On This Day, 8 September 1771: The Founding of Mission San Gabriel

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Two years after the Portolá (yup, accent on the “a”) Expedition made the first land-based European exploration of California and a site was designated for a mission, Roman Catholic priests Angel Somero and Benito Cambón, based on the selection of the location by Junípero Serra, the father president of the mission system, established Mission San Gabriel.

The date was 8 September 1771 and there are many people who do not know that the original location was not that of the current mission compound.  Instead, Serra chose and Somero and Cambón oversaw the establishment of the facility about six miles southeast.

The reason, at the time, made sense.  The location was adjacent to the San Gabriel River (now the Rio Hondo–the current San Gabriel channel came into being during floods in the winter of 1867-68), as the water flowed from the rocky, steep  San Gabriel Mountains through Azusa Canyon, disappeared underground for a few miles and then reemerged near today’s El Monte and funneled through the Whittier Narrows between the Montebello Hills and Puente Hills.

Where there’s water, there is life.  So, abundant plant material and plenty of animals drew the native aboriginal Indians, later known typically as Gabrieleños (more recently, Kizh-Gabrieleños), to the narrows.  Clearly, the Spanish saw the same opportunity and determined San Gabriel’s location.  Unfortunately, for the aboriginal people that decision had grievous consequences for them, as the succeeding decades under the mission system and beyond decimated their communities.

Likely one of the earliest photographs of Mission San Gabriel, this view was published by Henry T. Payne in the early 1870s, but may be the earlier work of William M. Godfrey, who took many greater Los Angeles photos around 1870 and then sold his business and inventory to Payne.   All three photos shown here are from the Homestead’s collection

The exact spot of the mission’s original location is up to some debate.  Several archaeological surveys have been done, but the problem in identifying the original spot is that the area has been dramatically disturbed over time.  This is from frequent flooding of the river, use of the former mission property by ranchers and farmers in the 19th century, and significant disturbance by oil companies and others in the 20th century.

The best guess seems to be that the mission was situated west of the Rio Hondo and north of today’s San Gabriel Boulevard, an area now part of a flood control zone managed by the United States Army Corps of Engineers.  There’s a reason why the zone was created decades ago and that’s the same reason the original mission didn’t last long.

That’s because the mission compound, made of rough tule and brush structures, simply could not withstand any significant amount of flooding from the unpredictable river, of which the mission fathers had no experience.  The natives, however, certainly did and we can only wonder at their feelings as they saw the first example of flooding overtake the mission site.

Consequently, by 1775, the decision was made and implemented to move San Gabriel to higher, dryer ground, away from the flood-prone river, but still with ample access to water, with creeks and washes nearby, as well as groundwater filled from runoff from the mountains to the north.

This is a later photo from Henry T. Payne and can be dated to about 1875 because of the presence of the newly laid tracks of the Southern Pacific Railroad, which made its way through the San Gabriel Valley in early 1874.  As these tracks are currently being lowered in a major Alameda Corridor East project, archaeological work has discovered a great deal of material from the native peoples, mission period, and later.  Note the improved fence at the front of the church at the right and the planter boxes used for recently planted pepper trees.

The relocated mission became one of the most successful of the chain of twenty-one that spanned Alta California–well, successful from the point of view of the missionaries; the views of the natives, who were decimated by disease, abuse and the destruction of their ways of life, would, naturally, be very different.  It was widely viewed as the “Queen of the Missions,” at least until secularization by México in the 1830s shuttered the missions and converted most of them, like San Gabriel, into parish churches.

By the time the earliest photographs, like the examples from the Homestead’s collection shown here, were taken, the mission was in disrepair, though still fully functioning as a church.

For the Workman and Temple families, Mission San Gabriel had a great deal of meaning. William Workman and his business partner and friend, John Rowland, were granted one of San Gabriel’s former ranchos, La Puente, in 1842.  When Workman and his common-law wife, Nicolasa Urioste, decided on a church-sanctioned marriage early in 1844 (a double wedding with Workman’s friend, Benjamin D. Wilson and his first wife, Ramona Yorba), the event took place at San Gabriel.

In 1846, the last governor of Mexican-era California, Pío Pico, granted the former lands of the mission, surrounding the church, to Hugo Reid and William Workman.  Workman was able to successfully pursue a land claim for the mission lands with a land commission and at the local federal district court, but the United States Supreme Court invalidated the original grant in 1864.

About 1878, Alexander C. Varela (brother-in-law of famed conductor and composer John Philip Sousa) briefly worked as a photographer in Los Angeles and took many excellent photographs of the area, including this image of the mission.  The Southern Pacific track can barely be discerned just above the top of the board fence in the foreground.  Note the pepper trees were largely growing healthily along the southern elevation of the church.

There were also many examples of baptisms and other sacraments involving family members at the mission for many decades, but in the 1920s another interesting element of family involvement came when Walter P. Temple, grandson of William Workman, bought property across Mission Drive from the mission and built three commercial structures, all surviving, and then donated a lot to the city for its city hall, which also still stands.  Temple was also a major donor to the Mission Playhouse, home of the then-famed Mission Play, when it was completed in 1927.  When Temple died in 1938, he was buried in the mission cemetery, though, almost fifteen years ago, he was disinterred and reburied at the El Campo Santo cemetery here at the Homestead, which he owned from 1917 to 1932.

For the mission’s 150th anniversary in 1921, Temple commissioned a granite marker to commemorate the founding of the mission at Whittier Narrows and installed it on his Temple oil lease property at the corner of Lincoln Boulevard and San Gabriel Boulevard, across the latter from the probable location of the mission.  While well intended, Temple’s marker leads those who see it to believe the mission was on the hills above the monument’s location, which is plainly impossible for obvious reasons.  The steep slopes simply could not accommodate a mission with its structures, stables, and other elements.  The marker was only placed where it is because Temple happened to own that spot.

From the 1930s to the early 1970s, Temple’s son, Thomas, was the official historian of both the mission and the city, presiding with his wife, Gabriela, at an annual pioneer reception during the mission’s birthday celebration each September and much else.  Even though he was gravely ill will cancer, Thomas helped to organize the mission’s bicentennial, held in September 1971.  He died just four months later and became one of only two laypersons (the other being Eulalia Pérez de Guillen) buried with the clergy in the courtyard adjacent to the old mission church.

6 thoughts

  1. I think Thomas Temple was a neighbor of mine when I was growing up. Did he live on Euclid Ave. in San Gabriel during the ’50s and ’60s?

  2. Thanks for the reply. I wish I had gotten to know him. Another golden opportunity lost! I wonder if his widow is still alive. As I remember, she was quite a bit younger. His house was on a corner lot, and there was a very beautiful, very tall fir tree in the front yard. Several years ago, when I visited SoCal, I drove past my old home, and was sorry to see that the fir tree was gone!

  3. Hi David, thanks for the follow-up. Thomas was well-known for his love of San Gabriel and history. His widow, Gabriela, was four years younger, but lived to be 97, dying ten years ago. She donated much of her husband’s artifacts and papers to the Homestead, which has helped us learn much of the family’s history.

  4. Hi Paul: the other layperson buried next to Temple in the clergy courtyard is my 6G grandmother,
    Eulalia Perez Guillen.

  5. Hi Edgar, yes, thanks for that. It was mentioned in a 2020 post about the arson fire at the mission that there were two laypersons buried in that section, but both posts are now updated with Doña Eulalia’s name mentioned.

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