The Oldest Things in Southern California's Archives, Part 2

Southern California's archives bridge the old and the new, offering invaluable historical context that isn't always immediately apparent in the contemporary landscape.

We recently asked L.A. as Subject members to search their archives for the oldest object related to Southern California history. Far more than historical novelties, the items they put forth have helped shape our understanding of the people, places, and ideas that define the Southern California of today, and they serve as an invaluable resource for contemporary scholars, journalists, and public policymakers. Last week, we shared six of their submissions. This week, we share several more -- including maps, legal contracts, and even two-hundred-year-old artillery.

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California as an Island

Earth scientists expect that in millions of years, tectonic forces may rend California in two and create a new island out of coastal California. If true, Los Angeles will slowly drift toward Alaska and away from the North America continent.

Early mapmakers were obviously unaware of plate tectonics, but they did prematurely anticipate geologists' conjecture by incorrectly depicting present-day California as an island. As late as 1705, Parisian cartographer Nicholas De Fer drew this map -- the oldest item in the Los Angeles Public Library's extensive map collection -- that showed an oceanic strait in place of the decidedly dry Great Basin.

Courtesy of the Map Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Glen Creason, map librarian at the Los Angeles Public Library, also noted that the library is home to the oldest fire insurance atlas of Los Angeles: the 1888 atlas compiled by Dakin Publishing, which is even older than the library's noted Sanborn Fire Insurance Atlases. Maps such as these provide an indispensable record of early Los Angeles' built environment, showing the locations, sizes, and uses of the city's buildings.

Map from the 1888 Dakin fire insurance atlas. Courtesy of the Map Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

See more early maps of Los Angeles at the Los Angeles Public Library's ongoing exhibition, "As the City Grew," on display in the Central Library's first-floor galleries.

From Bellamy to the Bradbury Building

Sharon Sekhon of the Studio for Southern California History submitted a book with a surprising Southern California connection: an 1888 copy of Edward Bellamy's futuristic and utopian novel, "Looking Backward: 2000-1887." Sekhon explains:

Its description of the future inspired George Wyman, a draftsmen, to draw his designs for the Bradbury Building in 1893. This novel is both interesting for its content -- it describes what life would be like in the year 2000 and travels backward to 1887 -- and for its influence on arguably Los Angeles' most filmed and most beautiful building. Bellamy describes a future office building as a: "vast hall full of light, received not alone from the windows on all sides, but from the dome, the point of which was a hundred feet above....The walls were frescoed in mellow tints, to soften without absorbing the light which flooded the interior."

Courtesy of the Studio for Southern California History.

Compare Bellamy's description with this 1978 image from the LAPL's Photo Collection of the Bradbury Building and decide for yourself how closely Wyman's design adheres to Bellamy's vision.

1978 interior view of the Bradbury Building. Courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Electric Railways Arrive in Los Angeles

Although the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) was formed in 1993, the agency's archives preserve the records of Metro's predecessor agencies and chronicle L.A. transportation history dating to the late nineteenth century.

Archivist Denise Villegas submitted a document from the early years of Los Angeles' long life as an electric railway city. Villegas writes:

Many of the oldest documents we have in the archive are trust deeds that detail the land ownership of previous public transportation agencies in Los Angeles. This particular document, dated July 6, 1891, a contract between the Los Angeles Consolidated Electric Railway Company and M.E. Hammond, details the sale of a portion of land in Los Angeles. Although electric cars were faster than traveling by cable railway and the Los Angeles Consolidated Electric Railway was able to expand service, the company was financially unstable and was acquired by the Los Angeles Railway Company, which ran the popular and well remembered yellow streetcars, providing local service throughout Los Angeles.

Courtesy of the Metro Library.

L.A. Government in Transition

Between the surrender of Mexican and Californio forces in January 1847 and the admission of California as as state in September 1850, governance in Southern California transitioned from civilian administration under Mexican law to U.S. military administration to civilian rule under American law. This 1848 circular, preserved at the Leavey Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University, captures a moment in that slow transition.

The document, writes librarian Clay Stalls, "is a directive, in Spanish and most likely from the city government in Los Angeles, charging the ranchos Centinela, Rodeo las Aguas, and Talamantes to assist Andrés Pico in defending the area from raiding Native Americans ('indios ladrones')."

Circular from CSLA-22, Documents from the History of Nineteenth-Century Los Angeles, Leavey Center for the Study of Los Angeles. Courtesy of the Department of Archives and Special Collections, William H. Hannon Library, Loyola Marymount University.

Registering Cattle Brands with a Newly Formed County of Los Angeles

The transfer of Alta California from Mexican to American civil administration following the Mexican-American War forced many longtime Californians to react quickly in order to preserve their property rights -- including the wealthy and influential rancheros. In this May 1850 letter, Bernardo Yorba requested that his cattle brands be registered with the County of Los Angeles, incorporated just three months earlier.

Stephanie George of CSU Fullerton's Center for Oral and Public History explains some of the letter's features:

As you can see, the letter is hand-written in Spanish and the designs of the brands are drawn out on the left margin. Moreover, it bears the stamp of the newly formed County of Los Angeles and is signed by Ygnacio del Valle, the first elected Recorder of the County and one time alcalde of Los Angeles. He went on to become a member of the California Assembly as a representative of Los Angeles County. Of course, pages could be written about Bernardo Yorba, one of the most successful ranchers in Southern California. His 13,000-plus acre Rancho Cañon de Santa Ana was located along the Santa Ana River in eastern Orange County, currently Yorba Linda, California.


Historical Society's Quiet Cannons

For decades, two cannons have lain in the Charles Fletcher Lummis' El Alisal, their origin unknown. Recently, the Historical Society of Southern California, which operates the house as a museum, resolved to search its archives and discover the cannons' history. Researchers found two yellowing documents that tell the cannons' tale.

One was a letter from Brigadier General Alexander McDowell McCook dated March 9, 1891, states: "The Honorable Secretary of War being present at these headquarters on this date directs the Commanding Officer of the Department of Arizona to take possession of the old iron Cannon referred to within and remove them to a place of safe custody. The Department Commander accordingly designates the rooms of the Historical Society of Southern California as the place of safe custody for these hisorical relics and they are not to be removed from the custody of said Historical Society without the order of the President of the United States, or a future Secretary of War."

The other was a Los Angeles Daily Herald story dated February 24, 1891, reporting that a few "old cannon," veterans of the Mexican-American War, would soon find a new home at the Historical Society of Southern California.

As Historical Society executive director Patricia Adler-Ingram explains in a recent issue of the organization's newsletter, the cannons played an important role in the Battle of the Mesa, fought in the San Gabriel Valley just miles from Los Angeles. The artillery helped Commodore Robert Stockton achieve victory over the defending Californio forces, who surrendered days later at Campo de Cahuenga.

The Historical Society's cannons, veterans of the Mexican-American War.

Courtesy of the Historical Society of Southern California.

Courtesy of the Historical Society 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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Starting in 1539, early Spanish explorers journeying from western New Spain (Mexico) had found the mouth of the Colorado River and thus saw that, at least at that location, Baja California appeared to be a peninsula and not an island. Their knowledge was reflected in maps made in the late 1500s by two prominent European cartographers: Mercator ( and Ortelius ( The regression in understanding came after the second expedition (1604-5) of Juan de Oñate, first Spanish governor of New Mexico. After descending the lower portion of the Colorado River (from Bill Williams River to its mouth), the team saw indication of a body of water extending to the northwest. That mistake first made it into European maps starting in 1622 and was repeated for another 100+ years, including the map in the LAPL's collection. In 1747, Spain's King Ferdinand VII finally decreed that California was not an island.


Thanks for the fascinating information, Paul!