Los Angeles was founded on this date in 1781, by the Spanish governor of California, Felipe de Neve. It became a part of Mexico in 1821 following the Mexican War of Independence. In 1848, at the end of the Mexican–American War, Los Angeles and the rest of California were purchased as part of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, thereby becoming part of the United States. This post focuses on Los Angeles from its founding up to 1848 – the Spanish/Mexican years – when the town was very different from the massive urban sprawl it has become.
In 1777 Governor Neve toured Alta California and decided to establish civic pueblos for the support of the military presidios (fortified bases). The new pueblos would reduce the secular function of the Franciscan missions in the area by reducing the dependency of the military on them. At the same time, they would promote the development of industry and agriculture. Neve identified Santa Barbara, San Jose, and Los Angeles as sites for his new pueblos. His plans for them closely followed a set of Spanish city-planning laws contained in the Leyes de Indias (Laws of the Indies) promulgated by King Philip II in 1573. Those laws were responsible for laying the foundations of the largest cities in the region, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Tucson, and San Antonio—as well as Sonoma, Monterey, Santa Fe, San Jose, and Laredo.
The royal regulations were based on the ancient teachings of Vitruvius, who set down the rules for founding of new cities in the Roman Empire. Basically, the Spanish laws called for an open central plaza, surrounded by a fortified church, administrative buildings, and streets laid out in a grid, defining rectangles of limited size to be used for farming and residences. It was in accordance with such precise planning that Governor Neve founded the pueblo of San José de Guadalupe, California’s first municipality, on the great plain of Santa Clara on 29 November 1777.
According to a written message sent by Governor Neve to report the juridical foundation of Los Angeles, 44 pobladores (settlers) gathered at San Gabriel Mission and, escorted by soldiers and two padres from the mission, set out for the spot that had been chosen twelve years earlier. The official name of the pueblo was “El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles del Río de Porciúncula” (“The Town of Our Lady the Queen of Angels of the Porciúncula River”). “The Queen of Angels” is an honorific of the Virgin Mary.
At the end of the first year only eight of the original founders were still in the pueblo; three had been forced out “for being useless to themselves and the town.” But the town grew as soldiers and other settlers came and stayed. In 1784 a chapel was built on the Plaza. The pobladores were given title to their land two years later. By 1800, there were 29 buildings that surrounded the Plaza, flat-roofed, one-storey adobe buildings with thatched roofs made of bullrushes.
By 1821 Los Angeles had grown into a self-sustaining farming community, the largest in Southern California. Its development conformed strictly to the Leyes de Indias and the Reglamento of Governor Neve. Town planning was based on the unit of measurement, the vara, which was somewhat flexible, but was approximately 33 inches.The pueblo itself included a square of 10,000 varas, five and a quarter miles, on each side. The central Plaza was in the middle, 75 varas (208 ft.) wide and 100 varas (277 ft.) long. On the west side of the Plaza facing east, space was reserved for a church and municipal buildings. Each vecino (freeholder) received a solar (lot), 20 varas (55.5 ft.) wide and 40 varas (110 ft.) long.
Each settler also received four rectangles of land for farming, two irrigated plots and two dry ones. Each plot was 200 square varas. The farm plots were separated from the pueblo by a tract of land 200 varas wide. Some plots of land, propios, were set aside for the pueblo’s general use and revenue. Other plots of land, realengas, were set aside for future settlers. Land outside the city, baldíos, included mountains, rivers, lakes, and forests, and belonged to the king.
When the settlers first arrived, the Los Angeles floodplain was heavily wooded with willows and oaks. The Los Angeles river flowed all year. Wildlife was plentiful, including deer, antelope, and bear, even an occasional grizzly bear. There were abundant wetlands and swamps. Steelhead and salmon swam the rivers. The first settlers built a water system consisting of ditches (zanjas) leading from the river through the middle of town and into the farmlands. The city was first known as a producer of fine wine grapes. The raising of cattle and the commerce in tallow and hides would come later.
Because of the great economic potential for Los Angeles, the demand for labor grew rapidly. Los Angeles began attracting Native Americans from as far away as San Diego and San Luis Obispo. Unlike the missions, the pobladores paid Native Americans for their labor. In exchange for their work as farm workers, vaqueros, ditch diggers, water haulers, and domestic help, they were paid in clothing and other goods as well as cash and alcohol. The pobladores bartered with them for prized sea-otter and seal pelts, sieves, trays, baskets, mats, and other woven goods. This commerce greatly contributed to the economic success of the town and the attraction of other Native Americans to the city.
Not only economic ties but also marriage drew many Native Americans into the life of the pueblo. In 1784—only three years after the founding—the first recorded marriages in Los Angeles took place. The two sons of settler Basilio Rosas, Maximo and José Carlos, married two young Native American women, María Antonia and María Dolores.
The construction on the Plaza of La Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Los Ángeles took place between 1818 and 1822, much of it with Native American labor. The new church completed Governor Neve’s planned transition of authority from mission to pueblo. The angelinos would no longer have to make the bumpy 11-mile ride to Sunday Mass at Mission San Gabriel. In 1820 the route of El Camino Viejo was established from Los Angeles, over the mountains to the north and up the west side of the San Joaquin Valley to the east side of San Francisco Bay.
Mexico’s independence from Spain in 1821 was celebrated with great festivity throughout Alta California. No longer subjects of the king, people were now ciudadanos, citizens with rights under the law. In the plazas of Monterey, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, and other settlements, people swore allegiance to the new government, the Spanish flag was lowered, and the flag of independent Mexico raised. Independence brought economic growth. There was a corresponding increase in population as more Native Americans were assimilated and settlers arrived from the United States, Europe, and other parts of Mexico. Before 1820, there were just 650 people in the pueblo. By 1841, the population nearly tripled to 1,680.
During the rest of the 1820s the agriculture and cattle ranching expanded, as did the trade in hides and tallow. The new church was completed, and the political life of the city developed. The system of ditches which provided water from the river was rebuilt. Trade and commerce further increased with the secularization of the California missions by the Mexican Congress in 1833. Extensive mission lands suddenly became available to government officials, ranchers, and land speculators. The governor made more than 800 land grants during this period.
In 1834, Governor Pico was married to Maria Ignacio Alvarado in the Plaza church. It was attended by the entire population of the pueblo, 800 people, plus hundreds from elsewhere in Alta California. In 1835, the Mexican Congress declared Los Angeles a city, making it the official capital of Alta California. It was now the region’s leading city. The same period also saw the continued arrival of many foreigners from the United States and Europe. They would play a pivotal role in the U.S. takeover
In May, 1846, the Mexican American War broke out. Because of Mexico’s inability to defend its northern territories, California was exposed to invasion. On August 6, 1846, Commodore Robert F. Stockton anchored off San Pedro and proceeded to march inland to occupy Los Angeles. On August 13, accompanied by John C. Frémont, Stockton marched into the Los Angeles Plaza with his brass band playing “Yankee Doodle” and “Hail Columbia.” Stockton’s troops occupied the headquarters and home of Governor Pico, who had fled to Mexico. After three weeks of occupation, Stockton left, leaving Lieutenant Archibald H. Gillespie in charge. Subsequent maltreatment by Gillespie and his troops caused a local force of 300 locals to rise up in protest, led by Captain José María Flores, José Antonio Carrillo, and Andrés Pico. Flores demanded the U.S. troops surrender, and promised safe passage to San Pedro. Gillespie accepted and departed, ending the first phase of the Battle of Los Angeles.
Full-scale warfare came to the area when Los Angeles residents dug up a colonial cannon that had been used for ceremonial purposes. They had buried it for safekeeping when Stockton approached the city. They used it to fire on American Navy troops on 8 October 1846, in the Battle of Dominguez Rancho. The victorious locals named the cannon el piedrero de la vieja (the old woman’s gun). In December, the Mexicans were again victorious at the Battle of San Pascual near present-day Escondido.
Determined to take Los Angeles, Stockton regrouped his men in San Diego and marched north with six hundred troops, along with U.S. Army General Stephen Watts Kearny and his guide Kit Carson. Captain Frémont marched south from Monterey with 400 troops. After a few skirmishes outside the city, the two forces entered Los Angeles, this time without bloodshed. Confronted with overwhelming force, Andrés Pico, who had succeeded Flores as military commander and acting as chief administrative officer, met with Captain Frémont. At a ranch in what is now Studio City, they signed the Treaty of Cahuenga on 13 January 1847. That formally ended the California phase of the Mexican–American War. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed on 2 February 1848, ended the war and ceded California to the U.S.
In honor of the Mexican heritage of Los Angeles I have chosen a recipe for tamales adapted from the cooking of El Cholo restaurant in Irvine (the image is from their website).
El Cholo Tamales
12 ears yellow corn
¼ lb cornmeal
¼ cup butter
¼ cup lard (or vegetable shortening)
¼ cup sugar
¼ cup half and half or light cream
12 (1 oz/28 g) strips Monterey Jack cheese, halved
1 (12 oz/340 g) can green chiles, cut into strips
Cut both ends off the ears of corn. Remove the husks, careful to keep them whole for wrapping. Put them to soak in warm water for at least 15 minutes, and up to 2 hours. They must be pliable.
Cut the corn kernels off the cob and grind them with the cornmeal in a food processor. Set aside.
Beat the lard and butter in mixing bowl until creamy. Add the sugar, half and half, and corn mixture plus salt to taste and mix well. This is your masa (corn dough).
For each tamale, overlap 2 corn husks lengthwise. Spread ¼ cup layer of masa on the husks as thinly and evenly as possible to within 1 inch (2.5 cm) of the edges.
Place 1 cheese strip and 1 chile strip over the masa. Spread 2 tbsps of masa thinly over the top of the filling.
Bring the edges of the corn husks over the filling to cover completely, then fold the ends of the corn husks up. Place husks on square of parchment paper, then fold the sides of the parchment over the tamale and then fold up the ends. Tie string around the packages to hold them in place. Repeat for the rest of the tamales.
Place the packages on end on a steamer rack, and steam over water on a gentle boil for about 40 minutes.
Yield: 24 tamales