Los Angeles’ human history begins as early as 6000 BC, when the Gabrieleño and Chumash peoples occupied the region. Their hunter-gatherer existence ended in the late 18th century with the arrival of Spanish missionaries and pioneers, led by Padre Junípero Serra. Known as El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles, the first civilian settlement became a thriving farming community but remained an isolated outpost for decades.
After Spain lost its hold on the territory to Mexico in 1821, many of that nation’s citizens looked to California to quench their thirst for private land. By the mid-1830s, the missions had been secularized and their land divvied up into free land grants by Mexican governors, thus giving birth to the rancho (cattle ranch) system.
At the time of the Mexican-American War (1846-48), American soldiers encountered some resistance from General Andrés Pico and other Mexican commanders, but eventually LA came under US rule along with the rest of California. The city was incorporated on April 4, 1850.
A series of seminal events caused LA’s population to swell to two million by 1930: the collapse of the Northern California Gold Rush in the 1850s, the arrival of the transcontinental railroad in the 1870s, the birth of the citrus industry in the late 1800s, the discovery of oil in 1892, the launch of the port of LA in 1907, the birth of the movie industry in 1908 and the opening of the LA Aqueduct in 1913.
Aside from motion pictures, few industries have had as strong an impact on LA as aviation. During WWI, the Lockheed brothers and Donald Douglas established aircraft manufacturing plants in LA. Two decades later, the aviation industry - helped along by billions of federal dollars for military contracts - helped to lift LA out of the Great Depression. Defense contracts continued to be a driving force behind the city’s economy right until the end of the Cold War in 1990.
The deluge of new residents arriving after WWII shaped LA into the megalopolis of today, with its attendant problems, including suburban sprawl, air pollution and racial strife. Major riots in 1965 and 1992 created an abyss of distrust between the city’s police department and various ethnic groups. A police corruption scandal in the late 1990s did nothing to alleviate tensions, although in 2002 the arrival of a new police chief, William Bratton of New York, did. Violent crime has dropped significantly on his watch and, despite isolated incidents of police brutality, he has earned the respect of most ethnic groups.
Ballistic population growth, pollution, traffic and soaring real-estate prices are among the problems that continue to cloud LA’s sunny skies in the first decade of the new millennium. But with a strong economy, low unemployment and decreasing crime rate, overall morale remains high. In May 2005, Angelenos elected Antonio Villaraigosa, the city’s first Latino mayor since 1872. Perhaps even racial tensions will soon be a thing of the past.