by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As the Homestead’s book club wraps up its 2017 slate of discussions on works of history, today’s meeting was about Robert Glass Cleland’s 1941 classic Cattle on a Thousand Hills, a book that, though just a tich over seventy-five years old, holds up well in its discussion of greater Los Angeles history during much of the 19th century.
Much of the ground covered by Cleland forms a core period of our interpretation at the Homestead, especially the cattle ranching and farming conducted by the Workman and Temple families from the 1840s into the 1870s. While almost any recent 30+ year time period could be described as “transformative”, this was certainly the case for that era.
Consider, for example, what Los Angeles was in 1841 when F.P.F. Temple arrived from Boston and the Workman family came in from New Mexico and then jump forward to 1875 when the town was at the end of its first sustained period of growth. A place of perhaps 1,000 or so persons had nearly 15,000. Demographically, Americans and Europeans were in a distinct minoruty of the population at the begining of that period, but had become a small majority by the end of it.
Within five years of the arrival of Temple and the Workmans, the turmoil of the American invasion of Mexican California took place and, as dramatic a change as that was, nobody in early 1847 could have anticipated the onset of the Gold Rush a year later and the staggering alterations to the region that resulted.
For one thing, the arrival of people of varied ethnicities from around the globe to a place that had, essentially, no practical government or law enforcement system and for purposes that amplified basic human greed led to levels of tension and violence that were stunning. Even though the oft-cited idea that there was a murder a day in Los Angeles in 1853 is clearly grossly overstated, even the documented few dozen a year for such a small population was very high proportionally speaking.
Then, there was the unexpected economic boon that came to greater Los Angeles and, especially, its surrounding cattle ranches. The Workmans, Temples and their compatriots among the ranching classes profited enormously from the appetite for fresh beef among the hordes who came to California in those first several years of the rush. High prices for beef cattle enriched ranchers, many of whom, especially Californios, had never experienced wealth or the access to goods and services that came along with it.
Until about 1855, Los Angeles County’s ranchero class was living high on the hog (well, cattle) and, while times were good, many didn’t worry, as many of us today don’t, too much (or enough) about the future. When the placer mining in the gold fields were essentially exhausted, the flush days ended. In addition, imported cattle of better breeds led to a decline in demand of local animals, which led to a glut in the market.
A national depression in 1857 was followed within a few years by the dual devastation of deluge and flooding (1861-62) and drought (1863-1864). An already stricken cattle economy was largely destroyed by the disasters and the region was also hit with smallpox epidemics and grasshopper infestations that almost seemed Revelations-like.
The region was reeling and some appeared to have given up on the area. One instance was Jonathan Temple, F.P.F.’s half-brother, who was the second American or European to live in Los Angeles, settling there in 1828. Owner of the pueblo’s first store and then of landholdings like the 27,000-acre Rancho Los Cerritos, Temple quickly acquired significant wealth and status and expanded that with enterprises like leasing the national mint of Mexico.
In 1857 and 1859, he built two early brick commercial structures, evidently in the belief that Los Angeles was poised for growth. But, the souring economy demonstrated otherwise and the 1859 Market House failed as a commercial prospect and was leased to the city and county for administrative offices and the courthouse. With his cattle inventory severely depleted by the floods and droughts and land values tanking, Temple departed for San Francisco. He sold Los Cerritos for only $20,000 or about 75 cents an acre and died in the Bay Area shortly after the 1866 sale.
Another major problem for the region’s rancheros was the burden associated with the California land claims process. In the aftermath of the war and with the federal government, by a Senate vote, deleting a provision in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo protecting Spanish and Mexican land grants, owners of these grants had to defend their claims in federal courts. Even though a commission that heard these claims approved about two-thirds of them, the policy of the feds was to appeal all successful claims, no matter who owned the properties and why.
When the process started in 1852, the Gold Rush was still in full swing, but the average claim took seventeen years to wend its way through the system. That was 1869, after the end of the Gold Rush and the floods and droughts.
Many ranchers racked up debts and took out loans with prevailing high rates of interest. Others died and left their properties to descendants and the resulting division of land weakened the earning potential of cattle ranches on which animals needed a lot of acreage. Still others used their property to pay attorneys and surveyors in lieu of fees or had their assets attached when they couldn’t pay those bills. There were other reasons, too, and the Californios, being less familiar or unfamiliar with American legal ways and also not as likely to commercially farm, instead relying solely on cattle, were most adversely affected.
With all of the issues confronting ranch owners through the 1860s, it is small wonder that most of the ranches in the area were lost, sold, and subdivided. This came just in time for the post-Civil War era, in which immigration to the region grew dramatically and many of the new arrivals were farmers who took up the smaller parcels of land for agriculture.
While the Californios experienced drastically declining economic and political power, the situation was even more dire for the native aboriginal Indians. With their numbers already badly depleted after decades in the mission system and exploitation as laborers generally during the Spanish and Mexican periods, native peoples were even more vulnerable to the tumult of the American era.
Violence, disease, alcoholism and other factors led to a terrible decline in the county population, from about 8,000 in 1852, to some 2,000 just eight years later, to only 200 in 1870. Some of this was also due to movement out of the area, forced relocation into reservations, the creation of Kern County out of a portion of Los Angeles County where natives lived, intermarriage with Latinos and other causes.
By the 1870s, as agriculture boomed, transportation slowly improved with the introduction of the railroad and slightly improved conditions at the harbor at San Pedro/Wilmington, and other conditions improved or came into being, greater Los Angeles entered into its first boom.
For William Workman and F.P.F. Temple, who were seasoned and prosperous ranchers and farmers (expanding the latter significantly after 1865), their desire to move headlong into the growing business world made sense. In real estate, oil, railroads and other enterprises, they took on a diverse portfolio of projects and entered into the new world of banking with partner Isaias W. Hellman, a young and talented merchant who was destined for financial greatness. If the two older men had stayed with Hellman and allowed him to manage their investments through their bank of Hellman, Temple and Company, which opened in 1868, all would have been, presumably, much better.
A split in early 1871 led Hellman to join forces with the other Los Angeles banker, ex-governor John Downey, in forming Farmers and Merchants Bank. Temple and Workman went on their own—and that story has been amply told on this blog.
When the state’s economy, largely built on a speculative bubble in silver mining stocks at Virginia City, Nevada, cratered in summer 1875, the flaws in Temple and Workman’s management were starkly revealed. Unable to repay a loan from Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, the two men failed within months. Greater Los Angeles entered into an economic depression that lasted a full decade until the Boom of the 1880s burst forth on a far larger scale than its modest predecessor.
The above was basically the core of my comments to book club members this morning and the artifacts shown here from the museum’s collection were symbolic of the period and issues covered in Cleland’s book.
For example, an 1842 document from Mexican California authorities gave William Workman privileges of land and water use on Rancho La Puente as if he was an owner, though the grant was only to his friend and business partner John Rowland. Why is not entirely clear, except that Workman’s political reputation in New Mexico, conveyed by its governor to local officials, might have encouraged the British expatriate to keep a low profile!
An original cattle brand of F.P.F. Temple is representative of the burgeoning cattle and livestock economy (horses were also very prized and fetched high prices during the Gold Rush years) and brands from te mid-19th century are pretty hard to find these days.
The stereoscopic photograph, issued by Henry T. Payne of Los Angeles, but probably taken by William M. Godfrey, whose business was purchased by Payne, of members of the Temple family and employees at Rancho La Merced, is anothe rare item of a ranch property from around 1870.
The letters are also nice samples. One, written by German migrant John Fine in 1857, made reference to new brick buildings in Los Angeles, including the first of Jonathan Temple’s structures that became the Temple Block, now the site of City Hall. The other, a missive by ex-governor Downey in 1863, makes mention of the onerous taxes plaguing the region.