by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Benjamin Davis Wilson (1811-1878) was one of the most prominent residents of greater Los Angeles for nearly four decades, but his settling in the region was an accident of omission. Wilson, a native of Tennessee, came to the area with the Rowland and Workman Expedition in fall 1841 and, he told an interviewer shortly before his death, immediately intended to take a ship from Monterey to China.
His journey north, however, proved fruitless and he literally missed the boat and had to return to Los Angeles. Married in February 1844 at a dual wedding ceremony in which William Workman and Nicolasa Urioste, after about fifteen years together, finally had a church nuptial, to Ramona Yorba, a daughter of the preeminent Californio, Bernardo Yorba, Wilson acquired the Rancho Jurupa near modern Riverside.
He was involved, with John Rowland and Workman, in assisting Pío Pico fend off Governor Manuel Micheltorena at Cahuenga Pass in early 1845, a confrontation with no casualties that led to Micheltorena ceding leadership of Mexican California to Pico, who became its last governor.
Wilson was also involved in the Battle of Chino during the Mexican-American War when he and other Americans and Europeans took refuge in the home of Isaac Williams at Rancho Santa Ana del Chino and were captured by Californios concerned about what the Anglos there might do. Taken to Paredon Blanco in what became the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, Wilson and his fellow prisoners, including John Rowland, were freed due to the intercession of Workman and others.
In the early years of the American period at Los Angeles, Wilson, who owned a store at the corner of Main and Commercial streets (yesterday’s post highlighted a photo showing the Polaski and Goodwin store at the same site about twenty years later), became involved in city politics, serving as city clerk and one of the town’s first mayors. Later, he was a county supervisor and state senator. He also served as a local Indian agent and wrote an 1852 report that has been published and is a very interesting record of the native people of our area.
In 1854, Wilson acquired a property in the San Gabriel Valley from Victoria Bartolomea, a native Indian of great repute in her community and who owned the Huerta de Cuati and Uva Espina tracts because of her position of responsibility with the Mission San Gabriel. She was married to Hugo Reid, a native of Scotland and settler in Los Angeles in 1832 and who was a close friend of Workman and Wilson.
While a deed indicated that Wilson paid Victoria $7,000 for her land, there are descendants of the native Indians from this area who insist that she never received payment and that the land was taken from her. Soon after he acquired the land, he bestowed the name “Lake Vineyard” upon it, because of the rare spring-fed lake on the property and the extensive vineyards that he expanded. He built a wagon road into the San Gabriel Mountains, one of which was named for him and the famed observatory there also bears Wilson’s name.
By the time he moved to Lake Vineyard, Ramona Yorba had died and Wilson married Margaret Hereford. He had several daughters and one son, though John Wilson, who was a heavy drinker, died young. One of his daughters, Susana, with Yorba married James de Barth Shorb, a native of Maryland, who became Wilson’s business partner. Wilson gave some of his Lake Vineyard property to Shorb, who name the estate “San Marino” after the plantation on which he was born in Maryland. Shorb died in the mid-1890s and several years later, the estate was purchased by Henry E. Huntington and some of the property is now the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens
Another daughter, Ruth, from Wilson’s marriage to Hereford became the wife of George S. Patton, who came to Los Angeles with his mother a couple of years after his father, a Confederate officer, died during the Civil War. George Patton and Ruth Wilson had two children, a daughter and a son, General George S. Patton, Jr., the controversial World War II commander of the U.S. Seventh and Third armies.
Wilson’s real estate holdings included part-ownership of Rancho San Pascual, much of which became the city of Pasadena, established not long before his death; a part of what was later Beverly Hills, and substantial tracts at Wilmington near Los Angeles Harbor and where Wilson College was opened under the auspices of the Methodist Church. The college failed in 1876 after a couple of years of operation and during the economic downturn that included the collapse of the Temple and Workman bank. The Methodists tried again in 1880 with the creation of the University of Southern California (the Methodist affiliation ended after several decades.)
After Wilson’s death in March 1878, he was buried in San Gabriel Cemetery, where such notables as architect Myron Hunt, potato chip enterpreneur Laura Scudder, sanitarium founder Walter Barlow, architect Henry M. Greene (of Greene and Greene, with his brother), lawyer Alfred B. Chapman (whose namesake street is in Orange along with that of his law partner Andrew Glassell, an uncle of George Patton, Sr.), and jazz pianist Pete Jolly, are also interred.
Today’s highlighted artifact is a stereoscopic view taken about the time of Wilson’s pasing by famed California photographer Carleton Watkins of a portion of the landscaping from Wilson’s house at Lake Vineyard. Included in the image are a profusion of trees, bushes, shrubs and a bit of the drive and wood fencing leading to the residence. The photo imparts a feeling of the lushness of a “country estate” that could be found in this portion of the San Gabriel Valley, for which places like Pasadena, San Marino, Sierra Madre and other locales were well-known.