La La Landscapes: The Eastern San Gabriel Valley in 1769

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

“La La Land” is a nickname for Los Angeles that just happens to be the title of a new critically acclaimed musical film out right now.  The new series for this blog deals with landscapes over time in the greater Los Angeles area.

We start with the earliest recorded descriptions of what the region looked like, courtesy of the published diaries of Father Juan Crespí, who was part of the Portolá Expedition of 1769-1770, the first land-based journey by Europeans through California.  The diary was translated in field and revised editions by Alan K. Brown and published by San Diego State University Press in 2002 as A Description of Distant Roads: Original Journals of the First Expedition into California, 1769-1770.

This image of Gaspar de Portolá, leader of the expedition that bore his name and which traversed California in 1769-1770, comes from a commemorative medal struck for the bicentennial of the expedition in 1969.  Whether it accurately depicts him is another matter!

Specifically, we’ll look at Crespí’s account of what he saw when, at the end of July 1769, the expedition left an encampment at what is now Hillside Park just north of downtown Fullerton and headed northwest over the Puente Hills through an opening (la abra, which became the place name of “La Habra”)

When the group navigated the hills and came down the north slopes, it beheld a large valley, which was denoted as “San Miguel Valley.”  The expedition then established a camp beside a stream with abundant running water, this being San José Creek, which runs just a few hundred feet south of the Homestead.

A French artist drew this representation of a native aboriginal California in 1842, through it was probably an “Indian” from the north.  From an original in the Homestead’s collection.

In fact, the group had to build a bridge across the miry watercourse and Crespí wrote that the place where the span was built was named La puente del arroyo del valle de San Miguel.  Moreover, because the priest was tasked with identifying sites for Roman Catholic missions to baptize and civilize the native aboriginal people (which he routinely called “heathens”), he found “La Puente” to be “in every way a grand, excellent spot for a very large plenteous mission.”

Once the party left their camp by the creek and headed west, Crespí provided an interesting description of what he encountered:

We set out from here at the Saint Michael bridge and stream, keeping on through this valley course westward, and were struck with wonder at seeing such lushness upon all sides.  We came upon such a vast number of extremely lush rose bushes . . .  The grapevines are countless in number, very lush, and twice we came to woods so dense that it was necessary for the soldiers to clear a way through on account of the thicket of various sorts of trees, willows, very large grapevines entwines in the trees and bearing very large clusters, cumin, and holythistles, all of it very tall, and many other kinds of weeds and plants that we did not recognize, a vastly pleasant sight to see.  There are a vast numbers of antelopes on this plain . . .  There are a great many hares.  The heathens . . . say there are a great many bears in the very tall mountain range running along on the north here [San Gabriel Mountains, known as the Sierra Madre Mountains until the late 1800s].

The variety of plant life and its voluminousness comes through vividly in the priest’s diary notations and it is surprising to hear that antelopes roamed in the valley.  About six miles further, the expedition reached what we know as the Whittier Narrows, which Crespí described as “a gap, through which this valley connects with the long, spacious plain which we left behind on the 29th.”  Having traveled far enough for the day, the group “set up camp close to a little channel of very fresh, pure water running through a low spot.”

Continuing with his narrative, the priest stated:

What provides the crowning excellence to this spot is that, at the opening in the above-mentioned range toward the south, out of a very large pool between some knolls there begins to rise a good-sized river . . . and it takes its course through the plain upon the south side, which is no telling how many leagues in width and very good grass-grown soil.  On its bed the river bears a great deal of trees, cottonwoods, willows, and other sorts, and here and there on the plain there are sycamore trees.   The San Miguel Bridge stream, which we set out from, empties into this river, and I saw the stream flowing close to the river, and it is a big one . . . So the place of San Miguel, along all the spots we have passed through, is the one with the most running water and the largest plains.  I called this the River of the big San Miguel Plain.  Thus there are two sites here for possible locating a mission; either here at the river, or at the Bridge, whence we set out; but the finer spot is the Bridge of the Stream, with its valley as described before.

Interestingly, although Crespí found the Whittier Narrows to be a place of “crowning excellence” suitable for a mission, he felt that the “finer spot” was back at La Puente.  Yet, in 1771, two priests, Somera and Cambón, sent by Junípero Serra to locate a mission site in the area, chose the Whittier Narrows location next to the river for what was called Mission San Gabriel.  It was a decision later regretted because flooding from the river led to a relocation of the mission to higher, dryer ground at its current site by 1775.

Part of the description of the San Gabriel Valley from the translated diary of Father Juan Crespí in Alan K. Brown’s A Description of Distant Roads, published in 2002.

In any case, Crespí’s description of the eastern San Gabriel Valley  just about 250 years ago is our earliest documentation of what the area was like at the dawn of recorded history.  Though the native peoples did manipulate the landscape to some degree–for example, setting fire to grasslands to stimulate growth of plant life–the onset of European colonization of Alta California unleashed immense transformations of the greater Los Angeles area that would be magnified in the American period and have continued largely unabated to the present.

To read Crespí’s diary is a window into a landscape that, amidst all of the development with its homes, stores, businesses, streets and freeways, parks and parking lots and much more, is almost impossible to visualize.  It seems the best way to start our series of posts in La La Landscapes that documents some of these transformations through the 1920s.


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