Huntington Beach has a fascinating history, stretching back thousands of years. As a city council representative, it is this history and these voices I want to ensure are included in the democratic process.
We are on Tongva land
The Tongva lived on this land at least as far back as 8,000 BP (Before Present). In Huntington Beach, we are south of the village Povuu'nga in east Long Beach on the campus of California State University Long Beach. Povuu'nga was the “place of emergence,” where the Tongva world began.
We find evidence of their life here, such as the cogged stones found in the Bolsa Chica wetlands and stone artifacts found on what is now Ocean View High School. The Tongva were present when the first European settlers arrived in the mid-19th Century. They are still here today.
Cogged stones created by the Tongva have been found in the Huntington Beach area. (Bolsa Chica Land Trust)
The Mexican and Spanish era
Californio refers to the Spanish-speaking residents of Las Californias during the Mexican and Spanish settlement of the land between 1693 and 1848.
Beginning in 1784, Jose Manuel Nieto owned the area referred to as “Bolsa Bluff”. It was first referred to as La Zanja and later as Rancho Los Nietos. In 1834, Rancho Las Bolsas, which includes what is now Huntington Beach, Westminster, and Garden Grove, was granted to Catarina Ruiz, widow of Jose Antonio, son of Jose Manuel Nieto.
The home associated with the Nieto-Ruiz family’s life here was known as the “Morillo Adobe”. A 1976 historical survey investigation located it on the western side of the mesa near Slater Avenue and Gothard Street in an area now part of Central Park.
After Mexico gained independence from Spain, Nieto’s heirs requested that Mexican Governor Jose Figueroa partition their land into six distinct ranchos. In 1841, Figueroa partitioned the six square mile area to the northwest, Rancho La Bolsa Chica, and granted it to Joaquin Ruiz.
This part of our history is represented by many of our residents, in our place names, and in the foods we love to share.
Getting the first traffic signal was a big deal in 1940. That's the Golden Bear in the background. (City of Huntington Beach archives)
After the Gold Rush and statehood
During the 1850s, Abel Stearns took over ownership of the Las Bolsas and La Bolsa
Chica ranchos. Approximately ten years later, in 1868, the lands transferred to the
Stearns Rancho Company because Stearns had suffered such great losses from drought. This is when smaller parcels of land were sold to settlers arriving in the new state of California.
It was at the time of the Gold Rush that the first Asian immigrants began to arrive in California and in this part of Orange County, from China, the Philippines and Japan. In the 1890s, Chinese workers helped farm the Earl Fruit Co. land where Golden West College is today. By the time idea of a Huntington Beach Township was beginning to form, there was already a Japanese market on Main Street. And, by the early 1900s, the first Japanese goldfish farms appeared in Wintersburg Village, now north Huntington Beach.
The bounty of agriculture
The outlying areas in what is now Huntington Beach were once prime growing land for celery. Where the Bella Terra retail center is today was filled with celery fields and sugar beets. Farming creates opportunity and by the late 19th Century people came to work the fields from the Philippines, China, Europe, and from eastern states in the U.S.
By the 1910s and 1920s, with blight affecting celery and sugar beet crops, local farmers began to transition to chili peppers. Having arrived in this part of Orange County around 1899, Japanese immigrants were key to the success of chili peppers. From the City of Huntington Beach historic context report, “Due in large part to the efforts of local Japanese farmers, a transition to chili pepper cultivation was successful. By the 1930s, more than half the nation’s chili pepper supply was produced in Orange County.”
U.S. Census records from 1910 to 1930 document the diverse local population from around the world, particularly in the farming areas outside Huntington Beach Township. Most of the agricultural lands in Huntington Beach were held by a few families or companies and leased to tenant farmers, many of whom were Mexican and Japanese.
Do you know where the Oceanview-Wintersburg SCE substation is in Huntington Beach? It was built in 1928. (SCE Collection, The Huntington)
The beautiful tile roofs of some of our older homes may have been made at the Bolsa Tile Co., one of the manufacturing enterprises in the early 20th Century.
(City of Huntington Beach archives)
A big catch in 1910 by Henry Brooks. (City of Huntington Beach archives)
The story of Orange County agriculture and development is inspiring, while also including some difficult history. The need for farm labor meant workers from around the world were needed. But to some, these workers meant competition or a culture and history different from their own, which they interpreted as a threat. Some of these histories are not commonly known or in school textbooks.
When the Earl Fruit Company contracted with Chinese immigrants to work the land in an area that is now Golden West College in the early 1890s, the Company ended up hiring armed guards to protect them after a gang of men set fire to the bunkhouse. In 1913 and 1920—after political efforts to segregate schools—California passed alien land laws, which prohibited Japanese Americans from owning property, along with existing restrictions that prevented them from applying for U.S. citizenship. These same rules did not apply to those from other, non-Asian countries.
In the 1930s, an estimated 400,000 to two-million people were forced to leave the U.S. for Mexico in what became known as the "Mexican Repatriation." About one-third of the Mexican American population in Los Angeles and Orange County were forced to leave, many in surprise raids and some at gunpoint. An estimated 60 percent were U.S.-born citizens.
In 1942, following the “repatriation” removing Mexican Americans and after the attack by Japan at Pearl Harbor, a federal executive order mandated the forced removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans on the West Coast. It would later be confirmed through Congressional hearings that there was no military necessity and that their removal was a political decision, influenced by war hysteria, discrimination and a failure of leadership. After the incarceration of Japanese Americans, chili pepper production nationwide dropped by around 70-percent.
By 1943, the farm labor shortage had become a critical issue. The U.S. created the “Bracero Program” to bring Mexican nationals into the country as guest workers. About 4 ½ million people were brought from Mexico to work on farms or with railroads.
The national Bracero program ended in the mid-1960s and included a labor camp in Huntington Beach in the area of Goldenwest and Ellis streets, near the former quarry site known as “Lake Ranc.” Based on Huntington Beach city council minutes in 1957, the guarded camp housed 300 men in barracks surrounded by a six-foot chain link fence topped with strands of barbed wire. The men were taken by bus each day to a farm to perform work and then locked in at night and on weekends in the camp.
As the Bracero Program ended, Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which set a quota for immigration from the Eastern and Western hemispheres. This was changed again with the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, allowing for temporary low-wage agricultural and non-agricultural workers. While Huntington Beach has grown from agricultural beginnings to an urban community, this immigration history greatly influenced the local economy, and the social and political climate.
In the mid-1950s, Huntington Beach began annexing land in outlying areas north and south of the Township and rezoning farmland to industrial, commercial and residential uses. Because these outlying areas had been unincorporated County land, a lot of industrial uses were placed on these lands and are found in these neighborhoods to this day. That’s why we find a power plant in southeast Huntington Beach and a higher density of industrial uses in central and north Huntington Beach.
How our community’s development came about has a political history. There were those with large dreams, such as the creation of Central Park and the Central Library.
Part of our Huntington Beach community, a day at Sunset Beach in the 1920s. (City of Huntington Beach archives)
However, some zoning and development issues were not always good for local residents. Some neighborhoods still grapple with issues that are decades in the making. Understanding this history is essential to the decisions we make today about what is appropriate, environmentally safe, and beneficial to the community’s quality of life.
What we learn from our long local history is that despite a multitude of odds and significant federal and local governmental actions affecting families for generations, there were so many who determined to stick it out and work hard to make a life here. There is an appreciation of the natural beauty of the land and sea, as there was thousands of years ago, and a spirit of entrepreneurship and innovation that continues. It is a lot for us to build on.
My goal is to recognize and honor all those who came before us and consider how our history may inform and guide what we plan for the future.