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George Harwood Phillips on Stitching Together the Story of a People

Updated May 9 — When, as a young academic at UCLA, George Harwood Phillips switched from African history to focusing on the Native peoples of California, he had no idea that they were probably one of the best-​documented groups in existence.

Historian George Harwood Phillips at the Mission San Juan Capistrano (Photo by Tessie Borden)

Phillips, now a retired Professor of History at the University of Colorado, Boulder, spoke Saturday, May 7 at 1 p.m. at the Autry about his work and his latest book, Vineyards and Vaqueros: Indian Labor and the Economic Expansion of Southern California, 1771–1877. About 120 people attended the lecture.

Around the turn of the 20th century, anthropologists and archaeologists trained a lens on the ancient California peoples that lived here thousands of years ago, Phillips said. And in the 18th and 19th centuries, Spanish rancheros and American settlers wrote letters and kept diaries, military officers drafted battle accounts and administrative documents, and Spanish missionaries kept records of their going concerns, in the process generating a piecemeal chronicle of more contemporary Native American groups.

“All that stuff, they’re dealing with Indians, to one degree or another,” he said.

And then there were those first drafts of history, the California newspapers. For this historian, the papers published in towns booming in the wake of the Gold Rush of 1849 are mines of their own, containing golden information about daily life.

Detail of an engraving showing the San Gabriel Mission in 1833 (From Vineyards and Vaqueros)

“They start popping up in all the towns and the mining camps,” he said. “What are they writing about? Well, everything, including Indians.… Every little town has a newspaper for a while.”

All of this formed a more or less unbroken chain of documentation that would help Phillips reconstruct how Los Angeles was built and, more importantly, who did the work. This is the story he tells in Vaqueros and Vineyards, the first volume in the new series Before Gold: California under Spain and Mexico.

In the book, Phillips describes the founding of El Pueblo de Los Angeles on Sept. 4, 1781 by “a party of 44 men, women and children” near the Indian village of Yaanga, on the Los Angeles River.

“The pobladores consisted of a few farmers, a hoe maker, a cowherd, a mason, and a tailor and included a mestizo, mulattos, two negros, Mexican Indians and two Spaniards,” Phillips writes.

But it is clear, from documents Phillips has studied, they all depended on the work of the Tongva Indians of the area. Three years later, they still needed the help of the Tongva to plant corn and wheat, and if the Tongva left off this work to plant or harvest their own food, the settlers’ yields diminished significantly.

Andres Pico at Rancho Ex-​Mission San Fernando, by Edward Fischer (Illustration from Vineyards and Vaqueros)

“‘Only with the aid of the gentiles [Tongva]’ were the settlers able to plant their crops, but because the Indians were, at present, harvesting their abundant wild seeds, they justly refuse with this good reason to lend a hand in digging and weeding,’” Phillips quotes Lt. Jose Francisco Ortega, a Spanish officer, in an account of the early years of the pueblo.

“I figured from my studies of African history that colonized peoples aren’t always just passive,” Phillips said. “They’re doing all kinds of things to try to maintain their culture and influence their dominators.”

It’s a different picture from the one that existed when Phillips was a graduate student.

“Indians become important in history only when they’re fighting,” he said of the histories he found. “So we have books on the great chiefs of the Great Plains. Fair enough, that’s important. But Indians don’t seem to be doing very much except either passively accepting white domination or they’re going down in flames fighting for a lost cause. Well, they were doing all kinds of other things as well in California, like working.”

In fact, Harwood says, the trades the Indians learned in the mission allowed them to become a very skilled labor force.

The Midwest Book Review praises Harwood’s work as “a model of meticulous, informed and informative scholarship.”

“The emphasis in Professor Phillips’ presentation is on the economic impact of Native American labor and the shaping of the early economic history of what today is the counties of Los Angeles, Orange, and Riverside California,” the Review said.

It’s worth pointing out that the site of Los Angeles’ founding, rediscovered in the 1920s by Christine Sterling and reconstructed as the current Olvera Street, is now a tourist-​friendly Mexican plaza with knick-​knack shops and restaurants. It sits across from the historic Nuestra Señora La Reina de los Angeles church, built a few years after the pueblo’s inauguration.

And it has been in the news lately: a museum next-​door to the church, LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes, which opened in mid-​April with a well-​researched exhibition about Los Angeles’ origins calledLA Starts Here that includes the role of the local Indian groups, nevertheless ran into problems when it was revealed during construction that workers last fall had found the remains of 118 of the pueblo’s original residents in a former cemetery they thought had been exhumed in the mid-​1800s.

Among those who were particularly troubled at the find were representatives of several groups of Gabrieleno-​Tongva Indians who believe some of the remains might belong to their people.

Work on that part of the site, which was scheduled to become an outdoor garden area, stopped, the remains were stored, and LA Plaza officials began a dialogue with the tribal groups. But since the museum’s opening, things seem to have slowed to a crawl, said Cindi Alvitre, a Tongva educator who was the first woman chair of the Gabrieleno-​Tongva Tribal Council.

“There’s just nothing happening,” Alvitre said. “We filed a claim against the county for damages, but there’s just been no momentum at all.””

LA Plaza’s President, Miguel Angel Corzo, has said the organization will make no further moves without the input and agreement from all the parties involved, including the indigenous tribes.

Alvitre said situations like this make the work of scholars like Phillips even more important and connect history with the current life of a city.

“I would love to hear what George has to say about the history of this site,” she said. “He’s a historian that really transformed the way Southern California Indians are being perceived. He has transformed them from victims to people that are active in their own story.”