by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Although he was a resident of Los Angeles for less than a decade, James Porter McFarland (1820-1901), was one of its most prominent residents, though he has been long forgotten while his business and real estate partner, John G. Downey (1827-1894), is better remembered because of his service as California’s governor in the early 1860s and for his founding of his namesake city.
Tonight’s featured object from the museum’s collection is a circa 1920s reprint of what looks to be an 1850s daguerreotype or ambrotype of McFarland after he returned to his home state of Tennessee, but it is a rare image of a widely-known figure from the Angel City during and just after the Gold Rush and who made his mark in medicine, real estate and politics during his short sojourn here.
McFarland, a descendant of Scottish immigrants to America, was born in Wilson County, Tennessee, just east of Nashville, where the father of long-time Angeleno stalwart Benjamin D. Wilson was also born. McFarland was the son of James and Dicey Bilbro and he appears to have followed an older brother, John, into the medical profession, graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in the class of 1842.
After several years as a doctor in West Tennessee, McFarland caught, as so many thousands did, gold fever and for which the only cure was to migrate across the country to California and see his fortune in the teeming mining regions of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. While in San Francisco, McFarland met Downey and some sources suggest that it was the good doctor who convinced his younger friend that they should migrate to Los Angeles.
In November 1850, the two acquired a load of pharmaceutical materials recently arrived in San Francisco and had it sent south and, by the end of the year, the pair were settled in the Angel City. The first druggist in Los Angeles, Dr. William B. Osburn, decided to sell his business to McFarland and Downey and they ran their business for about two years out of an adobe building, rented to them by Wilson, at the northwest corner of Los Angeles and Commercial streets, a little south and east of the Plaza.
Whatever success they may have experienced with their apothecary enterprise, McFarland and Downey became highly adept in the moneylending business. During much of the decade, the pair loaned to quite a few locals at prevailing interest rates and there were several instances in which they foreclosed and then received property used as a collateral for the loan as the judgment. It seems apparent that the pair made quite a bit of money in this fashion, but they also had political ambitions.
McFarland served as a local representative at the state Assembly in 1853-1854, which likely prompted the sale of the pharmacy, and then secured election to the state Senate, serving in that body from 1854-1857. Downey, too, held office frequently during the Fifties before becoming governor. At least one major effort of McFarland while he was a senator was to secure legislation for a property tax system that would fairly equitably distribute the money to funds for schools and prisons as well as the sate general fund.
Not long after he completed his second term as senator, McFarland returned to Los Angeles, where and Downey scored their biggest land deal, the acquisition of the Rancho Santa Gertrudes. The tract, comprising over 21,000 acres, was originally part of the massive Rancho Nieto, which, in the mid-1830s, was divided into five ranchos, the others being Los Cerritos (acquired by Jonathan Temple in 1843), Los Alamitos (long owned by Abel Stearns), Las Bolsas and Los Coyotes.
Santa Gertrudes was granted to Josefa Cota, widow of Antonio María Nieto, son of original Rancho Nieto owner, Manuel. Cota’s niece María de los Angeles Dominguez, that family being the owners of the nearby Rancho San Pedro, married a Kentucky-born extranjero (foreigner) Lemuel Carpenter, who came to the Angel City in the early 1830s when in his early twenties.
After he ran a soap-making enterprise (the jaboneria) along the old channel of the San Gabriel River, now the Río Hondo, Carpenter was able to buy Santa Gertrudes from Cota in 1843, the same year Temple bought Los Cerritos from another Cota family member, related to his wife Rafaela. Carpenter and his wife raised their family on the ranch and prospered during the Gold Rush years.
As was too often the case, however, when the Gold Rush petered out by the later Fifties, ranchers often contracted loans for their cattle and farming operations and for personal reasons. Carpenter borrowed from McFarland and Downey and was unable, like too many, to pay back the loan, which had prevailing high rates of interest. In late March 1859, a foreclosure order was issued and, several months later, Carpenter committed suicide because of his financial failure.
Very shortly afterward, however, McFarland sold his interest to Downey, taking his handsome profit, along with the rest of a small fortune he’d amassed in his several years in Los Angeles and decided to return to his native Tennessee. On one hand, the timing was excellent because this region was heading toward a terrible first half of the 1860s in which floods and drought decimated a cattle industry already weakened by the end of the Gold Rush. Yet, on the other, McFarland’s move home came just on the eve of the Civil War.
Just after he arrived in Tennessee, he purchased his father’s substantial farm and also married Eulalia Cowan, with whom he had several children. In the 1860 federal census, he self-declared his estate at $85,000 in real property and $22,000 in personal property, a handsome sum and listed his occupations as physician and farmer. If he did practice medicine again, it looks to have been short-lived.
After the horrible ravages of the Civil War and the slow recovery after its end in 1865, McFarland, in the 1870 census which included five children, stated that he was a retired doctor and his assets plummeted to $35,000 in real estate and $15,000 in personal effects, a decline of more than half what he’d owned a decade prior.
While the earlier census did not anyone but McFarland and his wife in the household, it would hardly be surprising if he had at least some slaves working his farm. The 1870 enumeration showed five Blacks in the household, including two domestic workers, a farm laborer and two children—technically they were free, but, practically, it was likely they were not.
By 1880, the McFarland family, Eulialia having passed away during the preceding decade, was settled in Nashville, though James’ profession was stated as “proprietor of land,” so he maintained the suburban farm, perhaps renting it out or simply having it worked while his children enjoyed the benefits of city life and better educations (one son was a graduate of Yale Law School).
Though he called Nashville his home for about two decades, McFarland was at his rural farm, which, it seems, a couple of his sons operated, when he died on 8 August 1901 at age 81. He was reportedly in good health and was talking to a daughter when he suddenly collapsed and gasped out, “I am dying” before he passed away.
Obituaries in a pair of Nashville newspapers the followin day told much the same life story, though the American went into more, if error-filled, detail:
He went to California when a young man, and was one of the pioneer [white] settlers in that State. He became very prominent in State politics and was leted a member of the first State Senate of California [also not true, as noted above]. He located at Los Angeles, where he resided for nearly twenty years [again, it was under a decade]. Dr McFarland engaged in the practice of medicine, and was very successful, amassing a large fortune [more, evidently, through loans and real estate than the apothecary.] He was an associate of the late ex-Gov. John D. [G.] Downey, of California, in the drug business, and later in the banking [moneylending] business.
It was added that he married Eulalia Cowan in 1858, though it was actually the following year, and that “since returning from California, Dr. McFarland has not engaged in the practice of his profession,” even as the 1860 census showed otherwise. In addition to his suburban farm, he was said to have “owned considerable property” in Nashville and it was concluded simply that McFarland “lived a long and useful life.”
It would be interesting to know more about the photo and its clear reproduction from an original that was probably a daguerreotype or ambrotype—perhaps it was made by a child who passed copies on to other descendants. In any case, it is a rare early portrait of a figure who made a notable, if brief, mark on the Angel City for most of the uproarious 1850s, including his association with Downey, status as an early druggist, work in state politics and a lucrative line in moneylending and real estate—this latter likely providing his meal ticket for the return home.