The area that is now Riverside County was inhabited for centuries by diverse native peoples, including Gabrielino, Serrano, Luiseño, Cupeño, Chemehuevi and Cahuilla. Villages consisted of a few extended families and moved seasonally following the availability of food resources. Creeks, as well as hunting and food gathering areas, were customarily “owned” by the entire village. Utensils, tools, hunting and food preparing equipment were considered personal property. The land provided acorns, mesquite seeds, chia, piñon nuts, wild fruits, agave, yucca and wild grasses for food. Game included deer, quail, rabbits, lizards and other reptiles. Native Americans—primarily Cahuilla—were the first labor force in the citrus groves and helped construct the early waterworks. However, only small numbers of native people were available for such work, and this, combined with the prejudice they encountered, eventually led to a decline in their presence in the citrus industry.
Creating the Citrus Industry
The mission padres planted the first Mediterranean citrus varieties on the grounds of Mission San Gabriel around 1803, with the help of Cahuilla labor. William Wolfskill, a trapper from Kentucky, developed more acreage from seedlings he obtained in 1841. In the mid-to-late years of the 1800s, lemon, lime and orange trees thrived in what is now downtown Los Angeles. However, it was the Bahia, or Washington navel orange, a seedless orange native to Brazil, that was to revolutionize the industry. In 1873 Mrs. Elizabeth Tibbets, wife of an alfalfa farmer in Riverside, obtained two of these young trees from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C. The seedlings matured into trees that produced fruit far superior to earlier varieties—it was sweeter and more flavorful, had no seeds, and its thick, easily-peeled skin protected it during shipping. Today nearly all of the Washington navel orange trees grown in California are descended from these two original trees, one of which still grows at the intersection of Arlington and Magnolia Avenues in Riverside.