Stephen Clark Foster’s Recollections of “Los Angeles on the Eve of the Gold Rush,” Part II, in “Touring Topics,” August 1929

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Under the editorship of Phil Townsend Hanna (1896-1957), the Automobile Club of Southern California’s “magazine for motorists” called Touring Topics, now Westways, was an impressive combination of auto-related content with essays on travel and tourism, current affairs, and frequent discussions of the region’s history, often illustrated with excellent paintings, drawings and photographs.

Hanna, a Los Angeles native who was educated at the Polytechnic High School and U.S.C., worked for the Los Angeles Times from his late teens, including a two-year stint as automobile editor and then general editor before leaving, in his early twenties, to work for the Associated Press. He became the editor of Touring Topics in 1926 and oversaw its dramatic makeover as noted above and remained in that position after the renaming to Westways, while also working as public relations counsel for the Auto Club from 1941—and handled the duo roles until his death.

Hanna was also author of several works of history on California and Latin America and translated literature from the latter into English, while he was a director of the Friends of the Huntington Library, a trustee of the Southwest Museum, director of the California Library Council and an active member of the Zamorano Club of book collectors and the Historical Society of Southern California. He was also a contributor of an article on the California desert for today’s featured object from the museum’s collection, the August 1929 issue of Touring Topics.

Our focus for this post is on the second part of the reprinting of the interview given by Stephen Clark Foster for Hubert Howe Bancroft’s remarkable project of gathering recollections of pre-American California for what became the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley. Conducted in the mid-1870s, these remembrances contain information about that era that would have been lost without Bancroft’s team fanning out through the state to interview men and women about what they could recall. One such interviewee was F.P.F. Temple, but his 1877 dictation was marred by what the interviewer referred to as Temple’s feeble state of mind due to strokes after the recent disaster involving the failure of the Temple and Workman bank.

Foster was a contemporary of Temple and a fellow New Englander, born in December 1820 in Machias, Maine. He was a rare college graduate of the era, completing his education at Yale University when he was 20 and became a teacher at a private school in Virginia. In the mid-1840s he traveled west and was in Santa Fe, New Mexico, when he was hired to be an interpreter for a battalion of volunteers sent by the Mormons to assist in the seizure of Mexican Alta California and arrived in Los Angeles in March 1847 after hostilities had ended, though the battalion was assigned to guard the pueblo and region.

After less than a year as a resident and at age 27, Foster was appointed alcalde (mayor) of Los Angeles, serving in that role from the first day of 1848 through May 1849 and then held the office of prefect, who oversaw alcaldes and local judges, for another year until the American system of government was introduced. That happened, several months before California statehood, because of the ratification of a constitution in late 1849, of which Foster was a delegate to the convention that drafted the governing document.

Once the American system was introduced in spring 1850, Foster was elected to the Los Angeles Common (City) Council and, after his one-year term, he served two years as a state senator representing the district including Los Angeles and other parts of the southern section of the state. He then followed this with securing election as mayor of Los Angeles, but, in fall 1854, when violence was rampant and citizens were clamoring for the conviction of David Brown, a frequent criminal held for murder, Foster made the extraordinary promise to resign his office and join a lynching party if Brown did not receive justice.

Likely the mayor thought it would be a cinch for Brown to be convicted and that did duly happen, but the criminal’s attorneys convinced the state supreme court to issue a stay of execution pending a review concerning whether there was a fair trial because of the open calls for lynching that were bandied about by the press—much less Foster’s own behavior. In early January 1855, when Felipe Alvitre, another convicted murderer who stay of execution was apparently lost on delivery, was executed, Foster delivered on his promise, resigned his office and joined the mob that stormed the jail and hung Brown. When a special election was soon held, Foster was returned to the mayoral seat and remained the chief executive of the town through spring 1856.

He resigned to serve as executor for the large estate at the Rancho Santa Ana del Chino, in modern Chino, and elsewhere in the region for his brother-in-law, Isaac Williams, the two having married daughters of the powerful Californio ranchero Antonio María Lugo. In 1856, Foster also was elected to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors serving three one-year terms through 1859. While Horace Bell, in his memoir Reminiscenes of a Ranger claimed that Foster was wracked with regret over his vigliantism, Foster lived until 1898 and was widely known for his collection of materials related to California history, no doubt making him an easy choice for a Bancroft interview with Thomas Savage (who also queried Temple) in 1877.

This second part, with great wood engravings by Paul Landacre, includes some interesting tales about postwar Los Angeles, including an incident that took place in June 1847 when José Ramón Carrillo (heinously murdered at Rancho Cucamonga in 1864) married Vicenta Yorba de Sepúlveda. At the ball that followed the nuptials, Foster related, members of the Mormon Battalion and the regiment of New York Volunteers, commanded by Captain Jonathan D. Stevenson, garrison commander in Los Angeles, were present. As he told it,

During the ball a tall, red-headed Mormon lieutenant (a Kentuckian by birth) was danving with a very pretty señorita, considered by the officers and others the belle of the city. The lieutenant was continually blundering in the dance. [Don José Antonio] Carrillo, who was sitting on one side with Captain Henry L. Fitch, an old resident and married to a Carrillo, criticizing everything that passed, remarked that the Mormon officer danced like a bear.

Carrillo (1796-1862), married to two of the sisters of the brothers Pío and Andres Pico, was a three-time alcalde of Los Angeles between 1826 and 1834 who had a prominent role in the Californio defense of California during the American invasion, including the Battle of Dominguez Rancho where fifty men under his command routed an American force four times that size and his being second-in-command at the battles of San Gabriel River and La Mesa that ended the conflict locally. He was, like Foster, a delegate to the 1849 constitutional convention and was uncle to the actor Leo Carrillo, highlighted in yesterday’s post..

When Fitch told somone else about Carrillo’s crack about the dancing bear, the remark hit a nerve with American soldiers still smarting from the Dominguez Rancho battle, but Stevenson called for a meeting to calm the waters and asked Foster to seek Carrillo’s presence and requesting that an apology be issued with the interviewee relating,

I gave my message to Carrillo, who replied in the politest landugage possible that he would be present . . . that he had said that the officer danced like a bear, but that he was now satisfied that the bear was the better dance of the two; and he would apologize in this manner at the meeting; that the bear was a paisano (countryman) of his; that the Americans were too pariotic themselves to be hard on a man for standing up for his paisano.

At the confab, Steveson gave a lengthy set of opening remarks, including “that Carrillo’s remark had been unkind and impolitic, and would embitter that hard feelings that had been caused by the war, and called upon Carrillo to apologize.” Because Foster had not finished his interpretation before Carrillo rose to reply, Captain Jefferson Hunt, of the Mormon Battalion, protested that the full remarks had to be translated. Foster offered to have David W. Alexander, a close friend of the Workman and Temple families, take his place, which was agreed upon.

When Carrillo again tried to speak, Hunt broke in to rail against the treatment of the Mormons by Americans, the creation of the Battalion and its travails on the long march to California, and expostulated against “an unregenerate Mexican with the blood of Americans still red upon his hands, [and who] dared ridicule one of their officers because he could not dance.” A couple of drunk Americans inside the house—the meeting was held on the porch—stumbled out and caused an uproar by breaking into the discussion.

With this, Foster continued, “Carrillo deliberately walked by us towards his horse, remarking to us as he passed: ‘Sus paisanos son un atajo de pendejos y borrachos,‘ [your countrymen are a bunch of assholes and drunkards] and then mounted his horse and went off.” While Foster did not know how the conflict concluded, and asked Alexander if he remembered and was told that he did not know either, the latter did say that a ball was held the following week with the same parties present “and that there was no duel and no apology either.” Foster noted that “If Carrillo had continued speaking I am sure that he would have made the same remarks that he did to me, and then there would have been the devil to pay.” One officer present was George Stoneman, later a Civil War general, prominent orchardist in this area and a California governor.

Foster then turned to the situation after the first seizure of Los Angeles by forced led by Commodore Robert F. Stockton in August 1846, an action which many Californios felt “was a repetition of the wrong” committed four years before when Commodore Thomas Ap Catesby Jones took Monterey under the mistaken assumption war between the United States and Mexico was declared.

When Stockton “left Captain Archibald H. Gillespie with about seventeen of [John C.] Frémont’s undisciplined volunteers to garrison the town” and Gillespie acted imperiously by enacting a curfew and other harsh measures, including jailing some Californio officers after a drunken group fired on the garrison, “the outbreak then became general, and the Californians seized a number of American residents who lived outside of the town, and who were subsequently exchanged for these Mexican officers.” One American so handled was Lemuel Carpenter of Rancho Santa Gertrudes (the La Mirada/Santa Fe Springs area).

Within a day, 300 locals gathered on the east side of the Los Angeles River in Paredon Blanco, later Boyle Heights, and men arived from as far as Monterey to the north and Baja California to the south. After a group of Californios, led by some of Foster’s Lugo in-laws captured Americans at the Chino Ranch and Gillespie retreated from Los Angeles, and Foster stated “all the better class of the Californians with whom I have conversed, stated that they had no expectation or intention of rising until the arrest of these officers . . . [and] that they had no means of fighting, as not one-half of them had firearms.”

Moreover, Foster related that he was told by Enrique Avila that “the only ammunition they had was what they took from the Americans they captured and two kegs of powder, which the wife of John [Jonathan] Temple, a countrywoman of theirs, had sent from her husband’s store to their camp on the east bank of the Los Angeles River.” Temple, who owned a store at the then-junction of Spring and Main streets (he opened Temple Street to the west of that intersection several years later) was married Rafaela Cota, who had many relations in Los Angeles and through whom Temple purchased the Rancho Los Cerritos, just across the Los Angeles River from the Dominguez Rancho battle site. It is unclear if Temple was aware of his wife’s actions, however.

Foster then noted that “when the treaty of Cahuenga was made [13 January 1847, with Carrillo involved with his brother-in-law, Andres Pico, in the negotiations], the Californians had at least twenty-six American prisoners,” though he just mentioned one, Alexander (Alexis) Godey, a scout and guide for Frémont on one of his exploring parties into California before the war.

The remainder of this part of his interview concerned the execution in spring 1849 of Juan Antonio, an indigenous man who’d been a neophyte at the Mission San Fernando and who arrested for burglary, horse theft and murder but always managed to escape from custody, including at the end of the prior year when alcalde Foster imprisoned for the horse stealing charge. He related that, in April 1849, hundreds of natives went to his house on San Pedro Street to inform Foster that Juan Antonio was in their custody after being arrested while drunk at a peon (a native game) gathering.

While Juan Antonio was bound with a 30-foot long rope around his entire body, the next morning he was ound soundly asleep, but with the rope in a corner. At the daylong trial (this was very common in terms of length) it was stated that the native committed crimes over some two decades and among the witnesses was Jonathan Trumbull (known as Juan José or J.J.) Warner, whose store was been robbed at least twice by the prisoner. It was also alleged that Juan Antonio robbed a church, perhaps the Plaza Church, of all of its sacred vessels and the jury not only returned a guilty verdict after the defendant “quietly pleaded guilty to all charges,” but recommended a death sentence, which Foster ordered.

The lumber for the scafford was procured by the Army quartermaster (responsible for supplies) and a native was found to serve as the hangman. Foster stated that “the place of execution is that now occupied by the old gas works on Turner Street,” which was near Alameda, southeast of the Plaza. Juan Antonio, it was stated, mounted the scaffold with “the utmost coolness” and it was added that “there was a large concourse of spectators, as it was the first execution by hanging that ever took place in Los Angeles” and “the entire Indian population turned out, and among them Juan Antonio had no friend” because “they all feared him.”

Notably, Foster told Savage that “I told the Indian alcalde to order that as many Indians as could take hold of the rope [to release the trap] to do so” and, because the rope was some forty feet long, that number of natives were employed. At a signal “a sudden rush of the forty Indians pulled the pole from under the trap and Juan Antonio fell. Then, the former alcalde and mayor stated,

He gave two or three convulsive leaps, from the scarcity of timber it has been impossible to brace the scaffold, and it shook so that we all expected it would fall. The priest and executioner could scarcely keep their feet.

In his excitement the priest [identified as “Fahter Sebastiane Bojorguimini”] called to me in Spanish: “Pray tell the soldiers to fire and take this wretch out of misery.” I said nothing. Presently the condemned remained still. Not twenty minutes afterwards the surgeon felt his pulse and pronounced him dead. He was cut down, placed upon a bier which had been taken from the church and carried off to the Catholic cemetery [the original Calvary at the base of the Elysian Hills north of town]. There was no coffin provided, for that was a luxury that only the well-to-do could then have the benefit of.

With that, Foster merely noted that the lumber for the shakily-built scafford was left for the alcaldes, José del Carmen Lugo (a Foster brother-in-law) and Juan Sepúlveda, who succeeded him, while “the hinges of the trap I have yet. They were the work of an Indian blacksmith taken from the mission of San Gabriel.”

A rotogravure view of an unidentified valley, perhaps along what became Ortega Highway near San Juan Capistrano in Orange County.

There are some other articles of general interest, including one on engineer Elwood Mead, who oversaw major federal water reclamation projects including the Hoover Dam, the reservoir of which was named for him; the tale of stagecoach robber Tom Bell, told by William and George, the sons of Phineas Banning, the “Port Admiral” of Wilmington; the building, with convict labor, of the Kings Canyon Highway; the second of three parts about bells associated with the Mission San Luis Rey in Oceanside and its nearby asistencias (branch facilities); and a photogravure section with views of the remains of Fort Tejon, the top of Mulholland Dam in Hollywood, a sylvan view of a valley in Orange County, and others.

Finally, given our horrific experiences in recent years with climate change and wildfires, it is interesting to read the single-page editorial “Stop Forest Fires!” Here it was noted that “new and vigorous efforts to conserve our valuable forest resources through uniform and organized effort constitute an important and far-reaching movement that promises to preserve to Californians an asset of incalculable value.” The use of “intelligent conservation” included dealing with the fact that “in less than a century the United States has lost five-sixths of its timber, through cutting for manufacture, clearing for farm purposes and through destructive fires.”

The Golden State then had over 64,000 square miles of national forests, about 20% of all the state’s land “and constituting a rich and beautiful asset” and being the state’s “great outdoor playground, an attraction that beckons alluringly to all the world and one of the principal magnets that draws people here.” So, the piece went on, it was “a matter of gratification that the movement to protect our forests and to replenish them by reforestation is taking more definite and practical form” through the creation of a Stop Forest Fires Committee, organized at a meeting at the Auto Club’s headquarters on Figueroa Street near USC (still operating there today).

A view of the remains of Fort Tejon—note the great Art Deco graphics.

With representation from the forest service, the National Park Service, the federal Bureau of Public Roads (now part of the Department of Transportation), auto club officials from throughout the state, county supervisor groups, and California State Parks. The organization supported a bill presented to Congress for annual funding of at least $4 million for fire control throughout the country, including $750,000 to California for road construction providing easier access to forests and other prevention measures.

Meanwhile, residents were urged to support laws, ordinances and rules to put out camp fires, limit smoking, and other measures. It was reiterated that everyone in California should be interested in the work of the committee “because our forests constitute an asset which benefits all the people” while losses, directly or not, “due to denudation of forest areas are shared by all the people.” The editorial, ended with the statement that

California has a magnificent heritage which can be conserved and replenished, and much timber can be cut if done intelligently and destructive fires can be prevented with coöperative and determined effort.

The concept of trying to prevent and suppress forest fires, which continued to be general policy for decades afterward, has, however, been changed, so that the Forest Service, for example, now states that “we still suppress fires, especially if they threaten people and communities, but we understand that fire has a role in nature—one that can lead to healthy ecosystems. So we look for ways to manage it to play its role . . .” The immense challenge, of course, especially in light of the release tomorrow of the Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change‘s sixth assessment report, is how to deal with the staggering conditions of wildfires year to year.

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