Rocha’s Rancho La Brea

Rancho La Brea was formed in 1828 when Antonio Jose Rocha was deeded land from Mexico by the alcalde (mayor of sorts) in Los Angeles.    Rocha was the first documented  Portuguese settler in Los Angeles who in 1815 deserted The Columbia, a schooner at port in  Monterey,  filled with fur bound for Asia.  He and the nine other sailors who deserted were eventually round up but in some weird deal, the 25- year- old Rocha and the other Catholic sailors were able to stay in California, while the Protestant deserters had to return to  the ship.   Rocha and another young deserter from the Isaac Todd , John Gilroy (Garlic capital in Santa Clara County), would both become prominent pioneers in California.  

Rocha spent some time in jail but his friendship with the comandante of Monterey  eventually gave him freedom and provided introductions to other prominent Spanish and Mexican community leaders.  Rocha bounced between Monterey, Santa Barbara, San Diego and eventually in 1826 he landed at Mission San Gabriel.   In Los Angeles he established a business and married into a well-known  Mexican family (Alvarado).   Two years later, with a partner who was a Mexican citizen, Rocha was deeded Rancho La Brea.   The partner (Nesmisio Dominguez) has no known history with the rancho and probably was only in the deal because of his citizenship.   He was later bought out by Rocha’s family.   The deeded Rancho La Brea property was 4,444.4 acres or one square league.   

The practice for ranchos was the land was usually surveyed by two or three people who would ride on horseback and sketch out the territory indicating any landmarks such as hills or trees or streams.    One map of Rancho La Brea from 1840s is in the Bancroft library at Berkeley.  

Diseno del sitio llamado La Brea.   Bancroft Library University of California Berkeley  circa 1840 

I have not called the library to discuss the map but what I believe we are looking at is the tar pits and their watery ponds (on the south) and upper right is a swamp which I have seen before in other books and maps  and I think it might be around Melrose in WeHo (near Pacific Design center where the water table is very high).  Aliso means sycamore which are native to Los Angeles and on this map there seem to be clumps of them at the mouth of Laurel Canyon and the other two canyons which might be Nichols and maybe Cahuenga since Rancho La Brea went as far east as Gower.   The stream on the eastside  is Longwood Creek which runs through the golf course in Hancock Park and eventually feeds into Ballona Creek.  

On today’s map, the boundary of the rancho is (roughly) Wilshire on the south, Sunset on the north, San Vincente on the West and Gower on the East.   As any of us who live, work, shop and drive in this map, we can tell you,  Rancho La Brea is big, crowded and full of traffic.  

From all the writings I can find it seems Rocha and his family never lived on the ranch but lived downtown in the pueblo.  The ranch was used for cattle both during Rocha’s and subsequent owners’ era.  Rocha died in 1837 and his widow Maria Dolores and children would later have to prove they owned Rancho La Brea to the United States Government in the 1850s.  In the end, the Rocha family would win the lawsuit but were broke due to legal fees they owed their lawyer, Henry Hancock.  They ended up deeding the land to Hancock to pay their debt and why I live in Hancock Park and not Rocha Park. This is how many of the ranchos left the hands of Californios (Spanish & Mexican Californians) into white Americans.   Sigh.    

Gilmore Adobe at Farmers Market built around 1852

The lawsuit and battles lasted over ten years, and during that time the Rochas would rent out the rancho to earn a little money.   One of the renters was sheriff James Thomson.   The adobe he lived in (and probably built in 1852), that the Gilmore family later lived in and still own it is like everything good in Los Angeles, it is hiding in plain sight in the middle of Farmer’s market.  It is Behind American Girl and next to Woodranch BBQ.      I remember as late as the early 2000’s walking between The Grove and Fairfax I would hear the roosters cockadoodling.   

One of my favorite secret roads runs east west between the adobe and CBS and somedays with the air is hot and a santa ana wind is blowing and the BBQ smoke wafts from Wood Ranch I swear I almost feel like I am in some other place from long ago when a Portugeuse awol sailor without legal status could build a nice life for himself and his family in the land of Alisos. 



  1. Wonderful, my husband is a direct descendant of Antonio Jose Rocha he was my husband’s 3 times great grandfather.
    I’m trying to find out about the home Antonio lived in with his family in the Pueblo I heard it was a city hall at one point are there any pictures. Thank you


    1. Very cool about your husband’s connection to Antonio. When I poked around in the census for 1860 it seems he was living in the pueblo not far from a Chapman. I think there might be an archivist connected to Olvera street or South West Museum who could help figure out which was Rocha’s house. Love to see a photo if you find one 🙂


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