Battlefield L.A.: Where & Why War Came to Southern California

U.S. troops battled Californio forces loyal to Mexico on January 8, 1847 on the banks of the San Gabriel River. Drawing by John Southwick of the U.S. Navy, courtesy of the Robert B. Honeyman, Jr. Collection of Early Californian and Western American Pictorial Material, Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley.

It was nearly seventy years ago that a Japanese submarine shelled the Santa Barbara coast—the last recorded attack on a Southern California land target. In 1955, the U.S. Army installed a ring of Nike anti-aircraft missiles to defend the Los Angeles area, but by the 1974 the system had been dismantled.

In earlier times, however, Southern California was a geopolitically dynamic region at the edge of the Spanish empire and—later—the Mexican republic. While not common, warfare did occasionally mar the region's landscape.

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A Nike anti-aircraft missile site in the San Fernando Valley. The last L.A.-area Nike missile site was closed in 1974. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photograph Collection.

One bizarre and nearly bloodless battle took place in present-day Hollywood, next to the Cahuenga Pass--not far from where summer concertgoers picnic under the stars.

From the 1820s until the American conquest in 1846, Mexican California was riven with political tension. Since colonization began in 1769, the Spanish empire had governed California as a military territory. Missions and pueblos operated somewhat autonomously, but ultimately each civilian or religious official reported to a military officer in matters of governance; Los Angeles' civilian alcalde (mayor) and town council, for example, could be overruled by a designated sergeant at the Santa Barbara presidio. Mexican independence had ushered in a liberal, reformist spirit across the new republic, and many Californios--newly conscious of the concept of political rights--chafed under military rule.

Another point of contention was the secularization of the missions. Inspired by the new spirit of egalitarianism across Mexico, secularization promised to convert the mission fathers to parish priests and empower their Indian charges as free citizens. It also promised to free up California's choicest agricultural land, which would then be granted to Mexican citizens as private ranches, making governance of California--and its attendant control over the former mission lands--a prized commodity.

In 1831, tensions boiled over when the military governor of California, Manuel Victoria, attempted to reverse what modest reforms already had been enacted. Victoria refused to call the territorial disputacion (legislature) into session, exiled two leading citizens of Los Angeles and jailed at least 100 others, and vowed to resist attempts to secularize the missions. Outraged Californios charged tyranny. Would-be rancheros Juan Bandini, Juan Antonio Carillo, and Pío Pico raised a small rebel force of Angelenos. They were joined by troops from the San Diego presidio, and the combined army marched on Los Angeles, freed the town's political prisoners, and proclaimed the pueblo liberated.

Early drawing of Cahuenga Pass, showing the possible site of the first Battle of Cahuenga Pass. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photograph Collection.

Victoria, meanwhile marched south to suppress the insurrection. His roughly 30 troops met a rebel force of 150 at a site west of Los Angeles, near the mouth of the Cahuenga Pass.

The battle was short, according to the account of early California historian Hubert Howe Bancroft. When Victoria saw the San Diego troops arrayed across from him, he ordered their commander, Pablo de la Portillà, to join his ranks. Portillà rode out to parley, but when Victoria realized that Portillà's troops would not join him, he ordered his men to fire.

Their volley missed, and while most of the rebel troops retreated to their high ground, passion overcame a few. Led by Jose Maria Avila, whom Victoria had imprisoned in the Los Angeles jail, they charged the governor on horseback. Avila first shot one of Victoria's subordinates in the back, and then turned his sights on the governor. His lance tore through Victoria and knocked the governor off his horse.

Fearing that his wounds were fatal, Victoria resigned his office and fled to Mission San Gabriel. He would survive, but his policies would not. On August 9, 1834, Victoria's eventual successor, José Figueroa, secularized the mission lands, and many of the rebellion's leaders became California's richest landowners.

As the most direct route between Los Angeles and points north, Cahuenga Pass represented one of the region's most strategically significant sites in a Southern California still vulnerable to war. It is not surprising, then, that in the 1840s the pass would become the site of two more major military events.

In 1845, another skirmish near the pass deposed yet another unpopular governor appointed by Mexico's central government. Manuel Micheltorena had arrived in 1842, an appointee of Mexico's president, Antonio López de Santa Anna. With hundreds of Americans ambivalent or hostile to Mexican rule living within Alta California, Santa Anna had dispatched Micheltorena and a ragtag army of 300 convicts to secure the province for Mexico. The governor, and especially his rapacious army, soon wore out their welcome.

A revolt against Micheltorena's rule broke out in November 1844 near Santa Clara. The governor conspired with several prominent foreigners, including the Swiss settler John Sutter and several Americans, and marched south to quell the rebellion. On February 20, 1845, Micheltorena's army and a rebel force--equally matched at about 200 troops each--met on the plains of Rancho La Providencia, just north of the Cahuenga Pass near present-day Burbank. The two armies exchanged several artillery rounds, and later accounts list the only casualty as a single equine, either a mule or a mustang. But the battle--known today as the Second Battle of Cahuenga Pass or, alternately, as the Battle of La Providencia--also claimed Micheltorena's reign. Burbank construction crews were unearthing cannonballs well into the twentieth century.

Manuel Micheltorena, who was ousted by the 1845 Battle of La Providencia. Courtesy of the Title Insurance and Trust / C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, USC Libraries.

Little more than a year passed before war erupted between the United States and Mexico, once again transforming the plains around Los Angeles into a battlefield and making Cahuenga Pass the site of a decisive military event.

American forces under Commodore Robert Stockton first entered Los Angeles on August 11, 1846, only to find the city abandoned by Californio authorities. California's governor, Pío Pico, and military commander, José Castro, had fled to Sonora to beg the Mexican government for reinforcements. Confident in his control of the city, Stockton withdrew most of his men and sailed north, leaving a small contingent of U.S. Marines under the command of Captain Archibald Hamilton Gillespie.

Stockton and Gillepsie could not have anticipated the ferocity of Californio resistance to the American occupation. Across the state, Californios loyal to Mexico met privately on ranchos, out of sight of the Americans, to raise a resistance force. Within a month, a contingent of lancers under the command of José María Flores closed in on Los Angeles and expelled Gillespie's marines from the city's government house. Gillespie's men fled to Fort Moore Hill, just west of the plaza. The ensuing Siege of Los Angeles lasted until September 29, when Gillespie signed articles of capitulation that allowed him and his men to escape untouched to their ship in San Pedro.

Drawing titled 'Charge of the Caballeros,' depicting the 1846 Battle of San Pasqual between Californian cavalry and U.S. Army troops. Courtesy of the Title Insurance and Trust / C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, USC Libraries.

American troops returned en masse to Southern California in December 1846. Two hundred army troops commanded by General Stephen W. Kearney marched toward San Diego from New Mexico, while Stockton sailed toward south with 750 men and John C. Frémont led his roughly 400 irregular troops toward Los Angeles.

Kearney's tired troops clashed first with the Californio forces east of San Diego in the inconclusive Battle of San Pasqual. A more decisive conflict came on January 8-9, when Kearney's and Stockton's combined forces met the Californios for two days of battle along the banks of the San Gabriel River. The successive battles of San Gabriel and La Mesa, known collectively as the Battle of Los Angeles, as well as the Americans' overwhelming numerical advantage, convinced the Californios to lay down their arms.

On January 13, 1847, Andrés Pico, commander of the Californio forces, met with Frémont at Campo de Cahuenga to discuss terms of surrender. Receiving guarantees that the Californios' rights would be protected, Pico signed the Capitulation of Cahuenga, bringing the Mexican War in California to a close and marking the end of land-based warfare in the Los Angeles area.

Beginning of the articles of capitulation signed by Frémont and Pico at Cahunega Pass on January 13, 1847. Courtesy of the Title Insurance and Trust / C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, USC Libraries.

'The Capitulation of the Mexican Army at Cahuenga,' painted by Carl Oscar Borg circa 1931. Courtesy of the Title Insurance and Trust / C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, USC Libraries.

A re-enactment of the signing of the Capitulation of Cahuenga on a parade float. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photograph Collection.

As commander of the Californio forces, Andrés Pico signed the Capitulation of Cahuenga, ending the Mexican War in California. Courtesy of the Title Insurance and Trust / C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, USC Libraries.

Many of the archives who contributed the above images are members of L.A. as Subject, an association of more than 230 libraries, museums, official archives, personal collections, and other institutions. Hosted by the USC Libraries, L.A. as Subject is dedicated to preserving and telling the sometimes-hidden stories and histories of the Los Angeles region. Our posts here will provide a view into the archives of individuals and cultural institutions whose collections inform the great narrative—in all its complex facets—of Southern California.

About the Author

A writer specializing in Los Angeles history, Nathan Masters serves as manager of academic events and programming communications for the USC Libraries, the host institution for L.A. as Subject.
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