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'Once Upon a Time' Started 300 Years Ago

April 18, 1999|PATT MORRISON

A visitor to london cannot fail to have a few blue-plaque moments, the serendipity of walking a street and seeing affixed to some building a small blue marker noting that it was here that Winston Churchill learned he had been elected prime minister, or here that Shelley wrote "Ode to the West Wind."

It is history for the price of a piece of enameled steel, and Los Angeles could benefit from a blue-plaque campaign of its own, not so much for the tourists, blinkered to anything but Hollywood, as for the locals, whose historical memory may extend to recalling what occupied that corner building before Starbucks moved in.

The pickings are richer than pop culturists think; the rented Hollywood loft where the Loughead brothers (your world knows them now as Lockheed) built a prototype plane for Amelia Earhart . . . the South-Central high school where a young Ralph Bunche did his homework years before he became the first black American to win a Nobel Prize . . . the spot near downtown where once stood El Aliso, the ancient sycamore tree that was the heart of the Gabrielino village of Yang-Na, the first Los Angeles.

Until someone musters the muscle and the dough for such a project, though, we have keepers of the flame like Gloria Ricci Lothrop, for whom all figurative roads, like all literal freeways, lead to capital-h History.


The 150 candles on California's birthday cake burn so brightly that they throw into obscure shade just about anything before the Gold Rush. Lothrop, who holds the W.P. Whitsett chair of California history at Cal State Northridge, thinks a tricentennial celebration, 300 years back, would be a better place to begin California's "once upon a time."

With 300 years to work with "we could revisit the history of Native Americans" when they still thrived. Instead of the standard history texts that write of America from east to west, Plymouth to Placerville, 300 years would plot the span of Spanish settlement here that began a scant 50 years after Columbus' landfall, when Cabrillo discovered natural smog, christening Santa Monica Bay as "bay of smokes" for the inversion trapping of campfire smudges.

To a born history teacher--43 years of breathing chalk dust, for Beverly Hills High School, for the Peace Corps and now for college students--300 years is a truer and more satisfying bite of California as the blueprint of the early West, "with all its contradictions and all its shortcomings, from the spoliation of the environment to the strong streak of xenophobia."

From the first, when she came across the papers of an early 19th century Italian missionary, it was the lesser-told histories, the ones that the Gold Rush rushes us past, that engrossed her, the ones that showed the popular tales of California to be only history in fractions.

Take women. Generalized accounts would lead a reader to conclude the West was a male wasteland, yet Lothrop finds that women who came here--and they did--found both a curious deference and immense opportunities.

"The very fact of their scarcity made them prized as companions, as future mothers. Beyond that, society feared that in its isolation it would be roughened by contact with the wilderness, and women were valued as culture bearers." As a result, the farther west one came, the more opportunities women had, for education, for entrepreneurship, for civic leadership. California was the sixth state to grant women the vote, long before the nation did in 1920.

Spanish and Mexican men and Indian women were encouraged to marry rather than live "in sin," unlike English colonists, who may have bedded native women but rarely wed them. The notion of women owning property was so alien that when later Anglo historians ran across records of female rancheras, they assumed the names were misspelled and rendered them as men's names, wiping women off the property rolls.

Lothrop finds myth, too, in the mission histories. While Spanish colonization "did indeed displace Native American culture" and earned "justifiable fury," the missions never sheltered more than 10% of the native population and were not as ruthless and vicious as revisionist romances like to paint them.

One lesser-known history she lived through herself. While Japanese Americans were interned during World War II, German and Italian nationals were monitored, forced to give up their binoculars and flashlights, curtail their travels and observe curfews. As a child of 7, born in California to Italian parents, Lothrop remembers sitting in the kitchen early in the war and listening to L.A. Mayor Fletcher Bowron call for rounding up all enemy aliens "and their children, who are more dangerous because of their command of English."


You'll be hearing a lot about gold rush California in the next year or so, and Lothrop is too conscientious a historian to argue that it was anything but cataclysmic in its impact. How could it be otherwise, when "a cube of gold 9 by 9 by 9 inches" ended Hispanic domination in California, forever altered the demographic balance, the north-south balance, the rural-urban balance, the course of a whole nation?

But she is also too good a historian to seize only the obvious nuggets and overlook the richness of the gold dust that, in quantity, is just as valuable as the chunks, just a little harder to find. Without it, she says, "we have no dimension; we are a people without a full personality."

Patt Morrison's e-mail address is

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