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The Oldest Things in Southern California's Archives, Part 2

Southern California's archives bridge the old and the new, offering invaluable historical context that isn't always immediately apparent in the contemporary landscape.

We recently asked L.A. as Subject members to search their archives for the oldest object related to Southern California history. Far more than historical novelties, the items they put forth have helped shape our understanding of the people, places, and ideas that define the Southern California of today, and they serve as an invaluable resource for contemporary scholars, journalists, and public policymakers. Last week, we shared six of their submissions. This week, we share several more -- including maps, legal contracts, and even two-hundred-year-old artillery.

California as an Island

Earth scientists expect that in millions of years, tectonic forces may rend California in two and create a new island out of coastal California. If true, Los Angeles will slowly drift toward Alaska and away from the North America continent.

Early mapmakers were obviously unaware of plate tectonics, but they did prematurely anticipate geologists' conjecture by incorrectly depicting present-day California as an island. As late as 1705, Parisian cartographer Nicholas De Fer drew this map -- the oldest item in the Los Angeles Public Library's extensive map collection -- that showed an oceanic strait in place of the decidedly dry Great Basin.

Courtesy of the Map Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.
Courtesy of the Map Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Glen Creason, map librarian at the Los Angeles Public Library, also noted that the library is home to the oldest fire insurance atlas of Los Angeles: the 1888 atlas compiled by Dakin Publishing, which is even older than the library's noted Sanborn Fire Insurance Atlases. Maps such as these provide an indispensable record of early Los Angeles' built environment, showing the locations, sizes, and uses of the city's buildings.

Map from the 1888 Dakin fire insurance atlas. Courtesy of the Map Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.
Map from the 1888 Dakin fire insurance atlas. Courtesy of the Map Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

See more early maps of Los Angeles at the Los Angeles Public Library's ongoing exhibition, "As the City Grew," on display in the Central Library's first-floor galleries.

From Bellamy to the Bradbury Building

Sharon Sekhon of the Studio for Southern California History submitted a book with a surprising Southern California connection: an 1888 copy of Edward Bellamy's futuristic and utopian novel, "Looking Backward: 2000-1887." Sekhon explains:

Courtesy of the Studio for Southern California History.
Courtesy of the Studio for Southern California History.

Compare Bellamy's description with this 1978 image from the LAPL's Photo Collection of the Bradbury Building and decide for yourself how closely Wyman's design adheres to Bellamy's vision.

1978 interior view of the Bradbury Building. Courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.
1978 interior view of the Bradbury Building. Courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Electric Railways Arrive in Los Angeles

Although the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) was formed in 1993, the agency's archives preserve the records of Metro's predecessor agencies and chronicle L.A. transportation history dating to the late nineteenth century.

Archivist Denise Villegas submitted a document from the early years of Los Angeles' long life as an electric railway city. Villegas writes:

Courtesy of the Metro Library.
Courtesy of the Metro Library.

L.A. Government in Transition

Between the surrender of Mexican and Californio forces in January 1847 and the admission of California as as state in September 1850, governance in Southern California transitioned from civilian administration under Mexican law to U.S. military administration to civilian rule under American law. This 1848 circular, preserved at the Leavey Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University, captures a moment in that slow transition.

The document, writes librarian Clay Stalls, "is a directive, in Spanish and most likely from the city government in Los Angeles, charging the ranchos Centinela, Rodeo las Aguas, and Talamantes to assist Andrés Pico in defending the area from raiding Native Americans ('indios ladrones')."

Circular from CSLA-22, Documents from the History of Nineteenth-Century Los Angeles, Leavey Center for the Study of Los Angeles. Courtesy of the Department of Archives and Special Collections, William H. Hannon Library, Loyola Marymount University.
Circular from CSLA-22, Documents from the History of Nineteenth-Century Los Angeles, Leavey Center for the Study of Los Angeles. Courtesy of the Department of Archives and Special Collections, William H. Hannon Library, Loyola Marymount University.

Registering Cattle Brands with a Newly Formed County of Los Angeles

The transfer of Alta California from Mexican to American civil administration following the Mexican-American War forced many longtime Californians to react quickly in order to preserve their property rights -- including the wealthy and influential rancheros. In this May 1850 letter, Bernardo Yorba requested that his cattle brands be registered with the County of Los Angeles, incorporated just three months earlier.

Stephanie George of CSU Fullerton's Center for Oral and Public History explains some of the letter's features:

yorba002.jpg

Historical Society's Quiet Cannons

For decades, two cannons have lain in the Charles Fletcher Lummis' El Alisal, their origin unknown. Recently, the Historical Society of Southern California, which operates the house as a museum, resolved to search its archives and discover the cannons' history. Researchers found two yellowing documents that tell the cannons' tale.

One was a letter from Brigadier General Alexander McDowell McCook dated March 9, 1891, states: "The Honorable Secretary of War being present at these headquarters on this date directs the Commanding Officer of the Department of Arizona to take possession of the old iron Cannon referred to within and remove them to a place of safe custody. The Department Commander accordingly designates the rooms of the Historical Society of Southern California as the place of safe custody for these hisorical relics and they are not to be removed from the custody of said Historical Society without the order of the President of the United States, or a future Secretary of War."

The other was a Los Angeles Daily Herald story dated February 24, 1891, reporting that a few "old cannon," veterans of the Mexican-American War, would soon find a new home at the Historical Society of Southern California.

As Historical Society executive director Patricia Adler-Ingram explains in a recent issue of the organization's newsletter, the cannons played an important role in the Battle of the Mesa, fought in the San Gabriel Valley just miles from Los Angeles. The artillery helped Commodore Robert Stockton achieve victory over the defending Californio forces, who surrendered days later at Campo de Cahuenga.

The Historical Society's cannons, veterans of the Mexican-American War.
The Historical Society's cannons, veterans of the Mexican-American War.
Courtesy of the Historical Society of Southern California.
Courtesy of the Historical Society of Southern California.
Courtesy of the Historical Society of Southern California.
Courtesy of the Historical Society of Southern California.