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L.A. History

On August 1, 1769, a Spanish expedition sent north from the California Peninsula under the command of Gaspar de Portolá came upon an Indian village called Yang-na along the banks of a river which Portolá named El Rio de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles de Porciuncula (The River of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels of Porciuncula). This was the site of present-day Los Angeles, but it was bypassed two years later when Franciscans returned to the area to establish San Gabriel Mission 9 miles to the northeast.

The Spanish did not return to Los Angeles until 1781, when a party of 44 colonists from Mexico was settled there by Felipe de Neve, California’s provincial governor, as part of Spain’s effort to strengthen its control over its territories in the north. These first Angelinos were mostly illiterate and fashioned a crude settlement to which crows flocked each day to feast on the garbage left for them on the pueblo rooftops. The friars of San Gabriel considered their new neighbors lazy and immoral, although in its first decade, Los Angeles produced more grain than any other California settlement except San Gabriel itself.

Americans first arrived in Los Angeles by way of nearby San Pedro, then an unimproved roadstead port. Beginning in 1805, U.S. vessels kept up an intermittent trade with the area’s farmers, and in 1818 one crew member, named Joseph Chapman, stayed long enough to help with construction of the town’s first church. In 1826, the fur trapper Jedidiah Smith became the first white man to reach Los Angeles by traveling overland from the Missouri frontier, but he was followed by few others, and it was not until the 1830s, with the arrival of whaling and seal hunting ships, that Americans became a regular presence in the provincial community.

Los Angeles had been little affected by the revolution that replaced Spanish rule with that of an independent Mexican government in 1821. Mexico’s Congress declared Los Angeles the capital of California in 1835, but the provincial governor refused to move south from San Francisco, so the city’s relative isolation, and the local authority of its prosperous farmers and ranchers, remained unthreatened. By the 1840s, Los Angeles had become the largest settlement in Southern California, attracting its first party of American pioneers, led by William Workman and John Rowland, in 1841.

The Mexican-American War of 1846 ushered in a new era for Los Angeles. The city was occupied in August by U.S. troops under Commodore Robert Field Stockton and Captain John C. Fremont, but the 50 man garrison left to hold the supposed farm town was driven out by local residents in October. Stockton returned in January 1847, supported by land troops from New Mexico under General Stephen Watts Kearny, and retook the city in a battle with Mexican forces that had retreated there. They were soon joined by Fremont’s California Battalion, and on January 13, Fremont signed the Treaty of Cahuenga at Los Angeles, which ceded California to the United States.

American influence grew steadily thereafter, with the first English-language school and the first Protestant church arriving in 1850, the same year Los Angeles was officially incorporated and named the county seat. During the Gold Rush years in northern California, Los Angeles became known as the “Queen of the Cow Counties” for its role in supplying beef and other foodstuffs to hungry miners. The city also gained a reputation for violence, with a crime rate that approached a murder a day in the 1850's and 1860's.

On October 24, 1871, this habitual violence erupted into a race riot when a white police officer was shot while investigating a quarrel between two Chinese men over the alleged abduction of a woman. Whites stormed the Chinese section of the city, fueled by the belief that Chinese immigrants were depriving them of jobs by agreeing to work for “coolie” wages -- a belief encouraged by California politicians hoping to win the white workingclass vote. The rampage lasted two days and ended with 23 Chinese immigrants lynched, stabbed or shot to death. In the aftermath, Los Angeles seemed to reform itself, giving up its penchant for violence, though not its prejudice against the Chinese.

In 1876, seven years after the completion of the transcontinental railroad, Los Angeles was finally connected to the nation’s rail system when the Union Pacific put in a line from San Francisco. The next year, local growers sent off their first carload of oranges, adding a new agricultural industry to the city’s economy. Then, in 1885, the Santa Fe Railroad reached Los Angeles with a line that connected directly to eastern markets, and touched off a fare war with the Union Pacific that would bring rates as low as one dollar for the trip west from St. Louis. Within a few years, more than 100,000 newcomers had arrived in the area, creating a real estate boom that drove land prices skyward. The bubble finally burst in 1887, leaving many paper millionaires suddenly penniless -- and leaving the city’s Mexican American population an isolated minority where it had been the ruling class only a generation before.

Oil became a key ingredient in the Los Angeles economy in 1892, when Edward L. Doheny and Charles A. Canfield drilled the first well in a resident’s front lawn. Soon there were 1,400 wells within the city, and more in the surrounding area.

By this time, however, Los Angeles was beginning to fear a shortage of water. Located in a semi-desert region, it required more than El Rio de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles, now called the Los Angeles River, to sustain its growing population and expanding industries. In 1904, William Mulholland, chief engineer of the Los Angeles water department, proposed bringing water by aqueduct across the Mojave Desert from the Sierra Nevada range, and by 1908 the project was underway-- following some questionable political and financial maneuverings by civic leaders. In just five years, Mulholland constructed an aqueduct more than 200 miles long, running through 142 tunnels, which tapped the Owens River and virtually drained Owens Lake, turning a once fertile part of the southern Sierra Nevadas into a wasteland. In 1913, when he opened the floodgates on this milestone in the engineering and environmental history of the West, Mulholland turned to the assembled dignitaries and said simply, “There it is, gentlemen, take it.”

The early decades of the 20th century also saw the completion of Los Angeles harbor in 1914, just in time to profit from the shipping traffic working its way up the California coast from the newly completed Panama Canal. And Los Angeles became the home of the American motion picture industry in these decades as well. Producers flocked there for the steady sunlight, which was vital to the outdoor filming techniques of the time, and found in addition that Los Angeles could provide a variety of backdrops, ranging from desert wilderness to awesome snow-capped peaks. Beginning in 1911, they settled in a community that had been planned as a model of moral rectitude when it was established by a pious land speculator during the boom years of the 1880s -- a community they turned into the legendary Hollywood we know today.

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