Thomas W. Temple II and Documenting the Founding of Los Angeles

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Happy 235th birthday, Los Angeles!  There won’t likely be any big celebrations until 2031, when the city hits 250, but every year (the 2016 edition was last Saturday) a walk from Mission San Gabriel to the Plaza in Los Angeles is made to commemorate the trek made by the 44 pobladores who were the founding citizens of the little pueblo.

In 1931, although the Great Depression was worsening, business, civic and social leaders planned a ten-day La Fiesta de Los Angeles celebration, reviving the name of an annual spring festival held from 1894 to 1918, for the city’s sesquicentennial (that is, 150th birthday).

There were parades, concerts, a fiesta queen and court, a rodeo, dinners and balls, an aircraft show and aquatic events, with radio coverage of some events by NBC.  The planners, participants and performers were almost all Anglos, though there was a performance by  Mexico City’s police concert band, a number of local Latino dancers and an orchestra led by Jose Arias, references to receptions at the “Japanese Section,” which would be Little Tokyo, and the typical use of a dragon in the “Grand Historical Parade” provided by the Chinese Chamber of Commerce (of course, the Chinese were not permitted to join the Los Angeles chamber).  A few Latinos also served as marshals in the main parade.

As a major part of its involvement in the sesquicentennial, the Historical Society of Southern California devoted its annual publication for 1931 towards the founding of Los Angeles, a copy of which is in the Homestead’s collection.  One of the main contributors was Thomas W. Temple II, the son of Walter and Laura Temple, owners of the Homestead from 1917-1932.

TWTII article HSSC annual 1931
The first page of a thirty-page article in the Historical Society of Southern California Annual Publication of 1931 by Thomas W. Temple II concerning the 4 September 1781 founding date of Los Angeles.

Thomas was steered towards the law and completed his juris doctorate degree at Harvard University in 1929.  While he contemplated taking the bar exam and looked into seeking employment with law firms, his heart wasn’t in it.  Rather, he’d been, as he expressed it, “bitten by the history bug,” when he began exploring his family’s long roots in California, as well as in New England.  His work for the Society in the preparation of the 1931 annual publication was probably his first significant efforts as a budding historian.

A key article Temple wrote was “Se Fundaron Un Pueblo de Españoles (A Village of Spaniards Was Founded,” in which he laid out the case for 4 September 1781 as the founding date of Los Angeles.  He dedicated his article to “my ancestors, Don Manuel Ygnacio de Lugo, and his wife, Doña Maria Gertrudes Limon y Sanchez de Lugo . . . [who] with their first-born joined the Expedition of 1781” and were escorts of the pobladores.  Temple claimed this ancestry through his mother.

In this 30-page article, Temple highlighted a few significant documents to bolster the claim of the 4 September date.

First, California’s governor Felipe de Neve, in a letter of 29 October, wrote that once the pobladores arrived at Mission San Gabriel on the 18th of August and when through with a period of quarantine because of an outbreak of smallpox, they “have moved to those lands, where the Pueblo de los Angeles is in the process of being established.”  It was observed that the zanja madre, or mother ditch, providing water to the new community, and corrals for cattle and horses were finished and the settlers completing their houses.

Pobladores map HSSC annual 1931
A map showing the two routes of the 44 pobladores as they migrated from northwestern Mexico to Los Angeles, published in the HSSC annual by permission of Touring Topics (now Westways) magazine, the publication of the Automobile Club of Southern California.

Second, there was a padron (census) taken on 19 November, a translation of which was included in the annual publication, which was headed by a statement reading “census of the population of the City of the Queen of the Angels, founded on the 4th of September 1781, on the banks of the River of Porciúncula [Los Angeles River] . . .”  Notably, Temple stated that the original was at the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley, “which it was my happy privilege to bring to light.”

Then, there were documents relating to accounts of the pobladores, dated from San Gabriel from 13-20 September and which referred to the settlers as residents of the new pueblo.  Five such accounts were located in Mexico City and the inference was clear that the founding date was certainly before the 13th by at least some days.

Temple also wrote that the first published book in Los Angeles, the Centennial History of Los Angeles, issued in 1876, contained a statement that the compilers, J.J. Warner, Benjamin Hayes and J.P. Widney had seen certified copies of documents, perhaps the census mentioned above, from the state surveyor-general’s office stating that the founding date of Los Angeles was the 4th.

Finally, Temple noted that the Repartición de Solares y Suertes, which referred to the formal title given to the pobladores, was required to be finalized five years after the founding of the pueblo and the titles were, in fact, issued to the settlers by José D. Arguello of the Santa Barbara presidio on 4 September 1786.

Thomas & Gabriela Temple 1934
Thomas W. Temple II and his fiancé, Gabriela Quiroz, in their engagement photo, 1934.

Temple’s other contributions to the publication included a brief sketch and listing of the “Soldiers and Settlers of the Expedition of 1781” and translations of “Supplies for the Pobladores” and “Outfits of Soldiers, Settlers and Families.”

Clearly, Thomas W. Temple II’s work translating, transcribing and interpreting key Spanish documents was essential to determining the 4 September founding date of Los Angeles.  It probably also catalyzed his determination to become a historian and genealogist, specializing in Spanish and Mexican Los Angeles.

From 1934 to his death in 1972, he pursued this work, contracting to conduct genealogical investigations and serving as city and mission historian in San Gabriel.  In 1939, he was among a group of founders of First Century Families, comprised of descendants of those who came to Los Angeles prior to 1881, and which holds an annual fall luncheon and maintains an archive at U.S.C.

While some of his copious genealogical work has been called into question in terms of accuracy and interpretation, modern genealogists searching pre-American California invariably come across his work nearly half a century after his death.  In a significant sense, his work really began with his research into Los Angeles’ founding date back in the very early 1930s.

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