by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Before the onset of the personal camera in the 1890s, having your photograph taken was, for the most part, a rare event. As such, to give out your portrait to others was, in most cases, a notable token of appreciation and friendship.
Today’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection is just such an example. It is a carte de visite, literally a “calling card,” photo of Ygnacio del Valle, one of the most prominent Spanish-speaking Californios of his era, which he presented to someone in the Temple family about 1870.
Del Valle was born on 1 July 1808 in the state of Jalisco in Mexico, then still under Spanish rule, though not for long. When he was ten, an Argentinian ship commanded by a Frenchman named Hippolyte Bouchard conducted raids along the coast of Alta California, a very sparsely populated, poorly defended and, therefore, highly vulnerable territory that I once saw referred to as the “Siberia of Mexico.”
Alarmed authorities in Mexico City ordered two military companies to go defend Alta California and one that left San Blás on the west coast of Mexico included del Valle’s father, Antonio. Within a couple of years, the long revolution against Spain was won and Mexico became independent.
In 1825, Antonio sent for Ygnacio, who sailed to Monterey. Not quite three years later, Ygnacio entered military service as a second lieutenant and worked for Governor Jose Echeandia at San Diego. He rose to be a captain, was commander of the San Diego presidio, or military installation, and was the head of the customs house there, a position of noted influence.
In 1832, an internal dispute at Monterey, one of many internecine political fights in Alta California, led to a strange situation. Antonio was on one side of the conflict and Ygnacio, who was on the staff of Governor Jose Figueroa was on the other, the latter being the victorious camp. The situation caused a rift between father and son that was never healed. Ygnacio, who’d been a commissioner under Figueroa for the important task of secularizing (basically, closing) the California missions as order by the Mexican government, remained in Monterey for several years before he left the army and returned south.
After retiring from military service in the late 1830s, the senior del Valle petitioned departmental governor Juan Bautista Alvarado for a land grant and was given Rancho San Francisco, formerly part of the Mission San Fernando of which Antonio was, for a time, the administrator. Like the Rancho La Puente soon granted to John Rowland and William Workman, San Francisco was eleven square leagues, or just over 48,000 acres and it spanned parts of Santa Clarita and points west into the Santa Clara River Valley.
Antonio moved onto the ranch in 1839, but only lived two years more and, on his deathbed, intended to reconcile with his son, but, before Ygnacio could reach San Francisco, his father was dead. Without a will to determine what to do, the ranch was divided, with the westernmost portion of about 13,500 acres given to Ygnacio. In 1843, del Valle was granted Rancho El Tejon north of Rancho San Francisco–later a part of Tejon was sold to Jonathan Temple, the first of his family and only the second Anglo to live in Los Angeles.
Around this time, del Valle married María de los Angeles Carrillo, and, in March of the same year, 1842, an astounding gold discovery was made in Santa Clarita Canyon on the eastern portion of Rancho San Francisco. F.P.F. Temple, who’d only arrived in Los Angeles the prior summer, was able to acquire gold dust from the placer mining done in the area and sent it east for his brother, Abraham, to sell at the national mint in Philadelphia. Del Valle was appointed the local judge for a mining district established in that area.
Del Valle, as many prominent Californios did in those days, chose to live full-time in Los Angeles, while his portion of San Francisco, denoted as Rancho Camulos, was occasionally visited. He lived for a time with County Judge Agustin Olvera a house on what was long known as Wine Street, later changed to honor Olvera after his death, at the north end of the Plaza. Del Valle was then a neighbor of the prominent American merchant and rancher, Abel Stearns.
In the waning years of the Mexican era and as Pío Pico became the last governor of Mexican California (with significant support from Workman) del Valle entered politics, serving on the departmental junta, or assembly, and was also the governing body’s secretary and, then, treasurer.
Just before Los Angeles was chartered as an incorporated city in 1850, del Valle served as alcalde, roughly equivalent to a mayor. That spring’s election included his becoming Los Angeles County recorder, responsible for maintaining land records. Two years later, del Valle was elected to the state assembly, serving in just the third session of that body.
In 1861, del Valle decided to move full-time to Camulos, where he built, in the 1840s, the first section of an adobe house for the ranch foreman, after initially building a corral and having cattle stocked on the ranch. Over time, he acquired other portions of San Francisco from other heirs of his father and a nearby ranch, Temescal. When he moved there, del Valle added three rooms and a basement to the structure.
In the early 1850s, several years after his first wife’s death during childbirth, del Valle wedded Isabel Varela, whose father, Serbulo, was well-known for his service during the Mexican-American War and well-liked by Americans because of his insistence that Anglos taken prisoner at the Chino ranch during the war were not killed, as some Californios wanted. The eldest of the twelve children, only five of which lived to adulthood, of Ygnacio and Isabel was Reginaldo, whose portrait is also in the Homestead’s collection and which will be the focus of a future “Portrait Gallery” post.
The move to Camulos, however, came at a difficult time. The winter of 1861-62 featured torrential rains for over a month, known to some as “Noah’s Flood,” and the damage in the region was severe. This La Niña event was followed by a crippling El Niño condition with a horrific drought over the following two years, wreaking further havoc on the already tottering cattle industry.
Though del Valle had to sell much of San Francisco in the mid-Sixties, he was able to adjust and adapt with a growing emphasis on agriculture, including vineyards, citrus, almonds, wheat and other crops on the rich soils of the Santa Clara River Valley. Wine and brandy from Camulos were considered of very high quality compared to other local products. Over time, the Camulos adobe expanded to some twenty rooms and there was, among many outbuildings, a brick winery and a chapel (not unlike what the Workmans did during the 1860s).
Del Valle continued the successful operation and management at Camulos until his death at the age of 71 in March 1880 of heart disease. Another prominent Californio, Ygnacio Sepulveda, wrote a short biography of del Valle, upon which this post largely depends, and said of him with great eloquence:
There was much in his life to engage our affection and respect. Few men have impressed upon the memory of their friends a livelier sense of excellence and unsullied virtue. In the private and domestic circle he was greatly beloved. He was confiding and affectionate. He possessed an enlightened benevolence and a warm sensibility, always eager to advance those who were within the sphere of his influence. He was a man of inflexible honor and integrity, a devout lover of truth, and conscientiously scrupulous in the discharge of his duties. The tears that fall upon his grave are unstained by any mixture of bitterness for frailty or for vice. He lived as a true man would wish to live. He died as a good man wished to die.
Sepulveda’s account, including this paean, was published by Henry D. Barrows in the Annual Publication of the Historical Society of Southern California in 1898 and Barrows, while writing that he did not know del Valle well, did add that “I knew of his general character and the warm regard in which he was held by his intimates and the community in which he was prominent for so many years.”
These “intimates” likely included whoever in the Temple family received this photo, perhaps F.P.F. Temple, and which has been preserved for some 150 years, including its donation along with many other photographs by Ruth Ann Michaelis, daughter of Edgar Temple, whose family owned the Homestead from 1917 to 1932.
For more on Ygnacio del Valle and the Rancho Camulos, check out the Camulos website.