Treasures of the Valley » Mike Lawler

‘Squatters’ or ‘Homesteaders’ in Early Crescenta Valley

Mike Lawler is the former
president of the Historical Society
of the Crescenta Valley and loves local history. Reach him at

This is a subject that has been misunderstood in the history of the Crescenta Valley. “Squatting” as a way of claiming land has a long history in the U.S. where vast tracts of land belonging to Native-Americans were simply settled by force. The federal laws were ambiguous. It wasn’t until the Land Act of 1820 and the Homestead Act of 1862 that methods of claiming “unclaimed” land were formalized.

Many of the earliest settlers in the Crescenta Valley were thought of as squatters when in fact they had legitimate claims to land via these acts. I’ll try to bring a little clarity to the subject, with the help of local historian Jo Anne Sadler, author of “Crescenta Valley Pioneers.”

The boundaries of the Spanish ranchos were vague. Some of those ranchos were pre-empted by Mexican grants, as was the Crescenta Valley in 1843, which resulted in a crude hand-drawn map that perpetuated the vague boundaries of our valley. When the U.S. took over in 1847, the convulsive process began of sorting out the claims of the Spanish ranchos, Mexican land grants and new American claims. Surveyors were hired by the U.S. to map out the land and establish boundaries.

Henry Hancock, an educated Easterner who tried his luck as a ’49er then drifted south, was employed in surveying areas around LA, including the Crescenta Valley in 1858. He drew up boundaries of what was then the Verdugo property, later purchased by Lanterman/Williams and Benjamin Briggs. But those boundary lines were a matter of economy for Hancock. He was paid a flat rate for his surveying. When the sloping land of the northern Crescenta-Cañada Valley got too steep, he simply stopped, laid out his markers and noted on his maps that the land above that was “unsurveyable.”

That left huge swaths of land in the foothills and canyons of the San Gabriels as U.S. government land and up for grabs. In reality, those were the best plots of land. The center portion of the valley baked in the sun but the cool canyons had water and timber. So, while the dry center portion of the valley was being offered for sale to wealthy Easterners who had little understanding of this, the foothills and canyons were being settled by working people. They were purchasing this government land for $2.50 an acre under the Land Act. That required them to live on the land and make some improvements. The process usually took about six years, during which time they were essentially living on public land that wasn’t theirs. After the land patent was granted and the acreage paid for, it became their private property.

The wealthy Easterners who had purchased at great cost the waterless acreage below the land patents now found themselves in the position of having to negotiate for water with their less-wealthy neighbors. Naturally there was some resentment and the term “squatter” got applied to some of these earlier settlers. But in reality they were hard-working people who purchased public land via a generous government program. The names of those earliest settlers are familiar to us today via canyon names and street names: Pickens, Dunsmore, Hall-Beckley, Snover, Shields.

That resentment boiled to the surface most recently in the 1950s when a newspaper writer, compiling a history of the Lanterman family, actually called these early settlers “squatters” several times in print. There was a spirited rebuttal from a few old-timers and an apologetic letter from Frank Lanterman.

Hopefully this clarifies how early settlers acquired their land outside the boundaries of Rancho La Cañada. But that’s not to say that there weren’t true squatters here. Here is a colorful description of one such early family:

“On this road there was but one family of settlers. We should not give them the dignified name of settlers, although their family name was said to be Ivy, and they did want to cling. Their specialty was a conglomerate collection of canines and a tendency to be generally undesirable. After gentle hints and some prodding, they were crowded to the edge and finally transplanted their Ivy to other soil.”