by Paul R. Spitzzeri
In May 1851, the first newspaper in Los Angeles was launched by John A. Lewis and John McElroy, soon joined by William H. Rand (later a founder of the famed Rand McNally and Company in Chicago.) The weekly paper went through a series of owners and publishers in its first several years, a situation common for small-town papers that struggled to survive in a very tough and competitive business.
Then, in June 1856, the Star was purchased by Henry Hamilton, who proved to be the exception to the rule by publishing the sheet for eight years, followed by an induced hiatus (of which more is below), before returning in 1868 to run the paper for a few more years.
Not only was Hamilton a rare example of longevity among newspaper publishers in early Los Angeles, but he was especially colorful, both through his vivid and aggressive style and his unflagging devotion to the Democratic Party and the cause of the Confederacy when the Civil War erupted.
Today’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection is an original carte-de-visite portrait of Hamilton and his friend William McKee, taken about 1869 by early Los Angeles photographer Stephen A. Rendall. This recent acquisition is not only an early image from the emerging city, then in the early stages of its first sustained period of growth, but is the only known image of Hamilton, who was a prominent person in town for about a dozen or so years, but lived in Los Angeles for thirty-five.
Hamilton was a native of Derry, also known as Londonderry, in what is now Northern Ireland, and was born about 1830 or perhaps a couple of years earlier. He came to the United States in 1848, perhaps because of the horrors of the Irish potato famine and then went west to California from New Orleans the following year, as the Gold Rush erupted and the 49ers came to the coast, or at the end of 1850, depending on the source.
After mining for a short period, he worked for newspapers, including, according to his obituary, the Daily Courier, and the Public Balance, according to a history of the Star. Both sources agree that he was a founder of the Calaveras Chronicle, a long-standing paper at Mokelumne Hill in the southern gold fields, where one of his partners was James J. Ayers.
After a few years of running the paper by himself and, as his obituary claims, developing “exceptional abilities as a journalist” and making the Chronicle “a power in the state,” because much of California’s population was in the mining regions, he sold the paper and briefly returned to San Francisco working for a job office, probably doing general printing.
After acquiring the Star, Hamilton quickly made a name for himself and, 1856 being a presidential election year, the publisher zealously promoted the candidacy of Secretary of State James Buchanan, the Democrat, against John C. Frémont, the controversial and colorful nominee of the newly established Republican Party, and Know-Nothing candidate and former president (1850-1853), Millard Fillmore.
Another new paper, the first Spanish-language one in Los Angeles, El Clamor Público, founded by a remarkable teenager named Francisco P. Ramirez, came out strong for the Republicans and Frémont. Buchanan bested Fillmore in the Los Angeles County tally, while Frémont was a distant third. Hamilton and Ramirez quickly became intense rivals.
More importantly for his survival in frontier Los Angeles, however, Hamilton’s unwavering support for the Democrats was crucial because the town and county were in the complete control of the party. This did not mean, however, that he became wealthy as the Star‘s proprietor—he actually struggled for much of his tenure to make the paper a going concern.
Much of this had to do with the circumstance that, by the time he acquired the paper, the regional economy, which boomed during the first half of the 1850s due to the Gold Rush trade in local beef from regional cattle ranches, was in a downturn that worsened through the remainder of the decade and into the 1860s. A few other papers established during Hamilton’s early tenure, the Southern Californian, the Southern Vineyard and El Clamor Público, failed to survive while the Star held on.
Hamilton not only covered local news, but devoted space to state, national and international affairs, encouraged local poets, including a teenager who became Ina Coolbrith, one of California’s early notable female poets, to submit material, and showed a keen interest in literature.
As for the City of Angels’ dubious and devilish reputation as a particularly violent town, Hamilton covered a somewhat regular rash of brawls, fights and the not infrequent murder, with relish and proved to, initially, be a supporter of vigilantism in the absence of what many perceived to be a very ineffective legal system.
When Los Angeles County Sheriff James Barton and a posse of several men were brutally gunned down in modern Irvine in January 1857 while seeking a criminal gang, Hamilton gave virtually unqualified support for some excessive reactions that included several lynchings and mass arrests of Latinos.
He fiercely fought a bitter war of words with Ramirez during the crisis, but, by the end of the 1850s, however, he moderated his tone and called for more support of the established legal system. When Ramirez, however, ran for the state assembly in 1858 and lost, Hamilton couldn’t resist dinging the young editor of El Clamor Público for his 500 supporters rewarding him for his “consistent advocacy of their pernicious principles.”
Occasionally, Hamilton deviated from the Democratic machine’s orthodoxy, such as his opposition to a proposal by Assembly member Andrés Pico, brother of ex-governor Pío Pico and hero both of the Californio resistance to the American invasion in 1846 and his support for vigilantes after Barton’s death a decade later, to divide California and create a southern state of Colorado. Hamilton campaigned vociferously against the proposal, which, however, was approved by about three-quarters of locals and passed statewide. Only the Civil War presented its ratification by Congress, but, by then, Hamilton and others had larger concerns.
Abraham Lincoln polled badly in Los Angeles County in the election of 1860, but narrowly won the presidential campaign. Moreover, after Milton Latham, a Democrat became California’s governor and then was appointed a Senator, the new lieutenant governor and Los Angeles resident John G. Downey became chief executive and swore to abide by the Union when war erupted the following year.
Hamilton not only was a devoted Democrat and supporter of the Confederate States of America, but he had to contend with a new opposition paper, the Semi-Weekly Southern News, later simply known as the Los Angeles News, which initially preached neutrality politically when launched in 1860, but then became a Union mouthpiece.
The Star proprietor’s prose became more purplish with anger and resentment against Lincoln and the Union as the war wore on, as he raged and railed against what he called the degradation of whites and the elevation of blacks by the federal government.
He represented a majority in southern California which was supportive of the Southern cause, so it was cause for much concern among Hamilton and fellow Democrats when Union troops were stationed in Los Angeles and surrounding areas, especially Camp Drum near the harbor at Wilmington, whose developer, Phineas Banning, a native of Delaware, was a Union man.
Notably, William Workman was a Democrat, though what little we know of his politics seems to indicate that he was more moderate than Hamilton and other Southern sympathizers. Workman’s son-in-law, Massachusetts native F.P.F. Temple, however, was a Republican, even if he and others of his views identified as “Union” in their sympathies during the war and “independent” or of various “People’s Party” iterations after it.
Hamilton’s outspoken editorials landed him in serious hot water and, in October 1862, he was arrested by a federal marshal and taken by carriage to the harbor at San Pedro/Wilmington bound for Alcatraz Island. As noted in an exhaustive ten-part post here recently, the island was granted to William Workman by Pío Pico in 1846, handed over to F.P.F. Temple, acquired by Frémont in a sale that was not honored by the United States and then seized by the executive order of President Fillmore in 1850.
Hamilton was released after ten days in custody and apparently did not actually go to Alcatraz but was held by a provost marshal. After a celebratory barbecue at El Monte on his return, Hamilton resumed his work with the Star (kept going by an assistant during his absence) and remained a critic of the Union.
In 1863, he ran against Ramirez for the local state senate seat and narrowly beat his former journalistic rival, 391-344, though Ramirez contested the results, claiming that the victor was disloyal to the Union and, therefore, not fit to serve in the senate. A hearing was held and Hamilton was allowed to take his seat.
But, in October 1864, the Star suspended business, with Hamilton away in the senate and, probably, not inclined to continue when his term ended. The local economy was also in dire straits due to floods early in the Sixties followed by a devastating drought. He went to Tucson, Arizona in 1865 and ran unsuccessfully for county recorder. In 1866, he followed his former publishing partner, Ayers, to Honolulu where the men operated the Daily Hawaiian Herald, the first daily English-language paper in Hawaiian kingdom, though the venture did not survive the year. He then tried running a paper in San Bernardino called the Guardian.
Hamilton returned to Los Angeles in 1868 and took up the operation of the Star once more, though it was noticeably absent of the political stridency and vigor of his previous eight-year run. This portrait of the veteran journalist and his friend McKee was taken not long afterward by the British-born Rendall, best known for his multi-image panorama of Los Angeles taken in 1869.
As the small city was in that aforementioned boom, the paper became a daily and competed with the News (and, later, the Express and Herald). In 1872, Hamilton decided he’d had enough not just of the paper but the daily grind of the newspaper business and leased the Star to two successive men but then sold it to the second, Benjamin C. Truman, the following year.
Hamilton purchased a house and vineyard nearly adjacent to the Mission San Gabriel and moved there permanently about the time he sold the Star. He lived quietly, with almost no public mention except his serving on the San Gabriel District school board, holding an office as a Mason, and his donation in 1890 to the Historical Society of Southern California of a full run of the Star during his tenure.
Ravaged with a “malady [that] was excruciating” and bearing “terrible agony of acute and constant pain with a quiet heroism,” the 60-something Hamilton, who sold his San Gabriel property just a few weeks prior, died in March 1891. He was lauded by the Herald “for his sterling principles and his lofty character and the paper added that “his integrity was of that steady and unflinching timber that neither blandishments nor threats could move or bend.”
A separate encomium praised Hamilton’s character, knowledge, writing style, and intellect, among other qualities, saying “he was eminently a man who had the courage of his convictions, and no power could swerve him from his course once he had made up his mind as to the right.”
Perhaps his enemies among Republicans, supporters of the Union cause, Francisco P. Ramirez, and others would have disagreed to some extent, but Henry Hamilton was a noteworthy, if controversial, and colorful character in Los Angeles as it moved from being a remote frontier town in the mid-1850s to a small, growing city by the 1870s.
When he died, the area had just passed through the famed Boom of the Eighties and telephones, electricity, cable streetcars, and other improvements were in place. This photo is the only known image of one of the city’s early publishers and journalists and is a prized part of the Homestead’s photograph collection.