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.

 

 

Serendipity: An Eye-Witness to Vesuvius AD 79

The Vesuvius Eruption as Imagined by an Artist

I have just finished reading the complete letters of Pliny the Younger (AD 61-113). They were interesting on three counts. First of all, I was impressed by Pliny’s honesty and sense of civic responsibility. Secondly, toward the end of his life, he was governor of Bithynia and Pontus, where he died in AD 113. Finally he writes as a first hand witness of the eruption o Vesuvius in AD 79. He and his uncle Pliny the Elder were across the bay as it happened. The uncle crossed the bay to investigate, and died in the process. Here is his nephew’s account in a letter he wrote to the historian Cornelius Taci

Your request that I would send you an account of my uncle’s death, in order to transmit a more exact relation of it to posterity, deserves my acknowledgments; for, if this accident shall be celebrated by your pen, the glory of it, I am well assured, will be rendered forever illustrious. And notwithstanding he perished by a misfortune, which, as it involved at the same time a most beautiful country in ruins, and destroyed so many populous cities, seems to promise him an everlasting remembrance; notwithstanding he has himself composed many and lasting works; yet I am persuaded, the mentioning of him in your immortal writings, will greatly contribute to render his name immortal. Happy I esteem those to be to whom by provision of the gods has been granted the ability either to do such actions as are worthy of being related or to relate them in a manner worthy of being read; but peculiarly happy are they who are blessed with both these uncommon talents: in the number of which my uncle, as his own writings and your history will evidently prove, may justly be ranked. It is with extreme willingness, therefore, that I execute your commands; and should indeed have claimed the task if you had not enjoined it. He was at that time with the fleet under his command at Misenum. On the 24th of August, about one in the afternoon, my mother desired him to observe a cloud which appeared of a very unusual size and shape. He had just taken a turn in the sun and, after bathing himself in cold water, and making a light luncheon, gone back to his books: he immediately arose and went out upon a rising ground from whence he might get a better sight of this very uncommon appearance. A cloud, from which mountain was uncertain, at this distance (but it was found afterwards to come from Mount Vesuvius), was ascending, the appearance of which I cannot give you a more exact description of than by likening it to that of a pine tree, for it shot up to a great height in the form of a very tall trunk, which spread itself out at the top into a sort of branches; occasioned, I imagine, either by a sudden gust of air that impelled it, the force of which decreased as it advanced upwards, or the cloud itself being pressed back again by its own weight, expanded in the manner I have mentioned; it appeared sometimes bright and sometimes dark and spotted, according as it was either more or less impregnated with earth and cinders. This phenomenon seemed to a man of such learning and research as my uncle extraordinary and worth further looking into. He ordered a light vessel to be got ready, and gave me leave, if I liked, to accompany him. I said I had rather go on with my work; and it so happened, he had himself given me something to write out. As he was coming out of the house, he received a note from Rectina, the wife of Bassus, who was in the utmost alarm at the imminent danger which threatened her; for her villa lying at the foot of Mount Vesuvius, there was no way of escape but by sea; she earnestly entreated him therefore to come to her assistance. He accordingly changed his first intention, and what he had begun from a philosophical, he now carries out in a noble and generous spirit. He ordered the galleys to be put to sea, and went himself on board with an intention of assisting not only Rectina, but the several other towns which lay thickly strewn along that beautiful coast. Hastening then to the place from whence others fled with the utmost terror, he steered his course direct to the point of danger, and with so much calmness and presence of mind as to be able to make and dictate his observations upon the motion and all the phenomena of that dreadful scene. He was now so close to the mountain that the cinders, which grew thicker and hotter the nearer he approached, fell into the ships, together with pumice-stones, and black pieces of burning rock: they were in danger too not only of being aground by the sudden retreat of the sea, but also from the vast fragments which rolled down from the mountain, and obstructed all the shore. Here he stopped to consider whether he should turn back again; to which the pilot advising him, “Fortune,” said he, “favours the brave; steer to where Pomponianus is.” Pomponianus was then at Stabiae, separated by a bay, which the sea, after several insensible windings, forms with the shore. He had already sent his baggage on board; for though he was not at that time in actual danger, yet being within sight of it, and indeed extremely near, if it should in the least increase, he was determined to put to sea as soon as the wind, which was blowing dead in-shore, should go down. It was favourable, however, for carrying my uncle to Pomponianus, whom he found in the greatest consternation: he embraced him tenderly, encouraging and urging him to keep up his spirits, and, the more effectually to soothe his fears by seeming unconcerned himself, ordered a bath to be got ready, and then, after having bathed, sat down to supper with great cheerfulness, or at least (what is just as heroic) with every appearance of it. Meanwhile broad flames shone out in several places from Mount Vesuvius, which the darkness of the night contributed to render still brighter and clearer. But my uncle, in order to soothe the apprehensions of his friend, assured him it was only the burning of the villages, which the country people had abandoned to the flames: after this he retired to rest, and it is most certain he was so little disquieted as to fall into a sound sleep: for his breathing, which, on account of his corpulence, was rather heavy and sonorous, was heard by the attendants outside. The court which led to his apartment being now almost filled with stones and ashes, if he had continued there any time longer, it would have been impossible for him to have made his way out. So he was awoke and got up, and went to Pomponianus and the rest of his company, who were feeling too anxious to think of going to bed. They consulted together whether it would be most prudent to trust to the houses, which now rocked from side to side with frequent and violent concussions as though shaken from their very foundations; or fly to the open fields, where the calcined stones and cinders, though light indeed, yet fell in large showers, and threatened destruction. In this choice of dangers they resolved for the fields: a resolution which, while the rest of the company were hurried into by their fears, my uncle embraced upon cool and deliberate consideration. They went out then, having pillows tied upon their heads with napkins; and this was their whole defence against the storm of stones that fell round them. It was now day everywhere else, but there a deeper darkness prevailed than in the thickest night; which however was in some degree alleviated by torches and other lights of various kinds. They thought proper to go farther down upon the shore to see if they might safely put out to sea, but found the waves still running extremely high, and boisterous. There my uncle, laying himself down upon a sail cloth, which was spread for him, called twice for some cold water, which he drank, when immediately the flames, preceded by a strong whiff of sulphur, dispersed the rest of the party, and obliged him to rise. He raised himself up with the assistance of two of his servants, and instantly fell down dead; suffocated, as I conjecture, by some gross and noxious vapour, having always had a weak throat, which was often inflamed. As soon as it was light again, which was not till the third day after this melancholy accident, his body was found entire, and without any marks of violence upon it, in the dress in which he fell, and looking more like a man asleep than dead. During all this time my mother and I, who were at Misenum—but this has no connection with your history, and you did not desire any particulars besides those of my uncle’s death; so I will end here, only adding that I have faithfully related to you what I was either an eye-witness of myself or received immediately after the accident happened, and before there was time to vary the truth. You will pick out of this narrative whatever is most important: for a letter is one thing, a history another; it is one thing writing to a friend, another thing writing to the public.

Sparta Falls and Rises at Thermopylae

Spartan Warrior at Thermopylae

Ever since I first read Lawrence Durrell’s Justine many years ago, I have been in love with the poems of Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933), a Greek poet resident in Alexandria, Egypt. Here is one of his most famous early poems:

Thermopylae

Honour to those who in the life they lead
define and guard a Thermopylae.
Never betraying what is right,
consistent and just in all they do,
but showing pity also, and compassion;
generous when they’re rich, and when they’re poor,
still generous in small ways,
still helping as much as they can;
always speaking the truth,
yet without hating those who lie.

And even more honour is due to them
when they foresee (as many do foresee)
that Ephialtes will turn up in the end,
that the Medes will break through after all.

And who is Ephialtes? According to the History of Herodotus, he is a Greek who betrayed his homeland to the Persians by showing them a trail by which they could surprise Leonidas and his 300 Spartans. He expected to be rewarded by his new masters, but that fell apart when they lost the Battle of Salamis.