A Photograph of the La Brea Tar Pits, 27 June 1928

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

A month from tomorrow the Homestead will host a program commemorating the 250th anniversary of the Portolá Expedition of 1769-1770, the first time that Europeans traveled by land through California.  The event, on Sunday, 28 July, includes a morning hike in the Puente Hills, through which the expedition crossed from what is now Orange County to what the group called San Miguel, or San Gabriel, Valley, and to try and get a view of the area that expedition diarist Father Juan Crespí led him to be “struck with wonder.”

After the hike (for which all reservations are already taken, though there is a waiting list), a panel including representatives of the Kizh-Gabrieleño Band of Mission Indians, two members of the Orange County Historical Society, which is hosting a sold-out bus tour on Saturday the 27th, and who have published a new book on the route through that county, and yours truly.  We’ll discuss aspects of the expedition, including the diaries of three of its members, the route it used, and the viewpoints of the indigenous people who were described as “heathens” by the Europeans.

The timing of the end of July corresponds with when the Portolá party moved through northern Orange County and into the eastern San Gabriel Valley, where the expedition built a bridge (puente) of willow poles to cross San José Creek not far from the Homestead.  After the group left the area named Puente because of the bridge, it moved westward, crossing the San Gabriel River (Rio Hondo) at the Whittier Narrows, and on to the Río de Porciúncula, or Los Angeles River.

This excerpt and the one below are of the field draft and edited notes of Father Juan Crespí from the Portolá Expedition of 1769-1770 and come from a published version, A Description of Distant Roads, edited by Alan K. Brown and published by San Diego State University Press in 2002.

While camping there, leader Gaspar de Portolá and some of his charges went to the west to determine what was found on the plain leading towards the Pacific.  On 2 August, Crespí, whose diary was far more detailed and substantive than that of Portolá or engineer Miguel Costansó, made the observation:

Our Captain and the scouts reported that about half a league or more from this spot where we made camp, to the west, they came upon volcanoes of pitch coming out of the ground like springs of water. It boils up molten (and that there must have been forty of these springs, and perhaps many more, they said) and the water runs off one way and the pitch another.

What Portolá and his men found were what we know today as the La Brea Tar Pits, recently including the George C. Page Museum, and a part of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.  Crespí added:

They reported having come across a great many of these springs and seeing very large swamplands of it, enough they said to have caulked many ships with.  Although we wished to, we did not ourselves have the luck to see these pitch volcanoes; instead, as it was some distance out of the way we were to take [north and west from the Los Angeles River], our Governor refused to have us to go by them.  We christened them los volcanes de brea de la Porciúncula, The pitch volcanoes of The Porciúncula.

As for the reference to using the tar for caulking ships, it should be mentioned that the aboriginal Indians made use of the material for their canoes that were heavily utilized in local waters including accessing the Channel Islands, such as Santa Catalina.  They also used the tar for fuel, for gluing together fiber containers and the like, and for adhering shell decorations.

The Europeans who established the town of Los Angeles a dozen years after the Portolá Expedition came through the area and their descendants and successors made frequent use of the pits applying the pitch to the roofs of their adobe houses to seal them against the elements.

Several miles to the southwest of the Homestead, there is the Cañada de la Brea, or Brea Canyon, through which the 57 Freeway runs today, and tar also bubbled to the surface there.  It may well be that the Workman family and others in the area used the tar there for coating their house roofs.


By the early 20th century, a related product in the vicinity of these “tar springs,” as the pools were often called, became of tremendous value.  Oil wells sprung up in Brea Canyon specifically where a geological anticline ran along the Puente and Chino hill ranges from the west at Whittier to the east in Olinda, now part of the aptly named City of Brea.

Meanwhile, at the Rancho La Brea, a 4,400 acre land grant made in 1828 to Antonio José Rocha and Nemisio Dominguez, the tar pits were within an area that eventually became the La Brea oil field.  The original ranch house, located behind high walls next to the famed Farmers Market on West Third Street, is still owned by the Gilmore family, which had large oil interests in the field, as did G. Allan Hancock, whose father Henry was a prominent surveyor in mid-19th century Los Angeles.

Notably, there was a provision in the Rancho La Brea grant that local residents had unrestricted rights to access the tar pits when needed for roofing projects.  It was also said that workers who went to the pits to draw tar referred to it as “the boneyard,” because of the presence of animal bones, both of recent critters who got caught in the tar as well as ancient fossils.

An early written account of those fossils was compiled in the mid-1870s, but it was not until the first years of the 20th century that early excavations took place at the tar pits.  In 1905, James C. Merriam of the University of California at Berkeley engaged in work there and Los Angeles High School biology teacher James Z. Gilbert brought his students to do the same.

In 1913, G. Allan Hancock, owner of the area, gave Los Angeles County exclusive excavation rights for three years—this happened to be the year the county’s Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art (note the order!) opened at Exposition Park.  The institution worked nearly 100 sites in those years and unearthed 750,000 specimens, including many remarkable fossils of very old prehistoric animals.

La Brea tar pool 2008.226.1.1.jpg
This 27 June 1928 photo from the museum’s holdings shows a detail of the La Brea Tar Pits and came from the publications area of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, D.C.

Hancock Park, the name of a tony subdivision nearby, was also bestowed on a county park established in 1924 at the tar pits site, while active oil exploration and extraction continued at the La Brea field.  In the late 1920s, the county museum continued occasional excavations.

It was during that time, on this day in 1928, that tonight’s highlighted artifact for this post, a photo of a portion of the tar pits, was taken.  The image, which was once owned by the publications section of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, D.C., established by U.S. Steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie in 1902 for scientific research, is a close up of the tar pools, as they were called, and shows animal remains, though it is not clear or explained on the image what these were.

In the early 1960s, the National Park Service designated the area as a National Natural Landmark and, in 1975 the George C. Page Museum opened there next to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which split from the old county museum (now the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County) and opened in 1965.  In fact, as LACMA has expanded over the years, more discoveries of fossils and other materials have emerged.

This year brought a name change as the Page Museum and Tar Pits collectively are now known as “La Brea Tar Pits,” a name long in common usage.


2 thoughts

  1. While writing a newsletter article about the artist/photographer Solomon Carvalho, who visited Los Angeles in 1854, I found this description of the tar pits in his journal: “near the shores of the Pacific Ocean, there is a lake of bitumen or asphaltum, used almost altogether in Los Angeles as a covering for the roofs of houses. In winter it does very well, but the dropping of hot pitch from the eaves of the houses in hot weather, is not agreeable … Gentlemen’s clothing is frequently spoiled by this material.” I assume he was talking about the La Brea tar pits, although there may well have been other such phenomena throughout the area, as you have indicated. Carvalho’s sense of geography is somewhat suspect.

  2. Hi Eleanor, it does appear that Carvalho’s description is of the tar pits, especially the reference to “lake” and the use of the tar for the roofing of houses, although what near the ocean meant to him may be different for others!

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