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Thursday: Ballona History III, Early Non-Native Settlers

1957 view of Augustin Machado's home on Ballona Rancho at the edge of Ballona Creek, in present day Culver City. (Courtesy, Yahoo!)

D. J. “Duke” Dukesherer is a local writer and official historian of the Ballona Blog. He is the author of Beach of the King, The Early History of Playa Del Rey, Westchester, Playa Vista, CA, and ‘Round the Clump of Willows.

This post is excerpted and adapted from Beach of the King.

Early Non-Native Settlers (Part One)

In 1902, the population of Los Angeles was a mere 102,479, of whom 4,900 listed their occupation as “real estate promoter.” By contrast, there were just 72 members of the Los Angeles Police Department. A Gold Rush had helped populate the Northern California regions, and now a new Land Rush was beginning in Southern California. The town was beginning to grow. Del Rey Lagoon formed the southwest corner of the 13,920 acre (15 square miles) Rancho La Ballona that stretched inland from the ocean into what is now Palms and Culver City and north to Pico Boulevard in Santa Monica.

The land grant had been awarded by the Mexican governor in 1839 to Ygnacio and Augustin Machado and Felipe and Tomas Talamantes, who established a great rancho there.

In the 1850’s a group of French immigrants operated a salt factory at La Ballona to supply the much needed seasoning to Los Angeles. In the early days, it was known as Ballona Slough, and was considered totally worthless.

After the droughts of the 1860’s decimated most of the rancho’s cattle, squatters began to infest their huge land grant. During the first months of 1863, a smallpox epidemic raged all over Los Angeles, to such an extent that the ninety percent of the Native Americans perished, a long with a great number of other people. Many Mexicans, chiefly from the impoverished classes, perished also, before the epidemic subsided, “for want of further material to work upon.”

July 4 was not celebrated in the city this year, but at the healthier environs of Camp Ballona harbor. On July 31, a detachment of troops from Drum barracks encamped in the city to afford protection to the Unionists. Most of California was pro-Confederacy and a hotbed of spies from the South.

French influence in Los Angeles began even before the city itself was founded. It was actually Théodore De Croix (b. Lille 1730 – d. Madrid 1791), ruler of the Northwestern Provinces of Mexico for King Charles III of Spain, who recommended the founding of a pueblo on the banks of the Porciúncula. This wish was realized by Governor Felipe de Neve who signed the proclamation of foundation on August 26, 1781. On September 4, 1781, “El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Angeles” was inaugurated.

It was then necessary to wait until Mexican independence in 1822 for California to be open to non-Spanish immigrants. The establishment of the Spanish Basques explains, for the most part, the large attraction of their cousins from the Soule, Basse-Navarre, and Labourd regions to California.

The Basques maintain to this day a great tradition of cattle breeding and farming in Southern California, and maintained large herds beneath the bluffs of Westchester. The first French immigrants, former members of Napoléon Bonaparte’s old guard who had fought for Mexican independence from Spain, arrived in the Pueblo around 1828 with their leading officer Louis Bauchet.

In 1860, 600 of the estimated 5000 inhabitants of Los Angeles were either French or spoke French. Not only did 1859 have one of the highest rates of French immigration to Los Angeles, but it also signaled the importance of the French Colony in civil matters with the election of Damien Marchessault as Mayor. He would be reelected many times. In 1865-66, it was another Frenchman, Joseph Mascarel, who was elected mayor of Los Angeles. It is particularly significant to note that Angelinos elected Frenchmen to serve as Mayor of Los Angeles during the entire period of the American Civil War.

Marchessault and his partner Victor Beaudry (a French-Canadian), were ice vendors, and helped to found an area near City Hall called Frenchtown. At first, they sold ice blocks to saloon keepers. But after building their ice house in 1859, they sold ice door to door throughout the summer months. Marchessault also built the first water distributing system with Charles Lepaon in 1863. Marchessault’s success in these activities certainly kept him in contact with a large part of the population.

This was also the case of numerous other Frenchmen, including his nephew Jean Trudel, who supplied the city with the salt reclaimed from Playa del Rey. This was Playa Del Rey’s first “modern” working enterprise’

In 1871 a German shopkeeper named Will Tell filed a preemption claim on 150 acres of marshy land at the mouth of Ballona Creek. He built a shack at the lagoon’s edge and stocked it with food and drink. “Tell’s Place or Tell’s Lookout” became popular with sportsmen who made the half-day trip by horseback or wagon from Los Angeles. Guests hunted ducks from one of Tell’s ten small boats. He advertised that he was an agent for “Don Keller’s fine wines and brandies.”

Don Augustin Machado. One of the first owners of Rancho La Ballona, and former Alcalde, of El Pueblo de Los Angeles. He and his family developed the rancho to the point that it at one time contained 10,000 head of cattle and 600 horses. (Courtesy, USC Libraries)

In 1874, when the widow of Augustin Machado brought suit to evict Tell, he packed up and moved to Santa Monica. However, in 1877 an Irishman named Michael Duffy opened “Hunter’s Cottage” in Tell’s old location, and advertised that he “was prepared to furnish sportsmen with board and lodging for man and beast.”

During the late 1880’s land boom in Southern California, one visionary named Moses L. Wicks saw the potential of Playa del Rey as a harbor. In 1886 he organized the Ballona Harbor and Improvement Company with a capital stock of $300,000 to dredge out “Port Ballona.”



Comment from Chuck
Time March 10, 2011 at 10:40 AM

I think that the photo that says “1957 view of Augustin Machado’s home” might be mislabeled. Perhaps 1857?

Comment from Erlinda
Time July 9, 2011 at 5:17 AM

This is my Great Great Great Great Grandfather if I am correct.