The Native Americans
The first inhabitants of Chatsworth were Native Americans. Many different Indian tribes lived in California, however, Chatsworth and the San Fernando Valley was inhabited by the Fernandeño and Chumash. The people provided sustenance for themselves by hunting, fishing, and gathering nuts and seeds. Because the San Fernando Valley tribes lived in centralized small villages, archaeologists have been able to find enough indigenous artifacts, such as the pictograph pictured above, to be able to recreate their culture. For example, the discovery of mortars and pestles and acorn leaching basins revealed how the tribes hulled, parched, and pulverized acorns and leached the tannic acid out so that the mush was edible.
Spanish Discovery of the Valley
In order to physically stake their claim and bring in revenue, in 1769, José de Galvez, the inspector general of New Spain, planned an expedition to settle the ports of San Diego and Monterey. In addition to establishing Spanish outposts, Spain also sent Franciscan priests to start missions and spread Christianity.
Galvez chose Gaspar de Portolá to lead the military branch of the overland mission. Portolá was accompanied by Franciscan missionary Fray Junípero Serra, the founder of the California mission system, and Fray Juan Crespi, who recorded the accounts of the expedition. From Fray Crespi’s diary, it is known that the explorers came to the San Fernando Valley for the first time on Saturday, August 5, 1769. That night they camped near an Indian village, which is now marked as the Los Encinos State Historical Monument. It is believed that an Native American village existed in Chatsworth during this time as well.
San Fernando Mission
In 1797, Fray Fermin de Lasuén brought three families from another mission and established the San Fernando Mission. Spain granted the land of the San Fernando Valley, which included Chatsworth, to the mission. Construction of the mission increased the traffic through Chatsworth as many of the local Indians relocated to or near the mission. The Indian trail which led from Chatsworth to the mission was also part of the El Camino del Santa Susana y Simi trail which led from the San Fernando Mission to the Santa Buenaventura Mission. This meant that all travelers had to pass through Chatsworth and over the Santa de Susana Pass to reach the mission.
End of Mission Life
The mission system established by the Spanish ended in 1821 when the Mexican people revolted against Spain and claimed independence. Although the Mexican government continued to support the missions, the new government did not allocate as many resources toward the missions as had Spain. In addition, many of the mission priests remained loyal to Spain and were replaced by Mexican loyalists.
The economic problems of the Mexican government did not improve. In an effort to increase revenue, in 1834, the Mexican government ordered the sale of all mission lands. The mandate allowed the missions to remain churches and retain a small amount of land for sustenance, however, the bulk of the property had to be sold to private interests. Although the San Fernando Mission land was not immediately sold, the land became federal property under the administration of a manger rather than the church. Chatsworth was divided by this transition, part of it becoming a portion of the several land grants, including the Simi Land Grant.
Americans had a presence in California since the early 1800s, though it was not until 1850 that California became the 31st state to join the United States of America. Influenced by the Gold Rush and by statehood, more Americans wanted to travel to California. Stagecoach lines were efficient modes of transportation, especially when trekking within California. Chatsworth is located to the southeast of the Santa Susana Pass, an extremely steep mountain pass that stagecoaches had to traverse when travelling the Overland Stage Road from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Santa Susana became a relay station for the stagecoach lines where the drivers would trade in their tired horse before attempting to cross the Overland Stage Road, pictured above. Being located near a relay station made Chatsworth an important town in term of transportation history in California. As late as 1891, Chatsworth remained an active relay station for the stagecoach lines.
Dividing the Valley
In 1869, the former San Fernando Mission lands were divided in half along what today is Roscoe Boulevard. The southern half of the valley was sold to the San Fernando Farm Homestead Association, which had been formed by Isaac Lankershim. In 1874, the northern half of the valley was sold to Charles Maclay and George K. Porter. Porter then sold part of his land to his cousin, Benjamin F. Porter. Maclay planned to build a town on his share of the land, which later became the city of San Fernando. The Porter cousins planned to plant crops.
In 1872, Lankershim planted wheat in the southern San Fernando Valley. Though the first two crops were not successful, wheat quickly became the cash crop of the valley. As new homesteaders planted wheat, the landscape of the valley changed from sheep and cattle range land to golden wheat fields.
The San Fernando Valley was divided into thirteen ranches, seven of which were located in the southern half of the valley and six in the northern half. The Granger Ranch, owned by Benjamin F. Porter, became Chatsworth Park.
On May 20, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act which allowed any qualified citizen or intended citizen over the age of 21 to acquire up to 160 acres of federal land in the West free of charge. In return, the homesteaders had to pay a small filing fee and live on and improve the property for at least five years.
Neils and Ann Willden Johnson took advantage of the Homestead Act and became one of the first English speaking families to settle in the San Fernando Valley. In 1870, the Johnsons moved to Chatsworth living in what is now called Brown’s Canyon. Four years later the Johnsons moved farther up the Santa Susana Pass Road and homesteaded in what is now know as Indian Hills Estates. Over the next decade several other early pioneer families moved to Chatsworth including the Coffeen family, Lawrence Virgil Glasscock, Fred Graves, the Gray family, the Hill family, the Iverson family, the Thrasher family, and the Willams family.
Here is an illustraion of the Gray family residence, built in 1898, which was located at 22165 Lassen Street. This 14 room house cost $1,200 to build and was situated on 200 acres. The central living room was 24'x24' and had an 18' high ceiling. The Gray house was one of the first homes in the San Fernando Valley to have gas lights.
Beginnings of Chatsworth
On March 10, 1888, George R. Crow filed a map of a subdivision called Chatsworth Park with the Los Angeles County Recorder’s office, marking the birthday of the town of Chatsworth. The land had been surveyed in 1887 by Charles T. Healey and William F. Sweeney. According to this map, Chatsworth was planned as a farming community with the land divided into ten acre family plots. There were only three streets on this map: Ben Porter Avenue, Devonshire Avenue, and Fernando Avenue.
In 1893, W.B. Barber, president of the San Fernando Valley Improvement Company, filed another map with the Los Angeles County Recorder’s Office entitled, “Plat of Chatsworth Park Townsite.” There were many changes on this second map, including a railroad station, a Main Street, and a shopping area.
The railroad came to Chatsworth in 1893, expanding the economy of the burgeoning town. First, the railroad gave farmers a broader market to sell their crops. Second, the construction of the Santa Susana railroad tunnel from 1898 through 1904 made Chatsworth one of the busiest places in the valley. Men came from all around the country to work on the tunnel.
Chatsworth in the 20th Century
Chatsworth continued to grow into an independent agricultural community despite the problem of lacking water to irrigate their farms. In 1913, the city of Los Angeles delivered water from the Owens Valley to the San Fernando Valley. The City of Los Angeles offered to sell water to Chatsworth if they would become part of the larger city. In 1915, the people of Chatsworth voted to become part of the greater city of Los Angeles.
After World War I, large fruit ranches began to dominate the agricultural industry in Chatsworth. The town became internationally known for its delicious crops of oranges, lemons, grapes, and figs. In addition, Chatsworth became well-known for thoroughbred horse ranches.
During the 1920s, Chatsworth became a backdrop for many of the western movies. The rugged scenery and its close proximity to Hollywood made Chatsworth the ideal location to film movies. Before World War I, Karl and Augusta Iverson began renting out their ranch as a movie location. Many famous motion pictures were filmed at the Iverson movie loaciation ranch, including Stagecoach, The African Queen, Around the World in 80 Days, and Wee Willie Winkie.
After World War II, the population of the entire San Fernando Valley began to boom. People began to move to Chatsworth and the first subdivisions were built to accommodate the influx. In 1951, industry moved to Chatsworth with the building of the Santa Susana rocket testing site of North American Aviation. The greatest period of growth in Chatsworth was the 1960s, marked by beginning of construction of the 787 acre planned industrial tract.
The most complete book on the history of Chatsworth is Chatsworth History by Virginia Watson (Chatsworth, CA: The Chatsworth Historical Society, 1991.) This book is sold exclusively by the CHS.
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