Through the Viewfinder: A Cabinet Card Photograph of John C. Frémont’s Headquarters, Los Angeles, early 1890s

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

On this date in 1847, General Andrés Pico, representing the Californios who vigorously and valiantly, despite having inferior weaponry and other materiel, defended their homeland against the American invasion, met Lieutenant John C. Frémont of the United States Army and one of the more mercurial characters in 19th century American history at an adobe house at the Campo de Cahuenga, across from Universal Studios, to sign the Treaty of Cahuenga ending the Mexican-American War in California.

This was three days after American forces, comprised of Navy and Army personnel, marched into Los Angeles after defeating the Californios in battles at the San Gabriel River (Rio Hondo) and at La Mesa (modern Vernon) and were greeted with a white flag carried by three men, including William Workman, the Homested’s founder and co-owner of the Rancho La Puente, along with German native Charles Flugge and Californio Domingo Olivas.

Frémont had nothing to do with the seizure of the pueblo, the capital of the Mexican department of Alta California under the administration of Pico’s brother, Pío, but that didn’t stop the opportunistic young man, who seems to have taken his time marching south with troops, while another force, commanded by Commodore Robert F. Stockton with General Stephen Watts Kearny along with him, handled the battlefield action on the 8th and 9th preceding the occupation of the Angel City.

Los Angeles Express, 19 August 1892.

Yet, in the battle over leadership in the war’s aftermath between Stockton and Kearny, the former installed Frémont as military governor of California and the dashing young officer did make quite an impression on Californios and Americans and Europeans living in the region, building strong relationships with them, even as his actions were increasingly brought into question. One of those was a deal made with F.P.F. Temple for the acquisition of Alcatraz Island, granted to Workman by Governor Pico and then transferred to Temple, on a $5,000 promissory note to be paid by the federal government. In fact, for this and other unauthorized actions, Frémont was court-martialed, though, before leaving for the east, he sent letters to locals asking for support, with one such missive, from 20 March 1847, written to Workman.

After his court-martial, Frémont’s penalty was reduced by President James K. Polk, who reinstituted his commission, though the often impetuous officer then resigned. He returned to California, acquired a large ranch in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and was elected a United States Senator. In 1856, he carried the standard of the newly launched Republican Party as its presidential nominee, trading on his fame as a “pathfinder” for his exploits exploring the west during the early 1840s, but lost the campaign to Democrat James Buchanan (who, unfortunately, for him presided over the continuing disintegration of the nation until his single term ended in 1861.)

Frémont reentered military service during the Civil War, but controversy again attended him and his command of the Western Department with the Union Army led to his transfer to the Mountain Department in parts of Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky by President Lincoln. Further issues continued with his command of troops, however, and Frémont resigned his commission in 1864, after which he mounted a failed challenge for the Republican nomination against Lincoln.

Los Angeles Times, 8 January 1893.

In the postwar years, Frémont continued to have challenges, including failed railroad projects, a disastrous tenure as governor of territorial Arizona leading to a resignation in 1881, and a brief period of contemplation moving back to Los Angeles during its famed Boom of the Eighties. Despite offers of land for a “gentleman’s farm” by promoters of the new town of Inglewood, the Pathfinder died in New York in 1890 at the age of 77. His widow, Jessie, whose powerful father, a senator from Missouri, greatly promoted Frémont’s early career, settled in Los Angeles after her husband’s death and died in the Angel City at the end of 1902.

Tonight’s highlighted object from the museum’s collection is one of those local variants of “George Washington slept here” and there are others, such as the untold number of locales where Joaquin Murrieta or Tiburcio Vásquez buried the treasure they never returned to recover. In this case, this early 1890s cabinet card photograph by Charles B. Waite is titled “Gen. Fremont’s Headquarters / Los Angeles, Cal. / Pepper trees in winter.”

The view shows a moderately well-preserved single-story adobe house with white plaster walls and a simple wood portico along the front porch. A quartet of large pepper trees are on two sides of the house, along with what looks like a palm hidden behind one of the larger peppers. At the right is a sidewalk with two ladies walking away from the house and a rude ditch runs alongside with a small wood bridge crossing from the street to the walk. The area appears to have been residential, though there is no indication as to location anywhere on the photo, though there is a street sign on the corner of the intersection with one covered by part of a tree and the other reading “Carr St.”

Los Angeles Herald, 31 July 1895.

Now, while that would seem to be helpful in identifying the whereabouts of the structure, it turns out that Carr Street no longer exists, so it required a bit of research in Los Angeles newspapers of the era to discover that that thoroughfare was later renamed 14th Street and that the adobe building was situated on the northwest corner with Main Street. Fortunately, some great material was found in the press of the period about the building, starting with a very brief notice in the Express from 19 August 1892 that “General Fremont’s old headquarters on South Main Street are offered for sale or to let.”

Several months later, however, the 8 January 1893 edition of the Times reported that “Mrs. Jessie Benton Frémont is engaged upon a paper on the old associations which Los Angeles has for her.” The paper added, though, “illustrations of live oaks and the old adobe, which has been standard with the photographers as Frémont’s headquarters—and yet never was— have been furnished her for consideration.

Times, 19 February 1902.

At the end of July 1895, the Herald ran a feature on “Fremont’s Headquarters,” in which it was noted that “on the west side of South Main street, below Pico, stands an old-fashioned flat-roofed adobe building with large pepper trees in front. It is now occupied as a Chinese wash house.” It was added that a placard on the structure proclaimed the place to have that historic association with The Pathfinder and that month’s issue of the well-known magazine, the Overland Monthly, featured a woodcut of the structure and its purported use by the late officer.

The paper, however, continued that

For the purpose of correcting history, so far as this old adobe is concerned, it is only necessary to state that it was built in the year 1856 by Major Henry Hancock, now dead, nearly nine years after the close of the war in which Fremont acted so prominently a part. It afterward became the property of M. Morris & Brothers, together with about forty acres of land now so well known as the Morris Vineyard tract.

The article went on to note that Frémont, then a major, first came to Los Angeles with his battalion of California volunteers and occupied a building on the west side of North Main Street in a structure that is about where U.S. 101 cuts through downtown just south of the Plaza. It said that, after the Californios revolted under the strict government of a garrison left behind following the first seizure of Los Angeles late in 1846, “his headquarters were then at the Bell building on the corner of Los Angeles and Aliso streets,” occupied in 1895 by Haas, Baruch and Company, later Smart and Final.

Times, 15 January 1903.

Finally, the piece concluded that “all these facts are well known to our old pioneer citizen, Elijah Moulton, who first arrived in this city in 1845 and was one of the Fremont battalion,” while other longtime residents such as Dr. John S. Griffin, former mayor Stephen C. Foster, and ex-mayor José Mascarel were aware of this. The article ended by stating, “why the claim is made that the old adobe above described was ever occupied as Fremont’s headquarters we cannot imagine.”

Duane Morley, in late October, contributed to the Times a satirical account of a cab-driver (meaning, of course, a hack driver with a horse-drawn conveyance) taking an outsider to see the historical attractions of the Angel City, including “where Kit Carson’s relatives dwell, and Kit’s old rifle” as well as Fort Moore, the Battle of La Mesa site “and greater far than all else, Fremont’s famous headquarters.” It turned out that, after a day’s sighseeing, “Cabby” charged the gullible visitor $18.50, a significant sum, including $2.50 for a visit to the adobe landmark.

In its Independence Day 1897 edition, the Times ran a long feature about the history of Fort Moore Hill, and reported that “the editor of a local literary journal,” perhaps Charles F. Lummis of The Land of Sunshine and a notable figure in the preservation of pre-American historical sites (such as constituted “preservation” in those days), “floats Fremont’s headquarters out to the corner of Main and Carr streets, two miles away from” the fort that some claimed, also erroneously, that Frémont built on Fort Moore.

Times, 17 January 1903.

Moreover, the narrative continued, the unnamed editor “urges the Historical Society [of Southern California] or the Landmarks Club [of which Lummis was a founder and leading luminary] to rescue the old adobe building . . . from the ignoble purposes for which it is being used—that of a Chinese wash-house—and to convert it into a museum for historical curios.” This was despite the fact that it was known that the Bell Block mentioned above was the true headquarters.

In February 1902, the Times carried an ad from realtor J.P. Lamoree offering for sale at $15,000 “something fine, the northwest corner of Main and Carr sts. . . this place was Fremont’s headquarters in an early day.” While Lamoree admitted that “the improvements are of but little value” and rented out for $30 a month to a “permanent tenant,” the 100×200 foot corner lot represented the type of property downtown that was hard to find, “but there is no extra charge made for the historical part.”

A little under a year later, the paper reported that papers were signed and escrow initiated for a sale of the adobe and lot to Thomas Higgins, who owned much property in that section of the city and who purportedly paid $25,000 cash for the parcel, said to be “historic as the old headquarters of Gen. Fremont.” It was added that, in a few weeks time, construction was to begin on a three-story brick building costing $50,000 with first-floor storerooms and sixty-two “flats” in the upper stories.

Express, 18 July 1903.

Shortly afterward, the Times published a piece that cited the authority of another “old timer,” Andrew Jackson King, a long-time El Monte resident and former under-sheriff, newspaper publisher and long-time attorney, who, in a letter to the paper, repeated that the assertion that the adobe was Fremont’s headquarters was false. He repeated the fact that it was the Bell Block that served that purpose.

In mid-July 1903, the Express printed a lengthy feature on the structure, beginning with the statement that the Native Daughters of the Golden West were being criticized “regarding the neglect of the old adobe building . . . reported to have been the headquarters of Gen. John C. Fremont in early days.” It added that many a tourist voiced alarm about the decrepit state of such a vaunted historic site and a Native Daughter from the Grand Parlor “was shocked to observe that the building was occupied by Chinese laundrymen,” a lengthy use by such despised figures.

The account noted that there were members of the organization that tried to buy the property before the death of Jessie Benton Frémont some six months prior “to improve the place and present it to the widow of the famous ‘Pathfinder.'” With the news, “leading spirits in the local organization” requested the Express to investigate the claims of the historical associations with Frémont, but the paper disclosed “the cold facts,” including that he “never entered the door of the old adobe referred to.”

Times, 11 November 1904.

Instead, the paper heard from Horace Bell, nephew of the Alexander Bell who built the block in which the true headquarters were situated and author of two colorful, if truth-stretching, memoirs of his many years in Los Angeles, for some notable detail about the Bell Block. Horace Bell told the Express that his uncle presented use of the building to Frémont after the latter “was elected governor,” though he was appointed by Stockton as noted above. He continued that his uncle lost the structure due to financial distress, gained it back, and then sold it in 1863 for $60,000. It was torn down about two decades later to make way for a modern structure.

“As for the adobe Chinese laundry at Main and Fourteenth streets,” the article noted, it was built by Hancock in 1856 as his residence on a seventy-acre vineyard. It was lost by foreclosure on a mortgage to the Morris brothers who subdivided the tract carrying the family name. It was said that a Major Jones from Georgia then lived in the adobe, “but Fremont was not even acquainted with the little mud hut.” The article ended noting that this real history “will shatter numberless dreams for tourists and even citizens,” though at least the Native Daughters could feel “vindicated in regard to the matter.”

Times, 11 November 1904.

In November 1904, a remarkable letter was printed by the Times from Charles M. Jenkins, whose amazing Civil War diary has been covered in a series of posts on this blog from five years back. Jenkins not only confirmed that the adobe was built by Hancock, but reported “he contracted with a man named Vergin and myself to build the house and to plant out 60,000 vines on the place.” Jenkins added that the building had redwood in its construction, a material not available in 1847, though he located Frémont’s true headquarters on the site of the Pico House, then known as the National Hotel. Jenkins then said that some “old settlers” said that the actual locale was “in the river bottom, south of First Street” because of a fight he had with William Tecumseh Sherman “for the possession of the city,” though this, too, is a tall tale.

Jenkins told the paper,

this is the real history, and it is a shame that tourists and artists are allowed to visit the old Main-street adobe to photograph and sketch it, thinking they are carrying away with them a true representation of the old headquarters of Gen. Fremont, when, in point of fact, it has absolutely no associations with him.

To bolster his claims, Jenkins cited other “old timers,” including J.D. [probably Henry D.] Barrows, Oscar Macy, and former sheriff James F. Burns, as well-informed on the matter and he ended by claiming that, if the building was as represented, he “would be the first to contribute toward the preservation of what would be a historical and interesting landmark.”

It is not known when the adobe building was finally razed and whether it was Higgins that did so and what, after all, replaced it. What we do know is that as historic structures from the pre-American era rapidly vanished in the last thirty years of the 19th century, with a romanticized interest in that period brought about the 1883 publication of Helen Hunt Jackson’s famed novel Ramona, and with a booming tourism industry afoot, the identification of the Hancock Adobe as Frémont’s headquarters was not surprising, though it didn’t take long for “truth seekers” to point out the error, even as some committed their own errors in their accounts!

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