French Los Angeles

By Levi Clancy for לוי on
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One of the first Frenchmen in Los Angeles was Louis Bauchet, a former Napoleonic Guard who arrived in 1827.

Bauchet bought a vineyard where Bauchet Street is located today, and grew grapes and made barrels. In 1831, French Picpus father Augustine Alexis Bahelot arrived in Los Angeles after persecution by Methodists forced him to flee the Sandwich Islands. He served for five years as the first resident priest at the Plaza Church, but then he returned to the islands where harrassment continued and he died of a broken heart.

The best known French winemaker was Jean Louis Vignes, who is the eponym for Vignes Street, arrived in Los Angeles from Bordeaux in 1832 when he was 51 years old, and bought a ranch that he named El Aliso after a giant tree there. He sent home for cuttings to graft onto the mission grape stock because he felt the mission grapes were unsuitable for good wine. Soon Vignes was making better and more wine than any growers in the state and is regarded as the father of California's wine industry. Jean Louis' two nephews Pierre and Jean Louis Sansevain bought his vineyard in 1855.

Sea Captain Charles Baric came in 1834 and lived just south of the Plaza Church. At one time he owned the La Brea Tar Pits and received permission to sell his tar. Round the corner from the Plaza Church, Pierre Dome and Andre Mano made bread for the Pueblo. In 1859 a Belgian Consul arrived in Los Angeles -- it hit close enough to home for the French residents to organize a parade in its honor, followed by a feast as the Vignes-Sainsevain Ranch.

In 1860 there were 4,399 Angelenos and 400 of them were French. Damien Marchessault became Los Angeles' first French mayor.

Jean Louis Sainsevain and Damien Marchessault were actively involved with the Los Angeles water supply and developed a wooden water pipe system. Sainsevain also erected a giant waterwheel to bring more water to the Pueblo. Things went downhill when the pipes burst and showered everyone with muddy water. Marchessault, who was mayor of Los Angeles during the Civil War, committed suicide in the Council Chamber due to the failure of the water pipes and perhaps also gambling debts.

A party of French dignitories visited during the 1860s but were not received well by Mayor Joseph Mascarel's wife. The group returned to France where they mercillessly mocked both Mascarel and his wife in the press. There was a French barber named Felix Signoret who turned his money into property. He also led the last vigilante group in Los Angeles. It caught a fellow Frenchman named Michel Lachenais who had murdered a farmer.