Portrait Gallery: A Carte de Visite Photo of Laura Chauvin, Los Angeles, ca. 1872

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Among some of the earliest photographs in the Homestead’s collection are a trio of cartes de visite (literally, calling card) of three members of the Young and Chauvin families who were connected through intermarriage. We’ll look to share the two Young family photos in a future “Portrait Gallery” post, while this one features a view of young Laura Chauvin (pronounced “Show-van”), whose family involved some interesting local and state history.

Laura was born in December 1868 to Elizabeth Rose (1842-1915), whose was born in Missouri about 65 miles north of where William Workman once resided and where his brother David and his family lived until the mid-1850s, and Augustus C. Chauvin (1824-1897), who was a native of St. Louis and whose family history, according to one family tree, goes back to New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama, Montreal, Canada and Anjou in southeastern France.

Augustus C. Chauvin’s listing in El Dorado County for the 1852 California census, the only ever commissioned by the state and done because the 1850 federal census, conducted a year-and-a-half earlier, was considered so badly undercounted, affecting, among other things, the new state’s number of members in the House of Representatives.

Augustus in his mid-teens engaged, to improve his health, in fur trapping in the Rocky Mountains as St. Louis was a key starting place for these expeditions. For most of the 1840s, he worked as a trapper and developed his great interest and skills in hunting that were maintained in later years, as well. When the Mexican-American War was fomented by the United States as it sought to expand westward, Chauvin enlisted in the Army and served under Missouri native, Frederick T. Dent, the brother-in-law of Ulysses S. Grant, hero of the Civil War and two-term president of the United States.

After mustering out following the war’s end and returning to Missouri, Chauvin was one of the hordes of ’49ers who rushed to California to seek their fortunes in the gold fields, though he quickly opened a store. He may have been listed as “R.S. Chauvin” in the 1850 census, taken in February of the next year because of California’s admission to the Union in September 1850, at the Deer Creek Mines west of Lake Tahoe and east of where James Marshall’s discovery of the precious metal took place. The sole California state census, taken in summer 1852, enumerated him as a “trader” in El Dorado County.

An early advertisement for Chauvin’s El Dorado Store, situated in the Lanfranco Building across Main Street from the Temple Block, Los Angeles News, 4 March 1869.

In 1857, Augustus and Elizabeth, whose father had been long dead and whose mother married Enoch Griffin, with the clan moving to California, were married and they had two daughters, Mary and Minnie, while living in the gold country. After a decade, the family migrated south to Los Angeles, probably because members of Elizabeth’s relatives in the Young and Griffin families had migrated here. In fact, in the 1860 census, Emily Griffin and Hannah Young were living in Wilmington with Phineas Banning’s clerk Thomas H. Workman, son of David and nephew of William, which suggests there may have been connections between these families in Missouri.

In March 1868, Augustus registered to vote in Los Angeles County and, soon afterward, opened his store, called the El Dorado, after his former home county. Located across Main Street from the Temple Block in the Lanfranco Building, where, perhaps not coincidentally, his neighbors were Thomas’ brothers Elijah and William H. Workman, whose saddlery and harness building was long headquartered there, Augustus’ enterprise operated for almost eighteen years at that location. A November 1873 description of the store in the newly launched Los Angeles Herald noted that

There is probably no firm in town which turns over its goods so rapidly and frequently. The supply of miners and claims is a specialty of Mr. Chauvin’s, and he does a large country trade in this respect . . . The store has a full line of groceries, provisions, tin and hardware. Mr. Chauvin’s pride is his Los Angeles and eastern bacon. He had obtained quite a reputation in this, and buys always the choicest the market affords . . . The store is a great favorite with country people as well as townfolk, and during the five years that he has been established Mr. Chauvin has succeeded in placing his business upon the firm basis which characterizes our merchants throughout the city.

His “country” business was such that, when Peregrine Fitzhugh purchased more than 5,000 acres of William Workman’s portion of Rancho La Puente much of it in the San José Hills near today’s Mount San Antonio College and Cal Poly Pomona to run sheep on it and then sold some of the animals, Chauvin was his agent in Los Angeles.

The counting of the “Charrion” family, including Augustus, wife Elizabeth Rose, and their three daughters, two of whom died during the 1870s leaving only Laura remaining.

Chauvin was a founder of the Southern District Agricultural Society, based at Agricultural (now Exposition) Park and it was likely no coincidence that the Main Street and Agricultural Park Railroad, an early horse-drawn streetcar line (following the first in the city, the Spring and Sixth, which had F.P.F. Temple as its first treasurer), terminated in front of his store with a roundtable installed to allow the car and horse to be easily positioned for southbound travel.

He was also president of a local Mexican-American War veterans organization, a local Democratic Party official of note, often serving as a county delegate and occasionally attended the state party convention. Given his Missouri roots, it is not surprising that Chauvin, along with William H. Workman, was one of many Angelenos hailing from the South who publicly mourned the 1870 death of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

Chauvin garnered the largest number of votes (Elijah H. Workman, his Lanfranco Building neighbor had just one fewer vote) for election as a delegate to the Los Angeles County Democratic Party convention, Los Angeles Herald, 1 August 1875.

Jackson A. Graves, a prominent Los Angeles lawyer who wrote the well-received 1927 memoir My Seventy Years in California, also penned a reminiscence of his outdoor adventures in the Golden State and wrote extensively of a summer 1876 hunting trip he took with Chauvin in the mountains west of modern Lancaster, including his admiration for the elder man’s extensive knowledge and abilities “in the field.”

He was also a shrewd investor in real estate, including land on the Rancho San Antonio near the San Gabriel River and a property on Spring Street, between 5th and 6th streets, that was outside of the core of the city when he purchased it, but which later proved to be of immense value to his family. When he was forced to retire early in 1886 and sold the El Dorado Store, just as the great Boom of the Eighties was being unleashed, Chauvin, through his wife, built a commercial structure on the Spring Street lot that provided a good passive income.

Los Angeles Times, 29 June 1897.

For about a dozen years, Chauvin struggled with poor health and died in 1897 from “exhaustion from paralysis,” which seems to indicate he had at least one major stroke. A later account of his life called him “a man of sterling worth and high purpose, who aimed high and desired to accomplish much in life,” though it should be noted that this appeared in a “mug book,” a local history that was largely paid for by those who could write their own biographical sketch included in the work—in this case, it was perhaps submitted by his wife or Laura.

Tragedy also twice befell the family when the two older girls, Minnie (1876) and Mary (1878), died young leaving only Laura as the surviving child. Much as the case with the Workman family of Los Angeles, whose modest beginnings in Los Angeles were later followed by significant wealth and a corresponding upgrade in social status, Laura was something of a socialite in her teen and young adult years.

Times, 11 February 1938.

In 1894, she married William G. Hutchison, a native of Plymouth, Pennsylvania, not far from Wilkes-Barre. He was a mine superintendent and then an accountant for a gas fixture company in Denver before coming to the Angel City in 1887 during the boom. Perhaps with some seed money from the Chauvins, Hutchison formed a namesake company which manufactured gas and electric lighting fixtures, which were also sold wholesale and retail, along with other metal goods. He was also a prominent figure in the powerful Merchants and Manufacturers Association and served as its president in the 1910s.

William and Laura, who were childless, were also very prominent in the burgeoning social scene of the elites of Los Angeles, with he a member of such prominent clubs as the Los Angeles Athletic, California and Los Angeles County, while she was a fixture at events for women, be they card parties, luncheons and receptions. She was also well-known among women’s clubs and in philanthropy. The couple built a substantial house west of downtown Los Angeles, not far from where the Ambassador Hotel was opened in the early 1920s, that was self-valued in the 1930 census at $200,000.

William died in 1934 and Laura followed four years later, with their house still standing today and being used as the mid-Wilshire campus of the Children’s Institute, which was founded in 1906 as the Big Sister League to help young women in need, has programs for prenatal support up to those for teenagers, foster youth and parents and caregivers.

The photo was taken by Valentine Wolfenstein, one of the most prominent of the early photographers of Los Angeles and whose studio was in the Temple Block, on the second floor above the quarters of the Temple and Workman bank, across from the El Dorado Store. The Museum’s holdings contain about thirty portraits by the photographer, including quite a few of Temple family members along with others featured on this blog, including María Guadalupe Zamorano de Dalton, Adele Lauth, Elena Mancera, Frederick and Agnes Yapp, Reginaldo del Valle and Felix Signoret, while there is also a post with detailed info on the life of Wolfenstein.

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