Antonio Franco Coronel (1817–1894), rancher, educator, art collector, fourth mayor of Los Angeles, and mentor of Helen Hunt Jackson (author of the novel Ramona), came to Southern California with his father, Ignacio, at the age of 17. A former Mexican army officer and a man of letters and arts, Ignacio Coronel founded the first school of consequence in Los Angeles and impressed his son with the importance of public service. Los Angeles businessman and chronicler Harris Newmark described the senior Coronel as “a man of strong intellect and sterling character, kind-hearted and popular.”
Antonio learned his father’s lessons well, going on to become mayor of Los Angeles (1853–4), Los Angeles city councilman (1854–66), and State treasurer (1866–70). During Coronelâ€™s term as mayor, “it was the practice of the citizenry to gather in the Plaza at the sound of a gong and vote on general matters by the raising of hands” [Mayors of Los Angeles, (1968) L.A. Municipal Arts Dept.]. Among Coronelâ€™s achievements as mayor was the establishment of the cityâ€™s first Department of Public Works.
In his book, Migrants West, Ronald C. Woolsey describes Coronel as a gracious and altruistic man whose life was spent “tirelessly promoting civic improvements that highlighted the Spanish-speaking traditions of the rancho period and frontier era. He donated his personal art collection and manuscripts to the Los Angeles , Chamber of Commerce, promoted community efforts to build a library, highlighted historic landmarks in the region, and organized festivities memorializing the Mexican traditions of bygone days. According to writer John Weaver, the city’s first English-speaking theater opened July 4, 1848 in an addition to Coronel’s home. Harris Newmark described Coronel’s gathering of art and historical materials as “… one of the sights of the city, a pleasure and a stimulation alike to tourist and resident.” (Coronelâ€™s collection later passed to the County Museum of Natural History.) Reflecting his abiding love of local history, Coronel was a charter member of the Historical Society of Southern California when it was founded in 1883.
An important figure since the days when Los Angeles was a Mexican pueblo, Coronel’s involvement in civic affairs continued after California became part of the United States in 1850. Woolsey writes: “In the next two decades, he supported Hispanic land titles and his own claim to properties at Rancho Sierra de los Verdugos. In 1857, he traveled to Mexico and secured documents and political support for several Hispanic claims around the San Francisco area.”
Impressive as his civic achievements may be, Coronel is perhaps best remembered as the confidant and mentor of Helen Hunt Jackson, the New England poet, novelist, and advocate for Native American rights who came West in the 1880s to write magazine articles about Californiaâ€™s missions. With Coronelâ€™s help, she went on to write the classic romance novel of Southern California , Ramona.
It was in Coronelâ€™s Spanish-style house, in what was then a “western suburb of Los Angeles” (now the downtown corner of 7th and Alameda), that Jackson became immersed in Coronelâ€™s romantic views of Californiaâ€™s Mexican-era history and his insights into the decline of the Mission Indians, which Coronel attributed largely to the American conquest of California — a view later reflected in Ramona. ( Jackson ‘s first meeting with Coronel was arranged through a letter of introduction from the Bishop of Monterey.)
Writes Woolsey in Migrants West: “Jackson spent days at the Coronel home â€¦listening to an animated Antonio Coronel detail sentimental tales about the rancho era, while his wife [Dona Mariana Williamson, whose father was a native of Maine] acted as hostess and intepreter. He frequently played the guitar, sang ballads, and embellished yarns of Hispanic yesteryearâ€¦” As for the plight of the Mission Indians, Coronel supplied Jackson with names of people and places she should visit, arranged interviews, and even accompanied her on a trip to the Riverside-Hemet area, the general setting for the later novel. The result was the novel Ramona. Coronel helped edit the book, proofread it for historical accuracy, and offered suggestions on local details, writes Woolsey.
Published in 1884, Ramona became an immediate success. Woolsey writes: “Coronelâ€™s guidance affected the research behind Jackson â€™s work by supplying his picture of Southern California against which backdrop the author could tell a story of larger context, the Native American issues.”
Coronel died in 1894, within four months of another Californio pioneer, Pio Pico. Like Pico, Coronel was an elder statesman who had lived through “six decades of Southern California history, spanning the rancho period, American conquest, Civil War years and the late-19th-century economic volatility in commerce and industry,” writes Woolsey.
– Contributed by Albert Greenstein, 1999