by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Joseph Chapman has been widely considered to have been the first extranjero (foreigner) to live in Los Angeles, having settled in the Spanish colonial pueblo of Los Angeles in 1818 and predating the second, Jonathan Temple, by a decade. Yet, as Stephen C. Foster, a former mayor (including during the infamous January 1855 execution of Felipe Alvitre and lynching of David Brown, which we’ll discuss in detail next month) and collector and chronicler of greater Los Angeles history, wrote, in a lengthy article published in the 12 December 1876 edition of the Los Angeles Express, there was another American who came with Chapman, but whose race looks to have been the prime reason for his almost-total exclusion from the historical record.
Previous posts on this blog under the series of “The Black Pioneers of Los Angeles County” have shared information on African-Americans enumerated in the censuses of 1850 and 1852 (the sole state-conducted example), 1860, 1870, and 1880, with a multi-part post on the 1900 census forthcoming. These focused on Black residents of our area after the formation of the county, which took place after the passage of the 1849 California Constitution in December of that year and the establishment of local government the following spring.
Yet, there were a few African-Americans in our region prior to that, but Foster’s article, almost entirely concerns Chapman, with very little said about the first Black resident of the Angel City, Thomas Fisher. There are frustratingly few references to Fisher, so our knowledge of him is only of the barest sort. Foster’s piece was spurred by some questions raised in a civil trial held in the superior court a couple of months prior. Specifically, there was land in dispute and the query concerned the grantee of the tract: José Chapman.
Foster (1820-1898) was a native of Maine and a rare college graduate for this era, having matriculated from Yale in 1840. After teaching school in Virginia and Alabama and lectured at a medical college in Louisiana, he spent some time in New Mexico and, having quickly learned Spanish fluently, came to California as an interpreter for the Mormon Battalion from Missouri which marched to Los Angeles as the American invasion during the Mexican-American War concluded. He was an alcalde (akin to a mayor) and one of the delegates to the constitutional convention of 1849 and mayor of the Angel City, including during the chaos of January 1855 noted above.
Foster was one of the witnesses called in the matter, likely because of his voluminous knowledge of local history, and he noted that, while waiting outside the courtroom, he turned to an unnamed “venerable old man of seventy years” and asked what he recalled of Chapman. The reply was that “I remember when my father brought him a prisoner from the Ortega ranch, both riding upon the same horse, ‘El año de los Insurgentes (the year of the Insurgents.) I was then a boy of eight years. He was the first American I ever seen, or heard of.” The elderly gent recalled that Chapman “was a good man” and built the house that he’d resided in for forty-five years (since 1831) and Foster added that he’d heard the man’s father (again, unnamed for some unstated reason) tell the story, as well.
He then observed that he remembered that, in 1847, he was
in a house on San Pedro street, in this city, [where] two old, white-haired men sat taking their chocolate, and talking over old times, while an old grizzled Negro of the most pronounced African type, stood by, occasionally indulging in hearty laughter at the quaint remarks of his old patron, and the reminiscences of their first meeting, thirty years before; and one of them remarked that he caught and brought to Los Angeles the first pair of Americans ever seen there, one white, and the other black.
Foster averred that 1818, the Year of the Insurgents, “is the most notable epoch in the first fifty years in the history of California” and that best recalled by those of a certain age and still around not quite six decades later. The writer began by observing that, under Spanish rule, California was prohibited territory for foreign contact, including those looking to trade or emigrate here. If a landing by ships had to be made for emergency purposes, such craft were to be carefully watched “and required to depart as soon as their necessities were relieved.”
Foster expressed the situation such that, for three centuries, the Spanish New World was as “a sealed book” and he added that any interlopers were not allowed to leave, citing an example of two groups of Americans, between 1797 and 1811, who entered New Mexico from what became Missouri and were dispersed through four departments (territories) and could not leave until México won independence in the early 1820s. He went on to state that, because the locals in these areas “were always kind and hospitable,” the Yankees likely married and remained, never returning to the United States.
As for California, Foster recorded that the only contact “in this, the most remote of the Spanish possessions” had was an occasional arrival of a ship from San Blas, in the state of Nayarit, north of Puerto Vallarta and northwest of Guadalajara or Acapulco, in the state of Guerrero, southwest of México City. Given its isolation, he continued that “the great mass of the people knew little and cared less for what was going on in the world outside, and priests and soldiers and settlers [in the tripartite settlements of missions, presidios and pueblos] quietly and peaceably followed their several avocations.” Left out of this discussion, it should be added, were the indigenous people, as if they simply did not exist.
While he stated that the facts in his discussion were substantiated by what was preserved in archives, Foster observed that he relied for his narrative on what he was told “by the principal actor therein.” While he then went on to the next part of his story, he returned to note that this was Antonio María Lugo, a corporal in the Spanish Army who, after completing 17 of service at the presidio of Santa Barbara, moved to Los Angeles in 1810. What Foster did not say, again for reasons that are unknown, is that he was Lugo’s son-in-law, having married, in 1848, María Merced Lugo.
The account went on that, in 1818 (24 November), a ship arrived at the harbor in Monterey, which was long the capital of the department of Alta California, and shots were exchanged between the vessel and the presidio. The craft was commanded by Hippolyte Bouchard, formerly a sailor in the French Navy who then served in the navy of Argentina as it raided coastal cities in Peru and Ecuador. He commanded a craft with a commission as a corsair or privateer, a private citizen with permission to attack Spanish ships as South American colonies sought freedom from Spanish rule and sailed to the Philippines, where he plundered some ships, and stopped in Hawai’i before heading to California. So, while Bouchard is usually described as a “pirate,” he, technically, was operating as a corsair/privateer under the flag of the United Provinces of the Río de la Plata, the precursor to the nation of Argentina.
Foster asserted that “the traditions of the atrocities committed by the Buccaneers at the end of the 17th century on the Spanish main, were familiar to the people” of the community. While the historian omitted it, or was unaware of the fact, Bouchard did land men at Monterey, where they pillaged and burned for almost a week before returning to their ship and the sailing to the Santa Barbara area, where they plundered the Ortega ranch, and to what is now Dana Point in Orange County, where a raid was conducted on the Mission San Juan Capistrano. After that last sortie, Bouchard and his men headed south to San Blas, Acapulco and then to Chile before serving in the navy of Peru for about a decade. He retired to a farm in the southern part of that nation and was killed there by a servant in 1837.
Foster’s account was that Chapman and Fisher were seized by military personnel from Santa Barbara and that his father-in-law Lugo, described by the chronicler as “the venerable old man whose striking form was so familiar to our older residents” and who was “honored and respected by all” before his death in 1860, brought the pair to Los Angeles. He related that his mother-in-law, Maria Dolores Ruiz, “was anxiously waiting, as she stood, after nightfall, in the door of her house, which still stands on the street now known as Negro Alley [Calle de los Negros, scene of the horrific 1871 massacre of 19 Chinese males by a mob of whites and Latinos, and soon removed for a northward extension of Los Angeles Street]” until she heard her husband arrive.
Lugo and his prisoners stopped at “the guard-house, which then stood at the north side of the plaza, across Upper Main Street,” this structure, built about 1786, being just north of the existing Plaza Church west of what is now Main Street, but the street configuration has changed with Upper Main running to the west of the current thoroughfare, roughly near where North Spring Street (formerly New High) and César Chávez Avenue meet. Señora Lugo heard orders barked out “and presently she saw two horsemen mounted on one horse” as they approached her dwelling. The account continued by describing Lugo was six-feet tall and “of a spare but sinewy form, which indicated great strength and activity.” The other man was Chapman, who was around 25 and slightly taller than his captor, but with light hair and blue eyes “and he wore the garb of a sailor.” Foster even added a fictional thought from the young man: “I am in a darned bad scrape, but I guess I’ll work out, somehow.”
When Señora Lugo asked her “old man,” as Foster related it, who the young prisoner was, the reply was quoted as “a prisoner we took away from that buccaneer—may the devil sink her—scaring the whole coast” and Don Antonio purportedly added, “none of us understand his lingo, and he don’t understand ours,” but that his name was José “and he speaks a language they call English.” Beyond this, Lugo was said to have told his spouse,
We took a negro among them, but he was the only one of the rogues that showed fight, and so Corporal Ruiz [perhaps one of Señora Lugo’s soldier brothers, José Hilario or José Joaquín] lassoed him and brought him head over heels, sword and all. I left him in Santa Barbara to repair damages. He is [speaks?] English, too.
It is unclear whether the captive who resisted was Chapman or Fisher as it is not certain if Ruiz was left in Santa Barbara, instead of Fisher, or if the latter was the one who “is English, too.” That Dolores Ruiz Lugo then asked if Chapman was a Christian or a non-believer further confuses whether the man in the quote was him or Fisher, as Don Antonio goes on to say that Chapman “has the face of an honest man” and that “if he behaves himself, we will look him up a wife among our pretty girls.” After chastising his wife for asking questions as he was starving after the long trip, Lugo asked her to “hurry up and give us the best you have.”
Foster then wrote that, within a few days, Chapman was at work cutting timber for Lugo for use in the construction of the Plaza Church, completed in 1822, and that he quickly learned Spanish, how to passably ride a horse, and headed to Santa Barbara with Lugo to find a spouse, Guadalupe Ortega, of one of the earliest Spanish families in that area, with the chronicler attempting a bit of humor by saying that he returned to Los Angeles from Santa Barbara for a second time as a prisoner.
Foster added that, when Americans first entered California after Mexican independence, this starting when Jedediah Smith came in from overland in 1826, “they found José Chapman at the Mission of San Gabriel, fair-haired children playing around him, carpenter, mill-wright, and general factotum of good old Father Sanchez.” Chapman is credited with building the mission mill, which William Workman later owned before E.J.C. Kewen made it his long-time residence. Meanwhile, the narrative went on.
they also found Tom Fisher swinging his riata among the wild cattle, as he once swung his cutlass when he fought the Spanish lancers on the beach at the Ortega ranch.
Foster recorded that Chapman died about 1849 and that descendants still resided in Ventura County, while
I saw [last] saw Fisher in September, 1848, when I met him in the Monte [that is, what later became El Monte]. The news of gold had just reached here and he was on his way to the placers, to make his fortune, and he has never been heard from since.
It is too bad that the writer did not describe Fisher as he did Lugo and, to an extent, Chapman. As he concluded his narrative, however, he made reference to “my humble contribution to the Centennial history of Los Angeles,” which was just published in November 1876, though Foster was not part of the publication, penned by J.J. Warner, Benjamin Hayes and Joseph P. Widney, so perhaps Foster was expressing his feelings about being left out?
Foster did, though, continue that “I have only to say, which I do, without fear of contradiction, that the first American pioneers of Los Angeles . . . were Jose el Ingles, Joseph, the Englishman, alias Joe Chapman, a native of New England [Boston, it is said], and El Negro Fisar, alias Tom Fisher.
There were two censuses taken in the Los Angeles district during the Mexican period, one in 1836 and the other eight years later. By the time of the former enumeration, Chapman and his family were residing near the native Chumash village site of Syuxtun, along what is now West Beach near Ambassador Park in Santa Barbara. As for Fisher, his whereabouts then are unknown, as the 1836 count listed two Africans, but no one else that appears to have been him.
Historian Hubert Howe Bancroft’s History of California stated that the Bouchard expedition left Chapman as among the first half-dozen Americans in the department, while “by the same vent, the foreign African population of the province was increased to three by the addition of Pascual and Fisher, or Norris,” with a previous Black man, known as Bob or Juan Cristóbal, “having been the pioneer negro so far as the records show,” as he was left in California in 1816 by the captain of the ship, Albatross.
Bancroft separately listed Fisher “or Fisar” as a native of Pennsylvania who arrived by the ship Santa Rosa at Santa Barbara in 1825 and who, four years later, was said to be a 35-year old farmer “without religion, but of good conduct.” He then added that Fisher/Fisar was mentioned by Antonio Franco Coronel, a migrant to Los Angeles with the Hijar-Padres Colony of 1834, as working for him about a dozen years later, and “perhaps by Foster in ’48-‘9,” noting “it is possible, however, that this F. and the preceding were the same.”
The historian, however, was dismissive of what he refers to as Foster’s First American in Los Angeles, which might well be the 1876 Express article, the title of which only varies by having the plural “Americans,” observing in a footnote that it “is purely fictitious so far as details are concerned.” Bancroft also recorded, in a separate note, that Chapman stated, in an official departmental document that he “remained here as a prisoner because he was forced with other persons at the Sandwich Islands on the expedition of Bouchard.” One naturally wonders if Fisher was also in Hawai’i when he was “impressed,” or forcibly taken by Bouchard; otherwise, what was most plausible for a Black American to be on an Argentinian ship commanded by a French privateer?! What the historian didn’t try to explain or guess was why he identified an alternative surname of “Norris for Fisher.
The name “Fisar,” mentioned by Foster in the article, though, is found in the 1844 census in the extensive household of Antonio María Lugo, then 69, and his second wife (after Dolores Ruiz died), María German, who was just 16 (and 14 when she married Lugo in 1842). After the listing of Don Antonio’s son Felipe (for whom the Rancho Potrero de Felipe Lugo, once owned by the Workman and Temple families, in the Whittier Narrows was named) there is simply “Fisar”, age 57, working as a carpenter and from the United States—though there is no mention of his race. Assuming this is Thomas Fisher and that the age is accurate (they often are not in census listings), then he was born in 1787 or so and would have been 31 at the time of his arrival in California.
In an 1883 account for the Los Angeles Herald on the 1836 census, Foster, writing of the “Los Angeles Pioneers of 1836,” meaning those of the “foreign colony,” lists 45 men, including Jonathan Temple, but observed that among the missing were prominent merchant Abel Stearns, who may have been traveling on business; Michael White, who three years later went to New Mexico and worked in William Workman’s store before coming back with his employer in 1841; and
Thomas Fisher, known as “Negro Fisher,” one of six who were captured from Bouchard crew [in 1818]. . . and had been a servant of the Lugos from that date, and probably was considered to have become a Californian. He was a native of New Jersey, then about fifty years old.
The state of birth was new from what Foster recorded not quite seven years earlier for the Express and the age comports very closely with the “Fisar” of 1844, while it is notable that Fisher was, by 1836, still an employee of the Lugos after nearly two decades. In the Express of 31 December 1887, there was a lengthy history of Los Angeles published and included is a table of the extranjeros of 1836, with Foster simply repeating the absence of Stearns, White and “Thomas Fisher, a negro.”
A separate article on “The Colored People,” averring that the history of “Ham’s numerous sons and daughters,” including “a recent and rapid influx of Texas darkies,” was “not without interest,” recorded that two of the pobladores who founded Los Angeles in 1781, Antonio Mesa and Luis Quintero, were “negroes” who “were afterward adjudged as ‘useless’,” this apparently a description from some pueblo record, “and banished from the colony.” Following this was:
The next negro that figures upon the scene was Thomas Fisher, who deserted from a South American privateer at San Jaun [sic] Capistrano in 1818.
This last tidbit is at variance from what Foster recorded that his father-in-law Lugo told him about Fisher being captured at Santa Barbara as well as what was said in the 1883 account, so one wonders where the version emanated from that had Fisher fleeing Bouchard at the mission.
In any case, this is all that could be located about the first African-American person to live in Los Angeles and who remained in the city almost three decades before he headed north for the gold fields and vanished from history. Chapman, on the other hand, has had a continuing recognition as the first American to live in Los Angeles, while Fisher has been almost completely forgotten. Hopefully, that injustice can be corrected and he can be, little as we know about him remembered for his role in our regional history.