The First Map of Los Angeles May Be Older Than You Think

Hand-drawn copy of a 1786 map of Los Angeles by Jose Arguello. Courtesy of the Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley.

Note: For the past two weeks, we have looked at what most regard as the first photograph and the earliest-known drawing of Los Angeles. This series on the earliest-known representations of the city continues with a map from 1786. Still to come is a 1542 written account.

Maps help a city comprehend itself -- to chart its future and reflect on its past. Commonly cited as the first cartographic representation of Los Angeles, "Los Angeles City Map No. 1" from 1849 combines an honest accounting of the layout of buildings and public streets with a projection of the newly American city's future street grid (see below).

But as a quick consultation with Los Angeles Public Library map guru Glen Creason confirms, Ord's work is only the first surveyed map of the city. Some 63 years earlier, a sergeant in the Spanish army sketched what was likely the first map of Los Angeles.

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To induce the original settlers of Los Angeles to leave their homes in Sonora and Sinaloa for an uncertain future in far-off Alta California, the Spanish authorities offered several enticements. Governor Felipe de Neve described these benefits in his 1779 Reglamento, an early planning document that prescribed the town's layout and administration in detail. Upon arrival, settlers would receive livestock and an annual salary. They would also be granted - provisionally at first - several parcels of land: one house lot, two irrigated farm lots, and two dry farm lots. After five years, if they remained pobladores in good standing, the parcels would become theirs permanently.

So, five years after the town's official -- if not actual -- founding date of September 4, 1781, Sergeant Jose Arguello ventured from the presidio at Santa Barbara to confirm the settlers' titles to their land. The pobladores had already occupied their lots; Arguello's job was merely to record their placement and give each family a distinctive branding iron. By September 18, 1786, with the aid of two soldiers stationed at the pueblo, Arguello had completed the task and drawn the above map.

On the top-left, Arguello drew the heart of the pueblo: a common plaza (labeled "P"), surrounded by a guard house ("A"), two royal buildings ("B"), a granary ("C"), and the settlers' houses ("D" to "M"). Eight families are represented here, including seven of the original eleven. (Three of the eleven left within the first year. One additional family, that of Jose Francisco Sinova, joined the settlement in 1785.)

Three streets ("N") extend from the plaza at perpendicular angles, and the entire settlement is oriented at a 45-degree angle to the cardinal directions -- a requirement of the Law of the Indies meant to ensure optimal lighting and wind conditions.

Switching to a different scale, Arguello sketched out the settlers' agricultural fields on the bottom-right of this document. He drew two meandering lines -- an irrigation ditch and the Rio Porciuncula (Los Angeles River). In between the two he placed the propios--land the town could rent to fill its coffers -- and on the far right indicated the location of the realengas, or royal lands.

Arguello's map -- first deposited in the territorial archives of Alta California and today preserved in the form of two hand-drawn copies at UC Berkeley's Bancroft Library -- differs significantly from Ord's and later cartographic representations. Arguello worked without the benefit of professional surveying equipment. As a result, his map lacks a uniform scale and only roughly depicts spatial relationships between features of the landscape. Because of these deficiencies, the map provides few clues for solving one of the mysteries of early Los Angeles: the site of the original pueblo, before flooding forced the settlers to relocate.

It also makes a glaring omission. Like William Rich Hutton in his 1847 drawing of occupied Los Angeles, Arguello -- also in the employ of an invading army -- fails to note the presence of the town's previous occupants. Somewhere within the edges of this map would have been a major Tongva (Gabrielino) village, Yaanga, occupied for centuries and home to a sacred, ancient council tree. Spanish authorities had deliberately placed Los Angeles next to this village, and by the time Arguello arrived in 1786 it had become an important source of labor for the newborn pueblo. Yaanga's residents, who likely outnumbered the pueblo's in 1786, built many of Los Angeles' huts, adobes, and ditches. Without their aid -- some would say exploitation -- the Los Angeles depicted here might never have survived as a remote colonial outpost.

E. O. C. Ord's 1849 map is misleadingly labeled 'Los Angeles City Map No. 1.' Courtesy of the Map Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

This reproduction of Arguello's map translates the document into English. Courtesy of the California Historical Society Collection, USC Libraries.

L.A. as Subject is an association of more than 230 libraries, museums, official archives, cultural institutions, and private collectors. 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 provide a view into the archives of individuals and institutions whose collections inform the great narrative—in all its complex facets—of Southern California. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter to discover more.

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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