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Spanish Colonization, Mexican California, and California Statehood (1850)

Between 1769 and 1850, the year the United States seized control of California, the landscape and inhabitants of the LA basin changed more than within the prior thousand years.

The arrival of the Spanish into the LA basin began as sporadic expeditions in the 16th and 17th centuries and culminated in 1769 with the official colonization of the “Alta California” territory through the establishment of three types of settlement: Catholic missions of the Franciscan order; military presidios and outposts; and the Pueblo de Los Ángeles, a civilian center founded in 1781 at the confluence of the LA River and Arroyo Seco. Together, these institutions colonized land and people under the Spanish Crown. Missions, though religious institutions, aimed to provide food and serve as economic hubs within this landscape. The first mission established in the LA County area was the Mission San Gabriel in 1771, followed by the Mission San Fernando in 1797.

Spanish colonization and the Mexican regime that followed (1821-1846) catalyzed a period of unprecedented regional transformation characterized by the enslavement and displacement of Indigenous Peoples and alteration of the natural ecosystems and habitat. The missions, for example, orchestrated the construction of a network of ditches through Indigenous and Mexican labor beginning in 1781. Referred to as “zanjas”, these notably affected the quantity of flow within the LA River and its floodplain as they channeled water from the river to the growing pueblo and its agricultural fields.1Gumprecht, Blake. The Los Angeles River: Its Life, Death, and Possible Rebirth. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001. 44. Initially the zanjas diverted water where surface flow was present, but in the following decades water was channeled from the underlying soils. During this time, the LA River basin was the sole water supply source for the settlement; the river and zanjas existed as a collective resource.

The Mission San Gabriel is one of many missions whose founding by Spanish priests went hand-in-hand with the displacement of Indigenous Peoples from their villages and their forced conversion to Catholicism.
Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University. “Mission San Gabriel”. A photochrom postcard published by the Detroit Photographic Company, 1899.

When Mexico gained independence from Spain and, in 1822, assumed jurisdiction of what is now Los Angeles, changes to legislative systems and social structures were matched by additional changes in land use. Mexican governors began secularizing the Spanish missions starting in 1833 and redistributed mission lands to prominent families and individuals through land grants. The emergent rancho system enabled the rise of a gentry class of landowners, rancheros, that included European immigrants as well as Californios, or individuals of Mexican or Spanish descent who had been born in Alta California. Land development patterns and place names in today’s Los Angeles indicate the deep legacy of the rancho system; some of the most notable ranchos, for instance, include Los Feliz, Los Cerritos, Los Encinos, Cahuenga, and Dominguez. Several of the ranchos helped establish Mexican families whose names, like Jose Dolores Sepulveda of Rancho San Pedro, also resonate today. Through land grants, the government required that ranchos be used toward agricultural purposes, and ranching became a widespread practice where lands were conducive to grazing. The labor was often carried out by Indigenous Peoples who operated as vaqueros herding cattle. Despite having been freed from the mission system, they continued to exist in a system of servitude; a landscape transformed by agriculture and development, together with the threat of disease, had diminished their populations and means of sustenance, leaving them with few pathways for survival.

By 1836, the pueblo government also began enacting measures to control the quantity and quality of waters carried by the rapidly growing zanja system, restricting the use of zanjas for bathing and washing clothes. Under US rule, which began in 1850, strict fines were imposed for improper use of the zanja waters. These proved ineffective, and soon sources of trash and sewage began discharging into the zanjas. More affluent residents began to purchase their water and have it sourced directly from the LA River instead of from the increasingly polluted ditches.2Gumprecht, Blake. The Los Angeles River: Its Life, Death, and Possible Rebirth. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001. 63. The water of the LA River, thus, became increasingly privatized, available only to those who could afford it.

Indigenous Peoples have endured an ongoing fight for access and title to their lands and water. In 1842, 41 Fernandeño leaders organized an election of native Joachim as the First Alcalde3An Alcalde is a spokesperson of the multi-lineal Fernandeño community. and petitioned the Mexican Governor for land. Importantly, the Fernandeño petitioners of 1843 were not a collective political entity with a name, but rather headpersons that represented separate lineages of the FTBMI. The 41 Fernandeño petitioners together received a square league of land, while three natives received land at Rancho El Encino, three natives received land at Rancho Escorpion, and one native received land at Rancho Cahuenga. The separate land grants of Rancho El Encino, Rancho Escorpion, and Rancho Cahuenga were all occupied by Fernandeño lineages and were incredibly valuable due to their natural water supplies and ties to the “orit”, or LA River. The three Fernandeño villages that these Ranchos occupied that are linked directly to the LA River are Jucjauyanga (Chatsworth), Suitcanga (Encino), and Kawenga (Burbank).

While the Supreme Court upheld the land grant of Rancho El Encino (Siutcanga),4Supreme Court of the United States No. 288, The United States, Appellants v. Vincente de la Osa and Al.jn the local state courts ruled against Fernandeño claims to the land, which made it impossible for the San Fernando Mission Indian defendants to affirm rights to land that would have formed the foundation for a reservation. “As a result of the mass dispossession of lands, Indigenous Peoples lacked access to water, including the LA River. Without water access, it became increasingly difficult to gather necessary plants to make significant items, such as regalia, thereby negatively impacting the ability to hold ceremony, facilitate healing, and continue spiritual practices. The lack of access to the LA River, and the contamination to waterways, continues today,” says Pamela Villasenor, Tribal Citizen of the FTBMI.

Generations-deep knowledge of the LA River system persists among contemporary Indigenous Peoples. Recognizing and incorporating this knowledge can contribute to a better understanding of the LA River and its broader landscape.5Sepulveda, Charles. “Our Sacred Waters: Theorizing Kuuyam as a Decolonial Possibility.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 7(1). 2018. pp. 40-58.6Traditional Ecological Knowledge (Tek) Resources.” California Climate Commons. California Landscape Conservation Cooperative, November 2015.

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