Tangible Memories: Californians and their Gardens, 1800-1950, by Judith M. Taylor and Harry Morton Butterfield

Los Angeles

“Butterfield wrote: ‘It was a summer day, August 2, 1769, when Gaspar de Portola and his party reached the vicinity of Los Angeles. A little over ten years later, on September 4, 1781, the Pueblo of Los Angeles was started by Governor Felipe Nieve. El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora de los Angeles de Porciuncula is the full name of the second Spanish city to be established in California outside the presidios. In time a plaza took shape, just to the north of the present Plaza in Los Angeles. A chapel was started in 1784 but the present church, Nuestra Senora la Reina de Los Angeles (Our Lady, Queen of the Angels) was not begun until 1814. The church was dedicated in 1825. The early settlers named the small river that ran through the pueblo the Reina de Los Angeles too.

Pepper trees arrive

Heavy rains in 1861 caused the church’s roof to fall in and the historical structure had to be rebuilt almost completely. There was an old pepper tree north of the church in 1850, possibly grown from seed from Mission San Luis Rey’s trees.

The Chilean ‘pepper’ tree, Schinus molle, was said to have been brought to California by a sailor en route from Chile in the late 1830s. The name was chosen because the attractive pannicles of blossom turned into small black fruit very much resembling peppercorns. John Temple, later ‘Don Juan Temple,’ planted a row of pepper trees on Main Street in front of his store on January 31, 1861. It was also at this time that shrubs and trees were set out about the church when it was reconstructed.’

“Anglo” families in old Los Angeles

Los Angeles is referred to as a Spanish city. As late as 1850 there were only forty people in Los Angeles not of Spanish descent. These included Harris Newmark and his family, from Germany, and the Wolfskill clan, originally from Ohio. Other significant non-Hispanic residents were the Vignes family, proto-vintners, producing quite good wine from Mission grapes long before Agoston Haraszthy started his work. The rise of horticulture in California and much of its commerce may be traced to the activities of these pioneers.

Hugo Reid, the ‘Scotch paisano’ of Los Angeles, was an interesting and complex man who married a half-native woman, Victoria. Reid had left Scotland and wandered around the world rather restlessly when he arrived in California in the 1820s. Victoria was illiterate and proudly so, refusing to learn to read, and attributing the problems of her children to this unnatural activity.

Many scholars believe that Ramona, the title character in Mrs. Jackson’s novel, ‘Ramona,’ reflects much of Dona Victoria’s behavior. She was still alive when Mrs. Jackson visited old Los Angeles and an object of considerable interest. The Reids had owned Rancho Santa Anita but Victoria was very poor at the end of her life.

William Wolfskill

William Wolfskill had been a trapper at one time and had come into California by the southern route, the ‘Mormon Trail’, in the late 1820s, pursuing otter skins. The place attracted him to stay. He took Mexican citizenship, adopted the Roman Catholic faith and married Maria Magdalena, the daughter of Don Jose Ignacio Lugo. This entitled him in his new guise as ‘Don Guillermo’ to own land and property under Spanish-Mexican law.

He bought the Santa Anita Rancho after the death of Hugo Reid. Wolfskill planted the first commercial orange orchard between Alameda Street and the Los Angeles River north of 7th street where the old Arcade Depot was later erected. The Reid-Wolfskill property passed into the hands of E. J. (‘Lucky’) Baldwin in 1875. Eventually a residual hundred and fifteen acres of the original 13,500 ranch became the Los Angeles County Arboretum. The county has preserved Reid’s adobe and much of the planting.

The story of how Wolfskill started his orange groves is very interesting. He was walking along the wharf one day when a ship from Hawaii discharged a cargo of rotting oranges. Instead of watching them throw the fruit out, he bought all the oranges for a very low price from the captain. He instructed his workers to extract all the seeds and planted them in his orchard. At one fell swoop he started thousands of seedling orange trees.

Wolfskill had about a hundred and forty acres in 1860. His house and grounds were unusually neat and well kept. ‘Don Guillermo’ prospered mightily, and eventually settled many of his twelve siblings in California. The first soft-shell walnuts in California may have developed from nuts taken from his orchard to Carpinteria by Russell Heath.

He also had a son out of wedlock, Timothy, whom he cared for with the rest of his family, without any discrimination. When Wolfskill first settled in Los Angeles, the missions were still active and successful. He always said that he enjoyed the peace and quiet beauty at Mission San Gabriel above all things.

Fruit growing in Los Angeles and the coming of the transcontinental railroads

The gold rush energized the fruit growers of Los Angeles. By the late 1850s, grapes, pears and oranges were being shipped regularly to San Francisco where they fetched excellent prices. With the completion of the transcontinental railroads, and the capacity to refrigerate perishable fruit, their market extended across the continent to the East coast. California horticulture was on its way.

The legend that William Wolfskill shipped the first carload of oranges east alas is only a legend. He died on October 3, 1866. The railroad was not completed until several years later. It was his son, Joseph, who managed the old orange orchard with one of his sisters after their father died, who dispatched that first cargo.

Butterfield: ‘In 1845, when John Bidwell made his visit, the Los Angeles population was estimated at about two hundred and fifty. By 1850, the town had grown to six hundred and ten. Even when the Butterfield Stage was started in 1858, there were so few people in Los Angeles that the stage sometimes dropped off the mail bag several miles away on the main route. Fortunately, the City of Los Angeles has retained much of the Spanish influence. It is now said that Los Angeles has more persons of Mexican ancestry than any city in the world outside of Mexico City.

First gardens

Others have told the history of early Los Angeles but without the story of her early gardens and gardeners. Manuel Requena, first alcalde, Jean Louis Vignes, (‘Don Louis’), and John Temple, (‘Don Juan Temple’), in whose house the vigilante committee assembled on April 7, 1836 and who later planted the garden at El Cerrito Rancho north of Long Beach, were important in shaping the nascent city. They had followed the same path of conversion (if necessary) and marriage to a local woman as Wolfskill and Reid, in order to benefit from the otherwise lax Mexican rule.

Upper Main Street was initially called Calle de la Virgenes, and later changed to San Fernando Boulevard. This led to Mission San Fernando. The lower part was referred to as Calle de Eternidad because it led to the cemetery in the Plaza.

Spanish and Mexican settlers such as Don Pio Pico, and Don Juan Bandini, were very important. Their homes were friendly, offering generous hospitality for all even though their gardens were sparse. Such gardens might only contain a Mission grape vine or be sheltered by a pepper tree. Water was scarce, therefore so were ornamental plants.

Jean Louis Vignes

Jean Louis Vignes had reached Los Angeles in 1829 and settled on what became Aliso Street west of the Los Angeles River. The large sycamore (Platanus racemosa) near the gateway leading to his adobe is said to have suggested the name for the street. Aliso refers to the alder and not the sycamore in Spanish, nevertheless, Aliso Street and Don Louis ‘de Aliso’ became associated.

Out at Mission San Gabriel, the padres had installed an iron fence from Mexico to surround the mission orchard. After the fence rusted unused over several years, Don Louis purchased it and moved it to his home on Aliso where it was set up around his small garden and orangery.

Don Louis has been credited with the planting of the first orange orchard outside the San Gabriel Mission orchard, the trees being planted in 1834, but it seems probable that William Wolfskill preceded him by a short amount of time. Vignes even introduced quail in his garden. He covered over the top of the enclosure with wire netting to hold them, although this expensive luxury was abandoned in later years as the orange trees grew in numbers.

The Vignes’ adobe faced Aliso Street on the south side, about a quarter of a mile west of the Los Angeles River. Jean Louis Sansevain, a nephew, came in 1849 and bought his uncle’s vineyard for $42,000. In those days, Aliso Street stopped at the Sansevain vineyard but an old grape arbor covered the path that continued eastward to the river. Many early celebrations were held in this old Vignes garden.

To reach it one travelled by the Aliso Road, then over a turn by the little old Aliso mill and along past Dr. Leonce Hoover’s property (on present Macy Street) to the river. Pierre Sansevain came to the United States in 1839, but did not join his brother until 1857. Don Louis de Aliso died on January 17, 1863, at the ripe old age of ninety one. The Sansevain brothers continued their work and became famous for their sparkling California champagne but that is another story. Don Louis was perhaps the first notable gardener in Los Angeles.

Manuel Requena

Manuel Requena, who came from Yucatan, lived on the east side of Los Angeles Street, not far from the Vignes property. Subsequently Requena Street extended through his land. In 1858, he had seventy two bearing orange trees which had been planted in 1853. A large Mission fig was noted. Old peaches, pears, almonds, lemons, citrons, shaddock, and English walnuts completed his fruit garden.’ (Note: shaddock is a variety of grapefruit, Citrus decumana, named for a Captain Shaddock who flourished in the late seventeenth century.)

‘Manuel must have been an upright citizen. As alcalde he informed the vigilante committee that they could not take the law into their own hands. A prisoner had to be dealt with solely by the legal authorities. In 1852, he was a county supervisor. He died on June 27, 1876, at the age of seventy four.’

Report of the California State Agriculture Society

The present City of Los Angeles gives little indication of what the first American gardeners saw. A committee from the California State Agricultural Society gave their impression in 1858 in these words: ‘At the north, the ragged mountain range marks the outline on a cloudless day β€”at the east, the broad valley leading to San Bernardino, and the San Gorgona pass of the Sierras, walled on the left with a range of gray rocky mountains and on the right by the less high but more broken hills β€” on the south, by a vast plain, into which the stream (Los Angeles River) sinks, and which seems as level as the sea is calm; while at the southwest and west the Pacific, at a distance of fifteen miles, rolls on the beach such large breakers as not infrequently to fill the air at twilight with deep murmurings of distant thunder β€” while before you, (looking east and southeast), within two and a half miles, there is a city of several thousand inhabitants cultivating all the fruits of the temperate zone and many of those from the torrid, together with the floral and arboreal productions of every clime, and three fourths of a million vines, producing an endless variety of the most delicious grapes.’ That writer must have run out of breath before running out of words when he tried to describe Los Angeles in 1858…”

-Excerpt courtesy of the Internet Archive, “Tangible Memories: Californians and their gardens, 1800-1950,” by Judith M. Taylor and Harry Morton Butterfield, 2003. Images courtesy of the University of California, Santa Cruz, McHenry Library, Special Collections, Branson DeCou Archive, “American Travelogues, Branson DeCou,” lantern slides, by Branson DeCou, 1892-1941

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