Times Past

Dan Krieger: California thrives on diversity of its people

Throughout times past, California has thrived on the diversity of the people who have settled here, beginning with the different groups of American Indians who began arriving 20,000 or more years ago.

On Sept. 4, 1781, the first non-Indian settlers to arrive in Los Angeles were 14 families, including 44 individuals, a significant number of whom were of African descent.

William Alexander Leidesdorff was born in the West Indies. His father was Danish and his mother was a former African slave.

He sailed his own ship from New Orleans to California in 1841. Before he died, he constructed San Francisco’s first good wharf, brought the state its first steamboat, served as a government consul and built San Francisco’s first hotel.

In 1851, Biddy Mason, born a slave in Mississippi, arrived in San Bernardino, where Brigham Young was starting a Mormon community.

Her owner did not understand the meaning of California being admitted to the union as a free state in 1850. Mason petitioned the state courts and won freedom for herself and her daughters. Using her skills as a nurse and midwife, she became the wealthiest black person in California. She was noted for her philanthropy.

Russian traders with Ivan Kuskov’s Sitka-based Russian American Company came as far south as the Santa Barbara Channel in 1813-14. K. T. Khlebnikov, a company employee, was a keen, self-taught scholar whose research ranged from geography to mineralogy and herbal medicine.

Between 1800 and 1837, Khlebnikov traveled from Norway and Moscow to Yakutsk and Okhotsk and then to Petropavlovska on the eastern rim of Siberia, then to Sitka, the capital of Russian America, Monterey, San Francisco and San Jose in California, then to Lima, Peru, and Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.

His papers in an archive at the University of Alaska reveal a vigorous trade between Mission San Luis Obispo’s hides and tallow and a Russian-American company’s beeswax candles for liturgical services. Some French brandy, seized after Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow, was destined for the guest table of the hospitable Father Luis Antonio Martinez.

The British came, too. George Vancouver visited many of the Franciscan missions in 1792. He was followed by Capt. George Beechey in 1826-28 and Edward Belcher in 1836-39. All wrote important accounts of their observations at the mission settlements.

Scot Botanist and David Douglas led horticultural expeditions in 1823 and again in 1824-27. Douglas was the first scientist to describe the California condor and the California poppy. The famous fir tree is named after him.

Dozens of English and Scottish seamen began to settle in California during the 1820s and ’30s. These include William E. P. Hartnell, who founded the town of Salinas and became the auditor for the California missions during the early period of secularization.

Robert Livermore came to Yerba Buena in 1822. He was one of the founders of the community that became San Francisco. Later, he was granted most of the valley in southern Alameda County, which is named after him.

John Gilroy was a Scot who jumped ship in 1814 and later founded the townsite in southern Santa Clara County, which became “the garlic capital of the world.”

William Richardson came in 1822 and was the first permanent resident of what became San Francisco. Marin County’s Richardson Bay recalls his interest in inland waterways.

Hugo Reid was a Scottish seaman who came up from Mexico to settle in Los Angeles in 1832. He married Victoria, a Gabrieliño Indian, and was granted the Rancho Santa Anita, the present location of the Santa Anita Racetrack and downtown Arcadia. His restored adobe sits on the grounds of the Los Angeles County Arboretum.

Reid’s diaries were edited and published by the late Susannah Bryant Dakin during the 1930s as “A Scotch Paisano in Old Los Angeles: The Life and Times of Hugo Reid, 1832-1852.” Many California historians regard this as the most important source-document available for the study of the late missionary and rancho epic.

Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.