What's Missing From the Earliest-Known Drawing of Los Angeles?

Los Angeles as drawn by William Rich Hutton in July 1847. Courtesy of the Title Insurance and Trust, and C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, USC Libraries.

Note: Last week, we looked at what most regard as the first photograph of Los Angeles and the mystery of its origins. This series on the earliest-known representations of Los Angeles continues with an 1847 drawing. Still to come are a 1786 map and a 1542 written account.

Without the handwritten caption reading "Part of Los Angeles," it might be difficult to place the above drawing -- generally considered to be the oldest extant drawing of the city. The Los Angeles that William Rich Hutton saw when he first arrived on July 7, 1847, is virtually unrecognizable today.

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Hutton came to Los Angeles as a clerk to his uncle and eponym William Rich, a paymaster in the United States Army. Together they had sailed to the rudimentary harbor at San Pedro on the USS Lexington. When they landed, their cargo -- pay for the U.S. troops occupying the Mexican city -- required an escort of eleven armed cavalrymen.

The horseback ride from San Pedro to the ciudad took eight hours. Hutton recorded in his diary: "Saw a large grey wolf near the sheep farms."

They remained in Los Angeles for three weeks -- long enough for Hutton to make three sketches of Los Angeles during his free time.

When he made the pencil drawing shown above, Hutton stood atop Fort Hill. Rising steeply behind the Plaza Church, the knoll was a natural vantage point. But because the hill also represented the seat of American power in the occupied city, his view approximated that of the invading forces -- and their cannon.

Mexican-Californian forces had surrendered to John C. Fremont only months before. Far to the south, U.S. troops were advancing on Mexico City and, with the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo twenty months away, Los Angeles was still legally Mexican territory. The Americans treated it as an occupied city. Behind Hutton on the hill's strategic high ground, soldiers would have been hastily constructing a citadel with room for two hundred troops and embrasures for six cannon.

Viewing the city from the site of these fortifications, Hutton's pencil traced the lines of the Plaza Church and nearby adobe houses. The plaza itself appears here as a vacant rectangular lot. A range of hills in the distance frames the scene, and a line of trees stretching horizontally across the entire drawing may trace the course of the Los Angeles River.

Notably absent are the city's inhabitants. At least one thousand people -- many of them who may have objected to the Americans' presence -- called Los Angeles home in 1847. Hutton's pencil sketched structures to be occupied and natural resources to be exploited, but why the existing community of people failed to make an impression remains an open question.

Hutton returned to Los Angeles several more times. In 1849 he assisted E. O. C. Ord with the city's first official survey and, over the course of his visits, produced several more drawings. An 1848 watercolor and pencil drawing provided evidence for animal (if not human) life in the city: a horse.

By the time he left California in 1853, Hutton had created at least 95 sketches. Along with his diaries and letters, these drawings remained prized possessions of his family until 1939, when the Huntington Library acquired them from his surviving daughters.

The version above -- likely reproduced from the Huntington's copy -- comes from the Title Insurance and Trust, and C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, on long-term loan from the California Historical Society to the USC Libraries. The Los Angeles Public Library's Photo Collection contains a reproduction another of Hutton's 1847 sketches (below), which looks at the city in a more southwesterly direction.

Another 1847 view of Los Angeles by Hutton. Courtesy of the Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

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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What a fabulous pocket of history this sketch is. Although I have to disagree that the city is unrecognizable. Front and center is the old plaza church whose facade isn't all that different today. And if this drawing is from 1847, then the long structure at center-left with a series of consecutive doorways/windows can be none other than the Avila Adobe (also still standing). L.A. is already there, if one only knows where to look.


Well said, Massiel. You're right about the church and the Avila Adobe.


Ninety-five sketches? And letters, diaries and copies of other materials? Why hasn't this all been published? But looking at the link - they also include other parts of California and South America besides just LA.

So why not at least put all the LA items on-line, if no book can be put out at the moment. It's just so frustrating that so much of LA's history is totally inaccessible to the public. It's impossible for anyone who isn't writing a book or has a doctorate to get access to anything in the Huntingon and the Bancroft and the Library of Congress aren't exactly around the corner.

And someone needs to do a website that starts with the all the earliest materials and then gradually moves forward in time.


Thanks for the comment, Brady. You're right that the sketches cover other parts of California and do include a few views from outside the Golden State. And you're in luck, for they actually have been collected into a book. The Huntington published "California, 1847-1852" in 1942 (reprinted in 1956). It's out of print, but there are five copies -- three of them non-circulating -- at the Los Angeles Central Library. The Huntington collected Hutton's diaries and correspondence into a separate book titled "California at a Glance." Enjoy!


And one of the reason to do this would be to hard clarify when different photos or drawings were shot or made - and when certain buildings or other improvement were made For example, the top drawing of 1847 clearly shows the Lugo House as being on story tall - since later photos of the two story Lugo house show no one story houses where there are clearly at least two in this drawing.

And the Lugo House is usually said to have been built either prior to 1840 - or in the 1840's - and it is usually said to be either the first two story house in LA - or one of the first. And in the bottom drawing - also of 1847 - there appears a two story house that appears to not be locateded where the Lugo House was.


Thanks! And I keep running into old books published by either the SCHS or the Huntington that I never knew about - and which I would therefore know to look for. So besides a website with all the cool stuff on it - it would need a list of all the published materials that are accessible to the public. I have found lots of old photos and other items of historical value, but can't get access to what I need to properly research them.

Here is one intriguing example:


Los Angeles, founded by 44 Native Americans and Blacks likely escaped slaves was a Californio town. The reason for the absence of depiction? Racism. Belligerance, Intolerance, and (Gold Rush Greed). With bounties on the heads of Native Americans in Northern California, the obliteration of the environment, theft of mines from the Californios, continuous rapes of women and land theft in violation of the treaty of Gudalupe Hidalgo, and "villages of skulls" up and down the Sacramento River from Shasta to the San Joaquin, the result of malaria and smallpox from the invaders, This was a military assualt and the dawning of a genocide that lasted into the 20th century. Many of our citizens today would prefer to erase this history from memory, because this illusion of LA as a land speculation paradise was based on fraud and murderous atrocity. The caucasion, Anglo Saxon invaders were merciless and brutal and the drawing, notable for what is not depicted reveals the truth perfectly. This image is of the ideal, sans inhabitants.