Transformations in Transition: Challenges for People and Place in Los Angeles, 1830-1880

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

This morning, the Homestead hosted the first of two workshops for teachers organized with the UCLA History-Geography Project, an initiative launched in the early 1990s with the expressed purpose of “collaborating with teachers to make history relevant and empowering for students.  A Framework Alignment utilizes the CLIC concept embodying Content, Literary, Inquiry and Citizenship to “emphasize culturally relevant curriculum and research-based practices designed to meet the needs of a diverse student body.”

Social Studies Coach Amparo Chavez-Gonzalez organized and led the components of the workshop focused on providing teachers the structure and content for bringing historical materials into the classroom based on the CLIC idea and Director Daniel Diaz worked with her and our staff on putting together the workshop and its elements.

My colleagues Alexandra Rasic and Gennie Truelock worked closely with Daniel and Amparo on getting the collaboration together and offered many valuable ideas and cogent input for what the Homestead could provide in terms of resources, experience in working with teachers and students, and how to structure a tour of the site with the goals and needs of the workshop in mind.

My role was basically to provide a historical overview of the era from about 1830 to roughly 1880 and cover areas of the history of greater Los Angeles that showed how people dealt with the significant and substantial challenges that confronted them during that half-century.

Battle of Los Angeles map 1847
A signal event that transformed greater Los Angeles beyond virtually any other was the seizure by invading American forces in 1846-47.  This sketch map of the battle scene is from the museum’s holdings.

The talk was a half-hour, followed by a forty-five minute tour, primarily of the Workman House with a short, partial visit to La Casa Nueva, where concepts covered in the presentation were reinforced and elaborated upon as Gennie walked through the site.  The presentation was also an opportunity to couch our site and family history in the regional context in a way that, hopefully, will prove useful to the Homestead’s interpretation of that history.

The basic idea in the talk was that the transition from the Mexican era to the American period brought tremendous transformations and daunting challenges to residents of greater Los Angeles, particularly Spanish-speaking Californios and other Latinos, but to many others, as well.

It was also expressed that the museum is an ideal place to discuss these major issues through the stories of people in place as we look at the Workman and Temple families in the broader context of the region.  I added that we can provide a three-dimensional view of what is often seen in classrooms and elsewhere in two dimensions.

There were about a dozen major components covered in the talk, illustrated through a PowerPoint show, with the first emphasizing the remoteness and isolation of Los Angeles and the Mexican department of Alta California in what has been denoted “the Siberia of Mexico.”

Pico family scan 1850s
The inset of the eyes was there because of the work of Dr. Ivan Login in determining that Pío Pico’s features in this well-known photo were not a reflection of his part-African ancestry, but, rather, because of his acromegaly, a pituitary gland disorder that is almost always fatal, but from which he survived, and that caused broadening of facial features like the nose and lips, the loss of facial hair, infertility and other effects.  In later photos, his nose and lips were smaller, his facial hair returned and, after the death of his wife, María Ignacia Alvarado, second to left, he had several children.

The sparsely populated and tight-knit Spanish-speaking community, who identified as “Californios” because of the distance from the rest of Mexico and the self-sufficiency needed due to that isolation, experienced its first extranjero, or foreign group of residents, starting in the late 1820s, not long after Mexican independence from Spain.

The second such Anglo to live in the City of Angels was Jonathan Temple, who arrived in 1828 by way of Hawaii and San Diego after leaving his native Massachusetts.  He was soon joined by such figures as Abel Stearns, Hugo Reid, Michael White and, later, his half-brother F.P.F. Temple, William Workman, John Rowland and others.

As ethnic minorities, most of these Anglos made efforts to become part of the majority community, in almost all cases by becoming Mexican citizens and by marrying Latinas.  A good number of them also became the first merchants in the area and this allowed some to become very wealthy and politically well-connected and influential during the last fifteen or so years of the Mexican era.

The inevitable conflict between Mexico and the United States in the Mexican-American War, the latter’s first imperial war, involved two conquests of Los Angeles, the first in late summer 1846 and the second in early 1847.  Some Anglos openly supported the United States and others either remained neutral or muted in their views.

WW & AMW dag 2 1852
William Workman and his daughter Antonia Margarita Workman in a daguerreotype photograph from circa 1852.

William Workman, as noted in this blog, on several occasions, was something of a negotiator between the two parties, meeting with Commodore Robert F. Stockton prior to the last battle, fought in modern Vernon southeast of Los Angeles, to arrange an amnesty for Californios defending their homeland and he also brought out, with two others, the flag of truce as the Americans marched into the town and took possession.

Then, as the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was being ratified by the Mexican Congress, came the stunning news of the discovery of gold in the Sierra Nevada Mountains east of what soon became Sacramento.  The staggering changes wrought by the rush were many and enormous in their implications and were unique in world history as gold seekers from various areas of the world descended on a region lacking a decent government and law enforcement system.

The results included shocking levels of violence and turmoil, including in Los Angeles, where the cattle industry provided great wealth for the upper class rancheros who found ready markets for fresh beef in the burgeoning populations of the north.  These years also brought the first arrivals of Jewish, black and Asian residents, while the native population, already decimated by disease, violence and other causes, continued to decline dramatically.

For several years, fortunes were made by many ranchers in our region, including Californios who often aligned themselves socially and politically with the better-off Anglos, some who were rancheros and others who were in the emerging business class of Los Angeles, which experienced modest growth in the Gold Rush era.  Working-class Mexicans were not generally affiliated with the well-to-do Californios, just as laboring Anglos did not have much in the way of strong connections to the wealthier Americans and Europeans in the area.  So, class is an element sometimes not given as much attention as race or ethnicity.

Birdseye Sonoratown LA Godfrey 1870
This William M. Godfrey photo from the Homestead’s collection was taken about 1870 and shows the Sonoratown area of Los Angeles between the Plaza and Fort Moore Hill, on which Godfrey stood, and the Elysian Hills in the background.

The decline of the Gold Rush by the mid to late 1850s, a national depression in 1857 and floods and drought in the first half of the Sixties posed many challenges to residents of greater Los Angeles.  For those who held ranchos granted under Spain and Mexico, an additional burden was the lengthy and expensive process of getting their properties confirmed in a land claims procedure that took an average of 17 years to adjudicate.

For Spanish-speaking land owners, there was the additional complication of a lack of familiarity with English and with the common law that governed life after 1847 and this was above and beyond the general issues of economic difficulties, expenses with lawyers and surveyors, and other matters.  Some Anglos, too, struggled to maintain their claims, as well.

By 1870, as the land claims process was finally winding down, losses of ranches accelerated and were amplified by the aforementioned issues of economic deprivation, natural disasters, and so on.  As Anglos became the numerical majority in the region, Spanish-speakers increasingly lost economic security and political representation, though there were a few exceptions.  The Workman and Temple families, even with some challenges confronting them, were able to maintain their landholdings, wealth and influence as the region entered its first significant and sustained period of growth in the post-Civil War period, roughly from the late 1860s through the mid 1870s.

Among those very few Latinos who maintained some wealth and political power during these years were ex-governor Pío Pico, former judge Agustín Olvera, attorney and judge Ygnacio Sepulveda, and Antonio Franco Coronel, who held many political positions including California state treasurer.  These were notable exceptions, however, and even some of them, Pico, in particular, experienced later financial distress (in his case, much of this through a blatant swindle) and the loss of political and social influence.

Main Street Detail from Plaza South Payne 1870s
This remarkable Henry T. Payne photograph, possibly a reissue of an earlier Godfrey image, shows the old and new and the literal direction of growth in Los Angeles.  The Plaza and the 1822 church in the foreground reflect the pre-American pueblo.  The Pico House was ex-governor Pico’s attempt to keep the area viable, but the Americans and Europeans were building to the south, including the Temple Block at the right in the distance.

One example given was Pico’s attempt to keep the historic Plaza area viable as Americans and Europeans moved the business center of Los Angeles to the south, including the Temple Block area where City Hall is now.  His Pico House hotel was a landmark of its time, but it struggled to stay viable from its opening and the former governor’s efforts were futile in the face of changing conditions and the movement of the business area away from the Plaza.

Inevitably, booms go bust and, in 1875-76, the bubble burst on this one.  As the economic situation worsened in the last months of 1875, William Workman and F.P.F. Temple, ranchers and farmers turned business figures, proved to lack the acumen and ability to properly run their Temple and Workman bank.  Its failure was the first major business collapse in Los Angeles and was symptomatic of the end of that first boom in the region, which paled in comparison to the next one a decade later.

The summary was that the remarkable and rapid changes that engulfed greater Los Angeles, especially in the quarter century from about 1850 to about 1875, brought a boon for many Anglos, who rose in number, economic might, and political power and influence, while Spanish-speaking residents usually saw corresponding reversals, with a very few exceptions.

As the Workman and Temple families experienced a dramatic and devastating financial collapse, but also lived in the region throughout the half-century covered in today’s presentation, the Workman House proves to be an excellent venue for discussing the major capstones of regional history and its transformations and challenges made manifest in three dimensions.

T&W Bank interior
The Temple and Workman bank collapse in 1875-76 was the first major business failure in the growing city.  This photo is in the collection of the Seaver Center for Western History Research, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

It was briefly noted in the end, as something of a transition for a short visit to La Casa Nueva, that the late 19th and early 20th centuries brought a romantic reinterpretation of pre-American California precisely as most physical references to that era, whether through people (Pico, for example, was considered something of a notable “relic” as he lived into his Nineties before his passing in 1894) or structures, like the oft-crumbling missions.

The Ramona phenomenon, restoration of mission structures, early published histories of the region and other aspects fed the romantic viewpoints that proliferated. The Temple family, as direct a connection as they had to much of that early history,  reveled in the romanticism through such displays as the decoration of their 1920s mansion, La Casa Nueva, and in other ways. A visit to the home is a striking visual way to see how that process, traces of which are definitely with us today, developed over decades.

So, while the turnout was disappointing today, there will be a second workshop held on Saturday, 22 February.  There will be some variations in the content and presentation, but today’s talk was a good opportunity for us at the Homestead to rethink our approaches to content and interpretation.

This is particularly true in continuing to put emphasis on terms like “transformation,” “transition,” “people,” and “place” as we not only look “to make history relevant and empowering for students” but for all our visitors through our varied programming.

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