CityDig: Los Angeles Was Once a Small Adobe Backwater

This 1849 stunner is the granddaddy of all L.A. maps
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Ord Survey, Edward E.C. Ord, 1849. Click image to see full map

It was about this time of year in 1849 when Edward Otho Cresap Ord and his historically underrated assistant, William Rich Hutton, set out to survey the young city of Los Angeles. They dragged their Gunter’s chains over the mustard weed and across the old pueblo’s 17,172 acres. The Golden State had just joined the Union—which meant taxes were due to Uncle Sam—and the L.A. City Council was broke. To scrape up the cash, the council went into the real estate business, peddling city lands to raise funds. Before they could begin land auctions, though, they needed an accurate map of the area, so governor Bennett Riley assigned Ord, a young math whiz and Army lieutenant with mapping experience, the task.

Ord was a rather impressive gentleman. He had been a star pupil at West Point (where he roomed with Civil War hero William T. Sherman) and was distinguished as an officer in the 2nd Seminole War. Hutton, his partner-in-cartography, was impressive as well: he was both a skilled surveyor and an accomplished artist, having made many remarkable sketches of his travels in California. (The Huntington Library owns some 95 of these little gems, which show the wide open spaces of Southern California before gold rush money and railroads changed everything forever.)

The two men started work after inking a contract in July of 1849, and they completed the job in just six weeks. The result was a practical four-sheet map, which they presented to the council on September 19 of that year. Ord did the serious surveying, but it was Hutton, the artist, who drew the actual map. They started in front of the church in the middle of the pueblo (at the center of the big X on the map) and moved across the landscape from the river to the hills and then from Old Calvary cemetery to the last house in town. They didn’t have to go far; at the time, Los Angeles consisted of an adobe church and about 100 adobe buildings—not exactly a megalopolis. Nonetheless, the Ord Survey is recognized as the granddaddy of all Los Angeles maps, and remains of interest to historians today.

On the map street names are written in both Spanish and English. Look closely and you can see Calle de Eternidad or Eternity Street (now Broadway) which lead, appropriately, to the graveyard, Calle Fortin or Fort Street (now also Broadway), which in turn headed toward Fort Moore, Calle de Los Chapules or Grasshopper Street (now Figueroa), Calle de las Avispas or Hornet Street (now Yale), and familiar roads like Hope Street, Flower Street, and Spring Street. As D. J. Waldie has pointed out, Los Angeles’s topography and its unpredictable river give it a crooked layout. Here, the city is mapped at a tilt of 36 degrees, which seems about right for L.A.

Ord went on to glory as the victor of the Battle of Dranesville in 1861 and as a significant figure General Lee’s surrender at Appomatox. (Paintings of the event often show Ord standing in dignified pose.) In less dramatic news, he also went buffalo hunting with the celebs of his day: George Custer, Buffalo Bill Cody, Wild Bill Hickock and General Philip “Little Phil” Sheridan. His name was eventually given to a street in Chinatown that’s more famous today for French dip sandwiches than topography.


Los Angeles Public Library map librarian Glen Creason shares a map from the Central Library’s collection at CityThink each week. 

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