This blog explores the history of Phoenix, Arizona and a little bit of Los Angeles and San Francisco, California

What Los Angeles looked like before the arrival of Europeans


Los Angeles, and all of Southern California, has been so transformed that there's barely an inch of it that will allow you to time-travel back to the days before Europeans started to reshape it.

I lived in LA in the '80s, and like most people figured that it was about as old as the Hollywood Freeway, maybe a little older. When I started discovering places that had been there since the 1700s, I really got interested. When I discovered the LaBrea Tar Pits, that showed the area during the last Ice Age, I set out to try to figure it all out. I'm still working on it, and I'll tell what I've learned so far.

If you could travel back in time to the Los Angeles area before any human beings arrived, you would hardly recognize it. That would be the Ice Age, but I don't want to go back that far. Let's go back to the discovery of California by the Spanish in the 1500s, and even then it would be hardly recognizable to modern Angelinos. Of course, there's no such thing as "discovering" a place where people already lived, but I want to time-travel back to the days of the Spanish Conquest.

We're arriving in ships that are working their way slowly up what we now call Baja California (Lower California) to Alta California (Upper California), where Los Angeles is. What we see is a dry, warm climate, and mostly tall grasses and a scattering of trees, mostly oak. At about 34 degrees latitude, we pull into a harbor. Let's call it San Pedro. We were pleased at the natural harbor at San Diego, and at some point we'll sail into one of the greatest harbors in the world, at San Francisco. Of course the names didn't exist then, we're just looking at coastline.

If you want to see the closest thing that I've found to what Los Angeles would have looked like back then, go visit the Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Reserve north of Calabasas, California. There you'll see hills of tall grass, and oak trees spotted around. You won't see palm trees, or Starbucks. You won't have cell phone reception, you can't drive in there, you have to walk. It goes on for miles and miles. The loudest sound will be the wind, and this is what Los Angeles looked like back then. It was desolate place, that was often charred with wildfires. Up until the late 1800s it was "the edge of nowhere", a place that Europeans visited only if they had to, and were glad to get out of. When you get back in your car after visiting this place, you'll understand. I suggest that you go get an In-and-Out burger and a large Coke.