Early Settlers

Early settlers in the Aliso Beach area were Native Americans and it is ironic that I am writing this section of the Aliso Beach website the day after Columbus Day.  I have seen Facebook posts asking why we celebrate the slaughter of indigenous people in the Americas.  In my mind, I see clearly the end scene of the movie Apocalypto where the family escapes the wrath of the Mayan people and their propensity to raid villages to enslave and sacrifice men while absorbing child bearing women into their culture.  While we have a day where banks, government and public service organizations take a day off, there is a darker truth to the history of America and for our purposes, Aliso Beach in Laguna, California.

The Native American group that settled in the Aliso Beach area were a part of a larger group called the Tongva.  This indigenous people inhabited the Southern Channel Islands (Santa Nicolas, Santa Catalina, Santa Barbara and San Clemente) as well as the Los Angeles Basin.  This coastal plain is made up of sand sediment from at time when this land was under the sea and it stretches from Palos Verdes bound on the north by the Santa Monica Mountains housing Los Angeles and Orange Counties before the Pacific Ocean which forms its southern boundary.  The basin also covers Central Los Angeles and Central Orange County bound by the San Gabriel and Santa Ana Mountains on the east.  Covering roughly 4000 square miles, these were the native lands that the Tongva called home.

The Tongva were a hunting and gathering society which means their survival was predicated on finding the fruits, nuts, vegetables and meats available to them in the wild. They were known to live peacefully among other tribes and frequently traded with their neighboring tribes.  Speculation has it that they may have taken over or absorbed other Native American groups due to the existence of more than 5 dialects present in their culture. Spanish Explorers, you remember the Nina, the Pinta, Santa Maria and Christopher Columbus marked  Spanish exploration of the New World beginning in 1542.  That fateful day marked the  arrival of the man whose name dons a national holiday here in America for the exploits of pushing indigenous people out of their lands and giving them illnesses that were particularly devastating to their peoples.  For the earliest settlers in Aliso Beach, and perhaps to those who look at what happened in retrospect, he was no hero.  Initial intrusion into the Los Angeles Basin was in 1542, but it wasn’t until 1771 that the arrival of European people really began to take a toll on Native American Culture.

With the building of the Mission San Gabriel Arcangel, many Tongvans were forced out and relocated.  In addition, the Spanish brought illnesses like the flu, chicken pox and measles that wreaked havoc on Native American Peoples who’s immune systems were compromised by sicknesses that they had never been exposed to.  Under Spanish Rule, they attempted to convert Native Americans to Catholicism, and this was met with resistance and a 1785 rebellion against the Spanish, but the collapse of the Tongvan people was well under way.  In 1821, Spaniards born in the New World, Native Americans and people of mixed descent (Native American and Spanish), gained Mexican Independence.  Lands belonging to the Spanish Missions were sold to ranchers and the Tongvan people had little or no choice but to assimilate.  30 years later California was ceded to the United States and promises were broken to set aside 8.5 million acres for Native American People as a result of treaties not formalized, and by the early 1900’s, the Tongvan populations of both the Southern Channel Islands and the Los Angeles Basin were nearly wiped out.  Long story short, the Tongvan people got the wrong end of the stick on this deal.  Forced to relocated, assimilate and give up lands promised to them, the New World clearly wasn’t looking too good for them.  This is a part of history and it is a story that should be told to make sure that the histories that we preserve are an accurate and fair accounting of what really happened.

So What About Americans Settling Laguna Beach?

Homesteading had a lot to do with the settling of Laguna Beach.  When California was ceded to the United States, a treaty was signed that provided for honoring Mexican Land Grants.  North Laguna was honored in such a grant but in 1864 was sold to James Irvine after a year of drought conditions.  The rest of Laguna Beach was made up of parcels that escaped Mexican land grants.  After the American Civil War concluded in 1865, the homestead act encouraged people to move west.  The land was granted to settlers in the amount of 160 acres, 40 acres of which were required to be planted with trees.  In Laguna Beach, eucalyptus were the trees of  choice, great for shade and useless for lumber.  The trees thrived and as the population grew, trees planted during the homestead era had to be cut down.  Personally, I love the eucalyptus trees in Laguna Beach and there is no question that they are a part of the charm and character of this incredible coastline.

In the the early 1870’s, Eugene Salter became the first Aliso Beach Settler that took advantage of the Homestead Act.  His stay didn’t last long with the Thurston family claiming land left behind by Salter.  You may recognize the Thurston name with a street, school and park named in his family’s honor.  In 1876 a post office and general store were developed by William and Nathaniel Brooks at Arch Beach and their arrival and development of Laguna Beach communities have been signified historically as the original settling of the city of Laguna Beach.  The present day Main Beach area began to thrive in the 1880’s with an explosion of tourists and a hotel built on the beach.  Families came down to the beach and camped to escape the summer heat in the towns they lived in.

The first art gallery was established in 1918 and would later become the Laguna Beach Art Museum.  In the 1920’s, the pristine waters and coves in Laguna Beach attracted painters, photographers, movie makers, writers and artists.  In 1921 art exhibits were created that paved the way for the the birth of the Pageant of the Masters and Festival of the Arts making Laguna Beach a legitimate community of artists.  In 1927, the city of Laguna Beach was incorporated and well on its way to becoming a great place to live for aspiring artists, the wealthy, and people that loved the Mediterranean-like coastal weather.

In 1920, the Wilson Family came down to the Aliso Beach area and noticed there wasn’t a whole lot going on.  George Wilson enjoyed fishing and loved the area so he purchased a plot of land in the Aliso Beach area and devised plans to build cabins for his family.  As he built out his property, others became interested in getting George’s help with their own building plans making it very easy to stay.  The construction included a log cabin and a general store that was called the Aliso View Store.  George oversaw the campgrounds at Aliso Beach and was said to have expanded it to accommodate the growing number of families interested in hanging out down at the beach.  The popularity of this beach area and camp site was said to have wiped the store out of food and supplies.  In Karen Wilson Turnbull’s amazing piece on early South Laguna Beach, a scene is described where the cavalry would ride in on horseback to get sandwiches.  Can you imagine the looks on faces if the Subway Sandwich on Pacific Coast Highway had military on horseback ride in for the 5 dollar foot long deal?  Aliso Beach would become to expensive for the Wilson Family but not before he built homes all over Laguna Beach and South Orange County.  He left his mark in the community as a member of the city council, a building contractor, and as a man who affected others positively.  He was said to be generous of his time and was known for crafting wood toys for the children with left over wood from projects.  I have always found people in Laguna Beach to be friendly people and the mindset of this affluent coastal town has its roots in the way George Wilson affected others.  Aliso Beach, as a part of Laguna, California, was on its way to becoming one of the most desirable places to live in the United States.  Today there are 23000 people plus living in Laguna Beach, a far cry from the roughly 300 that made up the population of Laguna Beach in 1920.  Today Laguna Beach also sees over 3 million tourists and I can assure you that if they don’t get by Aliso Beach, they are truly missing one of the jewels of the Laguna Beach Coastline!


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