by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Just about a quarter century ago, in summer 1995, I spent some time doing research at the Seaver Center for Western History Research, a remarkable facility tucked away at the lower level of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. I was going through microfilm of Los Angeles County tax assessment records for the Workman and Temple family from the 1850s through 1870s.
Historical research on the internet was in its infancy and, for example, Ancestry.com was not launched until the following year. So, when I got to the 1863 records and noted the references to various Workman and Temple family members and scanned the rest of the “W” listing, I was surprised to come across a reference to “Workman’s John,” underneath which was “F.M. of C.” and then “free / John Ballard.”
It didn’t take more than a minute or two for me to realize that the initials “F.M. of C.” meant “Free Male of Color,” and that “Workman’s John” was “John Ballard,” but the possessive was striking. When California adopted its first constitution in 1849, slavery was expressly forbidden, though not for any notion of equality or anything close to it. Rather, there was great concern about Southerners bringing slaves to dig in the gold fields or other utilize them in competition with free labor.
Previous research at the National Archives branch, then at Laguna Niguel and now in Riverside, with microfilm of census records, revealed that Workman, who lived for a few years in central Missouri before migrating to Mexican territory, specifically New Mexico, was there with his brother, David, who was a slave owner.
Perhaps the idea that William Workman could have black labor on the Rancho La Puente and then have this recorded as a possessive in “Workman’s John” was not to be that surprising. Beyond his brief years living in a slave state, Workman spent many years in Southern California, which not only had many Southerners residing in it, but also had a number of ranchos, which could be viewed as roughly analogous to Southern plantations, particularly with the remaining indigenous population utilized as laborers, often farmed out in lieu of paying fines when arrested for public intoxication or other charges.
Ballard’s tax assessment listing was short: “Personal Property on the Puenta [sic] Rancho—2 Gentle [that is, broken or tamed] Cal. Horses, val[ue] of $30. 20 Unbroken Cal Horses val $80.” For the $110 total value of these animals, Ballard was taxed $2.98 (with such a low rate of taxation, though there was a Civil War-era income tax imposed by the federal government for a few years to pay for the war effort, public works and court operations, for example, were poorly financed.)
Twenty-five years ago, that’s where this little tidbit was left—paper copies of the microfilm record and an accompanying transcript showing Ballard’s listing along with the others for William Workman placed in a research file. Years passed with little reference to “Workman’s John” made, other than an occasional comment at a docent training class talk or a public presentation.
Years later, however, I noticed that Patty Colman, a professor of history at Moorpark College in Ventura County, published an article “John Ballard and the African American Community in Los Angeles, 1850-1905” in the Summer 2012 issue of Southern California Quarterly, a journal published since the 1880s by the Historical Society of Southern California, of which I was a board member from 2008 to 2016.
Her article was excellent, not just in discussing Ballard’s life, but evoking the small, though diverse and vibrant community of blacks in early American era Los Angeles. Patty gave a talk based on her article and research on Ballard at the Homestead not long afterward.
What she found was that the first documentation of Ballard, who was born in Kentucky in June 1829, in the area, though one of his children, William, stated in the 1930s that his father came in 1848 just after gold was discovered in the Sierra Nevadas, was a marriage record for Ballard and a woman only identified as Amanda, who was a native of Texas and the lack of a surname led Patty to surmise that she was a slave.
This nuptial took place on 6 November 1859, but the federal census listing, taken in June the following year, showed that the couple had two daughters, one a year old and the other three years of age and both born in California. So, it was obvious there’d been a common law relationship since 1857. Also of note was that the presiding minister, Jesse Hamilton, was black and conducted four marriages among that population in fall 1859, suggesting that Hamilton had just arrived in Los Angeles.
In her discussion of the 1863 tax assessment listing, Patty observed that, while the other black men who were property holders were denoted by the same “F.M. of C” reference, “for some reason, Ballard is the only one with the additional description and relation to a white man, La Puente Rancho owner William Workman.” She added that it is not know what the two men’s relationship was, though Ballard’s son William stated in a 1933 interview that his father was in the El Monte area to raise hogs. Perhaps this was his role on the Workman portion of La Puente.
Patty found that, in 1864, Ballard was assessed, along with a partner, for “improvements located on 50 acres of land lying in El Monte,” and this seems to be a separate location than La Puente and, perhaps, more in line with his son’s much later recollection. In any case, Ballard had not just horses, but a half-dozen oxen, a corral, furniture, farm equipment, and a wagon.
Two years later, he and the same man paid three times as much in taxes for more property, a clear indication of at least some modest prosperity. This was followed by the acquisition of land from Ozro W. Childs, a prominent nursery owner and real estate dealer, and this property was subsequently sold to the wife of Asa Ellis a county supervisor from El Monte.
Back in Los Angeles by the end of the decade, Ballard was one of founders of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church, which remains a pillar of the black community 150 years later, and the first home of which was at Fourth and Charity (later Grand Avenue) streets.
Then, after Lewis G. Green, a barber of longstanding in the city and later a janitor who appeared in the sole known interior photograph of the Temple and Workman bank, sued, in 1870, to be allowed to register to vote as guaranteed by the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution, Ballard and two others did so on 5 July 1870.
At the time, Ballard, his wife Amanda and seven children, ranging from one year to sixteen years, lived at the corner of Hope and Seventh streets and his son indicated that the move back to the city was to provide an education for his children at a “Negro school taught by Ed Thompson, who had a Mexican wife and two children” in a front room of Thompson’s house on First Street, between Main and Los Angeles streets,
The following year, 1871, Amanda Ballard from complications of childbirth, during which the infant apparently also died. Later in the year, Ballard purchased a 20-acre property for $1,000, a significant sum, from Asa Ellis, on Temple and Ellis streets in the western part of the city.
Ballard, however, sold the tract two years later to ex-governor John G. Downey for just $200 and his tax assessment listings show a decline in property, even as values and activity in local real estate were on the rise during the region’s first boom, which ended with a spectacular collapse in 1875-76, during which the Temple and Workman bank went under in dramatic fashion.
Ballard, who married Francis Brigs, a 35-year old widow, in 1879, and then left Los Angeles. In 1880, he bought 160 acres in the Santa Monica Mountains from Antonio Castro for $50 and became a rare resident of this remote area near today’s Westlake Village. Patty wrote that it was a rough existence in the mountains and found some references to the Ballards on their homestead. It appears that Ballard did teamster work, hauling material to and from Los Angeles, to make money.
In 1896, Francis Ballard died and, though he was not named, Ballard was mentioned in an account two years later by Frederick Rindge, owner of the famous Malibu rancho, in which it was related that “his old colored neighbor across the range” was subjected to terrible treatment by white settlers, who set fire to his cabin and tried to force him out, evidently to take his claim.
The 1900 federal census recorded Ballard (who could not be located in 1880 and the 1890 returns were destroyed by a fire) in the newly created Calabasas Township with a Newbury Park post office. He, his daughter Alice, and her two sons, comprised the household and, that same year, Ballard and his daughter acquired homestead patents for their mountain property.
His was 144 acres and hers a full 160, the maximum allowable under the 1862 federal homestead law. In his testimony for the patent, Ballard stated that he settled on the land in February 1880 and described his property, including an orchard and vineyard, outbuildings, and his 16×16 home and separate kitchen of the same size—the value of improvements given as $550. Alice indicated that she’d been on her land, adjacent to her father’s, since about 1888, though she left in 1901 after marrying.
Ballard apparently lived a solitary and difficult final years, with a neighbor stating he often did not have enough to eat. He died in September 1905 at the Los Angeles County Hospital and was buried at Rosedale Cemetery, southwest of downtown.
As for his mountain property, it is not known what happened to it, but, four years after Ballard’s death, there was a newspaper reference to “Nigger Ballard Hill” in that location Later, “Niggerhead” and “Negrohead” were recorded on maps. After efforts led by Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, the mountain was renamed, in 2010, “Ballard Mountain,” removing the offensive slur at long last and giving a too long-deferred dignity to John Ballard’s memory and legacy.