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These Boundary Trees Are Remnants of California's Lost Mexican-Era Ranchos

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Trees have an uncanny ability to connect us with the past. To many California native peoples, oaks are ancestors. To 19th-century Americans who strolled past their supersized trunks, slackjawed, giant sequoias were living remnants of a time when King David and Jesus of Nazareth walked the earth. Trees' rootedness, their vitality, their impressive lifespans, their upright (and thus vaguely humanlike) form tempt us to ask what they’ve witnessed. Would we ever think to ask a rock, though far more ancient than the oldest tree, to whisper its secrets? Or even a 12,000-year-old creosote bush?

In La Cañada Flintridge’s Descanso Gardens (the subject of our latest episode of “Lost L.A.”) there once stood an ancient oak, its trunk thickened and its branches gnarled by some four centuries of age. By 1854 the ancient tree was distinguished enough to serve as a boundary marker in a survey subdividing Rancho La Cañada, the land grant conferred upon Ygnacio Coronel in 1843 by the governor of Mexican California, Manuel Micheltorena. A century or so later, the gardens’ caretakers placed a sign under the canopy of Old Verdugo, as the oak was then called, celebrating it as “a surviving patriarch of the days of Rancho La Canada,”

Descanso Gardens' Old Verdugo, an ancient oak that doubled as a survey marker
Descanso Gardens' Old Verdugo, an ancient oak that doubled as a survey marker. Photo courtesy of the Descanso Gardens.
1888 map of Los Angeles County
This 1888 map of Los Angeles County highlights rancho land grants in vibrant colors, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Other ancient oaks and sycamores not only recall Southern California’s oft-romanticized rancho period; they legally defined the boundaries of the rancho land grants themselves.

A towering sycamore once marked the northern boundary of Rancho San Pedro and still stands in what is today suburban Compton. Two centuries ago, in an age when a pile of stones or clump of willows was an acceptable boundary marker, this lone sycamore – named the Eagle Tree after the raptors that reportedly nested in its branches – served as a logical starting point for the surveyors who confirmed the rancho’s boundaries. A young farmer named J. Wesley Gaines, who arrived in the area in the early 1870s, later recalled to the Los Angeles Times: "I can still remember when that tree was the only one in the entire area.”

Another prominent sycamore became a boundary tree in 1871 with the subdivision of Rancho San Rafael. It remained so for many decades, later delineating the border between the cities of Glendale and Los Angeles, even as the land surrounding it became the Forest Lawn cemetery.

Compton’s Eagle Tree nearly fell to urban development in 1947, when plans for a new Standard Oil pipeline called for the old sycamore’s removal. Only a spirited defense by the Compton Parlor of the Daughters of the Golden West saved it. The tree grows today from a narrow Chevron easement wedged between tract homes, a husk of its former self, its branches severely pruned.

Descanso Gardens’ Old Verdugo earned a more dignified fate. Although protected as a cherished living relic, the ancient oak finally succumbed to death by natural causes. After it died, the gardens’ caretakers replaced the tree with a bronze plaque remembering it as “a living monument to the Old West – where Mother Nature may still hold court over a domain that remains her very own.”

Compton's Eagle Tree, which once marked the northern boundary of Rancho San Pedro
Undated photo of Compton's Eagle Tree, which once marked the northern boundary of Rancho San Pedro, courtesy of the Security Pacific National Bank Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.
Survey of Rancho San Pedro
Survey of Rancho San Pedro, 1857. In the top right, surveyor Henry Hancock notes the Eagle Tree: "Sycamore tree – stake / Place of beginning". Map courtesy of the California Historical Society Collection, USC Libraries.
This massive sycamore in the Forest Lawn cemetery doubled as a survey point when Rancho San Rafael was partitioned in 1871. Courtesy of the Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.
This massive sycamore in the Forest Lawn cemetery doubled as a survey point when Rancho San Rafael was partitioned in 1871. Courtesy of the Photo Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.
Descanso Gardens' Old Verdugo, before its demise
Descanso Gardens' Old Verdugo, before its demise. Photo courtesy of the Descanso Gardens.

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