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The History of Rancho Los Alamitos

National Park Service

Rancho Los Alamitos (Ranch of the Little Cottonwoods) is one of the few sites remaining that represents the growth of Southern California from the time of its first occupation by Europeans. The ranch house itself has grown from a four-room adobe shelter to an 18-room structure and serves today as an outstanding example of the way in which an existing Spanish-Mexican structure gradually developed into an eastern form adapted to the California lifestyle.

Rancho Los Alamitos was carved out of a 300,000-acre land grant called "Los Coyotes" awarded by the king of Spain to Manuel Perez Nieto in 1790. Nieto was a corporal in the Spanish army stationed at the San Diego presidio and had come to Alta California with the Portola-Serra expedition of 1769. He retired in 1795 and settled down on his rancho to raise cattle. The following year, Governor Borica ruled in favor of the San Gabriel mission's petition for more land, and reduced Nieto's holdings to 167,000 acres. Nieto's wife and five children inherited the rancho upon Nieto's death in 1804. His oldest son Juan built an adobe house on the property and acted as manager. In 1834, the land was divided into five ranchos: Santa Gertrudes, Las Bolsas, Los Alamitos, Los Cerritos, and Los Coyotes. By this time, California had become a territory of Mexico. Mexican Governor Jose Figuero purchased the 28,000-acre Los Alamitos rancho that same year and added additional houses. No one is certain whether the surviving adobe dates from the early 1800s or from 1834, but the earlier date is more likely.

Abel Stearns, a New Englander, purchased Rancho Los Alamitos in 1842 for he and his young Spanish-Californian wife, Arcadia Bandini, to use as a summer home. As a trader who settled in Los Angeles, Stearns had become one of the area's wealthiest citizens. He served as the first alcalde (mayor) during the Mexican period and president of Los Angeles under American rule. Stearns was typical of the Americans who came to Southern California during both the Mexican and the American periods. He adopted some of the Californio ways of life, but put his own American stamp on others. Stearns became a large landowner and cattle rancher and helped to change the economic life of Southern California. During his ownership of Rancho Los Alamitos, California was annexed by the United States (1848) and subsequently became the 31st State of the Union (1850). He increased the traditional Spanish-Mexican cattle-raising operation of Rancho Los Alamitos and added to the house by building a north wing of wood-frame construction, positioned at right angles to the original adobe.

In 1861, Stearns mortgaged the rancho to Michael Reese, who purchased it at a sheriff's sale five years later. A Bavarian, Reese settled in San Francisco in 1850 and purchased large tracts of land vacated by the exodus to the gold fields. By 1878, when Reese died while on a trip to his homeland, his estate was worth more than $6 million. He never lived at Rancho Los Alamitos, but leased it for stock grazing.

In 1878, John Bixby leased the ranch from Reese and moved into the deteriorating adobe. Thus began what was to be a 90-year occupation of Rancho Los Alamitos by the Bixby family. By the early 20th century, this family would be one of the largest landowners in the Los Angeles area. John Bixby had traveled from his native state of Maine to California to supervise the sheep-raising operation of his cousin Jotham Bixby's Rancho Los Cerritos. During the Civil War, cotton was replaced by wool, hence the profitability and importance of raising sheep to the newly created state. In 1881, John Bixby purchased Rancho Los Alamitos in partnership with I. W. Hellman and J. Bixby & Co. (which comprised Jotham Bixby & Flint Bixby & Co.). To make the adobe more livable for his wife and young children, John Bixby added many improvements before he died suddenly at age 39 in 1887. The ranch was then divided into three parts; his wife and two children received the middle section, which included the ranch house and gardens, the barns, and the corrals. By 1915, Rancho Los Alamitos was described in the following way:

One of the most beautiful in this section, the buildings being located on the heights overlooking the mountains, the valleys and the sea, an ideal spot for a home, the land extending six miles along the coast and being in itself a small principality. The old adobe house that was built over 100 years ago with walls from three and a half to four feet in thickness, has been improved and modernized, and yet retains the appearance and necessarily its historical interest that clings to the days when the Spanish dons reigned supreme. The other buildings of the ranch are large and in keeping with the progressive spirit of the owner.1

By 1915, Rancho Los Alamitos was commonly referred to as the Bixby Ranch. In 1968, the surviving trustees of the Bixby Home Property Trust granted the furnished ranch house, gardens, and six barns to the city of Long Beach to maintain and develop as a regional historic and educational facility.

Setting the Stage

National Park Service

In 1542, Juan Cabrillo was sent to California from the newly conquered Spanish province of Mexico to search for gold. He sailed along the coast of Alta (Upper) California and prepared the first written description of the region. Because Cabrillo's exploration party failed to find gold, the Spanish more or less ignored the region for the next two centuries. It was not until 1769 that the first permanent European settlers arrived, led by Gaspar de Portola and Father Junipero Serra. Within the next decade, missions and presidios, or military forts, were established along the coast at San Diego, Monterey, San Gabriel, and San Francisco. In 1781, the pueblo, or town, of Los Angeles was created. By the end of the century, nearly a dozen more missions had been established in California.

Most Spanish settlers established themselves on ranchos, or ranches, where they soon developed a distinct culture centered around cattle-raising. To stimulate colonization, the Spanish, and later the Mexican, government issued huge land grants. During the Spanish period these were awarded mostly to retired soldiers. A grant entitled the individual to live on and work the land, but it did not convey ownership. One soldier, Manuel Nieto, was granted 167,000 acres on which he raised cattle. Today, a small piece of this land grant is preserved and open to the public as Rancho Los Alamitos Historic Ranch and Gardens.

In 1821, after the Mexican government took control of California, the number of land grants increased as did the number of residents of non-Hispanic birth or descent. Some land grants were awarded to foreigners—mostly Americans—who were willing to become Mexican citizens. Many Californios (Spanish settlers in what is now the state of California) had little use for Mexico and engaged in sporadic revolts during the 1830s and 1840s. Then came the Mexican-American War and the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. Under this agreement, Mexico ceded huge tracts of land in the Southwest to the United States. Called the Mexican Cession, these territories together constituted the largest single land acquisition by the United States since the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Although the rancho system was maintained, within 20 years control of most ranchos had passed into the hands of Americans by purchase, force, or fraud.

In 1846, approximately 11,500 of California's 14,000 non-indigenous residents were of Spanish or Mexican descent. By 1850, two years after the discovery of gold in the northern part of the territory, Spanish-speaking Californians were only 15 percent of the non-Indian population; by 1870, only 4 percent. However, change came more slowly in the southern region of California. The few Americans who had settled in Southern California prior to its transfer to the United States to some extent had attempted to integrate themselves into the local culture. Frequently, they married into prominent Californio families, learned at least rudimentary Spanish, and converted to the Roman Catholic religion. Until the 1870s, Mexican Californians remained a sizable portion of the residents and voters in Southern California. Eventually, however, the press of the growing population of non-Hispanos and economic changes destroyed an old way of life.

National Park Service arrowhead with link to NPS website.