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Los Angeles History

It began as a sleepy pueblo with no natural harbor and an inadequate water supply, and it became one of the largest and most influential cities in the world. From Spanish village to metropolitan power, the many people and forces that shaped Los Angeles have created an ever-evolving city of dynamic growth.

Native Sons

Indian basketLittle is known about the earliest Angelenos. The greater part of the L.A. basin was home to the Gabrielenos, a peaceful agrarian society of approximately 5,000. Their main settlement was Yang-Na, a village located about where City Hall stands today. The Gabrielenos covered the territory from Orange County to Malibu, while along the coast from Malibu northward, the Chumash Indians, a sea faring tribe, fished among the local islands.

Colonial Days

These native people readily welcomed the first Spanish explorers to Los Angeles. Juan Cabrillo in 1542 and Sebastian Vizcaino in 1602 explored the coast and met some of the locals, but real Spanish settlement did not occur until 1769, when Gaspar de Portola explored the area to open up a land route to the port of Monterey. They named the area's major river Rio de Nuestra Senora la Reina de Los Angeles de Porciuncula (The River of Our Lady the Queen of Angels of Porciuncula).

Two missions established soon afterward at San Gabriel and San Fernando brought Franciscan fathers and Spanish soldiers to settle the area.

In 1781, Felipe de Neve, the Governor of Spanish California, brought a group of 44 settlers to found a new town along the river-thus named El Pueblo Sobre el Rio de Nuestra Senora la Reina de Los Angeles de Porciuncula (the name was shortened rather quickly). These early Angelenos were a mixed race group of Native Americans, African Americans, and Mexican farmers.


The new pueblo remained a sleepy town for much of its early life. It was an inland settlement at a time when most trade and traffic happened by sea. The surrounding area was divided into huge ranchos where wealthy landowners raised cattle. Now, many communities in the L.A. area take their borders from these ranchos. The town's first census in 1741 found 141 citizens.

Mexican independence from Spain made little mark on the town but the discovery of gold at the San Fernando mission in 1842 led to an influx of fortune hunters. The famous gold rush of 1849 in Northern California created a great demand for beef from the Los Angeles-area ranchos, but demand soon faded after the rush was over. California joined the United States in 1850 and the face of Los Angeles was soon to change.

The Promised Land

In the early days of statehood, Los Angeles was a rip-roaring western town. Lawlessness was rampant, and the town's inland isolation did not allow it to see nearly as much growth as San Francisco to the north.

But all that changed with a set of railroad tracks. In 1871, the city was linked by rail to San Francisco, and in 1876 lines opened to the east. Competition between the Southern Pacific and Santa Fe railroads brought reduced fares by 1885. Rail barons took great pains to promote travel to Southern California. Southern Pacific's Henry E. Huntington even hired journalist Charles Nordhoff to write a book extolling the virtues of the Southern California climate.

Soon, tales about an earthly paradise of endless sunshine, healthful air and abundant land brought an influx of easterners. By the late 1800s, the area experienced a tremendous real estate boom. Population increased five-fold between 1880 and 1890, reaching 50,000 by 1890 and 100,000 by the turn of the century.

Many of the first arrivals were seeking better health. Patients with Tuberculosis (called consumption) and asthma made up the largest first wave of immigrants to Southern California.

Advertising and the fare wars initiated by competing railroads also brought a rapidly increasing number of visitors (the word "tourist" was coined in Southern California). In the early part of the 20th century, visitors from the east and Midwest came to escape the harsh weather back home. Their tales of a winterless land of sunshine prompted others to come out, and after a strong real estate push, many stayed on. Much of this conversion took place between 1900 and 1910 when population tripled to reach more than 310,000.

New Fortunes

As Los Angeles grew, new developments brought more attention to the area. The growth of the citrus industry added to Southern California's reputation as a land of sunshine. The 1873 introduction of the seedless navel orange from Brazil to Riverside created a citrus farming boom throughout the area. The newly invented refrigerated boxcar allowed California citrus to be spread all over the nation. In 1877, a boxcar of California oranges caused a sensation when it arrived in St. Louis. Agriculture thus replaced cattle ranching as the new mainstay of the economy and the area grew wine grapes, wheat and other fruits and vegetables in addition to citrus. What is today Beverly Hills were bean fields. Hollywood was mostly fig orchards.

In 1892, Edward Doheny discovered oil near where MacArthur Park lies today. The area soon became known as "greasy gulch" and oil wells quickly sprouted up all over. By 1897, there were more than 500 oil wells pumping in the downtown area alone. California soon became the third largest oil producing state in the nation, creating overnight millionaires.

This abundance of oil and open flats made L.A. the perfect place to try out a new invention that would change the face of the city-the horseless carriage. The city already had an extensive public transport system in the Pacific Red Cars, but the automobile quickly became king. Auto traffic first took to the L.A. streets in 1897. By 1915, there were 55,000 cars cruising the Los Angeles roadways. By 1927, the city was described as a "completely motorized civilization." Auto-related developments sprang up here as well:

* 1912-the city saw the first gas station;
* 1940-the first freeway (now the 110 from Pasadena to Downtown);
* 1942-the first parking meter.

A rapidly expanding town in the midst of a desert, Los Angeles needed water. It became apparent that the growing population had a thirst that could not be quenched locally. So, in a scandal worthy of a movie plot (it later became one-Chinatown, with Jack Nicholson), William Mulholland built an aqueduct from the Owens Valley to bring water to dusty L.A. Speculators in on the plan bought cheap land plots in the San Fernando Valley knowing the soon-to-be irrigated farm land would be worth much more.

Show people

L.A.'s climate appealed to more than sun worshippers. Abundant sunshine made L.A. attractive to moviemakers who needed a steady supply of bright outdoor light and varied terrain.

Hollywood was a small planned residential community established by Horace Wilcox. Even though no holly grew here, Wilcox's wife, Daeida, named the town after the home of a woman she met on a train. A staunch prohibitionist, Wilcox had hoped to set up a temperate community. This desire was abandoned soon after the Nestor Film Co. set up shop in 1911-in an abandoned Hollywood tavern. Early movie people were a somewhat nomadic bunch not welcomed by the townsfolk who turned up their noses at "show people" and soon erected signs allowing "no dogs, no actors."

But the industry flourished. Cecil B. DeMille shot the first Hollywood film, "The Squaw Man," in 1913. By the time of the 1915 premiere of the controversial film "Birth of the Nation," Hollywood was an established force. By 1920, 80 percent of the world's films were made in California and by 1930, after the arrival of "talkies," the film industry became one of the Top 10 moneymaking industries in America.

In the early days of silent films, audiences could easily watch movies being made. Carl Laemmle began charging 25 cents to watch filming at his Universal Studios. After the addition of sound took filming into insulated studios, guides began to offer tours of studios and to stars' homes.

Soldiers, Sailors and Factory Workers

Movies were not the area's only major new industry. The war years especially brought Los Angeles to the center of passenger and military aircraft production. Companies with names such as Hughes, Northrup and Lockheed set up shop here. Again, L.A.'s economic base shifted as manufacturing replaced agriculture's dominance and farmland gave way to urban development. By WWII, L.A. factories produced one-third of the nation's warplanes.

Wartime brought not only workers to L.A., but also soldiers. Military personnel on their way to the Pacific theater got a glimpse of the Southern California good life, and many opted to stay after the war. At the start of WWII, L.A. had 1.5 million people. By 1950 it was the third most populated city in the nation. By 1960, 2.5 million people populated the city, and more than 6 million lived in the county.


Throughout its history, Los Angeles has attracted people of all backgrounds and ethnic origins. Significant populations from all corners of the world have made their way to Los Angeles over time. Large groups of Asian laborers helped build the railroads and developed their own distinct settlements. Chinatown and Little Tokyo served as the centers for their respective groups, and newer Asian populations have settled in Koreatown, Monterey Park and Little Saigon in Orange County.

African Americans, who were among the founding settlers of the pueblo, began to arrive in large numbers after the Civil War, and by 1912 had settled in significant numbers around First and Los Angeles Streets, later migrating down Central Avenue. The area became one of the most famous black thoroughfares in America and saw a rapid influx after the 1920s.

The area has always felt the strong influence of Hispanics. While many come from Mexico, significant waves have arrived from many Latin American countries. L.A. is the second largest Guatemalan and Salvadoran city in the world.

Modern Times

Los Angeles is undoubtedly a city with a glorious and proud past. As a trend-setting metropolis, L.A. has become synonymous with innovation and invention. The Internet, the Barbie doll, Mazda Miata, Mickey Mouse, Space Shuttle and the DC-3 were all born in Los Angeles. The city's star continues to shine bright as the entertainment capital of the world.

As the world ventures further into a new millennium, it will also welcome a "new" Los Angeles. While residents and visitors alike will continue to embrace and savor the rich cultural heritage and the legacy of this one-of-a-kind city, Los Angeles is preparing to take its place as a leader and pioneer of the 21st century.

The new century brings with it the promise of expansion and continued growth in international trade, a rise in high-tech enterprises, and the title of "#1 Visitor Destination in the World" for Los Angeles.

Where to Find L.A.'s History

In an ever-expanding city like Los Angeles, it may seem that history gets short shifted as Angelenos look to the future. There are plenty of places where a visitor can experience L.A.'s roots.
Native American Culture-Southwest Museum
Mission Period-San Fernando & San Gabriel Missions
Early Pueblo Life-El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Monument
Settlement of the West-Autry Museum of Western Heritage
The Rise of the Automobile-Petersen Automotive Museum
Turn of Century Life-Grier-Gusser Museum
The Entertainment Capital-Hollywood Entertainment Museum, Museum of radio & Television History, Warner Bros. Studio Museum, Mann's Chinese Theatre
War Years-Drum Barracks Civil War Museum, For MacArthur Museum
Immigrant Culture-Japanese American National Museum, Chinatown Heritage and Visitors Center, African American Museum, Museum in Black


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