What Downey was like in the 1860's

The Downey home of Edwin Price Dismukes in the late 1800’s. Photo courtesy Downey Historical Society

The Downey home of Edwin Price Dismukes in the late 1800’s. Photo courtesy Downey Historical Society

What were the people like during the 1860’s?

Practically every man carried a gun and hunting knife during the ‘60s. Hung by a strap from his shoulder were his powder-horn and bullet pouch. His feet were covered with heavy boots and he wore leggings to protect him from the brush while riding.

His principal weapon was a heavy, long, muzzled-loading rifle that, although it did not shoot far, was exceedingly accurate. Every boy learned to shoot as soon as he was able to carry a gun, and he began to contribute a large variety of game, which at times was a major part of the bill-of-fare.

The residents as a whole were a fine class of people, though there were among them some ruffians -- especially rough when fired by whiskey. Gangs of such men, disturbing the peace, often resulted in shootings, and it was necessary for the officers, who were inadequate for the occasion, to be assisted by civilians. Public whippings and hangings were resorted to, although I have found no record of the latter punishment in our vicinity.

The dress of these early settlers was of simple design, made of coarse durable material. Men tanned skins of animals and these were made into shoes and garments. Women made their own clothes and those of the children, largely without the aid of sewing machines.

Fashion of the 1860’s. Courtesy  Paper Collector  blog.

Fashion of the 1860’s. Courtesy Paper Collector blog.

There were few articles upon which the settlers had to depend from the outside world. Of these, powder and lead were the most important.

History of early recreation

All down through the ages man has found some time to devote to pleasure. The ancients had their feasts; the Indians various dances and celebrations which lasted for days. The Spanish and Mexicans of the 60s called for contests in marksmanship and horsemanship, gaiety and color. Mexicans celebrated their independence from Spain by parades, with a chosen queen riding in a decorated wagon, guitar music, patriotic songs, speaking and dancing. The American and Mexican flags were carried side by side to the place where they were to congregate.

The Fourth of July and Christmas were occasions for fireworks and bull fights, which drew large crowds. In the gaily-painted corrals near the Plaza in Los Angeles, a bear sometimes faced el toro. Cockfights were another popular sport. Rodeos and races called for expensive outfits, some of them valued at thousands of dollars.


In 1864, the year ushered in with a depression of currency resulting in hard times. The assessed valuation of Los Angeles County was $2 million, and not one cent was collected within the city boundaries.

Summertime brought a greater scarcity of water; land prices dropped and crime and theft increased. While Los Angeles was not under military law at the time, it was dominated by military forces which were used when needed.

In 1865, 4,000 acres of the Domingues Ranch were sold to Temple and Gibson for 35 cents an acre. G. E. Compton paid Temple and Gibson $5 an acre for the land on which he founded a Methodist colony in which liquor was prohibited. This was the first dry (no liquor sold) community in Los Angeles County, and later became the city of Compton.

That same year Don Vicente Lugo was forced to sell most of his estate which was part of the San Antonio Grant. Whole acres were sold for a few groceries, and people lived in on one meal a day. A barrel of flour commanded $15 and frijoles -- red beans -- brought 15 cents a pound.

Pio Pico, the last governor of California while it was still under Mexican rule.

Pio Pico, the last governor of California while it was still under Mexican rule.

The drought of 1865-66 caused a terrific loss of stock and forced Juan Temple to sell Rancho Los Alamitos -- this proved fatal to Don Abel Stearns, also of Rancho Los Alamitos, who eight months later sold to Michael Reese for $31,000, approximately $1.10 per acre. In 1881, the estate of Michael Reese sold the rancho to John Bixby who in turn conveyed one-third interest to J.W. Hellman and Jonathan Bixby. This information came from “Romance of the Ranchos” by Palmer Connor, published by Title Insurance and Trust Company, Los Angeles.

Pio Pico, whose ranch adjoined Rancho Santa Gertrudes on the north, lost heavily from the drought but was fortunate in having the San Gabriel River along its western boundary where settlement begun. By 1866, James Shugg used the river water for irrigation purposes. On reaching the upland, his ditch continued south from the Santa Fe Railroad tracks to his home on Shugg’s Lane (now Slauson Avenue in Pico Rivera).

The development problems were great, and moles, gophers, squirrels, etc. constantly caused the loss of water. The ditch was abandoned in 1867.

Efforts toward a ditch and water company continued until the venture of the present route of the Arroyo Ditch, with two side ditches -- the Taylor Ditch on the west and the Stockton Ditch on the east.

Come visit the Downey Historical Society for the total history of the making of the Downey water companies.

Bobbi Bruce is a docent at the Downey Historical Society. Details for the story were taken from Easter Bangle Morrison.

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