by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Today’s entry from the “Working the Land” series focused on greater Los Angeles area agriculture highlights a great stereoscopic photograph from the Homestead collection. Taken by renowned California photographer Carleton Watkins, the image is titled “Orange and Walnut Orchard, Gen. Stoneman, S. Gab’l.”
The view shows rows of orange trees in the foreground with larger walnuts in the back and these crops were emblematic of what made the San Gabriel Valley one of the most fertile and productive agricultural regions of the United States for many decades. Now, development has covered over the remarkable soil that made the valley renowned for its yields.
The Stoneman ranch was christened by him as “Los Robles” (“The Oaks”), but he bought the 400-acre property from Benjamin D. Wilson. Wilson, who came to California with William Workman, John Rowland and others in late 1841, owned the “Lake Vineyard” estate, previously known as Huerta de Cuati when it was acquired in 1854 from Victoria Reid, a Gabrieleño Indian woman, whose husband was the Scottish-born Hugo Reid. While official documents show Wilson bought the property for $7,000, descendants of the native aboriginal peoples believe Victoria was defrauded by Wilson.
In any case, Los Robles was carved out of the Lake Vineyard estate when Stoneman came to the area in the first years of the 1870s. The reason why Stoneman migrated to the San Gabriel Valley is an interesting story stretching back a quarter century before then.
George Stoneman was born in 1822 in Busti, New York, in the southwestern corner of the state not far east of Erie, Pennsylvania. After finishing his education in nearby Jamestown, Stoneman sought admission to West Point, which usually required connections for nomination by a member of Congress, but the young man wrote the Secretary of War and a shortage of candidates for 1842 gave Stoneman his opening.
Stoneman, whose roommate at the academy was Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, later famed as a Confederate general, graduated about the middle of the class in 1846 just in time for service in the Mexican-American War. He was commissioned a brevet 2nd lieutenant with the Mormon Battalion, sent to assist in the occupation of Alta California. Stoneman took place in a lengthy march from Iowa to the coast and saw the San Gabriel Valley in his short stay in 1847. Evidently, he vowed that he would return.
Promoted to 1st lieutenant in 1854, Stoneman served in northern California and Oregon taking part in many battles with native peoples, but he also participated in surveys for what became the transcontinental railroad. He then joined the new 2nd U.S. Dragoons, headquartered in St. Louis, serving under Albert Sidney Johnston (who had Los Angeles connections) with Robert E. Lee, the main Confederate commander during the Civil War, as a lieutenant colonel.
Stoneman spent several years in Texas and worked his way up to a third senior captain of the 5th U.S. Cavalry when the Civil War broke out in 1861. After refusing to turn over his fort to Texas authorities aligned with the new Confederate States of America, he became a major for the 1st U.S. Cavalry under George McClellan in West Virginia and then joined the commanding general with the Army of the Potomac, becoming a brigadier general by summer.
Even as McClelland’s command of the Army of the Potomac was riddled with tactical and strategic errors, Stoneman performed well on the battlefield and was promoted to major general in early 1863. He commanded the cavalry corps under Joseph Hooker and his “Stoneman’s Raid” in the losing battle at Chancellorsville, Virginia earned Stoneman plaudits from his troops even as Hooker removed him from command and sent him to Washington, ostensible for chronic hemorrhoids that plagued Stoneman for years.
Reassigned to a cavalry supply depot known informally as “Camp Stoneman” in North Carolina, Stoneman was recognized for his excellent administration of the facility, but yearned to get back to the battlefield. Assigned to the Department of the Ohio, he was placed in command of its cavalry corps. Planning a daring raid of Macon, Georgia and the nearby Andersonville prison camp, which was notorious for its brutal conditions for Union prisoners, Stoneman was captured by the Confederates and then exchanged for a rebel brigadier general.
He redeemed his reputation at the end of 1864 and early 1865 in successful campaigns in Virginia, during one of which he nearly captured Confederate President Jefferson Davis. With the end of war, he was assigned to command the Department of the Tennessee, but violence between white and black soldiers in his force led to charges Stoneman reacted to slowly to the havoc. Becoming a Democrat and opposing Reconstruction, Stoneman commanded Union forces in Virginia in 1866 and then mustered out of volunteer service that summer as a major general.
He then returned to the regular Army rank as lieutenant colonel of the 3rd U.S. Cavalry and was assigned to command the Department of Arizona. In May 1870, he took over his post at Camp Drum at Wilmington south of Los Angeles, but his handling of Indian battles in Arizona led to his being relieved of command, but he retired as a major general.
It was then, in 1871, that he bought Los Robles and established a stable long-term home for the first time with his wife Mary and four children. With vineyards, orchards of oranges and the walnut grove, Stoneman had a successful agricultural enterprise and supplemented his income and entered the political arena by being appointed to the California Railroad Commission during a time when the Southern Pacific empire had a great deal of influence in state politics.
In fact, in 1882, Stoneman became the Democratic nominee for governor and won the election handily. However, his single term from 1883 to 1887 was not distinguished and his own party declined to nominate him for a second term. Meantime, a summer 1885 fire raced through his Los Robles home during his administration destroying almost all of his personal possessions, including his military and Civil War papers and memorabilia.
However, Stoneman did leave office with a tremendous stroke of luck, With the 1885 completion of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe transcontinental railroad line directly to Los Angeles through the San Gabriel Valley and adjacent to his property, the famed “Boom of the Eighties” ensued.
Taking advantage of the opportunity, the ex-governor subdivided the “Stoneman Tract” and placed it for sale in spring 1887, realizing a small fortune. This tract is now in north Alhambra adjacent to San Marino and this Google Map link shows the area around Garfield, Stoneman, and Monterey streets from west to east and from about Huntington Drive (Oak Street on the map) on the north to McLean Street on the south.
Estranged from his wife in the belief that she had an affair, Stoneman spent much of his later years in his home state of New York and sought treatment for his ongoing hemorrhoid problems. He died at the home of a sister in Buffalo in 1894, and was largely forgotten, though a facility for embarkation of troops going to Asia in the Second World War and the Korean War was named Camp Stoneman in his honor.
The site of his Los Robles home was declared a California state historic landmark in 1958 and a modest ranch-style tract home in San Marino features the plaque at the edge of its front years along the street, as seen in this Google Maps link.