BEVERLY HILLS, CA
Beverly Hills was a prosperous and sought-after location long before it was discovered by the movie industry. At the beginning, our fabled El Dorado was blessed with the most precious commodity in Southern California: water.
The source of this fertility comprises three dramatic canyons: Franklin, Coldwater and Benedict. Moisture gathers on the hills and flows down to form streams that join at the nexus of Beverly Drive and Sunset Boulevard. Native American inhabitants, the Tongva or Gabrielinos, considered it a sacred site, naming it the Gathering of the Waters or, in Spanish, El Rodeo de las Aguas.
Before the arrival of Spanish explorers, the Tongva led a peaceful life nourished by abundant game and meadows filled with wild oats, cucumber, buckwheat, cress and prickly pear. Their everyday lives were guided by animistic religious practice inspired by an environment filled with color: blue lupine, orange poppies, red foxtail, wild roses, fuchsia and golden rod.
The fateful first contact between these peaceful natives and Europeans occurred just north of what are Olympic and La Cienega boulevards on August 3, 1769. Friar Juan Crespi, who served as Chaplain on the legendary expedition of Don Jose Gaspar de Portola, kept a journal. He recorded a magical passage through a "large vineyard of wild grapes and an infinity of rose bushes. After traveling about half a league we came to a village of this region," recorded the Friar, "people came into the road, greeted us and offered seeds."
Their "gift of life" proved ironic, for these armed Spanish tourists spelled doom for the Gabrielinos. Their medicinal arts were powerless against an imported smallpox epidemic, which destroyed two thirds of the local Native population in 1844. Mistreatment by European settlers soon did the rest.
RANCHO BEVERLY HILLS
In 1838, the Mexican governor of California deeded the land grant El Rodeo de las Aguas to Maria Rita Valdez Villa, the Afro Latina widow of a Spanish soldier. Maria Rita, an early California feminist icon, built an adobe ranch house near the intersection of present day Sunset Boulevard and Alpine Drive. She employed a vast posse of cowboys and proceeded to raise cattle and horses.
As was the custom of a time, Maria Rita permitted her livestock to wander freely, but once a year a festive roundup, another kind of rodeo, was held beneath a huge eucalyptus tree at the corner of Pico and Robertson boulevards.
In 1852, three Native Americans ambushed Maria Rita's rancho. A shoot-out and siege followed in a grove of walnut trees at Benedict Canyon and Chevy Chase Drive. Maria Rita survived, but the battle may have influenced her decision just two years later to sell the ranch to Benjamin D. Wilson and Henry Hancock for $4000. However, the legendary waters deserted the new owners; a drought decimated their crops and their cattle died in parched stream beds. However, their names live on today in nearby Mt. Wilson and Hancock Park.
After the Civil War wildcatters and roughnecks drilled oil wells. Cattle gave way to herds of sheep. Edward Preuss bought the ranch in 1868 with the intention of establishing a colony for German immigrant farmers. Preuss dubbed his civic speculation the "City of Santa Maria." He subdivided the soil into five-acre lots and put them up for sale for $10 a parcel.
Another drought ruined these plans and the land reverted to sheep and cattle ranching until Charles Denker and Henry Hammel purchased the territory in the 1880s. Hammel and Decker planted bean fields to help pay taxes but their ultimate dream was establishing a North African-themed subdivision called Morocco. However, this fantasyland disappeared in 1888 when the national economy collapsed.