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California and the West | ON CALIFORNIA

6 Lawyers and One Soap Maker

March 25, 2001|PETER H. KING

Sometime this week, a first cut of California data from the latest U.S. Census is expected to be released. There will be many numbers, big numbers, fantastic numbers, intriguing numbers. These numbers can be seen as dots which, when connected, will yield a portrait of the state and its cities as sketched by legions of official demographers in the year 2000.

One hundred and fifty years ago, in the first U.S. census of California, the job of counting noses in Los Angeles city and county fell to a single census-taker, one John Evertsen, a 47-year-old who had fled Texas the previous year with his family after four of his children were wiped out by cholera.

Before revisiting Evertsen's numbers, it first seems appropriate on this, the Sunday of the Oscar, to let Cecil B. De Mille play his walk-on part in our little history. In May 1915, De Mille was making a movie in the San Fernando Valley. At a nearby barn a pile of rubbish was burning. The director happened by and, as a historian would tell it, "noticed a protruding document which, in another moment, the blaze would forever have put beyond the attention of the investigator."

De Mille retrieved this collection of papers, neatly folded four times and partly singed. He mentioned his curious find to a friend, who in turn told the editor of an early Los Angeles memoir. The editor, a history buff, went to De Mille's studio for a look and discovered "the startling fact that they apparently had in hand the Original Census of the City and County of Los Angeles for the year 1850."

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At least that is how the story goes. Of course, it is a story of Hollywood, so who knows? It might be that a screenwriter actually recovered the document, only to be deprived of due credit. Or perhaps De Mille won the thing in a poker game. Whatever, this original handwritten draft of the first U.S. Census of Los Angeles eventually made its way to the Southwest Museum and, after a long process of verification and amplification, was published 80 years ago in book form.

And because of all this, it was possible last week to sit under the giant bay fig trees in the plaza at the end of historic Olvera Street and flip through the first statistical snapshot of Los Angeles, as recorded by assistant census agent John Evertsen. He began in mid-January 1851--2 cents for each person counted, 10 cents for every "necessary" mile traveled.

It took him nine days to finish the city, calling on 274 homes. He next headed on horseback to the large ranchos spread throughout the basin. He concluded fieldwork two months later and returned to Los Angeles, where he traced in ink over the 3,530 names and related findings he had recorded in pencil.

Many of the names Evertsen wrote down in his elegant hand would not vanish from the cityscape--Temple, Pico, Figueroa, Vignes, Sepulveda. By his count, males outnumbered females 2,033 to 1,497. There were 383 children under the age of 5; 116 people were older than 60. There were nine students, 1,118 adult illiterates, one schoolmaster. He counted 121 deaths in the census year, listing their causes as cholera, croup, "cong chills," inflammation, "ep fits" and, most prominently, "unknown." He took note of birthplaces--48 in New York, seven Iowa, 518 Mexico, one Sweden, two "on the plains," one "on the road," and 2,319 in California, the since eclipsed Californios.

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By Evertsen's tally, Los Angeles in 1850 produced 829 bushels of peas and beans and 56,455 gallons of wine. It maintained 89,444 beef cattle, 341 milk cows and 253 mules. The industry Evertsen identified was a bakery, "employing 2 laborers at a total monthly expense of $120.00." He apparently caught an early case of boosterism, though, and left out certain entrepreneurial outposts.

"It may not be irrelevant to note," a preface to the census reproduction dryly observes, "in spite of the known prevalence, in 1850, of saloons, gambling-houses and kindred resorts, that there is, in the Census, not the least mention of their existence."

He also found not a single criminal or pauper. As for occupations, Evertsen's Los Angeles was home to, among others, three brewers, 19 carpenters, one "tobacconist," 13 physicians (see unknown deaths above), one saddler, 11 blacksmiths, one barber, five hatters, 50 "graziers," three priests, 27 miners, one soap maker, no actors, six lawyers and two residents who listed their occupation as "gentleman."

One of these self-proclaimed gentlemen put his net worth at $80,000, while the other listed his as a more modest $6,500. This would seem to offer a lesson in the self-esteem that money can't buy. Either that, or the $6,500 gentleman simply had the good sense to fudge such numbers when government agents come knocking, a timeless instinct.

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