California – A Prize Worth Taking
The people of Santa Fe Springs could have easily ended up being citizens of Spain, Mexico, England or even Russia during a tumultuous period when California was up for grabs. In the early 1800s, under Mexican rule, Southern California was enjoying relative prosperity, fueled by the cattle industry, but underneath the surface of rancho life, things were chaotic. England, Russia and the United States had strong economic interests in the territory. All three countries were voracious consumers of our cattle hides and furs.
Between 1831 and 1841, the Mexican government was in turmoil with leadership changing hands on an average of once a year. The reality was that they had lost their grip on California. The confusion was not overlooked by the American government, which was expanding its territories aggressively. The term Manifest Destiny was used to describe the American policy and national sentiment that all the land between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans was meant to be American. Only two groups of people disagreed: the Native Americans and the Mexicans who owned Texas and California. Neither group was in a good position to protest, and it took only a couple of decades to make Manifest Destiny a dream come true. No other government would claim and hold on to so much land as the United States would when it decided to move west.
In 1846, three American war ships anchored in the Monterey harbor, their guns pointed at the Mexican presidio or fort. Without incident the Americans went ashore, lowered the Mexican flag at the fort and raised the American flag. No shots were fired. Southern California fell more violently. As Governor Pio Pico scrambled to get help from both England and Mexico, the battle of San Gabriel took place in what is now Montebello. Pio Pico’s brother, Andres Pico, led a force of 500 Mexican militia against U.S. forces. A two-hour struggle ensued with the well-equipped Americans. The fight included artillery duels and cavalry charges, but it was futile.
Another unsuccessful battle took place in the present day City of Vernon. After that, the Los Angeles city leaders came out, faced the enemy, and surrendered the city peacefully. Manifest Destiny was a dream come true by January 1847, and within a year gold would be discovered in the new U.S. territory, California. The irony of this situation is that the Spanish conquistadors, who were solely motivated to conquer the New World by their lust for gold, never found it, while the Americans who lusted for more land, got the gold unexpectedly.
The American conquerors promised there would be no change in land ownership, but it was a promise they could not keep. During the transition from Mexican to American rule, the gold rush was taking place in the north, causing interest rates to soar. The result was that many Mexican-held properties went into foreclosure, then were sold off in smaller parcels.
Meanwhile, Santa Fe Springs and 22,000 acres that surrounded it, became known as Rancho Santa Gertrudes. Lemuel Carpenter, who owned the rancho, had been a Kentucky fur trader who stayed in the region. He married a local girl from a prominent Mexican family, and established a soap factory along the banks of the San Gabriel River. Carpenter was considered to be a native son and given the title Don. His business prospered, but a trivial debt he owed to John Downey (for whom the City of Downey is named) featured an exorbitant interest rate typical of the day. The debt ballooned, Carpenter couldn’t pay, and Downey foreclosed on the property, becoming the new owner of Rancho Santa Gertrudes. Distraught, Lemuel Carpenter shot himself through the head.
The Good Years and the Very Bad Years
The Gold Rush was very good for Rancho Santa Gertrudes. The demand for meat caused cattle prices to soar, and Los Angeles to prosper. The sight of caballeros, richly dressed and mounted in the streets of Los Angeles, were common in these boom times. As with all booms, it wouldn’t last. By 1860, the price of a head of cattle had fallen from a high of $75 to $7 a head. In 1861, Abel Stearns, who owned the adjacent Rancho Los Cerritos, slaughtered 16,000 cows at a loss. Short term mortgages, devaluation of cattle, and high interest rates contributed to stripping the rancho holders of first their livestock, then their land, and finally the adobe homes themselves.
The worst was yet to come. The rains of that year were unrelenting. Starting around Christmas, they continued for over a month. Business was paralyzed, cattle drowned, and inland valleys became virtual seas. In many places, the water was deep enough to cover telegraph poles. Roads became impassable, blocked with overturned houses, animal carcasses and other storm wreckage. The rivers and streams that served the region changed their courses, or disappeared into flood waters. During the floods, many adobe homes were washed away. Built close to a stream that no longer exists, the Ontiveros Adobe of what was to become Santa Fe Springs, was probably one of the flood casualties. The ruins of the adobe can be seen at Heritage Park.
And then it got worse. A smallpox epidemic broke out in the fall of 1862. In the deplorable living conditions of the Indians and poorer Mexicans, the disease raged. No attempt by county officials was made to quarantine the population. It spread to all parts of Los Angeles where doctors and vaccines were very scarce. With so many deaths, municipal authorities banned the tolling of church bells.
The epic flood and smallpox epidemic were followed by yet another tragedy – a three year drought. As water became scarce, the land became strewn with cattle carcasses and skeletal cows. The once rich grazing land between Los Angeles and Wilmington was described as “a regular mass of dead cattle.” As the value of cattle dropped even further, so did the price of land. An acre of grazing land in Santa Fe Springs assessed for taxes at 25¢ in 1861 fell to 12¢ during the drought. The once robust economy of Southern California was in ruins. Just as the flood waters had washed away the adobe homes of the Spanish, the Mexican influence was destroyed by the recession. The rebuilding of Southern California would be purely American from then on.