Portrait of Tomás Sanchez | Courtesy of the USC Libraries California Historical Society Collection

Tomás A. Sanchez: The Californio Sheriff of Los Angeles

In 1846 at the age of 24, Tomás Avila Sanchez inherited Rancho La Cienega o Paso de La Tijera from his grandfather Vicente Sanchez, a powerful and cantankerous old Don from the Pueblo days, who twice served as mayor of Los Angeles during an illustrious, if not embattled, life in politics. Vicente Sanchez would receive a Mexican land grant for Rancho La Cienega o Paso de la Tijera from Governor Manuel Micheltorena in 1843, two years after Sanchez had hosted the governors inaugural ball at his palatial "downtown" adobe (currently the site of the Garnier Building).Cienega, the Spanish word for marsh, described the swampy grasslands that were often flooded by the volatile course of the L.A. River. Early Spanish explorers also referred to the land as Paso de la Tijera, believing the passageway to El Pueblo resembled an open pair of scissors. The 4,219 acres comprising the doubly named ranch are now known as Ladera Heights, Windsor Hills, Baldwin Hills, and Leimert Park.

Much like his grandfather, Tomás Sanchez dedicated his career to civic endeavors; early records list him as the city's tax collector in 1843, the first of many public offices he would come to occupy. At the outbreak of the Mexican-American War, Sanchez joined the Lanceros, a cavalry unit expert in spear-wielding combat. He fought alongside General Andres Pico in the infamous Battle of San Pasqual, 28 miles north of present day San Diego -- one of the bloodiest to be fought in Alta California, and one of the few in which Mexican forces defeated a superior U.S. military.

Battle of San Pasqual by Colonel Charles Woodhouse. Courtesy of USMC Command Museum

The war came to an end with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, also known by its more descriptive title: The Treaty of Peace, Friendship, Limits, and Settlement Between the United States of America and The Republic of Mexico. The agreement stated that the U.S. would honor the Mexican land grants of the Rancho years; nevertheless many Californios would be stripped of their properties, their appeals ignored by a victorious government that favored unhindered expansion.

On September 9 1850,California was awarded statehood. The Pueblo de Los Angeles (population: 1,160) underwent a vacuum of power -- lawlessness and violence were a daily reality. Oftentimes Sanchez joined vigilante groups in search of criminals and bandidos. Though Los Angeles was becoming home to a growing number of law-abiding families, farmers, and shopkeepers, the cultural milieu of the day also included clusters of failed miners, gamblers, and renegades -- the wild west had arrived, and the city soon boasted more than 400 gambling halls.

In 1855, Sanchez proved influential in the formation of Los Angeles' first police force: The City Guards. The guards saw plenty of action for a city of its size, reporting an average of one murder per day. Tensions amongst the Mexican Angelenos and the new influx of Anglo's were exacerbated by the passing of the Greaser Act (1855), an anti-Mexican law that was veiled as a crime deterrent.

Sanchez was respected by both populations, particularly esteemed by the new arrivals in search of a stable, if not uncontested, path to prosperity. According to historian Newmark Harris, Sanchez's frequent displays of "great physical prowess" against some of the most feared outlaws of the day earned him the post of County Supervisor, an office he held for three terms.

Image: nomessagehere.blogspot.com

In 1860, at the age of 34, Sanchez became the first Mexican American to be elected as Sheriff of Los Angeles; he would be re-elected 7 consecutive years. The native son, by now a wealthy land baron and descendant of one of the city's original twelve families, was an unlikely candidate for such a dangerous job. During his tenure, Sanchez frequently engaged in gun battles with some of the most notorious outlaws of the day, delivering many of them to the unforgiving noose of justice.

Though Sanchez demonstrated great loyalty and devotion to his native city, he rarely felt the same about his adopted federal government. In 1859 he supported a bill, written by his friend and fellow veteran, General Andres Pico, that called for the secession of Southern California from the rest of the state, calling the new state Colorado. The bill was passed in California, but ignored by the federal government. At the outbreak of Civil War in 1861, Sanchez demonstrated his Confederate loyalty by helping to finance and arm a secessionist militia: The Los Angeles Mounted Rifles. Unionists kept a close eye on the Southern sympathizer, but Sanchez, ever the stealth politician, managed to quell his critics with his rigorous approach to the enforcement of the law.

Portrait of Tomás and friend John Wilson.

Sanchez extended his political prowess by enlisting Mexican and Native American voters in the support of local Democrats. In "Sixty Years of Southern California 1853-1913," Newmark Harris recounts an occasion in which Sanchez stole a group of inebriated Mexican voters (note: providing free spirits to potential voters was a common tactic at the time) from Thomas H. Workman, then running for County Clerk:

In company with some prominent Mexican politicians led by Tomás Sanchez, they loaded themselves into a stage and visited the corral; and once arrived there, those that could made such flowery stump speeches in the native language of the horde that, in fifteen minutes or twenty minutes, they had stampeded the whole band!

In 1875, Sanchez sold Rancho La Cienga o Paso de La Tijera to Workman's brother-in-law, F.P.F Temple. Sanchez never lived at Rancho La Cienega, preferring to build his home on property owned by his wife, Maria Sepulveda, also a product of wealthy Spanish settlers. Their home is now a historical monument in Glendale. Tomás Sanchez reached the end of his illustrious life cycle at the age of 56 in 1882. He was survived by his wife Maria, nineteen sons, and two daughters.

With the passage of time, the original adobe structures of Rancho La Cienega o Paso de La Tijera passed through many owners, and in the 1920s served as the club house to the Sunset Fields Golf Course. During the post-World War II demographic shifts of the region, the original Rancho's adobes went through the hands of new African American business owners; in 1973 the structures became home to their present day occupants: Consolidated Board of Realists of Southern California. This consortium of African American brokers and real estate agents would be crucial in defeating the unlawful attempts at denying African Americans a fair shot at property loans.

Mexican Land Grant Map of Rancho La Cienega o Paso de la Tijera issued to Vicente Sanchez in 1843 by Governor Manuel Micheltorena. Courtesy of UC Berkeley
A 1924 photo of the Rancho La Cienega Adobes. Courtesy of USC, California Historical Society Collection

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