African American History in Mexican California

Ellen Mason as a Young Woman, Miriam Matthews Photograph collection (Collection 1889,
Box 2, Folder 1). UCLA Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research library, UCLA.

In the Spanish and Mexican eras, American descent settlers were founded in Los Angeles, California. After U.S. annexation in 1848, middle class of African Americans moved to Los Angeles between 1980 and 1915. During this period of time, churches, social and friendly organizations for black community were formed. Moreover, we could see how they (i.e., African Americans) contributed to civil right legislation and advocacy and grown their black­-owned businesses, some of them were elected for government positions. With the interest of African American history in early Los Angeles, I start working on Miriam Matthews Photograph Collection, which consists of 4, 600 black and white photographs of African Americans immigrated to California and their daily life and family members in Los Angeles and California.

The box “Some Early Settlers Within Los Angeles. 1800­-1880” includes photographs of members of the Mason and Owens families. Biddy Mason was mentioned frequently from the notes in the back of photographs, as was her eldest daughter Ellen , her grandchildren Robert and Henry Owens, and her great-grandchildren Gladys Owens Smith and Manila Owens.

It seems Biddy Mason, who came as a slave and later became real estate entrepreneur in Los Angeles, has a huge influence on their family. She also dined at the home of Pio Pico occasionally, who is the last Mexican governor and wealthy landowner. This raises the questions: who is Biddy Mason? How did she get along with Pio Pico? Did he help her succeed in Alta California in early years?

Biddy Mason’s eldest daughter, Ellen, married Charles P. Owens in Los Angeles, California on October 16, 1856. They had two sons: Robert Curry Owens and Henry L. Owens. After Charles Owens died in 1882 and her mother ­Biddy Mason died in 1891, Ellen and her sons handled their increasingly valuable estates. Later, she was wed to Mr. George Huddleston.

This “Mother Goose” party was given by the Owens family in 1906. Notice the mix of African American and Mexican American people in the picture, suggesting potentially a multiracial family.

Mother Goose Party. Miriam Matthews Photograph collection (Collection 1889, Box 4, Folder 2). UCLA Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research library, UCLA.

SoCal vs. NorCal: The Mexican History of California’s Existential Crisis

!838 Map of Mexico
Mexico in 1838 including present-day California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona. From Encyclopedia Britannica 7th edition. Image courtesy DigbyDalton under the under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

The Bay Area is shallow about keeping it real, and Los Angeles keeps it very real about being shallow.  That’s one way to describe the cultural tensions between Northern and Southern California, but it relies on contemporary stereotypes.  The north and south of the Golden State have always been at odds, and ever since California achieved statehood in 1850 people have been trying to break it up.  North-South antagonism is a key feature of life in California, but did you know that it pre-dates statehood? The arribeños (uppers) and the abajeños (lowers) in the sadly neglected, Mexican territory of Alta California never could seem to play nice, seeding a factionalism that remains to this day.

Map of Old Spanish and Mexican Ranchos of Los Angeles County, 1937
Old Spanish and Mexican Ranchos of Los Angeles County, 1937. Image courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library.

Why couldn’t they all just get along?  It’s complicated, but first and foremost, it’s Spain’s fault.  Strange to think now, in the 21st century when we know how awesome California is, but back in the 18th century Spain wasn’t that excited about settling its northern territories.  Foggy, wooded, rocky, difficult to access, full of Indians … California didn’t wow Spanish authorities.  They established missions and presidios reluctantly, only to keep Russia from encroaching further south and to prevent England and France from establishing any kind of Pacific foothold.  Spain couldn’t see the value in developing the region, thus life in California was hard, and settlers felt Spain’s lack of interest keenly.  Californios wondered why people so far away, who had no grasp of issues on the ground, got to make all the rules.  As the territory’s population grew, political resentment turned to infighting.  Los Angeles and Santa Barbara were the most populous towns, and most of the privately held ranchos were also in the south.  So why was the government headquartered in Monterey, along with the revenue-generating customs house?  Good questions, and a lot of people were asking them in the early-1820s.

San Diego in 1840, F.W. Martin, Image Courtesy California State Library

That – 1821 to be exact – is when Mexico gained its independence from Spain.  In 1822 Luis Argüello – California born (1784) and bred – was appointed territorial governor, but conflicts really started heating up in 1825 when Argüello was succeeded by Lt. Col. José María de Echeandía.  Echeandía, an army engineer from Mexico City, really, very much did not want to get stuck out in the then-nowheresville of California.  He was a good soldier, though, and off he went.  He stopped in San Diego, however, and remains, as of this writing in 2020, the only California governor to base themselves so far south.  The arribeños in Monterey took this as an insult, but Echeandía argued, not unreasonably, that as governor of both Baja and Alta California, San Diego marked a strategic midpoint from which to oversee the territory.  Two additional, more personal reasons kept Echeandía in San Diego.  First, he thought the fogs along California’s central and northern coasts would be bad for his health; more importantly, though, Echeandía had fallen in love with Josefa Carrillo, daughter of a prominent, californio family.  He’d never be able to woo her from Monterey!  Alas, Carrillo rejected Echeandía’s suit and wound up eloping with Henry Fitch, a Yankee merchant.  That was a huge scandal in 1826 and a topic for a whole other post.

So, lovelorn Echeandía got off on the wrong foot with California after not even wanting to be there in the first place, and as governor he was stepping into a hot mess of californio resentment, greed, and ambition.  Before getting too far into the very complicated story of the Mexican origins of California’s north-south divide – which, to recap, is largely due to Spanish neglect – here’s a handy roadmap: before 1848, when Mexico ceded California to the US after the Mexican-American War, the region sustained, in close succession, three attempts to divide it.  First, there was the crisis over mission secularization.  Then came Mexico’s 1835 promotion of Los Angeles from pueblo to city and territorial capital, which really pissed off the arribeños in Monterey.  Finally, there was Juan Alvarado’s declaration of Californian independence in 1836, which abajeños saw as an attempt to wrest power from Los Angeles and which, in turn, led to several years of fruitless squabbles without resolution until finally California became part of the United States.  North-South conflicts didn’t end there, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

Mission San Gabriel,
stereograph by Carleton Watkins, ca. 1880, photCL_555_03_1036,
The Huntington Library, San Marino, CA.

Back to Echeandía, freshly arrived in California as governor.  Enlightenment ideas about liberty and equality had fueled Mexican independence, driven a very modern debate about native labor which led to the abolition of slavery in Mexico’s 1824 constitution, and exacerbated church-state tensions.  This ideological wave carried Echeandía north and had a substantial impact on his administration.  He had been appointed with a liberal mandate to secularize the missions, free the Indians, and redistribute church property, but he was given no direction, only told to go forth and do it. 

There was no GOOD way to secularize, so Echeandía just found A way, drawing up idealistic plans that had missions transitioning to parish churches, church lands converting to self-governing pueblos with mixed-race populations, and every Indian family granted two plots of land.  All else – fields, vineyards, animals, workshops, tools ­– was to be overseen by a government appointed administrator and profits devoted to municipal needs.  Echeandía was nearing the end of his term as governor, so it didn’t matter much to him if his plans were viable or not.  He sent them off to Mexico City, but Mexico, on the brink of civil war, was too distracted to pay attention to California. So, Echeandía put his unauthorized plans into action, much to the dismay of mission priests who argued that he was flouting Mexican laws stipulating that mission property not be given to non-Indians until the exact needs of the neophytes was determined.  Echeandía, much to the delight of californios, was arbitrarily determining that need himself and making significant grants to private individuals.

Mexico City, after a period of violent, political instability, finally managed to send Manuel Victoria north as California’s newly appointed governor in January 1831.  He put Echeandía’s plans on hold until the central government had a chance to weigh in and then told Echeandía to return to his army unit in Mexico.  Echeandía’s political fortunes had shifted with the changes in Mexico’s government; he returned not to Mexico but to San Diego where he set up a rebel cell in opposition to Victoria in Monterey and thus California’s first, serious North-South conflict was on.  Both sides claimed to be defending Indians, but really this was a battle about land.  Liberals in the south wanted it for themselves; conservative loyalists in the north felt that a mutually beneficial church-state arrangement could be reached.

Cahuenga Pass, ca. 1888, photCL_555,
The Huntington Library, San Marino, CA.

Victoria’s and Echeandía’s forces clashed on December 5, 1831 at the Battle of Cahuenga (where Hwy 101 now moves through the Cahuenga Pass).  Victoria was badly wounded, later captured at Mission San Gabriel, and coerced into returning to Mexico.  Into that leadership vacuum stepped his secretary, Agustín Zamorano, supported by priests and traders, who declared himself provisional governor.  In response, Echeandía convened a legislature of southern californios who declared HIM governor.  Rather than get into another bloody battle, Zamorano and Echeandía reached a gentleperson’s agreement: Echeandía ruled as far north as Mission San Gabriel; Zamorano ruled as far south as Mission San Fernando.

Manifesto to the Mexican Republic, presented by Brigadier General José Figueroa, Commandant and Political Chief of Upper California, on his Conduct and on that of José María De Híjar and José María Padrés as Directors of Colonization in 1834 And 1835; Image courtesy Marissa López, original – the first book printed in California – available in the California History Room of the California State Library in Sacramento (Vault 979.4 F47m)

This uneasy peace lasted until January of 1833 when José Figueroa arrived as the newly appointed governor of California.  He unified the state and began secularization afresh.  The californios were delighted, but not for long.  Word soon came that a boatload of colonists was on its way as part of the government-sanctioned Híjar-Padres colony to take that sweet, mission land for themselves.  The balance of power shifted in Mexico before the colonists arrived and Figueroa was able to thwart their plans.  Southern californios were placated, but they continued strategizing ways to wrest power from Monterey. 

An opportunity presented itself in 1835 when José Antonio Carrillo, California’s (non-voting) representative in the Mexican congress, managed to get Los Angeles promoted to “city” and named capital of the territory. While the arribeños had been obsessing over Híjar-Padres, Carrillo had been scheming in Mexico City to effect this massive shift, which led Angelenos to demand that the governor decamp to the new capital and that the archives be moved from Monterey to LA.  Politicians in Monterey agreed as long as they could find a suitable palacio for the governor in the city.  A committee looked and looked, but they couldn’t find anything nice enough.  The city was just woefully lacking, apparently, and the committee from Monterey taunted Angelenos for their poverty and provincialism.  Needless to say, this did nothing to ease political tensions.  Sounds oddly familiar, though, doesn’t it?  The Bay Area is so brainy and cultured, and LA is an endless string of trash cinema and waxing salons, right?  Funny to think these stereotypes emerged from centuries old Mexican snobbery that bubbled to the surface only when Los Angeles became an official city.

Juan Alvarado, ca 1860, image courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library.

From this incident a couple of enduring and fatal truths emerged.  Always on the brink of civil war throughout the early-19th century, rapid shifts in power meant Mexico couldn’t effectively govern California.  Californios, for their part, consistently undermined and pushed back against central authority and the leaders Mexico sent to enforce it.  These macro conflicts, finally, always played out against a backdrop of micro conflicts between arribeños and abajeños.  Thus, when Juan Alvarado and his cousin José Castro declared California free and independent of Mexico in 1836 and drove out Mexican-born Governor Nicolás Gutiérrez, Los Angeles saw it as an attempt to disempower them.  A few years later, Governor Manuel Micheltorena’s inability to control his army of bedraggled ex-convicts (whose arrival californios had seen as the height of insult) evolved into a plan by politicians in Los Angeles, led by Pio Pico, to make Los Angeles the dominant city in California.

Manuel Micheltorena, by Ebregon Necko (1872) Image courtesy of the California State Library.

By the time Micheltorena was forced out in 1845 two things were clear: Mexico couldn’t control California, and the influx of Anglo-American settlers from the US was increasing at an alarming rate.  The political plans of californios were eventually swept away by the tidal wave of the Mexican-American War and California was lost for good.  The North-South conflict didn’t end there, however.

The same sectional conflicts arose during the constitutional convention in slightly different form as delegates struggled with whether California should be admitted as a slave state or free.  Just to be clear: California has always been a free state, but for nearly ten years after statehood pro-slavery politicians worked diligently to divide California.  Finally, in 1859, the CA legislature approved a plan to split the state, but the federal government ignored their vote as the South was preparing to secede from the Union and the government didn’t have time to worry about sparsely-populated California.  The question popped up again in 1881 when lawyers declared the 1859 act still valid.  California might have actually divided itself then had it not been for Los Angeles so energetically pushing to be the capital of “Southern California.”  Other counties failed to see any benefit in dividing the state so the plan was dropped.

Jessica Ko
The Daily Nexus

There have been 220 attempts to divide California since it became a state in 1850.  220?!? Read about them all on the California State Library’s excellent timeline, and as you read, try to remember that while these debates are about the universal question of whether the rich will get richer and the poor stay poor, they have their origins in Mexican political conflict.  It behooves us all to remember that, like so many quintessentially Californian things, the state’s north-south divide is puro mexicano.


Attempts to Divide California: A Timeline – California State Library. Accessed 16 Apr. 2020.

Guinn, J. M. “HOW CALIFORNIA ESCAPED STATE DIVISION.” Annual Publication of the Historical Society of Southern California, vol. 6, no. 3, [U of California Press, Historical Society of Southern California], 1905, pp. 223–32. JSTOR, doi:10.2307/41168593.

Lavender, David. California: Land of New Beginnings, Harper & Row, 1972.

“Shopping” in Early California

In late-17th and early-19th century California, before online shopping, before stores, before mail, how did people get stuff?  And what kind of stuff did they want?  In the early 1800s, what was it like to go “shopping” in Los Angeles?

Invoice of the Mercury

Invoice of items found on The Mercury, a trading vessel confiscated off the California coast in 1813. Image courtesy of the author.

Well, people didn’t exactly go shopping.  Through their local mission they asked for stuff from Mexico City, and the government tried to send them more or less what they had requested.  Ships sailing from San Blas brought in things like: medicine, sugar, candlesticks, wine, chocolate, buttons, ribbons, cloth, stockings, hats, and tools.  In payment they took away tallow and hides. Improvisation was common and necessary.  For example, a March 31, 1785 invoice detailing a shipment from San Blas to Mission Santa Barbara lists “14 ordinary bombazines [fabric for women’s dresses] for lack of those from China,” (Perissinotto, 81).  On January 25, 1789, moreover, we see San Blas had to substitute ribbon from Granada “for lack of it from Genoa,” (Perissinotto, 133).   Such invoices from Mission Santa Barbara reveal that while settlers and soldiers got what they needed, they couldn’t always get exactly what they wanted.

Angle view of old Santa Barbara Mission church; shows twin bell towers, Roman temple facade, stone walls. Two men stand on entrance steps. Santa Barbara; ca. 1887.
Mission Santa Barbara in 1887; Image courtesy of the California State Library.

So, how did they manage?  Did they just go without?  Hardly.

The Santa Barbara invoices tell us about official, government sanctioned trade, but plenty of merchandise fell off the back of the boat and remained unrecorded.  The California coast saw its fair share of smuggling in the years leading up to Mexican independence in 1821.  Spain tried to keep a tight handle on things, but California had been difficult to survey and settle.  Its inhabitants were difficult to manage, and the territory was always difficult to protect.  Illicit trade was rampant, and the central government in Mexico City saw it as a threat to Spanish control of its own northern frontier.

International sword rattling was significantly less interesting to the bulk of Californian settlers, however, than the necessities and small luxuries smugglers could bring in.  Officially, two, small supply ships serviced the coast beginning in the 1770s.  As the population grew, those ships weren’t able to bring in everything settlers wanted, as the Santa Barbara invoices reveal, nor were they able to carry away all the tallow, hemp, hides, and otter skins the missions relied on for credit.  Unofficially, smugglers were only too happy to pick up the slack, selling mission products in China and providing Californians with, among many other things: microscopes, Chinese silk, fake pearls, children’s stools, punch glasses and candy dishes, tea, scissors, and watches.

If this trade was so under the radar, though, how do we know what was on those illegal ships?

We know because on the morning of June 2, 1813, Nicolás Noé, captain of the merchant vessel Flora, happened to be sailing off the coast of Monterey.  He had come from Peru with a Spanish trading license, but was unable to sell his goods because Californians told him they could purchase the same things for less money from Yankee smugglers.  Imagine Noé’s combination of glee and rage upon discovery of the Mercury, anchored in Refugio Cove just around Point Conception.  George Eayrs, captain of the Mercury, declared he had every right to be where he was with the cargo he had (spoiler alert: furs, fats, money, microscopes, and so on).  Noé took the Mercury’s first mate and pilot ashore to see Governor José Arrillaga, who ordered depositions of all Mercury personnel and demanded an inventory of the ship.  Eayrs went ashore on June 4 with his common-law wife (a Polynesian teenager referred to as “Peggy” in the historical record), his baby, and his indigenous servant (an 8-year-old boy Eayrs claimed to have purchased in the Pacific Northwest).  All of this was meticulously recorded in the Spanish, bureaucratic fashion, and the archive remained complete and intact, revealing much about how everyday folks got by in early California.

Eayrs’ capture marked the end of his trading career and, apparently, the end of his having regular employment.  He spent his remaining 40-odd years living in Guadalajara, Mexico, and most of that time was spent appealing and petitioning to any authority he could think of.  He wanted his ship back.  He wanted compensation.  He wanted lots of things, and he kept asking for them until finally, in 1842, a claims commission in Washington, DC ordered the Mexican government to pay Eayrs $100,000 (Miller, 96).  Talk is cheap, however, and it’s not clear what authority the US would have had over Mexico at the time.  Plus, years of civil war following independence left Mexico practically bankrupt.  It couldn’t have paid Eayrs even if it had wanted to.

Nevertheless, all these letters, petitions, claims, and judgments comprise “The Mercury Case,” which is open for anyone to see in Rare Books and Special Collections at the Central Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library (call # 979.4 M6118a). These documents – including Arrillaga’s depositions, the inventory, and lots of angry letters from Eayrs – speak volumes about daily life in that time and place, and they illuminate arcane and complex political conflicts.  Because, okay, Yankee traders stepped up to fill in supply gaps to the northern frontier, but how did they know about these gaps, and why was their presence such a big deal to the Spanish?  What was Eayrs doing off the Santa Barbara coast in 1813 in the first place?

The short answer is that during the War of 1812 the British had an effective naval blockade keeping Yankee ships from transatlantic routes, forcing more merchants to seek trade around Cape Horn.  The long answer is that by 1813 Eayrs was profiting from an extended, complicated fight between Britain, Russia, and Spain over seal and otter skins, which could be hunted cheaply but sold very expensively in China.  The pelts were harvested from the Aleutian Islands, down along the Pacific Northwest coast, and into Californian waters.  The Russians and the British had been clashing over this corridor since the 16th century as England made its way west through Canada and Russia pushed east across Alaska.  Spain entered the scene in 1789 by establishing a settlement at Nootka Sound, near Vancouver, claiming it as the northernmost edge of their northern frontier.  Spain eventually gave up that fight to the British and decided to focus on the southern part of their northern frontier.  British traders eventually gave up because draconian rules set by their own government made trading there difficult and unprofitable, but British smugglers and ever-encroaching Russians were perpetual thorns in Spain’s side. 

Added to this, the arrival of Yankee ships starting around the turn of the century made everything worse and pissed everyone off.  Russians saw Yankee trade with native Alaskans as a threat to Russian control of the region, and Spain saw Yankee trade with Russians as a threat to Spanish dominance.  The British just bided their time and took advantage of any opportunity to profit from the chaos.

And there was profit to be had, especially after Mexico declared independence from Spain in 1810.  Even before then, however, Eayrs was doing well for himself, having contracted with the Russian American Company at Sitka in 1808 to take a crew of Native Aleutians hunting up and down the Pacific Coast, during which time he engaged in substantial, illicit trade with mission priests and prominent, Californian families, all of which he recorded.  Also recorded is a letter sent to Eayrs from Los Angeles commissioner Xavier Alvarado in 1809 asking him to “retire from this coast with your frigate and people who accompany you,” (quoted in Miller, 20).  Resource-starved California was never in a position to do much more than send angry notes to lawbreakers.  But, Captain Noé was motivated to see justice done, and when he caught up with Eayrs in 1813, Eayrs couldn’t really make a convincing case for himself, try as he might.

That was the end of the road for Eayrs.  But his loss is our gain.  The Mercury was far from the only ship engaged in illegal trade along the Pacific Coast in the nineteenth-century, but it is the only one whose capture and trial are so meticulously documented.  Those documents avert our attention from the capital-H history of textbooks and museums towards regular people living their regular lives.  The Mercury Case reveals the distance between what regular people needed (wine, chocolate, and rice) and what they wanted (fake pearls and microscopes) and how the weight of the world can be read in an inventory.  And people say shopping is shallow!

Works Cited

Miller, Robert and Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation. A Yankee Smuggler on the Spanish California Coast: George Washington Eayrs and the Ship Mercury. Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation, 2001.

Perissinotto, Giorgio Sabino Antonio, et al. Documenting Everyday Life in Early Spanish California: The Santa Barbara Presidio Memorias y Facturas, 1779-1810. Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation, 1998.

Ana Bégué de Packman Papers (Collection 1491). Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

Figure 2: At the dedication of the plaque in 1934, Packman is second from left. (Source UCLA Digital Archives, uclamss_1379_09933-00)

As the former Secretary of the Historical Society of Southern California, Ana Bégué dePackman’s collection offers up a wide range of artifacts coming from her unique point of view and position as both an author and a keeper of history. Her collection of photographs, newspaper articles, manuscripts, genealogies, maps, ephemera, and correspondence all date between 1870 and 1973, and they represent subjects such as the California Missions, the Ranchos and adobes, Los Angeles history, and Packman herself. Within the fourteen boxes of the collection located in UCLA’s Special Collections Department, the material is organized by subject, and navigating through the boxes and folders is made easier with the help of the finding aid. Most of the boxes and folders are clearly and accurately labeled with the contents such as boxes 7, 8, and 9 which are all divided up based on rancho. However, general subjects such as Packman’s “correspondence” is broken up by year and gives little detail as to what the correspondence is in reference to.

The first part of the collection, labeled “correspondence”, tells the story of Ana Béguéde Packman’s life through the lens of her own letters. We see her life progress through her book publications and speaking events as well as through her role as the Secretary of the Historical Society of Southern California. The remaining boxes tell the story of California through newspaper articles, Packman’s personal notes, brochures, and photographs of historic buildings, the California Missions, and the history of land that today makes up Southern California. These artifacts from Packman’s personal collection allows researchers to view history through the lens of a woman in that time. By analyzing her writing style, word choice, content choice, and overall collection, researchers gain necessary and valuable context clues that would be lost if removed from this specific collection. Upon further inspection, viewers can uncover the histories of the ranchos, missions, and iconic Los Angeles buildings by noting not only which stories Packman included, but also which stories are still unheard.

Ana Bégué de Packman’s collection offered up many interesting finds. Throughout the Rancho boxes, maps of historical Los Angeles give insight to how the city was structured and organized. Some maps were bigger than the table and were done in color, which provided more detail than was imaginable. Other maps were hand drawn on a single side of paper and were almost personal in their construction. Another wonderful find was the cattle brands, hand drawn and repeated throughout the papers, notes, and photographs. Each brand can be traced back to a specific man or family, and each was unique in its design and use. The cattle brands also helped loosely organize papers by marking which document in a folder referred to which family, solely based on a hand drawn symbol in the corner or margins.

Many aspects of Ana Bégué de Packman’s collection provide for a unique and special research experience. Her personal notes and annotations, along with her detailed descriptions, maps, photographs, and more paint the picture of life in the early to mid 1900’s. By starting with her personal documents and then moving towards the historical artifacts she collected, researchers begin to view the contents using Packman’s own perspective as the viewing glass. Generations to come will be able to benefit from this collection, all thanks to the foresight ofAna Bégué de Packman.

Mapping Ranchos