City Guide: Los Angeles

By Nancy Hendrickson Premium

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With Hollywood’s affinity for cosmetic surgery, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the face of Los Angeles has changed many times over its history. Founded in 1781 by the Spanish, Los Angeles became a part of Mexico in 1821, then the United States in 1850 when California joined the union. From her early days as a tiny pueblo of 44 pobladores (townspeople), the City of Angels has grown to 3.8 million Angelenos, making it the nation’s second-most populous city (surpassed only by New York). Digging into the city’s multicultural roots can be both a challenge and a fiesta — these tips and resources will get you started.

A city of many madres
Like most major US cities, Los Angeles was home to American Indians long before the arrival of European explorers and settlers. Both the Tongva and Chumash may have witnessed the 1542 expedition of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, a Portuguese captain sailing the Pacific coast for the Spanish crown. Cabrillo and crew wintered over on Santa Catalina Island, but it wasn’t until 1769 that Europeans returned, this time with soldiers and missionaries.

The settlement of Los Angeles remained under Spanish rule until Mexican independence in 1821, but Mexico’s claim was short-lived. It ceded California to the United States following the Mexican-American war of 1846 to 1848.

While the Civil War ravaged the eastern United States, California remained virtually untouched, and in the postwar era was poised to boom. In two decades, Los Angeles’ population grew from 5,000 to 50,000, thanks in part to the arrival of the railroad and the discovery of oil. By 1900, the city had grown to more than 100,000 people.

With the turn of the century, the movie and aviation industries flocked to LA, and in 1932, the booming metropolis surpassed the 1 million mark. Today, Los Angeles is a melting pot of Caucasian, African-American, Asian and Latino cultures, with more than 40 percent of the population speaking Spanish.

Angeleno access
You’ll rely on these records and resources to trace your Los Angeles ancestors:


  • Vital records: Statewide registration of births and deaths didn’t begin until July 1905, but Los Angeles County records start several decades earlier. Order birth, death and marriage records through the California Department of Public Health (see toolkit) or county offices. Privacy restrictions limit certified copies of vital records to the registrant or close family members, but genealogists can order informational copies.On the web, FamilySearch has some California marriages from 1850 to 1952; you can search for other vital records at Western States Marriage Index, RootsWeb, USGenWeb, and California Vital Indexes (see toolkit). subscribers can search databases for California birth, marriage and death records as well as cemetery and obituary collections.

    Marriage applications in Los Angeles County from 1850 to 1905, and marriage certificates from 1851 to 1919, are available on microfilm from the Family History Library (FHL), which you can rent for viewing at a local FamilySearch Center. You also may find your family in these databases at the Southern California Genealogical Society library: California Death Index 1930-1994, Marriage Index 1960-1985, and Los Angeles County Civil Filings 1979-1988.

  • Land records: Pre-Mexican independence, land was granted to settlers by Spain, then from 1822 to 1846, Mexico became the land grantor. These early records are available at the California State Archives and Bancroft Library. Indexes to early land grants and records of petitions to recognize early claims once California was acquired from Mexico are on FHL microfilm and
  • Censuses: Pre-statehood lists (padrones) of Spanish, Mexican and Indian residents were published by the Historical Society of Southern California, and include Los Angeles censuses of 1790, 1836, 1836 and 1844 (available on FHL microfilm). The first US census enumerating Los Angeles was 1850. You can access the California state census of 1852, which includes information on the entire household, as well as the Los Angeles census of 1897, on FHL microfilm.
  • Cemeteries: Los Angeles has several old cemeteries, most still operational. It’s believed that the first cemetery was in the Old Plaza area, adjacent to the Plaza Church at 521 N. Main St. Prior to its establishment in 1822, burials had taken place in the two missions in the area: San Gabriel Arcangel (1771) and Mission San Fernando Rey España (1797). The oldest existing cemetery, Evergreen, opened in 1877 and is the final resting place of many Los Angeles pioneers. You’ll find a database of Evergreen burials on Find A Grave. Search several other local cemeteries, including the Los Angeles National Cemetery, at
  • Newspapers: Decades of Los Angeles newspapers are available free online. The California Digital Newspaper Collection includes the Los Angeles Herald from 1874 to 1910, along with the San Francisco Call and the Sacramento Daily Union. You can search the database by keyword and date, or browse through each issue. The Los Angeles Times offers its own searchable archive, beginning with issues from 1881.Read articles relating to Los Angeles County through the Covina Public Library. Issues of the bilingual Los Angeles Star from 1852 to 1864 are available through the University of Southern California Digital Library.
  • City directories: FHL holdings include Los Angeles head-of-household directories from 1873 to 1935 (film number 1376980). Online, you can access the 1915 city directory at the Internet Archive, and look through many 20th-century directories on the Los Angeles Public Library website.
  • Maps: The Library of Congress has a special exhibition called Los Angeles Mapped, with many of the images available online. One of the earliest is a 1639 map drawn for the Dutch West India Co. showing California as an island (as it was believed to be then). Next, turn to the David Rumsey Historical Map Collection to see a hand-drawn 1880 map of the city. View early 20th-century Los Angeles maps in the Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection. The city website has interactive maps.
  • Repositories: Where are records most beneficial to genealogy researchers stored? The California State Archives in Sacramento houses microfilmed copies and original records from 28 of California’s counties, including probate files, deeds and naturalization records. The Southern California Genealogical Society has an extensive library; if you can’t visit in person, you can hire the research team.

Whether your Angeleno ancestor was an early adventurer or a recent transplant, you’re sure to dig up his or her history with the Golden State’s great resources.

Fast Facts

  • Settled: 1781
  • Incorporated: 1850
  • Nicknames: LA, City of Angels, La La Land
  • State: California
  • County: Los Angeles
  • Area: 468 square miles
  • State Motto: Eureka (Greek for “I have found it”)
  • Primary historical ethnic groups: Latino, African-American, Asian
  • Primary historical industries: railroads, oil, shipping, entertainment
  • Famous residents: Tyra Banks, Candice Bergen, Jeff Bridges, Alton Brown, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Marilyn Monroe, Mary Kate and Ashley Olson, Gwyneth Paltrow, Sally Ride, Adlai Stevenson, Earl Warren


  • 1850: 1,610
  • 1900: 102,479
  • 1950: 1.97 million
  • Current: 3.8 million


  • 1542: Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo sails along the California coast
  • 1797: Mission San Fernando Rey de España founded
  • 1848: Mexico cedes California to the United States
  • 1850: California becomes the 30th US state
  • 1869: Railroad connects Los Angeles with San Pedro Bay
  • 1874: Los Angeles gets its first streetcar
  • 1929: Wyatt Earp dies in Los Angeles at age 80
  • 1942: Japanese-Americans are moved to internment camps
  • 1965: 34 people die in Watts riots
  • 1984: Los Angeles hosts summer Olympics
  • 1992: Rodney King trial verdict leads to six-day riot and 53 deaths




  • Historical Atlas of California: With Original Maps by Derek Hayes (University of California Press)
  • Land in California by W.W. Robinson (University of California Press)
  • Los Angeles in the 1930s: The WPA Guide to the City of Angels (University of California Press)
  • So Far from God: The US War With Mexico, 1846-1848 by John S.D. Eisenhower (University of Oklahoma Press)

Archives & Organizations

TIP: Explore the cemeteries of Los Angeles County at Find A Grave and

Records at a Glance

Birth records

  • Begin: as early as 1866
  • Privacy restrictions: Researchers can get informational copies, but not authorized copies.
  • Research tips: Request from the county or state department of health. Search a California birth index from 1905 to 1995 on, and check the FHL catalog for microfilmed records and indexes.


  • Federal: starting with 1850
  • State: 1852
  • County: 1850
  • City: 1897, Spanish padrones in 1790, 1816, 1836, 1844
  • Research tips: Access the state and city censuses on FHL microfilm, and images of the county census free here.

City directories

Death records

  • Begin: as early as 1877
  • Privacy restrictions: Researchers can get informational copies, but not authorized copies.
  • Research tips: Request from the county or state department of health. Search the free California Death Index here. Check the FHL catalog for microfilmed records and indexes.

Marriage records

  • Begin: as early as 1852
  • Privacy restrictions: Researchers can get informational copies, but not authorized copies
  • Research tips: Request from the county or state department of health. Check the FHL catalog for microfilm.

Top 5 Historic Sites

1. Drum Barracks Museum
1052 Banning Blvd., Wilmington, CA 90744, (310) 548-7509
Two buildings remain of the original Drum Barracks, the only major Civil War landmark in California. It was the focal point of Union army activity in the Southwest between 1862 and 1866.

2. El Pueblo de Los Angeles
125 Paseo De La Plaza, Los Angeles, CA 90012, (213) 628-1274
Near the site of the early Los Angeles pueblo, 44 settlers journeyed from present-day northern Mexico and established a farming community in September 1781.

3. Griffith Observatory
2800 E. Observatory Road, Los Angeles, CA 90027, (213) 473-0800
One of the most visited landmarks in Southern California, the observatory introduces visitors to the wonders of the cosmos through special programs, planetarium shows and public star parties.

4. Hollywood Sign
Originally erected in 1923 for a housing development named Hollywoodland, the famous sign was shortened in 1949 to Hollywood. The best views are from Hollywood & Highland Center or the Griffith Observatory.

5. Union Station
800 N. Alameda St., Los Angeles, CA 90012, (213) 623-2489
You can tour America’s “last great railway station,” built with a combination of Spanish Mission, Moorish and Streamline Modern architectural styles, through the LA Conservancy.

Related Resources

From the September 2011 issue of Family Tree Magazine

More great genealogy resources from Family Tree Magazine: