by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Growing up, Columbus Day was generally commemorated by a day off from school and a moderate amount curriculum was devoted to the Italian, sailing for the crown of Spain, “discovering” America. Obviously, this characterization is highly flawed. While the navigator did not actually reach the enormous American landmass, coming close by landing on some of the Caribbean islands, it was also conveniently omitted in these tellings that native peoples were in the “New World” for many thousands of years, with many stating they were always in their native lands.
Also usually left out of the narratives was the enormous human cost of European contact (rather than “discovery”). Unintended consequences like the ravages of imported diseases wreaked terrible havoc on natives who had no immunities. Beyond this, the brutality of conquest and the horrors of slavery and forced labor took untold lives, to the extent that, within just a generation or a few of these, entire peoples were wiped out. Much of this was in the service of transporting the riches of gold, silver and other valuable materials back to Europe for the ornamentation of palaces, churches, and individuals.
Even when there was more discussion of native peoples in, say, American history courses, these tended to focus much more heavily on the impact of European conquest and domination of what became the United States and the “pioneer” movement from sea to shining sea. Left out was any semblance of substance about most native groups, aside from the occasional mention of, for example, the Iroquois Confederacy, the bravery of Geronimo or Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, and the triumph of Sitting Bull over Custer at Little Big Horn (though even that was usually couched in terms of the latter’s abysmal position and deployment of his troops in that 1876 battle).
Recent movements to either replace Columbus Day or pair it with Indigenous Peoples Day have stimulated a great deal of controversy and Los Angeles County has decided to replace the former with the latter. It just so happens that my background includes being a quarter Italian and a sixth Hawaiian, with the rest a smattering of many other ethnicities that have long led me to identify as “mixed”, so it has struck me for many years that the situation involving Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples Day is tied directly into my heritage(s).
So, on this day, it is also striking that documentation of native settlement and use of the Homestead is virtually non-existent. Much of this, clearly, is that the written history of the area began with the arrival of the Spanish in the last part of the 18th century and, as with many other places, disease, violence and other elements led to the decimation of almost all native peoples within just several decades.
By the time the Homestead’s interpretive era of 1830-1930 enters into the picture, the native population was obviously very much reduced, though the Mission San Gabriel which exercised control over a great deal of territory from the mission site east to San Bernardino, including the Rancho La Puente, was on the verge of being “secularized,” basically, shut down, and the ranchos converted to lands available for private acquisition.
The local village of Awig-na or Awiinga appears to have been a large one in pre-European times and its location has been described as being in at least a couple of places. One is where La Puente High School and the city park is situated now, while another, identified by Bernice Eastman Johnson in her The Early Inhabitants of the Los Angeles Area, published by the Southwest Museum in the early 1960s, was very near El Campo Santo Cemetery, established by William and Nicolasa Workman in the 1850s.
In fact, it is very plausible that both sites and others were village locations, depending on factors like flooding from San José Creek, which runs just south of the Homestead on its way from the Pomona area to the San Gabriel River. The village could have been by the cemetery when water levels were low and then moved further away after flood periods.
When Mission San Gabriel used Rancho La Puente for stocking and grazing cattle and horses and for raising grain, Awig-na provided the mostly involuntary labor for these endeavors and immediately due north of the Homestead, across modern Valley Boulevard and the Southern Pacific Railroad track, the priests had the natives build an adobe granary to store the farm products harvested on the ranch.
Notably, however, the limited archaeological work done at the museum in recent years has led to the discovery of a very few items, including shaped stones for grinding, that are indicators that the site where the Workman House and La Casa Nueva stand was used by native peoples before the Workman family settled on La Puente in early 1842.
It is not easy to discern now because of all the grading done over the years, including when the Homestead was restored in the late 1970s and very early 1980s, but the Workman House in particular was on a knoll so that it sat higher than the areas around it. We can’t assume, though, that William and Nicolasa Workman chose an undeveloped site. They may well have picked out a spot that was previously utilized by the natives, whether as a village, work site, or for some other purpose.
While there is no record of this, it also stands to reason that natives made the adobe bricks for the Workman House and other buildings that would have been near the home and elsewhere on the ranch. One such structure stood south of the house and quite close to where the Homestead Museum Gallery is now and survived into the 20th century.
As noted earlier, written documentation of the indigenous people at the Homestead is extremely scarce. The only significant mention of natives is from an October 1856 visit by an artist, Henry Miller, who traveled through California to make sketches of the missions.
While staying with the Workmans, Miller was asked to draw some plans for some proposed structures and wrote:
Amongst the drawings which I made for Mr. Workman was a plan for a chapel which he is going to build here for the benefit of his Indians who live near his [note the possessive of “his Indians] house in their shanties and who work for him, earning 50 cents a day.
The following May, Roman Catholic Bishop Thaddeus Amat blessed the cornerstone for what was called St. Nicholas’ Chapel, named for Nicolasa Workman. Little is known about her, but she was born in Taos, New Mexico, and it is possible that she had some proportion of Pueblo Indian in her ancestry.
A descendant of Venancia Peña Davis, a native woman from the Mission San Luis Rey area in modern Oceanside who lived near Antonia Margarita Workman and F.P.F. Temple at the Misión Vieja or Old Mission community near present South El Monte, has told me that the two were close friends and this was because they were both indigenous people, albeit from different parts of the Southwest.
The chapel looks to have been completed about 1860, but, despite Miller’s first-hand account of natives living near the Workman House, the federal census taken that summer does not list any Indians residing in proximity to the Workmans. John Rowland, however, Workman’s friend and co-owner of La Puente and residing just a mile or so east, had 23 natives listed in his household. John Capps, a farm laborer two households from Workman had two indigenous persons in his household. It may be possible that some of those in these listings were employees of Workman.
No natives were shown near Workman in the 1850 or 1870 censuses. By the time the latter was taken, a scourge of smallpox raged through the county killing many, including, presumably, many natives. That census only listed a couple hundred natives, though many were moved to reservations, including some in what had been Los Angeles County before Kern County was created in the mid-1860s.
As for the 1850 census, only a couple hundred indigenous people were enumerated in that count conducted in the first couple months of 1851, but that number was, as with the entire county, vastly low. In fact, in summer 1852, the only state census was conducted, and it found nearly 4,000 Indians, along with many more people of other ethnic groups.
William Workman was in England when the state census was made, but Nicolasa, the Temples and their first three children, ranch foreman Juan Matias Sanchez and other laborers appeared on the preserved sheet. Beneath these are eleven natives, all but one male and eight of which were over 21 years of age. It is possible that these indigenous people were employed on the Workman portion of La Puente.
It is unfortunate that documentation of the indigenous presence at the Homestead during our interpretive period of 1830 to 1930 is so limited. We do have a space in the foyer of the Homestead Museum Gallery where stained glass windows, done by John Wallis Studios of Pasadena in 1982 were installed above and between the doors. The images depict natives and Spanish soldiers at the building of la puente, or the bridge that spanned San José Creek when the Portolá Expedition came through the area in summer 1769 and a couple of native artifacts are displayed there, as well.
For the last several years, the Kizh-Gabrieleño Band of Mission Indians have been involved by presenting the Under the Oak Tree program, the next of which is coming up on 2 November, and giving lectures and providing demonstrations at festivals and other events.
While our written history is sorely deficient in documentating the indigenous presence at the Homestead, we know that native peoples occupied and used the site for untold years prior to the arrival of the Workman family. Indigenous Peoples Day is one day a year to remember the native people of our area, but we should do so all year long in recognition of the lack of representation that has occurred in the past and will be remedied to whatever extent we can in the future.