Romance and Moorish palaces: Alhambra's early history

By Christine Olson, Vice President of the Alhambra Preservation Group 

As with many of California’s cities, Alhambra’s origins can be traced back to the Mission Era and the period of Spanish rule. In 1771, the Catholic Church founded Mission San Gabriel de Archangel on a large tract of land granted by King Carlos III of Spain. Much of the land within Alhambra’s present-day boundaries was, in fact, included in the original Alhambra land tract. For decades thereafter, the entire territory was governed under Spanish law. Like most of the other missions in what was then known as “Alta California,” Mission San Gabriel was established as a farming community, designed to produce the food and materials needed by Spanish priests and soldiers to convert and control the local inhabitants and, at the same time, to discourage Russia and England from encroaching into this as-yet-undeveloped frontier.

When Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, the young republic could not afford to support the California missions. A plan was developed to secularize all the missions, reducing their status to that of parish churches, and to sell off most of their lands. While this plan originally called for the transfer of these lands to the indigenous people whose labor had created and supported them, that vision was never realized. Over time, most of the mission properties were taken over by private owners and local politicians.

One of Alhambra’s most prominent historical figures, Benjamin Davis Wilson, arrived at Mission San Gabriel in 1840. Wilson’s visit to the area was actually a stop over on a planned trip to China; however, he was so enchanted with the area – its geography, climate and history – that he abandoned his plans for China altogether. He established himself firmly in the Southern California area by purchasing Rancho Jurupa (in what is now Riverside County) from Juan Bandini in 1843. The following year he married Ramona Yorba, the daughter of the owner of the vast Rancho Cañón de Santa Ana.

Wilson was well liked and respected by the Mexican residents of Southern California, who honored him with the affectionate name of “Don Benito” (Little Ben). His strong support for these Californios in their 1845 bid for independence from the Mexican governance, and his assistance in raising both money and troops to defeat the unpopular Mexican Governor Micheltorena at the Battle of La Providencia in the Cahuenga Pass, further endeared him to the people of the area that had become his home.

Wilson became disillusioned by the political infighting that followed, and in 1846 he joined the American side when the United States formally declared war on Mexico and invaded California. He was captured with 23 other Americans at the Battle of Chino, and despite an order for his execution, Wilson was released unharmed at the close of hostilities in 1847. The U.S. and Mexico signed a peace treaty in 1848, which ended the war and yielded a vast portion of the Southwest, including California, to the United States.

In 1852, Wilson purchased the local Rancho La Huerta de Cuarti from the widow of Scottish adventurer Hugo Reid. This vast acreage included present-day Alhambra, San Marino, South Pasadena and Pasadena. He built a home on the property near the present intersection of Euston Road and Patton Way in San Marino and named it Lake Vineyard. There he began farming and wine production, later opening a retail wine outlet in San Francisco.   

Wilson continued his acquisition of rancho and state-owned lands, and in 1874 he purchased a large parcel from the state of California, at a cost of $2.75 per acre. This was destined to become the original Alhambra Tract, bounded on the east by the Arroyo del Molino, on the south by the Southern Pacific Railroad; on the west by the Arroyo de San Pascual; and on the north by Alhambra Road. With the assistance of his son-in-law, James DeBarth Shorb, the land was parceled out into smaller lots of five-to-ten acres in size. Wilson named his venture “Alhambra” at the urging of his youngest daughter, 10-year-old Ruth, who along with her sister and their Shorb cousins had been captivated by the romantic legends of the Moorish palace in Granada described in Washington Irving’s popular book, Tales of the Alhambra. The girls were impressed by the close resemblance between Irving’s graphic descriptions of southern Spain and the views from the front porch of their home. This Moorish theme is also reflected in many of Alhambra’s current street names, among them Almansor Street, Cordova Street, and Granada Avenue.

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