Needs and Opportunities in Los Angeles Biography
Part One: The 18th and 19th Centuries
By Abraham Hoffman, Ph.D.
Historical Society of Southern California
Copyright Â© 2001 Historical Society of Southern California
Although the history of Los Angeles “officially” began on the date of its founding, September 4, 1781, recognition should be given to the area’s first observer and to those who made the settlement possible. In 1542 Juan RodrÃguez Cabrillo, sailing for Spain north along the California coast, anchored briefly in what is today called San Pedro Bay. Cabrillo noticed that Indians on the shore had lit fires, the smoke of which made the view hazy. So he called the place the “Bay of Smokes,” thereby recording what some cynics consider the first smog alert in the Los Angeles basin. Cabrillo’s stay was brief, and he died before the voyage ended, but his presence on the scene makes him the first observer of the area that would become Los Angeles. His life and explorations are fully detailed in Juan RodrÃguez Cabrillo, by Harry Kelsey (1986).
Apart from occasional and unproductive voyages by explorers such as SebastiÃ¡n VizcaÃno in the early 1600s, whose career is traced by W. Michael Mathes, VizcaÃno (1968), California awaited a concerted exploration effort for more than two centuries. At last, in 1769, Spain sent the Sacred Expedition to colonize Alta California — to establish missions to convert the Indians to the Catholic faith, to build presidios to provide military defense against possible encroachment from Russian, British, or French intruders, and to start civilian settlements to create an economy supporting the presidios with agricultural products. Gaspar de Portola headed the military arm of the Sacred Expedition. His stay in California was brief, and he left no mark on local history other than to trudge through the Los Angeles basin in his search for Monterey Bay. Fray Junipero Serra, in charge of the religious endeavors, left a far more lasting legacy in California. He founded nine of the eventual twenty-one Alta California missions before his death in 1784. In 1771 Serra founded Mission San Gabriel, and while he spent much of his time arguing with military governors in Monterey and with commanders at the fledging province’s presidios, his activities earn him biographical treatment that should be recognized in any history of Los Angeles.
Junipero Serra does not lack for biographers. However, in the 1980s considerable controversy developed over the effort of Serra supporters to have him declared a saint in the Catholic Church. Biographies tend to be favorable to Serra for his dedication to his faith or severely critical for the mortality rate among the Mission Indians and the punishments meted out to them by the Franciscan padres. Earlier biographies generally are less critical than later ones. A by no means definitive list would include Francisco Palou’s Life of Serra, first published in 1787 and available in both Spanish and English: Maynard J. Geiger, The Life and Times of Junipero Serra, O.F.M. (1959); Dudley Gordon, Junipero Serra: California’s First Citizen (1969); Noel F. Moholy, Junipero Serra (1985); Martin J. Morgado, The Serra Legacy (1987); and Daniel Fogel, Junipero Serra, the Vatican, and the Enslavement Theology (1988). The Morgado and Fogel books deal more with the controversy over Serra’s views on Natives peoples than with biography, but are important for their exemplification of a perspective that can change with succeeding generations. Since the 1980s hard and searching questions have been asked about the missionary efforts of Serra and his Franciscan colleagues.
Even as Serra quarreled with military authorities, Spain made plans to establish civilian settlements in its new province. The first governors of California were military men. Not until 1777 was a civilian governor for Alta California appointed. Governor Felipe de Neve ordered the founding of the first pueblos, San JosÃ© in 1777 and Los Angeles in 1781, as civilian settlements. Although his presence in Los Angeles was negligible, his influence was of paramount importance, since he was responsible for the creation of Los Angeles. Edward A. Beilharz has traced Neve’s career in Felipe de Neve, First Governor of California (1971).
Apart from these prominent early figures, we run into difficulty when it comes to the Native peoples of southern California and the pioneering families who established ranchos in the Spanish and Mexican periods. It may be there is simply too little documentation available to do much more than identify Native leaders of local tribes. This does not mean that Euramerican writers have neglected the Indians. Alfred Robinson wrote Life in California, a Historical Account of the Origin, Customs and Traditions of the Indians of Alta California, in 1846, appending and translating a supplement on the Indians written by Fray Geronimo Boscana in the 1820s. The Robinson book has been subsequently reprinted several times. Modern scholars such as Albert Hurtado, Indian Survival on the California Frontier (1988); Robert F. Heizer, ed., The Destruction of the California Indians (1974, 1993); and James J. Rawls, Indians of California: The Changing Image (1984), represent efforts to describe California’s first residents. But there isn’t much biographical material to work with, though George Harwood Phillips, Chiefs and Challengers: Indians Resistance and Cooperation in Southern California (1975) makes an excellent assessment of the leadership of Juan Antonio of the Cahuilla tribe and other Native American leaders in the 1850s.
Spain granted only a few ranchos-about two dozen-during its rule of the province. Although there are numerous article-length treatments of the founding of the ranchos of southern California, biographical information on the pioneer settlers is either minimal or needs to be mined from archives at the Huntington Library, the Bancroft Library, California State University, Dominguez Hills, and other repositories. A good start for the ranchos is Kenneth Pauley, ed., Rancho Days in Southern California: An Anthology with New Perspectives (1997). Marie E. Northrop, Spanish-Mexican Families of Early California: 1769–1850 (1976) is an invaluable source that is more genealogical than biographical. After 1821 and Mexico’s independence from Spain, almost 800 ranchos were established, the bulk of them in the 1830s and 1840s. Families starting ranchos also established dynasties, and while the land was mostly lost through litigation and a changing economy in the American period, descendants of the original families are very much around today. The problems of the rancho owners are best detailed in Douglas Monroy, Thrown Among Strangers: The Making of Mexican Culture in Frontier California (1990); Leonard Pitt, The Decline of the Californios: A Social History of the Spanish-Speaking Californians, 1846–1890 (1966); and Robert G. Cleland, The Cattle on a Thousand Hills: Southern California, 1850–1880 (1941). See also Rose Hollenbaugh Avina, Spanish and Mexican Land Grants in California (1976); Robert G. Cowan, Ranchos of California (1977); and W.W. Robinson, Ranchos Become Cities (1947) and Land in California (1948).
When it comes to biographies, however, the historical record is very selective. Many pioneers are remembered mainly for their place names as communities and streets than for their life stories. Article-length treatments may be found in the journals mentioned above, but book-length studies are a challenge to scholars. Dynastic studies may be more feasible than a focus on one particular individual. One looks in vain for more than minimum details on Manuel Nieto, Tiburcio Tapia, various SepÃºlvedas, Verdugos, Bandini (especially Juan Bandini), SÃ¡nchez, Camarillo, LÃ³pez, Ruize, MarquÃ©z, Reyes, and other pioneer names. A special need exists for Francisco SepÃºlveda (1775–1853), Juan JosÃ© SepÃºlveda (1764–1808), JosÃ© MarÃa Verdugo (d. 1831), Juan Bandini (1800–1859), and Antonio Coronel (1817–1894). Rich source material for many Californios is in the Huntington Library, the Seaver Center for Western History Research at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, the Los Angeles Central Library, and the Southwest Museum, among other places.
This is not to say that leading Californios have been completely neglected. For examples, see Wallace E. Smith, This Land was Ours: The Del Valles and Camulos (1978); Terry E. Stephenson, Don Bernardo Yorba (1963), and Judson Grenier, California Legacy: The James Alexander Watson-Maria Dolores Dominguez de Watson Family (1987).
The Lugo family stands in a class by itself, mainly because it was involved in a sensational murder case in the early 1850s. Joseph Lancaster Brent, The Lugo Case:
A Personal Experience (1926) is an eyewitness memoir published late in the author’s life. W.W. Robinson, People versus Lugo: The Story of a Famous Los Angeles Murder Case and Its Amazing Aftermath (1962) is the most complete account of the incident. The Lugo family is profiled in Roy E. Whitehead, Lugo: A Chronicle of Early California (1978), and there is an unpublished memoir written by Jose del Carmen Lugo in 1877, Vida de un Ranchero, translated by Helen P. Beattie in 1950 at the A.K. Smiley Public Library in Redlands.
We do a little better with Americans and other foreigners who came to California in the Hispanic years and made the province their home. Only bits and pieces surface about Joseph Chapman, the reformed pirate who became a jack-of-all-trades for the San Gabriel Mission and subsequently married into a prominent Californio family. Others had more respectable origins. Iris Engstrand, William Wolfskill: Frontier Trapper to Californian (1965) traces the career of a frontiersman who became a prominent orange grower. Less successful financially was Scotsman Hugo Reid who married an Indian woman and wrote sympathetically of the problems endured by his wife’s people. Susanna B. Dakin, A Scotch Paisano in Old Los Angeles: Hugo Reid’s Life in California, 1832–1852 (1939) traces Reid’s life. Reid was especially notable because his descriptions of local Indian life were published in the Los Angeles Star and constitute an important resource for researchers on California Indians.
Another foreigner who became a rancho owner was Henry Dalton. Sheldon G. Jackson, A British Ranchero in Old California: The Life and Times of Henry Dalton and the Rancho Azusa (1977) tells his story. By contrast, French grape grower and winemaker Jean Louis Vignes (1779? –1862), whose vineyards are remembered today by the street named for him in downtown Los Angeles, is otherwise forgotten. Irish-born Matthew Keller (d. 1881) became a rancho owner and winemaker in the 1850s, was actively involved in Los Angeles’s controversial vigilante movement, and owned much of today’s Malibu area. Keller and Vignes certainly merit biographical research.
Several Americans who played major roles in the rancho era and after American statehood have yet to be awarded the status of a fully researched biography, yet their letters and papers constitute invaluable resource material for understanding Los Angeles history in the 19th century. Benjamin D. Wilson (1811–1878), for whom Mt. Wilson is named as well as other San Gabriel Valley places, and who was celebrated in his lifetime as “Don Benito,” awaits his biographer. An interesting footnote on Wilson is that he was the grandfather of General George S. Patton. Abel Stearns (1798–1871), another major rancho owner and entrepreneur, is more fortunate in biography. Doris Marion Wright, A Yankee in Mexican California: Abel Stearns, 1798–1848 (1977) traces Stearns’s life to the end of the U.S. Mexico War but does not deal with Stearns’s subsequent difficulties in validating his rancho grants under American law.
Abel Stearns’s wife, Arcadia Bandini (1825–1912), merits far more attention than has been accorded her. Many books on California history take note of her chronologically lopsided marriage to Stearns (she was fourteen, he was 44, and possibly to make the age disparity less egregious, he put his age as 41 on the marriage license), but neglect the fact that after Stearns died she married Robert S. Baker and, after he died, wed John T. Gaffey. At the time of her death in 1912 she was reputed to be the richest woman in California, leaving an estate of $8 million. Her life included such experiences as rancho days, the U.S.-Mexico War, the Gold Rush, Boom of the Eighties, and other tremendous social, political, and economic changes. But as yet, no biography.
Other pre-statehood settlers also merit biographical attention. Antonio Coronel adapted to the new American society while preserving and teaching about the old way of life. Many books contain photographs of Coronel and his family, involved in work and play. Coronel served on the Los Angeles Board of Education, was an early mayor of Los Angeles, and was involved in many organizations promoting local social and cultural activities. Despite the collection of Coronel materials at the Seaver Center for Western History Research, Coronel awaits his biographer. So does AgustÃn Olvera (1820–1876), for whom Olvera Street is named, a man who was a settler, judge, county supervisor, and presidential elector. He, too, is an excellent candidate for biography.
The war between the United States and Mexico (1846–1848) affected California and Los Angeles in unexpected ways. Following on the Bear Flag Revolt-an event that had little or no impact on southern California-Commodore John Sloat arrived on July 2, 1846, and five days later announced the taking of California as a prize of war by the United States. His message was conciliatory to Mexican Californians and promised protection of their rights and property. The honeymoon lasted until October when Los Angeles residents, angry at the insults and restrictions placed on them by the American garrison, revolted. They chased Lieutenant Archibald Gillespie and his sailors down to San Pedro Bay. When Colonel Stephen Watts Kearny arrived at San Pasqual in December, he expected a pacified province, he found southern California in an uproar. Californios, reputed to be expert horseback riders before they learned to walk, were organized as a militia of lancers. Under the leadership of AndrÃ©s Pico, the Californio lancers administered a stunning defeat to Kearny’s little army. American reinforcements poured into the region, however, and by January 1847 it became obvious that the Californios would have to yield to the overwhelming forces being sent against them. AndrÃ©s Pico met with John C. Fremont at Campo de Cahuenga, near today’s Universal City, to sign the Cahuenga Capitulation or Treaty of Cahuenga. The agreement ended hostilities in California, though the war would continue in Mexico for another year.
The dramatic events in Los Angeles during this episode include the occupation of Los Angeles by Commodore Robert F. Stockton and his forces and the arrival of the Mormon Battalion. The Mormons raised the American flag on Fort Moore Hill, now the site of the Los Angeles Unified School District administrative offices (a bas relief memorial to the Mormons is on Olive Street at the base of the hill). Fremont, Stockton, and Kearny became involved in a bitter quarrel over who had ultimate authority in the conquered province, a dispute that did credit to none of them. Then came the discovery of gold at Coloma and the unexpected transformation of California almost overnight from a sparsely populated pastoral province to the nation’s 31st state, flooded with an influx of goldseekers and ambitious entrepreneurs.
Some of the leading figures in these events have been the subject of numerous biographies: Kearny, Fremont, and Stockton, though their presence in Los Angeles was of brief duration. Stockton stayed long enough to commandeer the Avila Adobe on Olvera Street, the oldest existing building in Los Angeles, for his headquarters. On the other hand, Andres Pico and his brother, Pio Pico, were very much involved in Los Angeles politics and society in the postwar period. Both men have been memorialized in many ways: Pio Pico State Park; the Pico House, a deluxe hotel built next to the Los Angeles Plaza in 1870; the AndrÃ©s Pico Adobe, second-oldest existing home in Los Angeles and the headquarters of the San Fernando Valley Historical Society; Pico Rivera; Pico Boulevard; and schools and other place names. Pio Pico (1801–1894), the last Mexican governor of California, wrote a historical narrative of his times, Don Pio Pico’s Historical Narrative, translated by Arthur P. Botello (1973). Biographies of Pio Pico include Eugene Zandora, Pio Pico, the Man (1983), and Jessie Brownlow, Don Pio de JesÃºs Pico, His Biography and Place (1983). AndrÃ©s Pico (1810–1876), the victor at San Pasqual, served in the state legislature in the 1850s, and he and his brother were involved in rancho and real estate ventures and the inevitable litigation that accompanied these business activities. Although no full biography of Andres Pico has been written, considerable biographical information on both brothers appears in Paul B. Gray, Forster v. Pico: The Struggle for the Rancho Santa Margarita (1998). Despite the apparent narrowness of the title, the book provides an excellent historical context for the lives of these remarkable brothers.
Present in Los Angeles during the war and its aftermath was another fascinating historical figure that pops up in one historical drama after another: Edward Fitzgerald Beale (1822–1893). As a naval midshipman, Beale found himself ducking the lances of the Californios at the Battle of San Pasqual. Beale, frontiersman Kit Carson, and an Indian guide crept between the loosely guarded Californio lines to seek aid in San Diego. When gold was discovered, it was Beale who took a sample overland to Washington, D.C., to convince President James K. Polk of the enormity of the find. We also see Beale at Fort Tejon, sponsoring the use of camels to bring supplies from New Mexico to California. He was in charge of the state’s first Indian reservation at Fort Tejon and served as the surveyor general of California and Nevada during the Civil War. Beale blazed a pass through the San Fernando Mountains north of Los Angeles in the 1860s, his work crews cutting a trench with pick and shovel to make stagecoach travel northward feasible. Beale’s Cut, as it was called, still remains as a reminder of the challenge of road travel out of Los Angeles until modern roads were built. Somewhat diminished by a landfall caused by the 1994 Northridge earthquake, Beale’s Cut still looks much as it did some 140 years ago, near the junction of I-5 and SR 14.
Beale’s remarkable life has been profiled in several biographies, including Stephen Bonsal, E.F. Beale: A Pioneer in the Path of Empire (1912), and the more recent Gerald Thompson, Edward F. Beale and the American West (1984) and Carl Briggs and Clyde R. Trudell, Quarterdeck & Saddlehorn: the Story of Edward F. Beale, 1822–1893 (1983). If biographers gave the same attention to other leading figures in Los Angeles history as Beale has received, we would have a far better view of the people who shaped the development of the region.
During the early years of statehood Los Angeles enjoyed the dubious reputation of being a violent backwater town that attracted the dregs of frontier society. “A murder a day” was the often-repeated body count of shootings, knifings, and other mayhem. As often as not it was difficult to separate the respectable from the disreputable. For example, when a lynch mob demanded that murderer Dave Brown be given to them for summary justice, Los Angeles Mayor Stephen C. Foster (1822–1898), no relation to the composer, resigned his office and supervised the hanging. At the next election Foster was reelected. This colorful figure, who was also involved in other events of the time, awaits his biographer.
Such violence was avidly recalled by Horace Bell (1830–1918), controversial journalist, Union spy, and attorney who wrote about Los Angeles in its formative years. Reminiscences of a Ranger, first published in 1881 and in subsequent editions, and his posthumous On the Old West Coast: Being Further Reminiscences of a Ranger (1930 and later editions), chronicled the fandangos, bullfights, and ethnic tensions of Los Angeles. Bell often dipped his pen in vitriol when telling of his rivals and enemies, of whom there were plenty. He had the good fortune to outlive his enemies, thus having the last (exaggerated) word, as well as a good biography, Benjamin S. Harrison, Fortune Favors the Brave: The Life and Times of Horace Bell (1953).
In contrast to Bell’s at time vituperative cynicism, merchant Harris Newmark (1834–1916) kept a detached eye on the events that occurred during his lifetime. And quite a lifetime it was: he arrived from Europe in 1853 and was involved in the economic and cultural life of Los Angeles until well into the 20th century. Around 1911 he began writings his memoirs which were published in 1916 as Sixty Years in Southern California, 1853–1913 (1916). Newmark utilized his remarkable memory in documenting who was who at whatever place an event occurred, whether it was an earthquake or a horse race. A pioneer leader in the Los Angeles Jewish community, Newmark demonstrated by his own example that Los Angeles could move in the direction of a tolerant, progressive community. His book, published in several revised editions (most recently in 1970), constitutes a basic source of information on Los Angeles in its first fifty years as an American city. Although no biography of Newmark exists, it may be that his memoirs almost serve that purpose. His son, Leo Newmark, wrote California Family Newmark: An Intimate History, published in 1970 and edited by William Kramer and Norton Stern.
We know much less about others in Los Angeles during the early statehood years. Edward O.C. Ord (1818–1883), remembered mainly for Fort Ord in Monterey, at the start of his career was hired to draw up the first city map of Los Angeles. This was shortly after the end of the U.S.-Mexico War. Lieutenant Ord’s map showed a Los Angeles of orchards, vineyards, adobe buildings, and dirt roads centered on the Plaza Church. The map also indicated where future development might take place. Ord went on to a distinguished military career. His biography is yet to be written, but opportunity awaits the researcher using the collection of Ord papers at Stanford University.
Another veteran of the Mexican War, Dr. John S. Griffin, who was a surgeon under Kearny, invested in Los Angeles area real estate, including Rancho San Pascual, a part of which is now Pasadena. Griffin hired former slave Biddy Mason as a midwife and nurse, and he encouraged her to invest her savings in real estate. Mason bought property in downtown Los Angeles, as did her children. By the 1880s Biddy Mason was known for her business acumen and philanthropy. Interesting to note, Mason was freed in 1856 after a trial presided over by Judge Benjamin Hayes, whose sister Louisa married Dr. Griffin. The connections between these people who made Los Angeles their home invite further research, but apart from articles and book chapters, full biographies have yet to be written about them. This is especially surprising in regards to Biddy Mason who is recognized in many textbooks and articles as the foremost African American in 19th-century Los Angeles.
Another person more mentioned than profiled was Francisco P. RamÃrez (1837-?), a figure who truly cries for more biographical information. Born in California, as a teenager RamÃrez worked as a compositor for La Estrella, the Spanish-language page of the Los Angeles Star, the first newspaper published in the city. RamÃrez began publication of his own newspaper, El Clamor PÃºblico, in 1855. This four-page Spanish-language paper reflected RamÃrez’s views on Anglo dominance and prejudice in Los Angeles. Ignoring adverse reaction to his editorial opinions, RamÃrez put out a newspaper that was antislavery and pro-Republican in a town full of Democrats and Southern sympathizers. By 1859 RamÃrez was broke. His paper ceased publication, and he went to Mexico. He returned in 1864, served as postmaster and state translator, and became editor of La CrÃ³nica, a short-lived Spanish-language newspaper, in 1872. Information as to his later life is unknown. RamÃrez seems to be a prime candidate for biographical research, with the files of El Clamor PÃºblico an easily accessible starting point.
Opposing RamÃrez politically but equally important for his role in Los Angeles journalism was Henry Hamilton, publisher of the Los Angeles Star. Outspokenly pro-South, Hamilton bought the newspaper in 1856. He joined fellow Democrat Edward Kewen in opposing the new Republican Party and abolitionism. When the Civil War began, Hamilton stridently defended the South’s right to secede, and Los Angeles County became a hotbed of pro-secessionist sentiment. California, however, remained in Union hands, and under the leadership of Republican Governor Leland Stanford, the state stayed that way. Hamilton’s support of the Confederacy did not prevent him from winning an Assembly seat in 1863, though voter fraud probably played a part in his victory. Hamilton’s outspokenness as given in his Star editorials ultimately resulted in Union officials banning the newspaper from the mails. Hamilton himself was branded a Copperhead Democrat, though it is fascinating to note the degree of Democratic pro-South sentiment that existed in southern California during the war. The best account of Hamilton’s career, though not a full biography, is William B. Rice, The Los Angeles Star: The Beginnings of Journalism in Southern California (1947). A good account of the time is John W. Robinson, Los Angeles in Civil War Days, 1860–1865 (1977).
The 1860s also brought dramatic changes to the economy of the Los Angeles region. A prolonged drought killed thousands of cattle, a disaster that when combined with the financial difficulties of the rancheros, severely curtailed the pastoral economy. Ambitious entrepreneurs looked to the future and the potential opportunities Los Angeles could offer them. Looking at their careers, it is difficult to pin them down to one particular business activity. Businessmen were involved in several ventures at once, from banking to merchandising to real estate development. Those who achieved great financial success titled themselves “capitalists,” using the term generically. They became the first generation to boost their city’s possibilities, promoting a more diverse economy, supporting a connection to the Southern Pacific Railroad, advertising southern California’s climate and abundant land opportunities, and taking financial risks.
John G. Downey (1826–1894) exemplified these early boosters. Born in Ireland, he came to California during the Gold Rush but made his fortune operating a drugstore in Los Angeles. In 1858 Downey was elected lieutenant governor of the state and, in 1860, when Milton S. Latham vacated the governorship to take a U.S. Senate seat (after only five days in office!), Downey became governor-at age 32 the youngest in the state’s history. He started the town of Downey, subdivided Norwalk and Santa Fe Springs, prospered from his ranching and real estate interests, and was one of the founders of the Farmers and Merchants Bank, an important Los Angeles institution. With all these accomplishments, Downey has yet to be the subject of a full-scale biography.
Downey can be joined by a veritable roll call of businessmen who did their best to transform Los Angeles from a violent frontier town to an economic and urban center in southern California. Physicians Walter Lindley (1852-?) and Joseph P. Widney (1841–1938); Judge Benjamin Hayes (1815–1877); bankers William Workman (1798–1876) and Francis P.F. Temple (1826–1880); real estate developers Andrew Boyle (d. 1871) and Robert Widney (1838–1929), brother of Joseph; and manufacturer Charles Ducommun (1820–1876) all saw a future for Los Angeles at a time when the city’s population as of 1870 was only 5,700-and at a time when Los Angeles had a hundred saloons, providing the interesting statistic of one saloon for every 57 men, women, and children in the city. The story of how these men helped transform Los Angeles is found mainly in three books that contain biographical information: Remi Nadeau, City-Makers: The Men Who Transformed Los Angeles from Village to Metropolis (1948); Marco R. Newmark, Jottings in Southern California History (1955); and Ronald Woolsey, Migrants West: Toward the Southern California Frontier (1996). Nevertheless, there would seem to be enough resource materials in local archives to reconstruct their life stories.
Anyone doing research into the lives of these people would find that many of them had both warts and dimples. Any deficiencies in character or human shortcomings would be omitted from the subscription biographies that extolled their civic virtues. For example, Joseph P. Widney was a noted physician and educator (Widney High in Los Angeles for handicapped children is named for him), a president of the University of Southern California, and, with J.J. Warner and Benjamin Hayes, the co-author of Historical Sketch of Los Angeles County, California (1876), commemorating the nation’s centennial. But he was also an unabashed racist, writing such books as Race Life of the Aryan Peoples. Francis P.F. Temple never saw a bank loan he couldn’t lend and so drove the Temple and Workman Bank out of existence, a factor in partner William Workman’s suicide. Charles Ducommun, best remembered as the founder of Ducommun Metals and Supply Company, the oldest continuously operating business in Los Angeles, was also a watchmaker, bookseller, jeweler, paint and glass dealer, stationer, and tobacconist. He claimed his store could provide and sell everything from pins to anchors. According to Leonard Pitt and Dale Pitt, eds., Los Angeles from A to Z: An Encyclopedia of the City and County (1997), Ducommun was considered “slightly eccentric,” though admired for his honesty.
Other entrepreneurs have found biographers, possibly because their financial success also brought them lasting prominence as places were named for them. In the case of Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, notoriety probably helped. Baldwin (1829–1909) made his fortune in stock market speculation and San Francisco hotels. In southern California he built the Santa Anita race track, founded the town of Arcadia (which he named for Arcadia Bandini Stearns) and was its mayor, was involved in sensational court cases arising from his frequent marital infidelities, and in general seems to have had a great time in southern California. His legacy includes Baldwin Park, Baldwin Hills, schools and streets, and a biography by Carl B. Glasscock, Lucky Baldwin, the Story of an Unconventional Success (1933).
Less flamboyant than Baldwin, Phineas Banning (1830–1885) made his mark on the San Pedro area. He arrived there in 1851, worked as a teamster, and soon owned his own business, connecting San Pedro to as far east as Tucson with supplies to government outposts. A native of Delaware, he founded the town of Wilmington. Banning always seemed to be looking ahead. It wasn’t just transportation; he envisioned and then built a railroad line from San Pedro to Los Angeles, later bought by the Southern Pacific. He built a spacious home for his growing family in Wilmington. Banning’s efforts to improve harbor facilities earned him the title “Father of Los Angeles Harbor.” His biography has been written by Maymie Krythe, Port Admiral: Phineas Banning, 1830–1885 (1957).
Henry Mayo Newhall (1825–1881) was another entrepreneur who founded communities and left a number of place names as a legacy. Born in Saugus, Massachusetts, Newhall came to California during the Gold Rush and became a rancher, railroad promoter, and oil developer. He started the towns of Newhall and Saugus. His sons established the Newhall Land and Farming Company, raised horses and cattle, did little farming, and went into real estate and the oil industry. Andrew Rolle, Henry Mayo Newhall and His Times: A California Legacy (1991) is a recent biography detailing Newhall’s accomplishments.
Thaddeus S.C. Lowe (1832–1913) combined several fields of interest into one lifetime. A chemist, inventor, and entrepreneur, Lowe gained early fame during the Civil War by sending up gas-filled observation balloons to survey battlefields for the Union army. He left his native New Hampshire in the 1880s for health reasons, and he made Pasadena his new home. From there he invested in the natural gas industry and a number of other businesses. His most famous enterprise was the complex of resort hotels on Mount Lowe and the Mt. Lowe Scenic Railway. From the 1890s to the 1930s his resorts attracted thousands of tourists who took the electric railway up into the clouds. Alas, his resorts burned down one after another, and during World War II the track rails were removed to supply metal for the war effort. His accomplishments have been recorded in a number of books, including Maria Schell Burden, Professor T.S.C. Lowe and His Mountain Railway (1993) and Eugene B. Block, Above the Civil War: The Story of Thaddeus Lowe, Balloonist, Inventor, Railway Builder (1966).
Other businessmen of the era who would appear to be as deserving as Baldwin, Banning, Newhall, and Lowe still await biographical study. These include John P. Jones (1829–1912), the founder of Santa Monica, Nevada silver millionaire, U.S. Senator from Nevada, and planner of an ambitious railroad that would have connected Los Angeles to Independence in the Owens Valley, except he ran out of money. Henry Hancock (1822–1883) came from New Hampshire to Los Angeles and bought Rancho La Brea, investing in real estate and oil development. He started a family dynasty, and his son G. Allan Hancock (1876–1965) became a noted philanthropist who started the Allan Hancock Foundation for Marine Research at USC. The family’s name is remembered with Hancock Park.
Charles Maclay (1821–1890), along with George K. Porter (1853–1906) and cousin Benjamin F. Porter became major landowners in the San Fernando Valley in the 1870s. Maclay founded the City of San Fernando. Their original holdings evolved into the Porter Ranch Development Company. Anyone concerned over the modern-day arguments over the company’s plans to develop a major residential and commercial community in the northwest San Fernando Valley may well find these Valley pioneers of great interest, but their biographies have yet to be written. Elsewhere in the San Fernando Valley are the legacies of other pioneers such as William W. Orcutt, a founder of the Union Oil Company, remembered by the Orcutt Rancho Horticultural Center. Local history is alive with these promoters and developers who worked to create a prosperous region.
One of the most prolific writers on southern California’s history, attractions, and folklore, George Wharton James (1858–1923) has no biography of his own life. This is surprising since James was a colorful and controversial character. A Methodist minister who came from England, James fell in love with the Southwest and wrote more than forty books about the region, including In and Out of California’s Missions (1905), Through Ramona’s Country (1908), and The Wonders of the Colorado Desert (1906). A popular lecturer as well as author, James found his career considerably blemished by a nasty divorce that became a public scandal as his wife accused him of infidelity. James left enough material to warrant a critical biography assessing his work and conduct, but such a study remains an opportunity yet to be done.
In contrast to James, numerous authors have traced the life of his contemporary, Charles F. Lummis (1859–1928). Lummis’s career path was similar to James’s; both were literary figures who wrote many books and articles about their adopted region. Lummis’s work includes The Land of Poco Tiempo (1893) and The Spanish Missions and the California Pioneers (1893). He edited the magazine Land of Sunshine, later expanded in concept and re-titled Out West (James edited it from 1912 to 1914). Like James, Lummis had marital problems, only more so, marrying and divorcing three times. His boundless energy led him to such interests as serving as Los Angeles city librarian, founding the Southwest Museum, starting the Landmarks Club and the Sequoya League, and creating a literary circle around his home in the Arroyo Seco. To the degree that James needs a biographer, Lummis seems to have a surfeit of them. Among the most important are Dudley Gordon, Charles F. Lummis: Crusader in Corduroy (1972) and Turbese Fiske Lummis, Charles F. Lummis, the Man and His West (1975). Turbese was Lummis’s daughter. Edwin R. Bingham, Charles F. Lummis, Editor of the Southwest (1955), is an authoritative study of Lummis’s years as editor of the magazine he founded.
An odd circumstance resulted in a biography of southern California’s most notorious outlaw, Tiburcio VÃ¡squez (1839–1875). He began his criminal career at age fourteen in 1853. Over the next two decades he alternated time in prison with theft, robbery, and murder. Unlike JoaquÃn Murrieta, who became a legend in the Gold Rush era primarily because so little was known about him, we know much more about VÃ¡squez, mainly because he was captured in Los Angeles. Awaiting his trial, VÃ¡squez gave interviews to inquiring reporters and explained or justified his criminal acts. One of the reporters, Benjamin C. Truman, published the VÃ¡squez version of his life in The Life, Adventures, and Capture of Tiburcio VÃ¡squez (1874). VÃ¡squez was hanged for his crimes, but his legacy continues in unexpected ways. VÃ¡squez Rocks County Park is named for him as he was said to have hidden out from pursuing posses in the unusual rock formations. A musical melodrama produced in Los Angeles in 1994, Bandido, was based on his life. Most recently, students at an Antelope Valley high school voted to name the school after him. Another biography of VÃ¡squez was written by a contemporary, George A. Beers, The California Outlaw: Tiburcio VÃ¡squez, (1974 edition compiled by Robert Greenwood).
A near contemporary of VÃ¡squez on the right side of the law, MartÃn Aguirre (1858–1929) merits a biography beyond the articles that have been written about him. Aguirre acquired early fame as a deputy sheriff when he rescued nineteen people from the rampaging Los Angeles River during a torrential rainstorm in 1886. He served as sheriff of Los Angeles County and warden of San Quentin State Prison, and thereafter as a Los Angeles County deputy sheriff and bailiff. His career was not without controversy: as warden he was accused of taking bribes and cruelty to inmates. A childhood injury left him blind in one eye, a problem that would have made it impossible for him to be a deputy sheriff in modern times. An interesting example of a Mexican American peace officer in the late 19th century, Aguirre deserves biographical study.
While businessmen were promoting the virtues of southern California climate and real estate, a woman who had an entirely different goal in mind gave their efforts an unintended boost. Helen Hunt Jackson (1830–1885) stayed only briefly in southern California, but she left a tremendous impression with the publication of her novel Ramona (1884). A native of Massachusetts, Jackson became a writer to earn a living after her husband died. She was attracted to Native American issues in the 1870s over her concern for their mistreatment by the government. She wrote A Century of Dishonor (1881), a book that did little to persuade Congress to change its Indian policies. However, the Department of the Interior asked her to do a report on California’s so-called Mission Indians. She came to California and, accompanied by co-author Abbot Kinney, visited reservations. The government ignored their report. Jackson then determined to follow the lead of her friend Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and write a novel that would dramatize the plight of the Indians but also have a popular appeal. She visited Rancho Camulos, owned by the Del Valle family, and learned of Indian conditions from Antonio Coronel. Having done as much research as she needed for her project, she wrote the book.
Ramona was an overnight and long-running best-seller, but Jackson, who died shortly after the book was published, never knew that the public would see the story as a historical romance rather than a plea for Indian rights. Moreover, “Ramona fever” swept southern California. The town of Ramona, schools, streets, assorted place names, a hit song, and movies were all inspired by the novel. Tourists believed the story was true and flocked to San Diego and Ventura to see the “actual” places where Ramona “lived.” The Ramona Pageant has been presented in Hemet for almost eighty years. Jackson has been the subject of numerous biographers, including Ruth Odell, Helen Hunt Jackson (1939) and Evelyn Banning, Helen Hunt Jackson (1973). Valerie Sherer Mathes, Helen Hunt Jackson and Her Indian Reform Legacy (1990), critically appraises the impact of Jackson’s work on southern California. Ironically, there was a grain of truth in Jackson’s novel, for some of the incidents in the book were based on actual events, including an Indian woman named Ramona (the title character of the novel was half-Indian, half-“Spanish.”).
Jackson’s co-author of the report on the Mission Indians, Abbot Kinney (1850–1920), achieved his own fame when he developed the town of Venice. Kinney planned a community that replicated its Italian namesake, complete with canals, gondoliers, and concert facilities. After spending millions of dollars for offerings few people appreciated, Kinney cut back on his goals and turned Venice into an amusement park. Los Angeles annexed Venice in 1915. The story of Kinney’s ambitious project is told in Tom Moran, Fantasy by the Sea (1979), but a full biography of Kinney has yet to be done.
Ramona provided considerable publicity for southern California, but the full range of regional virtues also included transcontinental railroad links, growth of the citrus industry, and the area’s climate, restorative power, and investment opportunities. The man who put all these elements together was Frank P. Wiggins (1849–1924), who arrived in Los Angeles in 1886 as an invalid. He attributed his cure to the region’s healthful climate and spent the rest of his life promoting southern California. He created traveling railroad exhibits to midwestern and eastern cities, presenting displays of fruits and nuts (including an elephant made entirely of walnuts!), setting up exhibits at such events as the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. “Los Angeles on Wheels” had attracted some ten million people by 1893. Wiggins joined the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce in 1890, became its secretary in 1897, and used the organization as the vehicle for promoting the city. He also established the Frank Wiggins Trade School (now Los Angeles Trade Technical College). With all this, no biography has yet been written of this man’s fascinating life and career.
Contemporaries of Wiggins have been at least partially fortunate in biographical writing. Harvey K.S. O’Melveny (1823–1890) came from Illinois to California during the Gold Rush and settled in Los Angeles in 1869. He helped found the Los Angeles Bar Association and was a superior court judge. His son, Henry O’Melveny (1859–1941) followed in his father’s footsteps and became a prominent attorney. William Webb Clary, History of the Law Firm of O’Melveny & Myers, 1885–1965 (1966), tells the O’Melveny story in terms of the law firm rather than the family. Henry O’Melveny’s memoirs have been published, but a large collection of family papers at the Huntington Library awaits the researcher planning biographies of father and son. The law firm, one of the largest in Los Angeles, has never strayed from involvement in controversial issues, most recently in conflict-of-interest charges stemming from the Belmont High School Complex scandal.
Bankers as well as lawyers played prominent roles in promoting Los Angeles. Jackson A. Graves (1852–1933), at one time a law partner of Henry O’Melveny, wrote his memoirs, My Seventy Years in California, 1857–1927 (1928), and California Memories, 1857–1930 (1930), good starting points for someone to do a critical biography of this prominent banker-attorney. Isaias W. Hellman (1842–1920) may arguably be considered as second only to Harris Newmark as a prominent leader of the Los Angeles Jewish community. Arriving in Los Angeles in 1854, a year after Newmark, Isaias and his brother Herman W. Hellman found opportunities galore in a town that at the time seemed more concerned with vigilante hangings. Isaias Hellman went into banking, merchandising, and real estate. He had the Midas touch, his prudent views on banking contrasting with the overly generous F.P.F. Temple. In 1871 Hellman founded the Farmers and Merchants Bank, a lineal ancestor of the Bank of America. The banking aspect of Hellman’s life is told in Robert G. Cleland and Frank B. Putnam, Isaias W. Hellman and the Farmers and Merchants Bank (1965). The fact that the Hellman and Newmark families intermarried and created dynasties whose descendants are still very active in Los Angeles, and the wide range of their business activities, invites at the least a dual biography of Isaias Hellman and Harris Newmark.
Another dynasty, more controversial than possibly any other in Los Angeles, was founded by Harrison Gray Otis (1837–1917), who became editor of the Los Angeles Times in 1882, bought out the owners in 1886, and proceeded to make it the most financially successful newspaper in the city’s history. He hired Harry Chandler (1864–1944) who married the boss’s daughter Marian and begat, among various other Chandlers, Norman Chandler and his son, Otis Chandler. Although the publishing dynasty ended when Otis Chandler retired in 1980, the family has continuing interests in publishing, real estate, ranching, paper mills, and many other enterprises. Founder Otis was militantly antiunion; in 1910 the Times building was blown up and twenty employees killed, an action Otis blamed on Union agitators. Under great-grandson Otis Chandler’s leaderhip the newspaper became more liberal, expanded its coverage, and gained a reputation for journalistic excellence missing from earlier years (and many would say from recent years as well).
The Chandler family has successfully resisted attempts at profiling the lives of Harrison Gray Otis and Harry Chandler. Published studies usually focus on the newspaper’s publishing and business interests. These include Marshall Berges, The Life and Times of Los Angeles: A Newspaper, a Family and a City (1982), and Robert Gottlieb and Irene Wolt, Thinking Big: The Story of the Los Angeles Times, Its Publishers, and Their Influence on Southern California (1977). The most critical evaluation of Otis remains unpublished: Richard C. Miller, “Otis and His Times: The Career of Harrison Gray Otis,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, 1961. The Otis-Chandler dynasty shared book space with Henry Luce’s Time, William Paley’s CBS, and Katherine Graham’s Washington Post in David Halberstam’s The Powers That Be (1979). Given the reticence of the Chandler family to open family records, objective biographies of family members remain a need, an opportunity, and a most formidable challenge.
Women prominent in Los Angeles activities who merit biographical treatment have had mixed success. Caroline Severance (1820–1914) enjoyed a long career as a civic reformer and supporter of women’s rights. Before the Civil War she was an abolitionist. Arriving in Los Angeles in 1875, Severance worked on behalf of a number of causes, many of which remain relevant issues today. She helped established the Orphans Home Society to aid homeless children; promoted kindergartens (a novel experiment in the late 19th century); helped create the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra; and backed woman suffrage. Her most famous contribution to Los Angeles culture was the Friday Morning Club, founded in 1881, an organization that promoted civic reform and provided a forum for women. Although Severance has been the subject of articles, no modern biography of her has been written other than Ella Giles Ruddy, ed., The Mother of Clubs: Caroline M. Seymour Severance (1906), a compilation almost a century old.
Along with Severance, Kate Douglas Wiggin (1856–1923) strongly supported kindergartens. She lived in Los Angeles in the 1870s and 1880s and with Severance was an active member of the Unitarian Church. Wiggin moved to San Francisco and became a kindergarten teacher. Later she moved to New England where she wrote the book for which she is best remembered, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1903). Her Los Angeles years, in which she was so involved in early childhood education, merit biographical study.
Another important civic reformer, Katherine Phillips Edson (1870–1933) came to southern California in 1890 and worked for woman suffrage. She has been credited for her leadership in the campaign that granted women the right to vote in California in 1911. Articles have examined her role in politics-she was prominent in the Republican Party and the League of Women Voters-but her full biography remains to be written.
Other people who worked to better the Los Angeles community have also been biographically challenged. Generations of UCLA students know the name Kerckhoff Hall, but few are aware that William G. Kerckhoff (1856–1929) donated large sums of money to UCLA and the California Institute of Technology. The money came from the fortune he made in the natural gas and hydroelectric industries, lumber, and shipping. Kaspare Cohn (d. 1918) founded what is now the Cedars of Lebanon Hospital. Kerckhoff and Cohn are just two representatives of the research opportunities in Los Angeles philanthropy.
Few local politicians in the late 19th century have been the subjects of biographies. If any mayors of Los Angeles are remembered, it is probably because of street names or the name of a neighborhood. Prudent Beaudry (1818–1893) was mayor 1874–1876 and developed much of downtown Los Angeles through his real estate developments. Henry T. Hazard (1844–1914), mayor from 1889 to 1892, built Hazard’s Pavilion, a huge theatre that was the city’s first concert hall where opera, ballet, musical concerts-and boxing matches-were held, as well as religious services and political rallies. The Pavilion, located in what is now Pershing Square, was the forerunner of a series of major theatrical centers that included the Los Angeles Philharmonic Auditorium and the present-day Music Center. Hazard was a courageous man who did not hesitate to take the moral high ground: in a time of anti-Chinese persecution in Los Angeles, he tried to stop the violence against Chinese in the massacre of 1871, at the risk of his own life. Another mayor, Meredith P. Snyder, is all but forgotten today, yet he bears the distinction of being the only mayor elected to three wildly nonconsecutive terms: 1896–1898, 1900–1904, and 1919–1921. Exploring his career would yield some rich nuggets on the city’s political allegiances in his time. The list of mayors seems to be composed mostly of the famously obscure, overlooked by later generations of newcomers for whom Los Angeles history begins with their own arrival.
In the late 1890s the City of Los Angeles faced a major challenge to its economic development. The federal government was willing to bestow millions of dollars to build a modern seaport in the Los Angeles area. Such improvements were badly needed, since from San Diego to Seattle only San Francisco Bay offered a natural harbor for maritime activity. The question for Los Angeles, however, was whether to provide harbor improvement at San Pedro or Santa Monica. Lacking a natural harbor, either area would require construction of a long breakwater, dredging, and construction of port facilities. The Southern Pacific Railroad owned land at the Santa Monica location. Concerned citizens worried that Los Angeles would have to pay enormous sums to the railroad for access to the port. For that reason most Los Angeles businessmen supported San Pedro as the site for the “free” harbor. Both sides lobbied Congress intensively for the appropriations. Senator Stephen White (1853–1901) championed the cause of San Pedro.
A statue at Cabrillo Beach of White honors his leadership in the fight for the free harbor. Millionaire Collis P. Huntington, principal owner of the Southern Pacific, campaigned vigorously for the Santa Monica location. White, in fragile health, stood up against him, insisting that San Pedro was the superior location. White’s argument prevailed, though the exertion may have cost him his life, for he died in 1901 at age 48. Had he lived a full life he almost certainly would be better remembered beyond the statue. During his political career he served as Los Angeles County district attorney and as a state senator before becoming a U.S. Senator in 1893. The only description of his career is Edith Dobie, The Political Career of Stephen Mallory White, a Study of Party Achievers Under the Convention System (1927). A modern biography of White is needed and overdue.
The struggle over the harbor location was documented by Charles Dwight Willard (1860–1924), an Illinois native who came to Los Angeles in the 1880s in hopes the climate would cure his tuberculosis. Willard became a reporter and editor for local newspapers, at one time or another working for the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Herald, and Los Angeles Express. A booster of his adopted city, he preceded Frank Wiggins as secretary of the chamber of commerce, started Land of Sunshine in 1894 (soon bought by Charles F. Lummis), and wrote books. His The Free Harbor Contest (1899) is a contemporary account of the city’s fight against the Southern Pacific for a San Pedro Harbor location. He also wrote The Herald’s History of Los Angeles (1901) and History of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce (190). An outstanding journalist whose writing tells of the beginnings of Los Angeles as a great city, Willard would be an important subject for a biography.
With the turn of the century, political and economic changes coincided to bring a new era to Los Angeles history. Almost overnight, a new cast of characters replaced many of the old. National issues of the progressive movement and socialism would be replicated on the local scene as the City of Los Angeles embarked on an aggressive campaign to assure continued economic growth and achieve dominance among southern California’s urban centers. From these events new names would emerge as movers and shakers of Los Angeles life: William Mulholland; Aimee Semple McPherson; Carl Laemmle, David W. Griffith, Louis B. Mayer, Jack Warner, and other movie moguls; Edward L. Doheny; Charlotta Bass; Dorothy Buffum Chandler; and a continuing roster of individuals from the 19th century as well, all of these people either included in public memory by published biographies or else forgotten beyond their own era. These will be the candidates for the 20th-century part of this essay.
It will almost certainly be the case that this essay omitted someone’s favorite person.
It was never an intention to make this roll call of Los Angeles people an exclusive list. One of the enjoyable aspects of such a project is the opportunity to be reminded of people who were overlooked and who deserve mention as to whether they have been biographical subjects. An interested student, teacher, researcher, or just someone who believes that a particular person has been neglected by history can provide a valuable service by taking on such a challenging project.
Some sources used in this essay may provide leads to interesting individuals who have made their mark on the history of Los Angeles. These include:
John and LaRee Caughey, eds., Los Angeles: Biography of a City. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977.
Erwin G. Gudde, California Place Names, revised 4th edition by William Bright. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.
James D. Hart, A Companion to California, revised edition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.
Mildred Brooke Hoover at al., Historic Spots in California, revised 4th edition by Douglas E. Kyle. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990.
Leonard Pitt and Dale Pitt, Los Angeles from A to Z: An Encyclopedia of the City and County. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.
Ronald C. Woolsey, Migrants West: Toward the Southern California Frontier. Sebastopol: Grizzly Bear Publishing Company, 1996.