Mountain Men: Pioneers and Outlaws of the San Gabriels | KCET
Mountain Men: Pioneers and Outlaws of the San Gabriels
In the grip of Manifest Destiny following the Mexican-American War, Los Angeles was beset with settlers hungry for the West. The new frontier of the United States promised an escape from a troubled past and the prospect of wealth and abundant work opportunities. While most arrivals found the pace of life in Los Angeles amenable, a few hardy souls rejected its municipal and political trappings and opted for the canyons and backcountry of the San Gabriel Mountains. Yearning to operate in the wild margins of civilization, these early pioneers -- and a few fugitives from the law -- carved their homes and hideouts into the cloistered heights above Los Angeles.
At age forty-seven, Robert Owens, a slave on a Texas cotton plantation, bought his freedom. Using the savings he had accrued as a hired hand, Owens left behind his wife and three children and moved to Los Angeles in the early 1850s. Although California adopted an antislavery constitution in 1849, Anglo-Americans in Los Angeles still harbored Southern sympathies. Owens landed in a town ripe with racial prejudice. According to Quintard Taylor's "In Search of the Racial Frontier," Los Angeles had "the only significant African-American population in Southern California," growing from a U.S. census designated population of 12 in 1850 to 66 by 1860. The ex-slave decided to settle far above the hostile township and built a cabin in the upper reaches of a foothill canyon just north of present-day Altadena.
In time, Owens earned enough money from doing odd jobs in the San Gabriel Valley to buy his family's freedom and bring them via an ox-drawn wagon from Texas to their new home. Even in the face of rampant racial discrimination, Owens managed to broaden his fortune when he won a government contract to supply wood, and building and livery materials, to military installations in Los Angeles. Owens and his own hired hands logged the woodlands around his cabin, which became known as Black Mountain, or Negro Canyon. Today, the canyon he lived and worked in is called El Prieto, "the dark one."
With his robust profits, Owens expanded his business endeavors into cattle dealing and real estate, purchasing downtown property along Los Angeles and San Pedro Streets. By his death on August 18, 1865, at age 59 of typhoid fever, Owens had become the wealthiest African-American in Los Angeles. Through the end of the century, his descendants would be influential members in Los Angeles' African-American community, including his grandson Robert Curry Owens, one of two sons born from the marriage between Charles Owens and Ellen Mason, daughter of African-American entrepreneur Biddy Mason.
The "Brown Boys"
Twenty-two years after the death of Robert Owens, two aging brothers from Akron, Ohio constructed a snug wooden shack on a mesa above El Prieto Canyon. Jason and Owen Brown were the sons of John Brown, leader of the failed antislavery insurrection at Harper's Ferry, Virginia in 1859. The elder Brown was hung for the raid, but Owen eluded arrest and joined his brother Jason and sister Ruth in Pasadena in 1885. The brothers were warmly welcomed in town, and were affectionately referred to as the "Brown Boys." Unsatisfied with the vicissitudes of burgeoning Pasadena, the brothers repaired to their mountain homestead in 1887 and savored their modest lifestyle for the ensuing three years.
The bearded siblings tramped through the corrugations of the San Gabriels, tended their garden, and welcomed any visitors willing to trudge up to their perched residence. In 1887, they christened a nearby peak Brown Mountain, honoring their heroic father; the name survives today. About a year later, Owen contracted pneumonia from exposure to a winter storm and died in January, 1889, at age 64. His funeral in Pasadena attracted over 2,000 people, and he was laid to rest on a summit near their homestead, called Little Round Top. Before returning to Ohio, brother Jason worked on the construction of the Mount Lowe Railway. He would die five years after his brother passed.
In 1898, a granite monument to mark the gravesite of Owen Brown was erected on Little Round Top. The gravestone, a local landmark visited by many Angelenos over the next century, went missing in 2002, shortly after the property was purchased by a new landowner. In 2012, the monument was found not far from the gravesite, and is expected to be restored.
The first settlers in the canyons above present-day Monrovia was a family of six from Wisconsin. In 1874, Ribbard Rankins, his wife Polly, and their four children established a home in the lower reaches of Monrovia Canyon. The Rankins ate from their gardens and, like Robert Owens, earned an income from selling wood felled in the canyon to buyers in Los Angeles. The family also profited off their sale of honey from their bee hives. In his accounts published in 1875's "Vasquez; or, the Hunted Bandits of the San Joaquin," reporter George Beers offers his view of bee ranches in the San Gabriels:
The family faired well until the spring of 1877, when three Rankin children were afflicted with Typhoid fever and died within weeks of each other. Upon the tragedy, Ribbard and Polly buried their children above their canyon home, erecting three tombstones, before taking their surviving son, Ernest, back to Wisconsin. The graves can still be visited today in Monrovia Canyon Park.
Sherriff Harry Morse of Alameda wrote this to California Governor Newton Booth in 1874 about the status of his sixty-one day, 2,720-mile search for Tiburcio Vasquez. The bandido was wanted for murder in Tres Pinos, but his crimes far exceeded the murder charge. For close to twenty years, Vasquez and his posse stole horse stock from San Gabriel Valley rancherías, and fled with them into the mountains. Vasquez was well acquainted with the San Gabriels, and knew of the best pasture for stolen horses, his favorites being the obscure backcountry of Chilao, Little Rock Creek, and an outcrop of impressive rock formations, today known as Vasquez Rocks.
Sherriff Morse eventually caught up with Vasquez after a botched robbery of a San Gabriel ranchería forced him to flee up the Arroyo Seco, en route to his hideout at an associate's adobe home below Cahuenga Pass. The notorious criminal was captured while eating lunch in the adobe on May 14, 1874. In an interview with the Los Angeles Star, Vasquez wished to share why American occupation of formerly Mexican-owned California inspired his lawlessness:
Vasquez was sentenced to death in San Jose after a four day trial and a two hour jury deliberation. While awaiting execution, the handsome convict received many admirers -- especially women -- leaving him bundles of flowers. On March 19, 1875, he stepped up to the gallows. As the noose was fitted onto his neck, Vasquez delivered his final word: "Pronto."
Charles Tom Vincent
High above the East Fork of the San Gabriel River, a reclusive hunter named Charles Tom Vincent lived in a one-man shack squeezed among the pines of the mountain backcountry. Proud of the skulls and furs of the big horn sheep and grizzly bears he killed with his Winchester rifle that he displayed on his four walls, Vincent was content living a hermit's life for close to fifty years. Although attention found him upon his discovery of gold in 1896, while hunting at a location he would name Big Horn Mine, little was known about him until he arrived in a Los Angeles hospital close to the end of his life in 1926.
The two men bolted for California, arriving in Los Angeles in 1868. Not pleased with city living, Dougherty eventually ambled into the San Gabriels to live alone. Today he rests eternally, per his final wish, in the Los Angeles National Cemetery.
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