Museum Director Musings: Fort Moore Pioneer Memorial

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

UPDATE, 29 January 2019: The Fort Moore Pioneer Memorial’s fountain is now working and you can learn more in this article in yesterday’s Los Angeles Downtown News.

Today’s Los Angeles Times features a front-page article on a plan by the County of Los Angeles to restore and renovate a memorial created nearly sixty years ago to commemorate Fort Moore, an 1847 United States Army outpost built atop the hill of that name overlooking the city after its conquest during the Mexican-American War.

The piece by Doug Smith noted that the Hill Street monument, consisting of brick, mosaic tiles and glazed terra cotta along a 400-foot wall, was dedicated in July 1958 and honors members of the Mormon Battalion of volunteers who staffed the fort.  It also observed that the battalion, the New York Volunteers, and the 1st Regiment of Dragoons gathered on the Fourt of July holiday in 1847 to conduct a ceremony “on the earthen walls of a fort the soldiers had been ordered to build in defence of the city.  The fort was named for Captain Benjamin Moore of the 1st Dragoons, who was one of nearly two-dozen Americans killed in the major Californio victory over the invaders at San Pasqual near San Diego in December 1846.

Notably, the article contains a quote by the county’s art collections manager, who stated that the monument is “the most historically and geographically important monument that nobody knows about.  It’s where Los Angeles really began.”

This stereoscopic photograph from the Homestead’s collection dates from about 1875 and was taken by Henry T. Payne, who titled it “Fort Street, Los Angeles, from Fort Hill.”  Fort Street, which descends the hill to the south in this view, was later renamed Broadway.  At the left is Los Angeles High School.

Well, there are two matters to raise about that quote.  The first is that the county official seems to assume that the history of Los Angeles only started with the American conquest, as if the preceding 65 years of the history of the town during the Spanish and Mexican eras was not particularly important.

Then, there is the fact that the memorial has, in fact, been known to some people.  Nearly four years ago, Hadley Meares wrote a post about it for the KCET History and Society blog, which can be viewed here.  Two years before that, in 2011, Nathan Masters on the same blog wrote a post about the hills of Los Angeles and briefly mentioned the fort (click here for that post).  In 1965, an article by Col. Herbert M. Hart about the fort was written that has been reposted on a military museum website (click here for that article).  Finally, Smith notes that a sesquicentennial reenactment was held at the monument in 1997.

However, it is true that the Fort Moore Pioneer Memorial has been neglected over the years.  As Meares wrote in her post, the homeless appeared to have been among the few to frequent the site.  The Times article points out that a major feature of the monument, a 77-foot wide cascading waterfall, has been out of commission for forty years.

Another great Homestead held photograph is this circa 1878 image from Alexander C. Varela taken from St. Vibiana Cathedral and looking north towards Fort Moore Hill, where the high school is with the white clock tower, and elsewhere in the city.

Now, though, work should begin within the next several weeks on the memorial’s makeover.  Some 300,000 tiles will be replaced and the water will be flowing again; the bas-relief work showing American soldiers celebrating that 1847 Fourth of July commemoration will be repaired; and other work carried out.  There is no timetable for completion, although Smith wrote that “it would be fitting if it came soon enough for a rededication on July 4, 59 years and a day after its first dedication.”

In writing about both the reshaping of Fort Moore Hill in redevelopment work of downtwn Los Angeles from the 1930s onward and the efforts of the Daughters of Utah Pioneers to creating a monument to Mormon Volunteer soldiers, Smith made note of an inscription on the memorial that reads “To the brave men and women who with trust in God faced privation and death in extending the frontiers of our country to include this land of promise.”

Later, Smith quoted former county supervisor Gloria Molina, who requested a study of the cost of restoring the monument in 2000, that Fort Moore is “where they were shooting at us [Latinos] from.”  The journalist did follow that with observing that the fort was actually built “after the shooting stopped,” though some believe it may have played a role in preventing a revolt by local Spanish-speaking Californios and Mexicans.

Another 1880s view from the museum collection shows the high school atop Fort Moore Hill.

Incidentally, William Workman, whose house is at the Homestead, played a key role in events leading up to the conquest of Los Angeles.  Several days prior to that battle, he met Commodore Robert Stockton at San Juan Capistrano to arrange an amnesty for the Californios who were defending their homeland against the American invaders.  After the Battle of Los Angeles ended on 9 January, Workman and others brought out the flag of truce to U.S. forced approaching the town.

To me, reading this article brought up two related issues not discussed much or at all about the monument and the history it purports to represent.  The first is that the memorial was created in 1958, during the peak of the Cold War and when the United States was in a particularly patriotic frame of mind.

That quote above about the “brave men and women,” though it is not known if any American women actually were involved in the fort, who were involved “in extending the frontiers of our country” openly celebrates what was obviously America’s first imperial war.  The Mexican-American War was founded on highly questionable assertions by President James K. Polk and supporters of Mexican border aggression in Texas.  A half-century ago, no one obviously thought to look at this from the other side of that war, perhaps because there was such a push to reassert American pride in the face of what looked to many like certain war with the Soviet Union.

A commanding view of part of Los Angeles from Fort Moore Hill is seen in this 1880s image also from the Homestead’s collection.

The second issue has to do with Molina’s quote and Smith’s follow-up.  While it is true that Fort Moore was built after hostilities ended and, therefore, no shooting by American troops at Spanish-speaking Los Angeles residents, it should be noted that feelings of anger and mistrust by the latter against Americans was a significant part of postwar life in Los Angeles during the late 1840s and for years afterward.

Whatever happens with the restoration work, it seems an opportune time to present the other side of the story of Fort Moore, that is, the perspective of Spanish-speaking Angelenos of that time about what the conquest represented for them.  If the Fort Moore Pioneer Memorial has any relevancy to present and future visitors, it should be in balancing the interpretation of the site and its history.  And, the inclusion of the word “pioneer” should certainly be reconsidered, if descendants of the native aboriginal Indians have anything to say about who the real “pioneers” of Los Angeles are.

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