Unearthing L.A.’s past with shovels and computers


Steven Hackel has spent most of the last two decades bringing old California into the modern age.

He’s an expert in the baptism, marriage and burial records from the days of Spanish and Mexican rule.

With a team of colleagues at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, he’s taken the information written down in the looping, 200-year-old handwriting of church scribes and created a computer database.


So when Hackel heard this month about the discovery of dozens of bodies during a construction project on the site of Los Angeles’ original cemetery, he started tapping on his keyboard. Very quickly, he pulled up details from the lives of many of the nearly 700 people buried there in the first decades of the 1800s.

He found an Irish sailor, a woman who was executed with her lover for murdering her husband, an Indian girl with roots in a village that had risen up against the Spanish a generation earlier — and many people whose Native American names were recorded by a friar from Majorca who made a point of learning Indian languages.

“Someone could write a really good book about Spanish and Mexican L.A. just looking at that cemetery,” said Hackel, a professor of history at UC Riverside.

There’s a lot of history buried in that plot of land on Main Street, which is supposed to be the site of a garden and fountain at a future cultural center to be called La Plaza de Cultura y Artes. Rushing to complete the project, the builders hit bones. They removed remains from several dozen bodies before a community outcry caused them to stop excavating.

Talking to Hackel and watching him sort through the digitized records of the Huntington’s Early California Population Project, I found ample evidence why any further digging on the site of the cemetery should proceed only with the greatest of care.

The history of early Los Angeles is richer and more varied than most of us know. Chances are that a patient, first-rate archaeological study of that plot next to La Placita church will reveal new details about the roots of this great city on the Pacific Ocean.

The database gives a hint of what might be found there.

In Hackel’s office, I learned about Thomas Brown, an Irishman who was a sailor on the brig La Victoriana — and was buried at the cemetery in 1833. I also found out about three men who received “final sacraments” and were buried there after being executed by a firing squad for killing Nicholas Fink, a German shoemaker.

But most of the dead buried next to La Placita were Indians, Hackel said. His database counts 399 Native Americans interred there, along with 297 people of European descent. A large number of the Indian dead were newborns and young children.

“They come to the pueblo because they can no longer make it independently,” Hackel said of the Native American people who began to move to Los Angeles in the first decades of the 1800s. “There’s too much disease, too much encroachment on their land.”

The nearby villages of the Gabrieleno and other local tribes were disappearing. In Los Angeles, which was then home to about 2,000 people, they searched for work, as so many would do after them.

The growing Indian settlements near the pueblo in the 1820s were a matter of concern to Los Angeles’ Mexican authorities, Hackel said: “They thought of them as centers of vice, with too much dancing, too much noise and too much drinking.”

The native people were trying to save their way of life, Hackel told me. They had used fire to manage the land — and the first European accounts refer to the spot that would one day be Los Angeles as “the Valley of Smokes.” But the Spanish banned the use of fire. And the Mexicans sent their cattle to graze on Indian lands.

“But they didn’t lose everything,” Hackel said, “because if they did, there wouldn’t be Gabrielenos around today to protest the removal of those bodies.”

To learn how some California Indians endured, Hackel began in 1991 to digitize the vital records of the old missions. He traveled to libraries and archives across the state. The database he started now contains more than 600,000 records.

With a few clicks, I learned more about the Indian woman listed in pueblo burial records as Manuela.

Manuela died in Los Angeles in 1841. Her mother, Domitila, was baptized at the San Gabriel Mission in 1792 and was from Sibapet, an Indian village in the nearby mountains that once rose up against the mission.

Then there’s Rafaela, a 16-year-old buried next to La Placita in 1838, who was a native of Yuma, now in Arizona. “That was pretty far away back then,” Hackel told me. Rafaela, he said, was probably a refugee from the battles between Mexican troops and Yuma Indians.

Her burial at La Placita was supervised by Jose Maria Navarro, one of Los Angeles’ original settlers. And her death was recorded by the missionary Geronimo Boscana, who — like the legendary Junipero Serra — was born on the Spanish island of Majorca and arrived in Los Angeles via Mexico City.

“Boscana was an expert linguist,” Hackel said. “He had a rapport with native people. He spoke their language and he understood their religion.”

From now on when I look at that plot of land next to La Placita church, I’ll think of the teenage refugee, the Spanish friar and the many journeys from near and far that brought people to the fledgling city of Los Angeles.

I’ll also think about what is bound to be a fight over the spot’s future.

“This is going to get pretty nasty before it ends,” said one archaeologist who asked not to be named because the La Plaza project has powerful backers.

That archaeologist was one of many historians and scientists who told me about sites of early American history that were excavated in an exemplary fashion: The old African burial ground in Manhattan. The original site of Jamestown.

Call me crazy, but I happen to think Los Angeles is just as important. And there’s still time to treat the site of our first church cemetery with the respect it deserves, to save for future generations the stories that can be unearthed with the careful use of shovels and trowels.