Los Angeles – City of Angels

Greetings from Los Angeles, California vintage postcard

Los Angeles History

Though the city of Los Angeles, California is the second largest metropolitan area in the United States, at almost 18 million souls, it is a relatively young city, not founded until the mid nineteenth century.

The area was first inhabited by several Indian tribes including the Tongva, Cahuilla, Kumeyaay, and Chumash, who were active in fine boatbuilding.  The first explorer known to the area was Juan Cabrillo who stopped at present day San Pedro in 1542, greeted by Tongvan men, who rowed out to meet his ship. The explorer died later that year while wintering at Santa Catalina Island and no white face was seen again locally for 227 years.

The Spanish conquest of Mexico reached the area in 1769 and in 1771 they founded the Mission San Gabriel Archangel, one of eight missions established by the Franciscans in Southern California.

For years, history has told that on September 4, 1781, 44 “pobladores” who were recruited from northern Mexico to help cement Spain’s control over Alta, California (Upper California), established the settlement. Only two of these settlers identified as Spaniards; the rest came primarily of African or Indian descent. However over the past few decades scholars have uncovered that the pobladores arrived separately, some as early as that June. (September 4 remains the traditional celebrated anniversary).

The small town received the name El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora Reina de los Ángeles de la Porciuncula, “The Town of Our Lady Queen of the Angels.” Located on the Los Angeles River, the settlement became a cattle ranching center. The oldest house in Los Angeles County was built in 1795 on what became the Rancho San Antonio. It is now known as the Henry Gage Mansion and is in Bell Gardens.

At the time of the arrival of Spanish missionaries, there were an estimated 5,000 Tongvan Indians living in 31 known village sites.  In common with other California tribes in the mission system, the Tongva allowed the missionaries to convert and civilize them. Native religious and hunter-gatherer practices were redirected into Roman Catholicism and agriculture. Though destructive of their culture, the mission system valued the individual Native Americans and employed them on the mission farms and ranches. When the missions were disbanded the natives were thrown back on their own much-reduced resources. The Tongva tribe still exists, with perhaps a few thousand members but no reservation.

Mexico’s independence from Spain in 1821 did not change life in Los Angeles, other than to allow the secularization of the missions, where land grants distributed the mission properties to rancheros.

In 1842 a shepherd discovered gold in Placerita Canyon, just outside the current city limits, and sparked a minor gold rush. In subsequent decades mining became an important industry, employing hard rock and placer techniques. The local mountains are still riddled with abandoned mines, and hopeful prospectors still pan for gold in the San Gabriel River.

Manifest Destiny reached California at the time of the Mexican-American War (1846 – 1848). On June 18, 1846 a small group of Yankees raised the California Bear Flag and declared independence from Mexico. United States troops quickly took control of the presidios at Monterey and San Francisco and proclaimed the Conquest complete.

In Southern California, the Mexicans for a time repelled American troops, but Los Angeles eventually fell to Lieutenant Colonel John C. Frémont. The United States and Mexico signed the Treaty of Capitulation at Cahuenga Pass on January 13, 1847.

April 4, 1850 saw the incorporation of Los Angeles as a city. At the same time, the old landowners started to lose their lands. Compelled to secure confirmation of their land grants in U.S. courts, ten percent of the bona fide land owners of Los Angeles County had to move off their land and were reduced to bankruptcy.

Tiburcio Vasquez

Tiburcio Vasquez

Other Mexican residents resisted the new Anglo powers by resorting to social banditry against the gringos. In 1856 Juan Flores threatened Southern California with a full-scale Mexican revolt. He was hanged in Los Angeles in front of 3,000 spectators. Tiburcio Vasquez, a legend in his own time among the Mexican population for his daring feats against the Anglos, was captured in what is believed to be present day West Hollywood. The bandit was found guilty of two counts of murder by a San Jose jury trial in 1874, and was hanged in that location in 1875.

The thriving Chinatown was the site of terrible violence in 1871. A tong war between rival gangs resulted in the accidental death of a white man. This enraged the white populace and a mob of 500 men descended on Chinatown. They killed 19 men and boys, only one of whom had been involved in the original killing, as well as a white man who tried to protect them. Homes and businesses were looted. A grand jury investigation followed, but only one man ever served prison time.

In the 1870s Los Angeles was still little more than a village of 5,000. By 1900 there were over 100,000 occupants of the city. Several men actively promoted Los Angeles, working to develop it into a great city and to make themselves rich. Angelenos set out to remake their geography in order to challenge San Francisco with its port facilities, railway terminal, banks and factories.

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