“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 Two

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Having provided the inspiration for and given some biographical information of one of the authors of the first published history of Los Angeles County, An Historical Sketch of Los Angeles County, California, issued by Louis Lewin & Co. in November 1876 but prepared for the celebration in July of the American centennial, we turn to J.J. Warner’s contribution, covering the period from 8 September 1771 when the Mission San Gabriel was established to August 1846 and the initial seizure of Mexican-era Los Angeles by American military forces.

It is important to observe that the concept of “history” was basically considered that which was written, although it should also be noted that Hugo Reid (1811-1852), a native of Scotland who was married to Victoria Bartolomea, one of the many “neophytes” or indigenous people converted to Christianity under the mission system which included the Mission San Gabriel as the so-called “Queen of the Missions,” provided extensive written documentation, through the information provided him by Victoria and others, on the native people who lived in greater Los Angeles for an untold number of generations.

So, while Warner began his narrative with the founding of the mission, the obvious and glaring omission of any discussion of the local Indians, outside of the missions, is another reminder, especially during this Native American Heritage Month of why the recent resolution by the county Board of Supervisors concerning a land acknowledgment statement is just a first step towards recognizing far more of what the history has been of the indigenous people of our region.

Warner noted, to begin with, that there were then three missions within Los Angeles County, the others being San Fernando and San Juan Capistrano—though just more than a dozen years later, the latter would become part of Orange County. San Gabriel, he wrote, “was at first planted on the margin of the San Gabriel River, some four or five miles southeasterly from its present site,” and that watercourse, which was called Temblores, because of earthquakes experienced by the members of the Portolá Expedition of 1769-1770, the first land-based journey through California, is today’s Río Hondo.

After saying that “no extensive or permanent improvements were made at that place” and that “it was not long before its present site was selected,” as San Gabriel was moved to its current locale by 1775, Warner observed that “the place of its first location is still known, as is also that of San Gabriel, as La Mision Vieja (old Mission,” and the original site long had a community of mostly Latinos, with a sprinkling of Anglos, such as the Temple family, until well into the 20th century. He went on to describe “the unbroken series of failures, which for more than one hundred and fifty years attended the oft recurring attempts of the” Spanish authorities in México “to reduce the natives of Peninsular [Baja] California to the domination of Spain” through (forced) conversion, the establishment of military presidios and the organization of “colonies,” or pueblos and identified the challenging topography as part of the problem.

Yet, another attempt by the Jesuit missionaries was approved and, by the end of the 17th century, efforts were undertaken that, in about a half-century, led to the creation of more than a dozen missions that were deemed “prosperous” and which, to Warner, succeeded in subjugating the native people. This, he went on, inspired the Franciscans “to attempt a like work along the shore of of the Pacific Ocean from the Peninsula northerly,” but he didn’t mention that the Jesuits were expelled in 1767 and the Franciscans given control of the missionizing project.

The historian detailed the formation of the Franciscan plan, which included military accompaniment, by sea and land into “Upper California” starting in spring 1769, but not without significant miscues and setbacks, noting that the missions were to be converted into pueblos after just ten years with the expectation that converted “neophytes” would become industrious citizens of Spain. Yet, Warner stated that it was obvious that the indigenous converts “would be incompetent to form a political organization, or to rightly use and manage the property accumulated by the mission,” so the system, maintained for some 65 years, continued.

The three regional missions, the account continued, was so situated that “in less than sixty years . . . the herds of neat cattle, bands of horses, and flocks of sheep and goats . . . covered the major part of the land in Los Angeles County,” including what became Orange County as well as a good portion of San Bernardino County. In 1802, Warner recorded, there were 2,674 neophytes and that, almost three decades later, “when these missions had reached their highest prosperity,” the total was above 4,000. He went over the layout of the campus of and the amount of work conducted at San Gabriel, adding that the mill was owned, in 1876, by attorney, Confederate sympathizer and firebrand orator Edward J.C. Kewen (though it was previously partly the property of William Workman, who with Reid and his successors, had a claim to a land grant for the mission’s lands that was finally denied by the United States Supreme Court in 1864.)

While Warner observed that the products of the missions were largely kept and consumed in the local area, he added that

Such was the patience, the energy, the business capacity, and tact with which the Friars controlled and managed the Indians, and the general affairs of the missions . . . that in a few years [and supplemented by shipments from México]. . . their granaries and storehouses were filled to overflowing.

Again, however, nothing was said about the terrible effects colonization had on the native people and, despite the efforts of a very few like Helen Hunt Jackson, author of the wildly successful romance, Ramona, the favorable impression of the Mission Era remained intact through most of the 20th century, including through such paeans as The Mission Play, written by John Steven McGroarty, and performed at San Gabriel, with major support from Walter P. Temple, for some two decades from the early Teens through early Thirties.

In the early years of Mexican independence, there was agitation by “discharged soldiers and their offspring, who desired to obtain land,” though it was also promised to these military personnel when they enlisted, for “the conversion of the missions into towns.” A law of 1824 with regulations issued four years later led to the seizure of control of the missions in the mid-1830s in what is generally known as “secularization.” The problem, continued Warner, was that “the farm more improvident management of the secular officers” led to a precipitous decline of neglect and waste such that, for example, “in 1846 hardly a vestige of the vines, which had covered scores of acres of land, was left remaining” among the vineyards planted by the missionaries. There were still orange groves at San Gabriel and olives and grapes at San Fernando,

as living witnesses of the energy and untiring industry of those zealous Friars who, coming into a country full to overflowing with ignorant, savage barbarians, changed them into patient, docile laborers, and in less than fifty years filled the country with fruitfulness.

Warner then turned to the origins of the rancho system that supplanted that of the missions, noting that there were four large grants between 1784 and 1822 in the region, including the Nieto (1784), between the San Gabriel and Santa Ana rivers; the Santiago de Santa Ana (1810), in what became Orange County; the San Rafael (also 1784), north of Los Angeles; and the San Pedro (1822), south of the pueblo. He discussed some of the history of these grants and looked to solidify the dates of grants with respect to what was reported in documents from the land claims process initiated by an act of Congress in 1851.

Moving to stock-raising, Warner noted that the policy under the mission system was to preserve females to propagate herds so that these early ranchers benefited from the concept and “their almost boundless lands were covered with cattle and horses.” By the mid-1820s, he went on, the increase in animals was such that “the pasturage . . . was insufficient for its support” and that large bands of wild horses also had an impact on available grazing land. To deal with this problem, the rancheros built large corrals “with outspreading wings of long extent from the doorway, into which the wild horses were driven in large numbers and slaughtered.” Later, as the number of cattle decreased, these horses were captured and then domesticated.

To the writer, the first fifty years after the establishment of Mission San Gabriel were “barren of any noticeable event” and he singled out the earthquake of December 1812, estimated at between 6.9 and 7.5 on the modern Richter scale, as a remarkable event. This included the destruction of the church at Mission San Juan Capistrano in which about thirty persons were killed. He added that a flood in 1825 was such that with the rivers rising precipitately “their beds, their banks, and the adjoining lands were greatly changed.” Warner recorded the the waters of the Los Angeles River hardly ever made it to the Pacific as “the waters spread over the country,” composed of forests and marshes, “filling the depressions in the surface, and forming lakes, ponds and marshes,” but the 1825 deluge formed a channel for the first time and “by cutting a river-way to tide water, drained the marsh land and caused the forests to disappear.”

Seven years later, another flood “so changed the drainage” near what became Compton, “that a number of lakes and ponds . . . became dry in a few years thereafter.” From 1825 to the flood of 1867, the San Gabriel (Río Hondo) and Los Angeles rivers “united at a point northerly from the dwelling house on the Cerritos Ranch,” this built by Jonathan Temple in 1844, “and flowing past the house on the west, emptied into the San Pedro estuary southwest of that dwelling house.” With the later flood, however, the river “left its bed” coming out of the Whittier Narrows near the ranch of Don Pío Pico “and cut a new water-way” through the ranches of Santa Gertrudes and Los Alamitos and emptied into the ocean “east of the dwelling house on the latter ranch,” this still standing near Cal State Long Beach.

Warner diverted (!) into a discussion about gold prospecting in the area, writing that there was no evidence of any finds until 1841, noting “there is conclusive testimony that the first know grain of native gold dust was found upon or near the San Francisco Ranch, about forty-five miles westerly [north] of Los Angeles city, in the month of June 1841.” Adding that placer mining was still being conducted there thirty-five years later, the historian suggested that a lack of water for hydraulic mining limited activity; still, though “in no part of this extensive gold field have claims of great richness been found,” there were some areas that were “worked with remunerating results.”

He continued that there were two accidental aspects of the discovery, with a mineralogist named Andres Castillero coming in from Monterey and seeing at the Rancho Las Virgenes, at the west end of the San Fernando Valley, some pyrites which he posited suggested “a good indication of placer gold fields.” Warner then wrote of “Mr. Francisco López,” known, he wrote, as “Cuso,” but who was normally identified as “Chico,” a common nickname for those named Francisco, who heard Castillero’s pronouncement. It was stated that López and others were searching for stray animals at San Francisco when, having stopped to rest their horses, he “busied himself in gathering a parcel of wild onions” for food when he saw a pebble like that found at Las Virgenes.

Scooping some of the earth loosened by the pulling of the onions, “and rubbing it in his hand, [López] found a grain of gold.” The result was a gold rush on a small scale compared to 1848-1849 up north and Warner visited the field within a few weeks and recorded that the first shipment of California gold was sent by Abel Stearns, a prominent Los Angeles merchant, with Alfred Robinson to the mint at Philadelphia. Soon after, Pliny F. (later, F.P.F.) Temple obtained gold dust from the Placerita Canyon field and sent it east to have his brother Abraham transmit to the mint.

Warner then worked his way back to 1781 and the founding of the pueblo of Los Angeles, prefacing this with the remark that the Spanish government looked upon its American subjects as “incompetent persons, unable to make suitable provision for themselves” and thereby “ordained where and how they should live” with regulations on wages, prices and other aspects of life. So, “in consonance with this principle” came the establishment of Los Angeles, which was ordered by California Governor “Phelipe” [Felipe] de Neve on 26 August (he later noted that an American-era tracing of the original changed the year to 1788) and “was founded in a formal manner on the fourth of September of the same year”—this date, since questioned, was corroborated by Thomas W. Temple II in research for the city’s 1931 sesquicentennial.

The author discussed the dozen males who he said established the town (there were 44 persons in total who were all part of the founding, though Warner gave the number as 46, including 20 children under 10 years old) and that they “had been soldiers at the Mission of San Gabriel” relieved from duty but still on the government payroll. Of these men, two were said to be from Spain, one from China and the other nine from Baja California, Sinaloa and Sonora in northern México. Warner described the layout of the town in the parallelogram form called for in regulations and said the original Plaza was just north and west of the current one, while observing that thirty farm tracts were designated “upon the alluvial bottom land of the [Los Angeles] river and allotments of animals and tools provided but deducted from the pay of the dozen male heads of households.

Warner continued by noting the government as a mix of religious and military oversight, adding that all males over 18 were conscripted for guard duty from a guardhouse on the Plaza. Because the founders were soldiers and as the formation of the Angel City was under military supervision, the evolution of government there “was slow and torturous” and he asserted that “the absence of municipal records from the first half century after the founding of Los Angeles, of itself raises the presumption that the municipal officers exercised but little authority during that time.” He also recorded that grants of land to the pueblo’s settlers did not convey absolute title to them and that the government retained sovereignty over such tracts.

The “quietude” for 50 years after the establishment of Los Angeles ended with a revolt in the pueblo in December 1831 over actions of the alcalde (akin to a mayor) appointed by Governor and Military Commander Manuel Victoria, who was on his way to the town from the capital at Monterey. A skirmish took place “a few miles from town” at Cahuenga Pass, where later conflicts took place in the Forties, and one of Victoria’s officers and a Los Angeles man were killed. Victoria headed east to the Mission San Gabriel and, the following day, resigned and was promptly dispatched to México proper.

Warner alluded to some of the political disputes of the era, including those seemingly perpetual divisions between the northern and southern sections of California, as well as the elevation of Los Angeles into a ciudad [city] in 1836 and as the seat of a prefecture for several years in the late 30s and early 40s. He also referred to an incident in 1836 (he stated it was the prior year) in which a married woman and her lover killed her husband, but Warner wrote that “there was no Court, or civil authority in California, which was invested with power to execute the sentence of death” and that such cases had to be reviewed and approved by officials in México. He continued that “the inhabitants of Los Angeles,” though led principally by Anglos, demanded surrender of the prisoners for execution and, though this was not formally granted, nothing was done to stop a party from carrying out the first lynching in California—not mentioned by Warner was that the executioners met at the house of Jonathan Temple before making their demands.

The writer mentioned his own role in an 1838 incident involving a purported plot against the government of the department of Alta California and during which troops were sent from the north to arrest suspects including Pío Pico, his brother Andrés, and others, including Gil Ybarra, grantee of the Rancho Rincón de la Brea, adjacent to the Rancho La Puente of John Rowland and William Workman. It was noted that “the only casualty which occurred was the breaking of the arm of J.J. Warner . . . in consequence of his inability to inform them where Don Pio Pico could be found, and his resistance to an order of arrest for refusing permission to have his house searched for suspected persons.”

Warner briefly referred to the mistaken capture by American naval forces of Monterey in November 1842 before similarly succinctly summarizing the “bloodless battle” at Cahuenga in February 1845 between Governor Manuel Micheltorena and residents of Los Angeles that led to Pío Pico becoming the last governor of Mexican-era California. William Workman was captain and John Rowland lieutenant of the “foreign,” that is, American and European, volunteers fighting against Micheltorena.

The account then turned substantially to the American invasion of California in 1846-1847 with the 7 August 1846 landing at San Pedro of a Navy squadron commanded by Commodore Robert F. Stockton leading to a combination of forces with a California force organized by John C. Frémont and the taking of Los Angeles eight days later after Pico and military commander General José Castro left the town. On 23 September, however, Cerbulo Varela (identified by Warner as “Cervol Varelas”) engineered a revolt against the American garrison led by Marine Lieutenant Archibald H. Gillespie and, three days later, a Californio force captured Americans and Europeans holed up at the Rancho Santa Ana del Chino headquarters in today’s Chino Hills and took the prisoners to what became Boyle Heights in Los Angeles. Gillespie yielded to the Californio defenders on the 30th and retreated to San Pedro.

On 6 October, Navy Captain William Mervine landed at San Pedro and he and Gillespie marched toward Los Angeles, but, two days later, there was “a spirited engagement which lasted for an hour or more.” Mervine was “alarmed at the resistance which he countered, and the loss of men he was suffering,” a total of 14 Americans died as a result of the fighting, and he retreated and sailed away. Under a month later, Stockton arrived at San Pedro and prepared to land so that he could march to and retake Los Angeles, but thinking there was a greater Californio presence, thanks to a maneuver in which locals raised enough ruckus and dust to fool the commodore, than there was decided to sail for San Diego to regroup for another offensive.

There was also a brief recitation of the final battles on 8-9 January 1847 in which the combined forces of Stockton and Army General Stephen Watts Kearny (who suffered a humiliating rout rendered by General Andrés Pico and his California lancers at San Pasqual near San Diego about a month prior) engaged with the undermanned and outgunned Californios at the San Gabriel River (Río Hondo) and La Mesa (present Vernon). The Americans took the field against the depleted locals, who pulled back and decamped to the Rancho San Pasqual in modern Pasadena, and marched into Los Angeles on the 10th (where Workman and others met them with the white flag of truce.)

Warner went into some detail about what led the Californios to surrender to Frémont at Cahuenga rather than to Stockton and Kearny at Los Angeles, noting that José Jesús Pico, a cousin of the governor and of the general who vanquished the Americans at San Pasqual, arranged the preliminaries between Frémont and Andrés Pico, which led to the two being, on 13 January, the signatories of the treaty that ended the war in California. Warner pointedly remarked,

It can hardly be presumed that Colonel Fremont, was ignorant at the time he entered into negotiations with the Californians, that Commodore Stockton and General Kearny had taken possession of Los Angeles [in fact, Frémont was supposed to participate in the taking of the city but was late in arriving from the north], and that he could have opened communications with them had he been so inclined.

The historian added that, before the final battles, Stockton was met at San Juan Capistrano by Workman and Charles Flugge, sent by General José María Flores to arrange an amnesty for Californios defending their homeland against the invaders. Warner recorded that the commodore replied he would only do so with the unconditional surrender of Flores in person, so “to these terms neither the commissioners or any of the Californians were prepared to accede.” Given Stockton’s demand, the writer opined that “the Californians had good cause to urge them into negotiations with Colonel Fremont” who would offer “more honorable terms.” Yet, it was concluded, Frémont’s motives in doing so without notifying Stockton and Kearny, both superior officers, “must be left to conjecture.”

Warner continued that the August seizure of Los Angeles was bloodless, but the revolt the next month was due to “the ill-advised acts of some of the American officers,” principally, the imperious and impetuous Gillespie’s “coercive system to effect a moral and social change in the habits, diversions and pastimes of the people, and reduce them to his standard of propriety.” He went on to note that “the result of this injudicious effort was the rebellion of the inhabitants.”

The remainder of the narrative focused largely on the arrival of foreigners, almost exclusively through landings at the rudimentary port at San Pedro not long after México allowed outside contact in a way not permitted under Spain. There were a few overland incursions from the likes of Jedediah Smith (1826) and then the opening a few years later of the Old Spanish Trail (which, in truth, was neither old nor Spanish) from New Mexico. William Wolfskill, long a prominent resident of Los Angeles was mentioned as coming over the trail in early 1831 as the trade for woolen goods from the east for mules and horses from the west was typical, though Warner also mentioned “silk, and other Chinese goods” being sent to New Mexico from Los Angeles.

From 1831 to 1844, Warner continued, “a considerable number of native New Mexicans and some foreign residents of that Territory” came “in search of homes in this country.” Julián Chávez was identified as an early example along with members of the Martinez and Trujillo families, while among the extranjeros, or foreigners, were Rowland, Workman, Benjamin D. Wilson, and David W. Alexander—the first two recently deceased (Workman in May 1876), while Wilson and Alexander were still living, though Wilson died in 1878. Warner mentioned his own arrival over the trail in 1831 and that of Lemuel Carpenter, long the owner of Rancho Santa Gertrudes east of the San Gabriel River, and Isaac Williams, proprietor for nearly fifteen years of Rancho Santa Ana del Chino.

The account concluded with the note that “the town of Los Angeles, from its settlement onward, for more than fifty years, had a population greater than any other of the towns of California,” though there were very few of these in the sparsely settled department, isolated as something akin to a Siberia of México. He observed that the first census with surviving records was of the district of Los Angeles and which recorded 2,228 persons, of which 553 were “domesticated Indians” and 46 were extranjeros including 21 Americans—such as Warner, Stearns, Wolfskill and Jonathan Temple. Warner appended letters from Stearns in 1867 attesting to the López gold discovery in March 1842; that, on 22 November, he sent gold with Robinson to Philadelphia; that the mines at Placerita Canyon were consistently worked until the war came in late 1846; and that some $6,000-$8,000 was realized each of those five years, and from Robinson to Stearns in August 1843 stating that the first gold deposit was received on 8 July totaling a little above 18 ounces and netting $340.73—while also forwarding news of México, Texas, Spain, England and Ireland and more.

Part three of this post may be delayed a few days, but we will pick up our review of the 1876 centennial history with the first part of the much-lengthier essay by former District Court Judge and current attorney Benjamin I. Hayes, so check back with us soon!

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