A Short History of Los Angeles

Before there was a city

The history of Los Angeles begins some ten or twenty thousand years before the first Europeans arrived in Southern California; see timeline. Throughout the vast majority of human history, there was no city of Los Angeles; for thousands of years, hunters and gatherers clustered in villages on the shores and the banks of the rivers. Around 1769, when the first Mexican and Spanish settlers arrived, the basin was populated by the Cahuilla [Kaweah], Cupeño, Luiseño, and Serrano, speakers of Takic languages, a branch of Northern Uto-Aztec (see information from the La Jolla Band of Luiseno Indians and the language family index, both external). The Cahuilla in Riverside had a population of 10,000 in fifty towns. Other indigenous groups included the Kawengnam, Asuzangna, Topanga, Cucamongna, Tuhumgna, Maliwu, Simi, Kamulos, Kastic, Yangna, Suangna (see history, local), and Pasbengna.

Among the expeditionaries were Gaspar de Portola and Junípero Serra. Commanding the soldiers was the Mexican Rivera y Moncada. In addition there were eighty indigenous people from Baja California, twenty-five Catalán soldiers, a group of Franciscan missionaries, and a dozen artisans.

El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora de Los Angeles

A permanent colonial settlement was established on 4 September 1781 as El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora de los Angeles di Porciúncula. It was named in honor of the shrine to the Virgin Mary, Santa Maria degli Angeli, Our Lady of the Angels, on the plain below Assisi, Saint Francis' native village in Italy. The construction of a Presidio and town was the project of Governor Felipe de Neve, as mandated by by King Carlos III of Spain. He called for volunteers to come up from Mexico; hoping to attract 24 families, he was able to convince 11 to make the journey.

The city was built inland on the Río Porciúncula, the broad river running through the valley, rather than by the ocean, where it would have been too exposed to attacks. It was constructed in the traditional Spanish style, centered around a rectangle consisting of a city plaza, a guardhouse, a town house, and a granary. The families received lots to build on and farm, and were given such benefits as tax exemption and tools. Today the oldest existing residence in the city is the Avila Adobe, built in 1818 by rancher Don Francisco Avila (see USC's site El Pueblo de Los Angeles, external).

The invaders set out to reproduce the characteristic Spanish social arrangements and institutions: the missions, the presidios, the divisions between clergy, the army, and the civil populations. Soldiers and adventurers, they married the indigenous women, tracking their offspring by degrees of intermarriage. The colonial imperative defined their agendas: the religious conversion of the indigenous peoples, the attempted pacification of natives hostile to colonization, the formation, training, and control of a labor force, and the defense of New Spain against hostile Europeans. Land use was dominated by the cultivation of Old-World crops, the establishment of mining districts, and the constant expansion of grazing land for cattle.

The Los Angeles River

A history of the last two century’s transformation of the Los Angeles Valley from land of plenty to overgrown parking lot can be found in Blake Gumprecht’s excellent monograph, The Los Angeles River: Its Life, Death, and Possible Rebirth.

In 1768, when Gaspar de Portolá led the first Spanish land expedition into Southern California, there were 26 Gabrielino Indian villages within a few miles of the river, all able to survive without cultivating crops thanks to the bounty of a river that “meandered this way and that through a dense forest of willow and sycamore, elderberry and wild grape,” overflowing at times “into vast marshlands that were home to myriad waterfowl and small animals. Steelhead trout spawned in the river, and grizzly bear roamed its shores in search of food.” The vegetation covering much of L.A. was not the desert scrub and chaparral that today appears within weeks on lawns left untended, but “a sometimes impenetrable jungle of marshes, thickets and dense woods.” Much of Beverly Hills, it should come as no surprise, was a fetid swamp.

If the Spanish saw a “full-flowing, wide river” in a “very lush and pleasing spot, in every respect,” ideal for a settlement, by the 1850s “the once tree-covered plain was now barren and desolate.” The forests had been felled, the wetlands dried and the river diverted into a series â of irrigation ditches, often spilling over with “garbage and foul matter.” Though it once flowed plentifully near downtown all year long, by the turn of the century it had become a dry wash for most of the year and “the once-ample stream had become a local joke” that’s gotten no funnier in the intervening years. By the time the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had lined the river’s banks with cement, they were, Gumprecht writes, “closing the coffin on a river that was by and large already dead.” Today it is a river in name only: “Nearly all of the water that now flows in the river is treated sewage, authorized industrial discharges, and street runoff.” The Los Angeles River has become the world’s most grandly named sewage slough.

From trails to freeways

Michael Jacob Rochlin’s Ancient L.A. is a collection of three short essays illustrated with the author's and period photographs of L.A. cityscapes. “Why is our city the way it is?" Rochlin asks; "Why did it grow the way it grew?” His answer is that its current population centers owe their locations to Gabrielino villages. “For proximity to sources of forced labor, Missions and Pueblo were placed adjacent to Indigenous Villages. Ranchos reoccupied the desolated sites. Boomtowns replaced ranchos. Grids filled-in open space and melded with adjacent grids.” Now downtown sits near the site of Yangna, San Pedro at Tsavingna, Redondo at Engnovagna. Trails from village to village became roads and, finally, freeways.

A section about Suangna, the largest of the Gabrielino villages, is illustrated by images of its likely location today: an Ugly Duckling used-car lot, traffic beside an oil refinery, neo-Nazi graffiti on a storm drain, an empty field.

The Rancherias

The Spanish period was dominated by vast Ranchos, the result of land grants. Rancho San Pedro, soon known as the Dominguez Ranch (local), began as a gift of 75,000 acres of land in 1784. It is now a museum. The historic Gilmore Adobe was built in 1852. The original building had two rooms with packed dirt floors and a brea roof from the La Brea Tar Pits. Today, it is the location of the Farmer's Market (external), which recounts the full story.

Sites on the history of Los Angeles

LA: Past, Present & Future draws on the extensive archival resources of the University of Southern California, including photographs, maps, personalities, and events. Searchable.

Los Angeles: A History of the Future shows how to "create a fruitful, self-reliant city, a sensual city worthy of excellent people and land."

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Maintained by Francis F. Steen, Communication Studies, University of California Los Angeles