed stock beginning in the early 1800s; hybrids had longer and finer fiber, and ease of harvest (Wendel et al. 1992: 1308).

Modern Acala seed, a variety of Upland cotton, was the result of a search for boll weevil resistant cotton. This was found in eastern Guatemala, where weevil resistant cotton was grown by the Kekchi people, a tribe related to the Maya (Turner 1974). This discovery happened in the early 1900s. So it is not surprising that modern Acala cotton is so similar to ancient Guatemalan and Mexican Upland types.

While one other species of the genus Gossypium has been observed being grown at a family or residential level in Mexico for their fiber (G. lanceolatum), and several species of the genus grow wild in Baja California and other parts of Mexico, it is Upland cotton that was widely used in cultivation, and occasionally in the countryside (Fryxell 1988: 172). In addition, as discussed above, Upland cotton is tolerant of saline soil conditions, short day length, and cooler temperatures. The overwhelming evidence points to a variety of G. hirsutum as the type grown in the San Diego area during the Mission and Californio eras.

  1. How Cotton Was Used in San Diego

The cultivation, spinning, and weaving of cotton was a familiar activity in Mexican communities. The earliest type of cotton industry in Mexico was focused on family production for the community, although during historic times the wealthy preferred to purchase imported fabric from Spain and then England. Textile factories in Mexico were owned first by the Spanish, then the French. In 1821 at independence, inexpensive imported textiles were more available as world trade opened up to Mexican citizens. This resulted in a steep decline in Mexican textile industry. However, the textile mills were revitalized by new owners and money in 1830, and in 1843 there were 55 textile factories in Mexico (Ruh 2001). The point here is that fine textiles were not made in Mexico during the early historic period; the purpose of cotton production in households and at the colonies and missions was for daily use as blankets, towels, working clothes, etc. Fine fabrics were imported from Europe, India, and China. The cotton produced in the mission fields could have been exported to Mexico for processing in factories, or it could have been spun and woven into towels, blankets, and mantas in San Diego.

The Spanish Colonial style spinning wheels made and used at the mission were suitable for spinning fine fibers such as cotton. The wheel is similar to the Charkha used in India for spinning cotton. Because Upland cotton has a relatively short staple, it is best spun on a spindle wheel where the spinner can control the tension so that adequate twist is added to the fiber to create yarn before it is manually wound onto the spindle.

It is unfortunate that we don’t have physical evidence of cotton fabric from early historic San Diego. But based on the research conducted for this paper, we can speculate that short-staple cotton was spun on a spindle wheel and woven into blankets and domestic products. The cotton was probably cream white or light brown in color. It was nothing fancy, yet it reflected a textile tradition many centuries in the making.

  1. References Cited

Adema, Thomas Joseph

1993   Our Hills and Valleys: A History of the Helix – Spring Valley Region. San Diego Historical Society.

Archibald, Robert

1978   The Economic Aspects of the California Missions. Academy of American Franciscan History, Washington, D.C.

Brandes, Ray

nd       Mission San Diego de Alcala: The Archaeological Design and Fieldwork            Conducted by the University of San Diego 1966 – 1984.

Brandes, Ray, James R. Moriarty III, Toni Nagle, Gregory Nelson Chase, and Lois T. Campbell

nd       The History and Architecture of Mission San Diego de Alcala 1769 – 1965.    University of San Diego.

Brubaker, Curt L. and Jonathan F. Wendel

1994   Reevaluating the Origin of Domesticated Cotton (Gossypium hirsutum:             Malvaceae) Using Nuclear Restriction Fragment Length Polymorphisms  (RFLPs). American Journal of Botany 81(10): 1309 – 1326.

Castetter, Edward F. and Willis H. Bell

1942   Pima and Papago Indian Agriculture. Inter-Americana Studies 1. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.

Engelhardt, Zephyrin

1920   San Diego Mission. The James H. Barry Company, San Francisco.

Fryxell, Paul A.

1978   The Natural History of the Cotton Tribe. Texas A&M University Press.

1988   Malvaceae of Mexico. Systematic Botany Monographs 25. The American Society of Plant Taxonomists.

James, George Wharton

1916   Picturesque Pala. Reprinted in 2002 by James Stevenson, Publisher.

McMorrow, Clyde

1968   The Transportation of Water to Mission San Diego de Alcala. Brand Book Number One, The San Diego Corral of the Westerners, pages 59 – 70. Edited by Ray Brandes.

Merriam, C. Hart

1968   Village Names in Twelve California Mission Records. Assembled and edited by Robert F. Heizer. Reports of the University of California Archaeological Survey, number 74. Berkeley.

Mumford, E. Philpott

1927   Early History of Cotton Cultivation in California. California Historical Society Quarterly 6(2): 159 – 166. University of California Press in association with the California Historical Society.

Ruh, Paul A.

2001   The Mexican Textile Industry – Evolution or Revolution. Cotton Outlook. Paul Reinhart, Inc., Dallas, Texas.

Schuetz-Miller, Mardith K.

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Teague, Lynn S.

1998   Textiles in Southwestern Prehistory. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.

Turner, John H.

1974   The History of Acala Cotton, Varieties Bred for San Joaquin Valley, California.            ARW W-16. Agricultural Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Webb, Edith Buckland

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Wendel, Jonathan F., Curt L. Brubaker, and A. Edward Percival

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