COMPTON — Desecrated by graffiti and garbage and the victim of attempted arson, Compton's 250-year-old Eagle Tree has fallen far from the days when it served as the northern boundary marker for Rancho San Pedro.
In its glory, the tree was pivotal in President James Buchanan's decision to issue a precedent-setting decree in 1858 recognizing former Spanish land grants.
But today, the tree stands at one end of a garbage-strewn oil company right of way used as a shortcut to a nearby shopping center. Vandals have repeatedly painted over the bronze and granite monument that marks it, and its bark is still blackened from a recent arson attempt.
"It has not had very good handling," said Compton Councilwoman Jane Robbins, who has asked the city to consider installing a sprinkler system and a fence around the 70-foot-tall tree at Poppy Avenue and Short Street. Robbins also would like the city to make aesthetic improvements, such as erecting a new plaque and planting flowers around it.
"This is something (the city) should do," Robbins said.
Judson Grenier, a history professor at California State University, Dominguez Hills, agrees that the tree should be protected.
"There are very few, if any, landmarks of that era left," Grenier said. "The boulders and the creeks that were here don't exist. The rivers don't flow anymore. The Los Angeles River is cemented. Something has to be done to save (the tree)."
The tree stands at what was the northeastern corner of Rancho San Pedro, a 118-square-mile tract that covered most of what is now the South Bay and Compton areas, as well as the western part of Long Beach. Deeded by the Spanish Viceroy of Mexico to Juan Jose Dominguez in 1784, the rancho remained in his family's control when Mexico gained independence in 1822, according to a history of the area titled "The Rancho San Pedro" by Robert C. Gillingham.
Portions of the rancho had been bequeathed to various heirs of Dominguez through two generations when the United States received California in 1848 as part of its conquest in the Mexican War.
The tree was important because it had been used in Mexican government surveys to mark the northern limits of Rancho San Pedro. Boulders, creeks and rivers in the area proved unreliable for surveys since they could easily be moved by man or nature. For instance, the frequently flooded Los Angeles River would shift wildly through the area, obliterating less formidable landmarks.
Thus the Eagle Tree became the basic survey point for the ranch, with all other measurements taken from it.
President Buchanan used the Mexican government surveys in his decision to issue a decree recognizing the Dominguez family as the owners of Rancho San Pedro. This was the first case in which the government recognized a major landholding as belonging to the people who had owned it under Mexican rule.
"Beginning at a Sycamore tree, Sixty inches in diameter, Standing on the East of the Road leading to San Pedro . . . ," the decree read, summarizing the rancho's northern boundary.
The Eagle Tree, named after the birds that rested in its limbs, has now grown to more than 20 feet in circumference, and shades a duplex and a recently erected apartment building less than 10 feet away.
At its base is a plaque erected in 1947 by the now-defunct Compton chapter of the Native Daughters of the Golden West dedicating it as an historic monument. The tree, however, has never been officially registered with the state.
Sandy Elder, a spokeswoman for the California Historical Resources Commission, said that if the tree meets the agency's criteria, a local group could petition to have the tree declared a state historic monument.
"(The Eagle Tree) would have to be of statewide significance and be the first, last or only one of its kind," Elder said. She said that if the tree is regarded as a survey point for only one ranch, the focus might be considered too local and the application rejected. On the other hand, she said, because it was mentioned in Buchanan's decree, it might qualify.
Trunk Scarred by Fire
Richard Scott, who manages the duplex near the tree, said he has tried to maintain the area but admits he is fighting a losing battle. The arson attempt has scarred the tree's trunk. Gangs have left their marks on the bronze and granite monument and the solvents used to remove the paint have eroded much of the lettering. On a recent day, a broken water heater lay abandoned at its base and picnickers had left the remains of their meal in the tree's shadow.
Scott said the main problem lies in the fact that the tree stands at the entrance to the right of way. He would like some group to erect a barrier that would allow people to visit the tree but keep passers-by from using the right of way.
Rod Speckman, a spokesman for Chevron USA, which owns the right of way, said he had not been aware of a problem with the tree or the right of way.
"We are interested in any effort to improve the community," Speckman said. "We are certainly open to any ideas anybody might have."
Grenier said the tree is an asset that should be cherished by people of the entire area, not just Compton.
"Around the state there are other trees that receive tender loving care," Grenier said. "This one deserves the same."