From Monte to Misión Vieja: A Gap Wider Than Five Miles, 1850-1930

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Earlier this week, KCRW ran a segment of its “Greater LA” podcast on the history of El Monte under the heading of “Who owns history?  New book reconsiders San Gabriel Valley’s pioneer past.”  This is an essential question and one the Homestead, like all other historic sites and history museums, has to confront as it examines the history of the specific site and its place in the greater Los Angeles region.

The podcast observed that the telling of El Monte’s history, as in so many places, has been almost exclusively focused on the white “pioneers” who settled in that area in the early 1850s.  With segregation strictly enforced, people of color had to live in areas outside the community and, even when they began to settle in town, their stories were not included in the prevailing historical narrative.

The Workman and Temple families are part of that story for nearly eighty years, both peripherally and internally, and their biracial character provides a notable example of how purportedly clean divisions between ethnic groups, whether felt by those segments or imposed upon them, are not always as clear cut as they may appear.

0917015Dilapidated Adobe House El Monte 2013.164.1.3
This decaying adobe structure in the El Monte area might be a remnant of the early American or even pre-American era and symbolizes what was increasingly being lost during the early 20th century, when the image was taken.  All images shown here are from the Homestead’s collection.

It was noted in the piece that the El Monte area (and most of the San Gabriel Valley) was composed of Mexican-era land grants owned by “wealthy Californios” who followed the indigenous people and the Mission San Gabriel.  Actually, not all of those who owned local ranchos were Spanish-speaking Californios (a term distinct from Mexicano because of the isolation and independence through neglect that the locals experienced.)

For example, British-born Henry Dalton, who spent years in South America and Mexico before coming to Los Angeles, owned the ranchos Azusa, Santa Anita, and San Francisquito (the latter including much of modern El Monte), and William Workman, another Englishman, who was half-owner of Rancho La Puente with American John Rowland, were among those with land grants given to them during the Mexican period.

Very soon after the American seizure of Mexican Alta California, Workman’s La Puente foreman, Juan Matias Sánchez, a native of northern New Mexico, and son-in-law, Massachusetts-born F.P.F. Temple, acquired, with Workman, the ranchos Potrero Grande and Potrero de Felipe Lugo, embracing all of South El Monte.  Just a little to the south of these were the ranchos Potrero Chico and La Merced, also controlled at times by Sánchez, Temple and Workman.

Temple School El Monte
A snapshot of students at the La Puente, later Temple, School in Misión Vieja., or Old Mission, the community south of El Monte in the Whittier Narrows largely populated by Latinos in the 19th century.  This image is from about 1914 and shows a mix of Latino and white students.  Seated at right is Thomas W. Temple II, who was part-Latino and part-white, as was his close friend James Rawson, seated at the left.  The school became the site of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers district headquarters at the corner of Durfee and Santa Anita avenues in South El Monte.

When it comes to the ranchos, however, the KCRW piece repeats another common misunderstanding by stating, “after the Mexican-American War, the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo’s call to preserve old land grants was disregarded.”  Many people have assumed that article X, which did call for respecting the land grants given out under Spain and Mexico, remained as part of the ratified document, but it was stricken out by a vote of the United States Senate because the American negotiator, Nicholas Trist, agreed to the article without seeking the approval of his superiors in Washington.

What did transpire in March 1851 was an act of Congress to provide for a land claims process, involving a hearing before a three-person commission, followed by appeals to local federal courts and the United States Supreme Court.  The United States government’s policy was to appeal all successful claims, which comprised some two-thirds of all those presented to the commission.

The result was an average period of seventeen years for these claims to be worked out through the act and, while Californios had the added and enormous burden and disadvantage of dealing with an unfamiliar legal system , even Workman and Rowland spent fifteen years on their claim for La Puente and Temple and Sánchez twenty for La Merced.

2515Main St El Monte 2005.390.1.1
A snapshot from about the 1910s of a parade on Main Street in El Monte.

So, in that context, a quote from a public history professor Romeo Guzmán stating “we can think of American pioneers as essentially all being squatters,” is only partially true.  Moreover, some of the Monte settlers were squatting on lands owned by other whites, as we’ll see below.

To the south of El Monte, within the Whittier Narrows, was, on parts of the Potrero ranchos and La Merced, the community of Misión Vieja (Old Mission), so named because Mission San Gabriel was established in this section of the broader Whittier Narrows area in September 1771.  Its locale on the west bank of the Río Hondo, the old channel of the San Gabriel River (the new course of which was created in flooding during the winter of 1867-68), proved to vulnerable to inundation from floodwaters and it moved to a higher and drier location within just a few years.  But, long before “Monte” as it was generally known was established, the Misión Vieja community was in full swing.

Old Mission was largely composed of Latinos, including the Alvitre, Bermudez, Duarte, Valenzuela and other families, while there were a very few Americans and Europeans there, as well, including Temple and George Barry.  Occasionally, there was a person of mixed ethnicity, such as Joseph Davis, whose mother was a sister of Sánchez.  In any case, this was not a monolithic community, though its dominant population was comprised of Latinos, who could not possible have lived in Monte, which was all white and mostly inhabited by Southerners.

2877Men With Road Grader Cleminson Ranch El Monte 2008.12.1.2
Workers with a team and road grader on the Cleminson ranch in El Monte.  That family was one of the early arrivals in “Monte” in the 1850s and married into other local families.

As for “Monte,” it has long been a motto of the City of El Monte that it was founded at the end of the Santa Fe Trail, a statement repeated in the KCRW piece.  Actually, the Santa Fe Trail ran from central (and then was moved to western) Missouri to Santa Fe, New Mexico beginning from 1822 and this was the route William Workman took when he migrated from the trail’s original terminus, Franklin, Missouri, where he’d lived and worked with his brother David, to New Mexico, where he settled in Taos.

There was, however, a trail that opened in 1829 went from Santa Fe to Los Angeles and which was largely used by trade caravans and it was the Old Spanish Trail, though it was neither Spanish nor old when in use!  While the Old Spanish Trail passed through what became El Monte, it not only predated its founding by over twenty years, but it was essentially closed by 1848.

There were subsequent trails that used portions of it, but the settlers of “Monte” did not.  Instead, these migrants, largely from such places as Texas, Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia and other Southern states, used what has often been called the Gila Trail.  This route ran through Texas, southern New Mexico, and southern Arizona and crossed the Colorado River at modern Yuma, before becoming the “Colorado Road” through Warner Springs, Temecula, and Chino before entering the San Gabriel Valley on the Rancho La Puente on their way to the verdant lands along the west side of the Río Hondo (Old San Gabriel River).  On the east side was La Puente and Workman’s nearly 25,000-acre domain and to the south were the ranchos eventually controlled by him, Temple and Sánchez.

RPPC P E Depot In El Monte 2016.134.1.30
By the early 20th century, El Monte was connected to Los Angeles through the Pacific Electric Railway streetcar system.  This photo is of the P.E.R.Y. depot.  At the right, someone wrote “our frame house” with an arrow to the residence in the distance.

It is also stated in the KCRW piece and on the City of El Monte’s website that the first settlers of that area came during the Gold Rush in 1849-50, though most historical accounts, including by those who were among the arrivals, place the year as 1852.  Caravans brought such families with surnames like King, Johnson, Lee, Mayes, and Thompson.  Another early arrival was Thomas Garey, who later was a founder of Pomona and John Rowland’s second wife, Charlotte Gray, was an early resident of Monte.

These “pioneers” who settled in “Monte” were, as pointed out before, largely squatters, but not just on lands owned by Californio rancheros.  They were putting down stakes on the lands of Dalton, Workman, Temple and Sánchez, as well as on former public lands, set aside as extra grazing land for surrounding ranches, and later released for public sale, though this was not done by the early Fifties when the new arrivals put down roots.  They formed communities like Savannah, where a native village called Sibag-na long existed, and Lexington—obvious referrals to the Southern origins of their denizens long before the town of El Monte sprung up, though the term “Monte” or “the Monte” was in wide use for many years.

Dalton, for example, made deals with those settlers on his domain, and others may have done the same with Workman, Temple and Sánchez, though this trio also wound up filing ejectment suits in Los Angeles courts to force out squatters.  Though they won some of these cases, enforcement, as often the case, proved to be much harder than winning the suits.  In one early 1870s example, a squatter named Bernard Newman, who was sued and faced eviction, shot and wounded a constable sent out to serve notice.

RPPC El Monte Union High School 2013.995.1.1
El Monte boasted an impressive Mission Revival high school campus, but much of its laboring population resided in places like Hicks Camp away from town and those residents did not benefit from the advantages offered by those living in the city.

The financial disaster surrounding the failure of the Temple and Workman bank, and which involved Sánchez who put up his land as collateral for a loan to the institution by Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, changed the dynamics of the land disputes and Baldwin’s agent, Richard Garvey, appears to have worked out further arrangements for “Monte” settlers after Baldwin took over the Sánchez, Temple and Workman holdings between 1875 and 1880.

So, for many years, there was a noticeable gap, in attitude and action if not in miles, between those whites who lived in “Monte” and the Latinos who resided in Misión Vieja.  As the KCRW piece observed, there was the existence of the notorious “Monte Boys,” who acted as vigilantes in the particularly violent 1850s when greater Los Angeles experienced murders and other homicides at rates that are astonishing when compared to other parts of America at the time, much less now.

Much of that violence involved tremendous friction and animosity between people of differing ethnic groups, but usually between whites and Latinos.  While the circumstances, evidence, and conditions vary widely, there were examples in which residents of Monte, whether part of the somewhat shadowy “Monte Boys” group or not, committed acts of barbarism.

Main St El Monte 2005.462.1.2
A 1920s view of Main Street as El Monte experienced growth during the decade as did greater Los Angeles.

One such incident took place in early 1857 after the killing of James Barton, the Los Angeles County Sheriff and former son-in-law of John Rowland, and a woefully inadequate posse he cobbled together to hunt a gang of bandits in what is now the Irvine/San Juan Capistrano area.  In what was part of something akin to mass hysteria among local whites, who were significantly outnumbered by Latinos, several men suspected of being involved with the gang were tracked down at San Gabriel, near the mission.

One fled into a brush-filled swamp and was forced out when the grass was set afire.  After he was shot and killed, it was reported by El Clamor Público, the region’s first Spanish-language newspaper, that the man’s head was cut off and kicked around like a ball.  The English-language paper, the Los Angeles Star, hotly disputed the desecration aspect, though it readily approved of such blatant extra-legal actions.

Notably, when Monte residents (again, whether they were “Monte Boys” or not is not known) joined a massive manhunt to track down the gang in the Santa Ana Mountains, they captured some suspects, but carelessly left them poorly guarded and they escaped.  It was Andrés Pico, brother of the last governor of Mexican California and who was a widely respected general fighting against the American invasion during the Mexican-American War, who used the superior knowledge and skills of his Californio posse to recapture the suspects and then promptly lynched them.

0817096RPPC Airplane View Gays Lion Farm El Monte California 2012.730.1.1
From the 1925 to 1942, Gay’s Lion Farm was El Monte’s best-known institution.  Charles and Muriel Gay raised lions for such uses as film shoots, but as with other farms in the region for ostriches, alligators and the like, tourism was a big part of their business.  A historic marker for the farm is on Valley Boulevard at Peck Road adjacent to Interstate 10.

In another 1850s example, whites suspected of committing robberies in El Monte were seized by locals (Monte Boys?) and lynched without being killed—in other words, they were hung until nearing unconsciousness and otherwise tortured to extract confessions, but they were not killed.

In fall 1854, Robert Ellington, another early “Monte” resident, was riding on what is now Valley Boulevard and likely on or very near William Workman’s Rancho La Puente, when he was ambushed, robbed and murdered.  After an extensive manhunt, Felipe Alvitre, a member of the longstanding Old Mission family, was captured by Ygnacio Palomares of Rancho San Jose (Pomona) in Soquel Canyon near modern Brea and Chino Hills.

It was said Alvitre was an employee of Workman, so a group of men from Monte rode over to Workman’s residence and threatened him concerning anything the rancher might know about the Ellington murders.  Alvitre was convicted of capital murder and hung, but another convict, David Brown, who received a stay of execution pending a rehearing, was taken from jail and lynched by a crowd of Latinos and whites, led by the mayor of Los Angeles, Stephen C. Foster (who was married to a Latina.)  Foster, who’d promised to resign and lynch Brown if justice was not served, then was promptly returned to the mayoralty by grateful voters in the special election that followed.

Kauffman store El Monte 2
Among the very few Jews to live in El Monte was the family of Isaac Kauffman and Ernestine Laventhal, who operated a successful store in town for many years.  Their son, Milton, became Walter P. Temple’s business manager and later was a highly successful housing tract developer and builder in post-World War II greater Los Angeles.

Guzmán is quoted as saying that the Monte Boys had a “sense of justice . . . very much dictated by their own sort of whiteness.”  This was very much likely in some instances, including, most obviously, in the San Gabriel atrocity, but it is also worth noting that a “sense of justice” can sometimes operate on the level of a very Southern “sense of honor.”

Take, for instance, the King family, who had a feud with Micajah Johnson, Workman’s ranch foreman after Sánchez.  When, in early 1855, Johnson murdered the King patriarch, Samuel, the latter’s sons hunted Johnson down and killed him after their father implored them to revenge his death.

A decade later, two of the King brothers got into an incredible daylight shootout with Rancho Santa Ana del Chino (Chino and Chino Hills) owner Robert Carlisle (another Southener) at the Bella Union Hotel in Los Angeles—the battle left Carlisle and one of the Kings dead, while two other King brothers were wounded in different conflicts with Carlisle.

AAA El Monte area 1923
A detail of an Automobile Club of Southern California “strip map” from 1923 showing El Monte.  At the bottom left where the thick line shows modern Rosemead Boulevard turning into San Gabriel Boulevard is the location of Old Mission, the largely Latino community where the Temples lived for some 65 years from 1851 to 1917.  In the corner is the Montebello oil field, where Walter Temple made a small fortune with a lease to Standard Oil Company of California.

Another badge of honor for the Southern whites of Monte came with the onset of the Civil War.  They and other Confederate sympathizers in southern California were very vocal in their sentiments and this raised the alarm of Union supporters.  Union Army camps were enhanced and increased and a close watch kept on Monte residents during the entirety of the horrific conflict.  It is worth noting that William Workman, though a Democrat as were almost all Southerners, ran for county supervisor on a losing alternate party slate in 1859 and Temple was a Whig/Republican and a Union supporter.

After 1870 and especially after the Boom of the Eighties late in that decade and through the first years of the 20th century, the demographics radically shifted as more white emigrants came, especially from the Midwest.  A few Asians and modest numbers of Latinos also came to the El Monte area, but segregation was firmly in place.

By the time El Monte incorporated in 1912, Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz had just been overthrown and revolution and other circumstances in Mexico led to a dramatic increase in immigration north in succeeding years.  As inexpensive labor in the San Gabriel Valley, Mexicans were in great demand by farmers and others, but were not welcome to live in El Monte, so communities like Hicks Camp to the south were established.  The histories of these places, as well as Misión Vieja, which diminished as oil development and then flood control projects dominated, were largely ignored until recent years.

Pasadena Post, 22 March 1923.   Walker and Eisen were major Los Angeles architects of mainly commercial structures who designed the early stages of La Casa Nueva at the Homestead and many of Walter Temple’s commercial buildings.  The contractor, J.C. Thurman, was a descendant of another early “Monte” family.  The family of Arthur Sanborn, the operator of the Rialto Theatre, later founded SoCal Cinema chain.

In the early 1920s, Walter P. Temple, who grew up in Old Mission and made a small fortune when oil was fortunately found on his ranch there at the northeastern edge of the Montebello Hills, invested in El Monte.  His business manager, Milton Kauffman, one of the few Jews to live in the Protestant-dominated town and who owned a store there with his father, worked with Temple to build the El Monte post office and the Rialto Theater (a movie house later run by Arthur Sanborn, whose family ran SoCal Cinemas for decades and then Edwards family of that prominent chain) on Main Street, now Valley Mall.  The building is still there, though heavily remodeled.

Temple’s own mixed ethnicity with his mother being half-Latina and half-English and his wife being a Latina from Misión Vieja, meant that he engaged in a remarkable duality with his heritage.  With his light skin and Temple name, though he was fluent in Spanish and well-versed in much of Californio life and culture, he could operate as a white business man, including the founding of the Town of Temple, renamed Temple City in 1928, and which had the race restrictions common throughout the region in stating “only white people of a desirable class” could live in his community.

Yet, in building La Casa Nueva, his mansion at the Homestead, he indulged himself in a wealth of references to Spain and Alta California, including stained glass windows of Spanish galleons in a bay crowded with Californios and of his eldest son and daughter dressed in Mexican costumes they wore at the annual Mission San Gabriel fiesta.  He lavished funds on the Mission Playhouse in that town, where a heavily romanticized Mission Play glorified the Spanish missionaries and depicted the natives as saved by the work of the missions, and erected a monument to the original mission site, which became a state historic landmark even though the location is inaccurate (the mission was just north).

Los Angeles Times, 25 March 1923.

Temple’s wealth was gone as the Great Depression worsened in the early 1930s.  Around that time, as the KCRW piece noted, El Monte started having pioneer parades, complete with covered wagons referring reverently to those white Southern founders, even as Mexicans were being deported.

In 1936, a Works Progress Administration book baldly stated that El Monte was “the first purely and strictly American settlement in Southern Calfornia” and asserted there was “no Spanish, Mexican or even Indian background,” which, of course, was patently and perniciously false.  Then came the founding of the historical society and, later, the historical museum, which perpetuated these views for decades.

Even as the demographics shifted by the 1970s and Latinos became the dominant population in El Monte in subsequent years, those narrative elements implacably remained until local Latinos took the initiative to create the La Historia Society Museo, just a block away from the El Monte Historical Museum, and give voice to the story of Latinos and others who were left out of the relating of the city’s history.

0217042 158 Walnuts Shelling And Picking Walnuts By Hand El Monte Calif 2010.62.1.1
This stereoscopic photograph of two women and two children shelling walnuts in El Monte is a very rare pre-1930 artifact of Latinos in the area and exemplifies the gap in interpreting the lives of people of color in the community.

In February, Bucknell University Press published East of East: The Making of Greater El Monte, a collection of thirty-one essays covering the history of the area from the mission days to recent periods and with a focus on “stories that have been excluded from dominant historical narratives” and with a “cast of characters [which] includes white vigilantes, Mexican anarchists, Japanese farmers, labor organizers, civil rights pioneers, and punk rockers, as well as the ordinary and unnamed youth who generated a vibrant local culture at dances and dive bars.”  This work addresses the gaps that have long existed in the historical narrative of El Monte and South El Monte.

At the southeastern entrance to La Casa Nueva, Walter P. Temple had a tile plaque placed that proclaimed his grandfather Workman a “pioneer.”  We know, naturally, that for millenia before Workman settled the Homestead site in early 1842 the indigenous people of our region inhabited the area.  From the 1770s, the Mission San Gabriel appropriated the land from the natives and Rancho La Puente was a mission property for farming and raising cattle and horses.  In 1842, Rowland and Workman took ownership of La Puente and, for some, that is where the history of that part of the valley starts.  Walter P. Temple accepted much of the dominant narrative, even as he tried to negotiate his dual ethnic identity in settings distinctively public and private.

Recent events are stark and necessary reminders of how much work needs to be done for more inclusiveness in our regional history—on many levels, including race and ethnicity, class, gender and others.  The KCRW piece and East of East book are striking examples of how some of this can be accomplished and we at the Homestead will continue to explore historical narratives to help close the gap.


4 thoughts

  1. Thank you for your valuable work! We really enjoyed doing the KCRW piece and definitely encourage folks to check out the book. In the book we note, among other things, for example that El Monte is not the End of the Santa Fe Trail. There is also a chapter on the Monte boys, Pio Pico, etc. Hope you get a chance to check out the book. Best wishes

  2. Hi Romeo, thanks for the comment and we hope people will check out “East of East” and learn about aspects of El Monte area history left out of prevailing narratives. Could you contact Paul at about some possible collaboration regarding the book? Many thanks!

Leave a Reply