Los Angeles in the 1850’s As Told by Early Newspapers, by Henry Winfred Splitter

“Los Angeles in the first decade of American occupation was truly a frontier town. Its population of less than 3000 was mainly native Californian but its reputation in those years of being a wide-open, ‘hell-roaring’ town was due fully as much, if not more, to its small but dominant faction of Americans from the ‘States,’ many of whom possessed not even the most conventional shreds and tatters of morality. In this article I shall present some material hitherto, I believe, unobserved, much of it dealing with the seamier side of Los Angeles community life in the critical decade of the fifties.

Linked with none but the pleasantest of associations, however, is the story of the big aliso which once stood by the side of what is now Aliso Street and on the grounds of what was later Maier and Zobelein’s brewery. This is near the Los Angeles river and was originally the site of the old Sainsevain wine cellar. In the Los Angeles Star of April 30, 1870, is an interesting description of the famous tree and an outline of the part it played in the history of the city. ‘In species,’ we are told, ‘this tree belongs to the fig kind, and is commonly known as the sycamore, or, in Spanish, ‘aliso.

Its heart was sound, and its wood was, by virtue of its inherent nature, cross-grained and of the toughest kind. By conservative estimate the tree was at least sixty feet high, its general shape and proportion extremely graceful. Four feet above the ground the trunk measured twenty feet in circumference, and at a height of fifteen or twenty feet, it divided into several large branches which spread over an area some 200 feet in diameter.

The tree was reputed to be anywhere from 900 to 1500 years old, and was probably the last and only remaining one of an original forest of alders, poplars, willows, and sycamores which, before 1825, covered a considerable part of the land between the present Alameda street and the Los Angeles River. The huge aliso was said to have been the council tree of the local Indians long before the coming of white men to this locality.

In the early 1830’s, Jean Louis Vignes, a native of France, arrived in Los Angeles from the Sandwich Islands, and purchased a small piece of land including the tree. About 1837-38 he bought some more land on the opposite or south side of the road, and secured from city officers the closing of the road along the aliso tree, paying ‘a small sum of money, nominally, as the value of that tree.’ From this time forth the tree became a favorite spot for picnic parties from town, and a general terminus for youthful and romantic wanderings. Don Jean Louis was proud of being the owner of the popular monarch of the one-time forest, and invariably spoke of his place as ‘El Aliso,’ until he became widely and generally known as Don Louis del Aliso.

But resistless Time, and it may be, the incursions of man, finally affected even the magnificent aliso. Maier and Zobelein, in the early seventies, enclosed the old tree within the precincts of their brewery, where it must have seen many a beer-drinking under its wide-spreading shade. By the spring of 1891, however, the old tree had spent the last of its energies, and finally stood leafless, bleak, and dead. The Los Angeles Herald urged the Historical Society of Southern California to have the tree photographed for the benefit of posterity.

Picnics under the old aliso were, to be sure, not the only public recreation available to the young people of Los Angeles in the 1850’s. There was also, with more dubious overtones, the Spanish dancing-ground, hard and firm as a bean-threshing floor… The moonlight summer nights of the Southland brought dancing and high revelry to this primitive outdoors ballroom…”

-Excerpt courtesy of Archive.org, Allen County Public Library Genealogy Center, “The Historical Society of Southern California Quarterly,” by the Historical Society of Southern California, 1949. (top) Images courtesy of Archive.org, Desert Magazine, dates of publication attributed by filename

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