The Wild Bunch

The old saw that Los Angeles is a city without a past went into American culture’s discard pile some time ago. If the 1943 Zoot Suit Riots, Marilyn Monroe, Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination, Charles Manson, Proposition 13—the dawn of modern conservatism’s anti-tax mania—and Rodney King aren’t history, what is? That doesn’t stop a hazy impression from persisting elsewhere in the country that LA somehow sprang into being with the birth of the movie business. Yet the Pueblo de Los Angeles was founded in 1781, making it older than Chicago and Washington, DC.

From the 1830s on, it was a flash point in the tussle between Mexico’s beleaguered viceroys and the arriviste American jingoes over who got to rule California. It then became a hotbed of secessionist sentiment during the Civil War, sending the Confederate army the only unit—the immortally named Los Angeles Mounted Rifles—to light out for Dixie from the Hollywood Hills (and indeed, from any free state). Right up through the Gilded Age, the future La-La Land was a volatile and testy place with enough fondness for murder and lynch law to make Dodge City look amateurish.

The neglected story of frontier LA is the teeming subject of John Mack Faragher’s eye-opening new book. The material Faragher has unearthed from court records, newspapers, diaries, and a trove of other documents adds up to a remarkable mosaic of the fierce side of life in what one teenage resident—the future poet Ina Coolbrith—called “an awful, awful town to live in.” Yet one of her own early poems, first published at age fifteen, was a passionate call for mob vengeance (“rest not until you’ve destroyed them”) after the 1857 murder by outlaws of Sheriff James R. Barton. She got her wish, too, since no fewer than fourteen people were lynched in the frenzy after Barton—a sometime vigilante himself before putting on a badge—was gunned down.

Like the good academic he is, Faragher, a Yale history professor, has well-advertised thematic concerns: the appeal of mob law in the face of inadequate policing and a rickety court system, the banshee code of male honor that made instant violence all but mandatory as a response to any perceived slight or wrong, the vulnerable women often left without recourse in a patriachal society that considered them chattel. They’re all intricately bound up in the skein of prejudices and tensions among native “Californios,” their new American masters, and the luckless Indians left at the bottom of the heap no matter who was in charge.

Still, Faragher’s analytic generalizations, as brainy as they are, can’t compete with the vividness and intensity of the dozens of individual stories he’s brought to bleak but pulsating life. It’s the book’s relentless specifics—the brawls and vendettas, the hangings, the constant public agitation and political opportunism—that put Eternity Street on a par with Michael Lesy’s 1970s classic Wisconsin Death Trip as a feat of grim spelunking in Americana.

The muddled and frequently bloody way the “American conquest” played out in Southern California before the formal US seizure in 1848 is Faragher’s opening tale, and he does a splendid job of evoking the conflict’s bungling comedy along with its predatory ruthlessness. On entering office in 1845, President James K. Polk made no bones about wanting to play “the Texas game”—that is, to turn California into an independent republic as a prelude to annexation. Besides sending emissaries to stir up local unrest, Polk also marshaled a US naval squadron to stand by and grab the prize as soon as the United States began the war with Mexico that Polk had every intention of fomenting.

Like Thomas Jefferson before him, Polk was making it up as he went along. “There was no provision in the Constitution for the establishment of an American empire,” Faragher notes. But the gringo incursions had begun much earlier, leaving a succession of Mexican governors—Figueroa, Alvarado, Micheltorena, all of whom survive only as Los Angeles street names—stymied as to how to cope with the resulting fractiousness.

Los Angeles, 1869. George W. Hazard/Library of Congress

Not many years removed from achieving its own independence from Spain, Mexico lacked the will or the wallet to support its satraps with adequate force against the boisterous newcomers, leaving many Angelenos openly hoping for US rule. The endless rivalries and one-upmanship among the local grandees didn’t help. Even so, their American military counterparts—Navy commodore Robert F. Stockton, cavalry commander Stephen Kearny, and future Republican presidential candidate John C. Frémont—outdid them in fatuous squabbling to establish who’d become California’s conqueror and reap the ensuing riches and glory.

Stockton, especially, was a wondrous buffoon. “My person is more than regal,” he bragged to a presumably bemused Polk in one dispatch. Vowing to “wade knee-deep in my own blood” to avenge one setback, bellowing “Quicksand be damned!” as his men tried to wrestle a gun carriage across the San Gabriel River in what turned out to be the final battle for Los Angeles, he comes across here as the perfect combination of Apocalypse Now’s Colonel Kilgore and the master of the Bad Ship Lollipop. Meanwhile, the sailors and marines under him had a way of turning into rabble whenever aguardiente and available women were nearby. Deserting in droves once the gold rush beckoned, they sound like an R-rated version of the old TV series F Troop.

Frémont, though a mite slyer, was no better, goading American settlers into a premature insurrection that wrecked any hope of reconciling Californios to the imminent takeover. Adding insult to injury, the “Bear Flag” they raised in 1846 is still California’s state flag. But after reading Faragher’s account, you wouldn’t mind seeing it embroidered, at least, with one prominent Angeleno’s lament to a new Anglo official: “Sus paisanos son un atajo de pendejos y borrachos.” That is, “Your countrymen are a bunch of idiots and drunks.”

The story of the conquest dominates the first third of Eternity Street. As engrossing as it is, however, it’s a mere prelude to Faragher’s reconstruction of the decades that followed. If his exhaustive litany of killings, banditry, mob bloodlust, and veryoccasional outbreaks of virtue feels flat-out grotesque at times—there’s enough grisliness and base behavior on display to pack a dozen Westerns—that’s almost certainly part of the intended effect. The book’s humanity is all in Faragher’s exhumation of numberless peripheral lives long since consigned to oblivion: the battered wives who sometimes rebelled, the merchants who never knew when their hardscrabble incomes might be upended by mayhem, the adolescents who scrambled for a choice spot from which to view the latest hanging.

To give you an idea of the density of Faragher’s achievement, his introductory cast list is four pages long (and incomplete at that). Though he’s got no real heroes—you’d do better looking for M&Ms on an anthill—a few figures who struggled against the cycle of violence and mob retribution do emerge to impressive effect. One is Baltimore-born Benjamin Ignatius Hayes, who served two terms as a district judge in a town whose mayor once resigned in order to lead a lynch mob. Another is Francisco Ramírez, a newspaper editor while still in his teens who stubbornly defended native Angelenos’ rights. And for pure élan, it’s hard to resist Captain Juan Antonio—a Cahuilla Indian, despite his name—whose private cavalry force, originally recruited to protect the formidable Lugo clan’s ranching interests, saved Los Angeles from packs of marauding desperadoes more than once.

Faragher also doesn’t stint on what has always determined LA’s character, including the roots of its bigotries—that is, economics. I confess to never having known that winemaking was the area’s leading industry early on, accounting for the pueblo’s sizable minority of French émigrés. (The other major source of Angeleno prosperity—cattle ranching—was effectively destroyed by the drought of 1862–65.) Predictably, the Native American population was forced into peonage under both Mexican and American rule: Arrests for vagrancy or drunkenness led to weekly labor auctions patronized by area vineyards and ranches that “became a lucrative source of municipal revenue.” Just as the community began to run low on indigenes to mistreat, the arriving Chinese provided fresh fodder for cheap labor and racial violence alike, climaxing in the 1871 shooting or lynching of eighteen of them in a single night, a horrific swan song to the era of vigilante retribution.

Considering how complicated and generally grim his material is, we’re lucky that Faragher writes with admirable lucidity, a seemingly effortless command of all sorts of specialized knowledge, and—when it’s apt—wit. (His account of an 1853 celebration of George Washington’s birthday, whose festivities were confined to the pueblo’s elites, includes the deathless line “Some Americans of the vagabond class professed to be deeply offended.”) As for his title, the original Eternity Street—today a stretch of downtown LA’s Broadway—was the road to the pueblo’s cemetery. As you read, you may regret that There Will Be Blood was already taken, but Faragher’s book is the ideal prequel to Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2007 epic about SoCal’s formative years in the early twentieth century. Moviegoers at the time didn’t suspect that Daniel Day-Lewis’s Daniel Plainview, far from auguring a new era of Southern California mayhem, was simply doing business at the old stand.

Tom Carson is a freelance critic and the author of Gilligan’s Wake (Picador, 2003) and Daisy Buchanan’s Daughter (Paycock Press, 2011).