Rancho Los Cerritos
A Southern California Legacy Preserved
By Iris H.W. Engstrand
Historical Society of Southern California (Los Angeles, 2000)
September 16 is celebrated as Mexican Independence Day although in 1810 it was just the beginning of the war with Spain, marked by Hidalgo’s El Grito de Dolores. Independence came eleven years later in September 1821, but residents of Los Angeles didn’t get the news until the following April. The years under Mexican rule have been variously described as a “pastoral interlude” or “halcyon days” and long romanticized as the “Days of the Dons.” During that time the missions were secularized, more land grants approved than had been awarded by Spain, and more trading with hide ships from Boston (as described by Richard Henry Dana in Two Years Before the Mast) occurred. More American traders and trappers began to settle in Los Angeles, becoming naturalized Mexican citizens, and marrying the daughters of local families.
The story of Rancho Los Cerritos is representative of that time. The rancho was part of the enormous grant awarded to Manual Perez Nieto by the Spanish Governor Pedro Fages in 1786. It was one of three grants at the time; together they covered almost all of the counties of Los Angeles and Orange. Nieto’s heirs divided their land into six ranchos, one of which was Rancho Los Cerritos deeded to Nieto’s daughter, Manuela Nieto de Cota. In turn, her heirs sold the property to an American, Jonathan Temple, who had been in Los Angeles since 1827 and had become a naturalized Mexican citizen. He was married to Maria Rafaela Benedicta Cota, a cousin of Manuela’s husband, Guillermo. Temple built a two-story Monterey-style adobe, which served as headquarters for his ranch operation and a summer home for the family. Their main residence was in Los Angeles where Temple owned a prosperous general store. He also owned other properties and by 1852, Temple was listed as the wealthiest man in Los Angeles County.
Like all property owners during the Mexican period, he had to prove the title to his land when California became part of the United States. But unlike some landowners, Temple could afford the trip to San Francisco with the necessary documents translated into English to prove his claim. The commissioners approved it but Pacificus Ord, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of California, twice contested the ruling. Sadly, final approval came after Temple had died in 1866. The book points out an interesting irony: Temple lent the city of Los Angeles $3,000 to pay Ord’s younger brother, Lt. E.O.C. Ord for the first survey and map of the town in 1849.
The forty-two-page booklet details the history of subsequent owners up to the present day and includes a list of important dates from 1200 to 2000. Temple’s adobe, now 170 years old and a National Historic Landmark, has been remodeled and restored over the years. It survives today as a public museum operated by the City of Long Beach. Located at 4600 Virginia Road in Long Beach, it is open for tours from 1-5 p.m., Wednesday to Sunday.
Engstrand, University of San Diego history professor, has authored twenty-one books and received many academic honors for her contributions to the history of California and the West and Spain in the Americas.