by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Another new feature in Museum Director Musings is Read All About It focusing on interesting examples from the Homestead’s collection of historic newspapers.
This inaugural entry concerns the earliest Los Angeles area newspaper in the collection, the 7 January 1860 edition of the town’s first paper, the Los Angeles Star. Established in spring 1851 by John A. Lewis and John McElroy who were soon joined first by E. Gould Buffum and then William Rand, the weekly made its debut on 17 May.
In a town of just a few thousand, the paper managed to be continuously published during a period when rivals came and went, usually quickly, though the Star did go through a parade of owners in its first five years.
Rand, for example, bowed out pretty early in the paper’s early days and wound up in Chicago where he formed what became the internationally known Rand-McNally publishing house. Buffum and McElroy also left the paper not long after its founding. Lewis, meanwhile, toughed it out for two years before selling out to James McMeans in summer 1853. By the end of November, though McMeans was gone and replaced by William A. Wallace and then Mark D. Brundige in quick succession into 1854. They were followed by James S. Waite, who managed to stick with it for a couple of years with occasional help, before he sold to Wallace in spring 1856. Within several weeks, though, Wallace gave up the business to Henry Hamilton, an experienced newspaper proprietor last in Calaveras in the gold country.
Hamilton was able to continue operation of the Star uninterrupted for a longer period than anyone else. Much of this was due to his strong journalistic and in-person presence, as well as his devotion to the Democratic Party and its southern sympathies, Hamilton being a dyed-in-the-wool Southerner.
Waite was able to weather the competition of the town’s second newspaper, the Southern Californian, edited by the excitable and voluble William Butts and which existed from summer 1854 to early 1856. Hamilton then contended with the first Spanish-language paper in Los Angeles, El Clamor Público, which operated from June 1855 to the end of 1859. El Clamor was run by a remarkable teenager, Francisco P. Ramirez, who had edited a Spanish-language page for the Star, following Peruvian attorney Manuel Clemente Rojo in this role.
Ramirez possessed a level of education, writing style, and enthusiasm for the politics of the brand-new Republican Party which marked him as an unusually impressive journalist and socially conscious observer and advocate for the rights of Latinos in Los Angeles. Ultimately, his work did not receive the support he needed and he published his last issue on 31 December 1859, embittered both by the failure of the paper and the conditions he tried so hard to help change in his hometown.
This takes us to the 7 January 1860 issue of the Star. In it, Hamilton noted the closing of his rival’s paper, observing “the paper has been discontinued for want of that sympathy and support essential to keep the establishment in existence.” Referring to the political and social rivalry between the two men, Hamilton noted Ramirez’ “heated and injudicious attacks on the American Government and people.”
Yet, Hamilton also praised Ramirez by stating that “The Clamor has been conducted with marked ability, although the editor entered on his duties at the youthful age of seventeen” and then reported that Ramirez was leaving for the Mexican state of Sonora to be state printer, “which he is well qualified to fill.” The Star‘s owner concluded by saying “we wish him success in his new field of labor, and part from him with regret, as in private life [italics added], we have ever found him an agreeable and courteous gentleman.” Ramirez later returned to Los Angeles and became an attorney, though his role in a fraudulent scheme led him to flee to Baja California, where he remained until his death in the 1908.
Other interesting articles in the Star concerned the previous weekend’s New Year’s Eve celebrations. The paper noted that Monday the 2nd was a day of partying, but that on the eve (Saturday),
there was considerable jollification; burning of fire crackers, firing of guns and pistols (blank cartridges, recollect) and of course no little business done in the consumption of punchse [sic–maybe Hamilton was still getting over his merriment?], nog, and the other potions requisite to get up the steam and propel the fun-making machinery.
Hamilton also noted a dance that evening that “afforded more pleasure and amusement than half dozen of the ‘stuck-up, ticketed kind,” meaning the more formal dances to be found much of the time. He also referred to the tradition of “calling,” in which women, usually, went to the homes of friends and acquaintances and left their “calling card” on a tray in the residence.
Meanwhile, out at El Monte, a town founded by Hamilton’s fellow Southerners in the early 1850s and known for its violence and raucousness, a peculiar New Year’s activity was recorded by a participant. This was the “shooting match” of turkeys and chickens which was a common pastime of the era.
First there was a dinner at the hotel and tavern of the fabulously named William W. Rubottom, who migrated from Arkansas and later founded a town named Spadra (now part of Pomona) after his residence in that state. Then, using Colt Navy caliber (.36 caliber) pistols at ninety-foot distances, the participants engaged in their contest “pleasantly, and to the satisfaction of every one partaking of the sport.” The correspondent signed himself “C. Gunpowder.”
Another notable, short article found in the paper concerned the growth of San Bernardino, a town founded by Mormon colonists in 1851, but many of whom were recalled to Utah by Brigham Young after several years as concerns of a war with American troops rose. Still, the Star noted that, “a large number of families from Utah have arrived . . . also a large number from Texas have settled there.”
Then, the piece went on, “at Bear Valley, about forty miles northeast of San Bernardino, gold mines have been opened, and the miners are said to be realizing from five to eight dollars a day.” This area of Bear and Holcomb valleys are just north of today’s Big Bear Lake, which didn’t exist until a dam was build to hold snow melt and rainwater in that region. A closer, perhaps in Cajon Pass, mining area was also referenced.
This snapshot of greater Los Angeles at the beginning of the 1860s came just before the Civil War, the floods and droughts that ravaged the region’s economic backbone of cattle ranching, and other transformations.
Check back for more from our interesting newspaper collection in future installments of Read All About It.