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The Mystery of the Misplaced Pueblo

Time and floods have obscured the site where the Spanish first settled Los Angeles. Nobody knows exactly where the city started.

July 12, 1996|HECTOR TOBAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They say Los Angeles is a city without history, but you know better. And so when your relatives come from out of town, you take them to see the oldest part of the city, the plaza at Olvera Street.

This is where Los Angeles was founded in 1781, you tell them. A small band of settlers was led by a Spaniard named Felipe de Neve. You're feeling pretty smart and your relatives are duly impressed.

But hold on. You're wrong!

In fact, the location of the city's first Spanish settlement, L.A.'s Plymouth Rock, if you will, is a mystery that has perplexed historians for a century.

"We do not know where the original site of the founding of Los Angeles was," says Doyce B. Nunis Jr., editor of the journal of the Historical Society of Southern California. "Nobody knows."

Depending on whom you ask, the current site of the Plaza of Los Angeles was, in fact, the third or the fourth plaza. For the first three decades of its existence, the forlorn pueblo of Los Angeles kept moving because the nearby Porciuncula River (now the Los Angeles River) repeatedly flooded, wiping out crops and the settlers' adobe homes.

All that is known about the original site of Los Angeles was that it was near the bend in the river (at present-day Elysian Park), to the west of the riverbank, on land lower in elevation than today's Olvera Street.

The first Spaniards to set eyes on the land that would become Los Angeles wrote in 1769 that it contained "ground of rich, blackish clay soil and will produce whatever kind of grain one may want to cultivate."

The pueblo was founded 12 years later by de Neve. Following the model of Spanish settlements throughout the New World, de Neve laid out a plaza square and ordered the construction of a church. But after one especially bad flood in 1818, the pueblo was moved to higher ground, on a ridge overlooking the river. The current plaza was laid out between 1825 and 1830.

The old adobe buildings of the first plaza were soon forgotten, perhaps buried under debris from one of the many floods, then built over as the city grew and expanded in the late 19th century.

By 1895, there was no trace of the first plaza. In that year, J.M. Guinn wrote in the journal of the Historical Society of Southern California: "There are no landmarks to show the location of the 12 house lots that clustered around the old plaza. . . . Time, flood, and the hated gringos have long since obliterated all ancient landmarks and boundary lines of the old Pueblo."

Nor is there any hint of the site of the Gabrielino Indian village, Yangna, that stood near the original Spanish settlement.

*

Archeologist Roberta Greenwood hoped that she might find either Yangna or the ruins of the city's original adobe walls in 1989, when she was hired to survey the property that would become the Metro Red Line subway terminal at Union Station.

The location, near the bank of the river and downhill from the current plaza, matched the vague descriptions contained in historical documents. Although Greenwood found thousands of artifacts from the city's original Chinatown, there was no plaza, and no Yangna.

"It would be lovely to find it," Greenwood says. "One can only hope that as years go by and we do more investigation, someday there will be evidence."

*

Over the years, various theories have been posited as to the location of the city's founding. Some say it's north of the current plaza, others to the south or east.

Nunis figures the city could have been founded anywhere between the juncture of the Los Angeles River and the Arroyo Seco north of downtown, and the current location of the Santa Ana Freeway.

Still, he thinks there may be a vital clue in the 1858 drawings of William Rich Hutton. One sketch shows the current plaza, seen from half a mile or so to the north. In the foreground, a cactus grows near the ruins of some old walls. Might these be the remains of the first pueblo of Los Angeles, Nunis wonders, captured by an artist 40 years after its demise?

We may never know, Nunis says. A century of construction may have wiped out any trace of that sleepy village, leaving little, not even a few adobe bricks, for the archeologists to find.

"There's too much cement down there," Nunis says. "What are you going to do? Close down Macy Street, the Terminal Annex, Union Station, all the tracks for the freight yard of the railroad? It's hopeless."

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