Albert Camarillo, PhD, Historical Consultant for Whitewashed Adobe: The Rise of Los Angeles has written in his groundbreaking history book, Chicanos in a Changing Society: “The search by Americans for their ethnic, cultural, and family roots has become especially prevalent in recent years. Black Americans, for example, have looked to their African origins and to their long history under the oppressive institution of American slavery in order to understand better a major part of their experience. Anglo-Americans who trace their family backgrounds examine in a similar way the trans-Atlantic immigrations… and the initial settlement of their ancestors in the New World. American Indians, on the other hand, turn to their North American tribal origins and to a tragic history of Indian-white relations to comprehend their present subordinate status… In similar fashion, the Chicano people learn a great deal about themselves by exploring their Mexican Indian, Spanish and mestizo origins. Their position in American society, however, cannot be fully ascertained without a knowledge of the historical contours of Anglo-Chicano relations. The history of the Chicano people as an ethnic minority in the United States was forged primarily from a set of nineteenth-century experiences. This country’s war of annexation against Mexico (and the Texas Revolution a decade earlier) led to American acquisition of a vast territory and its Spanish-speaking population.”
One such transformational historical experience – for California’s Native Americans, Chicanos (or Mexican-Americans) and Anglo-Americans (and, for that matter, all other ethnic communities arriving later in California and Los Angeles) occurred in January, one hundred and sixty-four years ago at a site some miles from the pueblo of Los Angeles, California. The abandoned adobe house of a local Californio rancher became the site of a pivotal event for the independent republic of Mexico and thus for Californios – California-born Mexican citizens. And it was a victory of enormous importance for the American ideal of “Manifest Destiny” – the notion that the American nation was divinely destined to occupy North America from its east coast to west coast. This locale, known as the Campo de Cahuenga, a knoll with sweeping vistas of the San Fernando Valley and the San Gabriel Mountains beyond, and views of the steep hills known today as the Hollywood Hills, now seems like an almost bizarre anomaly within the increasing density of urban Los Angeles – a postage stamp size parcel of the distant past wedged between the sound stages and amusements of Universal City Hollywood, and a busy Metro subway station.
Thanks to the unrelenting efforts of local historical preservationists, the Campo de Cahuenga has not been completely obliterated. But the result of the surrender by Mexicans to Americans that occurred here on January 13th, 1847, is ubiquitous. It is everywhere to be seen in the urban domination over the natural landscape of the wide coastal plains, river valleys, canyons and hillside slopes of Los Angeles and Southern California. Landscapes that for millennia held thriving Native American rancherias and larger villages, and then later, Spanish-Mexican pueblos and missions with their sprawling lands teeming with livestock and abundant with vineyards and orchards. Those landscapes are receding into fading memory as the natural paradise that once flourished here is replaced by more urbanization. This is one kind of “whitewashing” that has defined the rise of Los Angeles; another kind equally as powerful are the inexorable tides of one ethnic population overwhelming or unsettling another in the story of this megalopolis. First the Spanish subjugating and decimating California Native Americans, then Mexicans being overwhelmed by Anglo-Americans arriving in growing waves, then an influx from Asia and African Americans from the American South, then Southern and Eastern European immigrants and people from every other continent of the world… and the process continues today in Los Angeles. But Los Angeles’ most dramatic transformation could be said to have begun on January 13th, 1847, here at the Campo de Cahuenga:
At the Campo, General Andres Pico of Mexico signed a treaty, generally termed the “Capitulation of Cahuenga,” with Lieutenant Colonel John C. Frémont of the United States. This was a pivotal event that opened the way to California’s statehood in 1850 by ending the war between the U.S. and Mexico in 1847 – a year before the war ended in the rest of Mexico’s territories in 1848. By early January 1847, Mexican forces had been defeated twice and el pueblo de Los Angeles was captured by General Steven W. Kearny. The Mexican forces had retreated north of Los Angeles, and Gen. Andrés Pico was the new commanding-general of the army. Pico was the brother of the last Mexican Governor of Alta California, Pío Pico. In the meantime, Col. Frémont arrived in the Los Angeles area from the north, and on January 11, 1847, Frémont received this news of U.S. victories from Gen. Kearny. Frémont’s battalion was now camped in the once impeccably maintained and beautiful Spanish mission buildings at San Fernando, northwest of Los Angeles. Frémont sent Jesús Pico, a cousin of Gen. Andrés Pico and Governor Pío Pico, to find the Mexican army and open negotiations with its leaders. Jesús Pico delivered the sobering news to his cousin Andrés Pico and to the other Mexican officers that Frémont brought a large number of his men, and that combined with the forces of Commodore Stockton, who had just arrived in Los Angeles, it was wise to surrender to Frémont. Pico believed the Mexicans could obtain better terms from Frémont than from Stockton. Emissaries from opposing sides met at the abandoned ranch house of Tomás Feliz at Campo de Cahuenga, and a treaty was drawn up.
Apparently Frémont abided by the notion of victory with dignity and generosity to the defeated, or he had a better appreciation of the traditional culture of courtly manners and honor among gentlemen in California’s Mexicans, because the Treaty of Campo de Cahuenga brought about peace in California without dishonoring the Californio Mexican officers, their troops, and all other citizens of Mexico residing in California. The principal conditions of the “Capitulation of Cahuenga,” as it was termed then, were that the Californians, upon turning over artillery and arms, promising not to take up arms later during the war, and abiding by the laws and regulations of the United States, were to be allowed to peaceably return to their homes, given the same rights and privileges as to citizens of the United States, and were not to be coerced to take an oath of allegiance until such time as a final treaty of peace was signed between the United States and the nation of Mexico. They were also given the opportunity of returning to what remained of Mexico – an important concession to Mexicans not from California and anxious to return home to their families.
These articles of capitulation were signed at the Campo de Cahuenga on January 13th. California as it had been during the long era of Native American presence, then the era of the Spanish and their missions, and finally the Californio Mexican era, had come to an end, and the American era had begun.
Just over six months later, U.S. naval forces of the Pacific Squadron, aided by the California Battalion, two companies of dragoons, and the Morman Battalion, had seized and taken the whole vast region that today is the state of California. The Treaty of Campo de Cahuenga was accommodated into the final Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of February 2, 1848, that ended the war between the United States and Mexico, and forced Mexico to give up one half of its national land. Frémont’s generous treaty might have encouraged California’s Mexicans to calmly assimilate into the United States… In some respects it did initially, but in many ways and with passing years it did not. Persistent Anglo American ideas about race and a belief in the inferiority of all non-whites created long-lasting tensions and obstacles to the peaceful and harmonious assimilation of California’s Native Americans, Mexicans, migrating African Americans, immigrating Asians and people of other races and places. But amazing progress has been made in racial and ethnic relations over the sixteen turbulent decades since the Treaty of Campo de Cahuenga was signed, and today the multi-ethnic people living side by side in general peace in Los Angeles’ urban sprawl are a hopeful omen pointing to a harmonious future for the United States, and maybe someday for the world.
Chicanos in a Changing Society: From Mexican Pueblos to American Barrio in Santa Barbara and Southern California, 1848-1930, Albert Camarillo; Southern Methodist University Press, Dallas, Texas; 1979 &1996.
The Mexican War and California: The Treaty of Campo de Cahuenga, Warrant Officer 1 Mark J. Denger. California State Military Museum, California State Military Department. No publishing date listed.