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August 31, 2016 · Posted in Notes from Above Ground 


By Honey van Blossom


(Honey is a Belgian Marxist former strip-tease artiste)


Over the course of the summer of 1781, twenty-one men and women and twenty-three children walked from the San Gabriel Mission. They had been exposed to smallpox during the time they were in Baja California. They made the walk in small groups.

The two or three groups of colonists forded the Los Angeles River at the place where the Broadway Bridge now crosses it but then the river took a different path from the channel created for it by the United States Army Corps of Engineers a century and a half later.

The river then was a real river, and beneath it through the land ran subsurface waters that sometimes broke through the earth in springs. Fish swam in the river. Herons with their long necks uncoiled cast shadows of their wings on the surface of the water.

The families reached a ledge or mesa or hill terrace above the river near the crossing place in the river. Native men arrived from the village of Yang Na about a mile and a half away and helped the settlers build jacals from sticks and reeds to live in for the next few years.

The colonists’ children built a dam up river towards the Arroyo Seco. They made it of sticks, brush, stones and river sand.

Nine of the men – two were “useless” — dug a ditch about two feet deep and three feet across from the impounded water into the fields and along the bottom of a ledge of land not far from the river at the base of a tall hill.

The men, women and children went into the long side grassy land near the mesa and double dug the soil and planted wheat, corn, beans and lentils.

The settlers completed the ditch and the fields by the end of October. The winter rains that year were enough to germinate the seeds. They weeded the agricultural fields in early spring and tended their animals but beyond that, no one living knows what they did for the next five years but the crops succeeded and the colonists learned Tongva games and dances. In three years, most of the families lived in one-room adobe houses that faced a central plaza. In 1786, there were 12 houses.

This settlement of adobes and open space in the Spanish colony of El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles de Porciúncula is gone. The buildings may have washed away in the 1801 flood or — if the settlers made it through that year — in the 1815 flood. The road the settlers took to ford the pueblo could be said to exist – the location over which it passed is under the Broadway Bridge.

The long grassy plain the settlers turned into fields is partly occupied by a state park. The city’s land use map shows part of the remainder of the fields is zoned “hybrid industrial” and a band is designated “heavy industrial” (Central City North comprehensive plan). The tiny bit of land north of North Broadway, where Los Angeles began, is designated “public facilities” in the Silver Lake-Echo Park-Elysian Valley comprehensive plan.

You can very briefly travel through the area of the original plaza if you take the Coast Starlight from Union State. Soon after it leaves Union Station but before the Glendale Station you emerge from a tunnel to see the concrete banks of the Los Angeles River tagged with the cryptic hieroglyphics of people living near the river today. In the instants before the train goes into the tunnel you pass over a bit of land. That’s it.

You can see a piece of the route that the first Spanish explorers, and then Governor of Alta California Felipe de Neve, and then the eleven founding families followed to get to that bit of land if you go under the Broadway Bridge:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=26hqsuav_aA. (Retrieved August 26, 2016)

The colonists dug into the long grassy plain close by and established the suertes, the agricultural plots. You can look down on the land that fed and irrigated Los Angeles if you drive along North Broadway after leaving Chinatown if you are heading across the Broadway Bridge. It is the Los Angeles State Historic Park, commonly called The Cornfield.

Southern Pacific Railroad train yard occupied most of the suertes – the former train yard is The Cornfield – after 1876 until the 1990s, where it remained a Brownfield area. The Olmsted-Bartholomew plan for the city in the 1930s had called for a park at that location but the city government entirely ignored that plan. The Cornfield, sometimes called Chinatown Cornfield, sometimes The Cornfields was by the 1990s a homeless encampment, strewn with debris. The City Council under then mayor Riordan zoned The Cornfield industrial. “The City enticed Majestic Realty, the largest owner and developer of commercial space in Los Angeles County to propose an industrial development for the Cornfield….

“The proposed Cornfield project consisted of four buildings totaling 909,200 square feet of light manufacturing…” Jan Chatten-Brown and William F. Delvac, “A River Tale – The Cornfield to Taylor Yard: From Industrial Development Plans to State Parks’ Acquisition, California Land Use Reporter, Volume 12, November 1, October 2002.
A diverse alliance of over 35 community, civil rights, environmental, business and civic organizations beat City Hall, claiming that the cornfields got the name either because the native people grew corn there or because corn spilled from trains. The Tongva people were hunter-gatherers. They did not have a cornfield. It’s possible corn spilled from trains. The origin of the name is lost.

The people of the city got its park at last after litigation led by Chatten-Brown. The oldest part of The Cornfield history – its role as the earth that gave the pueblo the food and water that built the city – is forgotten.

After the collapse of the Rose Dawn real estate boom in 1886, local businessmen and developers sought a historical narrative to draw tourists and investors and found their boomer myths in stories of kindly mission padres, childlike Indians, and faux rancho histories they found in Helen Hunt Jackson’s novel Ramona (1884). Boomer historians also built in the public imagination a story of Spanish settlers arriving with great ceremony to establish the pueblo of Los Angeles. The settlers were Spanish by citizenship. There was no ceremony.

Amateur historian “Professor” J. M. Guinn exploded the myth of white settlers and the elaborate ceremony. He identified what he concluded was the first pueblo proper; however, he was wrong. There is some – although it is scant – evidence of an older plaza near the present one. Oddly, however, he also briefly mentioned that the first site was on a narrow ledge near the river. It was.


Professor J. M. Guinn (the big man on the left at Pioneers Picnic, Eastlake Park.

Professor J. M. Guinn (the big man on the left at Pioneers Picnic, Eastlake Park.) Courtesy of the Huntington Library.


Christine Sterling’s campaign to save the Avila Adobe led to the creation of the Olvera Street marketplace in 1930, which is where most tourists think Los Angeles started. The Olvera Street website continues to welcome visitors to “the first street in Los Angeles.” The sign near the Cesar Chavez entrance to the market street reads “Olvera Street. Established 1930.”

To understand where the pueblo started, the road scholar should know where 9 places are: the Los Angeles River, Elysian Park, Solano Canyon, The Cornfield, Lincoln Heights, the Broadway Bridge, the San Gabriel Mission, La Placita and the plaza downtown next to Olvera Street.

Physical evidence of the first location include the Los Angeles State Historic Park (“The Cornfield”), pieces of zanja conduit that emerged in excavations in The Cornfield and in (New) Chinatown, the Capitol Milling Company once the Abel Stearns flourmill, and La Placita – the Catholic church opposite today’s plaza near Olvera Street.

The road scholar should read several works and look at several maps to learn where Los Angeles started.

Professor H. E. Bolton’s Fray Juan Crespi Missionary Explorer (University of California Press 1927) translates diary pages from the Franciscan friar that describe the proposed cite.

Governor Felipe de Neve’s California Reglamento and his correspondence are critical in locating the original site, because these documents give the dimensions of the plaza, the house sites and the suertes and point vaguely at the location.

  1. H. Bancroft’s California History, Vol. 1 (A.L. Bancroft and Company), and Bancroft’s California Pastoral 1768-1848 (Published by The History Company in 1888) were based partly on research in the provincial archives. Two copies of original maps of the first plaza that probably existed are in Bancroft’s California Pastoral. The Bancroft Library at Berkeley has “an exact copy” of the 1786 Argüello map of the pueblo and a copy received from a bookstore in Hollywood that looks authentic. The provincial archives burned in the 1906 San Francisco fire. There are no presently known originals.

The E.O.C. 1849 Ord survey does not shed much light, if any, on the first location. A later survey of the land around what was once Stearns’ flour mill built adjacent to the Zanja Madre in 1831 and the 1875 survey of the Southern Pacific Railroad right-of-ways in that area are much more enlightening.

Tertiary sources – most serious, some transparently Boomer in objective –shed bits of light on the question of where the pueblo was first located but some of that writing was too imaginative, sometimes self-contradictory, and often wrong.

In a sense, a search for “the pueblo” can have no solution because it is a snipe hunt: everything was the pueblo.

By tradition, through the 1840s, the pueblo of Los Angeles went south as far as today’s Inglewood. It went north to the bottom of the Feliz Rancho, now mostly the area of Griffith Park, but including the Los Feliz district and part of the Silver Lake district. The pueblo went west as far as the Rancho Sausal Redondo toward Santa Monica. (The Redondo Rancho, granted in 1837, later called the Round River Grove Ranch, comprised Playa del Rey, El Segundo, Manhattan Beach, Lawndale, Hermosa Beach, Inglewood, Hawthorne and Redondo Beach.) The pueblo extended east to a corral for wild horses near the San Gabriel River.

J.M. Guinn, “Los Angeles in the Spanish Era,” Historical and Biographical Record of Southern California (Chapman Publishing 1901):

“The usual area of a pueblo in California was four square leagues, or about 17,770 acres … The pueblo lands were divided into solares, house lots, suertes – planting fields, dehasas, outside pasture land, proprios, public lands that may be rented or leased and the proceeds used to defray municipal expenses, ejidos or commons, realanges or royal lands, also used for raising revenue, and from these lands grants were made to new settlers. In addition, there were certain communal properties known as Bienes Concejiles, which term has been defined as ‘that which, in respect of ownership belongs to the public or council of a city, village or town, and in respect to its use, belongs to every one of its inhabitants, such as fountains, woods, the pastures, waters of river for irrigation, etc.” (“Bienes” means “goods.” “Concejil” means municipal and public.) Guinn was a serious amateur scholar, and this section of what he wrote is correct. He was able to research the provincial archives before they were destroyed.

Because of legal challenges during the American era, this area shrunk, but it was still big even before subsequent annexations of land. http://eng.lacity.org/aboutus/4leagues/4leagues.pdf. (Retrieved 8/2/2016. (Unfortunately, the Bureau of Engineering does not show the authorities for many of its conclusions. The map on this site shows the pueblo in its smaller dimensions). The shrunken boundaries extended from what is now Hoover Street on the west to Indiana Avenue on the east and from Fountain Avenue on the north to Exposition Boulevard on the south.


No historic monument points to the location of the first settlement.


There is a historic monument near the Fremont Gate entrance of today’s Elysian Park commemorating the 1769 campsite of the Gaspar de Portolá i Rovira

expedition. The monument was dedicated in 1958 and it is called “No. 655 Portola Trail Campsite. The metal plate on a rock states that the Portolá expedition camped near that monument on August 2, 1769. The monument does not explain that Friar Juan Crespi — one of the priests that accompanied the expedition — wrote about the location and recommended it as the site for a mission or large settlement.

The Portolá expedition’s (“Portola” in this essay) camp on August 2, 1769 was actually on the other side of the river in Lincoln Heights. The explorers, muleteers, guides and priests crossed the river near the monument on August 3, 1769. Portola camped on what are now the grounds of University High School the night of August 3, 1769.

Where Portola crossed the river is more important than where they camped.

Patt Morrison, Rio L.A.: Tales from the Los Angeles River (Angel City Press 2001):

“By happenstance the Spanish had found the one spot on the long tangled river that flowed year-round, a stretch above present-day down Los Angeles called ‘the gap’ or the ‘narrows,’ where geography and geology conspire to keep the water flowing….”

In 1777, that place became the fording place for Governor de Neve when he looked for a place to put a pueblo, and in 1781 it became the fording place for the first settlers and soldiers. The route that the expedition followed is sketched on the Bancroft drawings near the bottom of the first home sites and plaza. This route across the river is under the Broadway Bridge.

The California Office of Historic Preservation first received notice that their marker was incorrect in 1972, although maybe the state figures the word “near” includes everything within the range of a mile or two. The marker remains uncorrected. Generations of school children to this day imagine eighteenth century Spanish explorers camping at the base of Elysian Park. Docents on guided tours continue to say that the explorers camped near where the monument is located. Thousands of Japanese, Korean and former Soviet Socialist Republic tour buses have stopped at the wrong place to remember the Portola campsite.

The Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument is the current name for El Pueblo de Los Angeles State Historic Park. One definition of a monument is a place of historic significance. This monument includes the area that includes La Iglesia de Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Ángeles (“La Placita” – Completed in 1822), the plaza (1825-1830), the Avila Adobe (1818), the Pio Pico House (1869), Olvera Street (named in 1877) and other later buildings.

Every year, for decades now, descendants of the founding settlers walk or bike a nine-mile route from the San Gabriel Mission to the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument. The Los Angeles Historical Monument buildings and the plaza did not exist until at least 37 years after the first pueblo was founded.

The “traditional” route followed to commemorate the pobladores’ walk may be found at: https://www.scribd.com/doc/276537378/234th-Birthday-of-the-City-of-Los-Angeles-Walk-and-Bike-Route-for-8-29-15#scribd. (Retrieved August 19, 2016). This is not the route the pobladores followed from the Mission San Gabriel in 1781.

In 1781, the area around the current plaza (“Olvera Street plaza”) was part of the territory of Yang Na. The first settlers did not first go to Yang Na and then go through it to somewhere else to build the pueblo. The “traditional” route may have been the brainchild of W.W. Robinson who did some wonderful work on Los Angeles history but who was not always right.

William Wilcox Robinson (1891-1972), born in Colorado, arrived in Riverside County, and he moved to Los Angeles in 1919. He attended USC but graduated from Berkeley with a B.A. in English in 1916. W.W. Robinson worked as a professional property title researcher for the Title Guarantee and Trust Company – eventually a vice president — and developed an extensive knowledge of local history and land development. Anyone wanting to find out how he came to his conclusions should go through the 97 boxes of his papers at the Charles E. Young Research Library at UCLA because Robinson did not always identify his sources of information.

From Robinson’s Los Angeles from the Days of the Pueblo (The California Historical Society revised edition, 1981):

“Amidst clouds of swirling dust, they followed the Indian train that today is Mission Road, crossed the area now within Alhambra’s boundaries, touched the southern border of present-day Lincoln Park, and arrived at the east bank of the wide bed of the Los Angeles River. The trail led them across a sandy waste, through green willows and tule growth. It took them by a giant sycamore that was a landmark then and in later years. The colonists splashed through the rippling stream, which was shallow enough to ford. The trail they followed became Aliso Street, named for the huge sycamore, which was called ‘El Aliso.’ It led to the riverbank at its lowest point. They climbed the black and loamy soil. Almost at once they reached the level area, well covered with grass that had been chosen for plaza house lots, and planting fields. In this higher area were occasional groups of cottonwood trees that sent drifts of fluffy seed into the air. Here and there were sycamores with richly-colored leaves and irregular branching habits.”

Right at the beginning of this book, Robinson wrote, on page 9, that the site of the first plaza was unknown. His description of the founders walk to the first plaza location is a product of his imagination.

The route he describes was probably the road developed sometime after the 1815 flood. I have no idea where he came up with “a sandy waste.” El Aliso grew on the western side of the river but 1.7 miles from where Portola crossed the river.

The initial settlement population was 44 in 1781. Richard Griswold del Castillo’s The Los Angeles Barrio, 1850-1890 (1979 University of California Press):

“In 1800, after almost twenty years of colonization, Los Angeles had a population of only 139, including 28 families. There was now a town hall, a granary, a chapel, an army barracks, and 29 dwellings.”

Griswold del Castillo’s authority includes H. H. Bancroft’s California Pastoral, p. 258, but there is nothing in California Pastoral about the number of people in Los Angeles in 1800, and nothing to support the conclusion there was a town hall and 29 dwellings. His other source was W. W. Robinson, Los Angeles from the Days of the Pueblo, p. 20. Page 20 of the now available copy of Robinson’s book shows only pictures, but Griswold del Castillo used the first edition, published in 1959.

On page 29 of the later version, Robinson wrote that by “the end of the decade” (Meaning apparently 1790, the year there was a census, rather than 1800) the pueblo’s population was 139. Heads of families numbered thirty-one. Robinson maintained there was a wall around the pueblo and some structures outside the wall.

Robinson may have read the 1790 census. It is hard to tell because he did not cite authorities for his position. The W.W. Robinson papers may be researched through Special Collections at UCLA.

The 1790 census showed men, four of them single, and several widows listed as the heads of family, adding up to 31 families. One of the wives was listed as 13 years old. One family had adopted a child. Casta designations changed. “Casta” in the Spanish era meant race, caste, and mixtures of races.

There were farm workers, cowboys, muleteers, a weaver, a tailor, a cobbler, a mason, a shoemaker, a blacksmith, a juggler, a part-time mayor, and an employee. The list in the 1790 census added up to 139 people, an increase of 95 people in eight years.

In 1790 the settlers were self-sufficient with respect to food they grew in the suertes and animals they raised in the dehasas. They had iron tools. They made clothing and shoes. They built adobe houses.

One hundred and thirty-nine people did not fit in the original 12 home sites in the pueblo proper. One family with two parents living had ten children but the census shows widows, widowers, and single men. The propios dedicated a bit to the northeast of the pueblo proper included 22 prospective sites. The first adobes consisted of one room. Thirty-four one-room homes probably could not accommodate house all of the people.

Most likely, as the population increased, the colony spread out to an area outside of the sites de Neve designated even before the 1801 flood (or the 1815 flood) damaged or destroyed the original structures.

There is no physical evidence of any of the pueblo proper or propios adobe houses. Adobe is largely made of sunbaked clay. Much of the soil in the Los Angeles plain is clay. If the original pueblo proper and the propios homes washed away or even if they were only damaged, there would be nothing left.

There is also no physical evidence of a wall around the pueblo proper. There may well have been fences built around the suertes to keep grazing animals out.

Griswold del Castillo:

“The social customs of the Gabrielinos (My note: the Tongva) closely paralleled those of the Spanish settlers: elaborate wedding ceremonies, a paternalistic authoritarian family, and strong kinship ties were common in both cultures. Politically, the Indian rancherias resembled the cacique system in Mexico (My note: A cacique is a leader of an indigenous group.) for the pre-Columbian….We know that the early settlers did adopt some local games, the use of woven baskets, and the use of symbolic money. The willow cooking shelters that adjoined the adobe houses of the rancho period were clearly adaptations of the Indian jacals.”

The local native people helped build the pueblo. The Tongva had no reason to attack it. In 1785, a charismatic young Indian woman named Toypurina led a brief rebellion against the San Gabriel Mission, but it did not extend to the pueblo. Pirate Hippolyte Bouchard and his men, including Joseph Chapman – later considered of the city’s pioneers — attacked the Monterey Presidio and coastal but the Los Angeles pueblo proper was too far away from the sea to attract pirates. There is no evidence that bears tried to get in although there were then still bears. The pobladores had no good reason to waste their time building a wall around the pueblo and they probably did not build a wall around their pueblo.

The colonists or their children or the many emigrants sent by Mexico, some of them orphans adopted by the colonists, some of them convicts, had to leave the original site. They moved southwest, growing closer to Yang Na.

The next generation of homes was built along the mesa at the bottom of Elysian Park in the area once commonly called Sonoratown, which is today Chinatown. A chapel may have been built at where today’s Avenida Cesar Chavez meets Broadway. A guardhouse or barracks was built above today’s plaza. In 1818, Francisco Avila built an adobe on what is today Olvera Street. In the early 1820s, an American emigrant built an adobe almost right on top of Yang Na.

In 1830, the population was 730 people in the area around the Olvera Street plaza. Some drowned in the zanjas. Children went swimming in the ditches. Drunks just naturally fell in the ditches as if magnets drew them down by their metal belt buckles. Mostly, however, the settlers lived a long time. One of the original settlers was 100 years old when she died in 1860.

In 1891, a Los Angeles Times article – “The City’s Growth: Marching from the Old Toward the New Plaza” — reported:

“The geographical center of Los Angeles is the old plaza, but that has long since ceased to be the center of population. … While at one time most of the population was north of the plaza, during the past ten years 90 per cent of the improvements have gone up in the southern half of the city. … These are solid facts which it is useless to attempt to ignore by playing the ostrich acts and level-headed property holders in the northern part of the city are beginning to ask themselves seriously what is to be done to arrest or at least delay the steady march of the business section from the old to the new plaza on Sixth Street …”

The new plaza described in the article was what is today called Pershing Square. North of the present plaza, the “old plaza” (the one near Olvera Street) lie the hills of today’s Elysian Park. Some people lived in Solano Canyon, an entry to the Elysian Park hills, after 1860. Some lived in what were the three communities comprising Chavez Ravine, after 1844, when Julian Chavez purchased 83 acres in the hills, reached through Bishop Road. None of the 730 people in Los Angeles lived in the Elysian Park hills in 1830.

Although memories are unreliable all those people could not have forgotten where they used to live. Yet, it appears that they did. They did not drown the floods of 1801, 1815 and 1825, but instead got amnesia.


Writers developed different theories about where the first settlement began.


James Miller Guinn (1824-1918), born in Ohio, an educator and local Los Angeles historian arrived in Los Angeles in 1881 and began an extraordinary analysis of records that he located. Subsequent histories built on his work, and his vision of the Old Pueblo dominants historic research of early Los Angeles.

The big man standing at the Eastlake (Now Lincoln Park) Pioneer Day celebration in a photograph that accompanies this article is J. M. Guinn when he was old. The average height of well-fed American women then as now was 5’4″ and the women wore modest heels under those long skirts. Hats added a few more inches. The average height of a Spanish Colonial soldier was 5’2″. The pobladores he wrote about were Lilliputians to his Gulliver.

  1. M. Guinn in “The Plan of Old Los Angeles: and The Story of Its Highways and Byways,” Publication of the Historical Society of California, Los Angeles, Vol. 3, No. 3 (1895), pp. 40-50, placed the “Plaza Vieja” as: “The southeast corner of the plaza would coincide with what is now the northeast corner of Marchessault and Upper Main streets. From the said northeast corner of these streets draw a line northwest one hundred varas (278 feet) – this line would constitute the easterly side of the old plaza. On this line construct a parallelogram with its opposite or westerly side one hundred varas in length, and its northerly and southerly sides seventy-five varas each.” This area would have included Parking Lot No. 2 for the Olvera Street plaza and crossed into Cesar Chavez Avenue into Chinatown.

Guinn provided no authorities for his description. There was no physical evidence of an Old Plaza in the area of Guinn’s parallelogram by the time he wrote other than an adobe that he said had been the jail and before that a guardhouse and which had decayed by the 1850s. An early photograph of the current plaza area does show an adobe on a higher elevation. This may well have been the barracks for soldiers.

William Mason had a different theory for where the first pueblo was located.

William Mason — in his The Census of 1790: A Demographic History of Colonial California (Ballena Press, 1998) — names the settlers and their children and the places of their origin and occupations. In 1790, 136 men, women and children lived in the pueblo. The census did not describe the location of the pueblo. It was probably where it had been since 1781. There is no reason to believe the pueblo proper was relocated by 1790.

“Within a few days after arrival of the pobladores at the town-site, they began an irrigation ditch from the river into their fields where they planted sixteen fanegas of wheat and four almudes of garbanzos and tares in addition to corn and beans in unspecified amounts. By 27 October 1781 the main irrigation ditch was completed (perhaps too late for the crops already planted), corrals for the cattle and horses were readied, and the houses were well underway.”

“Tares” means a rye grass or vetch containing a strong soporific poison. Mason is the only writer to say the settlers planted this seed. Seeds did not need irrigation during the winter rains in the slanting plateau close to the river.

Mason’s understanding of the first location:

“The precise location of the very first pueblo site is in doubt. Probably the one thing we do know is that it was not on the present plaza. Vague references indicate that it was to the south, perhaps as much as a mile, around Sixth and San Pedro Streets or Seventh and Alameda Streets. There is a suggestion in Bancroft’s history that the pueblo was moved about 1792, but that reference may actually refer to San Jose, not Los Angeles. In any case, the plaza was probably well south of the present one and on ground, which was subject to flooding during unusually heavy rains. It is assumed that it was to the east of what is now Main Street and somewhat south of Fifth Street. Judging from variations in the measurements of the plaza given in about 1786 and 1795 respectively, there was certainly a change in shape, which may also indicate a change of location. Later it was probably shifted northward further still, as the Los Angeles River changed course,

“It is assumed” means Mason thought the location was south of Fifth Street. He did not list the source for his statement that the first plaza changed shape. Nor does he explain why he felt the pueblo “shifted northward,” nor where “northward” was. The San Jose Pueblo relocated in 1797 but Bancroft’s reference was to Los Angeles, although Bancroft’s conclusion contradicts the information Thomas Savage brought to his attention from the provincial archives in the form of drawings of maps.

Mason’s pueblo as village idea is like that of other American-era writers: the pueblo was in this way of looking at things a fractal, a mathematical set that exhibits a repeating pattern replicating at every scale. In Mason’s view, rather like a Lego colored plastic block assemblage, the pueblo-as-village hopped from one location to another on the Los Angeles plain.

John D. Weaver, in his privately printed (1973), El Pueblo Grande: Los Angeles from the Brush Huts of Yangna to the Skyscrapers of the Modern Megalopolis, relying on Guinn’s determination that the Old Plaza was located quite near the present plaza, came to the conclusion that the Old Plaza was flooded so it moved downhill to the Olvera Street location.

Unlikely. If the “Old Plaza” had flooded, its residents would not have moved to lower ground. The Parking Lot No. 2 invisible parallelogram plaza was on higher ground, if it existed, then the Olvera Street plaza.


“The settlers followed a dusty old Indian trail (now Mission Road), cut across a stretch of wild country destined to make way for the city of Alhambra and probably forded the Porciuncula near what was to become Aliso Street, its name derived from the giant sycamore which a hundred years later shaded a local brewery, just as according to legend – it had once shaded the councils of aboriginal Angelinos.”

Weaver probably got this dusty Indian trail description from W. W. Robinson, and no one knows where W.W. Robinson got it. Mission Road probably was an old Indian road. Roads into and out of Los Angeles started as native roads, and those roads began perhaps 13,000 years ago, most likely longer than that because the Indians followed trails of the megafauna. The road was probably dusty in summer, and the settlers arrived in the summer of 1781.

El Aliso, the Old Sycamore, may have been an alder. J. M. Guinn decided it was a sycamore and maybe it was, but “aliso” in Spanish means alder. El Aliso grew south of the Olvera Street plaza until the end of the 19th century and looms in the background of American-era photographs of today’s Olvera street plaza area. Olvera Street had been named Wine Street for years until 1877. Vignes did incorporate the tree into his vineyard. The tree was a significant landmark for many years. The river changed course twice after the settlers arrived, and it was further changed when it was put into a concrete channel.

Weaver was a reporter. He arrived in Los Angeles in 1940 and became fascinated with its history. He wrote the entry on L.A.’s history for the Encyclopedia Britannica. From Weaver’s obituary in the L.A. Times after he died at age 90:

“He was the first person to really give a true historical sensibility to everyday Los Angelinos,” said Digby Diehl, book editor of the Los Angeles Times from 1969 to 1978 and a friend of Weaver. “Until his book came out, there was really nothing that made the history of Los Angeles comprehensible to the guy on the street.”


Writing about the location of La Placita church opposite today’s plaza might give clues to the location of the original plaza but the various theories cannot be easily reconciled.


Rev. Jose Adam, Vicar, in his 1890 essay “History of the Catholic Church in Los Angeles County,” Historical Society of Southern California, vol. 1, no. 5, pp. 22-26, wrote on page 25:

“Where Buena Vista Street is now open north on the hill, there stood a chapel from the year 1784 until 1812, where a Franciscan friar from San Gabriel (Mission) said mass every Sunday and on holy days, for the accommodation of the settlers and their families.” Rev. Adam’s essay may be read at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/41167823?seq=4#page_scan_tab_contents. (Retrieved August 1, 2016). Reverend Adam did not provide any authorities for his conclusions.

The location Rev. Adam described was at the meeting of today’s North Broadway (That portion was earlier called Buena Vista Street.) and today’s Avenida Cesar Chavez, once at that place called Sunset. This location is at the bottom of today’s Chinatown, formerly Sonoratown, and before that it had no name.

John Steven McGroarty, in From the Mountains to the Sea (The American Historical Society 1921), Volume 2, page 167, wrote that there was a chapel begun in 1784 and finished five years later; that means the chapel was constructed at the site of the original pueblo. He wrote that the chapel was 25 varas by 30 varas (9 feet by almost 11 feet. See http://missiontour.org/wp/related/spanish-era-measurements.html.) (110 square feet.) There is no note of this chapel on the exact copy of the 1786 map at the Bancroft, and no note of the chapel in the 1793 drawing of the pueblo that Bancroft had made from the provincial archives.



“The plan of the present church, Our Lady, Queen of the Angels, were (sic) drawn about 1811, and the same time orders came from the Governor granting permission for the proposed enterprise, and urging the Poblanos to build the church. The ceremony was performed with permission of President Jose Senan, by Padre Luis Gil y Taboada, then rector of the old San Gabriel Mission. For various reasons the work was carried on very slowly and with long intervals of almost complete abandonment. Old Plaza Church was finished and dedicated December 8, 1822.”

Former brigand Joseph Chapman took over supervision of construction of La Placita in 1822. (Thomas J. Owen, March 1960, “The Church by the Plaza,” Historical Society of Southern California Quarterly, page 5). Some of the problem may have been the lack of a carpenter skilled enough to build the church before Chapman’s capture.

McGroarty contended the site of the first plaza site was on the village of Yang-Na, which, he continued, is the same place as the Olvera Street plaza, page 32 of From the Mountains:

“It was the site of the ancient Indian village of Yang Na. The waters of the fountain in the plaza of Los Angeles leap and sparkled today quite about that very spot. It will be the better marked, perhaps, some day, when the people shall erect there a heroic statute of old Don Felipe to proclaim his deeds.”

William David Estrada wrote the chapel had been built in 1794. Estrada’s position is that a new church was begun at Aliso and Alameda:

“The first chapel for the pueblo was built in 1794, thirteen years after the founding of the pueblo in 1781. Within twenty years, however, the pobladores had outgrown this small chapel, and in 1814, the foundation of a new church was laid near present day Aliso and Alameda Streets. In 1815, the Los Angeles River’s channel changed course changed course from the eastern side of the valley to the western side and flooded the foundation of the second church. The church was moved to the present location on higher ground. Hence when Governor Pablo Vicente de Sola decided on a new location for the church slightly east of the old 1784 location, it then was necessary to select a new site for the plaza.” The new plaza was built, according to Estrada’s research, on ejidos (common lands) and private lands. His footnote no. 22 lists on two books and the James W. Reagan report on floods, river phenomena and rainfall, all written in the 1930s, and on Guinn’s writing on Los Angeles.

Estrada’s conclusion makes sense. El Aliso looms in the background of early American-era photographs of the current plaza. It was a significant landmark that stood behind today’s plaza area and behind today’s Union Station. The big tree grew on lower ground. There was a flood in 1815 although El Aliso continued to flourish at that location in the courtyard of the Vignes winery. The tree survived the 1801 flood, the 1815 flood, the 1825 flood and the great flood of 1862.

In 1815, Los Angeles was still under Spanish rule, and there were no private lands in our present understanding of privately owned lands. All lands belonged to the King of Spain. In 1822, the pueblo received news that Mexico had won independence from Spain, so the King no longer owned the land in Los Angeles. There were no deeds or titles to land into the 1840s. Although the ayuntamiento set up a commission to determine land ownership in the 1830s, the commission was unable to complete its task.

In Roman Catholic canon law, a chapel is a religious place of fellowship, prayer and worship. It is not a parish church. See, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03574b.htm. (Retrieved 8/20/2016). The church to which the Los Angeles chapel – wherever it may have been – was attached was the Mission San Gabriel. The priests were at the Mission San Gabriel until La Placita opened its doors to congregants in 1822. The people of Los Angeles not only outgrew the first chapel, they often had no priest to perform last rites because the priest had to travel seven to nine miles (depending on where the first plaza was located) to get to the pueblo, and word had to get to the mission that someone was dying.

Estrada cites J.M. Guinn, “Story of a Plaza” and Thomas J. Owen, “The Church by the Plaza: A History of the Pueblo Church of Los Angeles,” Historical Society of Southern California Quarterly 42, no. 3 (March 1960), 9, and also Blake Gumprecht’s book on the Los Angeles River.

  1. M. Guinn, “The Story of a Plaza, Annual Publication of the Historical Society of Southern California and Pioneer Register, Los Angeles, Vol. 4, No. 3 (1899), pp. 247-256, states the first plaza was located north of the church; its southerly line very nearly coincided with what is now the northerly line of West Marchessault Street. On this, the cuartel, or guard house, the public granary, the government house and the capilla or chapel fronted.”

A cuartel is a barracks not a guardhouse. There was a guardhouse indicated on the 1786 map of the original pueblo, and a granary, but no chapel, and there is no chapel indicated in the 1793 drawing of an original map that has been lost, assuming it existed. There was not any documentary or physical evidence that the first pueblo was built on West Marchessault Street.

Guinn wrote he found “in the old records that the pueblo authorities in 1825 ordered a house torn down that stood on the Plaza.” No one else has yet found those old records but there could have been a house. The existence of “house lots” in 1815 is unlikely. There were no house lots in 1815. Lots for property held in usufruct and owned by the King had been assigned in 1786 in the initial pueblo, but there was nothing listed assigning lots after that.


The first settlers of the Los Angeles colony were poor people mostly people of color, and many came from Sinaloa and Sonora provinces in Mexico. One of the soldiers drew a map or maps of the pueblo that suggest its location in 1786.


Joseph Leland Roop’s diorama of the 1781 founding of Los Angeles, constructed in 1931 and located at the Natural History Museum, in the “Becoming L.A.” permanent exhibit shows a native man beginning the construction of the first home, the primary structure built of sticks. It also shows three “leather jackets” – soldiers on horseback, two mules laden with sacks, and 43 people in various colors, four obviously African, a woman that looks white, and the others brown-skinned. The ethnic composition, the clothing of the soldiers and settlers, and the native man helping build the first brush hut for the settlers corresponds to the information we have now about the settlers with one exception: the settlers arrived in two groups between about June 1781 and August 1781. They did not arrive at the same time. The official date of September 4 was an artificial date, which the Spanish government created to correspond with its annual accounting.

In 1929, Roop (1862-1932) designed, among his many works, sculptures of extinct animals for exhibit at the La Brea Tar Pits on Wilshire. In 1925, he created the dinosaurs for the silent film The Lost World. YouTube of the film at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4YBtxyiDed4.

Historians at the Natural History Museum may have provided Roop with the research for the diorama. The diorama does not provide information about his sources.

The place where pueblo began is portrayed in the diorama as sere, a desert studded with small cactus plants.

The Roop diorama creates a soft, diffuse and mysterious painting as background for the first settlement. The natural landscape of the eastern bank of today’s LA River — after years of drought, commercial and industrial development, contamination, gravel extraction — is as sere as is the hill in the diorama and much uglier. Except for the presence of the Victorian houses, the dry landscape and shabby development on broken old streets could be a scene from a Third World country.

The landscape of the Los Angeles basin in the background of the Roop diorama is beneath the settlers; that is, they are shown walking on a hill where the first stick and willow house is built, a significantly elevated hill. The river meanders peacefully in the distance. Riparian trees embroider its eastern banks.

The first explorers’ descriptions of the area of the first settlement show a different environment than the one in the diorama. Friar Juan Crespi’s description in his diary of the area as he saw it from the August 2 camp of the Portolá expedition on the eastern bank of the river Los Angeles was paradisiac, as explained below. From Crespi’s view point on the eastern side looking across the river that Crespi saw what would become the hills of Elysian Park and the prairie that would become the first settlers’ agricultural fields. He saw the Arroyo Seco to the north.

Spanish soldier José Darío Argüello (1753–1828) accompanied the pobladores on their journey from a place near the San Gabriel Mission in 1781. He was then reassigned to the Santa Barbara Presidio. In 1786, he returned to the pueblo and drew a map of the plaza, the home sites facing the pueblo, and the suertes, land allocated for agriculture for each household.

The map of the first pueblo drawn by Argüello five years after the pueblo began shows 28 lots privately owned farming lots – 4 across and 9 down. Four lots across, each 200 feet wide makes the width at least 800 feet. 9 lots down, each two hundred feet, means the length of the original farming plots to be privately owned 1800 feet. Above those plots was a rough triangle of land between the zanja and the top of the farming plots reserved for suertes to be established later. He noted two streets marked N, and two corners, marked O (O looks like a street).

One probably exact copy of a 1786 map and drawings made from the 1786 and 1793 map show the first plaza was not on a high hill but moderately elevated, possibly at the base of Buena Vista hill in the triangle now crossed by railroad tracks. The source of the pueblo’s irrigation system that lasted until 1903 strongly points to the location of the first plaza and surrounding structures as a little north of today’s Broadway Bridge.

Guinn’s A History of California and an Extended History of Los Angeles and Environs, Volume 1 (Los Angeles, Historic Record Company, 1915) exposed his startlingly misogynist and racist view of the colonists but he wrote in a time when that interpretation was well-accepted. A History of California is available on-line at: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/008653476. (Retrieved 8/16/2016). Guinn:

“Few of the great cities of the land have had such humble founders as Los Angeles. Of the eleven pobladores who built their huts of poles and tule thatch around the plaza vieja one hundred and twenty-five years ago, not one could read or write. Not one could boast of an unmixed ancestry. They were mongrels in race, Caucasian, Indian and Negro mixed. Poor in purse, poor in blood, poor in all the sterner qualities of character that our own hardy pioneers of the west possessed, they left no impress on the city they founded; and the conquering race that possesses the land that they colonized has forgotten them. No street or landmark in the city bears the name of any one of them. No monument or tablet marks the spot where they planted the germ of their settlement. Nor Forefathers’ day preserves the memory of their services and sacrifices.”

There were 12 houses for 12 families but only 11 families arrived in the summer of 1781. Miranda and his daughter did not make it to Los Angeles but he was interred in Santa Barbara when his time came. Guinn decries the myth that this settler was born in China just because he ethnic designation was “Chino.” Guinn said that “Chino” meant he had curly hair and so was probably African and Spanish. In Mexico at the time, “Chino” meant anyone from anywhere in Asia. Miranda was born in Manila, according to Mason’s research.

Five years later, nine men remained in the pueblo and received official grants of their home sites and farmland. (Bancroft, California Pastoral, p. 251). The men signed their grants with crosses. Bancroft’s book may be read on-line at https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=aeu.ark:/13960/t1vd7bg4z;view=1up;seq=266.

From the quoted passage, it is clear Guinn did not count women as pobladores. He did not note that the Los Angeles settlers survived small pox and a long journey on foot to get to the settlement, which compares well with “our own” hardy pioneers, who sometimes died of cholera, sometimes froze and starved to death on their way to California. If the first settlers had not been poor, they would not have taken that trek. Several could boast of unmixed ancestry – although Guinn finds it “doubtful” that Lara was “of pure blood,” Lara was from Spain, married to a young Indian woman. He left after the Spanish government discovered he had another wife in Mexico. Antonio Villavicencio was a Spaniard, later imprisoned for adultery with a Tongva woman. Basilio Rosas was an Indian. Luis Quintero was black. Jose Vanegas was an Indian. Alejandro Rosas was an Indian. Several of the women were Indian. Guinn’s subtext was that the Spaniards were not white because they married non-white women and no one was pure because no one was white, except those men that Guinn seems to have believed didn’t count as white because they had married Indians.

The people that arrived from Mexico were chosen from those who were poor. Only poor people were willing to walk to a new place and leave behind their friends and relatives forever.

Sinaloa was across the Gulf of California from Baja California.

Before the Spanish, six tribes of hunter-gathering people occupied Sinaloa.

The first Spanish foray into Sinaloa was in 1529.

Evidence of human occupation in Sonora goes back at least 14,000 years. Agriculture developed in Sonora about 400 BCE in the river valleys. Yaqui opposition to the Spanish kept Sonora out of Spanish hands until 1600.

Antonio Rios-Bustamante and Pedro Castillo, An Illustrated History of Mexican Los Angeles 1781-1985 (Regents of the University of California 1986):

“By 1769, when settlement of Alta California began in earnest, Sinaloa had long since ceased to be a frontier area. Sonora, however, was still characterized by a large and only partially subjugated Indian population that frequently raided small camps….

“Nevertheless, Sonora as well as Sinaloa had developed certain social had developed certain social and economic stratifications…. For journaleros (agricultural laborers) and labradores (small farmers, miners and artisans), the wild frontier had ceased to be a land of expanding opportunity. In fact, the ownership of even a small farm was beyond the reach of the working classes.”

Andrés Reséndez in The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2016) discusses, in part, the enslavement of both Indian and black people in the Spanish provinces in Mexico in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Soldier José Darío Argüello led the first ten of the pobladores in about June 1781 and was then reassigned to the Santa Barbara Presidio. In 1786, Governor Fages ordered Argüello to confirm the home sites and the agricultural lots to the individual male settlers.

In 1786, Argüello prepared a map of the existing lands to confirm an ownership record. The 1906 San Francisco fire and earthquake destroyed the provincial archives and the map was lost. A document that purports to be an exact copy is in the Bancroft Library in Berkeley. The Bancroft Library copy has two scales – one for measuring the home sites and one for measuring agricultural plots. That copy of the Argüello map of all the various versions, one of which is in English, best explains the location of the first plaza and the first houses in Los Angeles because of its measurements.

Soldier Jose Vicente Feliz had accompanied an earlier Anza exploration. Feliz was to become so associated with the settlement that they called him “the little father” of the pueblo. About 15 years later, he would receive a land grant that included today’s Griffith Park, the Hollywood hills area, the Los Feliz district and a bit of the Sliver Lake district. William Mason, in his Los Angeles Under the Spanish Flag (published by the Los Angeles Genealogical Society in 2004) described Feliz as “one of the more literate soldiers.”

Mason writes that a later colonist Francisco Morales became secretary of the Ayuntamiento in 1820 because he was literate and wrote “in a good hand.” He had been a schoolmaster before that. Los Angeles had a school from 1817 through the 1820s. Máximo Piña, a retired soldier, preceded Morales as a schoolteacher.

William Mason (1920 to 2000) — a thorough researcher and excellent amateur scholar — plunked down the settlement far south of Olvera Street, miles from the toma and from the original Zanja Madre. He does not say why he thought that, so maybe it was a common assumption. This may be one of the areas that engineers recommended be irrigated. The date of their report was 1859. (Gift report cited at the end of this essay.)

  1. M. Guinn knew the toma was made of brush and poles just above Buena Vista Street. Guinn knew the Zanja Madre was built “along the mesa at the foot hills on the western side of the river above the cultivated lands (The suertes — that area is now The Cornfield plus a little more on the south-east flank to about Naud Street, and a little bit less on the northwest side, so that the suertes ended at about where Bishop Road is today.).” See, A History of California, v. 1, op cit., page 391.

Guinn knew that the zanja “passed near the northeastern (sic, southeastern) corner of the old plaza,” so he had seen the 1786 map. He apparently held the map upside down when he looked at it.

Although American-era historians read Fr. Crespi’s diary, read De Neve’s California Reglamento, read Bancroft’s history of the pueblo, saw the 1786 map of the pueblo and drawings of maps, saw the physical evidence of the zanja system, no one agreed about the location of the first plaza and the tiny settlement around it.

By 1904, pumping wells depleted the aquifers but the river flooded in wet seasons. Early flood control efforts included some channelization. In 1938, the Army Corps of Engineers began the concrete channelization of the river.

The river still flows a little even in dry seasons.

If you walk in the river in dry seasons and go north into the Glendale Narrows, you find the bottom of the concrete river channel at that point is earthen. The water trickles through a slough on one side, and plants grow in the dirt and gravel portion – Cattails, Swamp sedge, Soft rush, Toad rush, California endemic Wrinkled rush and Watercress. The Narrows support the great egret, snowy egret, blue heron, and coot. A cormorant stands on a rock in a bit of river water and spreads his glistening black wings to dry them.

Some late summer afternoons, if you walk along North Avenue 19 on the east side of the river you may experience an hallucination that is both disturbing and pleasant: the sunlight between the buildings is very like light reflected on the surface of water, only there is too little water to create that light.

The sense of reflected moving water light and the birds and plants that live in the concrete river’s soft bottom are what the settlers, their children and later settlers saw every day from the summer of 1781 until perhaps the winter flood of 1801.

From An Illustrated History of Mexican Los Angeles:

“As a result of heavy rain, the Los Angeles River flooded its banks in 1801, probably causing considerable damage to town buildings. Between 1800 and 1810, the Los Angeles gente de razón population increased only slightly – from 315 to 365 persons. But like earlier census figures, these numbers do not include as many as 50 pueblo men who served in the presidial garrisons….” (Citations are to Bancroft’s History of California.)

The gente de razón were “people of reason.” The term referred to Hispanicized people; that is, to those were not the native people. The reference to garrisons may explain J. M. Guinn’s conclusion that what he perceived had at been a jail at one time above the Olvera Street plaza, actually a barracks, had been a garrison located between the first pueblo and those that moved southwest from the first pueblo and Yang-Na.

If people moved towards the southwest as the population increased and/or if the river intruded into the first settlement, they gradually extended the zanja as they moved, which eventually created the web of zanjas in and around the Olvera Street plaza that looks as if a spider on acid spun it.

Fractal “pueblos” – plazas with houses around them built according to Felipe de Neve’s original set of rules – may have been created in several places in this slow migration to the southwest through what later became commonly called Sonoratown, but the only evidence available to us so far is that building to the northeast of the current plaza (Northeast of the plaza was “Sonoratown”) was haphazard.


Diary entries written by members of the first land exploration of Alta California for the days August 2 and August 3, 1769, one of which recommends the place where the expedition forded the LA River as the site for a future settlement.


The first Spanish land expedition in what is today California started out from San Diego, led by Gaspar de Portolá. They headed in the direction of Monterey with the intention of going as close as they could along the coast. Indian guides accompanied them because no Europeans had previously been far inland. Miguel Costansó – an engineer and cartographer – accompanied the expedition. A Franciscan monk born in Majorca, Spain also accompanied the expedition: Juan Crespi, a good friend and former student of Father Junipero Serra. The explorers traveled on horseback, and muleteers handled the pack mules.

Spanish borderlands historian H. E. Bolton figured out the expedition “camped near Bassett” on July 30, 1769. Bassett is a little east of the 605, between the 60 and the 10. On July 31, 1769, Bolton’s note indicates the party camped “on the Lexington Wash” of the San Gabriel River at El Monte, a bit to the south of today’s mission.

The present mission (Built about 1776) is at what is now 428 Mission Drive, San Gabriel. It was built next to or at the village of Lisanchanga (Name variations include Sibanga),

The Old Mission (1771) was at San Gabriel Boulevard and Lincoln Avenue in Montebello. The Old Mission had been at the site of the Shevaanga village. A flash flood destroyed the building and most of the crops. It then moved five miles north, closer to the mountains.

Inasmuch as the members of the expedition maintained a good relationship with the native people they encountered, and as the Indians provided guidance to them, it is likely the camped near a village on July 31. When the padres arrived to establish missions, the only experience they had in selecting sites was based on the experiences of the 1769 expedition. The July 31 campsite was likely to have been either at Lisanchanga or at Shevaanga.

A problem with interpreting what a league means in miles is that the definition of a league varied. Historians interpret the term “league,” as used at the time of the expedition, as 2.63 miles. Assuming that interpretation is correct, three leagues equals 7.9 miles.

If the expedition camped at Lisanchanga, which was a little east of Alhambra, the journey would have been roughly 7.9 miles. They would have passed between low hills if they took this direction, crossing at about Spring Street or North Broadway.

The expedition rested one day and started again on August 2, 1769. The following are excerpts from three diaries on August 2.

Portolá wrote: “We proceeded for three hours on a good road, and halted near a river about fourteen yards wide. On this day we felt four or five earthquakes.”

Costansó wrote:
“In the morning we broke camp, and travelling towards the west, we left the valley by an opening formed between low hills. Later we entered quite an extensive canyon containing many poplars and alders, among which a beautiful river flowed towards the north-northwest, and turning the point of a small steep hill it afterwards continued its course to the south. To the north-northeast one could see another watercourse or riverbed, which formed a wide ravine, but it was dry. This watercourse joined that of the river, and gave clear indications of heavy floods during the rainy season, as it had many branches of trees and debris on its sides. We halted at this place, which was named La Porciúncula. Here we felt three successive earthquakes during the afternoon and night.”
Fray Juan Crespi writing about the same day:

“We set out from the valley in the morning and followed the same plain in a westerly direction. After traveling about a league and a half through a pass between low hills, we entered a very spacious valley, well grown with cottonwoods and alders, among which ran a beautiful river from the north-northwest, and then, doubling the point of a steep hill, it went on afterwards to the south. Toward the north-northeast there is another riverbed, which forms a spacious watercourse, but we found it dry. This bed unites with that of the river, giving a clear indication of great floods in the rainy season, for we saw that it had many trunks of trees on the banks. We halted not very far from the river, which we named Porciúncula. Here we felt three consecutive earthquakes in the afternoon and night. We must have traveled about three leagues today. This plain where the river runs is very extensive. It has good land for planting all kinds of grain and seeds, and is the most suitable site of all that we have seen for a mission, for it has all the requisites for a large settlement. As soon as we arrived about eight heathens from a good village came to visit us; they live in this delightful place among the trees on the river. They presented us with some baskets of Pinole made from seeds of sage and other grasses. Their chief brought some strings of beads made of shells, and they threw us three handfuls of them. Some of the old men were smoking pipes well made of baked clay and they puffed at us three mouthfuls of smoke. We gave them a little tobacco and glass beads, and they went away well pleased.”


Professor H. H. Bolton in Fray Juan Crespi Missionary Explorer (University of California Press 1927) commented that the August 2 camp on the east side of the river was near Downey Avenue.

That 100-foot stretch of street called Downey Avenue is now an extension of North Broadway, and it runs along the northern slant of Downey Recreation Center in Lincoln Heights.

The Portola Trail Marker (CHL No. 655) is at the Elysian Park entrance off North Broadway near the entrance to Elysian Park Drive on the western side of the river. The California State Park Commission put the bronze plaque on the marker in 1957 but this marker states the expedition camped near it on the river on August 2, 1769. There is no evidence at all that the Portolá expedition camped on a western bank of the river on August 2, August 3, or on the return trip in January 1770. (Jay Correia, State Historian III, Supervisor, Registration Unit, California Office of Historic Preservation, stated that California Historic Landmarks with numbers below 770 were poorly documented. The last previous written complaint about the incorrect statement was in 1972. (Email exchange with Jay Correia, August 16, 2016.)) The Portola Trail in Elysian Park has no particular relationship with the Portolá expedition except that the expedition did cross the river below what became the park and passed by the Elysian Park hills on their way to the coast.

August 3, 1769, Miguel Costansó:

“We forded the Río de la Porciúncula, which descends with great rapidity from the canyon through which it leaves the mountains and enters the plain. We directed our course to the west-southwest over high level ground and after a march of three leagues, we reached the watering-place, to which we gave the name of the Ojo de Agua de los Alisos. This was a large spring situated in a marshy place where there stood some alder trees of very large girth; the marsh was covered with grass, fragrant plants, and watercress. Hence the water flowed through a deep ditch towards the southwest. All the country that we saw on this day’s march appeared to us most suitable for the production of all kinds of grain and fruits. On our way we met the entire population of an Indian village engaged in harvesting seeds on the plain. In the afternoon there were other earthquakes; the frequency of them amazed us. Someone was convinced that there were large volcanoes in the mountain range that lay in front of us extending towards the west. We found sufficient indications of this on the road that lies between the Río de la Porciúncula and the Ojo de Agua de los Alisos, as the scouts saw, adjoining the mountains, some large swamps of a certain material like pitch which was bubbling up.”

Ojo de Agua de los Alisos was and still is on the grounds of University High School in the Sawtelle area of west Los Angeles, close to the Gabrielino Tongva Springs Foundation. http://gabrielinosprings.com/wpsite/?page_id=29.

This is also called “Serra Springs,” although there is no evidence Father Serra stopped there. The springs are at University High School Horticulture Area, 11800 Texas Avenue, Los Angeles.

August 3, 1769, Crespi:

“At half-past six we left the camp and forded the Porciúncula River, which runs down from the valley, flowing through it from the mountains into the plain. After crossing the river we entered a large vineyard of wild grapes and an infinity of rosebushes in full bloom. All the soil is black and loamy, and is capable of producing every kind of grain and fruit that may be planted. We went west, continually over good land well covered with grass. After traveling about half a league we came to the village of this region, the people of which, on seeing us, came out into the road. As they drew near us they began to howl like wolves; they greeted us and wished to give us seeds, but as we had nothing at hand in which to carry them we did not accept them. Seeing this, they threw some handfuls of them on the ground and the rest in the air. We traveled over another plain for three hours, during which we must have gone as many leagues. In the same plain we came across a grove of very large alders, high and thick, from which flows a stream of water about a buey (sic?) in depth. The banks were grassy and covered with fragrant herbs and watercress. The water flowed afterwards in a deep channel towards the southwest. (1) All the land that we saw this morning seemed admirable to us. We pitched camp near the water. This afternoon we felt new earthquakes, the continuation of which astonishes us. We judge that in the mountains that run to the west in front of us there are some volcanoes, for there are many signs on the road which stretches between the Porciuncula River and the Spring of the Alders, for the explorers saw some large marshes of a certain substance like pitch; they were boiling and bubbling, and the pitch came out mixed with an abundance of water. (2) They noticed that the water runs to one side and the pitch to the other, and that there is such an abundance of it that it would serve to caulk many ships. This place where we stopped is called the Spring of the Alders of San Estevan.”

That is, the expedition camped on the east bank of the river on August 2 and forded the river early in the morning of August 3. They traveled west for half a league from the place they forded (where the Broadway Bridge now crosses the river) a distance of 1.3 miles west. Going straight west would have taken them over steep hills so they probably did not go due west. Costansó wrote they went south and west. He was right and Crespi was wrong.

If they went half a league in a westerly-southerly direction that means they came upon the village of Yang Na, which was roughly where City Hall is today. Then they traveled west past the La Brea Tar Pits on what would one day be Wilshire Boulevard to University High School between Wilshire and Santa Monica. This took them 3 hours and they covered three leagues from the Indian village (7.9 miles.). It is today 7 miles traveling on Wilshire Boulevard to the La Brea Tar Pits. It is 6.4 miles walking on Wilshire and Santa Monica Boulevards to University High School. They rode 15.5 miles after crossing the LA River. That works out to 15.5 miles today if the crossing was near the once-street Downey Avenue and would take five hours and some minutes to walk.

On January 16, 1770, the expedition returned and made camp at a place near what is now Franklin Avenue at the entrance to the Hollywood Freeway.

Miguel Costansó wrote:
“On entering the plain we saw towards the east a chain of mountains covered with snow, which we had also seen on entering the Cañada de Santa Clara. From the low hills that we were leaving we likewise saw the Río de la Porciúncula or, at least, the fringe of trees lining its banks. Hence it was only necessary to direct our course towards it, crossing the plain towards the southeast. We reached the river and forded it; observing from the sand, rubbish, fallen trees, and pools on both sides that there had been, a few days before, a great freshet which had caused it to overflow its banks. We proceeded for three leagues more, as far as the Valle de San Miguel, and halted there in the same place we had occupied on July 30.”
Fray Juan Crespi:
“We set out from the place (Franklin Avenue near the 101) in the morning, and as soon as we entered the plain we saw a bare chain of mountains covered with snow, which we descried on entering the valley of Santa Clara; from the hills we also saw the Porciúncula River. We crossed the plain in a south-easterly direction, arrived at the river, and forded it, observing on its sands rubbish, fallen trees, and pools on either side, for a few days previously there had been a great flood which had caused it to leave its bed. We traveled three leagues farther, to the valley of San Miguel, and there we halted in the same place where we had camped on the 30th of July.”

Crespi on the trip north recommended the location south of the Arroyo Seco as a site for a mission or large settlement. In one passage of J.M. Guinn’s Historical and Biographical Record of Southern California (Chapman Publishing Co. Chicago 1907), the author wrote on page 69:

“Behind the narrow shelf of mesa land where the pueblo was located rose the brown hills, and in the distance towered the lofty Sierra Madre Mountains.”

The remainder of the passage is more diffuse, and other pages indicate a location for the pueblo a little above the Olvera Street plaza. The Sierra Madre Mountains are in Santa Barbara County but the town and after 1907 the City of Sierra Madre was a starting point for entry into the San Gabriel Mountains. The town began in the 1880s and incorporated in 1907. Guinn meant the San Gabriel Mountains that towered in the distance, but the mountains towered in the distance of everywhere in the Los Angeles plateau.

The only place that fits in his brief description of a narrow shelf of mesa land, above which rose the “brown hills” was the narrow mesa around the base of today’s Elysian Park hills, above The Cornfield. This passage contradicts Guinn’s firm belief that the first pueblo was above the present plaza and extended into the area of what was Sonoratown, and it does correspond to the place where the Portola expedition forded the river.

In 1777 Governor Felipe de Neve designated the location that Crespi had recommended when he traveled through the area in early August 1769. De Neve was based in Loreto until February 3, 1777.

H.D. Barrows in his essay “Gov. Felepe (sic) de Neve” published in Annual Publication of the Historical Society of Southern California and Pioneer Register, Los Angeles, Vol. 4, No. 2 (1898), pp. 151-153 wrote that de Neve arrived, traveling by land in Monterey “in the early part of 1777.” Walking today from Loreto to Los Angeles would take 278 hours to cover the 856 miles. Assuming de Neve traveled by horse and traveled 7 hours a day, it would have taken him possibly a month to reach Los Angeles. If he left Loreto immediately, then he might have arrived at the site for the future pueblo in early March. The river would not have been dry in early March, but there may have not been the evidence of flooding that Crespi had seen when he passed the area on his return trip.

De Neve later designated that a zanja madre be built very close to the plaza and first houses. A location on “the narrow mesa” above The Cornfield could have looked to be a place where the pueblo could both access the river and build the ditch below it if he arrived in March of 1777. Nonetheless, if de Neve chose a location that close to the river, he must not have heeded Crespi’s description of that area as one that flooded sometime before Crespi’s return trip in January.


Governor Felipe de Neve’s California Reglamento established the requirements for the Spanish colonial utopia on the Los Angeles River.


El Pueblo de San José de Guadalupe was founded before the Los Angeles Pueblo. Explorer Juan Bautista de Anza selected the site for what would become San Jose but José Joaquín de la Santísima Trinidad Moraga founded the San Jose pueblo in November 1777 on orders from Antonio María de Bucareli y Ursúa, Spanish Viceroy of New Spain. The San Jose pueblo was a farming community that grew food for the Presidio in San Francisco, built in 1776.

Felipe de Neve was the fourth governor of Alta California in the years from 1775 to 1782. For two years, he was based in Loreto, Baja California during the period the San Francisco Presidio was established. He moved to Monterey in Alta California in February 1777.

On his journey from Loreto, de Neve inspected the province as he went. From a letter to Viceroy Bucareli, a translation of which is in John and LaRee Caughey’s Los Angeles: Biography of a City (University of California Press, First paperback edition 1977):

“Three leagues from that mission (De Neve meant the San Gabriel Mission. A league is generally accepted for that period as 2.63 miles, so he meant 7.89 miles. In 1777, the mission was on its present site.) is found the Porciuncula River with much water easy to take on either bank and beautiful lands in which it all could be made use of.”

It is 7.9 miles from the Mission San Gabriel to the location where Portolá crossed the river, which was also 7.9 miles from approximately the same location before the mission was built. Inasmuch as the river changed course since 1777, it is not possible to say for sure that he forded the river at the same place but it is likely he went on the same road as Portolá had followed eight years earlier in order to reach the place that Crespi recommended as a site for a mission or other settlement. The location he chose was probably Crespi’s: at about the place where the Broadway Bridge crosses the river.

The regulations he later wrote for the new pueblo may have reflected the location he had inspected in 1777, as well as mirroring Spanish law.

In 1779, Governor de Neve wrote a set of regulations for the founding of pueblos. In 1781, King Carlos III mandated that a civilian settlement be located at the site Crespi had recommended for a mission in 1769 and also approved Neve’s regulations called Nuevo Reglamento para el antiguo y nuevos establecimientos de California.

The Nuevo Reglamento – or the California Reglamento – followed Book 4, Title 5, Law X of the Recompilación de las Leyes de las Indias (1680) and the 101st Ordinance of Philip II’s “Ordinances Concerning Discoveries” (1573). The California Reglamento planned new pueblos to be built for safety, health and grace and contrasted with what would be the American perspective until perhaps the City Beautiful Movement, a reform movement that flourished during the 1890s and early 1900s with the intent of beautification and grandeur in cities that had largely developed ad hoc. The City Beautiful Movement died because Chambers of Commerce urged both lower taxes and intense development that made a profit.

Charles Lummis translated Governor Felipe de Neve’s 1780-81 regulations and instructions in 1897, in Land of Sunshine, vol. vi, nos. 2-6. This translation is in The Founding Documents of Los Angeles (Historical Society of Southern California and the Zamorano Club of Los Angeles 2004).

The governor’s rules for governing the Californias — Alta and Baja California were one territory before 1804 – derived from Spanish law. A succinct reprise of Spanish law may be found in the master’s thesis of Rose Hollenbaugh Avina, submitted to the University of California in 1932 and reprinted in 1973 by R and E Research Associates, entitled Spanish and Mexican Land Grants in California.

A paragraph of Avina’s thesis may help in figuring out where the first pueblo proper was built:

“The laws of the Indies repeatedly emphasized the right of the Indians to the land. They were recognized as owners of all the land needed for this maintenance; visitors were to ascertain whether certain farms were located to the prejudice of the Indians, and, if so, to see that justice was done them, while Spanish colonizers were forbidden to encroach on Indian lands. The majority held no legal titles to their land but they were not to be deprived of the lands that they held in joint ownership and they were forbidden to dispose of them except by special authority. The laws against their selling, or mortgaging their lands were often ignored and the lands were lost through debt, yet justice was certainly rendered to the Indians in theory if not in fact.”

 The pueblo of Los Angeles was very probably located at a distance from Yang Na, the principal Indian trading distance, because of the Spanish prohibition.

De Neve drafted the Reglamento Para el Gobierno de la Provincia de Californias in 1779 approved by Royal Order on October 24, 1781, a couple of months after the Los Angeles pueblo was founded. In August 1781, he issued either these rules or additional instructions for the allocation of land in the Los Angeles pueblo.

The governor recapitulated Spanish feudal property relationships in these paragraphs:

“The houses erected upon the Lots granted and set aside to the new Settlers, and the Fields embraced in their respective grants, shall be an inheritance in perpetuity to their sons and descendants or daughters who marry useful Settlers and have no allotment of Fields for themselves; all such persons to comply with the conditions which will be set forth in these instructions. . . . And likewise they shall be able to dispose that these fields be divided among the children – but not that one single Field be divided.” The lands were held in usufruct: that is, if the settler did not use the lands, they reverted to the community.

No settler and no heir could put any encumbrance (e.g., a lien, a mortgage) on the property “though it be for a pious cause.” If anyone put a lien on the property, he would be deprived of the property and it would be distributed to the other settlers.

De Neve also ordered that the building lots “must be fixed by the Government as to location and size according to the extent where the new Pueblos may be established. So that a plaza and streets shall be left as provided by the Laws of the Realm; and correspondingly shall be marked out sufficient Room for the Pueblo to grow, and Pastures, with the suitable arable lands for Individuals.”

“Each allotment of Fields, both for irrigation and for dependence on the rainfall, shall be 200 varas (550 feet) long and 200 wide, this being the area ordinarily taken by one fanega of Corn in sowing. The allotment to be made of said Fields, as of the Building Lots, in the name of our Lord the King, to the new Settlers, shall be made by the Government equitably in proportion to the amount of land that can be irrigated.” Each settler was allocated two fields of irrigable land and two of dry. Royal lands were set aside as well as lots for soldiers.

The settlers also enjoyed common privileges of water and pasturage, firewood and lumber from the outer lands, forests and pasture to be assigned according to his regulations to each new pueblo. The pobladores also were to build an acquecia (irrigation ditch) and a zanja madre (mother ditch).

De Neve also directed, “The selection of the place in which the pueblo is to be situated should be on land moderately elevated and protected against the north and south winds, caring for the most commodious situation and in the immediate neighborhood of the mother ditch, providing that from the pueblo there can be seen the whole or a major part of the agricultural lands.” Neve also directed that there be a space of 200 varas (550 feet) between the cultivated lands and the town.

Assuming de Neve had decided that the plaza and the surrounding buildings (“the pueblo”) were to be built north of the place that he forded the river (north of the Broadway Bridge), the closest land for agriculture was the grassy area that Crespi had described before reaching Yang Na. During that time, the grassy area was below the probably site was on lower ground than the bluffs along the base of Elysian Park. That once grassy area is still lower than the road that was eventually built from the Olvera Street pueblo to the place where Crespi had crossed. That area is the Los Angeles State Historic Park commonly called The Cornfield.

The Cornfield extends up to the Broadway Bridge. Railroad tracks go along the area between the higher areas of North Broadway. If the original agricultural plots in 1781 started at about a little to the southwest of Aurora Street connects with Baker Street today, then they would have been 550 feet from “the pueblo.” The Zanja Madre during the American Era and probably during the Spanish occupation as well began to the north of the Broadway Bridge. Southern winds would have blown over all lands on the plains and the plateau above it. If “the pueblo” were built north of the Broadway Bridge where the base of the hill forms an angle, it would have been protected from northern winds. There is no area on the Los Angeles plain protected from both southern and northern winds.

The plaza was to be 275 feet by 180 feet. Building lots were to be 55 feet by 111 feet. Two streets 27.5 feet in width extended through building lots on the long side of the plaza. (W. W. Robinson, Los Angeles from the Days of the Plaza – Chronicle Books 1982).

Building lots were each occupied first by brush huts (1781) and then by one-room adobes (1784?). Additional lots for future building were in the area designated as “Propios.” De Neve did not designate the sizes of homes. If the houses eventually built faced the plaza, which was the intention, then there was open area behind them. If you take Amtrak through the Central Valley, you see very large backyards behind fences and can make out houses that face streets at the ends of the house lots. That layout may be American in origin or a relic of Spanish-era design. Spain did not create any settlement in the Central Valley so these arrangements of back lot to house are probably an older American rural design.

Nonetheless, after 1849, men from Mexico traveled north through Los Angeles to reach the gold mines. The American miners expelled them. Antonio Coronel was one of the few Mexican citizens (but by then from Los Angeles) to make a fortune in the gold mines. Some of those fortunate enough to avoid lynching returned to Los Angeles and built adobes, sometimes in the backyards of existing adobe houses in the then oldest part of Los Angeles to the northeast of the Olvera Street pueblo. Later, residents built courts inside those backyards with wood shacks. See, e.g., Los Angeles Barrio, 1850-1890: A Social History by Richard Griswold del Castillo (University of California Press, 1982), Leonard Pitt and Ramon A. Gutierrez, Decline of the Californios: A Social History of Spanish-Speaking California (University of California Press, 1999), Chapter III “‘Greasers’ in the Diggings: Californians and Sonorans Under Attack.”

Whether American or Spanish, the long backyards in older times were useful. In them, residents in the past put out houses for toilets, raised small gardens, put in beehives and chicken coops.

Felipe de Neve traveled to the San Gabriel Mission from Monterey to await the settlers and soldiers destined for the new pueblo and the mission and presidio he intended to found in the Santa Barbara Channel region, according to Harry Kelsey in “A New Look at the Founding of Los Angeles,” an essay in The Founding Documents of Los Angeles.

  1. M. Guinn, “Founding of the Pueblo of Los Angeles” in his Historical and Biographical Record of Southern California; Containing A History of The Earliest Settlement to The Opening Year of the Twentieth Century (Chapman Publishing Company 1907):

“The Spanish poblador (founder or colonist) went where he was sent by his government. He built his pueblo after a plan designated by royal reglamento. His planting and his sowing, the size of his field and the shape of his house lot were fixed by royal decree. He was a dependent of the crown. The land he cultivated was not his own, except to use. If he failed to till it, it was taken from him and he was deported from the colony. He could not buy the land he lived on nor could he even exercise that privilege so dear to the Anglo-Californian – the right to mortgage it…”

If Guinn is correct about the pobladores dependence on the crown, the early settlers acquiesced to a hard life in an alien land because of the much more impoverished lives they had in Sinaloa and Sonora. There is no evidence that any of them elected to abandon the pueblo and run away to the beach and live at the seashore with the Chumash to gather crustaceans and sea weed or get into a tomol (a Tongva boat built of reeds) and paddle their way to Santa Catalina to spend their lives fishing at Avalon.

In these few words, Guinn put his finger right on the fundamental reason why the Spanish legal system imported into California through de Neve’s reglamento doomed its pueblos and ranchos soon after Americans occupied the state. There was a related and more blatant reason: Mexico’s Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo with the United States in 1848.

The American legal system was much more conducive to concentrations of wealth and the development of industry than the Spanish system.

Ownership of private property for Americans meant the ability to sell and mortgage land, ideas that grew in England at least as far back as the Magna Carta (1215), which on paper prohibited the king from taking property without due process. Quia Emptores (1290) made it possible for the owners of land, under certain circumstances, to transfer ownership. The Statute of Wills (1540), an act of the English parliament that made it possible to devise by will, and the Enclosure Acts – a series of acts starting in 1604, which created private property rights in former common lands. In England, these acts of parliament created the conditions for the agricultural revolution and then the industrial revolution by “freeing” peasants from use of the commons. Those peasants that did not become homeless after they lost their common pasturelands became the labor force for the industrial revolution, which exploited their labor and increased capital for production at their expense.

The English idea of the paramount value of private ownership of land is encoded in the American Constitution’s Fifth amendment, its consequences best described in Canadian political philosopher C. B. Macpherson’s theory of “possessive individualism,” in which an individual is conceived as the sole proprietor of his or her skills and owes nothing to society for them.

Pio Pico was born at the Mission San Gabriel in 1801, the year of Thomas Jefferson’s inauguration. His casta was African-Indian-European. Eulalia Perez (1766-1878!) was the midwife at his birth. Perez was the mayordomo of the San Gabriel Mission and the key keeper of the dormitories. She became grantee of Rancho el Rincon de San Pascual (Portions of today’s San Marino, Pasadena, South Pasadena, Altadena and San Pascual.) A Tongva woman from Yang Na, possibly from Yang Na’s elite family, acquired land grants from the church because of her work with Perez. The woman, Victoria Reid, wife of Hugo Reid, author of important writing on the Tongva people, had two children from her marriage to a native man. Victoria’s daughter died young from small pox and became one of the models for Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona.

The United States was still 90 percent rural but America’s first textile factory – the cloth manufactured by spinning machines powered by water – began operation in 1789. Orphans and poor children composed the factory’s labor force. In the 1820s, the Lowell experiment in rural industry manufactured textiles near Boston. By the 1830s, steam power replaced waterpower, and that meant bigger mills, faster production runs, and a greater division of labor. The commercial revolution revolved around New York to Boston to Baltimore and then across the country to Chicago with the 1825 opening of the Erie Canal. The political and economic revolution that transformed Great Britain and the United States had not touched Spain until all men got to vote in 1892. Mining and the iron and steel industries in Spain grew in the late nineteenth century.

Doyce B. Nunis, Jr., “Alta California’s Trojan Horse: Foreign Immigration,” from Contested Eden, cited at the end of this essay.

“In establishing Alta California as a colony, Spain imposed on it certain restrictive policies. The province was forbidden to trade with any foreign vessels; foreigners were strictly prohibited from establishing permanent residence; manufacturing and agricultural diversity were not encouraged; and shipbuilding was prohibited without a governmental license. Spanish colonial policy did support the development of farming and ranching mainly as a means to make the colony self-sufficient in respect to basic foodstuffs. Annually, a supply ship from San Blas brought essential goods and supplies that the colony could not produce, such as clothing, hardware, sugar and the like, as well as military supplies for the four presidios erected for defensive purposes.”

As Governor of Mexico’s Alta California, Pio Pico warned:

“They are cultivating farms, establishing vineyards, erecting mills, sawing up lumber, building workshops, and doing a thousand other things which seem natural to them, but which Californians neglect or despise. What then are we to do? Shall we remain supine, while these daring strangers are overrunning our fertile plains, and gradually outnumbering and displacing us? Shall these incursions go on unchecked, until we shall become strangers in our own land?”

John D. Weaver, El Pueblo Grande (Privately printed 1973), p. 17.

The answers to the two last questions Pico raised were both “yes.” Once Americans set covetous eyes on California, the days of the old anarchic way of life premised on almost free Indian labor were numbered.


Two drawings of maps in the provincial archives – one purportedly of the 1786 map and one of a 1793 map – and what is probably an exact copy of a 1786 map show the location of the first pueblo.


 From Bancroft’s California History.

The 1786 map is a “copy exacta de original” kept at the Bancroft Library.

Los Angeles in 1793

                               Los Angeles in 1793

From Bancroft’s California History

The records of the Spanish-era Los Angeles Council (Cabilido but the Ayuntamiento after 1822) were lost by the time American-era historians began their search for the “original pueblo.” Original provincial records held in San Francisco burned in the 1906 fires. See, John Caughey and LaRee Caughey, Los Angeles: Biography of A City (Berkeley, University of California Press 1977), pages 74-75.

  1. H. Bancroft sent one of his primary assistants – probably Thomas Savage – to copy records in the Provincial archives for his history of California that included the founding of the Los Angeles pueblo. The original maps from 1786 and 1793, no longer exist. The Bancroft Library, located at UC Berkeley, has what it designates as an exact copy of a 1786 map.

Bancroft included copies of Savage’s copied two maps of the Los Angeles pueblo in his History of California. Vol. 1 1542-1800 (A.L. Bancroft & Company 1884, pages 348 and 349. On-line: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/100568361. (Retrieved August 4, 2016).

The Bancroft drawing of a now lost map shows 12 houses or house sites. Next to it ran the “main ditch.” Between the “main ditch” and the river were the propios, which was an area set aside for private plots of land, apparently not the suertes, because the suertes were below the “road” in both drawings. In 1786, no owned land is designated in the “proprios.”

In 1793 – assuming that Bancroft or his assistant did not make up the map — 22 square lots and four quite long rectangular lots. The 17 new dwellings were probably located in those 22 lots designated as “propios.” The “Main Ditch” goes to the north end of the new community. That means, assuming each square parcel was 55 feet by 55 feet, and assuming that the “road” in both drawings that forded the river eventually became the Broadway Bridge, the distance between that road to the mouth of the Zanja Madre was 550 feet. The intake from the river would have been about at where Barranca Street is on the east side of the river. There are railroad tracks on the west side.

Both (Thomas Strange?) drawings show a road leading from the “pueblo” – actually, the plaza and the buildings surrounding it — and heading a little south then crossing beneath most of the private lands to the river. The Main Ditch in the 1793 map diverts water from the river to the north of the agricultural fields into the fields and is called “Main Ditch.” A second ditch, the “Pueblo Ditch” is in both maps. In both maps the “Pueblo Ditch” does not reach the “pueblo” but travels near it on its eastern side. The 1793 map shows a third ditch that is below the road and below the “Ford” (of the river), which leads to other agricultural lots to the south.

Bancroft, in his California Pastoral (The California History Company 1888) stated the first Los Angeles plaza moved in 1791 because of water intrusion.

Nonetheless, the 1793 drawing he published of an original map that no longer exists shows “the pueblo” in the same configuration as the 1786 map. Either the pueblo did not relocate in 1791, or it relocated slightly.

The original site as it was portrayed in the 1786 and 1793 drawings satisfied most of Governor de Neve’s requirements if the river were further to the east. The drawings suggest that all of the developed pueblo except for the suertes may be found in three places: under train tracks that run along the bottom of the steepest Elysian Park hill, under the river channel (now concrete although there is a soft bottom at that point) and on the eastern side of the river under Lincoln Heights buildings and road.

From the two Bancroft maps (1786 and 1793) examined simultaneously with the 1875 map by M. Kelleher, it looks like “main ditch” was the ditch called the zanja madre rather than “the pueblo ditch” dug to a place that skirted the eastern side of the structures – the “pueblo” was set at an angle rather than due north-south and east-west — surrounding the first plaza. Both ditches descended from the toma, or possibly from “the intake” that was shown in the 1875 map.

In the 1786 map, the farm plots or suertes were below the “road.” The “Propios” were in the area between the “Main Ditch” in the 1786 map. “Propios” during the Spanish Colonial era were the lands that belonged to a city or town. By the time of the 1793 map, the area between the road and the intake or the toma contained boxes. Most of them square, four rectangular, indicating the municipal lands were allocated for farming for the community. The suertes or privately possessed lands remain below the “road” and the “ford.”

Although the “pueblo” is set at an angle, both the suertes and the propios were laid out more on a north south axis.

The siting of the “pueblo” at a tilt suggests one side was set against a hill.

A hill that today corresponds to that tilt is at the base of the tallest hill of Elysian Park. Below that hill is the area crossed by train tracks in the area to the north of today’s North Broadway. Measuring the length of that hill from the southern edge of North Broadway (because the “road” would have been much more narrow than today’s street and because North Broadway dugs into the bottom of the hill now), the area along the bottom of the hill that corresponds to that tilt is about 300 feet. The longest width to today’s river edge is 400 feet. At the narrowest part of the triangle, the width is 200 feet.

If the “pueblo” were built at that location, it would have to have fit with Neve’s directions for the dimensions of the first plaza and the first surrounding structures. It is presently two hundred feet along the base of the hill below Elysian Park Drive from North Broadway to the point where the hill turns and goes more directly north. J.M. Guinn, in “The Plan of Old Los Angeles” (1895) Annual Publication of the Historical Society of Southern California, Los Angeles, Vo. 3 No. 3 (1895, pp. 40-50. Guinn interpreted de Neve’s directions to mean the “pueblo” was to be 100 varas long and 75 varas wide.

Using a Spanish conversion calculator, 100 varas equal 274 feet. 75 varas equal 205.7 feet. Assuming the settlers measured precisely, even though that is unlikely, the pueblo would have fit in that triangle of land occupied by train tracks now, at the base of the Buena Hill. If located at that site, which it might have been, Governor de Neve disregarded Fr. Crespi’s observation in January 1770 that the river flooded. The only other possible area for the pueblo would be at the entrance to Solano Canyon but then there would have been no reason to tilt the pueblo in the direction it tilted away from the north-south axis.

The E.O.C. Ord 1849 survey of Los Angeles — upon which historians often relied — was a survey not a map. It incorporated existing geographic features, and it showed the Olvera Street pueblo area as it was. Its purpose, however, was to subdivide the pueblo for land sales, to plan for the future, and to rationalize the hodge-podge of overlapping land claims. The subdivisions created were not only in open land but also superimposed over developed areas, following the Rectangular Survey System first proposed by Thomas Jefferson. Spanish land grants had only been roughly surveyed. He created parallel streets out of the morass of alleys and meandering byways. Ord created an American city on paper, whereas the city he looked at was based on a Spanish system.

An 1875 map authored by M. Kelleher showing the location of the old Zanja Madre, ditches, vineyards, and Old Town is on at the Huntington Digital Library. http://hdl.huntington.org/cdm/singleitem/collection/p15150coll4/id/11850/rec/3. (Retrieved 8/4/2016). It is possible to zoom in on areas in the map using this link.

This map shows an “intake” on north of the turn of Buena Vista Hill and that “intake” is marked “D.Etch,” which probably means ditch. The Toma is on the “D.Etch” to the south. The Zanja Madre follows the curve of the Elysian Park hills. A road swings out across the Zanja Madre and over land and then fords the river to the east. In this map, the “road” goes to a dotted line in the west, which is about today’s Elysian Park Drive. The dotted line goes past the entrance to Solano Canyon and past the then-Calvary Cemetery and also up behind the cemetery. Stearn’s Mill – which was right next to the Zanja Madre – is indicated roughly with a diagonal that reads “Abel Stearns.” The dotted line continues over a creek to Eternidad Street, later a part of North Broadway.

What is clear from a comparison of the map at the Bancroft that is in Neal Harlow’s book, the drawings of maps and the Ord survey is that the original pueblo plaza and structures were closer to the river than were most of the suertes, but below the Arroyo Seco.

The first settlement of house lots and plaza was built at an angle; that is, it was not built north to south, east to west. The agricultural fields, however, were laid out north to south, east to west. No one so far as asked this question: why was the first settlement of houses and plaza skewed?

A small triangular bit of land beneath the bridge on the north side is crossed with train tracks and the tracks disappear into a tunnel. This triangle is set against the bottom of the last Elysian Park hill. If you measure that triangle today, and if you set “the pueblo” at the angle portrayed in the drawings of eighteenth century maps and the copy of the map kept at the Bancroft, and you plug in de Neve’s dimensions for the plaza and the 12 home sites, you will see there was room for “the pueblo” but only if it were laid out at an angle so that some of the home sites were close to the base of the hill and the other sides of the rectangular community were left open.

If not de Neve, then one of the literate soldiers that accompanied the settlers established where the plaza would be, where the suertes and the propios would be.

To fit the design (in words) in the Reglamento, someone decided the first pueblo proper of house lots and plaza had to be set at an angle to fit into the site that de Neve had chosen in 1777.

Below the higher area, a mesa or a terrace, around the base of the hills, lays The Cornfield.

The length of today’s Los Angeles State Historic Park, popularly called The Cornfield, is 3,000 feet. The park’s width is difficult to determine because of its banana shape. At the widest point between today’s Broadway and today’s North Spring Street at its junction with Baker Street, the width is 625 feet.

The Cornfield is both longer and narrower than the area designated for the suertes. The increase in length may be explained: farmers extended the agricultural land as population increased or as land became less fertile. Southern Pacific bent the shape for its rail yard. The Huntington digital map copy of the Kelleher and Moore map of 1875 showing the right of way for the railroad and the creation of a new road to the Arroyo Seco shows how the original shape changed. This map may be expanded by clicking on the + button. http://hdl.huntington.org/cdm/singleitem/collection/p15150coll4/id/11853/rec/2, (Retrieved 8/25/2016).

The Cornfield before the Southern Pacific rail yard changes was about the right size to have once been the corn, wheat and bean fields for the early settlers.

Radio Hill – once “Stone Quarry Hill” — and Buena Vista Hill in today’s Elysian Park hills bracket the residential community of Solano Canyon. The slant at the base of Buena Vista Hill today near the Broadway Bridge is at the same angle as the western-northern side of the pueblo in the drawings of maps Thomas Strange located in the provincial archives. Solano Canyon is a ravine starting about 400 feet to the southwest of the slant at the base of the Buena Vista Hill.

Continuing in a southwesterly direction down North Broadway is Chinatown, ending at Cesar Chavez Avenue. Behind Chinatown is Fort Moore hill, much lower than it was during the Spanish and Mexican eras in Los Angeles. What is now Chinatown was for a time after 1850 commonly called “Sonoratown.” Until 1938, Old Chinatown was in the area that is now occupied by Union Station.

On the other side of Cesar Chavez is the tourist mecca called Olvera Street, which is next to the plaza. The current plaza was laid out in about 1825. The church facing it was completed in 1822. The oldest remaining downtown adobe is the Avila Adobe, built in 1824. If you cross the street heading east from City Hall, you see the Triforium, part of the Fletcher Bowron Plaza, apparently empty on weekends.

On the wall of the plaza facing the street are two more historic plaques. One reports that the plaque is near where the Bella Union Hotel stood. The Bella Union began as an adobe, probably a grocery store built by Americans in 1835. Another reports that Southern California’s first newspaper the Star (also called Estrella) was located near there. The Star was in the Bella Union. The primary trading village of the Tongva people was located in this area until the Mexican era ayuntamiento moved the Indians, eventually across the river at the end of Vignes, naming it Pueblito.

Before you cross over the 101 Freeway, you see a sign with a branching arrow. Both branches of the arrow show Aliso Street, named after El Aliso — the giant sycamore that grew on the western bank of the river until the end of the nineteenth century.

After crossing the 101, you see Arcadia Street, named after Yankee Abel Stearns’ wife Arcadia Bandini.

Walk by the Pio Pico House, (1868), which replaced an adobe owned by the Lugo family.

Before the Avila Adobe (1818) was built and the current plaza opened

(between 1825 and 1830), the now-Chinatown district contained the oldest adobe houses in the city of Los Angeles.

The church that faces the plaza was begun in 1814 and completed in 1822. A brief description of the church’s construction is in John Steven McGroarty, Los Angeles: From the Mountains to the Sea, Volume 1 (American Historical Society 1921). Full text is available on-line at https://archive.org/stream/losangelesfrommo00mcgr/losangelesfrommo00mcgr_djvu.txt. (Retrieved 8/10/2016)

The Olvera Street-facing plaza started out as a rectangle is now a circle, and street vendors around it sell hats, toys, and fruit juice in ice. Aztec dancers tirelessly perform in the plaza. Crossing the street from the plaza to today’s Union Station, you walk over the route that was once the infamous Calle de los Negroes.


The location of the Zanja Madre, the other irrigation ditches, and the toma point to the triangle of land crossed by rail tracks today as the original site of “the pueblo.”


 Zanja Madre map. William Moore’s map of the zanja system is
courtesy of the Department of Water and Power.

Blake Gumprecht, The Los Angeles River: Its Life, Death, and Possible Rebirth (The John Hopkins University Press 1999):

“In 1781, drawn by the ample supply of water provided by the river and the fertile soil beside its banks, Spain established El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angels on a site not far from where the Portola expedition had first forded the Rio de Porciuncula. The river provided drinking water for the nascent settlement and irrigated the agricultural land that helped the village grow.”

A zanja is an irrigation ditch. As soon as the colonists arrived, they dug two irrigation ditches. One was called the Zanja Madre, the mother ditch. The other was a ditch that skirted the bottom of the first settlement to provide domestic water, although, as explained later, the initial settlement was so close to the river that it was not necessary, perhaps created in contemplation of population growth to the southwest. By 1793, if the Thomas Strange drawing for Bancroft was correct, settlers dug another ditch directly from the river into agricultural fields below North Broadway.

A toma is both a dam and a head works for an irrigation system, deriving from the Spanish word “tomar,” to take. The Los Angeles toma was made of brush, sticks, stones and, peculiarly, sand. Sand and gravel bottomed the river, and so were available, but sand dissolves like sand castles at the beach.

On the settlers’ arrival in 1781, they built a toma to impound water for diversion into the irrigation ditches. During the Spanish, the Mexican, and then the American eras, the toma had to be rebuilt frequently.

Governor de Neve wrote in a letter to Teodoro de la Croix, dated October 29, 1781:

“…. From (their camp) they went to establish themselves on the ground where they are founding the pueblo of Los Angeles, and now having finished the Zanja Madre are continuing with building their houses and also corrals for their stock. The latter has not as yet been distributed because they are concentrating their efforts on finishing their pueblo and when it is completed, they begin to sow their fields for the panting of wheat. That to this pueblo there are arrived but eleven pobladores, and of these eight (alone) are of any use.” De Neve did not include women in his count. There were 12 women and twenty-one children. A military escort of four soldiers and their families accompanied the settlers and probably became permanent residents.

See, Antonio Rios-Bustamante and Pedro Castillo, An Illustrated History of Mexican Los Angeles 1781-1985, published by Regents of the University of California 1986. This history also describes the legal requirements of a zanja under Spanish law, and it also describes about what happened to the original settlers and some of their descendants.

Elisabeth Mathis Spriggs, in her unpublished 1931 master’s thesis presented to the Department of History at the University of Southern California, History of the Domestic Water Supply of Los Angeles (http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15799coll3/id/358230/rec/18) (Retrieved 7/7/2016) – approved by William Mulholland – then Chief Consulting Engineer for the City of Los Angeles who was a zanjero (ditch worker) as a young man – wrote:

“One of the first things to be done, and a requirement incorporated in the governor’s orders, was some adequate provision for a water supply. This necessitated the construction of a dam. The site for a dam and ditch was first to be chosen; then the site for a pueblo was to be fixed on high, level ground but within six hundred feet of the river.” Spriggs cited H. H. Bancroft, History of California, I, p. 345 for this description.

Later in her thesis:

“From the founding of the settlement in 1781, the right to all the waters of the Rio Porciuncula or, as it was later called, the Los Angeles River, was claimed by the town and that right was recognized by all the inhabitants of the vicinity. For many years the village exercised this right without question and the city came to lay claim to the waters of the river and its tributaries by priority rights.” Spriggs cites “California, Supreme Court, California Reports, CVI, 238.” Spriggs continued:

“Probably the first community work done by the founders of Los Angeles was the construction or a toma, or dam, across the Rio Porciuncula. The toma was made of sand and willow poles and was thrown across the river at a point just north of what is now the North Broadway Bridge. The dam ‘has existed at this point for over one hundred years,’ wrote J.J. Warner in 1889, and though frequently destroyed by freshets, it was as often renewed. At any time, it was never anything more than a temporary structure, though Stephen C. Foster, one of the early alcaldes of the city, built a very substantial one that lasted for many years.

“From this toma ran the zanja madre or mother ditch. This main ditch ran along the western side of the river above the cultivated lands. It passed near the northeast corner of the old plaza and it was from this point that water for

domestic use was taken. From this main ditch lateral ditches of the usual temporary character carried the water to wherever it was needed.” Spriggs cites J. J.J. (Juan Jose) Warner, An Historical Sketch of Los Angeles County: from the Spanish occupancy, by the founding of the Mission San Gabriel Arcangel September 8, 1771 to July 4, 1876 (1876 Lewis Lewin & Co.,) page 262. Warner was a naturalized Mexican citizen who immigrated to California in 1831. Warner received the grant to the Rancho San Jose del Valle in 1844. This became Warner’s Ranch. He lost it and moved to Los Angeles. Spriggs:

“The second zanja was not built until 1857. It was completed August second of that year.”

Spriggs’ conclusion about the second zanja was incorrect; a second zanja was built by 1818 in order to plant vineyards and olive trees in a new location, one the Zanja Madre water did not reach.

Under a viaduct for the Gold Line stands the abandoned old baked brick building for Capitol Milling. Before it was Capitol Milling, the building housed Eagle Mill. The brick structure for Eagle Mill replaced Abel Stearns’ 1831 three-story adobe flourmill, which used water from the zanja madre to powers its millstones. The Hunting Digital Library collection 1856 map shows the location of the mill. This map can be expanded by clicking on the + button. http://hdl.huntington.org/cdm/singleitem/collection/p15150coll4/id/12774/rec/1. (Retrieved August 25, 2016).

One of the things you can see on this map is the shape of The Cornfield before the Southern Pacific train yard was built over it in 1876. The Cornfield was in 1856 still a long rectangle of land beneath the higher terrace of land that ran around the base of the now Elysian Park hills. A route is sketched with dotted lines and a hard line indicating where the place where the river was forded, which would one day be the approximate site of the Buena Vista Bridge and then the Broadway Bridge. The river does not have the same contours it did in 1856 but it appears on the map that there is a triangle of land between the route and the toma.

On the left side of this map – or survey – you see that the open ditch zanja ran along the terrace to the toma on the Los Angeles River, and that

The passage that follows is from Harris Newmark’s “Reminiscences of the Fifties,” included in John and LaRee Caughey’s Los Angeles: Biography of A City (University of California Press 1977). Newmark (1834-1916) was a Prussian Jew who learned, first, Swedish when his father took him to Sweden and Denmark. He learned Spanish on his way to Los Angeles. He arrived in 1853 at the age of 19 and became one of the city’s most important merchants and philanthropists. He wrote Sixty Years in Southern California, 1853-1913 with the help of his son and a Pasadena historian. The text is available on-line at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/42680. Newmark:

“Zanja water was being used for irrigation when I arrived. A system of seven or eight zanjas, or open ditches—originated, I have no doubt by the Catholic Fathers (The editor writes “On the contrary by the original settlers of the pueblo”) – was then in operation, although it was not placed under the supervision of a Zanjero, or Water Commissioner, until 1854. These small surface canals connected at the source with the zanja madre, or mother ditch (My note: This is incorrect. None of them connected at the source with the zanja madre.) on the north side of town (My note: The source was on the north-east side of what was then the pueblo center. Due north from the center were the hills that became Elysian Park.) from which they received their supply, the zanja madre itself being fed from the river, at a point a long way from town. (My note: The source was about 1.7 miles from the pueblo center as it was in the 1850s. The older district commonly called Sonoratown was between the source of water for the irrigation ditches and the pueblo as Newmark saw it when he arrived from San Pedro. Some of the adobes in Sonoratown were built along the zanja madre and very likely existed before 1818 and included a Catholic chapel at what is now North Broadway and Avenida Cesar Chavez. That area is now New Chinatown.) The Zanjero issued permits, for which application had to be made some days in advance, authorizing the use of the water for irrigation purposes…. Water for domestic uses was a still more expensive luxury. Inhabitants living in the immediate neighborhood of the zanjas, or near the river, helped themselves, but their less-fortunate brethren were served by a carrier, who charged fifty cents a week for one bucket a day while he did not deliver on Sunday at all…”

In 1858, Judge William Dryden obtained permission to draw water from the Abila Springs on property he owned at about the location of College and Alameda and to build a water wheel. The springs drew on subterranean river water flow. (David Samuel Torres-Rouff, Before L.A: Race, Space, and Municipal Power in Los Angeles 1781-1894, Yale University Press 2013)

An 1860 City Council resolution to move the toma north from a location in the area south of the Union Station tracks indicates there were two toma structures: the original one, above the Broadway Bridge – previously called the Buena Vista Bridge, and before that the Downey Viaduct — and a second one. The City had the second toma moved back to the location of the first one.

These conduit pieces are not from the original 1781 zanja; they are from the American reconfiguration in the 1880s. Nonetheless, the Americans rebuilt the zanja using (probably) the dirt ditches that had existed before the 1880s/

By 1880, zanja no. 6-1 ran from the toma at the North Broadway impoundment in a southerly direction to the Downey Avenue Bridge (the Broadway Bridge) paralleling a portion of The Cornfields. It continued to a place above Mission Street, and then went west to Aliso (behind today’s Union Station at about the location of El Aliso, the giant sycamore), then went southwest to a little below First Street. At that point, it branched into Zanja No. 2, which paralleled Alameda Street, and Zanja No. 1, which paralleled the river and ended at a place without a street name but opposite Boyle Heights (on the eastern side of the river.) (Source, Gumprecht’s tracing on the 1878 H. J. Stevenson map of Los Angeles. Available in the Department of Water and Power Library.)

Zanja no. 6-1 had to have been constructed before the Vignes vineyard was established in 1833. There was no other irrigation source to water the grapes other than the river itself.

When the ayuntamiento relocated the Indians living in Yang-Na in 1835 to a place near Mission Road, residents complained that they washed their clothes in the zanja. Zanja no. 6-1, and possibly at least portions of Zanja No. 2 and Zanja No. 1, must have been built during the Spanish era (pre-1821).

In 1888, the city reconstructed the zanja system. The tunnel at the headwater of the primary zanja, the Zanja Madre, was reconstructed and much of the conduit was either brick or concrete-lined. Over the years the portion of the conduit that passed along the north end of the River Train Yard (In 2005, that area a little to the south became The Cornfield.) was realigned again and again until railroad construction eventually demolished most of the conduits as the city-franchised and privately owned Los Angeles Water Company built newer types of water systems. The City did not regain control of water until 1902.

Various pieces of the zanja system have been unearthed since 1978, when an archeologist found a piece in Placita de Dolores next to Olvera Street during an excavation. In 2005, a piece of one of the zanja brick lined conduits was found in The Cornfield.

In the 1890s, some of the city’s 2000 Italian immigrants bought homes and opened businesses in the North Broadway area in what had been informally called Sonoratown, as well as in its neighbors Dogtown (The L.A. Dogtown is south of Chinatown near the Twin Towers Correctional Facility.) Lincoln Heights across the river, Solano Canyon, and Victor Heights (between Chinatown and Echo Park).

Little Joe’s (Italian) Restaurant located at 904 North Broadway at the corner of College opposite Chinatown grew out of Little Joe’s Grocery store downtown. In 2014 workers excavating Little Joe’s found about 100 feet of a zanja conduit encased in brick. http://www.latimes.com/local/la-me-mother-ditch-20140422-story.html. (Retrieved August 25, 2016. “Workers discover part of L.A.’s first municipal water system.” Bob Pool, April 21, 2014, Los Angeles Times.) This means they discovered a big piece of the 1888 zanja rather than the original ditch, which was not concrete or brick.


People moved southwest from the original location, building adobes along the zanja madre and extending the zanja system. The newer area, with or without a new plaza or plazas, became the de facto pueblo for a time.


Estrada identifies the oldest part of Los Angeles – before the current plaza area was laid out — as Sonoratown. (Estrada, page 58 and note 58, page 278).

The 1849 Ord survey indicates houses in the area that became Sonoratown after 1850. The digital survey of Sonoratown on the Huntington digital library website (a fictitious map drawn from three surveys) shows straight streets, regular lots, Sonora running along Eternity Street (extended and now North Broadway) in the direction of the last hill in Elysian Park that is above the river, with hills or a hill indicated on one side and a curvy line indicating the zanja. In reality, the streets were not straight nor parallel and the boundaries between properties were uncertain.

The Ord map may be found at:

http://hdl.huntington.org/cdm/ref/collection/p15150coll4/id/11730. (Retrieved August 1, 2016). Notes on each parcel indicate title was recorded on various dates in the 1850s, but people lived in that area, if Estrada is correct, before 1825.

Amanda Matthews (Chase) published sentimental stories about life in the oldest part of Los Angeles in Land of Sunshine, the Overland Monthly, Pacific Monthly, and collected them in The Hieroglyphics of Love: Stories of Sonoratown and Old Mexico (The Artemisia Bindery 1906). Available on-line: https://archive.org/stream/hieroglyphicslo00bindgoog#page/n44/mode/2up. The Artemisia bindery was at 231 East Avenue 41 in the Arroyo Seco, leveled for an apartment building.)

By the early decades of the twentieth century, Sonoratown adobes were mostly – but not entirely – gone, replaced by fired brick structures. Italian immigrants moved into L.A.’s first barrio.

After the demolition of Old Chinatown, near Alameda and Aliso Streets, for the construction of today’s Union Station beginning in 1933, New Chinatown grew into the American-era brick structures. By 1942, the erased streets and alleyways included Apablasa, Cayetano, Juan, Marchessault and Napier Streets.

At 708 New High, the corner lot sits ABC Seafood Restaurant. An old adobe housed El Adobe Café at this location into the 1950s. Nineteenth century photographs of the district named Sonoratown show no plaza.


El Adobe Cafe

El Adobe Cafe. Courtesy of the Huntington Library.


The first plaza and first homes washed away in the flood of 1815 or earlier. The primary farmland – the suertes — might have been relocated.


In 1889, J. M. Guinn first read his “Exceptional Years: A History of California Floods and Drought,” later published in the Historical Society of Southern California, Los Angeles (1890), Vol. 1, No. 5 (1890), pp. 33-39. On-line at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/41167825?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents. (Retrieved 8/15/2016). Guinn:

“In 1815 occurred a great flood that materially changed the course of the Los Angeles River within the city limits. The river abandoned its former channel and flowed west of the suertes or planting fields of the first settler, its new channel followed very nearly the present line of Alameda Street. The old fields were washed away or covered with sand, and new fields were located in what is now the neighborhood of San Pedro Street.”

John Crandel, “The L.A. River’s Natural History: Until 1825, the Los Angeles Basin was vastly different from the current desert. What was the area’s environment in the distant past?” Los Angeles Times, August 14, 1994:

“… (In 1815), a 10-day deluge had sent the Los Angeles River bursting out of the San Fernando watershed carrying an immense number of fallen trees from higher points. As the waters spread out below Elysian Narrows, the interlock of drifting branches and forest trunks stopped the boulders rocks and gravel flowing with the current. A broad, oval-shaped berm 10 to 15 feet high built up, extending about two-thirds of a mile east from the present-day rail yard below Chinatown to where the Golden State Freeway crosses Main Street.”

The land in the suertes had always been subject to flooding; yet, when Crespi arrived, the area was lush grassland. River sand clogged the zanjas up until 1903, but the zanjeros removed the sand through a system of filters and sluices. There was once a street called “Sand Street” at the bottom of The Cornfield, suggestive of an accumulation of sand.

There is no evidence of new agricultural fields established at a distance from the zanja and its later extensions around San Pedro Street in 1815.


The oldest adobes in the district later called “Sonoratown” housed the settlers’ descendants and some of the later emigrants from Mexico.


Guinn mentions the 1836 commission on streets, plazas and alleys “to report a plan for repairing the monstrous irregularity of the streets brought about by ceding house lots and erecting houses in this city.” There was, however, no draftsman or surveyor equal to the task so no one did anything for another ten years, and then another commission took up the task. The report of the second commission:

“On taking the first practical steps in the direction of its duty, your commission could not but be amazed, seeing the disorder and the manner how streets run, more particularly, the street which leads to the cemetery (Catholic Cemetery on Buena Vista Street, later North Broadway), whose width is out of proportion to its length, and whose aspects offends the sense of the beautiful, which should prevail in this city.” The cemetery was about half way between the Broadway Bridge (the “road” or the “ford” on the Savage drawings of the 18th century maps) and the bottom edge of today’s Chinatown.

By 1846, before the Gold Rush, the by then old part of the pueblo – along the bluffs to the zanja that extended from the present Broadway Bridge – was a labyrinth. Guinn:

“The houses seemed to have been scattered at random as if shaken out of an immense pepper box. The streets were crooked, irregular and undefined. The houses stood at different angles to the streets and the house lots were all geometrical shapes and forms. No man held a written title to his property and possession was ten parts of the law; indeed, it was all the law he had to protect his title.”

Given that the Old Ditch ran along the bluffs and that the agricultural fields were on the other side of the ditch, as the children, the grandchildren, and emigrants needed their own homes, they dragged the ditch behind them as they built.

In the 1850s, miners from Sonora moved into the area that afterwards was referred to as Sonoratown after the American miners expelled them. They moved into existing adobes and also built shacks in the yards of those existing adobes.

Sonoratown by 1907 had just about disappeared as a Mexican enclave.

“Only two years ago the visitor who loved the Mexican flavor of Los Angeles could ferret out for himself sequestered haunts where, flanked by high peaked sombreros and gay shawls, he could revel in chili con carne and dreams of the past. Today massive warehouses and shops frown forbiddingly where echoed the notes of guitars, of dancing and of singing.

“Week by week the crumble of earthen walls marked the destruction of some picturesque and historical adobe. …. As it glimpsed, behind what few of the old-style shutters it had not torn down, shy women making lace; picturesque old folk smoking their dry-rolled cigarettes, the younger quaffing el vino de pais – thin currents of the old life trickling idly aimlessly by….” William R. Stewart, “Los Angeles, As The Paris of America,” October 1907 The Travel Magazine




Governor de Neve set out the Los Angeles pueblo as “four leagues square.”

Consequently, everywhere in that large area was “the pueblo.” He chose the specific site of the initial plaza and home site plots on his trip up from Loreto on his way to Monterey in early spring 1777 based on Father Crespi’s 1769 recommendation at the base of a hill. He wrote the regulations for the initial site in 1779.

In 1781, when the settlers arrived at the location, the ledge was too narrow to accommodate the plaza and house lots in the north-south direction he had designated. The pueblo proper was built at an angle that corresponded to the angle at the base of what is today’s Elysian Park near the river. At the bottom of the pueblo proper ran an area that led across the river that followed the fording place for the 1769 Portola expedition. That area became a road and quite a bit later became North Broadway. The North Broadway Bridge follows the designation for the place to ford the river below the pueblo proper.

The pueblo proper was an area that can be seen from the Broadway Bridge on the north side. That small triangle is now crossed with Amtrak and Metrolink tracks.

The ditch for the Zanja Madre was at above that point, inside of a larger triangle of land in 1781. It passed the bottom of the pueblo proper. Another zanja went into the agricultural fields. Another zanja was dug several years later to irrigate water for olive trees and vineyards.

Land for expansion of homes was set out in an area designated as proprios in a rough triangle that reached north to the toma.

On the other side of the river, de Neve designated the royal lands in what is today Lincoln Heights.

The farm plots assigned to the settlers were set out in a rectangle south of the pueblo proper and the propios. That rectangle was surveyed in 1875 and a new road to the arroyo seco designated, which turned the suertes into a long banana shape, still below the mesa or terrace or ledge around the base of today’s Elysian Park past Solano Canyon and edging today’s Chinatown. The banana remainder became the Southern Pacific rail yard.

The 1801 and 1815 floods and the increase in population led the colonists to build adobes in an informal southwesterly direction through what is today Chinatown.

The zanja system continued through 1903 from the place where the colonists began it – a little north of the Broadway Bridge.

After 1849, that area had been commonly called Sonoratown, the oldest remaining part of the original pueblo became a warren of crowded narrow streets, which were regularized and broadened during the American era.

Fort Hill once sheltered Sonoratown. Fort Hill was a spur of the ridge that runs from Quarry Hills (Elysian Park) to Bunker Hill. Originally it stretched east between First Street and Ord Street. The city built a tunnel through it in 1899, opening Broadway through Buena Vista Street. Briefly, the tunnel became two arches in 1949 when the city excavated the entire hill.

The bit of land that the 43 people forded the river to reach in 1781 is at the base of an Elysian Park hill but it is hard to see it. Some of the original pueblo proper must be under the concrete channel made for the river and a little of the once western bank of the river may be the eastern bank.

The pueblo those, mostly brown and black, men, women and children created along a river few people look at anymore became the City of Los Angeles.



In 1920, Charlie Chaplin made The Kid, a personal reimagining of his own childhood. Adult Charlie saves a version of little Charlie. He filmed in old Chinatown, razed in 1934 to make for the Union Train Station. Chaplin staged the rooftop chase along Ducommun Street (near Aliso Street south of the 101). Charlie’s truck turned east onto Arcadia Street, that part now lost to the 101 Freeway. Charlie rescued “the kid” (played by Jackie Coogan) on Olvera Street. You can see how the part of the then old heart of Los Angeles looked before it became a tourist mecca by clicking on: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fPZkgcMMME0. (Retrieved August 28, 2016).

Without Warning, 1952 noir film of a quiet gardener serial killer. Good shots of a back road leading from what remained of Sonoratown in 1952 to the hill overlooking Solano Canyon, the inside of an old house at the end of a road in what was Chavez Ravine, the Produce Market, the channelized river, and the cloverleaf for the 101 under construction. The child actor Connie Vera that gives her doll to the killer to repair may not have acted in another film. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jcKA2HQCskc. (Retrieved 8/23/2016).

This Gun for Hire (1942) with Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake shows shots of the train yard that once occupied The Cornfield, beginning in 1876. A few shots are of the ledge or terrace or elevated area through which the Zanja Madre conduit ran after the 1880s, as it looked in 1942. Stills are available by Google search “The Gun for Hire train yard.”


Selected Other Sources:

 Herbert Eugene Bolton, Fray Juan Crespi, Missionary Explorer on the Pacific Coast, 1769-1774 (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1927).

William Deverell (Editor), Greg Hise (Editor) Land of Sunshine: An Environmental History of Metropolitan Los Angeles (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2st edition 2006)

Phyl Diri, California History, “Where the Brake Fern and Willow Find a Home,” 62:162 (Fall 1983), cited at http://libguides.usc.edu/c.php?g=235126&p=1560448. (Retrieved 8/2/2016.). This essay is about the creation of Elysian Park.

George W. Gift and W.M. Johnson, “Engineers Report,” Los Angeles Star 4/21/1860. The engineers wrote this report on a proposed dam on the river to Abel Stearns, Temple, Wolfskill and others in a Special Committee.

Ramon A. Gutierrez, Richard J. Orsi, Contested Eden: California Before the Gold Rush (1998 University of California Press)

William Hammond Hall, Irrigation in California (Southern), (1888 State Office) Chapter XXIII, page 535, et seq. are about Los Angeles. https://archive.org/stream/cu31924003976853#page/n5/mode/2up. (Retrieved 8/16/2016)

Don Normark, Chavez Ravine: 1949. (Chronicle Books paperback published 2003).

Laurie Olin and Greg Hise, Eden by Design: The 1930 Olmstead-Bartholomew Plan for the Los Angeles Region (University of California Press; First Edition 2000). In 1930 the Olmsted Brothers and Harland Bartholomew & Associates submitted a report, “Parks, Playgrounds, and Beaches for the Los Angeles Region,” to the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce. After a day or two of coverage in the newspapers, the report dropped from sight.

  1. Fred Rippy, “The Boundary of New Mexico and the Gadsden Treaty,” The Hispanic American Historical Review, Vol. 4, November 4, 1921, page 743, “Royal Ordinances Concerning the Laying Out of New Towns.” https://www.jstor.org/stable/2505686?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents. (Retrieved 7/30/2016)

Going to Internet for an answer may get you this essay or a claim in National Geographic about La Placita church on the downtown plaza that was made up after the author read something on Internet, Howard H. Metcalfe’s article, which largely relies on Neal Harlow’s rare book about Los Angeles – Harlow largely relied on the writing of J. M. Guinn for his conclusion, and which may be found at http://www.lanopalera.net/LAHistory/LASite.html#fnB26. I don’t know who Howard H. Metcalfe is but Internet tells me there is a Howard H. Metcalfe aged 82 that lives in Beachwood Canyon, Los Angeles. He says that La Nopalera is a hodge-podge of information on genealogy, local history and felines. Inasmuch as J. M. Guinn did not footnote his sources, anything built on his work – and much of accounts of L.A.’s early history is built on his work – cannot be proven or disproven.


 Buena Vista Hill Park

Elysian Park

“Becoming LA” exhibit at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County



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