This ten-block area near the site of the original Spanish settlement contains a number of early Los Angeles buildings, which now serves as a monument to the early history of the city; it is jointly operated by the city, county, and state.
El Pueblo de Los Angeles
125 Paseo de la Plaza, Suite 400
Los Angeles, CA 90012
ph.: (213) 625-5045
The sprawling metropolis laced with freeways that is modern Los Angeles began as a tiny farming village in Spanish California more than two hundred years ago. Those origins are memorialized in the state park established to protect the last few reminders of the old pueblo that remain in the heart of the great city. In 1981, Angelenos paused during the bicentennial of their city’s founding to dedicate a bronze plaque to the memory of the original residents: forty-four pobladores (settlers)–some of Spanish ancestry, some Native American, some African–who journeyed from Mexico in 1781 to establish a pueblo (town) in the wilderness.
The site for the community was chosen by the Spanish governor of California, Felipe de Neve. It lay on the west bank of the Los Angeles River, not far from the Mission San Gabriel Arcángel, in the midst of a broad coastal plain between the Santa Monica, San Gabriel, and Santa Ana Mountains. Governor Neve also provided a name for the settlement: El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Angeles (the town of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels). A statue of Felipe de Neve stands watch today over the Plaza; it was a gift of the people of Chihuahua, Mexico, on the city’s 150th birthday.
When the first settlers arrived, there were between five thousand and ten thousand Native Americans living in what is now Los Angeles County. The Yang-na, or Yabit, Indians were already familiar with the Spaniards from their mission contacts and made the newcomers welcome. Their village was near the pueblo’s site, probably in the vicinity of the present City Hall; they survived by hunting the abundant wildlife and by gathering seeds, acorns, fruits, and shellfish from the fertile lands and seashore. After conversion to Catholicism by the mission priests, they were taught a variety of Hispanic agricultural and domestic skills and crafts.
The settlers Neve recruited were primarily farmers. Los Angeles was founded as a farming community to support the missions and the presidios, or garrisons, which protected them. The pueblos were part of Neve’s plan to make California self-sufficient. Each family in the new pueblo received a house lot and a planting field nearby. Almost immediately the settlers dammed the river and built an irrigation canal. They grazed their cattle, horses, and mules on the common lands owned by the pueblo and raised corn, beans, and wheat in their fields. In their gardens they grew pumpkins, chiles, squash, melons, potatoes, and other vegetables. In the late 1790’s, they began to grow grapes and olives, and for a time in the early 1800’s, they grew hemp for export. Neve’s plan succeeded, and by 1785 California no longer needed to import its grain.
A census taken in November, 1781, described the new pueblo as a village of earthen-roofed huts, made of willow branches laced with tule. They were quickly replaced by adobe houses, and a chapel was built, but the settlers still had to travel four leagues (about ten miles) to Mission San Gabriel for Mass. By 1790 the population of the pueblo had reached 139. In addition to the chapel there was a town hall, a barracks, a guardhouse, granaries, and twenty-nine adobe houses within the walls, and a few more buildings clustered outside. The town was run by a military liaison to the governor called a comisionado, who supervised the alcalde (mayor) and two councilmen who were elected by the people.
The heart of the old pueblo was the Plaza, the gathering place for trade, gossip, recreation, and religion. Here Angelenos gathered to exchange news, barter for goods, celebrate fiestas, gamble at cards, and enjoy their favorite sports, cockfighting and bullfighting. Bullfighting on horseback in Los Angeles was a game of skill; the rider’s goal was to seize and twist the bull’s tail, rolling him off his feet. The bulls were seldom killed, being too valuable to waste.
The Plaza had been part of the original layout of the town, when it was probably closer to the river, but its exact location is unknown. It was moved after the severe flood of 1815 to the corner northwest of its current site, and moved again for the last time about 1825. Originally a large rectangle, it has been modified through the years as the Pueblo grew and shifted. The plaza assumed its present circular form in the 1870’s.
In 1818 Angelenos began to build a church of their own facing the Plaza, and from its dedication in 1822 to the present it has dominated Plaza life. Now called Our Lady Queen of Angels Catholic Church, it has served as the parish church for the Plaza neighborhood without interruption. Among those who labored on the church, in addition to many of the local Native Americans, was Joseph Chapman, the first Los Angeles resident to come from the United States. Chapman had been captured as a pirate and held a prisoner at the mission, but his skills won him the friendship of the priests, and he was pardoned. His experience as a logger proved useful in obtaining the lumber for the church roof.
The oldest existing residence in Los Angeles was built facing the second Plaza about 1818 and is now the centerpiece of Olvera Street. The Avila Adobe was built as a town house for Francisco Avila, at one time alcalde, or mayor, of the pueblo. The typical single-story structure was built of adobe brick, with three-foot-thick walls and a packed earth floor; the door and window frames were shipped from Boston. A planked floor was later added, among many modifications made over time.
The rancho period of El Pueblo de Los Angeles had its beginnings in 1784, when some retired soldiers received the governor’s permission to graze their stock outside the pueblo’s common lands. More of these grazing rights were granted from time to time, often to pensioned soldiers or as political favors, but during the Spanish period they were permits only, subject to revocation. Only after 1822, when Mexico became independent of Spain, was legal title to the property included in the grants, and then ranching began in earnest. By the 1840’s, with ranching at its height, the grassy hills around Los Angeles were dotted with the longhorn cattle of thirty-five ranchos. The rancheros raised cattle for their hides and for the fat, which was rendered into tallow for candles. Much of the labor was supplied by Native Americans who worked as vaqueros (cowboys) and servants for minimal wages.
The political struggles between Mexico and Spain during the early 1800’s had little effect on Los Angeles, except indirectly by reducing the amount of available trade goods in the pueblo. Trade with foreign vessels, illegal under Spanish law, began to be tolerated as a necessity. In April, 1822, California became a territory of the newly independent Mexico, and Los Angeles accepted the transition without protest. An ayuntomiento, or city council, replaced the comisionado, and California was opened to foreign settlement, although with little immediate result.
Foreign trade was legalized, and the rancheros were quick to find new markets for their hides. A larger variety of trade goods became available in the pueblo, and many rancheros built comfortable town houses around the Plaza. One of the first was built by Jose Antonio Carillo, a ranchero and politician whose home boasted a red-tiled gable roof, a patio, and a ballroom. It was on the site now occupied by the Pico House. A house on the north side of the Plaza was acquired by Agustín Olvera, who arrived from Mexico in 1834. Olvera became the pueblo’s first lawyer, and after California entered the United States, the first Los Angeles County judge. Olvera Street was named in his honor.
In 1835 Los Angeles was given status as a ciudad (city) and named the new capital of the territory by the Mexican government. Conflicts between California politicians and Mexico delayed the capital’s move from Monterey for ten years. Los Angeles’s new position as capital of the territory was short-lived, however.
The United States, eager for westward expansion, tried unsuccessfully to buy California from Mexico twice in the 1840’s. The United States declared war on Mexico in 1846, and on August 13 of that year, U.S. troops under the command of Commodore Robert F. Stockton and Major John C. Frémont marched into Los Angeles. They met little resistance; the territorial governor, Pío de Jésus Pico, and his military commander, General José Castro, were both out of town. Stockton proclaimed himself commander in chief and governor of California.
After two weeks, Stockton and Frémont moved on and left Marine Lieutenant Archibald Gillespie in command of Los Angeles. Gillespie laid down many rules that Angelenos found unacceptable, and they organized an armed revolt that expelled Gillespie and his troops from Los Angeles. Several battles were fought around Southern California in the next few months, and U.S. forces retook Los Angeles on January 10, 1847. Mexico formally ceded California to the United States in 1848, as a condition of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican War.
The U.S. annexation of California in itself had little immediate impact on life in the pueblo. At first the ayuntimiento continued to rule civilian affairs, and the social, business and religious affairs of the pueblo proceeded as before. On April 4, 1850, Los Angeles was incorporated as a U.S. city, and the alcalde and ayuntimiento were replaced by a mayor and city council. California became a state the following September 9.
The real agent of change for Los Angeles was not political but economic. In 1848 gold discoveries in Northern California brought thousands of eager miners from Mexico and the eastern United States into Los Angeles on their way to the gold fields. Many stayed, including so many from the Sonora region of Mexico that the northern part of the pueblo acquired the name Sonoratown. Then, a U.S. military company that had occupied Los Angeles disbanded. Many of the former soldiers, without families or employment, roamed the streets, contributing to the growth of gambling, prostitution, and violent crime in the pueblo.
At the same time, the influx of miners into Northern California sent beef prices soaring, and the rancheros found themselves tremendously wealthy. Unheard-of sums were spent on costly furnishings and clothing, fancy parties, renovated homes, and heavy gambling. The fantastic wealth of the pueblo proved as irresistible as the gold rush to many fortune-seekers. In the Plaza outlaws, prostitutes, and gamblers rubbed shoulders with the rancheros in their expensive suits. Crime became rampant, and Los Angeles acquired a reputation as the most lawless city west of Santa Fe. In response to the escalating violence, a vigilante group calling itself the Los Angeles Rangers was formed in 1853. Its members were prominent Angelenos, and during the next two years they were credited with bringing about twenty-two executions.
The ranching boom continued through the 1850’s, but it could not last. By 1857 the gold rush had dwindled in the north, and beef prices fell. The careless spending of boom days began to take its toll. Many of the rancheros had heavily mortgaged their lands and were deeply in debt. The U.S. government demanded proof of the rancheros’ land ownership, and they found themselves involved in long, complicated, expensive, and alien legal entanglements. Devastating periods of drought during the 1860’s dealt the fatal blow to the rancheros. Their property was sold to pay their debts and then broken up for farm land.
The character of the Plaza had changed as well. By the 1870’s the future of the city seemed to lie to the south, toward the bay of San Pedro. The Plaza was the old neighborhood now, a run-down remnant of the past. The barrio of Sonoratown on the north side and the growth of a Chinese community on the eastern side, along with some entrenched vice operations, had made it an undesirable area to the more prosperous Angelenos. The lynching of several innocent Chinese by an angry mob in the aftermath of a tong war in 1871 seemed to close the book on the Plaza, but it was not quite finished yet.
In 1869, Don Pío Pico, the former territorial governor, began building a palatial hotel at the intersection of Main Street and the Plaza. Named the Pico House, it was completed the following year, when William Abbot and his wife, Dona Merced Garcia, built the lavish Merced Theatre next to it. Built of brick and covered with painted stucco in imitation of marble, the Pico House was for a time the most celebrated hotel in Los Angeles and played host to a variety of famous visitors. Competition from newer hotels, Don Pío’s financial troubles, and the continued deterioration of the neighborhood made its success short-lived; it was sold in 1880. The Merced Theatre did not enjoy long-term popularity, either. These and a few other efforts to revitalize the area were doomed when the city turned south. El Pueblo was forgotten.
When Christine Sterling, a native of San Francisco, became interested in the Plaza and its history in the 1920’s, the area was in sorry condition. Only a few of the old buildings were left, and those were run-down and neglected. Olvera Street was an alley of slums, cluttered with garbage, distinguished by an open sewer. For two years her efforts to encourage renovation of the area met with only polite interest. Then in 1928 she learned that the Avila Adobe, the oldest building left in the city, had been condemned and was scheduled for demolition. This provided the leverage she needed. Armed with political encouragement and financial help, she leased the building and began renovating it. With contributions of family heirlooms from descendants of pueblo residents, Sterling refurbished the building to represent an early California home.
With this success Sterling convinced the city council to rescind the condemnation; further, the city provided prison labor to clean up Olvera Street. She encouraged the development there of a Mexican-style open-air market, bringing color, music, and income back to the pueblo. Her efforts were formalized through the incorporation of Plaza de Los Angeles, Inc. The group’s purpose was “to preserve the Plaza as a monument to the founding of Los Angeles” and to create “an important Latin American trade and social center.”
The ambiance created through the efforts of Christine Sterling and her group brought tourists and Angelenos alike back to the Plaza and paved the way for government assistance. In 1953, the city, county, and state reached an agreement cooperatively to acquire property and operate a park on the site of the old pueblo. El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Monument includes twenty-seven historic buildings; eleven are open to the public and four contain museums, including the Museum of Chinese American History. The staff of El Pueblo continues its efforts to acquire, preserve, and communicate the heritage of the old pueblo.
Grenier, Judson A., ed. A Guide to Historic Places in Los Angeles County: Prepared Under the Auspices of the History Team of the City of Los Angeles American Revolution Bicentennial Committee. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt, 1978. This useful guidebook includes introductory essays documenting the history of the city and concise, illustrated descriptions of historic sites, including the Plaza area. Robinson, W. W., Jr. Los Angeles from the Days of the Pueblo: A Brief History and Guide to the Plaza Area. Revised with an introduction by Doyce B. Ninis. n.p.: California Historical Society, 1981. The standard history of El Pueblo. It is thorough, well-illustrated, and very readable. Rolle, Andrew F. Los Angeles: From Pueblo to City of the Future. Expanded 2d ed. San Francisco: MTL, 1995. A history of Los Angeles with bibliographical references and an index.