The area comprising present-day Los Angeles County was first settled by small groups of Native Americans for centuries before the first European contact in 1769 when Gaspar de Portola and a group of missionaries camped on what is now the banks of the Los Angeles River.
In September 1771, Father Junipero Serra and a group of Spaniards founded the San Gabriel Mission as the center of the first “community” in an area inhabited by small bands of Gabrielino Indians. Ten years later the Pobladores, a group of 11 families recruited from Mexico by Capt. Rivera y Moncada, traveled from the San Gabriel Mission to a spot selected by Alta California Gov. Felipe de Neve to establish a new pueblo. The settlement was named El Pueblo de la Reyna de Los Angeles (The Pueblo of the Queen of the Angels). 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. Over time, the area became known as the Ciudad de Los Angeles, “City of Angels.”
In September 1797, the Franciscan monks established the San Fernando Mission Rey de Espana in the northern San Fernando Valley.
Although the Spanish government placed a ban on trading with foreign ships, American vessels began arriving in the early 1800s, and the first English-speaking inhabitant settled in the area in 1818. He was a carpenter named Joseph Chapman, who helped build the church facing the town’s central plaza, a structure that still stands. California was ruled by Spain until 1822, when Mexico assumed jurisdiction. As a result, trade with the United States became more frequent. The ocean waters off the coast of California were important for whaling and seal hunting, and a number of trading ships docked at nearby San Pedro to buy cattle hides and tallow. By the 1840s, Los Angeles was the largest town in Southern California.
After a two-year period of hostilities with Mexico beginning in 1846, the area came under U.S. control. The Treaty of Cahuenga, signed in 1847, ended the war in California, followed by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 adding Los Angeles and the rest of California to American territory.
Gold Rush and Growth
The annexation of California and the discovery of gold brought adventurers and immigrants alike by the thousands to the West with dreams of “hitting pay dirt.” Contrary to popular belief, California’s Gold Rush began in the hills southwest of the Antelope Valley in 1842, when Francisco Lopez, stopping for lunch while searching for stray cattle, pulled some wild onions and found flakes of gold clinging to their roots. The canyon was named Placeritas, meaning “Little Placers,” and today is called Placerita Canyon. Gold rushers soon flocked to the canyon and took an estimated $100,000 of gold from the region before heading north to the more exciting and well-known discovery at Sutter’s Mill in 1848. A subsequent gold strike in the mountains to the north of Los Angeles provided the town with a booming market for its beef, and many prospectors settled in the area after the Gold Rush. Mining changed the region’s history in profound ways, as gold seekers settled permanently in the Antelope Valley during the 1850s and 1860s. The area further grew during the Civil War (1860-1865), as gold, silver, and copper were extracted from the Soledad Canyon region and Fremont’s Pass was enlarged to facilitate and speed up ore shipments.
After the Civil War ended, there was a large immigration into the Los Angeles area. Several large Mexican ranches were divided into many small farms, and such places as Compton, Downey, Norwalk, San Fernando, Santa Monica and Pasadena sprang into existence.
During its history, the size of the County has changed substantially. Originally it was 4,340 square miles along the coast between Santa Barbara and San Diego, but grew to 34,520 square miles, sprawling east to the Colorado River. Today, with 4,084 square miles, it is slightly smaller than its original size. The County was divided up three times: Kern County received a large slice in 1851; San Bernardino County split off in 1853; and Orange County was established in 1889.
On Feb. 18, 1850, the County of Los Angeles was established as one of the 27 original counties, several months before California was admitted to the Union. The people of Los Angeles County on April 1, 1850 asserted their newly won right of self-government and elected a three-man Court of Sessions as their first governing body. A total of 377 votes were cast in this election. In 1852 the Legislature dissolved the Court of Sessions and created a five-member Board of Supervisors. In 1913 the citizens of Los Angeles County approved a charter recommended by a board of freeholders which gave the County greater freedom to govern itself within the framework of state law.
In 1850, Los Angeles was statutorily declared to be the county seat for the County of Los Angeles. Later that year, Los Angeles was incorporated as the County’s first city; today there are 88 cities. Los Angeles had a reputation as one of the toughest towns in the West. “A murder a day” only slightly exaggerated the town’s crime problems, and suspected criminals were often hanged by vigilante groups. Lawlessness reached a peak in 1871, when, after a Chinese immigrant accidentally killed a white man, an angry mob stormed into the Chinatown district, murdering 16 people. After that, civic leaders and concerned citizens began a successful campaign to bring law and order to the town.
Los Angeles and its surrounding territories were built by immigrants. The village of Los Angeles was a fairly cosmopolitan place early on. By the 1850s, the Spanish-speaking Californios and Indians, Anglo Americans and former slaves of African descent were joined by settlers who included English, French, Basques, Spaniards, Mexicans, Germans, and Chinese. During the late 1800s and early 20th Century, foreign immigration to Los Angeles County was varied but continued to be steady. The new immigrants arrived from Europe, Asia, and Central and South America. Distinctive ethnic communities of Japanese, Chinese, Russians, and East European Jews had developed throughout the county by the 1930s. These ethnic influences contributed to Los Angeles’ cultural, economic and social dynamism.
When the Immigration Act of 1965 opened the door to new immigrants, it initiated dramatic changes in the area. According to the U.S. Census, by 2000 36.2 percent of the residents of Los Angeles County were foreign-born—more than triple the 11.3 percent figure of 1970. The 2000 census showed the area was home to 4.2 million people of Latino/Hispanic origin—only Mexico City had a larger number. A survey taken by the Los Angeles Unified School District that year counted more than 130 different languages represented among school-age children. By 2000 Los Angeles became the nation’s major immigrant port of entry, supplanting New York City.
People of African descent were prominent in the first Spanish settlement of Los Angeles in 1781. Twenty-six of the 44 original settlers (pobladores) were black or mixed ancestry (mulattos). Most came from Sinaloa, Mexico, where two-thirds of the residents were people of mixed African and Spanish heritage. Pio Pico, the last Mexican governor of California, was of African-Mexican descent. The number of blacks was eclipsed by new immigrants in the early American years. Only about a dozen of the 1,600 county residents listed in the 1850 census were black. During the next 80 years the influx of blacks grew, and by 1930 Los Angeles was home to the largest black community on the Pacific Coast.
The first Chinese-Americans in the city were laborers recruited in China by Chinese contractors and unknowingly brought to Los Angeles in 1850. By 1870 their numbers grew to more than 4,000. The Chinese dominated the agricultural business as growers, vendors and market proprietors. Others worked swinging picks and shovels laying the tracks for the Southern Pacific railroad, including carving out the San Fernando railroad tunnel through the mountains. During this time the Chinese endured racial hatred due in part to intense economic rivalries with whites, which resulted in the Chinese Exclusionary Acts in the 1880s.
Mexican-Americans—people largely of mixed Spanish and Indian descent—came to Southern California under the flag of Spain, having been recruited from Sonora and Sinaloa in New Spain (Mexico) beginning in 1781. Although their numbers were small, their language and culture prevailed over those of the local Indian inhabitants. Mexico ruled California from 1822, when Mexican rebels overthrew Spanish rule, until the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848. The Mexicans remained in the majority after the war but lost political and social dominance. Their numbers increased markedly after the Mexican revolution in 1910.
Railroads and Growth
The coming of the railroads changed everything. The Southern Pacific completed its Los Angeles route in 1880, followed by the Santa Fe Railroad six years later. With a huge investment in their new coast-to-coast rail lines and large Los Angeles land holdings, the railroads set forth a long-term plan for growth. Southern California citrus farming was born. Tourism and the building of towns were promoted to attract investors, to raise land values, and to increase the value of railroad shipments.
In the late 1860s there was a population boom as the marketing to “Go West” caught on. Thousands of tourists and land speculators hurried to Los Angeles County. Lots were bought, sold and traded, and an almost instantly created industry of real estate agents transacted more value in land sales than the county’s entire value of only a few years before. The boom proved to be a speculative frenzy that collapsed abruptly in 1889. Many landowners went broke. People in vast numbers abandoned the Los Angeles area, sometimes as many as 3,000 a day. This flight prompted the creation of the chamber of commerce, which began a worldwide advertising campaign to attract new citizens. The county as a whole, however, benefited. The build-up had created several local irrigation districts and numerous civic improvements. In addition, the Los Angeles population had increased from about 11,000 in 1880 to about 60,000 in 1890.
In 1850 the first salable petroleum in California was the oil found at Pico Canyon near San Fernando. But the real boom began in the 1890s, when Edward L. Doheny discovered oil at 2nd Street and Glendale Boulevard in downtown Los Angeles. His find set off a “second black gold rush” that lasted several years. Los Angeles became a center of oil production in the early 20th Century. By 1897 the area had 500 derricks, and in 1910 the area near Santa Monica Boulevard and Vermont Avenue was an unruly oil shantytown. Drilling activity in the county reached new heights in the 1920s when major finds were made in Whittier, Montebello, Compton, Torrance, and Inglewood. The largest strikes were in Huntington Beach in 1920, and Santa Fe Springs and Signal Hill in 1921. These three huge fields upset national oil prices and glutted existing storage facilities. By the turn of the century almost 1,500 oil wells operated throughout Los Angeles. Oil production has continued down to the present throughout the Los Angeles Basin; between 1952 and 1988 some 1,000 wells pumped 375 million barrels of oil from these pumps.
In the early 1900s, agriculture became an important part of the economy. The growth in the City of Los Angeles necessitated the annexation of the large San Fernando Valley. For about a half century between San Fernando’s 1874 founding and the 1920s, the community was considered an “agricultural gem” set in the San Fernando Valley. An ample and reliable water supply was coupled with a coastal valley climate, in which the community’s elevation of about 1,100 feet—along with its receiving about 12 inches of rain a year—made it ideal for growing crops.
Cattle ranching was common in the area when missionaries arrived in the late 1700s, but during the next 100 years the landscape became dotted with wheat plantings and fruit trees, whose growth was also aided by the irrigation systems in place from the mission’s heyday. By the 1920s, fruit and especially citrus cultivation was San Fernando’s biggest industry. The price of land for orange and lemon groves went as high as $5,000 an acre—as much as eight times more than the cost of other land—and the city had at least four packing houses with annual shipments of nearly 500 rail cars of oranges and lemons.
Olives also flourished in the Mediterranean-like climate, and the 2,000-acre Sylmar olive grove—then the world’s largest—produced 50,000 gallons of olive oil and 200,000 gallons of ripe olives. Other crops grown in the County included alfalfa, apricots, asparagus, barley, hay, beans, beets, cabbage, citrus, corn, lettuce, melons, peaches, potatoes, pumpkins, squash, tomatoes, and walnuts. The area also had excellent dairy farms, including the world’s largest Guernsey herd in the 1920s. The agricultural output led to other industries such as canning companies, a fruit growers association, and fruit preservers. The agricultural land gave way to development following World War II.
Harbors and Trade
The San Pedro harbor became operational in the late 1840s and became the principal harbor for the trade in the county. The first steamer to visit San Pedro was the Goldhunter in 1849. The construction of a railroad from Los Angeles to the harbor in 1869 gave a fresh impetus to the development of agricultural resources in the county. Later in 1911 the Long Beach harbor was established and the port at San Pedro was also added to give Los Angeles a position in the international trade market.
Motion Pictures and Television
In 1853 one adobe hut stood on the site that became Hollywood. The first motion picture studio in Hollywood proper was Nestor Film Company, founded in 1911 by Al Christie for David Horsley in an old building on the southeast corner of Sunset Boulevard and Gower Street. By 1930 the motion picture industry was in full swing. The county’s good weather and picturesque locals lent itself to the production of the silent films and “talkies.”
In the 1950s, the advent of television led to the opening of numerous television stations. Movie attendance fell to half its previous level during this time as audiences stayed home to be entertained in their own living rooms. Hollywood’s yearly output in the 1930s had averaged 750 feature films; in the 1950s it was down to about 300 and still falling, despite efforts to win back audiences by installing new stereo sound systems, building wide screens, and employing new such visual techniques as 3-D. By the early 1970s the television and movie industries became interdependent with much crossover from one medium to the other. Today, each medium has found its niche. The Hollywood film has retained its position as the ultimate entertainment, but television has become the major disseminator of popular culture. Los Angeles has remained firmly in charge of American image-making.
Large manufacturing concerns began opening factories during that time, and the need for housing created vast areas of suburban neighborhoods and the beginnings of the area’s massive freeway system. The Depression and the Midwestern drought of the 1930s brought thousands of people to California looking for jobs.
Public Works Projects
In order to sustain future growth, the County needed new sources of water. The only local water in Los Angeles was the intermittent Los Angeles River and groundwater replenished by the area’s minimal rain. Legitimate concerns about water supply were exploited to gain backing for a huge engineering and legal effort to bring more water to the city and allow more development. Approximately 250 miles northeast of Los Angeles in Inyo County, near the Nevada state line, a long slender desert region known as the Owens Valley had the Owens River, a permanent stream of fresh water fed by the melted snows of the eastern Sierra Nevadas
Sometime between 1899 and 1903, Los Angeles Times founder Harrison Gray Otis and his son-in-law successor, Harry Chandler, engaged in successful efforts at buying up cheap land on the northern outskirts of Los Angeles in the San Fernando Valley. At the same time they enlisted the help of William Mulholland, chief engineer of the Los Angeles Water Department, and J.B. Lippencott, of the United States Reclamation Service. Lippencott performed water surveys in the Owens Valley for the Reclamation Service while secretly receiving a salary from the City of Los Angeles. He succeeded in persuading Owens Valley farmers and mutual water companies to pool their interests and surrender the water rights to 200,000 acres of land to Fred Eden, Lippencott’s agent and a former mayor of Los Angeles. Eden then resigned from the Reclamation Service, took a job with the Los Angeles Water Department as assistant to Mulholland, and turned over the Reclamation Service maps, field surveys and stream measurements to the city. Those studies served as the basis for designing the longest aqueduct in the world
By July 1905, Chandler’s L.A. Times began to warn the voters of Los Angeles that the county would soon dry up unless they voted bonds for building the aqueduct. Artificial drought conditions were created when water was run into the sewers to decrease the supply in the reservoirs and residents were forbidden to water their lawns and gardens. On election day, the people of Los Angeles voted for $22.5 million worth of bonds to build an aqueduct from the Owens River and to defray other expenses of the project. With this money, and with a special act of Congress allowing cities to own property outside their boundaries, the city acquired the land that Eden had acquired from the Owens Valley farmers and started to build the aqueduct, which opened Nov. 5, 1913.
To accommodate its growing population, the County instituted a number of large engineering projects, including the construction of the Hoover Dam, which channeled water to the County from the Colorado River and provided electricity from hydroelectric power. The area’s excellent weather made it an ideal location for aircraft testing and construction, and World War II brought hundreds of new industries to the area, boosting the local economy. By the 1950s, Los Angeles County was a sprawling metropolis. It was considered the epitome of everything new and modern in American culture—a combination of super highways, affordable housing, and opportunity for everyone.
Today more than 10.4 million people call Los Angeles County home, residing in 88 cities and approximately 140 unincorporated areas. It continues to be an industrial and financial giant, and is one of the most cultural and ethnically diverse communities in the world.