Monday, June 27, 2016

The Incredible Sainsevain Brothers

(Image courtesy of the California State Archives. View more here.)

There were four Sainsevain brothers in all, but two of them - Pierre and Jean-Louis - had a strong impact upon Los Angeles and other areas of California.

Their mother, Marie Vignes Sainsevain, was the sister of Jean-Louis Vignes. In 1838, thirteen years after her brother was compelled to leave France, she sent twenty-year-old Pierre, a carpenter, to California to see if his uncle was even still alive. Eight months after the ship left France, Pierre landed in Santa Barbara and continued on to Los Angeles.

Jean-Louis Vignes was doing quite well, in fact - so much so that much of the extended Vignes/Sainsevain family relocated to Los Angeles.

Within a year of arriving at the El Aliso vineyard, Pierre was traveling to Santa Barbara, Monterey, and San Francisco by ship, seeking new buyers for Uncle Jean-Louis' popular wine and brandy. He succeeded in making the very first wholesale wine transactions in the history of California. The following year, he was running Uncle Jean-Louis' sawmill near San Bernardino.

Bigger things were in store for Pierre: in 1843, Governor Manuel Micheltorena granted him Rancho Cañada del Rincon en el Rio San Lorenzo - nearly 6,000 acres in what is now Santa Cruz County. California was still part of Mexico, and normally land grants were only given to Mexican citizens. Pierre did become a naturalized Mexican citizen in 1844 (he is sometimes referred to as "Pedro Sainsevain"), and Governor Pio Pico confirmed the grant in 1846.

In 1843, Pierre built a sawmill near the rancho with another French carpenter, Charles Roussillon, as a business partner. In 1844, he opened a flour mill. In 1845, he married Paula Suñol, daughter of Antonio Maria Suñol (owner of Rancho Los Coches in modern-day Santa Clara County). In 1846, Pierre and Roussillon built a schooner, the Antonita, on the beach at Santa Cruz (and sailed her to Hawaii to have a copper bottom installed). Pierre and Paula's son Jose Miguel was also born that year.

Every schoolkid in California knows that gold was discovered near Coloma in 1848. Pierre went to the mines with his father-in-law and Roussillon. Although the mining town of Don Pedro Bar was named for Pierre (he was nicknamed "Don Pedro" as a mark of respect by Spanish-speaking friends), the party soon tired of mining, and moved to Stockton to sell supplies to Gold Rush miners.

The town of Don Pedro Bar no longer exists, but the Don Pedro Dam and Don Pedro Reservoir still bear Pierre's name.

In 1849, Pierre and Roussillon went to San Jose, the original state capital of California, and built a large two-story adobe on Market Square. They intended to run a hotel, but instead, the building became California's first State House. Ever the achiever, Pierre also served as a delegate to the California Constitutional Convention that year.

In 1855, Jean-Louis, an engineer, joined his brother and uncle in Los Angeles, and the family expanded production at El Aliso. The brothers had their own storefront selling Sainsevain Brothers wine in San Francisco by 1857, with a wine cellar producing Champagne (well, California's first sparkling wine, anyway). Pierre even hired Monsieur Debanne, a former Champagne maker for Veuve Clicquot, to make Sainsevain Brothers Champagne. The following year, El Aliso was leading the state in wine production, turning out 125,000 gallons of wine and brandy.

Jean-Louis also had a personal accomplishment in 1855. He went to France to visit his two sons, who he had not seen for nearly seven years (remember, international travel was significantly harder, longer, and more expensive then than it is now). During this trip, he met and married the widow of a sea captain (I can only assume Jean-Louis' first wife had died at some point). Jean-Louis left his younger son, Paul, and his stepson, Charles Lepaon, in France to complete their schooling (many of LA's earlier French families sent their sons to school in France, so this was hardly unusual), but returned to Los Angeles with his older son, Michel, his new wife, and his stepdaughter, Honorine.

Meanwhile, on the business front, Champagne/sparkling wine production is always risky. It's often more cost-intensive than still wine, San Francisco does not get as cold in the winter as the Champagne region does (Champagne's cold winters create a dual fermentation process, which means more bubbles), and in those days it was MUCH more common for Champagne bottles to break or explode.

To make matters worse, the Sainsevains used Mission grapes (which weren't quite acidic enough to get the desired result), the Champagne was only aged for one year (five or six years is customary), and during the first year of production, one out of every five bottles exploded. While it's true that Champagne bottles have always had some risk of exploding, this level of loss is extremely high, and Sainsevain Brothers' employees had to wear protective gear in the wine cellars to avoid being badly injured by flying shards of glass. The Champagne experiment, while seemingly successful at first, ended up costing the brothers $50,000 (about $1.4 million today) and had to be shut down by 1862.

It wasn't all bad news while the experiment lasted - the brothers sold 300 cases a month, shipping some of them to New York and Philadelphia. They sent Champagne to President James Buchanan, who praised its taste and thanked them generously for it in a letter. When the French government opened its Los Angeles consulate in 1860, Sainsevain Brothers Champagne was served.

In 1859, Pierre sold his rancho. Uncle Jean-Louis sold his nephews the El Aliso vineyard for $42,000 - about $1.06 million in 2016 dollars - by far the highest price ever paid for a single property in California at the time. In 1861, with California wines being sold on the East Coast for the first time, another Sainsevain Brothers shop opened - this one on Broadway in New York.

Unfortunately, there were more financial problems: Jean-Louis Vignes' adult children sued their own cousins, accusing Pierre and Jean-Louis of underpaying for their father's vineyard. This may sound hard to believe, considering the brothers paid more for it than anyone else had ever paid for land in California at a time when Los Angeles was still a dusty pueblo, but it did indeed happen, and the brothers lost in court. Pierre and Jean-Louis dissolved their winemaking business and sold El Aliso in 1869. The brothers were so financially devastated by the Champagne failure and the lawsuit that the county sheriff auctioned off their possessions and remaining wine stock to cover their debts. (Trademark documents in the California State Archives suggest that the San Francisco wine store and the rights to the name Sainsevain Brothers were likely sold to another team of vintners, Mercado and Marsh.)

Jean-Louis was a Mason, and according to one source, was the first Grand Master of the city's first Masonic lodge, located in the original pueblo. A different source conflicts with this; the facts may well be lost to history. We do know, however, that he was a major player in Los Angeles' eternal struggle: water.

In 1863, Jean-Louis was awarded a contract to improve the city's primitive water system (and I do mean primitive; zanjas, or open ditches, were still in use). However, it proved so difficult and costly that he quit. Two years later, when another contractor gave up after only eight months, Jean-Louis was offered the contract again.

This time, Jean-Louis called for help: Damien Marchessault, former mayor and Water Overseer, partnered with him. In an area called "The Cornfield", now Los Angeles State Historic Park, Jean-Louis built a dam and water wheel to feed one of the city's first backup supplies of water, the Sainsevain Reservoir (long since replaced by Radio Hill Gardens). He and Marchessault also began replacing the city's first pipes - hollowed-out logs - with iron pipes. Unfortunately, in 1868, severe flooding undid all of their hard work. This final failure would be a factor in Marchessault's tragic death. An improved water system would eventually succeed under Prudent Beaudry, Solomon Lazard (both French), and John S. Griffen (more on that later).

It may be difficult for modern-day Californians to imagine a time when the state didn't have one out of every eight U.S. residents crammed into its boundaries, but in the 1860s, California had a seemingly endless supply of wide open spaces presenting new opportunities. One of them was Rancho Cucamonga.

Pierre bought the Rancho Cucamonga vineyard in 1860, and Jean-Louis began managing it in 1867. The brothers introduced "new and better" varieties of grapes, according to Harris Newmark. However, their vines were destroyed by grasshoppers in 1870 and 1871, causing more financial trouble. Despite several ownership changes, Jean-Louis was kept on as the vineyard's manager. A bottle of his own sweet white wine won first place at the 1877 Southern California Horticultural Fair.

The brothers, undaunted, also built houses in San Bernardino (it isn't clear whether any of these houses still exist; they'd be well over a century old by now).

Pierre moved back to Santa Clara County and produced wine (under the Menlo Park label) successfully. His claret won "Best Wine" at the county fair in 1868. By 1870, he was making 20,000 gallons of wine per year, but he closed the operation in 1874. That year, Pierre and Jean-Louis bought land in Hawker Canyon, building a large stone house and reservoir.

Jean-Louis owned a lumberyard at the corner of Alameda and Jackson Streets, although the dates are unclear (much of Jackson Street is now gone, meaning the corner itself no longer exists). The brothers shipped lumber up and down the California coast via schooner. In 1869, Jean-Louis sold a different property to Eugene Meyer (despite the German-sounding name, Meyer was also French), who built the Aliso Tract on it.

The ever-restless Pierre went to Central America (some sources say Peru) in 1874 or 1875, returning to San Jose in 1880. He began producing wine again, and invented a steam-powered stemmer crusher (a device that de-stems and crushes grapes) in 1882. When Paula died in 1883, Pierre returned to France.

Although I can find no record of Jean-Louis marrying for a third time (hell, I can't even find a record of his first marriage), a court record from 1882 suggests he was married to a Florence Matilda Sainsevain (another source suggests she was Charles Roussillon's sister). The Los Angeles Herald described him as an "old pioneer" in his death notice (2/17/1889).

Jean-Louis died in Pasadena in 1889. Pierre died in France in 1904.

The 1883 Los Angeles City Directory lists an "M. Sainsevain" operating a feed store at the corner of Turner and Alameda Streets. However, there were already so many Sainsevains in Los Angeles by 1883 that it isn't clear who exactly this was. Pierre's son Jose Miguel was sometimes called Michael, and Jean-Louis had a son named Michel (to complicate things further, in French, "M." is an abbreviation of "Monsieur"). I had considerable difficulty fact-checking this entry because there were multiple Jean-Louis Sainsevains in the Sainsevain family, nearly all living in Southern California.

Multiple old maps list Sainsevain family property in Fontana (the city gave it the official address of 14804 E. Summit Ave.). The Sainsevain surname, albeit with a savagely butchered spelling, is sprinkled across the Inland Empire. Etiwanda, Fontana, Jurupa Valley, and Rancho Cucamonga all have places named after the brothers. There was a Sainsevain (spelled correctly) station on the Southern Pacific rail line near Rancho Cucamonga, but I have not yet been able to determine its precise location or its fate.

The Sainsevain brothers led incredible lives - and incredibly, no one remembers them. Case in point: Los Angeles used to have a Sainsevain Street*, but now it's a distant memory just like its namesakes.

*An 1868 map shows Sainsevain Street ran between Aliso and Commercial Streets, with Alameda and Vignes as cross streets. Comparing that map to modern maps, it appears that Sainsevain Street was realigned and incorporated into Commercial Street. As the original location runs very close to what are now freeway ramps, the street was most likely moved/destroyed to make room for the 101.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Emergency Edition: Doughboy in Danger! Tell Everyone!

Just last month, I wrote about Humberto Pedretti's Doughboy statue - the World War I memorial anchoring Pershing Square. (Or what passes for Pershing Square these days, anyway. It looks nothing like it did when the statue was installed.)

I found the time to visit Pershing Square this week. Believe me, I completely understand why everyone hates it so much. Raising the park above street level (even if it was to add some desperately needed parking) made it uninviting at best. The steps to get into the park are not pleasant to climb (I wish to add that I climbed those steps in a pencil dress and it was the most physically challenging thing I've done all week). There is far too much concrete, which makes the park both hideous and extremely hot. The underground parking garage has made it impossible for the park's few trees to grow enough to provide a decent amount of shade, which just makes the heat worse.

And, off in a corner surrounded by unattractive succulents, Pershing Square's historic monuments are all but forgotten.

Besides the Doughboy, there is a Spanish-American War monument, a plaque honoring Gen. Pershing, and - inexplicably - Beethoven. All four monuments have been in the park for decades. All of them may as well be invisible, since it is surprisingly difficult to see them from inside much of Pershing Square itself, let alone from the street (I checked).

But there is something we can all do.

I stumbled upon a petition to save Pershing Square's historic monuments - those listed above as well as several more that are currently absent. As of this writing, the petition has 262 supporters (myself included). That means at least 238 more are needed.

And I know we can make that happen.

Send this petition to Angelenos and other Southern Californians. Send it to people in the armed forces and their families. Send it to preservationists. Send it to historians. Send it to musicians, your friend with season passes to the LA Philharmonic, and your piano teacher from childhood (Beethoven matters too). Send it to people in France whose families can still remember World War II (I know some French women live to be well over 100, but I'm going to be realistic about the possibility of many living people remembering World War I). Send it to anyone who would at least consider signing it. If you know anyone who can make this petition go viral, please ask for their help. 

The statues all appeared to be clean, well-maintained, and in good condition (especially for being 84 to 116 years old!). It would be a terrible waste not to incorporate them into the redesigned square.

I had a few other things to do downtown. The traffic, incredibly, wasn't bad, and with AFI playing on the car stereo, I didn't really mind. Due to a combination of road work and one-way streets, at one point I had to make a detour near Aliso Street to turn around, and immediately noticed I was at the intersection of Vignes and Ducommun Streets.

"Such a promising past...Mayday!"

Although those streets bear the names of two very prominent figures, no one would ever guess the neighborhood was thriving in Vignes' and Ducommun's day. Because I have been researching Frenchtown for so long, I knew what I'd find there, but even Google Street View couldn't quite prepare me for the shock of having to actually see it in person.

"Down with the heroes before me...What did I tell you? I promised I'd give you a story."

That part of Frenchtown has been replaced by a creepy-looking strip club, aging industrial buildings, and a vacant lot taken over by weeds so tall that I, at 5'5", could probably hide in them unnoticed. The traffic island that stands on the former site of El Aliso is crumbling, weedy, and strewn with trash. The only people I saw were two LAPD officers doing paperwork in a parked patrol car.

"I saw this alone. The city was aflame. Did I turn right in or turn away?"

THIS replaced the once-thriving French quarter? I wanted to throw up.

"Summertime is long. In God's name who would stay? God left yesterday but I remain."

Before I pulled my little car onto the 101, I swore that, for as long as I'm alive, I will do everything I can to keep Frenchtown from being forgotten.

"Disappear, disappear, disappear..."

Not on my watch. 

Friday, June 17, 2016

Where Was Frenchtown? Mapping a Lost Community

In the fall of 2014, I bought an old, well-worn copy of The French in Southern California History and the Southland Today, published in 1932. The book lists no author, but credits Fernand Loyer and Charles Beaudreau (assisted by Catherine Beaudreau) as editors, publishers, and holders of the book's copyright. (A French-language version was also published, but 1. I have never been able to find a copy, and 2. my French is rather limited. So, I only have the English edition.)

I have a tendency to think spatially. So, as I read, I wanted to keep track of who did what and where. I decided to create a Google map documenting the French community - where they lived, where they worked, where important events took place, where they socialized, and even where they are buried.

I have been adding to this map for eighteen months and am nowhere near ready to reveal it to the public (I have SO much more research to do). The focus is on Los Angeles proper, but California's Frenchmen didn't always stay put in LA (farming, ranching, and making wine - three of the more common professions in the community - all require land, which tends to mean moving out of the city). So, while the bulk of the pins are in Los Angeles proper, the map extends from Santa Barbara in the northwest to Ramona in the southeast.

As of this writing, I have 345 different sites mapped. No, that's not a typo.

I began with the one thing I knew I could find: the French Hospital, which still exists under a different name. (Don't worry, the hospital will get its own entry. It's had quite a history.)

Mapping sites in Old Los Angeles is quite a bit harder than it seems. Houses have been re-numbered, streets have been renamed, and some streets have ceased to exist. (Note to self: go to Central Library and see if the maps librarian can help me find Date Street, New High Street, and Requena/Market Street. And, for that matter, help me figure out why Bauchet Street is so strange.) To make matters worse, the aforementioned book rarely gives a specific address, often describing something as close to an intersection or a landmark. I realize that the oldest parts of the city have seen considerable redevelopment, and that in the earliest days, house numbering may not even have been required. But it can still be a bit of a headache.

In some cases, I have had to look at the existing street grid, compare it to old photos, determine the most likely path of a former street or most likely location of something that is not there anymore (in the case of the Long Wharf and Venice Pier, this meant studying the shoreline as well), and make an educated guess. I dislike having to guess at all, but in a city whose 235 years of history have been eradicated by natural disaster, fire, politics, development and redevelopment, etc. over and over again, this is the best I can do.

Thankfully, not too far into the book, its authors give a rough boundary for Frenchtown: Main Street, 1st Street, Aliso Street, and the Los Angeles river. Not surprisingly, this abuts Jean-Louis Vignes' El Aliso vineyard, and is still pretty close to Bauchet Street. (At the time of the book's publication, much of Aliso and Commercial Streets were, incredibly, still French-owned.)

About fifty markers fall within this area (so far; there will probably be more). More are scattered throughout downtown Los Angeles, with the highest concentration around the original plaza.

I hasten to add that the book is not my only source for locations. Old city directories, newspaper ads and articles, a few other books, old maps, and census records (thank you, have proven very helpful.

When I was mapping the "original Frenchtown" area, I had to put an extra point at the intersection of 1st and Central, due to the street's unusual obtuse angle. Then I realized I had seen - and for that matter walked - the same angle the previous weekend. I had gone to see the Hello Kitty exhibit at the Japanese American National Museum, which now stands at that corner.

Most of the sites associated with the French community in Los Angeles proper, at least in the 19th century, fall within the modern-day neighborhoods of Little Tokyo, Chinatown, the Historic Core, the Plaza, and the Civic Center.

In previous entries, I have noted what now stands where something or someone French used to be, and I will do so whenever possible. I believe it is important to do this in order to provide context for modern-day readers - especially if they are not very familiar with long-ago Los Angeles (and in 2016, hardly anyone is).

Saturday, June 11, 2016

The French and the Old Plaza Church

Los Angeles proper has never had its own mission (200+ years ago, the San Gabriel and San Fernando missions were about a day's journey from the pueblo, which almost makes modern LA traffic seem less atrocious). Most people don't know that.

In many cities, the oldest building is likely to be a house of worship. There is some debate over what LA's oldest building is, but La Placita, or the Old Plaza Church, is certainly one of the oldest.

Before the church's dedication in December 1822, the pueblo's residents had to rely on visiting priests from the San Gabriel and San Fernando missions to have their spiritual needs met (non-Catholics began to arrive in the 1840s).

La Placita's first resident priest, believe it or not, was a Frenchman. Jean-Augustin Alexis Bachelot was born and educated in France, becoming a priest in 1820 at the age of 24. In 1827, he led the first Catholic mission to Hawaii (besides Catholicism, Bachelot introduced bougainvillea* and mesquite plants to the islands). Bachelot and his fellow priests were well-received by locals (the fact that Bachelot learned the Hawaiian language well enough to translate a prayer book and write a Hawaiian-language catechism probably helped), but they faced persecution by the Protestant regent, Queen Ka'ahumanu, who deported them from Hawaii in December 1831.

Bachelot and fellow priest Patrick Short landed near San Pedro in January 1832, traveling to Mission San Gabriel. Not only did Bachelot become La Placita's first resident priest, he served as the mission's assistant minister, temporarily led the mission when its head priest was reassigned in 1834 (turning down the substantial salary he was offered), and taught in one of LA's first schools during a teacher shortage. Besides French and Hawaiian, Bachelot spoke Spanish well (the Autry Museum of the American West has, in its collection, a photostat of a letter Fr. Bachelot wrote in 1836 - in Spanish). He was, by all accounts, well-liked by Angelenos.

Bachelot ministered in Los Angeles until 1837, when he had the opportunity to return to Hawaii. Sadly, things did not go well in Hawaii (see above), his health suffered, and he passed away later that year while at sea. Bachelot was buried off the coast of Pohnpei, Micronesia. Because of the way their priests had been treated in Hawaii, the French government intervened, and King Kamehameha III finally granted religious freedom to Catholics in Hawaii.

In Los Angeles, Bachelot was succeeded by another French priest - Reverend Anaclet Lestrade. Like Bachelot before him, he doubled as a teacher - in 1852, he taught twenty students due to lack of a proper school system (public, private, or parochial - LAUSD didn't exist until 1853). Lestrade is credited with helping to establish the first boys' boarding school in Southern California. For a time, he also held claim to the Rancho Rosa Castilla in El Sereno.

As for the building itself...the original church was destroyed due to severe flooding in 1859-1860 (the LA River burst its banks a few times - which is quite a thing to contemplate if, like me, you have only ever seen it as a tiny trickle in a vast concrete ditch). La Placita was rebuilt under the leadership of LA's popular French-Canadian mayor, Damien Marchesseault (more on him later...stock up on tissues, it's a sad story).

Henri Penelon, LA's first commercial artist and photographer, painted a mural of the Madonna and Child with two angels over the door in 1861, assisted by a new arrival, 21-year-old Bernard Etcheverry (both hailed from France, and don't worry, you'll read more about them later). Sadly, the mural - probably the first outdoor mural in Los Angeles - is long gone. In yet another example of Los Angeles erasing its own history, the mural was plastered over in 1950 (there is now a mosaic on that part of the facade, installed in 1981). The church's marble tablets bore Penelon's lettering at least as late as 1932, and the Stations of the Cross are consistent with his other work.

Although a bit beyond the topic, but worth noting, are La Placita's bells. They were cast by George Holbrook, apprentice to Paul Revere - whose father was a French Huguenot.

Let's not forget the surrounding neighborhood. In Fr. Bachelot's day, French transplant Pierre Domegue and his wife (a Chumash woman named Maria Dolores Chihuya) baked French-style sourdough bread in a low adobe that stood next to the church's courtyard. Domegue also partnered with another French baker, Andre Mano, in a bakery just around the corner (Angelenos weren't afraid of carbs yet).

La Placita is still an active parish church. Do take the time to visit, but please be respectful of those who are there for spiritual reasons.**

*Edited to add (7/1/17): A friend who reads this blog lived on Kauai for 25 years. She told me that Fr. Bachelot brought bougainvillea plants to Hawaii because they're thorny, and the Catholic Church was trying to get Native Hawaiians to wear shoes (and, for that matter, other Western garments). She describes Bachelot as "a bad, bad man" and tells me he's widely disliked in Hawaii. In the interest of presenting history in a fair and truthful manner (Native Hawaiians' stories matter too), I felt I should add the dark side of Bachelot's story. (And honestly, it sounds exactly like something the Church would have done back then.)

**Edited to add (11/9/17): I was finally able to visit La Placita when there wasn't a wedding, baptism, or other ceremony taking place. I will not, however, be adding any pictures of the interior...because I didn't take any. In spite of it being a Wednesday afternoon, there were still about 15 parishioners praying inside the church, and I refuse to disrupt someone else's religious practice. The church's interior, while on the humble side, is still beautiful and well worth seeing. Just keep any noise to an absolute minimum - this is a VERY small church with relatively high ceilings for its modest size and even the slightest noise will carry through the space. (And my sincere apologies to anyone who may have been distracted by my boot heels clicking on the tile floor. I tiptoed as much as I could.)

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Jean-Louis Vignes: Father of French Migration to California

Jean-Louis Vignes (pronounced "vines") was born in Béguey, France (in Bordeaux's wine country) in 1780. In 1827, at the age of 47, he traveled to Marseilles and boarded the Jeannette, leaving his wife and five children behind.

French king Charles X (the monarchy was briefly restored), an ultra-royalist who believed government positions should be held by nobles, did not take kindly to people like Vignes, who had managed the census in Cadillac and was often a witness to marriages and contracts. To make matters worse, Vignes was having financial problems. A letter written by Father Alexis Bachelot, Vignes' priest in Los Angeles (more on him in the future) seems to support this reason for departure: "Vignes was driven to leave his country after troubles caused by his loyalty, misunderstood considerateness, and too much facility to be of help." (In layman's terms, no good deed goes unpunished.)

The Jeannette was bound for the Society Islands via the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), but made a stop at the port of San Pedro (Joseph Mascarel, a young cadet on the same ship at the same time, will make a major appearance in a later entry). Vignes did some trading while in port, but continued on to Hawaii.

In Hawaii, Vignes managed a rum distillery (he had been a cooper in France), grew sugar cane, and raised livestock. When the distillery closed, he left for California, arriving in Los Angeles via Monterey in 1831. He was 52 years old.

Realizing grapevines could thrive in Southern California's mild climate, Vignes used the money he had earned in Hawaii to buy 104 acres on the west bank of the Los Angeles River.

Vignes' new property included an ancient and very famous local landmark: a giant sycamore tree more than sixty feet high and 200 feet in diameter. The tree can be seen in the background image for this blog (which just so happens to be the earliest known photograph of Los Angeles).

Vignes quickly established one of California's first commercial vineyards (since Louis Bauchet also established his vineyard in 1831, no one knows who was first), calling it El Aliso ("sycamore" in Spanish). He built his wine cellar in the shade of the massive tree, aged his wine in oak casks he'd made himself, and was dubbed "Don Luis del Aliso" by his Spanish-speaking neighbors. An article in The Upland News (October 9, 1968) calls him "Southern California's first truly expert winemaster".

Vignes was entertaining fellow Angelenos before long, throwing parties and hosting meals at his home on the vineyard's grounds. He also became godfather to Francisco "Pancho" Ramirez, the son of a neighbor. Vignes taught the boy to speak French (formal schooling did not yet exist in the area). At the tender age of sixteen, Pancho was hired as editor for the Spanish-language pages of the town's first newspaper, the Los Angeles Star.

Vignes didn't just plant 35 acres of grapes along the river - he planted the city's first orange grove (and also grew lemons, pomegranates, peaches, apples, pears, apricots, figs, and walnuts). Further, he held two Spanish land grants - one in San Bernardino and one on Santa Catalina Island. In 1839, his family sent a nephew, twenty-year-old Pierre Sainsevain, to California to check on Uncle Jean-Louis. With 40,000 vines in production and a reputation for making the finest wine in Southern California, it's safe to say he was doing well enough.

In fact, Vignes wrote to his family in France and urged them to join him in California. Three of his five children (and their families), one brother, four nephews, and several family friends settled in LA. Pierre worked on his uncle's vineyard, later joined by his brother Jean-Louis Sainsevain (the Sainsevain brothers merit their own entry; more on them down the road). By the 1850s, Vignes' estate and the surrounding neighborhood - filled with French settlers - were known as "French Town".

Since he now had some extra help, Vignes decided to distribute his wine outside of Los Angeles. Within a year of his arrival, Pierre traveled to Santa Barbara, Monterey, and San Francisco, successfully making the first wholesale wine transaction in the state. (Sorry, NorCal. A 21-year-old French kid living in Los Angeles did it first.) Vignes also owned a sawmill near San Bernardino, and soon put Pierre, who had worked as a carpenter, in charge.

In 1842, Vignes entrusted a French sea captain with a barrel of wine, asking that it be delivered to Louis Philippe of France ("King of the French" under the July Monarchy). Unfortunately, Vignes' hopes of showing what a Bordeaux native could do with California grapes were dashed when the barrel was destroyed in a fire on the way to France. (I should note that Vignes also imported French vines to improve his wine's quality: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Sauvignon Blanc.)

In addition to being California's first commercial vineyard, El Aliso was California's largest vineyard by 1849, with 150,000 bottles produced each year.

Vignes was liked and trusted by his Californio neighbors, and he is credited with helping to foster cooperation between Californios and Yankees when the Mexican-American War ended. In fact, when Don José Maria Abila's widow and daughters fled their home on Olvera Street (they didn't trust Americans), they sought refuge at Vignes' home. The diary of one Lt. Emory indicates that Vignes even supplied the Yankee troops with some of his own wine.

In 1855, at the age of 75, Vignes sold El Aliso to Pierre and Jean-Louis Sainsevain for $40,000 (about $1.06 million in 2016 dollars) - the largest amount of money ever paid for real estate in California at the time. (Try buying 104 acres of Los Angeles real estate for a million dollars now!) Ironically, Vignes' children later sued their own cousins, accusing them of underpaying for the vineyard. (Only in LA...)

In 1856, Vignes made a donation to the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul to fund St. Vincent's Hospital - the first hospital in the city - which opened in 1858. Vignes also donated funds to establish LA's first public school.

Vignes passed away in 1862. He was 82 years old.

There is an undated gravestone reading "Jean Louis Vignes" at Evergreen Cemetery. However, Evergreen opened in 1877. His body could have been moved (the city's first cemetery is long gone), or the stone could have belonged to a relative (cemetery records give a burial date from 1892, but this could be a typo).

El Aliso changed hands again after Vignes' death. For a time, it was the Philadelphia Lager brewery, owned by German immigrants. The site is gone, long ago subdivided, and for many years was believed to be where Union Station now stands (it wasn’t).

The giant sycamore itself died in 1891, unable to survive in a growing city. It was felled for firewood in 1895. According to landscape architect John Crandell, the tree would have stood on what is now a raised island separating the 101 freeway from an on-ramp. (Beret-tip to Gizmodo.)

Vignes' vineyard, orchards, and groves are long gone. Most Californians have no idea he was our state's first commercial vintner. But he does live on...via Aliso Street and Vignes Street, both near Union Station.

Vignes Street intersects with Bauchet Street in the shadow of the Men's Central Jail and the Twin Towers Correctional Facility. Although Vignes Street was originally much shorter (it was extended in 1897 and again in 1936), LA's first two Frenchmen may very well have been next-door neighbors.