“The Instrument of Rescuing from Oblivion a Portion of the Early History of our Country”: An Historical Sketch of Los Angeles County, California, November 1876, Part One

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

When the City of Industry decided to embark on the restoration of the Homestead, it did so as its contribution to the American Bicentennial of 1976 and those of us of a certain age may well remember the many references to the nation’s history during that year—for example, does anyone remember the “Bicentennial Minutes” aired on CBS with the voice of news anchor Walter Cronkite intoning ” . . . and that’s the way it was” after every segment?

A century before that, as the United States prepared to celebrate its centennial, Representative Augustus A. Hardenbergh of New Jersey introduced a resolution “recommending to the people of the several States that they assemble in their several counties and cause a historical sketch of their county, from its foundation, to be read on the 4th of July” with a copy officially filed with the county clerk and another with the Library of Congress.

Los Angeles Express, 6 January 1876.

On 13 March, a joint resolution was approved by the House and Senate that essentially followed Rep. Hardenbergh’s suggestion with the addition that these county historical sketches were “to the intent that a complete record may thus be obtained of the progress of our institutions during the first Centennial of their existence.” President Ulysses S. Grant, who was nearing the end of his eight-year tenure, followed with a proclamation on 25 May that he hoped that the Congressional resolution “may meet with the approval of the people of the United States, and that proper steps may be taken to carry the same into effect.”

In its edition of 29 April, the Los Angeles Express opined that “if there is going to be anything done to render our Centennial Fourth of July of greater interest than usual . . . we ought to comply with the joint-resolution of Congress . . . to secure an oration embracing an historical sketch of our country from the time of its first settlement.” It added that “we have those in our midst who would do this interesting subject justice” but warned that “we ought to give them ample time to arrange their materials.”

Express, 8 May 1876.

A little more than a week later, a committee, led a Committee of Three that included Elijah H. Workman, nephew of Homestead founders Nicolasa Urioste and William Workman, met to plan the July 4th celebration it was reported that “we favor the preparation of an historical sketch of Los Angeles county” along with a barbecue and a fireworks display. On 12 May, the Literary Committee for the event appointed Phineas Banning, the “Port Admiral” at Wilmington, as the president of the day, attorney James G. Eastman as orator, teacher Thomas A. Saxon reader of the Declaration of Independence, and “the Revs. Edelman and Packard” as chaplains—though Abraham Edelman was actually the first Jewish rabbi in Los Angeles. Finally, Express publisher James J. Ayers as poet, and J.J. Warner, Benjamin Hayes and Joseph P. Widney were chosen as the committee for the historical sketch and, the trio was “to be furnished the respective papers (and not to be read) on the morning of the Fourth of July.”

In fact, the celebration of the national holiday did feature Ayers’ recitation of an original poem, Eastman’s oration and other “literary exercises” conducted at the remarkable Round House of George Lehman on Main and Second streets and, ten days later, the Express reprinted the preface of the sketch, which appears to have been handwritten by Warner, Hayes and Widney and delivered to the literary committee. It was decided that the work of the three men was to be published in pamphlet form with an appendix of the centennial celebration, including its planning, as well as the texts of the poem and oration along with a description of the decorations employed in the Angel City and of the procession and parade through the streets of the metropolis.

Los Angeles Star, 13 May 1876.

Preparation of the publication took four months and was undertaken by the firm of Louis Lewin and Company, which sold books, musical instruments, stationery and other goods from its store in the Temple Block on Spring Street, where Los Angeles City Hall now stands. Lewin (1853-1905), a Jew from Prussia who was still in his early twenties, had recently purchased the business of Brodrick and Company when he decided to publish the pamphlet with printing done by the Mirror Printing, Ruling and Binding House, later part of the Los Angeles Times empire.

In its edition of 24 November, the Express reported “we received to-day from Louis Lewin & Co., publishers, a copy of the centennial pamphlet, being ‘an historical sketch of Los Angeles County, California, from the Spanish occupancy, by the founding of the Mission San Gabriel Archangel, September 8, 1771, to July 4, 1876.'” The paper added that “we shall give it a careful reading and take early opportunity of reviewing it,” though nothing could be located to that effect. On the other hand, the Los Angeles Star of the following day acknowledged receiving its copy from Lewin and did offer its commentary in its issue of 9 December. The paper stated:

We have given ourselves the pleasure of perusing the Centennial History of Los Angeles County . . . It is to us, even, one of the most interesting books of the day, and it must be peculiarly so to all the old residents, a great number of whom figure in the book.

It then quoted that San Francisco Alta California, which opined that “Los Angeles is thus not lacking in interesting material for local history, and the authors of this pamphlet have collected much of it, and preserved it in good form for the future.” The Alta especially cited the first two chapters by Warner and Hayes, who “mention the names of many of the early residents, with their occupations and peculiarities” and whose contributions “are of high value to all the old residents and of interest to the new comers” to the Angel City and environs.

Express, 17 June 1876.

The Homestead’s collection includes an original printing of the historical sketch and this multi-part post delves into the contents penned by Warner, Hayes and Widney, starting with the “Introductory”, issued by the trio on 4 July 1876, in which they wrote to the literary committee of the centennial celebration that “the field has been so extensive—embracing a period of more than a century—that we have been necessarily forced to pass over the ground hastily.”

While omitting a good deal, the three men hoped “to make the sketch worthy of the subject and of the occasion.” They added that they relied on many sources, including some that were not recorded and consisted of “narratives and personal reminiscences falling directly from the lips of survivors of that older generation, now rapidly passing away” while they “sifted and compared reports and dates, until we believe the narrative will be found in the main correct.”

Star, 9 July 1876.

The authors concluded with the statement that

If this sketch meet your approval and the approbation of the public, and if it should be the instrument of rescuing from oblivion a portion of the early history of our country, and, especially, if it may be the means of adding only one more tie to the bond that makes us, of whatever blood or kin, citizens of one common home, brothers by adoption, children of one fatherland, we shall feel that our labor has been amply repaid.

Juan José Warner, the writer of the first chapter covering the period from the establishment of Mission San Gabriel in 1771 to the American seizure of Los Angeles in August 1846, was born Jonathan Trumbull Warner in Hadlyme, Connecticut on 20 November 1807 and left New England in 1830 “to seek a more congenial climate,” a reason that drew so many in subsequent decades to the balmy region of greater Los Angeles. Warner was quoted as saying he “was swept westward by the strong and uninterrupted current of humanity flowing in that direction.”

Express, 14 July 1876.

By late November, he was in St. Louis and, already feeling much better, joined a Rocky Mountain Fur Company, which trapped beaver, on an expedition to Santa Fé, New Mexico. Soon after arrival, he joined another group that traveled on the recently opened Old Spanish (which was neither old nor Spanish!) Trail to California to purchase mules for sale in Louisiana. The party left New Mexico in early September 1831 and arrived at Los Angeles in early December—this being exactly a decade before the Rowland and Workman Expedition used the route to migrate to this region.

Warner and Ewing Young, a well-known trapper of the era, remained in Mexican California to hunt seals and otters for the voracious fur trade as far north as San Francisco Bay and then spent the winter of 1832-1833 trapping beaver with a group in northern California and what became Oregon. In 1834, he decided to settle at Los Angeles and opened a store—this as half-dozen years after Jonathan Temple opened the first such enterprise in the pueblo—on Main Street north of Temple and not far below the Plaza.

Los Angeles Herald, 12 May 1895.

At 6’3″, an exceptional height for the era, Warner was frequently called Don Juan Largo by the Californios and he adopted the names “Juan José” by which he was known, rather than his given names. In 1837, he married Anita Gale, the daughter of an American ship captain and who was raised by the mother of Don Pío Pico, the last governor of Mexican California, until she wedded Warner—the couple, who had five children, remained together until her death in 1859. In 1840 and 1841, he returned to the east coast and was said to have lectured on the desirability of building a railroad to California, while he was also best man at the wedding of his cousin, Morrison Waite, later an associate justice on the United States Supreme Court.

After returning to California, Warner, in 1843, acquired a ranch in what became northwestern San Diego County that includes what is still known as Warner’s Springs and during his thirteen years there served five, between 1850 and 1855 in the state senate. With mounting troubles between Americans and indigenous people in the area surrounding his ranch, during which time he took on the title of colonel, Warner decided to return to Los Angeles in 1857 and then started the Southern Vineyard newspaper, acquiring the press and equipment of the young Francisco P. Ramirez and his El Clamor Público, the first Spanish-language newspaper in Los Angeles.

Warner was elected to the state assembly in 1860, but changed his political affiliation from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party during the Civil War as he believed in the preservation of the Union. In the postwar period, he was admitted to the bar and was commissioned as a notary public. At the time that he wrote his portion of the centennial history, he was also a federal bankruptcy registrar and one of his projects was dealing with the estates of William Workman (who committed suicide fewer than two months before the centennial celebration) and F.P.F. Temple.

Warner was also highly regarded for his knowledge of local history and his collection of materials relating to that topic, which made him an obvious choice to pen that section in the publication. By the mid-1880s, however, his eyesight failed him, yet he remained “one of the best informed men in the state,” according to an encomium published in the Los Angeles Herald just after his death. Warner was credited with helping his old friend, Pico, find a home after he was swindled out of his Whittier-area ranch and Warner was said to have been taken advantage of in his own old age.

Fascinated by science, religion, and metaphysics, Warner was purportedly prevented from writing a history of California, but his blindness kept him from pursuing this long-cherished project and it was hoped that the material in the manuscripts prepared by him would one day be published “while it is still fresh enough to be proven authentic.” The long obituary by Edward Hutchinson that provides most of the biographical material here ended with the observation that

California is proud of her pioneers, and with good reason; and among them all there was not one who deserved more praise for his noble qualities of mind and heart than was due to Colonel Warner, and will always be due to his memory.

The soaring rhetoric about Warner, expected in encomia, and the Congressional aim of the centennial histories to celebrate progress (though a key question is for whom?) aside, the centennial history is a notable document and we’ll look into it in some detail, so please join us for the upcoming parts of this post.

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