by Paul R. Spitzzeri
In 1849, as the great waves of gold seekers poured into California to seek their fortunes in the mines, a small tide of migrants came to Los Angeles, some using it as a way station to the gold fields. Rarely did families make the trip to the City of Angels, but one that did was that of John Gregg Nichols, his wife Florida Cox, and their children.
John G. Nichols was born at the end of 1812 in Canandaigua, New York, southeast of Rochester, from a Scottish-born father and an American mother. At fifteen, his family migrated to Fulton County, Illinois, near Peoria, and he fought in a militia during the Blackhawk Indian War when he was about twenty. Nichols also engaged in mining, working lead fields in Galena (birthplace of Ulysses S. Grant) in the northwest corner of the state for almost a decade.
In 1838, Nichols and Florida Cox were married and the couple had nine children over the years. The couple moved to Jackson County, Iowa, just across the Mississippi River from Galena and Nichols served, in which looks to have been his first foray in public service, as county sheriff in 1846.
The family was part of a caravan of migrants totaling some 100 wagons led by Nichols, leaving the Midwest Plains in May 1849, that included such notable figures as Benjamin Hayes, a long-time district judge; attorney Lewis Granger; attorney and judge Jonathan R. Scott; Joseph S. Mallard, later justice of the peace; and wagon-maker John Goller. In fact, Scott and Mallard married sisters of Florida Cox Nichols and the three brothers-in-law were later among the very few Republicans in a Democrat-dominated Los Angeles.
The group took the well-known California and Oregon Trail to Salt Lake City, established just a couple years before as a haven for the Mormons. Evidently, some in the party were worried about crossing the Sierra Nevadas and encountering the fate of the Donner Party a few years prior.
So, Nichols, in charge again, and the others mentioned above, elected to head southwest following for a long stretch the route of the Old Spanish Trail, taken by the Workman family eight years prior, and more recently used by Mormons who sent volunteers to southern California during the Mexican-American War. Extreme hardships were endured on the three-month trip, planned for less than a month, through wide expanses of desert and mule trains that ate the grass ahead of them, but the Nichols family finally made it to Los Angeles after much struggle on the last day of the year.
The family stayed at the Rancho San Bernardino, just below Cajon Pass, of the Lugo family for a couple of months to recover (one of the party, George Robinson, got into a fight with some of the Lugos over his alleged physical abuse of his wife. When he wound up the city jailer at Los Angeles and two of the Lugos and an employee of theirs were arrested and jailed for murder, he allegedly secured a confession from the employee implicating the Lugo brothers. Eventually, they were freed in the aftermath of the well-known Lugo Case of 1851).
John G. Nichols planned to go to San Francisco, perhaps to head for the mines, but was convinced by Los Angeles residents to stay. He and a minister opened in the new year the first school in Los Angeles that taught exclusively in English, but he was listed as a farmer when the California state census was taken two years later. When the first elections under American rule took place in May 1850, Nichols won the office of recorder, akin to a police judge hearing criminal matters within the city of Los Angeles, though the office was merged with that of the mayor in the next state legislative session.
In May 1851, Nichols, who also was a merchant, won election as mayor, becoming the second (after Alpheus P. Hodges) to hold that position and he served in that office in 1852-53 and from 1856-58. Among his accomplishments was the establishment of “donation lots” within the bounds of the city of Los Angeles so that they could be granted to settlers on previously vacant lands. He also authorized a survey by Henry Hancock that led to the subdivision of these 35-acre lots within city limits and the donation of the land was conditional on the grantee making improvements of at least $200 value to the property.
When not serving as mayor, Nichols was a member of the Common [City] Council and the school board during the period up to and including the Civil War years. In fact, he closed his private school once the public school system was established in 1854.
Nichols seems to have generally been well-regarded as the chief executive of Los Angeles, though his first tenure was marred by an indictment of him and the city’s marshal, George Batchelder, on allegations they profited from having native Indians arrested and then farmed out for manual labor in lieu of fines. The case was eventually dismissed because it could not be determined that there was an applicable statute for the charge.
The Nichols family resided on Main Street in what was reputedly, upon completion in 1854, the first brick house built in Los Angeles. The location was adjacent to a wide space where Jonathan Temple, five years later, built the Market House, which became city and county offices and the courthouse.
By 1860, Nichols gave up public life and returned to his prior occupation of mining, alternating this with farming, which he kept at for much of the rest of his life. From 1879-1881, he prospected in Sonora in northern Mexico. He had a large sheep ranch and vineyard in what is Nichols Canyon above Hollywood and the home he had there was moved in the 1910s to the Echo Park areas of Los Angeles where prominent architect Arthur Benton, designer of Riverside’s Mission Inn and the San Gabriel Mission Playhouse (of which Walter P. Temple was a major financial contributor), had his studio.
Nichols even briefly led a syndicate in the late 1880s which planned the colony called Aurantasia and which appears to have been near modern Palm Springs. Florida Cox Nichols died in 1878 and John G. Nichols outlived her nearly two decades, dying in January 1898 at age 85.
A particular statement of note made in Nichols’ obituary and a paper read by Henry D. Barrows about his life to the Historical Society of Southern California regarded the fourth child born to him and Florida Cox, John G. Nichols, Jr. The obituary of the senior Nichols stated: “he was the father of the first American child born in Los Angeles—his son, John G. Nichols, jr., who was born April 15, 1851, enjoying that distinction.” Barrows, meanwhile, wrote shortly afterward that “a son of Mr. Nichols, John Gregg, Jr., was the first American child born in Los Angeles, i.e., whose parents were both Americans. The date of this youngster’s birth was April 24, 1851.”
Today’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection is a carte de visite portrait of the younger Nichols, probably taken in the very late 1860s. On the reverse of the image is a short pencil inscription referring to this “distinction.”
The question, of course, is what exactly constitutes being an “American.” Is this being of parents who were born and lived in America prior to coming to Los Angeles as opposed to being someone who “became” an American after Mexican California was seized by the United States in 1846-47 and then were citizens by the ratification of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848.
After all, F.P.F. Temple and Antonia Margarita Workman (who was half English and half Latina [and likely part-Indian because her mother was born in Taos, New Mexico]) had two sons born in 1846 and 1848 and a third born just a month after Nichols, Jr. Were they not American, though the first was born under Mexican rule, because only their father was from the U.S.? There were other Americans and Latinas and their children in greater Los Angeles who were in the same situation.
More striking is a statement made in the Los Angeles Times in 1927. In its 27 March issue was an article about early Los Angeles history and a subsection was titled “Our First-Born.” This prideful headline was followed by, “to John Gregg Nichols belongs the honor of being the first child born in Los Angeles of full American parentage.”
Aside from this purportedly important milestone in the history of American Los Angeles, not a great deal is known about the younger Nichols. At about the time the photo was taken in the 1870 census, the 19-year old was living on his own and working as a farmer, perhaps at the Nichols Canyon ranch.
Six years later, he married Cornelia Stanford, whose father, Frederick, was an attorney and partner of Francisco P. Ramirez and Will Gould in Los Angeles. The two had a pair of daughters and, in 1880, were probably living in the Nichols Canyon ranch on what was part of the Ballona township. Seven years later, he was featured in a Los Angeles Herald article praising his 20-acre tomato field, which was said to produce over $5000 in gross revenue in the half-year crop season.
Just a few years later, however, in early 1890s, Cornelia Stanford secured a divorce from John G. Nichols, Jr., though no grounds were provided in a short notice in the Herald. She and her daughters moved into a rooming house, while Nichols who followed his father’s footsteps into mining resided at a local hotel. Cornelia remarried in 1894 but died just a short time later.
By about 1900, John G. Nichols, Jr. left Los Angeles and apparently followed his brother Daniel (who’d killed Charles Howard, son of the prominent Judge Volney Howard in a hotel pool room fight) to a mining region near Guadalajara, Mexico, where the latter was superintendent of a large firm there. Nothing is known of him until a Los Angeles Times article from July 1916 concerning the death of his sister Florida Nichols Carr, observed that he’d passed away the same week in Mexico.
For someone memorialized as the “first American child” born in Los Angeles, even touted as “Our First-Born,” it is a bit ironic that John G. Nichols, Jr. died in obscurity in Mexico. This photograph, however, is an interesting artifact of racial and ethnic identity in early Los Angeles.