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Los Angeles, 1883

With the beginning of the prosperity of the City of the Angels came the end of its primeval peace. Spanish viceroys, Mexican alcaldes and governors, United States commanders, naval and military, followed on each other’s heels, with or without frays, ruling California through a succession of tumultuous years. Greedy traders from all parts of the world added their rivalries and interventions to the civil and military disputation. In the general anarchy and confusion, the peaceful and peace-loving Catholic Fathers were robbed of their lands, their converts were scattered, their industries broken up. Nowhere were these uncomfortable years more uncomfortable than in Los Angeles. Revolts, occupations, surrenders, retakings, and resurrenders kept the little town in perpetual ferment. Disorders were the order of the day and of the night, in small matters as well as in great.

Early Californian men seem to have been a variety of centaur. They were seldom off their horses to eat and sleep. They mounted, with jingling silver spur and glittering bridle, for the shortest distances—even to cross a plaza. They paid long visits on horseback, without dismounting. Clattering up to the window or doorsill, halting, throwing one knee over the crupper, the reins lying loose, they sat at ease, far more at ease than in a house. Only at church, where the separation was inevitable, would they be parted from their horses. They turned the near neighborhood of a church on Sunday into a sort of picket ground, or horse-trainers’ yard, full of horse posts and horses, and the scene was far more like a horse fair than like an occasion of holy observance. There seems to have been a curious mixture of reverence and irreverence in their natures. They confessed sins and underwent penances with the simplicity of children, but when in 1821 the Church issued an edict against that “escandalosisima” dance, the waltz, declaring that whoever dared to dance it should be excommunicated, the merry sinners waltzed on only the harder and faster, and laughed in their priests’ faces.

The City of the Angels is a prosperous city now. It has business thoroughfares, blocks of fine stone buildings, hotels, shops, banks, and is growing daily. Its outlying regions are a great circuit of gardens, orchards, vineyards, and cornfields, and its suburbs are fast filling up with houses of a showy though cheap architecture. But it has not yet shaken off its past. A certain indefinable, delicious aroma from the old, ignorant, picturesque times lingers still, not only in byways and corners, but in the very centers of its newest activities.

— Helen Hunt Jackson. From “Echoes in the City of the Angels.” Hunt was encouraged to write by Thomas Higginson, the editor who was also a promoter of the work of their mutual friend Emily Dickinson. Already an established poet and novelist when she  traveled to California in 1872, she became interested in the mistreatment of American Indians, publishing the exposé A Century of Dishonor in 1881 and the novel Ramona in 1884.

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