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Los Angeles's First Real Estate Whales: 4 Rancho-Era Bigshots

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Southern California's first private landowners were the early settlers granted tracts (ranchos) by the Spanish crown and Mexican government. (The crown didn't recognize land ownership, so the first truly "private" ranchos were those registered with the Mexican government after 1821.) Many of these grants were wiped out when California became a state; people couldn't provide the documentation to prove they owned the land, and others lost their family fortunes when the new American laws and regulations bankrupted them, opening the door for a new generation of whales. Here are four of LA's earliest real estate players:

Maria Rita Valdez and a relative, the local schoolmaster, petitioned the Mexican government for the official title to her land in present day Beverly Hills, in 1821. (The rancho was named Rodeo de las Aguas.) But when the schoolmaster got fresh with her, he was ordered off the land; Maria paid him "$17.50 for his share of the land; he threw in a peach tree and some farm equipment," according to Michael Gross's Unreal Estate.

Valdez sold her land to Henry Hancock in 1852, who only owned it for a brief period. He wasn't out of the game for long, though, and later bought Rancho La Brea further east. George Allen Hancock inherited Rancho La Brea from his father and, among other things, developed Hancock Park. He built himself a mansion at the corner of Vermont and Wilshire Boulevard. Before it was demolished, four of its rooms were carefully disassembled and rebuilt on the USC campus, where Hancock was a bigtime donor.

Benjamin Davis Wilson didn't let a few bear attacks deter him from making it to California from his native Tennessee, and when he got here he started buying up the place. Writes Gross: "known as Don Benito, having married into a Spanish family, [he] bought half of the 4,438 acre Rancho San Jose de Buenos Ayres [now Bel Air, Holmby Hills and Westwood] for $662.75" in 1852. Six years later the other half cost him $16,000.

Don Bernardo Yorba's "barronial" rancho in present-day Yorba Linda was the site of one of the largest homes in pre-statehood California. By Carey McWilliams's reckoning, Don Bernardo's 51-room house employed "two tanners, one soapmaker, one butter-and-cheese man, a harnessmaker, two shoemakers, one jeweler ... two errand boys, one head sheepherder, one cook, one baker, two washwomen, a woman to iron, four seamstresses, one dressmaker, two gardeners, a schoolmaster and a number of miscellaneous servants."
· Whale Week 2013 [Curbed LA]