The California I Love: Three Books on Early Los Angeles

Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

The first L.A. Letters of 2014 looks at three early iconic books focused on Los Angeles. "Reminiscences of a Ranger" by Major Horace Bell was published in 1881; "Sixty Years in Southern California, 1853-1913," by Harris Newmark was published in 1916; and "The California I Love" by Leo Carrillo was published in 1961. As old as these three volumes are, they will be relevant forever because they paint vivid early portraits of the state and city.

Horace Bell
Horace Bell   

"Reminiscences of a Ranger," by Major Horace Bell predated the city's boom of the 1880s and is considered one of the first books published in Los Angeles. Historians have yet to find any other volumes emerging from the city before Bell's 1881 effort. Painting a landscape of vigilantes and bandits, and tracing the city's early development, his memoir covers his time with the Los Angeles Rangers from 1850 to 1880. Written in a hyperbolic register, the text is valuable because Bell offers some of the earliest portraits of the growing pueblo: "I have no hesitation in saying that in the years of 1851, 52 and 53, there were more desperadoes in Los Angeles than in any other place on the Pacific coast," Bell reports. Bell not only tells his own early Los Angeles tale post 1850, he dives into the Mexican-American War, Joaquin Murrieta, the Spanish Padres, and the Rio Porciuncula.

Bell's characterizations of the West's wide open landscape and tales of frontier justice make a fitting first book of Los Angeles. Published just a few years before "Ramona" by Helen Hunt Jackson, and a generation before the film industry, Bell's is one of the first booster books to emerge on Southern California. He celebrates the Spanish past: "Nothing but an adobe house could have stood an old-fashioned fandango. A modern earthquake is no comparison to an old-fashioned California fandango, especially such as we had in those good old times in this angelic city." Critics of Bell say his perception in regards to the Mission fathers was misguided; in his passage on the padres, he writes, "it is with greatest possible reverence I refer to the Mission Fathers, and their manner of dealing with the Indians."

Story continues below

The greatest merit of "Reminiscences" is its very existence. In the midst of his descriptions are joyful observations, like "the beauty of the scenery that surrounded them was beyond the power of description." In another paragraph Bell writes, "from my historical bonanza other matters were extracted, the most important of which was the fact of Holy inspiration being the cause that induced the founding of the beautiful city." Just when the mythmaking seems to be poured on too much, the narrative moves to another fascinating twist, whether it be from the Bear Flag Rebellion or his passage on grizzly bears. Bell writes that "in the 50s, grizzly bears were more plentiful in Southern California than pigs; they were, in fact, so numerous in certain localities, as Topanga Malibu, La Laguna de Chico, Lopez and other places, as to make the raising of cattle utterly impossible." He then describes the process of lassoing a grizzly and the men who performed this outrageous feat. He notes, "Whom ever does it runs more risk of life and limb than he would ever have ran at Shiloh or Antietam."

All written works are products of their time, and "Reminiscences" represents 1881 as expected. In many ways it is a work of vigilante literature, detailing the Wild West spirit of early lawless Los Angeles. A few short years after its publication the Boom of the 1880s would change Southern California forever.

Harris Newmark
Harris Newmark

Another early California memoir from 1916 is "Sixty Years in Southern California, 1853-1913," by Harris Newmark. Newmark's eyewitness account on the transformation of Southern California, from early statehood to the First World War, does a thorough job showing the transformation of Los Angeles from its early Mexican roots into a 20th Century American metropolis. Considering the amount of history Newmark covers, it's no surprise the work is over 600 pages long. Picking up the baton from Bell, he covers the rise and fall of early Los Angeles families, like the Bandinis, Bixbys, Sepulvedas, Picos, and Don Abel Stearns among others. He also explains the Butterfield Stagecoaches, various ranchos, historic orchards, celebrated vineyards, and story after story about the bandits and vigilantes.

Newmark covers everything from the history of Westlake Park, now known as Macarthur Park, to the development of Pasadena, Anaheim, Santa Ana, San Pedro, San Bernardino, and dozens of other local neighborhoods. Like Horace Bell, Newmark peppers his narrative with enthusiasm for the region. For example, "Had Edgar Allan Poe lived in early Los Angeles, he might well have added to his poem one more stanza about these old church bells." Newmark also celebrates the Spanish past and references it throughout his narrative. An underlying spirit of manifest destiny seems to be one of his guiding themes. In his conclusion he writes, "When I came, Los Angeles was a sleepy, ambitionless adobe village with very little promise for the future." A few paragraphs later he finishes this thought by writing, "I believe that Los Angeles is destined to become, in not many years, a world-center, prominent in almost every field of human endeavor."

Newmark was obviously correct in this assertion. He had come to Los Angeles at 19 years old and diligently recorded his life from 1853 to 1913. Newmark was a participant-observer in the city for almost three generations. His family was an important early Los Angeles family, like the ones his book celebrates, and he knew many of his subjects intimately. He was an early businessman and was a part of a group that bought the Repetto Rancho and helped settle Montebello. Before the name Montebello was chosen for the city around 1899, the settlement was briefly called Newmark.

Newmark's book was published in 1916, and he died before he could see it in print. Between some of his mythical descriptions and early stories is a prevailing romantic sentiment, like when he writes, "I dwell, rather, on the manifold blessings which have been my lot in this life -- the decision of fate which cast my lines in the pleasant places of Southern California." "Sixty Years in Southern California" is an important touchstone of the region's early history.

Leo Carrillo
Leo Carrillo

"The California I Love," by Leo Carrillo, is a romantic California memoir published in 1961, an appropriate choice to pick up from where Harris Newmark left off. It begins, "the adobe is my birthstone." Similar to the other two books, this is a memoir written by a longtime resident, and Carrillo also passed just as the book came into print, like the other two authors. Carrillo can claim adobe is his birthstone because he was actually born in the original Los Angeles pueblo in 1880. Carrillo's grandparents and great-grandparents were original California Spaniards with rancho holdings.

Carrillo's prose has a colloquial register that gives the whole book a conversational feel. His vocabulary is an iconic California pitch and truly poetic, in passages like: "Even the making of the adobes is a symbolic act. The water and earth are mixed under the bare feet of man himself. Man treads with vigor and purpose upon the adobe to which straw has been added for strength." He also has a sentimental tone of one looking back fondly over a long lifetime. In one of the final chapters he says, "It is easy for me to preach the doctrine of California. It is part of my blood and soul."

Carrillo's own path followed an almost Forrest Gump-like trajectory. He rocketed to fame as a vaudeville act in his teens near the turn of the century. He did impressions and met contemporaries like Will Rogers on the national vaudeville circuit. He eventually did film as well, but he was already famous for a generation before film had sound. Years later he was known on the national television show "The Cisco Kid" in the 1950s. Carrillo advocated preserving California beaches and wetlands, dating back to the Great Depression. The memoir screams love for California in every sentence. His enthusiasm foreshadowed Huell Howser. His effervescence and genuine voice makes it a fascinating historical account. Carrillo preaches the doctrine of California.

All three of these books can be deconstructed and criticized on some levels for being shortsighted and products of their period, but all in all they each will remain important because they are early accounts and represent a starting point. By the Depression, Los Angeles and California historians like Louis Adamic and Carey McWilliams followed Newmark and Bell with more analytical studies. Similarly, Carrillo's 1961 book is by no means definitive; it is relevant because it is a phenomenal literary period piece. Carrillo lived through remarkable times and had heard about the past from his own family. These early first-hand accounts paved the way for the rapidly expanding academic study of California and Los Angeles underway now. Salute to Horace Bell, Harris Newmark and Leo Carrillo for being three pioneering authors in the landscape of California and L.A. Letters.

We are dedicated to providing you with articles like this one. Show your support with a tax-deductible contribution to KCET. After all, public media is meant for the public. It belongs to all of us.

Keep Reading