In May 1872, after suffering through another extremely cold, damp winter, a group of 150 middle-class neighbors from Indianapolis, Indiana, decided to leave home. The group included lawyers, doctors, journalists, and teachers, many of whom were looking for a more equable climate to alleviate ailments from asthma to tuberculosis. Led by Thomas Balch Elliott, a former Army surgeon and prominent businessman, the neighbors pooled their resources and hired Elliott’s brother-in-law Daniel Berry to go west and find land for a colony.
This is the story of that colony, and how it eventually became the small but world-famous city of Pasadena.
The Indianans’ search occurred within the post-Civil War wave of expansion. In the hopes of populating the West with white, small-scale farmers, the U.S. government, via the Homestead Act of 1862, allotted private 160-acre parcels to homesteaders in the West. By the 1870s this vision, reinforced by reports of lush landscapes and thriving new agricultural and urban economies, prompted many to move west in search of social mobility and wealth, purchasing lands that held histories they often knew nothing about.
In 1872, after considering several sites, the Indianans decided that Southern California would be the best place to build their own colony. They instructed Berry to seek a location with a good climate, fertile land near an abundant water source, and the opportunity to build small, individual homesteads.
By August 1873, Berry’s travels had taken him as far south as Cajon Ranch in San Diego and eastward to Rancho Santa Anita in the San Gabriel Valley. He was taken with the amount of tillable land and access to plentiful water, and excitedly wrote Elliott about the abundant fruit trees and expansive orange groves.
Despite his enthusiasm, Berry faced a financial obstacle. The colony had authorized him to pay no more than $5 per acre, but these beautiful and fruitful lands were priced at about four times that much. Undeterred, Berry sought to convince Elliott and the Indiana Colony to increase the budget. They refused, and Berry continued north into the San Fernando Valley, where the land was more reasonably priced but lacked a reliable water source.
In September 1873, Berry trekked east to Rancho San Pascual. The rancho land might have felt new to Berry, but it had a long, rich history. Known as Hahamog’na, this was the ancestral land of the Tongva people. By the time of the Spanish conquest of the region in 1771, the Tongva had a thriving society with its own culture, economy, labor practices, and principles of land use. Spanish rule brought with it a mission institution that imposed religious conversion and assimilation intended to eradicate indigenous culture. Franciscans at the San Gabriel Mission took possession of Tongva lands and sought to develop them according to Spanish ideals.
For over 60 years, missionaries controlled the thousands of acres that would eventually become Rancho San Pascual. Shortly after Mexican independence, the Mexican government issued the 1834 federal secularization order that emancipated mission Indians and allowed civilian settlers access to former mission lands. This ushered in California’s period of ranchos, but former San Gabriel Mission Indians were rarely allowed to access these lands. Throughout California’s Mexican period from 1821-1848, the region’s former mission lands—about 13,000 acres in all—were consolidated into Rancho San Pascual and managed by various owners who competed for control.
In 1840, California ranchero Manuel Garfias took over San Pascual but he would prove to be its last Mexican owner. After the Mexican-American War, new land laws followed in 1848. Garfias was dispossessed of his rancho, which passed into American hands. By the 1870s the new owner, Benjamin Davis Wilson, a former mayor of Los Angeles and state legislator, began selling parcels to interested parties with the help of his business partner John S. Griffin.
Daniel Berry, working for the Indianans, visited San Pascual in 1873. Mesmerized by its beauty, Berry wrote Elliott detailing the fruit orchards, richness of the soil, wonderful air quality, warm climate, and vast acreage. Over the next few months, Berry sought to convince Elliott that the colony had to increase its investment to $10 per acre. After receiving countless letters detailing everything from the region’s lifestyle to the health benefits of the climate, Elliott finally agreed to let Berry offer $15 per acre.
The colony was on its way to acquiring its new home when the financial Panic of 1873 struck, decimating members’ savings and causing many of the original would-be colonists to back out of the endeavor. Berry requested $1,000 for a deposit from the remaining members. To his disappointment, the colony only approved $500. Months passed, and the Indiana Colony collected only $200 of the promised $500.
Berry organized a group of Southern California investors, as well as some from as far away as Cincinnati and Boston, to provide the remaining capital. Together they established the San Gabriel Orange Grove Association (SGOGA) with an individual buy-in of $250. Berry’s group of investors raised a sum of $25,000 and then invited Elliott and the 15 remaining members of the Indiana Colony to join them in their venture. Elliott, not wanting to miss out on acquiring San Pascual, gathered $3,000 from the colonists to supplement the amount already collected. A series of convoluted transactions followed, and the Indiana Colony finally had its land.
During the winter of 1873-74, Elliott and the 15 colonists migrated to their new home. On January 27, 1874, the colony was formally established. Land allotments were distributed, and colonists began cultivating wheat and barley, at first without success. But the colonists pressed on, expanding into grapes and citrus trees. Supported by wealthier members, the Indiana Colony moved towards bringing a steady water supply into their community, building a three-mile pipeline by May 1874.
Before the end of 1874, the colony had grown by some dozen families and added a tract of about 2,500 acres to its eastern boundary, but colonists were concerned that the place still did not have a formal name. In his letters to Elliott, Berry often referred to the settlement as the Indiana Colony or Muscat. The former referenced the colonists’ origins and the latter the Muscat grapes that grew in the region. Although he used Muscat, Berry thought the word sounded too much like muskrat and encouraged Elliott to find a name that could convey the land’s beauty.
After the consideration of various names, they chose Pasadena.
There are several stories of the name’s origin. Some contend that one of the colony’s founders, Calvin Fletcher, was said to have inquired from local historian Hiram Reid if there was a Spanish name that captured the ranch’s landscape. Reid related to Fletcher a conversation in which former rancho owner Manuel Garfias referred to the ranch as la llave del rancho, the key to the valley, because of where the rancho sat in relation to the larger acreage—at the top of the valley, at its very crown. Fletcher who was unable to pronounce the phrase, simply extrapolated its meaning and brought that to Elliott for consideration.
The second story, which is the one more accepted as part of local folklore, states that Elliott asked a friend who had formerly been a missionary among the midwestern Ojibwe (then called Chippewa), to translate the Spanish phrase la llave del rancho into an “Indian word of pleasant sound” that would mean “the key to the ranch.” With an element of imperialist nostalgia for a place they themselves had transformed, the word they settled on was Pasadena. (The town is still known as the Crown City, the “crown” of the San Gabriel Valley.)
During the 1870s, citrus groves, grape vineyards, and homesteads replaced the cattle grazing lands of the Mexican rancho period. The bustling community boasted a church, a general store, school, mail service, and a stagecoach route. By the 1880s, Pasadena was one of California’s greatest fruit-growing districts. On March 24, 1880, the community celebrated its first citrus festival to highlight its thriving agricultural production. As the settlers’ crops grew, Pasadena’s reputation grew as well. The completion of the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Valley Railroad in 1885 accelerated delivery of oranges to other parts of the region and the country. Aside from expanding trade routes, the railroad ushered in a momentous land boom that drew speculators and would-be settlers into the area, changing Pasadena forever.
An influx of visitors during the mid-1880s prompted the growth of a tourist industry catering to this affluent clientele. Soon resort-style lodgings such as Raymond Hotel, with an estimated cost of $200,000, provided a destination for the wealthy visitors who wintered in Pasadena. Many residents invested their money into tourist-oriented businesses such as restaurants, banks, and shops. The community was incorporated as the City of Pasadena in February 1887 during this period of unprecedented growth.
Eventually, the land boom collapsed. Stalled subdivisions, vacant storefronts, and dry and abandoned groves were the physical markers of the economic bust. Not to be defeated, Pasadena’s residents moved to rebuild their homesteads, often citing the Indiana Colony’s goal of creating a stable community of small-scale farmers.
The early years of the 1890s brought another land boom. Once again, the economy exploded with the capital of wealthy easterners who sought land for their winter homes. This time residents proceeded more cautiously, choosing to exploit the city’s reputation for majestic, Edenic landscapes, succulent fruits, and beautiful blooming roses in the middle of the winter.
In January 1891 Pasadena held its first Tournament of Roses Parade, complete with flower-decorated horse-drawn floats, ostrich races, and displays of oranges and other fruits. This parade would become an annual New Year’s tradition, famous across the United States, drawing participants and spectators from around the world. The event, and the moment of its inception, defined Pasadena through its climate, natural beauty, and especially its pioneer history, harkening back to the Indiana Colony that was built on Tongva land, former mission territory, and a Mexican rancho.