I was amazed to discover that the first owner of what is now known as Beverly Hills was a Black Woman. I had grown up in Beverly Hills during a time when a lone black man walking down the street was enough to summon the magical appearance of the B.H.P.D. Her name was María Rita Quintero Valdés de Villa, the descendent of one of the original 44 Pobladores or settlers of the City of the Queen of Angels, El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles Sobre El Rio de la Porciúncula), what we now know as Los Angeles. As a matter of fact, 26 of the original founding settlers were full-blooded Africans.
When colonial Spain got nervous about the encroaching presence of the Russians coming down the coast of Alta California from the Pacific Northwest, they decided to buttress their territory, Nuevo España, New Spain, securing the border by colonizing the lands in the north. In 1769, an expeditionary force led by Gaspar de Portola was sent out, and from the vantage point of what is now Elysian Park, spied an “advantageous” site, which was the Native American Tongvan village of Yangna. El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles was founded on September 4, 1781, and according to Mexican laws and those of the Spanish Crown, each of Los Pobladores were awarded approximately 1 Sitio each, approximately 4,400 acres. Señor Juan Quintero Valdés, was one of the original expeditionary soldiers in the Portola Party, claimed his rightful plot, Rancho Rodeo de las Aguas, Ranch of the Gathering Waters. It was named for the streams that emptied into the area from out of the canyons above; Cañada de las Aguas Frias (Glen of the Cold Waters, now Coldwater Canyon) and Cañada de los Encinos (Glen of the Green Oaks, now Benedict Canyon).
María Rita Quintero Valdés married Spanish soldier, Vicente Ferrer Villa and eventually built an adobe in present day Beverly Hills, approximately on the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Alpine Drive. She received the Rancho title from the Mexican government in 1831.
Rancho Rodeo de los Aquas was a fruitful plain, fed by the waterfalls coming down the canyons and because of this, had an extremely unique micro climate where plants and livestock thrived. However, times were difficult and volatile. By 1844 the initial contact with the Spanish had virtually wiped out the Native populations of Tongvas and Gabrielinos due to repeated abuse and slavery both in and out of the Mission System, followed by a virulent smallpox epidemic. As their numbers alarmingly dwindled, the Native peoples routinely launched incursions into the fertile ranch lands for food and livestock. Then in 1846 President James K. Polk, launched el Guerra del 47 (The War of 1847), and a US Marine force led by military commander Archibald H. Gillespe invaded the Pueblo de Los Angeles. This sparked a popular uprising of the Californios, who launched a vaquero lancer force led by José Antonio Carrillo and Andrés Pico. Ultimately, the invaders were chased out of their occupied headquarters in The Plaza and fled to the hill overlooking the square (Fort Moore Hill) where they eventually surrendered, but not before the women of El Pueblo took their revenge. Native, Mexican and Californios, after having witnessed the degradation of their men and the rape of their daughters, decided on a final act of defiance and offered the departing Gillespie and his troops baskets of peaches which had been rolled in cactus needles.
Following the Euro-American victory, Mexico ceded a large portion of its northern lands, upon the conditions drawn up in the 1857 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which provided that all the original land grants be honored. As required by the Land Act of 1851, a claim for Rancho Rodeo de las Aguas was filed with the Public Land Commission in 1852, but it was not until 1871, that María Rita Quintero Valdés de Villa was finally awarded the grant. Prior to the invasion, María Rita had also built a home within the boundaries of El Pueblo on land she had to foresight to acquire, located on current day Main Street. This would later become the well-known center of social and political life in El Pueblo, the Bella Union Hotel, the very one Commodore Robert Stockton “commandeered” as the American headquarters during the war. In her haste to flee the pueblo, Maria Rita neglected to take the original papers of ownership issued by the Mexican government, and they were subsequently “lost.” Sadly, this was a common story for many original rancho claimants from the Mexican era trying to retain their land, and many had to mortgage their properties trying to prove ownership title under the new American laws and “tax codes.” The land grab was on.
As part of the Public Land Commission rulings in 1852, Henry Hancock did a second survey of el Pueblo based on partitioning the vacant ejidos, or municipal lands into larger lots. These became known as “Donation Land.” One could acquire the land for a nominal fee of $10, along with property “improvements” of $200. One could either build a small adobe, or plant fruit trees or gardens or all of these. The land had to yield a value. Word had traveled across the country and wealthy eastern Euro-Americans began to flock to the land of sunshine and promise, grabbing as much land as they could. One of the ways this was accomplished was by marrying widowed California women, and thus cementing status and place in the growing town.
Henry Hancock, grew to know good land value when he drew up the second survey and thus, along with his business partner Benjamin Wilson, eventually purchased Rancho Rodeo de las Aguas from María Rita. She knew a thing about land values herself, as the great drought of 1862-1865 hit and wiped out previously thriving cattle and agricultural businesses.
María Rita retired to her property in the center of el Pueblo, on La Plaza, and lived out her days amongst other California women and descendants. Sadly, the Native American women of the region had all but been wiped out, and those remaining, fled into the interior. The sacred and fertile Tongva site of the gathering waters had slowly all but dried up, and would take years to recover. To this day the only remaining nod to its former glory, is the fountain at the corner intersection of Wilshire (a former Indian Trail) and Santa Monica Boulevards, which features a loin-clothed Tongvan man kneeling as he offers his hands in a prayer of thanks for the abundant flowing waters.
Jeannie Winston is a frequent guest blogger for ACEI’s Academic Exchange. Jeannie is an artist and writer living and working in Los Angeles, California. Jeannie completed undergraduate studies in Illustration at The Arts Center of Pasadena, California. Her vast and intricate knowledge of Los Angeles and its cultural history bring a new perspective to our understanding of the City of Angels. She draws her inspiration from the natural and inhabited world around her. She is especially inspired by her observations of cultural fusions and how people strive to invoke spirit in daily life.