Mountain Men: Pioneers and Outlaws of the San Gabriels

Jason and Owen Brown on top of Mount Wilson | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

In the grip of Manifest Destiny following the Mexican-American War, Los Angeles was beset with settlers hungry for the West. The new frontier of the United States promised an escape from a troubled past and the prospect of wealth and abundant work opportunities. While most arrivals found the pace of life in Los Angeles amenable, a few hardy souls rejected its municipal and political trappings and opted for the canyons and backcountry of the San Gabriel Mountains. Yearning to operate in the wild margins of civilization, these early pioneers -- and a few fugitives from the law -- carved their homes and hideouts into the cloistered heights above Los Angeles.


Robert Owens

At age forty-seven, Robert Owens, a slave on a Texas cotton plantation, bought his freedom. Using the savings he had accrued as a hired hand, Owens left behind his wife and three children and moved to Los Angeles in the early 1850s. Although California adopted an antislavery constitution in 1849, Anglo-Americans in Los Angeles still harbored Southern sympathies. Owens landed in a town ripe with racial prejudice. According to Quintard Taylor's "In Search of the Racial Frontier," Los Angeles had "the only significant African-American population in Southern California," growing from a U.S. census designated population of 12 in 1850 to 66 by 1860. The ex-slave decided to settle far above the hostile township and built a cabin in the upper reaches of a foothill canyon just north of present-day Altadena.

In time, Owens earned enough money from doing odd jobs in the San Gabriel Valley to buy his family's freedom and bring them via an ox-drawn wagon from Texas to their new home. Even in the face of rampant racial discrimination, Owens managed to broaden his fortune when he won a government contract to supply wood, and building and livery materials, to military installations in Los Angeles. Owens and his own hired hands logged the woodlands around his cabin, which became known as Black Mountain, or Negro Canyon. Today, the canyon he lived and worked in is called El Prieto, "the dark one."

El Prieto Trail running through the canyon where Robert Owens resided. Today the path is popular with mountain bikers. | Photo: Augie Medina

Grandson Robert Curry OwensWith his robust profits, Owens expanded his business endeavors into cattle dealing and real estate, purchasing downtown property along Los Angeles and San Pedro Streets. By his death on August 18, 1865, at age 59 of typhoid fever, Owens had become the wealthiest African-American in Los Angeles. Through the end of the century, his descendants would be influential members in Los Angeles' African-American community, including his grandson Robert Curry Owens, one of two sons born from the marriage between Charles Owens and Ellen Mason, daughter of African-American entrepreneur Biddy Mason.


The "Brown Boys"

Twenty-two years after the death of Robert Owens, two aging brothers from Akron, Ohio constructed a snug wooden shack on a mesa above El Prieto Canyon. Jason and Owen Brown were the sons of John Brown, leader of the failed antislavery insurrection at Harper's Ferry, Virginia in 1859. The elder Brown was hung for the raid, but Owen eluded arrest and joined his brother Jason and sister Ruth in Pasadena in 1885. The brothers were warmly welcomed in town, and were affectionately referred to as the "Brown Boys." Unsatisfied with the vicissitudes of burgeoning Pasadena, the brothers repaired to their mountain homestead in 1887 and savored their modest lifestyle for the ensuing three years.

Owen Brown gravestone in its original location | Photo: Altadena Blog
The bearded siblings tramped through the corrugations of the San Gabriels, tended their garden, and welcomed any visitors willing to trudge up to their perched residence. In 1887, they christened a nearby peak Brown Mountain, honoring their heroic father; the name survives today. About a year later, Owen contracted pneumonia from exposure to a winter storm and died in January, 1889, at age 64. His funeral in Pasadena attracted over 2,000 people, and he was laid to rest on a summit near their homestead, called Little Round Top. Before returning to Ohio, brother Jason worked on the construction of the Mount Lowe Railway. He would die five years after his brother passed.


In 1898, a granite monument to mark the gravesite of Owen Brown was erected on Little Round Top. The gravestone, a local landmark visited by many Angelenos over the next century, went missing in 2002, shortly after the property was purchased by a new landowner. In 2012, the monument was found not far from the gravesite, and is expected to be restored.

Jason and Owen Brown, at their cabin above El Prieto Canyon. | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

A brass band heads the funeral cortege of Owen Brown. The photo was taken January 10, 1889, looking east from Raymond Avenue along Colorado Blvd.  | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

Owen Brown's grave sits on the summit of Little Round Top, shown here, named after the significant hill at the battle of Gettysburg | Photo: Daniel Medina

A sign serves as a marker for Owen Brown's gravesite. | Photo: Daniel Medina


The Rankins

The first settlers in the canyons above present-day Monrovia was a family of six from Wisconsin. In 1874, Ribbard Rankins, his wife Polly, and their four children established a home in the lower reaches of Monrovia Canyon. The Rankins ate from their gardens and, like Robert Owens, earned an income from selling wood felled in the canyon to buyers in Los Angeles. The family also profited off their sale of honey from their bee hives. In his accounts published in 1875's "Vasquez; or, the Hunted Bandits of the San Joaquin," reporter George Beers offers his view of bee ranches in the San Gabriels:

At or near the mouth of almost every little ravine ... along the southern base of the San Gabriel range ... may be found a bee ranch, and the proprietors, although living lives of solitude, are making money ... a good deal faster than any other set of men with moderate means, I know of.

The family faired well until the spring of 1877, when three Rankin children were afflicted with Typhoid fever and died within weeks of each other. Upon the tragedy, Ribbard and Polly buried their children above their canyon home, erecting three tombstones, before taking their surviving son, Ernest, back to Wisconsin. The graves can still be visited today in Monrovia Canyon Park.

The triple headstones of the Rankin Children in Monrovia Canyon Parks. The headstones originally stood upright but were placed flat at a later time. | Photo: Daniel Medina

The gravesite of Polly, age 16, Estella, age 13, and Albert, age 19, in Monrovia Canyon Park. The children are no longer interred at this site. | Photo: Daniel Medina

Bee hives still operate in the San Gabriel Mountains, like this one owned by Klaus Bees on Barley Flats | Photo: Klaus Bees


Tiburcio Vasquez

Portrait of Tiburcio Vasquez at the time of his capture | Photo: Digitally reproduced by the USC Digital Library; From the California Historical Society Collection at the University of Southern California

It is a good deal like hunting a needle in a hay stack, this hunting for a man in the mountains.

Sherriff Harry Morse of Alameda wrote this to California Governor Newton Booth in 1874 about the status of his sixty-one day, 2,720-mile search for Tiburcio Vasquez. The bandido was wanted for murder in Tres Pinos, but his crimes far exceeded the murder charge. For close to twenty years, Vasquez and his posse stole horse stock from San Gabriel Valley rancherías, and fled with them into the mountains. Vasquez was well acquainted with the San Gabriels, and knew of the best pasture for stolen horses, his favorites being the obscure backcountry of Chilao, Little Rock Creek, and an outcrop of impressive rock formations, today known as Vasquez Rocks.

Sherriff Morse eventually caught up with Vasquez after a botched robbery of a San Gabriel ranchería forced him to flee up the Arroyo Seco, en route to his hideout at an associate's adobe home below Cahuenga Pass. The notorious criminal was captured while eating lunch in the adobe on May 14, 1874. In an interview with the Los Angeles Star, Vasquez wished to share why American occupation of formerly Mexican-owned California inspired his lawlessness:

I had numerous fights in defense of what I believe to be my rights and those of my countrymen. I believe we were unjustly and wrongfully deprived of the social rights that belonged to us.

Vasquez was sentenced to death in San Jose after a four day trial and a two hour jury deliberation. While awaiting execution, the handsome convict received many admirers -- especially women -- leaving him bundles of flowers. On March 19, 1875, he stepped up to the gallows. As the noose was fitted onto his neck, Vasquez delivered his final word: "Pronto."

View of the rock formation at Vasquez Rocks, near Agua Dulce, the reputed hideout of the bandido Tiburcio Vasquez. | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library


Charles Tom Vincent

High above the East Fork of the San Gabriel River, a reclusive hunter named Charles Tom Vincent lived in a one-man shack squeezed among the pines of the mountain backcountry. Proud of the skulls and furs of the big horn sheep and grizzly bears he killed with his Winchester rifle that he displayed on his four walls, Vincent was content living a hermit's life for close to fifty years. Although attention found him upon his discovery of gold in 1896, while hunting at a location he would name Big Horn Mine, little was known about him until he arrived in a Los Angeles hospital close to the end of his life in 1926.

Undated photograph of Tom Vincent. His rifle leans on the tree and his cabin can be seen in the background. | Photo: Find A Grave

On his deathbed, Vincent explained that he wished to be buried in the veteran's cemetery in Sawtelle. When asked why, he spilled his secret: his real name was Charles Vincent Dougherty, and he was a fugitive. John Robinson explains in his "The San Gabriels: The Mountain Country from Soledad Canyon to Lytle Creek:"

Vincent revealed that he had served in the 8th Ohio Infantry during the Civil War and had been wounded at Gettysburg. After the war, he and a man named Lockwood had journeyed west to prospect. They located a claim in Arizona and built a cabin ... One day upon returning ... they found three men ransacking it ... they shot all three and buried them on the spot.

The two men bolted for California, arriving in Los Angeles in 1868. Not pleased with city living, Dougherty eventually ambled into the San Gabriels to live alone. Today he rests eternally, per his final wish, in the Los Angeles National Cemetery.

The grave of Charles Vincent Dougherty at the Los Angeles National Cemetary in Westwood. | Photo: Daniel Medina

Vincent's cabin still stands today near Mount Baden Powell. It has been partially restored. | Photo: Daniel Medina

The back side of Vincent's cabin, with the remains of the chimney in the center. | Photo: Daniel Medina

The fireplace inside Vincent's cabin. | Photo: Daniel Medina

The roof from inside Vincent's cabin. | Photo: Daniel Medina

About the Author

I grew up in the San Gabriel Valley and enjoy exploring Los Angeles and learning about its origins.
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