Los Angeles, America’s second largest city and the West Coast’s biggest economic powerhouse, was originally settled by indigenous tribes, including the Chumash and Tongva hunter gatherers, by 8000 B.C.

Portuguese sailor Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo was the first European to explore the region in 1542, but it wasn’t until 1769 that Gaspar de Portolá established a Spanish outpost in the Los Angeles area.

The outpost grew larger in 1781, when a group of 44 settlers of European, African and Native American backgrounds traveled from northern Mexico to establish a farming village on the banks of the Rio Porciúncula. The Spanish governor named the settlement El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles de Porciúncula, or "The Town of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels of Porciúncula.”

Spanish missions were soon established in the area, including Mission San Fernando, named for Ferdinand III of Spain, and Mission San Gabriel Arcángel, founded by Junipero Serra. In 1821, Mexico declared its independence from Spain, and all of California fell under Mexican control.

Gold Rush Brings Hordes of Prospectors

But in 1846, the Mexican American War broke out, and two years later California was annexed by the United States. The timing was fortuitous, as rich deposits of gold were discovered in the Sacramento Valley in 1848, igniting the Gold Rush. The hordes of ‘49ers flocking to California depended on beef and other foods from ranches and farms in the Los Angeles area.

In 1881, after years of America’s “manifest destiny” expansion, Southern Pacific Railroad completed a track into Los Angeles, linking the city with the rest of the United States. This sparked a flurry of land speculation, and civic boosters were soon tempting winter-weary Easterners with promises of lush orange groves and boundless sunshine.

But oranges and people need water, and L.A. looked to the Owens Valley, some 200 miles away, to slake its thirst. After years of backroom deals, bribery and other shenanigans, superintendent William Mulholland opened the Los Angeles Aqueduct in 1913 with the words, “There it is. Take it.”

Hollywood Is Born, Oil Industry Moves In

D.W. Griffith was among the first directors to film in the Los Angeles area, attracted by the mild weather and low-wage, non-union workers. By 1913, Cecil B. de Mille was shooting movies in the area. Soon, the small town known as Hollywood was annexed by Los Angeles, making the city the center of the entertainment industry.

The city is also a center of the oil industry: Edward Doheny—notorious for his involvement in the Teapot Dome Scandal—hit a gusher near downtown Los Angeles in 1892, and within a few years more than 500 oil wells were pumping across the L.A. basin. By 1924, the city’s population topped 1 million, and the city proudly played host to the Summer Olympics in 1932 (and again in 1984).

Racial Unrest

During World War II, almost 100,000 workers were employed in shipbuilding and warplane manufacturing around the Port of Los Angeles. But the rapid growth of the multiethnic metropolis brought considerable tensions: During the 1943 Zoot Suit Riots, violent mobs of U.S. servicemen brutally attacked Latinos.

Racial unrest exploded again in the 1965 Watts Riots, and was at the center of the 1991 Rodney King beating and the Los Angeles Riots that followed. In 1994, O.J. Simpson was arrested for the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, only to be acquitted one year later.

Threatened by Earthquakes, Wildfires

Natural disasters have also disrupted the calm in Los Angeles: The 1994 Northridge earthquake killed 57 people and caused more than $20 billion in damages. Other disasters, such as the 1933 Long Beach earthquake, the 1971 Sylmar earthquake and the 2018 Woolsey wildfire, have ravaged the city.

As of 2017, the population of the City of Los Angeles was more than 4 million and the entire metropolitan area was home to over 12 million people.


City of Los Angeles
Historical Timeline of Los Angeles, Water and Power Associates
El Pueblo de Los Angeles
The History of Los Angeles, City of Los Angeles
LA History 101, Curbed Los Angeles
Historical Timeline of Los Angeles, Discover Los Angeles