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Independence Day, 1847: How Los Angeles Celebrated Its First Fourth

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One night every July, explosions boom across the Los Angeles Basin, but they provoke little alarm.

The last time an enemy army marched on Los Angeles, it carried the Stars and Stripes.

Elsewhere, the rumble of fireworks might recall the artillery fire of an approaching army or the “shock and awe” unleashed by cruise missile and F-15. Such sounds of war, however, are unfamiliar to Los Angeles, a city that cannot remember when it last served as battlefield. No enemy army has marched on Los Angeles for more than a century and a half, stirring Angelenos with its thunderous cannon. When one last did, in 1847, the enemy carried the Stars and Stripes.

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Gunfire greeted the rising sun on the Fourth of July, 1847. High above Los Angeles, in a fort occupying the city’s commanding heights, Lieutenant John W. Davidson lofted the Stars and Stripes up a 150-foot pine flagpole. A 13-gun salute answered the cheers of 700 armed troops. If dawn hadn’t roused the residents of newly conquered Los Angeles, the cannons surely would have.

Los Angeles was a town under military rule. The oft-reenacted ceremony marked the first official Independence Day celebration in California since American troops had marched into the ciudad of Los Angeles on January 10, 1847, following a series of pitched battles with native Californio forces. Though the Capitulation of Cahuenga had paused hostilities in California, a state of war still existed between the U.S. and Mexico.

Fort Moore frieze depicting Los Angeles' first Fourth of July celebration
This frieze, part of the Fort Moore Pioneer Memorial in downtown Los Angeles, depicts Los Angeles' first Fourth of July celebration. Photo courtesy of the USC Libraries – Los Angeles Examiner Collection.

In April, rumors raced through town of an imminent counter-invasion by an army of 1,500 Mexican troops. American forces scrambled to build an adobe fort on the city’s high ground. Amid the hasty construction, American commander Colonel Jonathan D. Stevenson issued orders for a July Fourth ceremony “which should animate the heart of every lover of freedom.”

The American commander issued orders for a July Fourth ceremony “which should animate the heart of every lover of freedom.”

A proper display of the American standard was a prerequisite, so Stevenson dispatched gardener Juan Ramirez to the San Bernardino Mountains to fetch timber suitable for a flagpole. On June 18, Ramirez, his army of Indian laborers, and a small military escort returned from Mill Creek with 20 yoke of oxen and two pine tree trunks in tow. Carpenters spliced the trunks together to create a flagpole 150 feet tall.

Fort Moore plaque
A bronze plaque marking the site of Los Angeles' first Fourth was silent about its charged political dimensions. Photo courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.

After the sunrise flag-raising, the ceremony resumed at 11 a.m. Armed troops again paraded around the fort, this time for the benefit of an assembled crowd of Spanish-speaking residents. The soldiers named the half-completed fort after a fallen comrade, Captain Benjamin Daviess Moore. A 21-gun salute followed a reading of the Declaration of Independence, and the thunder of artillery fire echoed through town.

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The Mexican counter-invasion never materialized. War officially ended the following year upon ratification of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The Army decommissioned Fort Moore in 1853. And yet ­­in many ways Los Angeles remained occupied territory even after the last soldier departed. Law institutionalized the power relations between conqueror and conquered, and frontier violence enforced them.

No Independence Day celebration since has stated the realities of the American conquest so directly as on Los Angeles’ first Fourth, and fireworks long ago took the place of cannon. But thunder still booms across Los Angeles each July Fourth, a faint echo of the city’s martial past.

Los Angeles Fourth of July Parade down Main Street, 1871
Not all Fourth of July celebrations have been so fraught with high political drama. On July 4, 1871, firefighters led what was reportedly Los Angeles' first civic parade. Photo courtesy of the USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection.
Fourth of July parade down Los Angeles' Main Street, 1876
To mark the centennial of American independence in 1876, Los Angeles organized an elaborate public parade that took more than 30 minutes to pass the reviewing stand. Afterward, more than 1,500 Angelenos attended a ceremony that featured songs, a benediction, and a reading of the Declaration of Independence. Photo courtesy of the USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection.

An earlier version of this article, updated and expanded here with additonal images, appeared on July 2, 2013, on Los Angeles magazine’s City Think blog. 

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