When LA's vineyards ruled California by abusing Native Americans

Vignes-vineyard.jpgJean Louis Vignes' vineyard circa 1855. Photo by Frank Schumacher. Courtesy of the Seaver Center for Western Research.

California's wine industry began 175 years ago in Los Angeles, though given the grotesque human rights abuses involved maybe it's best the city isn't celebrating that particular slice of its history.

In 1840, a Frenchman named Jean Louis Vignes (pronounced Vines) shipped barrels of wine made from his Los Angeles vineyard to Santa Barbara, Monterey and San Francisco. The trip is regarded as the first commercial shipment of wine in California, a baby step that would eventually lead to today's $25 billion wine industry.

There are just a few reminders now of Los Angeles's significant role in the development of the California wine business, which it dominated until 1890. There is Vignes Street, of course, along with Bauchet Street, Wolfskill Street, Kohler Street, and Requena Street - all named after early Los Angeles winemakers. There are three grapevines more than 150 years old creeping along an arbor on Olvera Street. But Los Angeles has covered up more of its wine history than it has preserved. Union Station, for example, sits on top of what was once Vignes' famed "El Aliso" vineyard, named for its towering sycamore tree.

Maybe it's no surprise that Los Angeles is ignoring the 175th anniversary milestone since aspects of the city's early involvement with wine were reprehensible. While many people know that Father Junipero Serra and the Franciscan fathers treated the Native Americans badly during the Mission era, virtually enslaving them to plant vineyards and harvest and press grapes, few realize that the Californios and Americans who flooded the state during the Gold Rush treated them even worse. Los Angeles gets special mention for the harsh and punitive laws it enacted to force Native Americans to make wine.

When Mexico secularized the mission system in 1833, it freed Native Americans from their enforced indenture. Early attempts to award them land for houses and crops failed, and the result was a nation of rootless Indians who lived on the edge of starvation or worked for a pittance in the ranchos, pueblo farms and vineyards around Los Angeles. Many of them only owned the clothes on their backs. They lived in two settlements in Los Angeles where many drank to excess and got in fights. In 1846, Los Angeles authorities, concerned about the growing violence in the camps, expelled the natives from town.

Americans took the brutal treatment of Indians a step further, in part to alleviate the severe labor shortage caused by the Gold Rush. The first law passed by the fledging California Legislature on April 19, 1850 was nicknamed the "Indian Indenture Act." It stripped Native Americans of most of their rights and permitted vineyardists to force Native Americans to work against their will. All the would-be employers had to do was identify an Indian as a vagrant or drunk, which allowed a marshal or sheriff to arrest him and sell his labor for up to four months to the highest bidder to pay off the fine.

The Los Angeles Common Council adopted its own, stricter version of this law on Aug. 16, 1850, one that allowed the marshal to form Indian chain gangs to work on municipal projects. If the city didn't need any work done, the marshal could sell the native's labor to the highest bidder.

This law created a devastating cycle that decimated the Native American community in Los Angeles. The marshal and his deputies were paid a $1 kickback for every eight natives they rounded up, so on Sunday nights they would descend on the infamous Calle De los Negros to collect the inebriated Indians who had spent the weekend in the alley's gambling dens, brothels, and saloons. They were easy to find, as many had collapsed, drunk, in doorways, alleyways, and vacant lots. The marshal would then conduct a public auction and sell the Native Americans' labor for $1 to $3 a week.

"Los Angeles has a slave mart as well as New Orleans and Constantinople - only the slave at Los Angeles was sold fifty-two times a year as long as he lived, which generally did not exceed one, two, or three years under the new dispensation," Horace Bell, a newspaper publisher, wrote about Los Angeles in the 1850s.

Lithograph of Vignes' El Aliso winery, circa 1855. And a brandy distiller used by Vignes.

All this cheap labor transformed Los Angeles into the center of winemaking in California. By the early 1850s, there were about 100 vineyards in and around Los Angeles, including Vignes' fabled 35-acre vineyard along the river that had been tended by Native Americans. The verdant city earned the nickname the "City of Vines."

The end to southern California's dominance came quickly. People poured into Los Angeles during a boom in 1886 around the time the deadly Pierce's Disease knocked out the majority of vines in the region. Soon, most of Los Angeles' vineyards were converted to other uses. By 1890, northern California took the lead in the wine business; a position it has never relinquished.

Given this dark past - and there are many other examples of the greed and blood lust of the region's early wine history - it is no surprise that Los Angeles does not glorify its role in the creation of the California wine industry.

Frances Dinkelspiel is the author of "Tangled Vines: Greed, Murder, Obsession and an Arsonist in the Vineyards of California." She will be speaking at the Homestead Museum in the City of Industry on Nov. 1 at 2 p.m., the Galleano Winery on Nov. 1 at 5:30 p.m.; the Huntington Library on Nov. 2 at noon and Book Soup in West Hollywood on Nov. 7 at 4 p.m.

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