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Thursday, September 8, 2011

El Pueblo de la Reina de los Ángeles

Downtown Los Angeles with the San Gabriel Mountains.

This past Sunday was the 230th anniversary of the California city now simply known as Los Angeles, or L.A.  September 4, 1781 was the date recorded by Felipe de Neve, the Spanish governor of California, as the official date of the establishment of El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Ángeles, or the Town of our Lady the Queen of the Angels.

The Plaza, 1869.  The Plaza Church is on the left.

Popular belief states that the original name was "El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora La Reina de Los Ángeles de Porciúncula" ("The Town of our Lady the Queen of the Angels of the Porciúncula" - Porciúncula meaning "little portion").  But scholars studying official documents of Governor de Neve, Commandant General la Croix, and Viceroy Bucareli, have confirmed it was the simpler name.

Statue of Felipe De Neve, the first governor
of California, in Los Angeles Plaza.

California was first claimed for Spain by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo in 1542, who sailed and explored the coast.  But attempts to establish colonies were not made for over two hundred years.  In 1769, Gaspar de Portolà explored what was known as Alta California by land.  With him were two Franciscan priests, Fray Junipero Serra and Fray Juan Crespí.  They established the first Spanish presidio (military garrison), the Presidio of San Diego, and the first mission, Mission San Diego de Alcalá.

Junipero Serra statue at the San Fernando Mission.
Every California child knows his name.

As they traveled further north, they found a river running south from the northwest.  Fray Crespí named it "El Rio de Nuestra Señora de los Angelese de Porciúncula", or "the River of Our Lady Queen of the Angels of Porciúncula".  The Porciúncula was the church in the little Italian town of Santa Maria degli Angeli (Saint Mary of the Angels), where St. Francis of Assisi lived.  Fray Crespí found a spot along the river that was suitable for a mission or pueblo.

The Porciúncula where the Franciscan movement
began.  It is in the Basilica of Santa Maria degli
Angeli about 2.5 miles from Assisi, Umbria, Italy.

Fray Serra, in 1771, had established the Mission San Gabriel Arcángel by the San Gabriel River.  Due to a flood, the mission had to be relocated.  Governor de Neve recommended to Viceroy Bucareli the new site, but in 1781 King Charles III ordered that a pueblo be built instead.  The king wanted secular pueblos to be centers of commerce and agriculture to supply the military presence.  Fray Serra and Fray Crespí, however, ignored him and developed ranching and trading centers of their missions, producing items that competed with those of the pueblos.

The Los Angeles River today,  looking north from the Union Station area.
1863 waterwheel on the Zanja Madre taking water to the brick reservoir in the
Plaza.  It was in use until the early 20th century.  Zanja Madre means "mother
ditch", and it was an open, earthen ditch dug by the community within a month
of the founding of the pueblo.  It was the original aqueduct bringing water
from the Los Angeles River.  This is not far from the above picture.

Governor de Neve had maps and a plan drawn for the new pueblo, the Reglamento para el gobierno de la Provincia de Californias, and this is recognized as possibly the first time a town had been planned before anyone got there.  Gathering people was more difficult.  He was unable to get families from Soñora, so he had to go to the Mexican state of Sinaloa.  There he found eleven families of mixed heritages. These 44 people left the San Gabriel Mission escorted by two padres and a military detachment, and went to the new site on September 4, 1781.

Page one of the Nuevo Reglamento (click link to see it all).
Courtesy of the William Clark Memorial Library/UCLA

The pueblo was granted a cabildo, or town council.  The first municipal officers were appointed by Governor de Neve, and then were elected by the people.  The first alcalde, or municipal magistrate, of record was José Vanegas.  Subsequent alcaldes reflected the mixed population of the pueblo.

The Plaza Church, circa 1890-1900.  Image courtesy this site.
The Plaza Church, La Iglesia Nuestra Señora Reina de los Angeles, today.

The primary purpose of creating a pueblo was to cement Spain's claim on the territory.  Russia was settling in the north, and Spain was worried about France and England.  It would also help keep the presidios supplied (they were supplied by ships).

The San Gabriel Mission circa 1900.  The trail in the foreground is
 the El Camino Real - the highway that linked the missions and pueblos.

In 1847, all of Alto California was surrendered to the United States, ending Mexican jurisdiction of the area they settled.  Since then it's been a battle for the descendants of these settlers, as the pressure for them to "return home" has been applied.  Yet every year the Los Pobladores 200, descendants of the original founders, march from the Mission San Gabriel to Olvera Street.  The "Historic Walk to Los Angeles" takes about three hours, and commemorates the nine mile journey made by their ancestors to make a new beginning.

Unless otherwise noted, images courtesy of Wikipedia.


  1. Please check out my web site on this subject. I am a 9th generation descendant of one of the original settlers.

  2. Thanks, Tony, it is a very interesting site and I congratulate you on your hard work!