Even in Los Angeles, the earth was not a blank slate awaiting the arrival of swimming pools and movie stars.
You know it, but you might not even realize it.
You recognize the names of some of the vast, extinct ranchos that marked the maps of Southern California for a few centuries. The word “rancho” was cut along the way, but you know them as Palos Verdes, San Pedro, La Brea and Centinela, San Vicente and Santa Anita. You also know the men who got these lands – names like Verdugo, Sepulveda, Dominguez.
What is amazing is that to this day the footprints of these ranchos are often the same footprints of our modern cities, streets and monuments.
Philip J. Ethington is Professor of History, Political Science, and Space Science at USC. I asked him what he saw as he drove around 21st century Los Angeles, through the masks of centuries and millennia.
He sees ghosts.
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“I see many layers. There is a very deep history of civilization here. As you drive along Pico [Boulevard], it looks like an undifferentiated landscape. But you go through ecologies that have supported [Native American] communities for eight or nine thousand years. I see the oak groves that were there.
The Los Angeles map of today may be quite familiar to the rancheros of 200 years ago. Many of their rancho boundaries are still the boundaries of large modern real estate plots, Ethington says, and in Los Angeles County, “roughly 173 miles of road coincides with old rancho boundaries – and 87 miles of municipal roads.” No wonder “Ghost Metropolis” is the name of his next book.
The LA you live in today was first stamped and shaped by Native Americans, and then, millennia later, by the legendary ranchos, back in the days when virtually all of Southern California – beautiful pieces of land, measured in “leagues,” a thousand times a thousand – was in the hands of a handful of families, an aristocracy of the area.
When people talk about California’s “Spanish land grants”, they probably conjure up a scene from an MGM costume epic: an austere monarch in a goatee and corduroy pants, dabbing melted red wax with a royal seal the size of a salad plate.
It was none of those things.
From the end of the 1700s, the power to cede the lands of “Alta California” fell to its governors like Pedro Fages, who came here with the first expeditions. He initially gave grazing and settlement rights to three of his army comrades, called “Soldados de cuera” for their boiled leather uniform jackets: Jose Maria Verdugo, Juan Jose Dominguez and Manuel Nieto.
Over time, the ranchos became like little kingdoms, but at first it was pretty rudimentary operations: building a modest adobe house and outbuildings, and freeing the cattle to graze.
In the early decades of the 20th century, before subdivisions became our richest culture, Los Angeles County was a cornucopia, the most profitable agricultural county in all of the United States.
But a hundred years and more ago, money was in cattle, and cattle need a lot of land. Once a year, the ranchos would round them up, slaughter them, and sell the tallow and hides to the Yankee trading ships that hovered off the coast.
“California dollars” are what the Yankees called the hides, and sailor and author Richard Henry Dana described San Pedro as “the hell of California,” for the work it took to move goods from the ranchos on rocks and coastal ridges and on ships, which transported hides to New England shoemakers to turn them into shoes.
What’s remarkable but not really surprising about the ranchos, Ethington points out, is how closely they have followed the lands of the Native Americans they moved.
“The indigenous villages have had thousands of years to settle on the best sites in the city, the best access to water, the best elevation, the best views, the best oak groves, so obviously the Spaniards came and went. took them. They have become the focal points of the ranchos; these were the most desirable places to settle. “
“You can think of the [modern] municipalities built on ranchos and ranchos built on Tongva villages. “
And the rancho system itself “continued the Spanish hacienda system, which was a model of Roman origin: huge farms that you grant to the conquerors, and also give them the right to work for the people who lived there.” .
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In California, this work was generally “Christianized” with Native Americans tied almost like serfs to ranchos and before that to missions, where Catholic fathers, Ethington says, “essentially ran these giant work camps.”
The pace of land grants in California accelerated dramatically after Mexico kicked off Spain in 1821. Over 90% of what people consider to be Spanish grants were granted by the United States. after. Mexico granted full ownership as well as grazing rights, and just like in the United States, the land grant was an incentive to bring settlers into howling wilderness.
Things took a very Tudor turn in 1832, when Mexico secularized the Catholic missions in California. At least half of the mission’s land and livestock were believed to have been returned to the Native Americans who farmed and originally owned it.
But what Ethington calls the “magic moment” because it has passed. The governor who had promised to do so died suddenly and his successors failed him.
Like Henry VIII, who abolished the Tudor monasteries and abbeys in England and ceded or sold this land and wealth, political insiders or traders came away with the lion’s share, and Native Americans ended up with next to nothing. what they were supposed to get. .
So many Native Americans, now homeless and landless, ended up working the old lands with new masters – the rancheros.
These ranchos were an economic and political system in themselves. In 1846, according to the 1939 book “Ranchos Become Cities,” “the ranchos stretch from the San Diego County area in the south to the Shasta County area in the north.”
It was the image of “old California” that wowed the nation: haciendas, tall men in garments trimmed with silver and gold, riding expensive horses and betting fortune on a card.
Those brief decades were glorified by a huge bestseller, an 1884 novel called “Ramona”, by Helen Hunt Jackson, who had been invited to one of the great haciendas. The book, a romance of upset Native American and Métis lovers, brought hundreds of trains of sentimental tourists and settlers to their imaginary California.
So where have these great land holdings gone? Guadalupe Hidalgo’s Treaty ending the Mexican-American War in 1848 guaranteed existing Mexican land rights – if they could be proven.
Alas for the landowners, “the Spanish and Mexican grants were pretty sketchy in the way they were described,” says Ethington, on hand-drawn design maps which could say that the property “extends from the edge of the sea. river to this rock to an oak tree. Some are like chicken scratches, but some are gorgeous. “According to a description of the boundaries of Rancho San Pedro, they started” near sunken barrels. “
The United States, on the other hand, places great importance on measuring every meter of land. Before being general or president, George Washington was a surveyor.
Some Mexican land grants were immediately confirmed by US land “patents”. Others have taken decades to become certified, and some have never been granted at all.
How else did these kingdoms escape?
It’s kind of a soap opera, really – marriages and rivalries, bankruptcies and contested wills.
As someone pointed out before, large Californio families were exceptionally blessed with daughters, and these daughters would sometimes marry ambitious Yankees and take family land with them.
John Temple – of Temple Street fame in downtown LA – married a daughter of the Los Cerritos ranch owner and bought out his siblings’ debts for $ 3,000.
Massachusetts go-getter Abel Stearns married glamorous socialite heiress and philanthropist Arcadia Bandini when she was 14. family for $ 54,000 in 1872.
Like Stearns, he also left everything to Arcadia when he died. She became known as the “Godmother of Santa Monica,” but when she died in 1912, without heirs or a will, the battle for her succession was legendary.
Some cash-strapped Californio donors have taken out mortgages on bad terms – up to 6% monthly interest. Droughts of the 1860s devastated the livestock trade and Julio Verdugo lost most of his share of Rancho San Rafael at auction in 1869, after a $ 3,500 mortgage rose to $ 59,000 impossible with interest .
Several generations of the pioneer Bixby family bought mega-acreage; by decree he was granted land which included 14 miles of coastline in the Palos Verdes peninsula. At least 10 cities, including Chief Long Beach, would spring up on Bixby lands.
The survival of monster chunks of ranch land has made Los Angeles what it became in the 20th century, an easy place for the new and huge citrus industry to thrive, and for the huge tract developments we call it this. day with us.