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In a State of Peace and Tranquility: Campo de Cahuenga and the Birth of American California

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There are few places I have driven by in my adult life as frequently as Campo de Cahuenga. There is no place I have meant-to-go-to-yet-never-made-it-to for as many years as Campo de Cahuenga. In fact, it is the reason there is a Lost Landmarks column. In my former aspiring actress years, I would pass by the forlorn adobe structure on my way to acting class and wonder what it was. A squat, Mission-style building, it was dwarfed by Lankershim Boulevard, Metro-owned parking lots, and shrieking Universal Studios. Campo de Cahuenga looked as out of place as I often felt.

For various reasons, (including the fact that it is only open from 12-4 the first Saturday of each month) what was supposed to be the first Lost Landmarks was repeatedly pushed to the back burner. Last Saturday, I finally made it to the Campo. It is a postage-stamp sized site, with memorial bells and plaques and fountains. There is a confusing recreation of the original building's recently rediscovered foundation. The actual foundation is buried below for safekeeping, and extends into the parking lot and the street. The adobe building, built in 1950, is now known to be an inaccurate approximation of what the original building may have looked like. Inside this building there are flags, portraits, a conference table and a mish-mash of historical knick-knacks. A rack of period-style costumes sits beside the restroom, waiting for the next reenactment of the signing of the Capitulation of Cahuenga.

At a historical site where almost everything is a recreation, the past can feel as unintelligible and muddled as the present. In many ways, this is an accurate representation of history as a discipline. All second-hand stories are colored with our own modern morals and devoid of true insight into the motivations of the past. What we do know is that below the varnished bricks and recently disturbed soil lies the foundation of a building. On January 13, 1847, on the porch of that building, a large adobe structure, Andres Pico and John C. Fremont signed a treaty while rain poured off the tile roof. This treaty led to the cessation of the Mexican-American War in Southern California, and to California's eventual transfer from Mexican to American rule.

Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares


For hundreds of years, the Tongva tribe prospered in what is now Los Angeles County. Living in small villages, these wealthy, tattooed hunter-gatherers were excellent craftsmen with an advanced social structure. One of their villages, Kaweenga, was located in what is now the San Fernando Valley, near a naturally occurring pass through the Santa Monica Mountains. When the Spanish arrived in 1769, they quickly named the useful pass "Cahuenga," the Spanish spelling of Kaweenga. The Cahuenga Pass became part of the famed El Camino Real (now the 101-Freeway), the 600 mile trail that connected Spanish California's 21 missions. In 1771, Father Junipero Sera founded the San Gabriel Mission, and claimed much of the Tongva's land. Subjugated to Spanish rule, the Tongva became known as "Gabrielinos," and worked on projects for the mission.

In 1797, Mission San Fernando was founded by Father Fermin de Lausen. Between 1790 and 1810, an expansive six room adobe, one of the largest adobe buildings in Southern California, was constructed near the old village of Kaweenga, adjacent to the Cahuenga Pass. Almost certainly constructed with Tongva labor, the building was commissioned by either Mission San Fernando or Mariano de Luz Verdugo, a pensioned Spanish soldier. By 1810, records show the Campo was used by Mission San Fernando, most probably to support the Mission's cattle ranch. After Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821, the missions were secularized, and their land was divvied up and granted to loyal ranchers and settlers. Campo de Cahuenga was given to Andres Pico, and then sold to the de Celis family. It probably continued to be used for ranching purposes.

During the years of Mexican rule, many Californians, both the native "Californios" of Spanish and Mexican descent and recent settlers from America, grew dissatisfied with Mexico's weak governance. This led to many skirmishes, including two nearly bloodless battles fought near the Cahuenga Pass in 1831 and 1845, between Mexican loyalists and Californios. During the 1840s, the American government became increasingly worried that California and the rest of the Southwest would be snapped up by a European power. After a failed attempt to buy the Southwest from the massively in debt Mexican government, battles broke out along the Texas-Mexico border. Following the troubling Doctrine of Manifest Destiny, the United States declared war on Mexico on May 13, 1846.

American troops met with little resistance in Southern California. But soon American misrule in Los Angeles, under General Archibald Gillespie, sparked a rebellion. Echoing the sentiments of many in the Southwest, the Californios were tired of being pushed around by major powers. They wanted to govern themselves. Led by General Andres Pico, the younger brother of former Alta California Governor Pio Pico, the fighting between the Californios and American troops escalated.

In December, Pico's forces defeated the Americans at the Battle of San Pasqual. But American forces were determined to crush the rebellion and retake the city. By Christmas Eve, Los Angeles' war weary Californios were ready to surrender, but they refused to capitulate to the American General Stephen Kearny and Commodore Robert Stockton. Both had dealt harshly with civilians and wanted Pico and his men executed. The charismatic and adventurous (some would say reckless) American Lieutenant- Colonel John C. Fremont and his troops were in Santa Barbara, ready to march to Los Angeles. It seemed more bloodshed was inevitable. But that night a resolute matriarch named Dona Bernarda Ruiz de Rodriquez insisted on meeting with John C. Fremont at the San Carlos Hotel on Santa Barbara's State Street. This meeting would change the course of California's history.

Map outlining the borders of the Campo de Cahuenga | Los Angeles Public Library
Map outlining the borders of the Campo de Cahuenga | Los Angeles Public Library.

To All to Whom These Presents Shall Come

She wished me to take into my mind this plan of settlement, to which she would influence her people; meantime, she urged me to hold my hand, so far as possible. -- John C. Fremont on Dona Bernarda Ruiz de Rodriguez 1
The Commissioners on the part of the Californians agree that their entire force shall, on presentation of themselves to Lieutenant-Colonel Fremont, deliver up their artillery and public arms, and they shall return peaceably to their homes, conforming to the laws and regulations of the United States, and not again take up arms during the war between the United States and Mexico, but will assist and aid in placing the country in a state of peace and tranquility. -- Article 1, The Treaty of Cahuenga

Dona Bernarda Ruiz de Rodriguez was born to a storied Californio family in Santa Barbara in 1802. By 1847, she was a wealthy, educated widow and respected town leader. After Fremont and his fierce, bearded band of 400 motley mountain men took over the city, he moved into the hotel next to her home. Bernarda's four sons were riders for "Mexico's version of the Pony Express," and Fremont's men took a herd of horses that belonged to the family. Her sons were also in harm's way, having gone to Los Angeles to fight the Americans. While the rest of Santa Barbara cowered in fear, Fremont planned an attack on Los Angeles. Bernarda, determined to save her sons and her horses, requested to speak to Fremont. Fremont, an elegant and chivalrous man, gave her ten minutes of his time.

Ten minutes stretched into two hours. Bernarda saw the writing on the wall. She knew American forces would prevail, and urged Fremont to "go easy" on her people. 2 She laid out the terms of a "generous peace" that would include Pico's pardon, release of prisoners, equal rights for all Californians, respect of property rights, and the opportunity for Mexican citizens to peaceably return to Mexico if they wanted. Fremont was persuaded to push for peace by this formidable woman. He remembered:

I found that her object was to use her influence to put an end to the war, and to do so upon such just and friendly terms of compromise as would make the peace acceptable and enduring. 3

The next day Bernarda and Fremont went to the San Fernando Mission. After hearing Kearny and Stockton's brutal terms of surrender, she went solo to Pico's camp and told him about her discussion with Fremont. Pico agreed to meet with Fremont at Campo de Cahuenga, which until recently he had owned. The night before the meeting was to take place, Jose Antonio Carrillo, Pico's trusted aide, wrote out the Treaty of Cahuenga (also referred to as the Capitulation of Cahuenga) in Spanish and English. The original seven articles in the treaty were taken almost verbatim from Bernarda's suggestions. This included Article Five, which stated:

That, in virtue of the aforesaid articles, equal rights and privileges are vouchsafed to every citizen of California, as are enjoyed by the citizens of the United States of North America.

On January 13, 1847, Bernarda was the only woman present to witness the signing of the Treaty at Campo de Cahuenga. Most historians place the signing at a table on the porch of the old adobe building in the pouring rain. Pico and Fremont took turns signing the document as Bernarda and aides to both leaders looked on. Amazingly, this unofficial truce, which had neither the backing of the American government or anything to do with the Mexican government, was honored by both the Americans and Californios. Fighting ceased in Southern California. A year later, it served as a model for the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which formally ended the Mexican American War and ceded the Southwest to America.

California became America's 31st State on September 9, 1850. Bernarda returned quietly to Santa Barbara, where she died in 1886. Her name was not on the treaty she had helped craft. But she got what she wanted -- her sons were spared, and her horses were returned to her.

Hugo Ballin's 1931 mural depicting the singing of the Treaty of Cahuenga is mounted in the lobby of the Guarantee Trust Building at 5th and Hill Streets | WPA Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Hugo Ballin's 1931 mural depicting the singing of the Treaty of Cahuenga is mounted in the lobby of the Guarantee Trust Building at 5th and Hill Streets | WPA Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Lost and Found

"Nothing but a small knoll around which are a few bricks." --U.S. Surveyor John Goldsworthy's observations of the Campo in 1877 4

Over the next few decades California grew exponentially. American settlers flooded Southern California, and new routes were needed to connect the now massive United States of America. One of these routes, the Butterfield Overland Mail Trail, linked the East Coast with California, ending in San Francisco. The Overland Stage Company had 250 Concord stagecoaches on the road, carrying mail and paying passengers across the country. From 1858 to 1861, Campo de Cahuenga was used as a Butterfield Overland Station, where horses would be changed out and weary passengers would rest.

According to one journalist who travelled the entire 2,812 mile trail, "I now know what hell is like. I've just had 24 days of it." 5

The hell of war did touch the Campo in the form of Union soldiers, who supposedly camped there during the Civil War. After that, it seems Californians were much too busy to worry much about an old, out of style adobe building. By 1877, the large Campo was a small mass of rubble. In fact, until John C. Fremont visited the site in 1889, many did not even know it was where the treaty had been signed. Not that anyone really cared -- in 1900, it was reported that the abandoned land was covered in cherry, walnut and plum trees.

Not only was the Campo lost, so were both original versions of the treaty. The English version seems to have been misplaced in route to Washington D.C. The Spanish version also vanished, which made officially confirming the Campo site as a historical landmark very difficult. Enter Mrs. A.S.C. Forbes, a tiny, tireless woman who is famed as California's "bell lady." Forbes designed bells in the early Mission style at her own foundry, and had them placed along the historic El Camino Real. In 1910, she convinced the Women's Club of Hollywood to publically recognize the Campo, and the bell they placed in a spot of honor is still at the site today.

Decades after it went missing, Forbes finally located the Spanish version of the treaty at UC Berkley, in the papers of Don Jose Antonio Carrillo. In 1922, the site was officially recognized by the state of California. By now, there was a small animal hospital on the land. But Forbes was undeterred and convinced the city to acquire the land. In October 1924, the new Fremont-Pico Memorial Park was opened on the grounds. The animal hospital was turned into a small museum with a "strange wall of pinkish stucco," run by a caretaker named Adolpho Rivera. 6 In 1931, an amateur archeologist, aided by school children, excavated a portion of the original adobe's foundation. However, their findings were reburied and the maps they produced were sadly inaccurate.

Campo de Cahuenga in 1928 | Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Times
Campo de Cahuenga in 1928 | Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Times.

The Depression and Rivera's death wreaked havoc on the small museum, and by the late '40s, the now-nearly-90 year old Forbes was calling for a new building. She got her wish. On November 29, 1950, the new community building at the Campo De Cahuenga was dedicated by the Mayor of Los Angeles. Designed by the firm of Spencer and Landon, the completion of the Mission Revival structure was the fulfillment of Forbes' final dream, though she was too ill to attend the dedication.

Although the site was declared a historical cultural monument, it was "virtually unnoticed" by folks on their way to Universal Studios or jobs in the Valley. 7 It became a place for school children and diehard history buffs. Fittingly, it was America's continuing expansion that led to a resurgence of interest in the site.

In 1997, expansion of the Metro's red line led to archeologists uncovering the long lost original adobe's foundation, only six inches below a sidewalk off Lankershim Blvd. Several years of excavation led to the discovery of Tongva artifacts, animal bones, Mission era ceramic tiles, and the 99 by 30 foot stone foundation. These discoveries led historians to radically reassess not only the time period in which the Campo was built, but also who owned it. Although the site was reburied, its outline can be seen both in the recreation on the site and in decorative tiles mapping the outline of the Campo that stretch out onto present day Lankershim Blvd.

Every day busy Californians drive right over the spot where the first steps toward American statehood were taken many moons ago. Like I once did, they briefly wonder what the Campo is all about -- and then zoom past, on their way to find their promised piece of the American dream.

Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares

Additional Photo by: Hadley Meares


1 Campo de Cahuenga website
2 "L.A. Then and Now: Woman Helped Bring a Peaceful End to Mexican-American War" Los Angeles Times, May 5, 2002
3 Ibid.
4 "Digging History: Discoveries Delight Archaeologists" Los Angeles Daily News, January 11, 2002)
5 Butterfield Overland Mail, wikipedia
6 "Museum on historic site saved for coming generations" Los Angeles Times, January 31, 1940
7 "Cradle of California history lies virtually unnoticed in our midst" Los Angeles Times, February 27, 1964

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