Baghdad On The Freeway

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Mexican California was an Elysian field compared to frontier America, but so long as warm blood flowed in Spanish veins Los Angeles affairs were never dull. In the 1830’s the pueblo became a center of political discontent. Led by one of the earliest boosters, Don Pío Pico, its people demanded the removal of the capital from Monterey to Los Angeles. After years of petty intrigue and comic opera revolutions, California was in complete turmoil. In alarm, Mexico City sent a new governor with an army of 300 men to restore order. Landing at San Diego in August, 1842, General Manuel Micheltorena marched northward with his troops for Los Angeles and Monterey.

To the Angelenos this was their opportunity. For days they made ready for the Governor’s arrival, and when he came they threw a grand ball and a week-long fiesta in his honor. But while the General basked in their plaudits, his army was otherwise occupied. The Angelenos found their chicken coops raided, vegetable patches ravaged, fruit trees and vines picked bare. Micheltorena’s army was, in truth, a band of thieves and cutthroats recruited from the prisons and guardhouses of Mexico. Hungry and desperate, they swept through Los Angeles like a plague of grasshoppers. By the time the Governor was officially inaugurated, the Angelenos were afraid he was going to stay. After all, they protested piously, they had no desire to injure neighboring Monterey. Offended by this change of attitude, the haughty Micheltorena marched northward, his soldiers pillaging as they went.

Within two years the Governor and his troops had outworn their welcome in the north. Revolt had flared, and Los Angeles learned with panic that Micheltorena was marching south in pursuit of the rebels. Led by Pío Pico, her citizens joined the revolution and armed for battle—sharpening swords and lances, repairing muskets, gathering hundreds of horses.

On February 19, 1845, Micheltorena’s army arrived at Rancho Encino in San Fernando Valley. Charging out of Los Angeles, a defending army of 400 horsemen poured over Cahuenga Pass to meet him. Next day, in the area now occupied by Studio City, the two forces clashed. With many flourishes of fife and drum they swung into battle lines, making sure to remain out of effective artillery range. While all Los Angeles watched apprehensively from the top of Lookout Mountain, the cannons boomed away. Total casualties for the day: one mule!

Blocked at Cahuenga Pass, Micheltorena disengaged and swung his forces eastward, attempting to outflank his enemies and take their city from behind through the pass of the Los Angeles River. But Pío Pico was too quick for him. Wheeling about, his horsemen raced back through Cahuenga, galloped across Los Feliz Rancho and confronted Micheltorena in the narrows of the river. By next morning the Governor was bottled up against the mountain and forced to surrender.

In the curious treaty that followed, his men were permitted to keep their arms and march to San Pedro Harbor with full military honors. No consideration was too great for Micheltorena, if only he would leave the country with his army of bandits. One thing more: in departing, he would please march back around the mountain and head for San Pedro by way of Cahuenga Pass, making a wide berth of the chicken coops, vegetable patches, and grape vines of Los Angeles.

With Micheltorena gone, the southern pueblo was again willing to be the capital of California, and promptly won the prize under the new governor, who was Pío Pico himself. But it was a short triumph. By May, 1846, Mexico was at war with the United States, and American forces were descending upon California. Still torn by petty dissension, the Angelenos were unable to muster a defense. By August, Governor Pico had fled Los Angeles and all of California was in American hands. While the Yankees set up headquarters in Monterey, Captain A. H. Gillespie was left to occupy Los Angeles with a small garrison.

The conquest of California might have been complete but for the overbearing character of Gillespie. With no understanding of the native temper, he imposed needless restrictions, deliberately humiliated the leading citizens, and within a few weeks made himself a hated despot. To this challenge the fiery Angelenos responded as they had to Micheltorena—on September 22 they rose in rebellion and forced Gillespie’s surrender eight days later. Like Micheltorena, he was allowed to embark, with banners flying, at San Pedro.

Triumphant, the Californians renewed the defense of their country, re-established Los Angeles as the capital, and chose General José María Flores as provisional governor. Like the Aztecs against Cortez, they had scarcely resisted until they felt the tyrant’s heel.

A little more than a week after Gillespie’s defeat the Americans were back with a force of sailors to retake Los Angeles. Landing at San Pedro, they marched northward on foot. But the Californians had dug up an ancient four-pounder cannon which they had previously hidden in an old woman’s garden. Mounted on cart wheels and pulled along by the reatas of the horsemen, it was trundled southward to meet the advancing Americans. Near Dominguez Hills, General José Antonio Carrillo’s cavalry drew up before the foe and fired the gun. The gringos promptly advanced to seize it, but the horsemen quickly dragged it out of the way and reloaded. Time and again the strange game was repeated—the gun booming, the Americans reeling, the Californians retreating and reloading. Finally, with six men killed and six more wounded, the attackers gave up the frustrating chase and withdrew to their ships. They did not know it, but the Californians had just run out of gunpowder.