March 11, 2012
The Los Angeles River’s early settlement was marked by Tongva tribes, also known as the Gabrielino Indians. The river provided a rich plant and animal habitat that allowed the Gabrielino Indians to thrive in present-day Los Angeles and Orange Counties, including parts of San Bernardino and Riverside Counties. They also moved throughout the Channel Islands. It was not until 1769 that the first written description of the Los Angeles River is entered by Juan Crespi on the Portola expedition. He described his experience saying “After traveling about a league and a half through a pass between low hills, we entered a very spacious valley, well grown with cottonwoods and alders, among which ran a beautiful river . . . This plain where the river runs is very extensive. It has good land for planting all kinds of grain and seeds, and is the most suitable site of all that we have seen for a mission, for it has all the requisites for a large settlement.” Instantly, the importance of the river for means of production became apparent to the Spanish.
The earliest Spanish settlers brought very new values to California’s water, land, and native people. Nature was seen as an obstacle to conquer and make useful, and the California land was a perfect place to develop missions, pueblos, and of course, military holdings or forts. However, because much of California lacked sufficient water resources, the Los Angeles River was made useful by the original Los Angeles Spanish pueblo, El Pueblo de la Reina de los Angeles. Each of the original inhabitants, only eleven pobladores after 3 were expelled, with their families, “ . . . was given a house lot and four fields for planting crops, only two of which were to have access to irrigation water” (Gumprecht 43). The pueblo followed the same consistent form set forth by the Spanish government in the establishment of the first pueblo at the Guadalupe River in San Jose 1777. “In its early years, the town was a small, isolated cluster of adobe-brick houses and random streets carved out of the desert, and its main product was grain” (Los Angeles History).
Although Pueblos were the centers for Spanish civilians, they needed water distribution systems to succeed. The Spanish Crown officially claimed ownership of water resources but it did grant water rights for the common benefit of the Spanish settlers. The earliest system focused on a dam upstream, at a higher elevation, and a main irrigation ditch known as the Zanja Madre in order to provide a flow of water to the Pueblo and agricultural land. This main water ditch carried domestic and irrigated water from the upstream diversion, near today’s North Broadway. The local town council, known as the Ayuntamiento, usually made water decisions and elected a Zanjero, who supervised irrigation and water rights.
When the first Spanish missions were founded in Baja California, they were having difficulties growing food and feeding themselves. They would rely on funds from Spain and from food from central Mexico, most likely from the agriculturally fertile area known as Sinaloa. They lacked the hunting and gathering techniques that the local Indians possessed, which they also relied on at times for food. Felipe de Neve, who came to be the first governor of Los Angeles, was sent by the viceroy of New Spain to seek more fertile soil farther north.
When they arrived, Los Angeles was founded as an agricultural village by the Spanish to prevent the same problem they had suffered down South. It is the land nearer to the Los Angeles River that proved to be the most fertile and the best fit for founding the pueblo. Families from the areas of Sonora and Sinaloa, Mexico were chosen in 1781 to inhabit the pueblo and to begin to farm with supplies provided by the Spanish. After the water system was in place, the first crops were wheat, beans, and maize. Five years later, in 1786, the pueblo was able to sustain itself. Grain was the primary and most successful crop by 1796, but most of this success was due to the hard-working Indians, who were sent by the colonists to do most of the work. In about 50 years, the cattle industry began, which was to crash due to drought. But Los Angeles itself did not crash because grape vines became so abundant and were to sustain it.
In 1826, Joseph Chapman put in 4,000 vines and became the first grower in Los Angeles, growing vines that up until that time had only been grown and sold privately by missionaries and other individuals. By the 1830s, many Angelinos and even some immigrants were growing “mission” grapes and grapes of many other varieties for profit and producing wine and brandy. But it was not until Jean Louis Vignes, a Frenchman, fed up with the too-sour taste of the “mission” grapes, brought in the Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc from France that grape-growing became a real industry. Los Angeles then became famous nation-wide, sending wine and brandy to San Pedro, San Francisco, Monterey, Santa Barbara, and even to the east coast to New York and Boston. Orange groves also became prominent and widespread throughout Los Angeles, especially because a need for agricultural diversity presented itself when more people came because of the Gold Rush and the transcontinental railroads. Angelinos then came to grow at least 40 other crops.
Most people believe grape-growing in California originated in the Napa and Sonoma Valleys, but history proves otherwise, that it originated in Southern California. This industry is one of the factors that helped Los Angeles grow and gain its fame. This success all came as a result of the farming that was initiated by the Spanish to feed their missions. Success was also due in large part to the fertile soil and natural abundance of water from the Los Angeles River. It is the same Los Angeles River that maintained the Gabrielinos, that called the Spanish from Mexico, and that nourished the many crops that fed Los Angeles and helped it grow to eventually become what it is today.
This post was authored by Patrick Talbott’12 who is pursuing a B.S. and M.A. in Environmental Studies and by Alejandra Rocha’12 who is pursuing a B.A. in Environmental Studies.
Gumprecht, Blake. The Los Angeles River: Its Life, Death, and Possible Rebirth. Johns Hopkins University Press: June 1999.
“Los Angeles: History.” Cities of the United States. 5th ed. Vol. 2: The West. Detroit: Gale, 2006. 129-130. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 04 Mar. 2012.
El Pueblo: Los Angeles Before the Railroads. [Los Angeles]: Equitable branch of the Security trust & savings bank, 1928.
Street, Richard S. “First Farm Workers.” CogWeb: Cognitive Cultural Studies. Web. 04 Mar. 2012.