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.

 

 

Life on the Rancho

Los Encinos State Historical Park Today

People think of Southern California as being bran new. In actuality, the history goes far back—even earlier than the days when the land was occupied by the Gabrielino and Chumash Indians. I was born in Cleveland, which was founded in 1796 by Moses Cleaveland of Connecticut. Los Angeles is a full fifteen years older, having been founded in 1781 as a Spanish pueblo. So many of our place names come from the Spanish and Mexican land grants. One such community is Encino (“Oak” in Spanish), which was part of the 4,251 acre Rancho El Encino.

On Sunday, Martine and I drove to the Los Encinos State Historical Park in (where else?) Encino to visit the reconstructed ranch buildings. I say reconstructed because adobe did not do particularly well in the earthquakes of 1880 and 1994.

We have visited several of these adobe ranch houses from the 19th century and earlier. There was the Centinela Ranch House in Westchester and the Dominguez Rancho in Rancho Dominguez. And there are perhaps as many as a dozen more which I eventually hope to see, just as I would like some day to visit all the California missions built by Father Junipero Serra, recently sanctified by the Vatican.

Bedroom in the Ranch House

The Los Encinos State Historical Park does a nice job of bringing together furniture of the period as well as informative displays explaining what life was like on the rancho 150 years ago and more. They even have several stone outbuildings dedicated to food storage and blacksmithing.

Los Angeles has not always been careful of preserving its historical sites. There used to be an old abandoned adobe at the corner of Colorado and 26th Street in Santa Monica, near where I had first real job at System Development Corporation. It was a kind of spooky place, but it is no far. Now it’s a high-rise office building dedicated to entertainment media. No effort was made to move the adobe where it could be restored.

 

Los Angeles Place Names

The Dining Room of the Rancho Dominguez Adobe

History in Southern California has a decidedly Spanish flavor. By the time that American settlers began to trickle into the Mexican Province of Alta California, most of the agricultural land had been surveyed and distributed among over a hundred grantees. Their names today—not coincidentally—are place names across the land. In Los Angeles County, there are grants named San Pedro, Los Nietos, San Rafael, Los Feliz, Las Virgenes, Topanga Malibu Sequit, Palos Verdes, San Antonio, Rincon de los Bueyes, Las Cienegas, La Brea, Rosa Castilla, San Pascual, Santa Gertrudes, Paso de Bartolo, San José, Sausal Redondo, La Ballona, San Vicente y Santa Monica, Boca de Santa Monica, Tujunga, Los Nogales, Azusa de Duarte, La Puente, La Cañada, San Jose de Buenos Ayres, Cahuenga, Aguaje de Centinela, and others.

Now take a detailed map of Los Angeles, and you will see these same names replicated as names of streets, communities, hills, and waterways. The road that winds around the UCLA campus is called Buenos Ayres. There are Verduga Hills in the valley, around which snake an endless number of streets with Verdugo in their names. If I were to take a bus downtown, I would go on or past streets names Santa Monica, Centinela, La Cienega, San Vicente, and La Brea—all within ten miles.

A Map of Spanish Land Grants in Los Angeles County

Scattered throughout the county are the various adobes, or what remains of the grantees’ ranchos and haciendas. I have visited the Centinela and Dominguez adobes, and there are others I’d like to see. They are usually staffed by enthusiastic volunteers and stocked with furniture of the period. The oldest house in the City of Los Angeles is the Avila Adobe, which belonged to an early alcalde and is part of the Olvera Street tourist complex.

By the way, let’s call the city by its founding name: El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles de Porciúncula. That translates to the town of our Lady Queen of the Angeles of Porciúncula. (Curiously, one place name that’s widely missing in L.A. is Porciûncula—too long, I guess.)