by Paul R. Spitzzeri
While Los Angeles was a small town of a few thousand persons in the early 1850s and a far cry from the prominent metropolis that, decades later, it would become, with a major status as a hub of the American Southwest, it was somewhat known to readers of major newspapers throughout the country thanks to dispatches provided by telegraph from correspondents or the reprinting of reports from its sole newspaper, the Los Angeles Star.
A few entries in the “Read All About It” series of posts in this blog have provided some examples and this one features, from the Museum’s holdings, the 27 October 1853 edition of the New York Tribune, published by Thomas McElrath and Horace Greeley, the later the losing Democratic Party candidate for president in the 1872 election and who, the following year, issued advice with a phrase “Go west, young man” that became famous.
The paper ran extensive reports from California, admitted as the 31st state in the Union just a little over three years ago and which was crucial in providing large sums of gold unearthed from its vast storehouse of the precious metal to the national treasury, though these dispatches contained a wide variety of news from the Golden State. Invariably, interesting items included came from the southern section, including the Angel City.
There are some national items of note, such as a controversy over the removal of Judge Greene C. Bronson, a former state supreme court justice appointed by newly seated President Franklin Pierce to the plum position of collector of the customs house at New York. The paper lambasted Bronson’s removal after just several months on the job, asking if he’d been adjudged unable to do the work or lacking in trust or fidelity to the position and observing that the location was where two-thirds of the $50 million of federal revenue derived. It was noted the Brunson was stripped of his office for “not parceling out his patronage,” though subsidiary positions, “in the way to effect a certain partisan purpose.”
Under the heading of “Pressure—Panic,” it was observed that “there are diverse notions current concerning the causes of the present state of things pecuniary, as also with regards to the proper remedies” especially as “there is no dispute as to the fact that the Money Market just now is technically ‘tight.'” Even the sunniest of economic forecasters had to admit the fact and that “Labor as well as Capital, Industry alike with Enterprise, are suffering and destined to suffer by its continuance.”
Even as the economy was in a recession that carried over into 1854, the Tribune added, “let us guard against absurd and mischievous exaggeration” as “the actual pressure is severe and injurious” by not falling prey to panic, especially among those who opined that conditions were akin to the terrible days of the Depression of 1837. The paper reminded readers that there was a major fire in New York City and poor crop yields among the several key issues of that period, but currently there were no such issues as to agriculture and “we are now receiving some Fifty Millions annually of Gold from California, which is worth just as much as an equal value in Grain, Meat and Cotton.”
The substantial sums realized by the delivery of the precious metal from the Golden State was such that “it pays debts as these would” and the paper commented that “if we dig Fifty Millions of Hold on our own soil per annum we can afford to import several Missions worth more goods than we could have safely done prior to our acquisition [seizure, that is, during the Mexican-American War, the nation’s first imperial military conflict] of California.” Yet, “the fact remains that we are deeply and generally embarrassed” financially and the question raised concerned why this state of affairs existed.
The Tribune noted hat there are those who criticized “Dick Dashall” for spending more than was earned, “Sam Shiftless” for not properly managing the farm, and “Jim Boozy” for allowing drink to drive a descent into bankruptcy, but it targeted the nation’s foreign debt. It was observed that “we have for five or six years [since the war] been running deeper and deeper in debt, until our creditors either cannon or dare not trust us longer” with much of this due to improvident imports of fabrics and metals from Europe in the preceding two or three years.
Moreover, the account continued, this was despite the United States having “mire and better Iron, Coal, Lead, Copper and Zinc [deposits] than any other civilized nation” and millions of acres on which crops could be raised to reduce dependence on foreign materials, such as wool, silk and others. The Tribune proposed that a core solution to the problem of debt derived from excessive imports was a revision of the nation’s tariffs and called for a revision of these in the coming year. A reader of this post might perk up at such talk of foreign debt and tariff reforms as very much a concern today, though on a much vaster scale, while it is also important to note that a severe depression came in 1857 after the California gold rush ended.
Speaking of California gold, the reports brought in by the arrival of the clipper Northern Light, a craft that made its maiden voyage two years before (and which was abandoned at sea in 1862 after a collision with another ship) and which set a new record for the 15,000 mail sail around Cape Horn from San Francisco to Boston, reaching its destination in just 76 days and 5 hours—when F.P.F. Temple made the reverse trip a dozen years earlier it took him nearly a half year.
One of the notable reports concerned a filibustering expedition that was said to have been in the works by a group of Americans seeking to take large sections of Baja California and Sonora along the Mexican-U.S. border. It was stated by the San Francisco paper, the Alta California, that “the gentlemen presumed to be at the head of the movement are in the meantime quietly pursuing their ordinary occupations, and if they are organizing an expedition,” they are very judicious about it.”
There were rumors that a ship was to embark “in the course of two or three weeks, perhaps sooner,” but these were said to be unverified and the American minister in México was said to have communicated that “any expedition of the kind will inevitably lead to hostilities between the two Republics.” In fact, on 16 October, about 50 men sailed from San Francisco, landed at Cabo San Lucas at the southern tip of Baja California and seized the capital city of La Paz, establishing the so-called Republic of Lower California.
While the invading force grew to a few hundred and garnered some significant support through the United States, its poor organization, leadership and mistreatment of Mexicans led to a rapid dwindling of control and an effort was made to march into Sonora and take control there with a second republic of that name. The attempt was a disaster and a ragtag group of about three dozen men headed for the border and surrendered to American soldiers at San Diego. A trial of its leader for violating a neutrality act involving México was held in San Francisco, but acquittal was rendered by a jury in less than ten minutes.
The president of these short-lived republics was William Walker, whose second effort at filibustering took place a few years later in Nicaragua, for which he was joined by Horace Bell of Los Angeles, who later wrote his entertaining but factually flawed and grossly exaggerated memoir, Reminiscences of a Ranger. That endeavor also ended badly and as third effort in Honduras concluded with Walker’s 1860 execution by authorities in that nation.
Also mentioned in the dispatch was the arrival in California of Edward F. Beale as a federal Indian agent and the claim that “his activity . . . has already exercised a most salutary influence.” It was also averred that “the tribes with which he has held interviews are delighted with the policy of colonizing them on Government reservations, and are anxious to commence their new mode of life.” During a period of terrible violence and privations suffered during the Gold Rush years, as the indigenous people were driven from their ancestral homes and denied the hunting and gathering which sustained them, the account continued,
It is generally conceded that this is the only practicable plan of preserving permanent peace with the Indians. They must be enabled to support themselves by their own labor, or else live by stealing from the whites. When they are located on their reservations, they will not only provide themselves with the necessaries of life, but will be amply able to support their own schools, churches, and other domestic institutions, in a manner adapted to their moral and intellectual condition. The establishment of the first of these colonies will mark an important and interesting era in the history of the State, and of the Indian tribes.
This impossibly optimistic prognostication belied so many realities about the pernicious effects of uprooting native people from their tribal lands of millennia, which involved a pervasive destruction of their economic, social and cultural ways of life not to mention the attacks on them from varied quarters.
As progressive as Beale was, noting nowhere near what was rosily portrayed in this report, happened on reservations almost completely established on lands not capable of the support mentioned in the quote. Beale later obtained the massive Rancho El Tejon, between Los Angeles and what became Bakersfield and which was then part-owned by Jonathan Temple, as well as what later was Santa Monica and a significant holding on the Rancho La Puente, which was the domain of John Rowland and William Workman in 1853.
A table of shipments of gold noted that almost $1.1 million comprising “Shipment of Treasure” was sent via the isthmus at Panama, where the famous canal was completed about six decades later, and another $1.5 million shipped around the Horn. Detailed reports from mining areas were provided, including reference to activities in Nevada, where, within a few years, a silver boom northeast of Lake Tahoe would lead to substantial sums provided for the Union during the Civil War and the rapid admission of the territory as a state in 1864.
There was also news of the first telegraph lines in California being completed near San Francisco; of agriculture in the areas around the Tuolumne County mining boomtown of Columbia, where F.P.F. Temple had significant operations for processing cattle, brought from greater Los Angeles for fresh meat for local markets; as well as the “From the South” portion where “we have news from Los Angelos [sic] to the 24th of Sept.” This included support in the region got a convention to consider amending the constitution of 1849 so that the legislature would only meet every two years instead of annually.
A major piece of news, however, concerned an attack on Antonia Margarita Workman de Temple, which was the topic of a prior post here. What was stated in that account, however, based on transcripts of Star articles varies from what was passed along to the Tribune. It was note that “on the 21st [of September] inst., Isidro Albitro [Alvitre] was tried by a self-constituted jury, for an attempted rape on Mrs. Margaret Temple, on the day previous, at her residence at the Puente.”
The incident actually occurred on the Temple family’s half of Rancho La Merced in what was generally known as the community of Misión Vieja, or Old Mission, where the Mission San Gabriel was established in 1771 and existed for a few years until it was relocated to its current site. The large Alvitre family were among the earliest residents of that neighborhood, settling there in the 1830s, and were for many years neighbors of the Temples. The benign reference to “a self-constituted jury” belies the fact that this was a vigilante proceeding, clothed as a “popular tribunal” and mimicking the basic forms of a legal trial, but, of course, handled outside the law.
The account continued that “after examination the jury retired” and then returned, likely about as quickly as the jury in the Walker trial, with a verdict that included the statement, “that the prisoner, Isidro Albitre [sic], did, on the 21st [20th] inst., assault Mrs. Margaret Temple, with intent to commit a rape.” It was otherwise reported that she managed to break free and run back to the family adobe house, situated near the southeast corner of today’s Rosemead and San Gabriel boulevards just north of the Whittier Narrows Dam and south of the regional park o that name.
The verdict continued that “that for this, the jury recommend that two hundred and fifty lashes be given him on the bare back; that he have his head cropped, and leave the county as soon as his physicians pronounce him able to do so; and that if he again be found in this county, that he be hung.” Immediately afterward, the punishment was inflicted and Alvitre “ordered to leave the county at the expiration of one week, and never to return, on pain of death.” The report ended with the observation that
Many were in favor of hanging the prisoner on the spot as he was a notoriously bad character, and the punishment and outlawry would only serve to render him desperate.
The brutality of the sentence and punishment was such that Alvitre reportedly died in 1854 and one can only wonder if, given just a week to recover, before being exiled, infection from the wounds from the large number of lashes was the cause. Naturally, there is also the matter of the insidious use of so-called “popular justice” in the period in greater Los Angeles, with the justification commonly being that the legal system was unable to control crime and punish offenders, so the resort to vigilantism was necessary.
Of those involved in the “extralegal” proceeding, lawyer and judge Jonathan R. Scott opened the trial and lawyer Samuel Arbuckle was the judge, while Stephen C. Foster, who was mayor in January 1855 when Alvitre’s cousin, Felipe, was legally executed after a murder conviction before a vigilante mob stormed the jail and lynched fellow convict David Brown and then was promptly reelected to the office he resigned to join the executioners, was the secretary.
General Andrés Pico, brother of ex-governor Pío and hero of the Californio resistance to the American invasion during the recent war and who was also said to have been a suitor of Margarita Workman before she married F.P.F. Temple, joined family friend David W. Alexander and John Rowland’s son-in-law, John Reed, as a committee to select the jurors. The latter included Juan María Sepúlveda (whose nephew Ygnacio became a prominent Los Angeles lawyer and judge and who will be the subject of a presentation at the Homestead in January) as the only Latino on the jury.
Others sitting in judgment of Alvitre were Scott; Los Angeles marshal and sheriff (he was killed in the line of duty just days after taking office in January 1858) William C. Getman; long-time county clerk John W. Shore; W.T.B. Sanford, brother-in-law of the well-known Phineas Banning; and Ozias W. Morgan, who, in 1854-1855, co-published the Southern Californian newspaper, which openly advocated for vigilantism.
Reports from greater Los Angeles also concerned lower shipments of crops to San Francisco because of problems with getting fruit, such as grapes, to the market in that major metropolis due to placement of the cargo too close to the engines of the steamers. Those sending grapes were adversely affected and one unnamed grower was said to have lost $2,000, a substantial sum for the time.
John G. Downey, future governor, and his drug store and real estate partner James P. McFarland, were said to have left Los Angeles with 3,000 cattle on an overland trip to San Francisco, with the animals comprising a quarter of the immense herds kept by Isaac Williams, the owner of the Rancho Santa Ana del Chino, some 40 miles east of Los Angeles.
East of that, explorations conducted for a local transcontinental railroad route were conducted and it was reported that lieutenants John G. Parke and George Stoneman “returned during the past week, from their tour of reconnaissance” and that the pair of Army officers “examined the two Passes of San Gorgonio and Cajon, the former of which, they state, possesses advantages . . . far superior to what they anticipated, or is generally supposed to exist.” Parke and Stoneman further opined that the San Gorgonio was on what was the best route from Los Angeles to the Colorado River at Fort Yuma in what became Arizona.
While the 35th parallel route, which would have gone from Fort Smith, Arkansas to the rudimentary harbor at San Pedro (and, later, Wilmington) was deemed the best among many projected across the country from San Diego to where Seattle was later founded, its southern location, championed by Secretary of War Jefferson Davis who was in charge of the surveys, was a non-starter for the North when the Civil War broke out. The transcontinental line eventually was built to the Bay Area and completed in 1869. Davis was president of the Confederate States of America, while Stoneman became a prominent Union general and, after the war ended, a citrus grower near San Gabriel, before becoming California governor.
Speaking of San Gorgonio, this pass was central to the Cahuilla Indians, whose domain extended over vast areas in this region near Palm Springs, Banning (named for the aforementioned figure), Indio, Beaumont and other modern locales. In 1853, the tribe was led by the formidable Chief Juan Antonio, who was able to maintain cordial relations with whites and Latinos and hold his tribe together during an era of immense difficulty, as noted above.
The report here noted that fifty Cahuillas, under “Cavazon” or Cabazon, namesake of a community between Palm Springs and Banning, “arrived in [Los Angeles] to earn money to buy clothing and provisions to take back to their camp.” Interestingly, it was added that “their arrival at this time is opportune, as there is great demand for laborers in the Islands” where “they obtain 75 cents for a day’s work.” It appears the reference was to the Channel Islands, though this was not explained further.
Finally, there was reference to the fact that “the immigrants are arriving faster this year than in some other years,” this meaning gold-seekers and others coming up from Yuma with Juan José (Jonathan Trumbull) Warner, a long-time Los Angeles resident, reporting that the migrants “come in much worn down with fatigue” when they got to his Warner’s Springs property southeast of Temecula.
Mentioned was one unscrupulous, though unidentified man, who informed the travelers that mules, wagons and other equipment were not of value in the Angel City and that “there is a big outbuilding here in the city where they are thrown together, and any one who wants a strap or other gear take it without asking.” This prey of innocents and dupes was such that it was concluded “this man sometimes preaches his belief in human depravity, and that all liars swim in sulphur.”