Read All about It: News from Los Angeles in the New York Spectator, 14 August 1851

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

While it is true that Los Angeles was a modest town of several thousand persons on the edge of the western American frontier in the early 1850s with some measure of isolation from the rest of the country, it is not the case that the Angel City went completely unnoticed in the large metropolises of the East.

Today’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection is an excellent example that news from the Angel City did get reprinted in newspapers elsewhere with the 14 August 1851 edition of the New York Spectator quoting extensively from “a file from the Los Angeles Star to the 28th of June.”

So, while the news was some six weeks old, there was knowledge of activities, often notorious and violent, from the town only four-and-a-half years after its seizure by America forces during the Mexican-American War, just barely a year after its organization under a new governmental system, and not quite a year since California was admitted to the Union as the 31st state.

Moreover, the era of the press had just been inaugurated, with the Star being the first newspaper in Los Angeles, issuing its first edition just three months earlier. It seems apparent that the weekly sheet was included in the mails that were sent by sea, generally down the west coast of México, across the Central American isthmus (Honduras, perhaps, or Panama), if not across México, and then through the Caribbean and up the east coast of the United States.

A good deal of the news reprinted in eastern papers was, as is the wont of media and the interest of readers, concerning murders, vigilante groups, Indian raids and other reports that to many an eastern eye might make the Angel City seem more like a denizen of devils. Later statements by memoirists like Horace Bell and Harris Newmark claimed that there was basically a murder a day in the town during 1853 or thereabouts, though a thorough documentation by a team led by the late Eric Monkonnen found evidence of perhaps a few dozen a year at the most—still, this was a staggeringly high death rate compared to even the largest of cities elsewhere in the country.

This edition of the Spectator was cited in an earlier post on this blog for its coverage of the recent notorious incident involving the annihilation of the gang of John “Red” Irving, a former member of the armed forces that invaded Mexican California, by the Cahuilla Indians near modern Redlands. Irving and his ruffians committed a number of depredations in greater Los Angeles and sought to force the Lugo family to fork over loads of cash in return for the breaking of two members of the clan from jail over a murder charge held against them. When that failed, the bandits rode east, stopping to steal a black mare from William Workman at Rancho La Puente, on the way, before they met a ignominious end at the hands of the formidable Chief Juan Antonio and his Cahuilla warriors.

There was, however, more news to the reports, which is what this post summarizes. A main item of regional news actually dovetails with an event which I attended this afternoon and evening, this being the birthday celebration of Biddy Mason (15 August 1818-15 January 1891), a remarkable Black woman whose four decades in greater Los Angeles included her arrival as a slave, winning her freedom in a court case in 1856, working as a nurse and midwife, helping to found the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in the Angel City, and amassing property and an estate that would be worth several million dollars today.

The featured speaker at The Biddy Mason Charitable Foundation event was Robert Lee Johnson, who has done extensive research and writing on local African-American history and is the author of Notable Southern Californians in Black History and a founding member of the Compton 125 Historical Society and a member of the California African American Museum’s History Council and chair of its Projects Committee.

Robert emphasized that Biddy Mason was brought to this region from Salt Lake City as a slave of Mormon Robert Smith, who took her from the South to Utah after joining the church, and this was part of a colony of the LDS sent in March 1851 to establish a new town. It just so happens that the Spectator mentioned this in its reprinting of content from the Star:

One hundred and forty Mormons had arrived in the vicinity of Los Angeles. The larger portion intended to make that valley their permanent residence, and were negotiating for the purchase of land and stocking it with cattle. A portion of them would locate at San Diego, and five families were to go to the Sandwich Islands.

Naturally, what was not said was that there was a considerable number of slaves that were brought from Salt Lake City, including Biddy and her children along with other Blacks. The mention of “Los Angeles valley” is interesting, as well, because it suggests the Mormons were looking for land south of the Angel City, as well as looking to San Diego and Hawaii for small colonies.

The newspaper also reprinted an unattributed letter written on 4 June from the headquarters of Isaac (Don Julián) Williams at Rancho Santa Ana del Chino in today’s Chino Hills and which reported that “the advent of the Mormons to this part of the state has been long talked of—and various opinions hazarded as to the consequence.”

Specifically, LDS Church Elder Parley P. Pratt was the third Mormon apostle to come to the region, following Amasa Lyman and Charles Rich and was on a wagon train on what was known as the Mormon Trail. The Chino letter noted,

Elder Pratt heralds them [the colonists], with six wagons to follow him from the Amohave [Mojave] river in a few days, and one hundred and fifty more soon after—all now upon the road, and full bent on making a large and permanent establishment on the very shores of the Pacific . . . They seemed to have fixed upon San Pedro as a port convenient for their commercial views, and the broad plains which spread out from Chino as the chosen spot for the triumphs of their skill and industry in agriculture.

Pratt was accounted by the unidentified correspondent as “one of the shrewdest men that ever crossed the mountains” and his task was to obtain supplies for the colonists still making their way through the challenging desert route. Pratt was also said to have observed that “a regular commerce could be maintained . . . between Los Angeles and the Salt Lake city” and that this could be more successful than the “immense returns” realized in trade to the eastern states.

Pratt, it has been elsewhere noted, sold his wagon, animals and other material to raise funds and, at the end of June, preached in the Los Angeles County Courthouse, housed in a modest adobe in the Angel City to forty hearers. Becoming head of the San Francisco branch of the Church, Pratt remained in the Bay Area for about four years before returning to Utah, but he was killed in Arkansas in 1857 by the estranged husband of one of his plural wives (he had a dozen, from whom there were 30 children and 266 grandchildren.)

Chino, it turned out, was a site that Lyman and Rich sought to acquire for the new Mormon metropolis, but a deal with Williams apparently fell through. The two, however, quickly purchased another ranch from Williams’ brothers-in-law in the Lugo family and San Bernardino was established in 1851. Two years later, it became the seat of a new namesake county carved out of the massive Los Angeles County.

In October 1857, just after the horrific Mountains Meadows Massacre in southern Utah, LDS President Brigham Young recalled the southern California Mormons, whose distance allowed them independence and prevented more control from Salt Lake City, while Young was preparing for a potential military conflict with the federal government. Many Mormons, however, chose to disobey the order, though a slight majority returned to Utah.

Before this, however, Robert Smith left the church and decided to take his slaves, including Biddy Mason, to Utah. Thanks to Robert Owens and others, Mason was able to take her case to the District Court where Judge Benjamin I. Hayes ordered her and other slaves to be freed. As Johnson noted in his remarks this evening, Biddy’s life was devoted to uplifting her community and it started with her successful litigation in 1856.

Meanwhile, the Spectator also reported that federal Indian agent “Col. [George W.] Barbour . . . says that he has effected treaties with the greater portion of the hostile [Indian] tribes of Southern California West of the desert.” As a post here summarized, the early American period in California, including the ferment of the Gold Rush, led to terrible conflicts between whites and the indigenous people, with natives driven to desperately defend their ancestral lands against the onslaught waged against them by the invaders, who often employed genocidal tactics.

The account continued that Barbour, who negotiated a treaty on 13 May at Camp Belt (perhaps named for George G. Belt, a founder of Stockton whose daughter Josephine married Joseph M. Workman, son of Homestead owners William Workman and Nicolasa Urioste) on the Kings River in central California “was to leave Los Angeles on the 30th of June, accompanied by Gen. Bean and his staff.” Joshua Bean was a state militia general involved in the conflicts with Antonio Garra covered in that post linked in the previous paragraph.

The account went on the Barbour was to meet with the “San Luis,” or Luiseño, Indians who resided near the Mission San Luis Rey of northern San Diego County in today’s Oceanside, but that the natives “are expected to meet him at Chino [passing through La Puente and perhaps camping near the Homestead], to which place also Gen. Bean’s command has been ordered from the Cajon [Pass].”

The report ended with the note that Barbour, after completing his negotiations with the Luiseños, was “to meet Cabuilas [Cahuillas] in council at some time to be hereafter designated.” Bean, who settled at San Gabriel and ran the Headquarters saloon, was murdered in November 1852, some suggesting it was bandit Joaquín Murieta who was responsible, though others were lynched by a popular tribunal of vigilantes, including the innocent cobbler Cipriano Sandoval.

After some discussion of the removal of Army troops from the Colorado River and concerns that Indians there would pose problems for migrants coming along the Southern, or Gila, route to southern California and, in some cases, on to the gold fields, as well as the navigability of the Colorado by steamships from the confluence with the Gila to the mouth at the Gulf of California in Sonora, México, the report ended by observing that “Col. Fremont arrived at Los Angeles on the 11th o[f] June, on business connected with some contracts which he had made for supplying cattle.”

John C. Frémont, the impetuous and notorious figure from the Mexican-American War who corresponded with William Workman in March 1847 and shortly afterward purchased Alcatraz Island, granted to Workman and then given to his son-in-law, F.P.F. Temple, was elected one of the Golden State’s first pair of United States senators, but his short term lasted just about a half year because of California’s admission to the Union in September 1850 and because he was not reelected, with that term ending in early March 1851. He was owner of Rancho Las Mariposas near what became Yosemite National Park and it appeared his visit to Los Angeles involved his activities at that ranch.

There is other interesting material relating to California in the paper, including the work of the Mexican Boundary Survey; the shipment of more than $575,000 in gold to the east; vigilantism at San Francisco (this extensively covered through almost three full columns of eight on the page); agricultural statistics at Santa Clara near San Jose; and a mocking account of the arrival of 223 Chinese emigrants at San Francisco with the Alta California of that city, noting “What a collection of Amungs, and Atings, and Achoys!” and adding “there are Atong, Allung, Auchung, Ampung, Andedoddledung, Apung, Chingchung, Ranching, and a host of other bloods, who smile with the new moon eyes as thought the whole world was made of rainbows, and a ‘haw haw’ the chief end of man.”

As an early example of news from greater Los Angeles transmitted to the eastern states by long sea voyages, almost certainly that of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company (see the ad above), this edition of the New York Spectator is important for showing that far-flung as the Angel City was, people on the other side of the country were reading about our region not long after the Los Angeles Star made its debut.

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