The central coast of California was home to Chumash and Salinan Native American Indian tribes for thousands of years before explorations by European cultures began. The voyage of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo in 1542-1543, during which he claimed Alta California for the King of Spain, is the first written account of the California coast. As he sailed northwest along the Southern California coast, Indians from many seaside villages paddled their canoes out to sea to greet these strange people in even stranger ships. His ships passed by the future town of Cayucos in November 1542.
In September 1565, the log of the San Pablo, the first China ship of Manila galleons (1565-1815), recorded a position about thirty-two miles (8 leagues) from Point Conception in Santa Barbara County. Later Manila galleons often reached the California coast as far north as Cape Mendocino. When this occurred, the Cayucos shoreline profile and Morro Rock would almost certainly have been a landmark guiding galleons south to Acapulco or Navidad, Mexico.
The first land party to explore the California central coast was the Gaspar de Portola expedition of 1769-1770. The party passed through Cayucos on September 8-9 and December 25-26, 1769. Subsequent expeditions by Portola, De Anza and others continued the Spanish settlement of California. In the 1790’s, explorer George Vancouver conducted a survey of Spanish settlements on the California coast for King George III of England. His expedition sailed south off Cayucos in 1793 as he was mapping the coast. Ranching generated a vigorous trade with ports on the east coast of America, mainly trading cattle hides (also referred to as “California banknotes”) for goods not available in frontier California. Richard Henry Dana vividly described his experiences in this trade in his classic literary work, Two Years Before the Mast, as he crewed aboard the trading ships Pilgrim and Alert (passing Cayucos) during 1834-1836. Mexico ceded Alta California to the United States in the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.
San Luis Obispo County, including Cayucos, was one of the original twenty - seven counties of California when California was admitted to the union in 1850.Gold had been discovered at Sutter’s Fort near Sacramento in 1849, drawing thousands of immigrants to the Golden State to seek their fortune. Some did, most did not. Cattle drives to the gold country to feed the hordes of newcomers soon became a surer way to prosper than toiling to discover gold. Trading in hides and cattle came to an abrupt end - caused by diminishing gold discoveries and the Great Drought of 1862-1864. It is estimated that 300,000 head of cattle and 100,000 sheep died from lack of water and forage during this devastating period for California Ranchos. Many of these were intentionally destroyed in an attempt to save even a few animals for sustenance and commerce. The Great Drought brought an end to the hey-days of cattle ranching on the central coast.
In the aftermath of the collapse of large herds of cattle, small dairy farms became an important agricultural pursuit in the latter 1860’s. Production of butter, cheese, and milk increased rapidly, so much so that Captain James Cass founded the town of Cayucos in 1867. He built a warehouse and wharf where coastal steamers docked on a regular basis to transport dairy products to large population centers in northern and southern California. The dairy farmers were primarily Portuguese and Swiss-Italians, of whom some descendants still ranch or reside in Cayucos in the twenty-first century. Cayucos is derived from Native American names for “canoe” or “kayak”.