by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Today was the first of two workshops held at the Homestead and conducted by the Los Angeles County Regional Planning Department for its Eastern San Gabriel Valley Plan for unincorporated areas. More about this next weekend after the second workshop, but today’s concerned open space and land use and included an explanation of the plan, a presentation by a staff member from the Theodore Payne Foundation about California native plants, and a presentation by me on the early history of Rancho La Puente to give some historical background to much of the area embraced in the plan.
The PowerPoint-illustrated talk set the scene by noting the presence for thousands of years of the local indigenous people, whose village of Awig-na has been identified as being in at least two locations: where La Puente High School and the city park are and just east of El Campo Santo at the Homestead. The village likely moved depending on such conditions as water levels in San José Creek, which is now a flood control channel but which was a year-round stream that was an obvious place for a native village site. If the level of water in the creek was normal, the natives could have resided close to it, but, if flooded, they would, obviously, have lived further away.
This summer, on the weekend of 27-28 July, the Homestead will commemorate the 250th anniversary of the Portolá (accent on that last letter!) Expedition, the first movement by the Spanish by land through Alta California. The party traveled through this region in the last days of July 1769 and, of the three diarists in it (including leader Gaspar de Portolá and engineer Miguel Costansó), the most detailed by far was that of Father Juan Crespí.
The priest, who was seeking sites for missions to christianize and “civilize” the indigenous people, wrote in extraordinary detail about the landscape, the “heathens,” as he called the natives, and other elements. As the expedition moved through the Puente Hills from what is now north Orange County using “la abra,” an opening later a name for Rancho La Habra, in the hills, it descended into what Crespí termed “San Miguel Valley.”
Camping next to San José Creek, the party then had to build a bridge to cross the watercourse, with Crespí terming the structure as “la puente del arroyo del valle de San Miguel.” While modern Spanish is “el puente” for a bridge, these Catalonians, with their 18th century dialect, could use “la puente” depending on the circumstance and this gave our local rancho and the later city their names.
While Crespí felt that the location where the bridge was situated, almost certainly west of the Homestead, was ideal for a mission location, he was also impressed with the Whittier Narrows further west because of the abundant water from the San Gabriel River (being the Rio Hondo until flooding in 1867-68 created the current channel of the San Gabriel) and the plant and animal life that flourished there.
Two years later, the priests Angel Somera and Pedro Cambón under orders from Junipero Serra, chose Whittier Narrows for the site of Mission San Gabriel. Not long after, certainly by 1775, the mission relocated to the current site, almost certainly because of flooding from the river, which in rainy years (like this one) could carry enormous quantities of water rushing down from the San Gabriel Mountains.
Over its 60-plus year history, Mission San Gabriel had a wide range of territory under its sway, comprising of many ranchos used for raising cattle and horses and growing wheat and other crops. One of these, appearing in records as far back as 1792, was Rancho La Puente. Information on the rancho during the mission era, however, is pretty sparse. For example, there was reference in 1816 to a desire to build a yglesita, or chapel, on the ranch, which obviously meant that the indigenous population was large enough for a small church there, even as native peoples were dying off at huge rates because of disease, violence, alcoholism and other causes.
Though the missions were only supposed to achieve their objectives of converting natives to Catholicism and turning them from hunters and gatherers to settled farmers in just a decade, these institutions lasted for decades until they were “secularized,” basically, closed, by decree from Mexico City. The mission churches, in most cases, became parish churches and the lands they controlled beyond a limited area around the church was made available for grants to citizens.
This last part was crucial, because in the relatively narrowed region of California settled by the Spanish, most of the usable land was controlled by the twenty-one missions established between 1769 and 1823. Consequently, only about two dozens land grants were made in the Spanish era, up to 1821, and just another two dozen or so before secularization took place in 1834.
After that, however, the floodgates opened and over 700 grants were made in the twelve years before the American invasion and seizure of Alta California in mid-1846. One of these was for the Rancho La Puente, which was granted by Governor Juan Bautista Alvardo to John Rowland in early 1842 and confirmed on this day, 9 March, (with William Workman, for reasons unknown, not being a grantee, though he was given the right to use La Puente as if an owner) and then regranted three years later by Governor Pío Pico to Rowland and Workman (adding him was through a petition on Rowland’s behalf that Workman was left off the first grant by an “involuntary fault,” whatever that was supposed to mean!)
A couple of decades ago, however, a document came to light that revealed prior knowledge of La Puente by Rowland. The artifact is a bill of sale from 1834, about the time the missions were secularized, for the purchase of horses from the ranch by Rowland through an agent sent to California from New Mexico, where Rowland and Workman lived, for the transaction. It seems plausible that Rowland had been told something of the ranch and area and was determined to acquire it when he, Workman and several dozen others came to the area over the Old Spanish Trail in fall 1841.
For nearly thirty years, Rowland and Workman owned La Puente intact, operating very successfully as cattle ranchers and farmers on a domain that totaled just under 49,000 acres. It was only in the early 1870s, as greater Los Angeles was in its first sustained and significant period of growth, that some of the ranch was sold off, as well as rights-of-way deeded to the Southern Pacific Railroad, which built a line east from Los Angeles and finished the portion to La Puente just several months after Rowland died in October 1873.
About a month later, F.P.F. Temple wrote his son Francis, who was then studying at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and who returned to supervise William Workman’s vineyards and wine-making and then own the Homestead from 1880 until his death eight years later, about the construction of the line. He also mentioned that a depot on La Puente was sited near some “old adobe walls” that were near the Workman House and along the railroad line.
Back in the 1980s, David Workman, a great-grand nephew of William and Nicolasa Workman, donated an 1870 map commissioned by William Workman at the time he wrote his will. The map indicated parcels on La Puente that were being set aside as noted in the will for disposition to his son, Joseph, his three eldest Temple grandsons (Thomas, Francis and William) and to Frederick Lambourn, the tutor in the Workman private school at the Workman House for the Temple grandchildren and then foreman of the Workman portion of La Puente. In the southeast corner of the 500-acre tract being left to Thomas Workman Temple, situated north of what is now Valley Boulevard, there is a small set of dashed lines and the word “Ruin.”
In addition, some fifteen years ago, I acquired for the Homestead some maps that were issued by the state surveyor as land claims for the Spanish and Mexican era land grants were being processed. These maps, dating from 1853 to 1863, have a very interesting reference to “Mis. Cranoras” with a circle indicating the location on the ranch quite close to the Workman House.
My rudimentary knowledge of Spanish was enough that the word “cranoras” seemed nonsensical and it took a little cogitating to realize that whoever wrote that word on the map corrupted the word graneros. The word granero means granary, which makes perfect sense because it was known from mission documents that La Puente was partially used by the Mission San Gabriel for the growing of grains, such as wheat, and it obviously stands to reason that a structure would be built along the main road running through the ranch to store the harvested product. So, the map reference was clearly indicating the “mission granary,” though why this was thought important to include is not as clear.
Today the approximate location of the mission granary is an area of warehouses and manufacturing in the City of Industry. The state of the “old adobe walls” and “ruin” from the 1870 map and the letter from three years later was probably such that all traces could well have vanished not long after. Still, these few scattered references are an interesting, if little documented, aspect to Rancho La Puente and Mission San Gabriel history.