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L.A.'s Lawmen and Outlaws During the Gold Rush

January 12, 2000|JONATHAN KIRSCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Nostalgia is a favorite theme in our popular culture, but much of what passes for history in books and movies is mangled or morphed or just plain made up. By contrast, "Reminiscences of a Ranger: Early Times in Southern California," by Horace Bell (University of Oklahoma Press, $27.95, 528 pages) is the real thing--a first-person memoir that allows us to see the landscape of California in the Gold Rush era through the eyes of someone who was there.

Los Angeles was a frontier town with a permanent population of some 1,600 souls when Horace Bell arrived here in the 1850s, and he recalls that "midnight raids and open day robbery and assassinations of defenseless or suspecting Americans were of almost daily occurrence." Although his exploits in early California included gold hunting, soldiering, law and journalism, his classic autobiography focuses on his experiences as a founding member of the volunteer police force known as the Los Angeles Rangers.

"I have no hesitation in saying that in the years of 1851, '52 and '53, there were more desperadoes in Los Angeles than any place on the Pacific Coast," insists Bell. "All of the bad characters who had been driven from the mines had taken refuge in Los Angeles . . . while, on the other hand, all of the outlaws of the Mexican frontier made for the California gold mines, and the cutthroats of California and Mexico naturally met at Los Angeles, and at Los Angeles they fought."

Bell writes with all the ornate flourishes and leisurely digressions of a 19th century gentleman-author, but the tales he tells are populated with bandits and scoundrels, rough-and-ready entrepreneurs and backwater eccentrics. Criminal offenders were punished by "cat-hauling in the public water ditch." Barber shops were especially busy on election day, as citizens who had voted once submitted to shaves and haircuts that would help to conceal their identities and allow them to vote a second time.

To the modern reader, Bell comes across as an unreconstructed racist, but his unfriendly and even ugly remarks about Jews, Mexicans, Native Americans and African Americans reveal something important about the time and place he is describing. Indeed, Bell inadvertently confirms that Los Angeles has been a rich and diverse community from its very inception, and he admits that even the vigilantes who served in the Los Angeles Rangers were appreciative of its many diversions.

For example, he describes an incident in which the Rangers marched out to arrest a band of "Mexican banditti" who were drinking and dancing at a local ball. "The party of Rangers, arriving at the fandango, found everything so agreeable that instead of making arrests they were immediately taken into custody by an overwhelming array of black-eyed senoritas, and in the giddy mazes of the dance and under the exhilarating influences of Los Angeles wine, soon became oblivious."

Aside from its appeal--the book is colorful and compelling despite its rough edges--"Reminiscences of a Ranger" is a historical artifact in itself. As we learn in John Boessenecker's illuminating introduction, it was the first hardcover book to be published in Southern California, and historian Kevin Starr characterizes it as "a cactus plant in the desert of early expression in the Southland."

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Another charming curiosity from an earlier era is "Visalia Stock Saddle Co. Saddle and Western Gear Catalog 1938" (Dover Publications, $10.95, 130 pages), a facsimile edition of a catalog intended for "the working, wannabe, and Hollywood cowboy" at a time when wranglers still rode the ranges of California. For real cowhands, the catalog offered ropes, branding irons, "The New Visalia Humane Bit" and even "Old Reliable," a single-action Colt revolver. But the company was reaching out to rhinestone cowboys, too, and workaday items are outnumbered (and outshined) by show saddles, ornately decorated boots and chaps of almost ludicrous grandeur. Everything about the book, from the funky graphic design to the Depression-era prices, recalls the roots of a style that is still emblematic of Southern California.

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