The Gifts of Phineas Banning

Phineas Banning (1830-1885)

The growth of Los Angeles was by no means a sure thing. In the mid-1830s, Richard Henry Dana described the area when the ship he was on landed near San Pedro for a cargo of animal hides. The description comes from Dana’s classic Two Years Before the Mast:

What brought us into such a place, we could not conceive. No sooner had we come to anchor, than the slip-rope, and the other preparations for southeasters, were got ready; and there was reason enough for it, for we lay exposed to every wind that could blow, except the northerly winds, and they came over a flat country with a rake of more than a league of water. As soon as everything was snug on board, the boat was lowered, and we pulled ashore, our new officer, who had been several times in the port before, taking the place of steersman. As we drew in, we found the tide low, and the rocks and stones, covered with kelp and seaweed, lying bare for the distance of nearly an eighth of a mile. Leaving the boat, and picking our way barefooted over these, we came to what is called the landing-place, at high-water mark. The soil was, at it appeared at first, loose and clayey, and, except the stalks of the mustard plant, there was no vegetation. Just in front of the landing, and immediately over it, was a small hill, which, from its being not more than thirty or forty feet high, we had not perceived from our anchorage. Over this hill we saw three men coming down, dressed partly like sailors and partly like Californians; one of them having on a pair of untanned leather trousers and a red baize shirt. When they reached us, we found that they were Englishmen. They told us that they had belonged to a small Mexican brig which had been driven ashore here in a southeaster, and now lived in a small house just over the hill. Going up this hill with them, we saw, close behind it, a small, low building, with one room, containing a fireplace, cooking-apparatus, &c., and the rest of it unfinished, and used as a place to store hides and goods. This, they told us, was built by some traders in the Pueblo (a town about thirty miles in the interior, to which this was the port), and used by them as a storehouse, and also as a lodging-place when they came down to trade with the vessels. These three men were employed by them to keep the house in order, and to look out for the things stored in it. They said that they had been there nearly a year; had nothing to do most of the time, living upon beef, hard bread, and fríjoles, a peculiar kind of bean, very abundant in California. The nearest house, they told us, was a Rancho, or cattle-farm, about three miles off; and one of them went there, at the request of our officer, to order a horse to be sent down, with which the agent, who was on board, might go up to the Pueblo.

Even then, the Pueblo of Los Angeles was the center of the hide trade, but it lay more than a day’s journey from the port of San Pedro. Dana adds:

I also learned, to my surprise, that the desolate-looking place we were in furnished more hides than any port on the coast. It was the only port for a distance of eighty miles, and about thirty miles in the interior was a fine plane country, filled with herds of cattle, in the centre of which was the Pueblo de los Angeles,— the largest town in California,— and several of the wealthiest missions; to all of which San Pedro was the seaport.

 

Phineas Banning’s House in Wilmington

Fortunately for Southern California, there was a recent settler from Wilmington, Delaware, named Phineas Banning who ran a stage line and had definite ideas for turning Los Angeles in a port city. His house in Wilmington, California, was during the 1860s right up against a gigantic marsh. Banning decided to have the marsh filled in and a breakwater constructed off San Pedro so that vessels can load and unload at San Pedro in relative safety. In addition, he arranged for the railroad to come down to Los Angeles and San Pedro.

Ironically, it was a transportation accident that snuffed out the life of the transportation genius who made L.A. into a major city: He was run over by a horse and carriage in the street and died soon after of the injuries sustained in the accident.

Today, Banning’s house is a fascinating museum of life in 19th century Southern California. Martine and I visited it on Saturday for the first time in several years.

War All the Time

Ball Court at Maya Ruins in Copán, Honduras

I have just finished reading Maya Cosmos: Three Thousand Years on the Shaman’s Path by David Freidel, Linda Schele, and Joy Parker. It was not an easy book to read, and it was a bit on the speculative side, but it brought forth a highly original interpretation of the fall of Classical Maya Civilization (approximately AD 250-800):

In their own way, the Maya thus acknowledged the terrible truth of war as statecraft: the authority of a small number of people over the many who must suffer and die in combat. But unlike our leaders, Maya rulers themselves went to war with the men they sent; and Maya kings and their noble vassals put not only their bodies but also their souls in jeopardy every time they clashed. It is no exaggeration to say that they lived for those moments of truth, those trials of the strength of their spirits. Every major political activity in their lives—the dedication of every public text, image, and building of royal and community importance—required the capture and sacrifice of rival peers. Only in this way could the proper rituals of sanctification be fulfilled, the gods nourished, and the portals of communication opened between the human and the divine.

When the Maya stopped inhabiting their ceremonial centers around AD 800, it wasn’t because they had disappeared: They found that there was too high a price to pay to maintain the god/kings in their position of rule. My personal belief was that certainly was one of the reasons why the Classical Civilization fell, but not the only reason

Macaw Markers from the Copán Ball Court

Intimately connected with the endless wars were a serious of gladiatorial combats in the form of … a ball game. Ball courts were scattered throughout Mesoamerica. At times, the games were friendly and/or ceremonial, but often they were played with the god/kings and nobles of other cities. The losing side was sacrificed to the gods. During the game, the ball could not be hit by the hands or feet: Only the thigh or hip could be used. The ball, made of rubber, was bounced against the sides of the ball court—but at no time was it allowed to touch the ground. If it did, game over—and lost.

Many a Maya god/king was sacrificed in this way, including the great 18 Rabbit of Copán, who was sacrificed at Quiriguá, which was a much smaller Maya polity.

 

Visiting L.A. History

The Ranch House at Rancho Los Alamitos

Over the last year or so, Martine and I have been visiting many of the old adobes that were associated with the Spanish and Mexican land grants into which the arable land of Los Angeles had been subdivided. These have included:

  • Centinela Adobe in Westchester
  • Dominguez Rancho Adobe Museum in Rancho Dominguez
  • Leonis Adobe Museum in Calabasas
  • Los Encinos State Historic Park in Encino
  • Pio Pico State Historic Park in Whittier
  • Rancho Los Alamitos Historic Ranch and Gardens in Long Beach
  • Rancho Los Cerritos Historic Site in Long Beach

Of these, the most spectacular have been the Leonis Adobe and Rancho Los Alamitos, both of which have substantially larger budgets and more well-developed exhibits than the others.

When one has visited a number of these adobes, a pictures emerges of an agrarian life of herding sheep and cattle and of a few widely-separated ranches, mostly far from the Pueblo of Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles de Porciuncula (a.k.a. downtown Los Angeles), which was founded in 1781. In the years that followed, the map of Southern California was broken into large land grants:

Spanish Land Grants in the San Gabriel Valley

Small wonder that there are so many Spanish place names in L.A.! The land that was not part of a Spanish or Mexican land grant was either a town site, mountains, or desert.

Rancho Los Alamitos, which Martine and I visited today was surrounded by lush gardens of carefully chosen trees, flowers, and succulents.On the grounds is a deep artesian well that helped the land stay productive for agriculture for well over a century and a half.

Part of the Los Alamitos Gardens

It is also by far the most liveable of the adobes we have visited. For one thing, the original 19th century adobe structure was substantially added to. Unlike most adobes which are sparsely furnished with miscellaneous items that were never meant to coexist in the same room, at Los Alamitos we have the original furniture, library, kitchen appliances, including some pieces actually crafted by carpenter John Bixby, one of the original inhabitants.

Rancho Los Alamitos is a place of beauty which we will visit again.

 

 

Curse Tablets

The Ancients Had Some Interesting Practices

According to a Dutch scholar named H. S. Versnel, the ancient Greeks had a practice involving the creation of “curse tablets.” In Memphis in the fourth century BC, the following curse was left etched into a tablet at the Temple of Oserapis:

O Lord Oserapis and you gods who sit enthroned together with Oserapis, to you I direct a prayer, I, Artemisia … against the father of my daughter, who robbed her of her death gifts (?) and of her coffin … Exactly in the way that he did injustice to me and my children, in that way Oserapis and the gods should bring it about that he be not buried by his children and that he himself not be able to bury his parents. As long as my accusation against him lies here, may he perish miserably, on land or sea….

Now these curse tablets were typically made of lead with the curse scratched onto their surface. Although I cannot wish death to the man I most ardently hate (whose visage is caricatured below) there are certain things I can say without bringing the Secret Service to my doorstep.

The Object of My Own Curse Tablet

May his bucket of chicken contain gristle that rots his fundament. May his fingers that would fly over his cellphone in a Twitter fury come out as utterly incomprehensible covfefe—at all times. May his followers discard their red MAGA hats out of shame, and may he be buried with a large streamer of toilet paper adhering to his shoes. May his real estate investments come to naught and his billions all turn out to have been illusory. May he be laughingly turned down by women he does not regard as beautiful and forget what his original urge was all about.

 

 

The Last Mexican Governor of Alta California

Pio de Jesús Pico and Family

Today, Martine and i visited the Pio Pico State Historic Park in Whittier. Lately, we have spent several Saturdays and Sundays visiting locations that figured in the history of Southern California. And none has been more significant than El Ranchito, the home of the last Mexican governor of Alta California, Pio de Jesús Pico (1801-1894).

As it frequently did during that period, the United States essentially steamrollered the territory of Alta California and its environs. This happened in 1846, when a group of American settlers captured the Mexican army garrison at Sonoma. Within two years, gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill, setting off a gigantic gold rush, and the United States signed the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, ceding what is today the states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, and pieces of Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah to the victorious Yanquis.

Pio Pico’s Home, El Ranchito

After the Americans moved in, Pico and his family fled to (what remained of) Mexico for a few years. He returned when the dust settled, as he and his family personally owned some quarter million acres. He was besieged by lawsuits, many of them fraudulent. He sold most of the San Fernando Valley in 1869 to finance the building of the Pico House Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles, which still stands today—although mostly empty.

Arbor with Grapevines at El Ranchito

Toward the end of his life, Pico had problems holding on to money, due largely to his gambling addiction. The last act of his life was a sad one. A criollo of Spanish and African descent, Pico never learned English, which put him at risk in his financial transactions. He decided to deed a half interest in his remaining lands to his brother-in-law, John Forster. A sharper if there ever was one, Forster actually deeded a 100% interest to himself, forcing the aging Pico to move in with one of his daughters.

Today, the Pio Pico State Historic Park is a lovely corner of Whittier. There were only a few other visitors while we were there, probably because most Angelenos have little or no notion of the history of the land on which they live.

 

 

My Favorite Founding Father

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)

My favorite founding father is also the most problematical, namely: Thomas Jefferson. We know him as the Third President of the United States. What was even more interesting was how he saw himself, based on the epitaph he had composed for himself:

HERE WAS BURIED THOMAS JEFFERSON, AUTHOR OF THE DECLARATION OF AMERICAN INDEPENDENCE, OF THE STATUTE OF VIRGINIA FOR RELIGIOUS FREEDOM, AND FATHER OF THE UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA.

Note that he doesn’t make any mention of the four years he served as Vice President to John Adams, let alone the two terms as President. The Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom is interesting, because it removes its author from consideration by religious fundamentalists as a kindred spirit. Jefferson was a Deist, not really a practicing Christian in the religious sense.

And the University of Virginia? The Charlottesville campus was indeed Jefferson’s creation, in terms of its architecture, administration policy, and faculty staffing.

Why did Jefferson not consider his presidency one of this chief accomplishments? For one thing, he was basically a shy person who did not like the whole give and take 0of politics. During the eight years of his Presidency, he gave only two speeches, and they were written by him for his two inaugurations. Not a good speaker, he was, however, a wizard writer, and his Declaration of Independence was indeed a work that will live forever. (Until Trump decides to repeal it.)

I have just finished reading Joseph J. Ellis’s American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2001). A winner of the National Book Award, Ellis’s book examines Jefferson’s tendency to balance contradictory ideas on such issues as slavery (he was against it, yet he owned slaves without emancipating them), states’ rights, the Federal Government, and the Supreme Court.

 

Good Government

The Emperor Trajan (AD 53-117)

The Roman Emperors get a lot of bad press in the history books, thanks largely to such holders of the crown as Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius (yes, he was not a nice guy after all), and Nero—not to mention some of the later occupants such as Commodus and Elagabalus. Still, there was a period of some eighty years when there was a sequence of five emperors who were actually outstanding both in terms of governance and as human beings.

Edward Gibbon’s 18th century The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire begins with this paragraph:

In the second century of the Christian Aera, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind. The frontiers of that extensive monarchy were guarded by ancient renown and disciplined valor. The gentle but powerful influence of laws and manners had gradually cemented the union of the provinces. Their peaceful inhabitants enjoyed and abused the advantages of wealth and luxury. The image of a free constitution was preserved with decent reverence: the Roman senate appeared to possess the sovereign authority, and devolved on the emperors all the executive powers of government. During a happy period of more than fourscore years, the public administration was conducted by the virtue and abilities of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the two Antonines. It is the design of this, and of the two succeeding chapters, to describe the prosperous condition of their empire; and after wards, from the death of Marcus Antoninus, to deduce the most important circumstances of its decline and fall; a revolution which will ever be remembered, and is still felt by the nations of the earth.

Pliny the Younger (AD 61-113)

Earlier this month, I finished reading the complete surviving letters of Pliny the Younger, who was selected by Trajan to be the governor of Bithynia-Pontus and who maintained a regular correspondence with the emperor. Here is a typical exchange:

PLINY:

The citizens of Prusa [modern day Bursa in Turkey], my lord, have public baths which are filthy and out of date, and they think it important to have a new building. In my view you can show favour to their request, for there will be money to finance it. In the first place, there are the sums which I have already begun to recover and to exact from private citizens, and secondly, amounts which they habitually expend on olive oil they are ready to contribute towards the building of the baths. In general, both the prestige of the town and the splendour of your reign make this demand.

TRAJAN:

If the construction of the new baths is not going to impose a burden on the resources of the Prusians, we can grant this request, so long as no levy is imposed on them for that purpose, and that they do not have fewer resources available for necessary expenditure in the future.

The whole of Book X of Pliny’s letters consists of numerous missives to the emperor, followed by the emperor’s responses. To me, this was the most interesting section in the letters, as it shows a correspondence between a competent and honest governor and a caring Roman emperor.