“Nature Has Done Everything For It, And Man Very Little”: A Description of Greater Los Angeles in the New-York Semi-Weekly Times, 8 November 1867, Part One

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Under its “General Correspondence” section with a subheading of “From the Pacific Coast,” the 8 November 1867 edition of the New-York Semi-Weekly Times contained a lengthy article titled “Los Angeles—Orange Groves and Vineyards,” dated 1 September, a Sunday, by a writer identified only as “C.L.B.” This was Charles Loring Brace (1826-1890), who was a well-known Congregationalist minister drawn to mission work, beginning with the Five Points Mission in one of the most economically depressed section of New York City.

Brace was especially drawn to the plight of the many children he found among the slums and streets of the rapidly growing metropolis and was a founder of the Children’s Aid Society, which he ran for more than thirty-five years from 1853 until his death. Decrying the placement of young people in jails and institutions that made their lives worse, he established the Orphans Train, by which urban “street rats,” as they were sometimes called, were sent to rural farm families. In 75 years, including 38 years under the leadership of Brace’s namesake son, more than 100,000 children were included in the work of the Society with the project, while it was estimated that Brace helped three times that many youth overall.

From the Find-a-Grave listing for Brace.

In 1867-1868, Brace toured California and, while dispatches like the one focused on in this post were published by correspondence in newspapers, he published The New West, or, California in 1867-1868, published in New York by G.P. Putnam and Sons in 1869. His visit occurred at a particularly interesting time (though maybe that could be said at any period!) in the history of the Angel City and environs.

This is because the region was poised to undertake its first sustained and significant period of growth, its first boom, though, by the exalted standards of later ones, including those of 1886-1888, the first years of the 20th century and the early 1920s, it was extraordinarily modest. By 1868, not long after Brace’s visit, there was a modicum of immigration and, among other aspects, with a shift in land use from large ranchos to these being cut into smaller farms, along with the sale of public lands formerly used as reserve grazing areas for adjacent ranches, following the devastating floods and droughts of the first half of the decade, agriculture became ascendant.

A circa 1870 stereoscopic photograph of Sonoratown north of the Plaza, with the Elysian Hills and Calvary Cemetery at their base, from the Museum’s collection.

This process was not quite in earnest yet when Brace was in the area, but his focus on orange groves and vineyards was significant. First, though, he provided readers of the paper with an introduction, noting that its locale in “the ‘South’ of California” was apropos of the fact that “it is largely settled by Southerners; it was somewhat secessionist, or at least opposed to the Government, during the war.” He went to observe,

The people have all the virtues and vices of that section of our country; they are warm-hearted, hospitable, slovenly, lazy and profane. Nature has done everything for it, and man very little. The whole region is half a century behind the north of California in its improvements, and yet has a climate, a soil and a luxuriance of vegetation and a variety of fruits which made the early Spaniards consider it the very garden of the angels.

In fact, Brace went on, he asked a Catholic priest whether the Angel City was worthy of its name and the reply, replete “with the wit of his craft,” was that the Bible noted that there were good and bad angels, “and of the latter he thought there was no want in the place.” The writer speculated that the name came from early Spanish settlers who were in wonderment after “coming here in the Spring over the Arizona desert” as “to them a bit of green must have seemed angelic.”

The problem with this surmise was that the forty-four pobladores who founded the pueblo didn’t arrive until the dog days of August 1781 when there was likely far more brown than green in the landscape. Still, the correspondent disputed the 1854 description of the pueblo provided by Julius Froebel, which Brace deemed “highly romantic and exaggerated.” Instead, the minister wrote that,

It is simply a Spanish mud village of one-story houses, with broad, dirty, hot streets. Beneath the wide verandahs the people sit, and about two-thirds of the population seem to spend the day smoking in front of the hotel and going in for “drinks.”

This, however, was also an exaggeration, as there were some two-story adobe, brick and frame structures, though a building program over the following several years did significantly change the environment considerably. The idea that 66% of Angelenos smoke and drank instead of worked is also patently ridiculous.

Still, he went on to talk about roads leading out of town that were “dusty or cut up with the surface irrigation” and lined with hedges of interlaced willows that were simply “thick, scraggly, [and] ugly.” It should be noted that Brace was a graduate of Yale University, where one of his best friends was Frederick Law Olmsted, the great landscape architect whose work at Central Park, which opened a few years prior, made him famous.

The writer did note, though, that, once one looked past these unsightly hedges, there were “the richest gardens, vineyards, orange groves, and lemon, fig and olive plantations which can be seen in America.” Beyond these, “the county . . . is flat, brown and arid, till another green and beautiful plain is reached, watered artificially from the Santa Susanna Mountains,” this actually misidentified because he actually meant the San Gabriel range, usually denoted then as the Sierra Madre.

William Carey Jones was also sent to California in 1850 to look into Spanish and Mexican era land grants and to offer his legal opinion on their general validity before Congress passed a March 1851 land claims act.

There was a spot near town were “a very pretty view of the Los Angeles Valley” could be found—this might have been the Elysian Hills or perhaps a portion of the Santa Monica Mountains— and this was described as some fifty miles long and twenty-five wide and watered by the Los Angeles river. Yet, he then mentioned that “between Los Angeles and its seaport, Wilmington, on the other side, are some twenty miles of brown heath, covered with wild mustard.” So, the massive valley of 1,250 square miles on “the other side” of the area to the south sounds more like the regions east of the Los Angeles River and heading out to what, more than two decades later, became Orange County—but its being irrigated by the Los Angeles River doesn’t make sense. In any case, Brace then sniffed that “there are certainly scores of places in California far more beautiful.”

Next, the minister and mission worker turned to the devilish reputation of the Angel City, recording that,

The town itself has had till recently a bad name. It has been the Botany Bay [Australia being the penal colony of England at the time] of both California and Mexico, Hither drifted all the cut-throats and rogues of both countries, to be near the border and this escape the law. Even now, though it contains some 8,000 inhabitants, it has no gas in the streets, and I was told by various citizens that they would not cross the plaza at night for fear of robbery. No one rides in the country near by without arms, and there have been instances of the Mexicans attempting to lasso travelers for the purpose of murder and robbery.

Revealing the near-universal ethnic biases of his time, Brace then added that “probably one-half of the population are native Californian [not Indian, but Spanish-speaking Latinos] or Mexican, and very slow to adopt any improvement.” This, of course, neglected economic, political and social factors that constituted what has been sometimes called the “Decline of the Californios” from positions of power enjoyed in earlier years.

After calling the region, “one of the strongholds of Californian Democracy,” by which he seems to have meant that the Spanish-speaking Californios still had some modicum of elected officials, though he did not elaborate, Brace continued that “American ideas and men are penetrating it” and he specified “a most energetic and able man.” This was a Republican state senator, Phineas Banning, the “Port Admiral” of Wilmington, who parlayed his Union sympathies into a successful funneling of government dollars at his harbor town.

Brace wrote that Banning “has taken hold of Wilmington [founded, actually], and is building that up, and bringing a great deal of business there.” Turning, although not explicitly saying so, to Los Angeles, the writer added, “new one-story brick houses are taking the place of the adobe. Schools are being improved . . . law is now supreme, and robberies or deeds of violence seldom occur.” This latter point was not as advertised; while lynching, for example, was more pronounced before the Civil War, there would be a few more near-future examples, including the December 1870 hanging of Michel Lachenais and that in 1874 of Jesús Romo, while the horrific Chinese Massacre of October 1871 showed the Angel City at its absolute worst.

After having earlier said that Latinos were “very slow to adopt any improvement,” Brace then stated that “the Spanish land-holders are being stirred up at what they see around them, and are making many improvements,” which appears to be some acknowledgment, though how carefully thought out is unknown, of the variability of class beyond ethnicity. In any case, the next statement was that “in the towns and around are some large American landed proprietors, who are exceedingly intelligent and public spirited,” and three examples cited were Mathew Keller, Benjamin D. Wilson and one of the Sainsevain brothers, either Pierre or Jean-Louis—a;; said to be “the largest vine growers in the State.”

The transition in land tenure was reflected in Brace’s note that “the misfortune of this region that the land is held in such large parcels, and but a few small independent farmers are to be found,” though, again, this was rapidly changing as the Sixties came to a close. With the unparalleled climate and soil, however, greater Los Angeles “is undoubtedly the most desirable place for farmers emigrating in the whole State.” With respect to the weather, it was recorded that it “is warm, but tempered by a cool sea breeze, so that there is less suffering from the hear there than in some of the mountain districts of the State.” Foreshadowing the popularity of the region for “health seekers” looking for relief from tuberculosis and other maladies, Brace added that “fever and ague seem almost unknown, and there are few prevalent diseases.” For farmers, “the nights are generally cool; but even in Winter frost seldom does any damage.”

Brace then noted that “one of the finest places I visited was Mr. WILSON’s, a gentleman well known for his hospitality and his large agricultural operations.” The property was Lake Vineyard, which Wilson acquired about a dozen years before from one of the most remarkable of the area’s indigenous persons, Victoria Reid, born Bartolomea, a “neophyte” of the Mission San Gabriel who was married to the Scotch-born Hugo Reid—though some descendants of the local native people argue Wilson contrived to get her beautiful property at a pittance.

The writer claimed that Workman’s “estate,” nine miles northeast of Los Angeles, “extends in the plain beneath the Santa Susanna [again, San Gabriel/Sierra Madre] Mountains for some ten or eleven miles,” though this was another exaggeration on Brace’s part. He followed this, however, with a great deal of detail about Wilson’s farming operations, followed by much briefer descriptions of the vineyards of Keller and Sainsevain along the Los Angeles River, and there is such a wealth of information in these accounts, that we will return tomorrow with part two of this post.

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