Getting Schooled: “The First Schools Here” in Los Angeles, “The Land of Sunshine,” September 1895

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Charles F. Lummis was one of the more notable residents of greater Los Angeles during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Massachusetts native walked solo from Ohio to the City of Angeles in 1884, the year before the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe completed its transcontinental railroad line to the city helping to usher in the great Boom of the Eighties.

Lummis worked for the Los Angeles Times and, while covering the wars with the great Apache chief Geronimo in the Arizona Territory, developed a deep and abiding fascination for the indigenous peoples of the Southwest. Over time he built up a substantial collection of artifacts that formed the core of the Southwest Museum, which opened at a hilltop campus in Highland Park near Lummis’ hand-built stone home, El Alisal, in 1907.


Lummis was also the Los Angeles City librarian, a novelist and poet, and a major force in restoring local missions and other historic sites, among much else. Moreover, he was, for years, the editor of The Land of Sunshine, one of the first popular magazines published in the area and which became known as Out West in its later years.

Tonight’s highlighted historical artifact is the September 1895 edition of The Land of Sunshine and which is denoted as the “School Number” because the region’s educational facilities were back in session after the summer break. A key feature article in the issue is Mary M. Bowman’s “The First Schools Here,” which provides some notable information about schools that operated prior to the creation of the city public school system in the mid-1850s including durng the Mexican era.


Bowman began by stating that “the educational advantages in California, before the American occupation, were limited and spasmodic.” She added that departmental governors established them but such institutions “were apt to lapse for want of money. scarcity of persons qualified to teach and indifference of parents.” Funds were derived from fines “and land dues” with government contributions being “small and uncertain aid.”

She continued that “the sons of wealthy families were sent to Mexico and the Hawaiian Islands,” the latter perhaps because of Americans and Europeans who operated schools in that remote kingdom which was almost exclusively out of contact with the outside world until around 1820. As for girls, education virtually did not exist as “to embroider, to cook and mend, to do plain sewing, was supposed to be enough.” She added that “they learned to read among themselves, or received instruction from visiting or resident priests.”


One women, eighty years of age, apparently told Bowman that she “taught herself from newspapers brought in the trading vessels” and that, when the Alvarado family arrived in Los Angeles, she was given a primary reading book. With this, she said “when that was finished, I learned nothing more, for there were no more books,” though she did learn to write after she was married.

Bowman observed that, in the city archives, was a record from the end of September 1827 of a $12 payment made by the alcalde (mayor), who was likely Guillermo Cota, for a bench and table acquired from the Mission San Gabriel for use at a school operated “by private subscription and some slight aid from the municipal fund.” The enterprise was, however, short-lived. At that mission community, a school was opened in 1836, just after secularization shuttered the mission, though this was not mentioned.


What Bowman did say is that the governor, either Nicolás Gutierrez or Mariano Chico, assigned a member of the military, Guadalupe Medina, to take charge of the school which had over sixty students, though it lasted not even six months, because Medina was called back to service. While he came back four months later, “the building being required for a barracks the school was once more suspended.” Alta California being frequently wracked with internal dissension and conflict, it may be this is why the school was appropriated for military housing.

This school was alluded to by Manuel Requena, long a political leader in the pueblo and who was on the first public school board in 1854, when he, in 1844, congratulated “the retiring Ayuntamiento [town council] on having established a primary school” and observed “that the Departmental Government had appropriated $500 for that purpose” eight years before. Medina lauded for his work as “preceptor” and Requena cited him for having “proved his devotion to his duties and the rapid improvement in the youth of Los Angeles.”


Another interesting tidbit uncovered by Bowman was that Medina “made and copied a complete census of the town and adjoining district, in 1836 (this was reproduced in 1936 in the Southern California Quarterly issued by the Historical Society of Southern California), and left on record” and inventory of materials at the school including three dozen spelling books, about a dozen “second readers,” a table, a half-dozen writing desks, a blackboard and fourteen catechisms provided by a priest.

Bowman added that classes commenced the first Monday in June with a mass and “the concurrence of the leading people.” Students were in session from 8 to 11 a.m. and 2 to 5 p.m. sic days a week (Sunday being the day off, of course), holidays and the pueblo’s saints’ days. Lessons concerned reading, writing, “the first four rules of arithmetic,” meaning addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, and the catechism.


Two years after Medina’s valiant efforts, Ignacio Coronel, who came with his two sons to the pueblo in 1834 with the Hijar-Padres Colony, established a school that operated on-and-off for more than a decade. Bowman wrote that “the system of teaching was a combination of common school and kindergarten work.” Books used in the school and brought with the colony “are preserved in the valuable historical collection of Don Ygnacio’s son and assistant, the late Don Antonio,” the latter died the year before publication and his collection later went to the Los Angeles County Museum of History, Science and Art, now the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

Bowman recorded that “at one time the school was held in the parish building adjoining the Plaza church, where some of the old benches are still kept.” A woman, still living in 1895, told Bowman that, in 1848 and 1849, just after the American seizure of Alta California, “the school was then in Don Ygnacio’s residence, an old adobe house on upper Los Angeles street.”

This appears to be what was long known as the Coronel Block, at the southwest end of what was called the Calle de los Negros, named for a dark-skinned Latino, and Bowman’s informant stated that “the boys and girls sat on opposite sides of the room, on long wooden benches, except in writing hours, when they were provided with tables.” Students had primers and spelling books and worked through those “first four rules” of math. Religion, however, was not included in the curriculum, but Coronel “taught them to dance, and as each pupil completed the study of a book he gave a little dance in the school room as a reward of merit” with the teacher’s daughter, Soledad, accompanying on the harp.


In addition, the informant told Bowman “the successful pupil was crowned with Castilian roses by the other scholars.” She continued that girls were taught to write, but noted that when her older sister attended the “Guiardo” school, likely taught by Jesús Guirado and where she learned embroidery, Guirado went to the father and asked if his student should learn to write. The answer was: “No, if girls were taught writing the would be sending letters to their sweethearts.” Coronel, however, had half-day Saturday sessions for penmanship and “his methods of teaching were considered more modern than any preceding, and his pupils speak of him with affectionate interest.”

The article ended with the discussion of the work of Francisco Bustamente, a photograph of whom is the sole illustration for the piece. Bowman located a contract, badly translated (she called it “idiomatic”) and dated 21 June 1850. The signatories were Bustamente, Guirado and Abel Stearns, the powerful merchant who arrived in Los Angeles in 1829, the year after Jonathan Temple, and who was alcalde and president of the ayuntamiento.

The document indicated that Bustamente would teach three levels of lessons, including the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic, with class to begin at 7 each morning. Reading was to take up the first three hours, with, apparently, writing and math to follow for “those who may have some beginning” of these subjects. Otherwise, reading continued until 11:30 when the scholars were released. On Saturday, review took place until 10:00 when students went home. Examinations were held “when the children may be in state of to examine them.”


This contract was to run for four months, from early May to early September, with Bustamente to be paid $60 per month with a $20 subsidy for the rent of the house in which the school was located. Bowman concluded by noting that the teacher was also a former soldier, coming to California from the northern Mexican state of Sonora and being a cousin of José de Urrea, the general who did not lose a battle during the revolution in Texas.

This included the Battle of San Patricio, an Irish colony that included Andrew A. Boyle, and the resulting Goliad Massacre (which was ordered, however, by General (and frequent president) Antonio López de Santa Anna. Boyle came to California in 1851 and settled in Los Angeles seven years later, with his only child, Maria (pronounced Mah-rye-ah) marrying William Henry Workman, nephew of Homestead founders William and Nicolasa Workman.

Bustamente, Bowman recorded, opened his school “in a building near the site of the Phillips block on Spring Street,” this being the business building erected by Louis Phillips, who owned much of today’s Pomona, and that the institution served about fifty boys. She noted that the instruction was the same as earlier schools but “the scholars were supplied with slates but no blackboards.” The teacher, finally was diligent in his emphasis on cleanliness and “one of his scholars remembers that their hands and finger mails were inspected every morning; and if not up to the standard neatness, he lads were soundly punished on the offending members.”

img20200905_00441388 (2)

Bowman’s article is an important and interesting one, though it is notable that she did not seek to explain why Mexican-era schools in Los Angeles “were limited and sporadic.” The pueblo was sparsely populated and even more sparsely supported by the central and departmental governments. Being in “the Siberia of Mexico,” Alta California lacked the means to provide much more than the basics of subsistence. Still, the efforts of people like Ignacio Coronel, Francisco Bustamente, Jesús Guirado, and Guadalupe Medina are all the more impressive given the barriers they faced and this article is a rare example of an acknowledgment, however incomplete., of these pioneering educators in the City of Angels.

As for this issue of The Land of Sunshine, there are more articles on modern Los Angeles schools, a piece on early Pasadena history, and other items of interest, so we’ll have to return next September for a look at some of that material.

Leave a Reply