Those who say Los Angeles has no past are in error. Founded in 1781, Los Angeles is among the oldest of our North American cities. Its history, moreover, has become increasingly popular as a guide to its future. Since Los Angeles' future is in a very real way the American future as well, this city's history, linked to the development of contemporary Los Angeles, is on the verge of becoming a national concern, such as the history of New York City has always been.
Sometimes in this process, the most unprepossessing books can, if properly assimilated, prove of surprising value. Take "Migrants West: Toward the Southern California Frontier," for instance. It provides, most basically, 10 biographical portraits of Los Angelenos in the 1850s, the first decade of California's American statehood. Because the experiences of these figures occurred so early, however, they are of a defining sort. They represent, in human terms, the DNA code of this city. Simple strands of experience in the city's first decade as part of the U.S., straightforwardly presented 140 years later, as Ronald C. Woolsey presents them, are possessed of a sudden power of illumination because they show persistent patterns.
Cities, after all, have DNA codes: structures, formulas and patterns of experience at the times of their founding that, like the double helix, orient a city on its pilgrimage through time. Boston, center of Puritan learning in the 17th century, today supports many of the great universities and libraries of the nation. New York in the 17th century--eclectic, worldly, mercantile--set the pattern for the late 18th century city of Alexander Hamilton, chief theoretician and protagonist of New York as commercial capital, whose law chambers, appropriately enough, were on Wall Street. The grander a city becomes, the wider its gyre around the double helix--and the DNA formula has a way of sustaining itself through time.
At first hand, Woolsey's collection of portraits of pioneer Southern Californians appears to be a straightforward compendium of biographies. As such, "Migrants West" is a successful book--indeed very useful book--both as enjoyable narrative history and as the kind of book that stays on a shelf and is pulled down often for reference. Woolsey writes well and has based his book not only upon all relevant primary and secondary sources in print, but also upon exhaustive researches into the collections of the California State Library in Sacramento, the Bancroft Library in Berkeley, the Huntington Library in San Marino and the Seaver Center for Western History at the Los Angeles County Museum.
What makes "Migrants West" even more valuable, however, is that Woolsey has exquisitely selected his profiles of Southern California pioneers so as to suggest in each of them larger patterns in the Los Angeles / Southern California experience. A favorite word of novelist Henry James was "reverberations": the subliminal suggestions, that is, that come from experience. The portraits in "Migrants West" possess such reverberations to the full. Figure after figure in this book is in dialogue, experientially and imaginatively, with the enduring question of Southern California identity--Mexico and, in and through Mexico, the larger question of the Anglo-Latino cultural dialogue.
Don Abel Stearns, for example, a Massachusetts Yankee who arrived in Southern California in the early 1830s and prospered as a ranchero and trader--having become a Mexican citizen and a Roman Catholic and having married a member of a socially prominent Californio family--epitomized possibilities of assimilation into Latino culture that still haunt (or energize) the collective psyche of the region. His friend Hugo Reid, a Cambridge University-educated Scotsman, also arrived in Los Angeles in the early 1830s and married a Native American woman. Reid wrote the first comprehensive and sympathetic description of Native Americans in the Southland. Like Stearns, Reid incorporated within himself an equally important dialogue: that between Euro-Southern California, whether Anglo or Hispanic in origin, and the earliest Californians, who, archeological records suggest, had made Southern California a place where people, in increasing numbers, wanted to live for more than 30,000 years before Europeans arrived. These early inhabitants had long been settled here before the tragedy of contact that, for all the good intentions of church and state, left them a severely diminished people.
Margaret (Hereford) Wilson, Woolsey's next portrait, bespeaks the Anglo-American woman taking her place alongside her Latino sisters in the female-sparse Southland. To put the matter briefly: All women were precious in the Spanish, Mexican and American frontier eras. In their capacity to make marriage possible, which meant children, each woman represented the future in an environment largely devoid of symbols of futurity. After Margaret's physician husband died of chronic tuberculosis in Los Angeles in 1852, she formed a second and equally loving union with her husband's good friend Don Benito Wilson, another Hispanicized Yankee Los Angeleno whose first wife, Ramona Yorba, daughter of a respected Californio ranchero, had died in 1849 and left Don Benito with two children to rear. From this union came two daughters, one of them the mother of Gen. George Patton Jr.
Equally expressive of the unfolding identity of the Southland was that moment in Los Angeles on a September afternoon in 1850 when John Evertson, a South Carolina slave owner, furiously whipped Judah, his black servant, with a peach tree switch for falling behind on her household chores. Within days, California would be admitted into the Union as a free state, but no matter--men such as Evertson had brought their ways to the Southland, which in the decade of the 1850s developed as a center of secessionist sentiment. (All in all, eight Confederate generals would come from Southern California.) Evertson was arraigned on assault charges but found innocent by an all-white jury, with Judah not being allowed to testify since she was black.
A number of Woolsey's ensuing portraits--of pro-Southern Democratic politician Joseph Lancaster Brent, Confederate sympathizers Henry Hamilton and Edward John Cage Kewen--also deal with the peculiar attraction, temptation even, that the Confederacy offered Southern California. Even many Latinos, fiercely against slavery, were attracted by the promise of autonomous localism that the Confederacy seemed to offer. Southern California, in other words, would remain restive within the larger framework of California--until the 1960s, that is, when it became the state's controlling region.
What sort of culture would that region have? Woolsey's portraits offer patterns of ensuing significance. Federal Judge Benjamin Hayes, a Catholic Marylander educated by the priests of St. Sulpice, envisioned Southern California as a Catholic region, as the Mediterranean shores of North America. Yet as a sitting judge, Hayes knew the underlying violence of the region: the fierce and highly personal antagonism, for example, of County Sheriff James Barton and the outlaw (or was he a guerrilla?) Juan Flores who, escaping San Quentin, controlled the Southern California countryside in the mid-1850s. So did Horace Bell, another Woolsey portrait, understand the violence, which he encountered as a Los Angeles Ranger riding against assorted outlaws ranging from no-excuse felons to Latinos for whom one might make a case that, pushed from their land, they had nowhere else to go.
It was a city and region, finally, in which nobodies might become somebodies with extraordinary rapidity. Charles Louis Ducommun, for example, a half-blind one-eyed Swiss watchmaker, became a founder of Farmers and Merchants Bank and the Pioneer Oil Co. and an all-round pillar of the community.
It was a region, finally, that demanded a mediating interpretation between the Latino past, the Anglo-Latino present, the Anglo future and after that future--only dimly perceived--a new variation of the Anglo-Latino formula. It was to this interpretation that Don Antonio Coronel devoted his life, doing his best as a ranchero, civic leader and antiquarian to hold together the Anglo-Latino dialogue. With this final figure, who inspired Helen Hunt Jackson's 1884 novel about the Southland Native American experience, "Ramona," Woolsey achieves perhaps his most subtle portrait.
Southern California has always been and will continue to be Mexican in some ways. It was not clear to the 19th century pioneers just how this Mexican identity would unfold. Today, it has become clear. Mexican-Californian civilization is once again flourishing in the Southland--even more grandly and courageously, however, than in the 1850s now that the ambivalences that made Southern California so prone to secessionist sentiment at that time are long vanished. One great interpretation, toward which the pioneers of this volume struggled stands clear. Here was a region for all peoples. Even amid the misbehavior of the 1850s, we can see in the making the assimilationist future, the bright promise of a republic and a state embracing all peoples.