Birth of a City

Self-protection lies at the heart of South Pasadena’s very beginnings as a city

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 2/28/2013

Centuries before white settlers inhabited the southern portion of the San Gabriel Valley, the city we now call South Pasadena was home to members of the Hahamongna branch of the Tongva tribe of Native Americans.

Also known as Gabrielinos, tribe members built thatched dome structures along the banks of the seasonal Arroyo Seco. There they lived and worked the land and streams and traded with other Tongva tribe members who lived throughout modern-day Los Angeles. When South Pasadena incorporated in 1888, very few Native American people were allowed to own land.

“The Arroyo Seco was really the cradle of civilization for Indians that inhabited Pasadena and South Pasadena,” said South Pasadena City Librarian Steve Fjeldsted. “It not only gave them their water, but was also part of their trade and travel routes. Of course, later it became one of the first routes between Pasadena and Los Angeles.”
When Spanish explorers began colonizing the area in the 18th century, Indian culture was absorbed by the missionaries. California became a Mexican province when Mexico won independence from Spain. According to the definitive historical text by Jane Apostol, “South Pasadena: A Centennial History,” very few Indians received shares of land “when the property once controlled by the missions was given away in huge land grants on which ranchos were established.” Most of present-day Altadena, Pasadena, San Marino and South Pasadena formed the boundaries of Rancho San Pasqual.

What is now known as the Flores Adobe, the oldest house in South Pasadena, served as headquarters for Mexican Gen. José María Flores during the Mexican-American War in the 1840s. The adobe, which is still around today, is the place where Mexican commanders drew up their plan of surrender to the United States.

In the 1870s, members of the California Colony of Indiana began moving to the area and started purchasing property. San Gabriel Orange Grove Association members Calvin Fletcher and Benjamin Eaton were among those who invested in land at the southern end of the colony, south of Columbia Street.

“They started subletting it, more people came out, and South Pasadena has remained independent and small to this day,” said Fjeldsted, “but that’s part of its earliest beginnings.”

According to Fjeldsted, it is a common misconception that South Pasadena split off from Pasadena’s historic Indiana Colony to form its own city. In fact, residents of what used to be Rancho San Pasqual always thought of themselves as a separate entity from Pasadena, and petitioned for their own school district and post office a decade before incorporation.

“I think part of the misconception comes from its name, which makes it sound like it’s the southern part of Pasadena or Pasadena junior. But despite the name, South Pasadena is its own community,” said Fjeldsted.
One of the reasons residents of South Pasadena decided to incorporate was to keep Pasadena’s seedy elements away from its borders.
“There was a lot of wildness taking place in Pasadena: saloons, ladies of the night and other forms of wild behavior,” said Fjeldsted. “In order to stop it, Pasadena incorporated and had its own ordinances forbidding those things, but then it all moved down to the other side of Columbia Street. The settlers here didn’t want Pasadena’s riff raff and bad behavior coming to South Pasadena, so it incorporated on March 2, 1888, and passed the same ordinance that Pasadena had passed. That just moved some of those things farther south to Los Angeles, but that’s what solidified the entire community into being incorporated.”

Self-protection, which continues to be a strong trait of the community to this day, was at the heart of South Pasadena’s very beginnings as an official entity. Apostol noted that a leader of the temperance and anti-saloon movement of the day, Dr. Hiram Reid, said South Pasadenans had to incorporate in order to have “police control over their territory … and thus they were compelled by sheer necessity for self-protection to incur the expense and trouble of forming a city corporation.”