by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The Automobile Club of Southern California’s magazine Westways is one of the more recognizable products of this long-standing and very popular association, which was formed in 1900 just a few years after the first automobile appeared in Los Angeles. The magazine was launched in 1909 with the title Touring Topics and, though there was an obvious emphasis on motoring and tourism, there were periods when historical subjects were common.
This was especially true under the editorial tenure of Phil Townsend Hanna, a Los Angeles native who was thirty when he took the reins of Touring Topics and steered the magazine in a different direction than it took under his predecessors. Hanna was previously involved with the Los Angeles Tribune and Los Angeles Times newspapers, then worked for the local bureau of the Associated Press syndicate before serving as editor of Western Highway Builder before he took on the task of editing Touring Topics.
A member of Los Anglees’ literary community, Hanna brought in artists and writers with whom he associated at salons and events and had them write articles and poems, take photographs, and create artwork for the magazine, which he helmed for thirty years. Under Hanna’s guiding hand, Touring Topics became far more than a club publication about cars and tourism, it was also a literary magazine.
As for historical subjects, there were many interesting articles published in the magazine over the years and tonight’s example from the Homestead’s coillection is the November 1929 issue. The brothers William and George Banning, whose father Phineas was the remarkable figure at Wilmington and what became today’s Port of Los Angeles and who passed on his stagecoach interests to his sons, contributed a lengthy article on the first transcontinental stagecoach line, dating back to the 1850s.
Carl Parcher Russell’s contribution was about the 19th century mining town of Bodie, situated in a remote location in eastern California and which was barely populated in the late 1920s. Today, Bodie is a ghost town and a state historic park and Russell’s piece came as the community was edging closer to becoming uninhabited.
Harold D. Carew, whose The History of Pasadena and the San Gabriel Vallley, appeared shortly after in 1930, contributed an article about artist, explorer and writer Frederick Dellenbaugh, who was an artist on one of John Wesley Powell’s famed explorations of the Colorado River decades before. There is also a fascinating essay by anthropologist Charles Amsden on the lifeways of California’s coastal indigenous people.
This post, however, focuses on a remarkable piece titled “The Spanish-Californians,” comprised of a letter written to Hubert Howe Bancroft, assembler of vast multi-volume histories of California and the West and founder of the namesake library at the University of California, Berkeley, by Ygnacio Sepúlveda, one of the more notable figures of Los Angeles from the 1860s to the 1880s.
Scion of a prominent family, Sepúlveda was a rare example of a Californio who was educated in the eastern United States. In his early twenties, he returned home and was admitted to the bar, becoming one of the very few Spanish-speaking attorneys in early American Los Angeles. He also served a term in the state assembly during the mid-1860s and then went to Mexico for a period and worked in the government, it was said, of the French-installed Emperor Maximilian. When he was overthrown by a rebellion, Sepúlveda came back to Los Angeles.
He was a county judge from 1870 to 1873 and then district judge from 1874 until the court system was overhauled by the 1879 revision of the state constitution. He then became superior court judge (which replaced the district system) and served in that capacity from 1880 to 1883, resigning to become, the following year, a Wells, Fargo and Company agent in Mexico City.
While in Mexico, Sepulveda became a close adviser and confidante of dictator Porfirio Díaz and, when Walter P. Temple visited that country in 1894 and 1895, he purportedly met with Sepúlveda. Díaz was unseated by a revolution in 1910 and Sepúlveda went home to Los Angeles a few years later. Though the introduction to the article stated that he died in 1894, the jurist lived until the end of 1916, passing away at the age of 74. The jurist has been briefly profiled in this blog previously.
The “historical memoir” in Touring Topics was composed by Sepúlveda on 9 July 1874, is in the Bancroft Library collection, and first appeared in print with this article. Bancroft, who sent a team out to interview people about pre-American California, including one in 1877 with F.P.F. Temple, is quoted as saying that the letter was “a valuable contribution to my collection of original manuscripts” and referred to Sepúlveda as “one of the foremost of all the native Californians in respect of both ability and character.”
The jurist’s opening remarks are remarkable for both its tone and its characterizations of the Californios:
There may be found some features in the customs and habits of the early native Californians of Spanish descent, unkown except to their descendants, not totally devoid of interest. Their social, domestic and religious gatherings and the peculiar traits of their private relations form a curious and not an unpleasant record. Up to this day the old paisanos revert with fondness to those primitive years when it the midst of peace, content and plenty, they and their children passed their lives surrounded by repose, anticipating nothing for the morrow which would clash with their simple manners, nothing which would disturb the smooth flowing tenor of their lives.
The words that leap off the page in this quote include “peculiar traits,” “curious and not an unpleasant record,” “primitive,” “repose,” and “simple”. In a way, Sepúlveda almost seems to be handing backhanded compliments to his fellow Californios if not expressing ideas that could easily have been mistaken for those by Anglos.
Examples include the notion that some of the cultural practices were “curious”; that the “primitive” state of pre-American California meant undisturbed “repose” (it was commonplace to refer to Los Angeles before, say, 1870, as a “sleepy pueblo”); and that living for today and not thinking of the future reflected the “simple manners” of Californios.
After listing dozens of surnames of those who came to Alta California “at a very early day,” Sepúlveda did offer a notable and interesting statement about the conditions of those years. He recorded that most immigrants from Mexico came from the northwestern state of Sinaloa, while others were from Baja California, and more from Spain and other parts of Latin America.
He noted that they arrived to “a remote part from the center of government; isolated from and almost unaided by the rest of the Mexican States.” Because of “very rare chances of communication with the rest of the world,” the Californios “formed a society whose habits, customs and manners different in essential particulars from the other people of Mexico.”
To Sepúlveda, this meant that they were composed of “a milder form” possessing “more independence, and less of the restless spirit which their brothers in old Mexico possessed.” For him, it was the Franciscan missionaries, who “threw a softening influence over the customs and manners and pursuits” of the early settlers, who responded with “reverence and love” which were well deserved.
Notably, Sepúlveda lamented the change in the Spanish language “which the nature of the country and the provincialisms which each one brought, demanded” so that the effect was that “it is to be regretted that they did not keep in its purity the Castillian” form.
While there were “preserved a great many memories of old Spain,” including songs, proverbs and legends, the Californios “could learn very little in those days” without the benefit of formal education. Sepúlveda, of course, was among the very few who received a higher level of learning beyond local schools and onw wonders if his “eastern education” led him to the type of analysis and critique delivered in this letter.
The jurist went on to describe the focus on stock raising, the existence of few luxuries (though he mentions Chinese silk and furniture being imported), and the limited use of agriculture, including primitive implements.
Sepúlveda also spoke of the acrimony felt among the settlers “when the central government sent some agent whom they did not like” and, generally, that there was “antipathy toward the Mexicans of the interior of Mexico” leading to revolutions in California politics. This, he wrote, only came after the independence of Mexico from Spain, though it bears nothing that the writer was born in 1842, just five years before the American seizure, so his knowledge of pre-American Los Angeles was necessarily limited to hearsay.
The adherence to religion, meaning Roman Catholicism, was also noted, including important feast days for Corpus Christi on 24 June; the Dia de San Juan at Christmas; and the Noche Buena, Pascuas, and El Dia de la Virgen on 15 August. Then, Sepúlveda observed, the “hospitality [that] was always liberal and most generous” normally “was boundless to friends and strangers” on those special days.
Another signal concept was that of the compadre. To be a godparent of a child meant to have a special bond with the parents of that young one and involved “always treating each other with respect and affection” so that “it was rare to see these pleasant relations disturbed.” Identifying the concept as “one link in the chain of society of those days which contributed to keep in a strong and affectionate manner the social relations between men,” Sepúlveda opined that the compadre idea “no doubt added much to the harmony of society.”
He spoke of courtship and marriage rituals, noting that they were reserved, modest and “strange.” This appears have to been manifested in the control exercised by parents over the betrothed and he added “it is said that the parents of the girl kept her with the most jealous care, and gave the sighing swain but few and rare opportunities of exchanging tender vows with his intended one.” Note his use of “it is said.”
As for the traditions upon the death of a Californio, Sepúlveda wrote of the fact that there were so few people that familial connections were intricate among the settlers so “that the death of any one called forth grief which was universal.” The wake, or velorio, lasted through a night, with many prayers for the deceased. To miss a funeral meant great offense to the family. On 2 November was the Dia de los Muertos, when “all went to the graves of their deceased relatives” to decorate the graves and utter prayers over them.”
Respect and solicitation of community elders was also mentioned, so that children, even those who were married, “looked upon their aged parents with as much tender obedience as if they were still dependent on them.”
Sepúlveda then discussed the renowned horsemanship of the Californios. He related that “everyone was a splendid rider,” though he noted that a few could not ride well and “were looked upon with a sort of contempt.” Then comes another one of those backhanded compliments: “in their able, rapid, reckless, and marvelous management of horses, they could not be excelled by any nation.” Perhaps only the Arabs were as devoted to horses as the residents of pre-American California and one of the greatest gifts to give and receive was a horse.
He closed by claiming that:
There are a great many families in whose veins circulate much of the sangre azul [blue blood] of Spain. Once in a while you see some of the native Californians, like De la Guerra, Pacheco, Vallejo, and others, whose traits of character, features and mental gifts, prove that the true sons of that proud nation whose deeds, power and magnificence once gave her pre-eminence over the powers of the earth.
While playing into the romantic notion of the Californios, or at least the better sort, as “Spanish,” Sepúlveda basically contradicted himself here by noting that only a very few of the residents of Alta California were directly from Spain and that most were from the remote, rural northern states of Sinaloa (and Sonora), as well as from Baja California. Moreover, the forty-four pobladores and most of those who came later were of mixed ethnicities, including Indian and African, and almost all soldiers, artisans and general laborers and hardly those who would speak the “pure Castillian” mentioned above.
Ygnacio Sepúlveda was born at the end of the Mexican period, but in a family that was among the gente de razón, literally “people of reason,” or those who occupied the upper rungs of the social, economic and political ladder. But, he grew up in the American era and was given an education befitting the elite of the east.
He was a lawyer and judge at a time when Californios largely had lost the power they’d possessed before 1850 and perhaps he saw the lives of his ancestors through the lens of his experiences after the American conquest. Finally, his information about those people were by hearsay, though this isn’t to suggest that the material is all or mostly inaccurate, though it does appear much of it was colored both by romance and a tinge of critical judgments common among Anglos.
Reading the Sepúlveda letter is a fascinating series of insights about the nature of the “Spanish Californios” written decades after their heyday had passed by a man who did not grow up during those halcyon years. Still, to the reader of Touring Topics at the end of 1929, the letter must’ve appeared totally authentic, not to say exotic.