The two images above depict the founding of Los Angeles, officially September 4, 1781. The first is a diorama at the Natural History Museum showing a group of Pobladores walking to El Pueblo. The second is a 1930s mural by Dean Cornwell in the Los Angeles Public Library that suggest the founding of the City of Angels happened with much pageantry. Despite the fact that no written record exists confirming the details of the founding of Los Angeles, for over a hundred years, historians and storytellers have speculated and recreated what occurred 231 years ago.
Recent scholarship counters previous ideas that a formal ceremony and mass took place at the city’s founding. Most likely, many of the pobladores had already arrived at the pueblo before September 4. LA as Subject summarized (and illustrated) these findings last year in its KCET article “Happy Birthday, Los Angeles! But is the Story of the City’s Founding a Myth?“
Below is a handful descriptions of the founding of Los Angeles to give an idea of the progression of historical thinking:
1787 - Francisco Palou, Franciscan priest. In his biography of Father Serra, Palou wrote:
“He [Governor de Neve] got together all the colonists who had come out for this purpose, and he assigned them lands and a townsite on the banks of the river about four leagues to the northwest of the Mission of San Gabriel, and there, under the guard of a corporal and three soldiers, they founded the town, the last days of the year 1781, under the name of Our Lady of the Angels of Porciuncula. Here the people occupied themselves with their crops…”
1876 - Warner, Hayes & Widney, authors of an early history of Los Angeles County.
In book “Historical Sketch of Los Angeles County,” Warner, Hayes & Widney allowed that Los Angeles was founded in a “formal manner,’ but did not give specifics. They also state that all the pobladores had been soldiers, when in fact, they all were civilians.
1911 - John Steven McGroarty, author of the Mission Play. Ever the poet and dramatist (and probably inspired by his Mission Play script), McGroarty wrote in “California, Its History and Romance”:
Governor de Neve “on a sunny morning, fared forth at the head of a party of soldiers, padres from the Mission, neophyte Indians and the pablodores (sic) who were to be the bulwark and the pillars of the new town…ceremonies consisted of the raising of a cross, music and singing by the Indian choruses and the firing of a volley of musketry by the soldiers.”
1931 - Historian Thomas Workman Temple II. For LA’s sesquicentennial, Thomas Workman Temple II listed each poblador, his wife and children by name, age, ethnicity and their town of origin. He also debunked the founding myth:
“Strange to say, contemporary references to its founding are rare indeed…Accounts of the actual founding ceremony by later writers have not been free from the excursions into romance…With little regard for historical fact or probability they have not hesitated to even over-estimate the histrionic possibilities of such a scene, and have painted a picture as fanciful and sentimental as it is out of proportion to the facts as found.” [Source: Annual Publication of the Historical Society of So CA, Vol 15, No. 1].
1960 - Journalist Charlotta Bass, publisher and editor of the California Eagle. In her self-published book “Forty Years: Memoirs From the Pages of a Newspaper,” Bass was less concerned over pomp and circumstance and more concerned with the accuracy of the pobladores’ ethnic origins. Along with Miriam Matthews, California’s first African American librarian, Bass worked to educate Angelenos on the African heritage of many of the city’s founders.“The California Historical Society in the year 1959 published an article about the early history of Southern California by W. W. Robinson, the historian of the Title Insurance and Trust Company, the private company with has the most detailed records of the history of land titles in Southern California. This book goes into great detail about the early founders. It gives the name of every one of the male heads of families among the founders and it even prints a map of the original 12 houses placed in a horseshoe about the original plaza. But this book, too, following the usual pattern adopted for the past 50 years by most white historians, at no time mentions that the majority of these founders were Negroes; indeed, does not mention the word “Negro” or “colored” at any time when discussing the founders. It is a sad commentary on the standards of American historical scholarship that such distortions of history are possible at this late date.”
1965 - Historian W. W. Robinson. In book “W. W. Robinson: a biography and a bibliography,” Jimmie Hicks wrote:
“In connection with his work, Will has been able to get the City of Los Angeles to accept officially the true version of its founding rather than the ceremonial myth that has flourished for so many years. In 1965 under Mayor Sam Yorty, the City for the first time issued a pamphlet giving a factual account of its founding written by Will as a part of the anniversary celebration.”
1976 - Historians Marie E. Northrop and William Mason. Northrop expanded on Temple’s lists of pobladores in her book “Spanish-Mexican Families of Early California 1769-1850.” In the companion volume, “Los Angeles Under the Spanish Flag,” Mason wrote:
“Just what happened on 4 September 1781 is as yet not known to have been recorded. It is probable, however, that the pobladores were given their house lots and fields on that day…[and] it is unlikely that a more symbolic founding was made…”
1976 - Historian Harry Kelsey. Kelsey’s article “A New Look at the Founding of Old Los Angeles” was reprinted in The Founding Documents of Los Angeles (2004). He noted
“While some small ceremony may have marked the birth of LA, no definite archival record of it appears to exist, nor is there a document suggesting that Zuniga’s eleven settler families gathered to participate in a formal distribution of land. In fact, the records seem to indicate that some settlers did not move to LA from San Gabriel for several weeks, while others moved to the land immediately after arriving [fr Mexico].” He goes on to support Father Palou’s 1787 description of events.
1981 - Historian Don Hata. In 1981, Hata chaired a subcommittee to decide how to commemorate the founders for the city’s 1981 Bicentennial. Telling the history of the original families turned out to be “a political hot potato.”
The committee suggestion for a plaque to be installed at the Plaza was approved by the main Bicentennial committee and the City Council. But some council members didn’t want the diversity of the founders revealed so did not attach funding to the project. According to Hata, Miriam Matthews, also a committee member, whipped out her check book and said, “I’ll pay for it.”
Happy birthday, L.A.
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