The Black Pioneers of Los Angeles County: The Counting of African Americans in the 1870 Federal Census

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

This third in a series of posts looking at the enumeration of the Black community of greater Los Angeles in early American-era censuses, following entries on the 1850 federal and 1852 state counts and then the federal census from 1860, brings us to the county of summer 1870, when the area was undergoing its first sustained and significant period of growth.

After a terrible first half of the Sixties when floods, drought and pestilence (such as smallpox outbreaks) ravaged the region and after the end of the Civil War, a steady stream of migration from other parts of the United States and, to a lesser extent, overseas, headed to Los Angeles city and county. The town grew by more than 30% from the count of the previous census, though there was probably a loss in population during the first part of the 1860s, so the uptick toward the end was more pronounced.

1870 census Harriet and Mil colored Crawford Los Nietos twp (2)
Detail from an 1870 census sheet from the Los Nietos Township near modern Whittier and Downey showing “Col[ored]” servants Harriet and Mil (Millie?) in the household of farmer M.D. Crawford–note how the Crawford children and the servants all hailed from Mississippi. It seems probable the household migrated from that state after the Civil War given the youngest Crawford child was born there about 1861.

Meanwhile, the outlying townships, of which there were ten (including a Los Angeles Township and ones at San Gabriel, San José (the future Pomona area), El Monte, Anaheim, Santa Ana, San Juan [Capistrano], Wilmington, Los Nietos [along the San Gabriel River near modern Whittier and Downey] and Soledad [this being in the extreme north]), ballooned at an even higher rate, above 40%. Areas of the largest growth included the townships of Los Angeles, Wilmington and Los Nietos and, again, it can be assumed there was a boost much higher than the overall number in the few years prior to 1870.

Also of major significance was the rapid change in ethnic and racial demographics. The Latinx population, previously much more dominant, grew only moderately during the Sixties, just a little above 10%. Americans and European residents, though, skyrocketed by 142% and that growth was marked virtually everywhere, though El Monte, established almost exclusively by white Southerners in the early Fifties, saw modest growth of about 15% and there was a drop in the northern region of Soledad (largely due to the creation of Kern County during the Sixties). Otherwise, all other areas experienced burgeoning American and European population increases, none more dramatic than Los Nietos, which had just two dozen Anglos in 1860, but had well over 1,100 ten years later.

1870 census Lewis Smith w Rowland El Monte twp
At the bottom on line 17 of this detail from a sheet enumerated in the El Monte Township, Lewis Smith, a 30-year old laborer from Georgia, was enumerated on the massive 24,000+ portion of Rancho La Puente owned by John Rowland (line 9.)

For people of color, the most distressing was the staggering decline in the native population as the recorded number in 1870 was just over 200, whereas it was above 2,000 ten years earlier. While there might have been some outmigration, as well as intermarriage (mainly with Latinx residents), the smallpox epidemics, alcoholism and violence were terrible scourges in the indigenous community. There were only sixteen Chinese residents of the county in 1860, but with the onset of a local railroad by the end of the decade and other factors, that community grew to about 230. There was, however, considerably animus directed at them, manifesting in the horrors of the massacre of nineteen Chinese males on 24 October 1871 by a mob of hundreds of Anglo and Latinx citizens.

As to the African-American community, there was an increase, as well. A 2007 study of mine undercounted the numbers by about 15% or so, stating then that the total in 1860 was 85 and that it was 111 ten years later or about a 32% rate of growth. While the 1860 count is correct (there were three persons counted twice), the total for a decade later was understated by 17 persons, or by about 15%. This takes the overall percentage of increase to about 50%.

1870 census Smith Redding w Rubottom Spadra San Jose twp (2)
At San José Township in what is now the Pomona area, Emily Smith, 30, and George Redding, 12, from Arkansas and Missouri, respectively, were house servants for William W. Rubottom, who named the community of Spadra (now southwestern Pomona) after the town he lived in in Arkansas before coming to the Los Angeles area.

Outside of Los Angeles city and Los Angeles township, there were not quite twenty Black residents, some of whom worked for Southern whites and, given that it was just seven years after the Emancipation Proclamation, it is wondered whether these African Americans were previously enslaved in these households and if they were compelled to continue in them. Five comprised the family of Willis and Millie Times [the spelling is hard to make out on the census sheet], including two young daughters and a 17-year old girl, residing near the Trudell salt works in what is now the Redondo Beach area. At Los Nietos, John Hill, who was born in England, had a Latinx wife, and there was a six-year old daughter, Narcisa, while a young woman named Harriet and a five-year old, Mil (Millie?), resided with farmer M.D. Crawford—all came from Mississippi, presumably after the Civil War ended.

In the Santa Ana township, two young people, 13-year old George and 12-year old Rhoda were a laborer and house servant, respectively, in the household of Nathan Sears, likely a recent immigrant from Missouri where George and Rhoda were born. In the San José township, John Martin, an Illinois native, was a laborer living among Latinx residents, while Emily Smith and George Redding, ages 30 and 12 and from Arkansas and Missouri, respectively, were household servants for William W. Rubottom, who founded the settlement of Spadra in what is now southwest Pomona. Rubottom, prior to coming to California in the Fifties, resided in Spadra, a town in the Ozarks in west-central Arkansas. Watson Davis, another Arkansas native, was a laborer and living with whites from that state, likely in or near Spadra.

1870 census Times Lewis Wilmington twp (2)
In the Wilmington Township resided the family of Willis and Millie Times, icluding their two young daughters and 17-year old Fannie Lewis. Willis may have worked at the salt works of John B. Trudell, situated near present-day Redondo Beach.

The sole Black resident of San Gabriel township was Susan Benson, a 50-year old native of Delaware, who was one of the few African-American women to self-declare the value of property in the two censuses, 1860 and 1870, that asked for that information and stated that she had $500 in real and $400 of personal property. Finally, in the El Monte township, Lewis Smith, a 30-year old from Georgia, worked for John Rowland, the owner of almost 25,000 acres of the Rancho La Puente and who, along with his Southern-born wife, had African-Americans living in their household since at least the mid-1850s. Pleasant Bors, age 60, and either his daughter or wife, Esther, who was 37, had their own household and were not apparently working for a specific white family, and he was a carpenter who declared $350 in personal property.

As to the nearly 100 Black residents of Los Angeles city or township, there were some very notable demographic changes. For one thing, in 1860, there were twice as many males (47) as females (23) and the number of children was quite a bit fewer, as well. In 1870, there was still a majority of men, but it was 54 to 45 females, and the number of children under age 18 more than doubled, from 22 to 46. It does not appear, though, that there were many new migrating families, as many of the families had children born prior to the Civil War and in California.

1870 census Green Ballard (2)
This detail from Los Angeles shows the households of Lewis G. and Maria Green and John and Amanda Ballard. The Ballards’ daughter Dora was counted twice, with the other enumeration showing her as a house servant of prominent Jewish merchant Jacob Weil.

Still, there were a few recent arrivals, sometimes from surprising places, including John and Mary Hall, he from Missouri and she from New York, whose 4-year old son Jacob, was listed as being born in Mexico. Their two-year old son, John, was born in California and was newborn Ivea, who was just a month old. Barber Robert Hesed, a 38-year old native of New York, and his 25-year old Pennsylvania born wife Henrietta, and four-year old and two-year old sons born in California.

Otherwise, most of the other families had children born in the Golden State at least ten years prior and quite a few appeared in the 1860 enumeration. Among them were the Peppers family, comprising household heads Manuel and Ann and their six children, ranging from 2 to 13 years old and all born in California; the Sweet family with Joshua and Sarah Jane having four children from 6-12 years old and all natives of the state; Andrew Chism and his wife Mary, who had five children from five months to 17 years–again, all from California; the Rowans, headed by Charles and Elizabeth with their three children, ages 2 through 11, all natives; and the Ballards, comprising John and Amanda and their seven progeny, ranging from a year to 16 years, once again all born in the Golden State. The eldest, Dora, actually appears in the census twice, as she was counted as a 14-year old house servant for retired merchant Jacob Weil, a prominent member of Los Angeles’ Jewish community.

1870 census Mason Owens (2)
This detail shows several Black residents in the household of Winnie Owens (lines 1-4), the household of her son Charles and his wife Ellen, and that of Ellen’s mother Biddy Mason. The Owens and Mason families possessed more property than other African Americans in the Angel City, with the “Value of Real Estate Owned” given by declaration of the person counted.

There were a few longstanding Black families whose residency in the Angel City went back to the Mexican-American War and Gold Rush years. This included Lewis G. Green, a barber who was 42 and reported modest property holdings of $1,500, and his 30-year old wife Maria and their son two-year old son John; the widow Winnie Owens, whose cattle dealer husband Robert, died in the mid-Sixties and who listed real property of $3,000, and her children, including her 38-year old teamster son Charles, who identified his property value at just shy of $2,500; and Biddy Mason, the 51-year old midwife, who had daughters married to Charles Owens and Edward Ward and who declared real property at $3,000 value.

One family that is a bit of a mystery is the Franklins. There was a Marshall Franklin in 1860, a native of Virginia, who was a 22-year old cook at San Pedro, and, ten years later, he was listed as 28 years old, married to Luisa (Lucinda), a 23-year old Georgia native who, in 1860, was a servant in the San Gabriel household of Laura Evertsen (widow of 1850 census taker John), and as a farmer with $1500 in real and $150 in personal property. Separately was 13-year of Cassia, who worked as a household servant for merchant Samuel Hellman, another pillar of the Angel City’s Jewish community. Then, there were Sallie, age 20 and who “keeps house,” with Catherine, age 14, Joseph, at 9 years of age, and 5-year old Tyre (Terry) living with her. When we look, however, at the 1880 census in the next installment, we may well have found an answer to the mystery.

1870 census Niblett Brown Jail (2)
Among the 22 prisoners enumerated in the city and county jail (note the household of jail keeper Frank Carpenter on lines 1-7), were African Americans Edward Niblett and Henry Brown.

As to others in the Black community who lived with white employers, there were two Virginia-born house servants, Louis Bryan, age 23, and Sibbie Grant, 27 years old, working for Jacob Morenhaut, a Belgian who was the longtime French consul in Los Angeles. A 43-year old woman from North Carolina known only as Deberah was a house servant for Charles Casper, a farmer last in Mississippi, but also from the Tar Heel State. Allen Johnson, born in Washington, D.C. and 30 years of age, worked as a house servant for prominent merchant Alexander Bell, who had a Haitian cook in his employe a decade prior. 27-year old Virginia native Daniel Nichius was a servant for widow Elizabeth Dodson. Isaac Maulton, who was 19 and from South Carolina, was a cook for another well-known Jewish merchant, Louis Polaski (partner of Leander C. Goodwin). Janie Embers, whose family was in Los Angeles since the Fifties, was a cook for Henry Barrows, a well-known figure in Los Angeles, and she had a five-month old daughter with her.

A few of the Angel City’s African Americans hailed from outside the United States, aside from young Jacob Hall and John Hill out in Los Nietos. For example, Manuel Silva, a 43-year old laborer who lived with the Sweet family, was Portugal. Francisca McCleloy, a 37-year old who kept her own household, was from the West Indies, perhaps Jamaica. Charles Wilkerson, a 25-year old laborer living with Tomás Feliz on the Rancho Los Feliz near modern Griffith Park and the Los Feliz neighborhood, was listed as being born in Africa.

1870 census Rowan Oscar Smith (2)
The listings of the Charles and Elizabeth Rowan family and that of Oscar Smith.

Two Blacks were counted while they were incarcerated in the city and county jail, which was a two-story structure, with the first floor made of adobe and housing city prisoners and the second floor composed of brick and holding county inmates. The jail was situated behind the Rocha Adobe, used for several years in the 1850s as the county courthouse, on the west side of Spring Street between Temple and First streets. These men were 21-year old laborer and Tennessee native Edward Niblett and Henry Brown, a 31-year old cook hailing from Missouri. The enumeration does not state on what charges the prisoners, including twenty others (including two natives of Mexico, four Frenchmen, and a half-dozen Irishmen), were in the hoosegow.

Then there is perhaps the sole Black female entrepreneur during these early years: Caroline C. Burton. She does not appear in the 1860 census in this area and it may be that she was one of the many who came to Los Angeles after the Civil War. The 1870 enumeration has her counted twice: first in the household of John and Mary Hall, though she is shown as “at home,” and then she is listed in her own separate household (and, at age 35, as five years older) with an occupation of “hair manufacturer.” She went on to advertise extensively for her services and was known to travel to San Francisco to procure hair for wigs and for supplies and continued in her profession for about twenty years until her death in 1891, the same year as Biddy Mason.

1870 census Van Buren Burton Wheeler (2)
This detail shows George Van Buren, mother and daughter Catherine and Jane Wheeler, and Caroline C. Burton (who was enumerated elsewhere with the John and Mary Hall family). Burton was a rare Black woman business owner, being shown here as a “hair manufacturer.” She sold wigs and hair products and was a hairdresser for about two decades until her death in October 1891.

Having covered two decades of early African American census listings in early America-era Los Angeles, we’ll conclude this series next week with a look at the 1880 census, so be sure to check back then.

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