Rancho San Rafael: A Land in Transition

The success of Portolà's mission to colonize California launched an inexorable Spanish expansion driven by land grants and gifts that re-distributed Native American lands among the criollo elite. This created a vast, privately-owned Rancho system in California.

In 1784, José María Verdugo recieved a 36,000-plus acre gift from the Spanish Empire for his duties as Corporal of the Guard of the Mission San Gabriel; a condition for the land gift stipulated that Verdugo "take care" of the "Indians" living in the area. The Rancho San Rafael, known as La Zanja or "the ditch" for its extensive irrigation system, was then home to Hahamog'na who had previously lived along the banks and hills of the Arroyo Seco.

The Ranchos
Charles Fisher describes the establishment of the original Pueblo and the granting of lands, including the Rancho Rafael to the Verdugo family.

According to historian John Kielbasa, by 1817 Verdugo had "1800 head of cattle, 1000 calves, 600 unbroken horses, seventy tame horses, fifty wild mules, and twenty tame mules. By 1829, the numbers had doubled." When the Mexican-American War broke out in 1848 however, things began to change for Verdugo and for the Rancho system overall.

The annexation of California to the U.S via the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo created a new set of legal parameters for land ownership, forcing the young government to create a board of land commissioners that would study the legitimacy of past Spanish and Mexican claims and bring the semi-feudal Rancho system to a halt.

Verdugo's children—Don Julio and Doña Catalina—had to provide proof of ownership and file a claim to the U.S Land Commission; it was not until 1882 that they received a United States Patent for their land. By then, however, the old life was already gone: severe droughts and an extravagant ranchero lifestyle forced the Verdugos to mortgage their ranch, and they eventually lost it through foreclosure to the bank. On March 8, 1869, Rancho San Rafael was sold at an auction to Alfred B. Chapman who, along with Andrew Glassell, subdivided the land to create one of the first suburbs in Los Angeles—Highland Park.Just as land speculation and legal maneuvers were breaking up the Ranchos, the Southern Pacific Line was leading people west, as was a wave of novels, books and magazines portraying California as a kind of modern-day Eden. The floodgates of a vast East Coast migration to Los Angeles were now fully opened, changing the city forever.

William Deverell explains how the history of political, demographic and cultural transitions in the region provide a framework to understand Highland Park and its continued evolution.

Shifts in Land Use
William Deverall shares how the environment, religion, economics, and politics dictated the value and use of the land around the Arroyo Seco throughout modern history.


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