A Trio of Photographs of Mission San Gabriel from the 1880s

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

On this day in 1771, Mission San Gabriel was established at the Whittier Narrows area near present South El Monte and Montebello and became the first European settlement in Los Angeles County, predating the founding of the pueblo of Los Angeles by a decade.  Though the original site is not known with certainty, it is likely that it was on the west bank of today’s Rio Hondo, the old channel of the San Gabriel River, and north of San Gabriel Boulevard.

After just a few years and likely due to flooding from the river, the mission was moved to its current location on higher, dryer ground.  Over succeeding decades, San Gabriel became a prosperous institution, known as “The Queen of the Missions,” with huge acreage under its control east to San Bernardino, enormous herds of cattle and horses, and substantial farming operations.

Yet, this success was measured from the perspective of the Spanish and Mexican priests who ran the mission.  A different view was held by a large number of “neophytes,” native aboriginal Indians whose beliefs, traditions and practices were denigrated, while missionaries sought to convert them into Catholics and civilize them by their standards.  Violence and disease decimated that population of natives, as happened throughout the world where similar instances occurred, though descendants are still in the region today.

SV Mission San Gabriel 2012.435.1.3
This 1880s stereoscopic photograph of Mission San Gabriel from the Homestead’s collection was taken by Frederick H. Rogers and is an interesting contrast to others taken in the previous decades from about the same location.

By the early 1830s, the Mexican government was ready to secularize, essentially close, the missions, which, idealistically, were supposed to only exist for ten years, deemed enough time for the work for which they were established.  Secularization also led to the conversion of mission lands for private ownership through grants by authorities in the department (this was the official term) of Alta California.

One example of this change in land tenure was the granting of Rancho La Puente, formerly one of the larger and more intensively used of the mission’s many ranchos, in early 1842 to John Rowland.  This was not done without severe protests by priests at San Gabriel, who claimed to be using La Puente for the pasturing of cattle and horses, despite secularization.

In July 1845, a new grant to La Puente was issued by Pío Pico, the last governor of Mexican-era California, fresh from seizing that position with help from Rowland and William Workman, the latter captain of the extranjeros (foreigners, meaning Americans and Europeans) in Pico’s force that confronted Governor Manuel Micheltorena at Cahuenga Pass earlier that year.  Workman’s name was officially added as owner, though he’d occupied half the ranch and had rights of use as if an owner from the original grant.

Mission San Gabriel Church And Belfry 2009.386.1.1
This is an unattributed cabinet card view of the belfry and part of the stone church with what looks like recent additions to the landscaping.

Workman’s assistance to Pico led to another grant, in 1846, to the lands formerly held by the mission, by the governor to his compadre and to Hugo Reid, a native of Scotland who was married Victoria Bartolomea, a native woman of significant standing.  The grant to the mission lands, however, was invalidated by the United States Supreme Court in 1864.

Workman and Temple family members also partook in weddings, baptisms and other sacraments at the mission over the years.  For example, Workman and his wife, Nicolasa Urioste, who lived as a couple under common-law from the late 1820s in New Mexico, were married at the mission in February 1844 along with Benjamin D. Wilson, who came to the region with Workman a few years earlier, and his first wife, Ramona Yorba.  Members of the families were sponsors for many baptisms at the old church and they undoubtedly attended many funerals, as well, in the period from the early 1840s to the 1880s.

Today’s trio of highlighted photographs from the Homestead collection are from the 1880s, showing the mission in distinct views.  The first was taken by Frederick H. Rogers, who worked for a brief time in Los Angeles during that decade, and is from a typical vantage point.

SV 3085 Stone Stairway Mission San Gabriel 2010.305.1.1
Henry T. Payne’s 1870s views of the mission were featured in a post about the mission two years ago.  This photo is from the early 1880s when Payne was a partner with his brother, Daniel, and Thomas Stanton and shows the stone steps leading to the choir loft–the steps are still there.

In fact, a post on this blog two years ago on this date shows two 1870s views from about the identical location.  The Southern Pacific railroad tracks in the foreground are found in the earlier images and, notably, the tracks have been lowered in recent years in a major project in the Alameda Corridor East program.  That work has also yielded a massive amount of archaeological material relating to the mission.

Also of note is that pepper trees recently planted when some of the 1870s photos were taken had, of course, grown significantly when Rogers took his image and a large, wide-spreading tree (an oak, maybe) also stands out.  Wooden fencing at the right, where there is a horse-and buggy, also remained from the earlier views.

The second photo is unattributed, but also looks to be from the 1880s.  It shows another common perspective, this one of the belfry along with the west end of the stone church.  Note that four of the six bells were in place.  A story told later was that Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, owner of the nearby Rancho Santa Anita and who also assumed, by foreclosure on a loan to William Workman and his son-in-law, F.P.F. Temple for their namesake Los Angeles bank, much of La Puente and other properties, had a bell returned to the mission that he claimed “fell” onto his vehicle one day as it passed by.

Palm trees of recent vintage and a planter, probably also newly added, filled with bushes and shrubs ornament this section of the mission, the rectory of which is an adobe house off to the left outside the image.

Then, there is a focused view of the outdoor steps leading to the choir loft, an image taken by the firm of Payne, Stanton and Company in the early Eighties.  Henry T. Payne was associated with two of the 1870s views mentioned in the 2016 post and partnered with Thomas Stanton and his brother, Daniel, for a short-lived enterprise.  The weathered and worn steps, still there today, are next to one of those pepper trees mentioned before and a bit of that wooden fence is also in view.  A peek over the fence shows the rural area now replaced by all the trappings of suburbia.

These great 1880s photographs help show the changes and transformations that took place at one of our region’s oldest historic sites, one that has a controversial and contested story that will continue to develop and evolve.

2 thoughts



    Has there ever been a conclusive archeological study/project by any entity/institution to locate the original mission site with certainty in Whittier Narrows?

    I’ve always felt that this is a location worthy of a monument or other designation.

    In spite of the treatment of the native population there; it’s a site that is significant to our historical record. Both good and bad.

    I’ve always been curious.


  2. Hi Charles, thanks for your question. There have been a few major archaeological surveys done and it appears that the general area is agreed upon (west of the Rio Hondo) and north and east of San Gabriel Boulevard. The problem looks to have been that so much was disturbed at that area over the last 200 years in terms of flooding from the river, ranching and farming and, especially, oil development. If you’re in our area (City of Industry) we have copies of some of the archaeological reports that you’re welcome to look at on site. Thanks again.

Leave a Reply