Chronicles of Old Los Angeles: Exploring the Devilish History of the City of the Angels

Chronicles of Old Los Angeles: Exploring the Devilish History of the City of the Angels

by James Roman


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781940842004
Publisher: Museyon
Publication date: 11/01/2014
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 662,798
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

James Roman is the author of Chronicles of Old Las Vegas and Chronicles of Old New York and served as editorial contributor to New York Living magazine for six years. He contributes regularly to publications that document emerging technology, and he appeared on the HBO television series Six Feet Under. He lives in Los Angeles.

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Chronicles of Old Los Angeles

Exploring the Devilish History of the City of the Angels

By James Roman

Museyon, Inc.

Copyright © 2015 James Roman
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-940842-00-4





For 227 years, nobody told the Native Americans they were living in the Viceroyalty of New Spain.

First, the Spanish won Alta California when they conquered the Aztecs in Mexico. Then, their explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo headed north, the first European to set eyes on the land that is today's Los Angeles. He staked a claim for the Viceroyalty of New Spain in 1542. What did Cabrillo see? Smoke. A fragrant cloud, stoked by two-dozen Native American campfires, permeated the area. Cabrillo named this indentation in the coastline Bahia de los Fumos, "Bay of Smokes." (Yes, LA's "discovery" was also its first smog joke.)

The natives called their home Yang-na, but their story is no joke. When the Spanish first arrived, the Yang-na people were scattered in little clusters between the ocean and the Los Angeles River; their center stood where City Hall stands today. They spoke a language similar to the Shoshones (on the other side of the Sierra Nevada); they lived on fish, small game and the flour they milled from acorns; they wore almost no clothing. The Yang-na believed in an afterlife, they practiced cremation and they savored hallucinogens during coming-of-age rituals. Temescals, ceremonial sweat lodges, were used for cleansing and for communion with their god Chinigchinich, but most rituals revolved around cycles of life. They had no demons.

Compared to their colorful relatives the Aztecs and the Great Plains Indians, the Yang-na were lackluster natives. They didn't farm the land, didn't make war, didn't build, didn't weave blankets or make terra cotta pottery. Yet, unlike the Aztecs and Mayans, these simple natives held onto their land and their lifestyle for hundreds of years beyond those sophisticated civilizations. California was one of the last habitable places on earth that wasn't being planned for the white man's empires. However, in 1781, more than two centuries after Cabrillo first smelled smoke, the Viceroy needed a plan.

Russian fur trappers were venturing too far south from their northwest trading posts; this concerned the King of Spain and his Viceroy in the New World. To protect Spanish holdings in California, the Viceroy appointed a governor. That governor, Gaspar de Portolá, was a romantic. Instead of lining Alta California with soldiers awaiting confrontation, Portolá installed an army of a different sort: the Franciscan Friars. They planned for the construction of 21 missions along an Indian path that was soon called El Camino Real, the Royal Road, from San Diego to San Francisco 500 miles away. Of course, every mission still had a military Presidio attached to it to keep the peace, but the king got his wish. The missions took 42 years to build; no nation challenged the Franciscan Friars or their Spanish sponsors, not even the local Yang-na. Roman Catholics would build California, mission by mission.

Situated just six miles from the San Gabriel mission, Los Angeles was not a mission. It was to be a pueblo, a community. On an expedition in 1769, Governor Portolá named the local river El Rio de Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Angeles de Porciúnculá, "the river of Our Lady, Queen of the Angels of Porciúnculá." The expedition's journalist wrote that on August 2 they encountered "eight heathen," the local Yang-na, who gave the strangers gifts of baskets "and strings of beads made from shells." This friendly exchange marked the end of an era for the native people. In 1779, Portolá's replacement, Governor Felipe de Neve, would populate El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Angeles de Porciúnculá. It would no longer be the Bay of Smokes.

When word went out across Mexico that pobladores, settlers, were invited to this new land, the response was limp. Eventually, 11 impoverished farmers were recruited with promises of seven-acre farms, along with seed, tools, horses, 10 pesos a month and a plot of land 20 varas (55 feet) by 40 varas (110 feet) facing the plaza they planned to build. With their wives and children, they formed a community of 44 pobladores, the first settlers in Los Angeles. Two were full-blooded Spaniards, plus four Indians, one Mestizo, two Negroes and two Mulattos. Twenty-two were children. Governor Neve designed a traditional pueblo where each residence faced a common plaza with a church in its center. September 4, 1781, the day that Governor Neve completed his plan, is recognized as the birthday of Los Angeles. (The LA County Fair coincides each year to celebrate this date.)

As the pobladores went to work on the community, the friars at the San Gabriel Mission went to work on the Indians. While learning to communicate with the Yang-na, they produced foods from seeds never seen before by the natives; they provided shelter to the native people in exchange for their labor. Then the friars introduced stories about evil, about Satan, and why the red man was destined to a place called Hell unless he was baptized immediately. An entire culture was lured into submission.

The friars were organized; they planned industries at the mission. They taught the native hunter-gatherers about farming, and the appeal of harvesting crops instead of scavenging for them. They soon had the Indians building a dam that diverted fresh water to irrigate the fields for the mission. They introduced citrus trees; they made olive oil. They built a granary and kept it stocked. Chickens and roosters held in captivity provided a steady supply of meat and eggs — captivity being a foreign concept to the natives. Eventually, the mission even expanded to include cattle for the manufacture of cowhides and tallow. Friars gave the orders, but natives did the work. Free Indian labor was the basis for nearly all the mission's achievements. With the friars and the pobladores controlling all the suitable farmland, Native Americans were forced to work the lands they once occupied with abandon.

Journalists who visited during those early decades decried what they witnessed. The Native Americans were slaves on their own land. In 1786, just five years after the founding of Los Angeles, visiting French sea captain Galaup de la Pérouse wrote: "The moment an Indian allowed himself to be baptized he relinquished every particle of liberty and subjected himself body and soul to tyranny from which there was no escape. The church then claimed him as its own ... and enforced its claims with the strong hand of power."

If a baptized Indian ran away in an attempt to return to native independence, he was hunted down by soldiers from the Presidio, brought back and lashed into submission. There were stocks and a whipping post in the mission courtyard for discipline. Despite the broken spirits of the Yangna, the success of the pueblo actually attracted more Native Americans into the mission. Indians from the outlying islands and from San Diego found their way to Los Angeles, where they too learned about eternal damnation, then offered themselves up for baptism. The captain continues: "In a short while after the establishment of the mission, resistance was almost unknown. Three or four hundred [Native Americans] were driven to their labors by three or four soldiers like so many cattle."

The following year, in an effort to break the friars' monopoly on free labor, the new governor delivered his "Instructions for the Corporal Guard of the Pueblo of Los Angeles." It set some rules for engaging the Native Americans, who now had the freedom to choose between employment at the missions or the sprawling pueblo-associated ranchos.

What the natives didn't get was land or wages. They also didn't get their god Chinigchinich, for the friars destroyed every trace of pagan idolatry they encountered. In 1830, the U.S. Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, when Native Americans were shoved and slaughtered across the states, but there was no Trail of Tears in Los Angeles. With barely a skirmish, the land had been out of Yangna control for decades. Its people were raped, beaten and exploited, completely dependent upon the missionaries and the rancheros for their survival. Even children worked. In 1836, the last of the independent Yang-na abandoned the ancestral land, and the native culture ceased to exist in Los Angeles.

Torrential rains flooded Governor Neve's original pueblo. The natives moved the pobladores to higher ground in 1818, where they built a new plaza and a new church that still stand today at historic Olvera Street. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972. For generations, the plaza was the cultural gathering place for Los Angeles.

A tragic surprise lurked when the natives mixed with the Catholics: syphilis, smallpox, measles and every other European disease to which the natives lacked immunity. Living in crowded, unsanitary conditions, they died in droves. More than 6,000 indigenous people are buried at the San Gabriel Mission, ravaged by diseases. By the time the missions were secularized and the last Franciscan departed in 1852, the Yang-na were decimated. Though the Franciscan Friars came to Alta California with high ideals, their efforts resulted in genocide.

From this sad start, one of the world's most vibrant cities was born. Native American muscle built the first structures, providing the grist for subsequent generations. At the same time, pobladores invested their souls to make Los Angeles work, and happily for us, they succeeded. Many generations later, this indentation off the coastline is still renowned as a Bay of Smokes!


Much of Charlie Chaplin's film The Kid (1921) is filmed in the rundown pueblo. Also, Double Indemnity (1944), Lethal Weapon 3 (1992) and, on television, The Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Show (1962).





Joy was in the air on September 4, 1786. The founding fathers were honored by the governor on this fifth anniversary of El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Angeles de Porciúnculá.

After five years of grueling labor, building the pueblo from the ground up, it was time to get paid. Each man had earned the title to a generous parcel of land, plus his small plot facing the plaza. One by one, the pobladores were called forward, then ceremoniously presented with a deed and a branding iron. Each neighbor signed for his property with an X because none of them knew how to read or write. Then, each one learned the unique insignia he would burnish into his livestock, enabling cattle to mingle across property lines in communal pastures (since barbed wire wouldn't be invented for another 100 years). From this day forward, the Spanish-speaking residents of the pueblo would be known as Californios.

Prior to this day, the governor dismissed three of the original 11 heads of families for being "useless." Only eight of the original settlers witnessed this memorable day, though property was awarded to two sons of a dismissed black man, Luis Quintero. One of those parcels eventually expanded to become the 4,500-acre Rodeo de las Aguas, known today as Beverly Hills.

It was also the day that the stipends from Spain officially ended. Now each family was expected to harvest wheat and grain for profit, and to pay taxes to the king. But after years of living in huts they made from willow branches, the prospect of a solid one-room, windowless adobe on the plaza was reason to celebrate. The pobladores gave thanks.

As the pueblo's good news attracted more residents, even bigger celebrations would follow. Twenty more families soon joined the pueblo, bestowed with spectacular land grants by the governor, thanks to their political connections. Chief among them:

Juan José Dominguez, one of Governor Portolá's original foot soldiers back in 1769, was granted 75,000 acres of land; he is acknowledged as the first ranchero in Los Angeles. He drove his herd of horses and 200 heads of cattle from San Diego to the site he named Rancho San Pedro, overlooking today's port at San Pedro Bay, a distance of more than 100 miles. Dominguez was an instant celebrity, as every enterprising ranchero in the pueblo had to haul their goods through his vast territory to reach the port. (Today, it's home to Boeing; Honda; California State University, Dominguez Hills; and the busiest seaport in America.)

Corporal José María Verdugo and his brother Mariano were granted 36,000 acres that make up today's Burbank and Glendale neighborhoods. (Today, The Walt Disney Company stands on Buena Vista Drive, part of the original Verdugo territory.) Their Rancho San Rafael became even more famous for its rodeos and fiestas than for the voluminous cowhides they delivered to the port at San Pedro for shipment to Boston and New York. They set the pace for a generation of revelers.

By 1790, the pueblo's official population was up to 139 residents. The pueblo had a chapel, a town hall, a guardhouse, granaries, irrigation canals, a protective wall that surrounded the central pueblo and even an alcalde: a mayor to oversee justice and morality, who was constantly busy.

Since the Californios regularly produced more grain, cattle, horses and sheep than any other community in California, suddenly there was ... wealth. Los Angeles gained a reputation as one big party town. There was revelry in the Plaza, and celebrations on the sprawling acres recently awarded to rancheros.

Like a lord overseeing a European manor, a ranchero owned a self-contained community that employed craftsmen, herdsmen, leatherworkers, harness-makers, sheepshearers, cooks, seamstresses, housekeepers, a few freeloading relatives and a small army of Indians who cared for the crops and everything else. A large spread required the efforts of hundreds, all living outside the confines of the central pueblo.

With so much free labor, the wealthy rancheros did little work. They dressed in fancy silks and velvet suits embroidered with gold threads. They lived for their fandangos: each month brought fiestas, birthdays and holiday celebrations. On Sundays, they fenced in the Plaza for bullfights, eventually constructing a bullring on Calle del Toro, near today's Chinatown. (The bull was rarely killed; sacrificing a bull was too costly.) At the annual rodeo, cattle were divided by their rancho brands. Horses bore ornate saddles bedecked with silver mountings and rawhide reins. As the aguardiente brandy flowed, wagers were placed and emotions ran high when competitions in bronco riding and horsemanship measured the skills and daring of each rancho community.

Celebrations got even louder when Mexico declared its independence from Spain in 1821. No more scrutiny from the judgmental friars at the San Gabriel Mission. All Spanish-born priests were ordered out of California. Across the state, the government took control of an estimated $78 million worth of land and chattel (that's more than $1.5 billion today) developed by European ingenuity and the lives of overworked Indians. At the time of the transfer in 1834, Mission San Gabriel had 3,000 Indians, 20,000 horses, more than 100,000 cattle and eight million acres of land. Half the land was supposed to go to the Indians, but that didn't happen. Political connections with Mexico prevailed. The governor awarded land grants to only 800 families who assumed control of eight million acres. Spacious ranchos soon followed.


Excerpted from Chronicles of Old Los Angeles by James Roman. Copyright © 2015 James Roman. Excerpted by permission of Museyon, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


CHAPTER 1. BAY OF SMOKES The Birth of Los Angeles 1781,
CHAPTER 2. FANDANGOS IN THE PUEBLO Wealthy Mexicans and the Siege of Los Angeles 1786–1848,
CHAPTER 3. CULTURE CLASH The Racial Tensions of Statehood 1850s–1860s,
CHAPTER 4. THE MASSACRE Chinese Tong War Ends as a Historic Tragedy 1871,
CHAPTER 5. HUNTINGTON'S BOOM The Iron Horse Pokes Its Head through San Fernando Tunnel 1876,
CHAPTER 6. Doheny, Canfield, and the Oil Queen of California 1890s,
CHAPTER 7. TAKE A RIDE ON THE RED CARS LA Sprawls with an Electric Railway 1901–1961,
CHAPTER 8. TROUBLED WATERS Mulholland Builds an Aqueduct 1905–1941,
CHAPTER 9. HOLLYWOOD PIONEERS Movie Makers Remake Los Angeles 1914–1928,
CHAPTER 10. HOLLYWOODLAND The Neighborhood Beneath the Iconic Sign 1923,
CHAPTER 11. SISTER AIMEE Los Angeles Gets Religion 1922–1944,
CHAPTER 12. GREYSTONE MANSION Doheny and the Teapot Dome Scandal 1921–1929,
CHAPTER 13. SUNSET STRIP UNINCORPORATED Mickey Cohen's Territory, a.k.a. West Hollywood 1925–Present,
CHAPTER 14. PENTIMENTO The Controversial Art of David Siqueiros 1932,
CHAPTER 15. THE LEFT COAST Reinventing the Democratic Party 1934,
CHAPTER 16. THE PARTY IN LITTLE TOKYO Dancing in the Face of Hardship 1934–Present,
CHAPTER 17. ON THE AVENUE Jazz Nights at the Dunbar 1928–1948,
CHAPTER 18. LOVE ON THE LOT Romances at the Studios during Hollywood's Golden Age 1930s–1950s,
CHAPTER 19. SWITCH HITTERS The Dodgers' Home Run at Chavez Ravine 1957–1962,
CHAPTER 20. SURF CITY Freeth, Kahanamoku, Blake, Gidget, Dora and The Beach Boys 1907–1964,
CHAPTER 22. NEW VIEW LA's Architectural Innovations 1921–2003,
CHAPTER 23. THE VILLA AND THE ACROPOLIS J. Paul Getty Changes the Art World Forever 1954–Present,
CHAPTER 24. LAST STOP HOLLYWOOD Where Fame Rests in Peace 1946–2012,

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Chronicles of Old Los Angeles: Exploring the Devilish History of the City of the Angels 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Excellently written with lots of goodie insights as to how Los Angeles came to be. And talk about drama! The historical aspects that Mr. Roman dug up out of archives would make front page news today. A great pleasure to read and inspires me to check out parts of my home city I've never been to (as well as find corroborating extra tidbits about the people with oil and transportation money who got to call the shots as to how L.A. developed). Who wants to check out the Greystone Mansion with me?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Take a fun walk (or ride) with author James Roman as he points out the history and gossip landmarks of Los Angeles - without any boring parts! From the early Spaniards and Mexicans to the story behind the story of Chinatown and waterwars (what could be more timely!) to movie stars of different eras, and the story behind the Getty, he tells it in a fun, and lively way. A fascinating book with lots of great photos. Did I mention, no boring parts!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was hooked by the Table of Contents. In his third Museyon Guide “Chronicles of Old Los Angeles,” author James Roman does the impossible – with his trademark brisk, informative prose he makes history fun beach reading, and his walking tours compel me, a dedicated couch potato, to want to explore a city known for its car culture by foot. As ever, Roman entertains with fascinating facts that’ll have you questioning what you really know about towns you thought you knew. Among other things, find out why centuries before LA became synonymous with smog its first European explorer christened it “Bay of Smokes;” that “Chinese laundries” came to be during California’s Gold Rush when the enterprising Chinese, barred from most jobs and with no laundering experience, seized opportunity after seeing prospectors send their cleaning to HAWAII; why the city’s late, lamented trolley system, its most efficient form of public transport, wasn’t destroyed by a conspiracy between Big Oil, Gas and Tire but by its speculative subsidized rail routes and planned obsolescence - both directly responsible for LA’s sprawl and lack of a city center; that funky, bohemian Venice Beach was conceived and built as a highbrow world class operatic and cultural destination modeled on Venice, Italy, complete with canals and gondolas, but quickly devolved to host more lowbrow pursuits like auto races, which served as backdrop for Charlie Chaplin’s first movie as “The Little Tramp,” a performance which changed the way the world viewed film forever. That’s just a sampling of the drier stuff. There’s the Dodgers, mobsters and Hollywood scandal but the scope of “Chronicles” reads as epic soap opera about the influence of and interplay between the City of Angels’ native population and successive waves of settlers and immigrants, ruthless tycoons, crooked politicians, corrupt city planners, visionary entrepreneurs, architects and movie moguls, and billionaire philanthropists. Like Roman’s “Old New York” and “Old Las Vegas” before it, “Old Los Angeles” reflects the story of America itself. But since the subject of his third entry is Tinseltown upon completing the guide I couldn’t help but wonder what was left on the cutting room floor. If Museyon releases an unabridged version I’m buying it!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
James Roman is the most entertaining writer of history I know. The plums he pulls out of Los Angeles's forgotten past and serves up with flair are by turns revelatory, shocking, hilarious and eerie. His erudition is swathed in such an obvious love of his subject that it goes down like the smoothest of cocktails (or the most ambitious of starlets). The best yet of his city chronicles! Presented with classy graphics, fascinating and aptly chosen illustrations. Huzzah to everyone concerned.