Happy Birthday, Los Angeles! But is the Story of the City's Founding a Myth?

A 1936 re-enactment of the founding of Los Angeles. Courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

September 4 marks the traditional anniversary of the 1781 founding of El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles (The Town of the Queen of the Angels).

In a scene that's reenacted each year by descendants of the pueblo's original colonists, the 44 founding pobladores (townspeople) marched on Sept. 4, 1781, as a group from Mission San Gabriel Arcángel to the historic Los Angeles Plaza at the southern end of Olvera Street. There, Governor Felipe de Neve welcomed the procession and presided over a lavish ceremony commemorating the town's founding. It was a celebration worthy of the birth of a great city.

Except that none of it actually happened.

In recent decades, scholars have turned to journals, correspondence, maps, official records, and other carefully preserved eighteenth-century documents to piece together the actual story of the agricultural settlement's founding. And, like Romulus and Remus, the traditional narrative has proven to be more myth than fact: the original pobladores arrived separately at Mission San Gabriel Arcángel, some settled the townsite as early as June 1781, and September 4 was likely an arbitrary date that Neve used in his report to his superiors -- one that was marked with little pomp and circumstance.

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Engraving depicting the founding procession of Los Angeles. Courtesy of the Title Insurance and Trust / C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, USC Libraries.

Mural by Millard Sheets depicting the 1781 founding of Los Angeles. Courtesy of the Title Insurance and Trust / C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, USC Libraries.

1937 mural by Buckley Mac-Gurrin depicting the 1781 founding of Los Angeles. The mural once appeared in the Los Angeles Hall of Records, but is now in storage. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection.

The story of Los Angeles' founding begins with a Russian expedition to North America in the 1730s and 1740s. Although Spain had laid claim to Alta California for nearly two centuries, it had never settled the land, which lay along the northwestern reaches of its vast American empire. But when a Russian expedition, led by the Danish explorer Vitus Bering, reached Alaska in 1741, it became clear that the Russian empire, expanding eastward over the Eurasian landmass and across the soon-to-be-named Bering Strait, might harbor territorial ambitions toward Spanish California.

In the mid-1760s, the visitador general of New Spain, José de Gálvez, drew plans for the colonization of California. Settlement would take three forms: a string of religious missions to convert the indigenous peoples into Spanish subjects, presidios to secure Spain's military hold on the province, and pueblos to supply the garrisons with food and establish a secular, civilian presence in the territory. Seeing more signals that Russia intended to expand south from Alaska into California, King Charles III of Spain hastily approved the plans in 1768.

A presidio in San Diego came first in 1769, followed soon by missions strung up the California coast. In Southern California, Mission San Gabriel Arcángel appeared in 1771.

Civilian settlement, however, lagged. It was not until 1777 that Governor Felipe de Neve founded the first pueblo in San Jose.

Eight years earlier, Gaspar de Portolà's expedition passed through the Los Angeles basin on its way north and noted what would become the future site of Alta California's second pueblo, Los Angeles. The broad river valley, framed by a line of irregular hills, had "all the requisites for a large settlement." The missionary Juan Crespí described the scene in his diary entry of Wednesday, Aug. 2, 1769:

We set out from the [San Gabriel] valley in the morning and followed the same plain in a westerly direction. After traveling about a league and a half through a pass between low hills, we entered a very spacious valley [the Los Angeles basin], well grown with cottonwoods and alders, among which ran a beautiful river from the north-northwest...We halted not very far away from the river, which we named the Porciúncula [today, the Los Angeles River]...The plain where the river runs is very extensive. It has good land for planting all kinds of grain and seeds, and the most suitable site for a mission.

Fittingly, the first European party to set foot on the future site of Los Angeles felt three earthquakes on the day of its arrival.

1948 re-enactment of the Portolà expedition's arrival in Los Angeles. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Daily News Collection, UCLA Library.

Portolà and Crespí were not the first to realize the site's suitability for settlement; that same day, the expedition encountered the native Tongva (Gabrielino) people, who came from their riverside home to greet and trade with the Spaniards. Their village, named Yang-na (or Yaanga, according to some sources) was one of the largest indigenous settlements on the Los Angeles plain. A giant, 400-year-old sycamore at the center of the hamlet, which the Spanish later named El Aliso, provided shade to the tribal leaders who met under its canopy.

Finally, in 1779, Neve secured approval for the founding of a new pueblo at the site mentioned by Crespí. Neve personally oversaw much of the town planning, mandating a site close enough to the Porciúncula River for irrigation but elevated enough to survive the inevitable floods.

The pueblo's layout—based on the standard Spanish colonial model replicated everywhere from South America to New Mexico—would feature a central plaza surrounded by residences and, eventually, a village church. The Spanish soldier José Darío Argüello detailed Neve's plan in a 1786 map, preserved today at the University of California, Berkeley's Bancroft Library. The plaza and residences were to be built on a terrace abutting the Elysian Park Hills, creating a defensible military position. Farmland was to be situated closer to the river—on the west bank, the pobladores' lots, and on the east, the royal fields, which later became Boyle Heights.

Reproduction of Argüello's 1786 map of the town plan, translated into English. The plaza and residences appear in the top-left and the agricultural fields in the bottom-right. The two streams running from top to bottom are the zanja, an irrigation ditch, and the river. El Camino real, the road connected the pueblo to the San Gabriel Mission and other Spanish settlements, runs left-to-right between the plaza and the farmland. Courtesy of the California Historical Society Collection, USC Libraries.

Detail of Edward O. C. Ord's 1849 map of Los Angeles. The two straight lines, representing the cardinal directions, intersect at the historic plaza church. Courtesy of the Title Insurance and Trust / C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, USC Libraries.

Los Angeles civic leaders celebrate the city's September 4 birthday in 1963 next to a statue of Felipe de Neve, the colonial governor who founded the original pueblo. Courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Neve dispatched his lieutenant governor south to New Spain's Interior Provinces to recruit the first pobladores. Aware of the long, dry summers of Southern California, the Spanish officials recruited experienced farmers from the dry province of Sonora, where irrigation made agriculture possible, as well as skilled artisans who would keep the settlement supplied with farming tools. Neve and his lieutenant governor also searched for soldiers prepared to serve on the frontier and escort the pobladores over hundreds of miles to their new home.

On Feb. 2, 1781, 12 pobladores and their families, escorted by 17 soldiers and their families, departed the Sonoran town of Álamos. A second party made up of soldiers and nearly 1,000 head of livestock would later follow Juan Batista de Anza's overland trail to Alta California, but the pobladores' path took them across the Gulf of California and then up the Baja California peninsula to their destination.

The town's first settlers were a remarkably diverse group. The pobladores, their wives, and their children who left Álamos were all Spanish subjects, but only two among them claimed exclusive Spanish descent, as historian Antonio Rios-Bustamante notes in his 1992 book, Mexican Los Ángeles: A Narrative and Pictorial History:

The 23 adults and 21 children in this group were a representative cross-section of the laboring class majority population of the northwestern Mexican frontier provinces in the eighteenth century...the group reflected the ethnic composition of Sonora and Sinaloa from which most came. Eight of the twenty-three adults were Indians, ten were of African descent...Records also show that one of the black settlers, Luis Quinero, was the son of a black slave and an Indian woman of Álamos.

At this point in the story, the traditional narrative begins to depart from what historians today accept as historical fact. It was long thought that the pobladores arrived as a single group at Mission San Gabriel Arcángel. However, correspondence and other records show that the settlers actually arrived as separate parties over the course of a few months.

More central to L.A.'s foundation myth is the idea that the pobladores all walked from the mission to the townsite together. This notion, too, is now thought to be wrong.

Historian Harry Kelsey's 1976 article for the California Historical Quarterly, "A New Look at the Founding of Old Los Angeles," has been particularly influential in understanding the town's creation. Consulting the journal—today preserved in the Huntington Library—of Franciscan missionary Francisco Palou, Kelsey established that the first four families of pobladores arrived at the San Gabriel Mission in June and were quickly dispatched to the Los Angeles townsite nine miles away. Palou wrote:

There arrived first at San Gabriel the people who came by way of Old California, and soon as part of them arrived [Neve] gave them the order to found the projected town of Nuestro Senora de Los Angeles with some four families...The rest of the troop was kept at San Gabriel Mission until the group arrived that came by way of the Colorado River.

A later entry described the new town:

Town of Our Lady of the Angels: About three leagues directly northwest [of San Gabriel] on the banks of the River named Porciuncula a town is started that had its beginning about June of 81. In it are established four families of people of reason and four soldiers of escort.

Eventually, by September, the pueblo's 11 founding families had settled their land on the banks of the Los Angeles River. But if the first pobladores arrived in June, why is September 4 celebrated as the city's birthday?

William David Estrada, curator of California and American history at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, provides a succinct explanation in his 2008 book, The Los Angeles Plaza: Sacred and Contested Space:

...[O]n November 19, Neve informed Croix [his superior] that the founding of the pueblo had taken place under his command on Sept. 4, 1781. The selection of this date possibly was arbitrary, since September marked the month when the colony's financial records were first recorded. Therefore, September 4 marked the official, if not the actual, date of the founding of El Pueblo de La Reina de Los Angeles. Contrary to another long-cherished myth, it took place without pomp or ceremony.

One final incongruity between the traditional account and historical fact is noteworthy. Although the Los Angeles Plaza Historic District is where L.A.'s earliest history is remembered today, the monument does not mark the original site of the pueblo. Historians are unsure where the settlers first built their adobes, but the pueblo evidently moved at least once and perhaps twice to escape the occasional yet devastating floods of the Los Angeles River. The royal square shifted to its present location in 1818, the year construction began on La Nueva Iglesia de Nuestra Señora Reina de los Angeles. Today, thousands of tourists stroll past the church and down Olvera Street's alley of shops and restaurants each year. The location of the original pueblo, the plaza vieja, is lost to history.

Pre-1869 view of the Los Angeles Plaza. Courtesy of the California Historical Society Collection, USC Libraries.

Postcard depicting Olvera Street circa 1940. Courtesy of the Werner Von Boltenstern Postcard Collection, Department of Archives and Special Collections, Loyola Marymount University Library.

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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