Grand pageantry marks each September 4 in Los Angeles, the traditional (if not actual) anniversary of its 1781 founding as a Spanish colonial pueblo. Fewer remember April 4, the date in 1850 when Los Angeles incorporated as an American municipality – several months before California achieved statehood.
But the city seems to have completely forgotten another weighty legal anniversary: May 23. On that date in 1835, the Mexican Congress promoted Los Angeles from the rank of pueblo to ciudad and made it the territorial capital of Alta California.
A copy of the official decree – issued by a high-level functionary, José María Gutiérrez de Estrada, on behalf of Mexico’s president, Miguel Barragán – is preserved at the USC Libraries’ Boeckmann Center for Iberian and Latin American Studies.
The simplicity of the proclamation disguises the complexity of the political conflict that inspired it: between the centralist and federalist factions who vied for control of the Mexican government; and also between conservatives who aligned with the military and Catholic church and liberals who supported constitutional government, free trade, and other economic reforms.
But none mattered as much as the warming sectional rivalry between Alta California’s arribeños (northerners) and abajeños (southerners). Monterey, a settlement on the northern coast of Alta California, had been capital since Spain first colonized the province. But as the pueblo of Los Angeles grew in population and economic clout, its residents began to resent the continued primacy of the Montereños. And so when in 1835 Jose Carrillo, a native of Los Angeles, took his seat in the Mexican Congress as Alta California’s sole delegate, he pleased his fellow Angeleños by orchestrating the southern migration of the territorial capital.
Outraged Montereños warned that a move would “engender serious rivalries” and noted that their town’s population, larger in size, was also “moral and cultured,” implying that Los Angeles’ wasn’t.
What Carrillo’s coup accomplished in law, however, changed nothing in fact. Outraged Montereños warned that a move would “engender serious rivalries” and noted that their town’s population, larger in size, was also “moral and cultured,” implying that Los Angeles’ wasn’t. And indeed Los Angeles – then a tiny village of less than 1,000 people, despite its newfound official status as a ciudad (city) – lacked adequate facilities to house the territorial diputación (legislature) and archives. The seat of government, then, remained in Monterey, regardless of Mexico City’s dictates.
Tensions simmered. They nearly boiled over the following year when arribeños opposed to Mexico’s centralist government declared Alta California “a free and sovereign state,” legally restored Monterey as capital, and marched south to confront the abajeños who, bitter over the capital controversy, refused to join the rebellion. The northerners’ leader, Juan Bautista Alvarado, only narrowly avoided civil war by negotiating a settlement with Los Angeles in early 1837.
A decade later, the ciudad of Los Angeles did briefly function as California’s capital when Angeleño Pío Pico became governor and rented offices in what would become the Bella Union hotel on Main Street. An invasion by U.S. forces the following year, though, made Alta California an occupied territory and returned the capital to northern California, where it remains to this day – despite the proclamation of May 23.
Garr, Daniel J. "Los Angeles and the Challenge of Growth, 1835-1849." Southern California Quarterly 61, no 2 (summer 1979): 147-15.
Pubols, Louise. "Born Global: From Pueblo to Statehood." In A Companion to Los Angeles, eds. William Deverell and Greg Hise. Los Angeles: Wiley Blackwell, 2014.