The Battle of San Gabriel River  

January 8, 2008, marks the 161th anniversary of the Battle of San Gabriel River.  The American forces under the command of General Stephen W. Kearny and Commodore Robert F. Stockton confronted the Californian forces commanded by General Jose Maria Flores.  

Starting December 29, 1846, an American force of six hundred men marched one hundred forty miles from San Diego to the City of Los Angeles along the El Camino Real, a route which roughly follows the current 101 Freeway.  Ten carretas pulled by oxen were used to carry supplies and provisions.  Since the ox drawn carretas and men had to go over and down hills, there was no easy paved road as it is today.  General Andres Pico and six hundred Californios were waiting in the San Fernando Valley for Fremont to come from Santa Barbara , but Stockton and the American forces from San Diego reached the Los Angeles area first.  According to Bancroft’s writings there were several locations where the American forces could have been decimated by the Californios, but nothing happened.  On one evening the mighty Santa Ana winds created a dust storm that left the entire force vulnerable.  The day before the battle they followed a tributary of Coyote Creek which went through Los Nietos to the San Gabriel River.  Since most of the men and supplies were from the Navy, Commodore Stockton was Commander-in-Chief and General Kearny was to lead the force.  The majority of the force were sailors, “Jacks,” taking the role of “emergency” soldiers.  Interestingly, the force included a Navy band which played the evening before the battle while they camped at Rancho Los Coyotes, which is now in Buena Park .  

Since the Californian force had prepared an ambush at the lower La Jaboneria Ford(1), Stockton redirected his force to the upper river crossing at Paseo de Bartolo which ran through Pio Pico’s rancho.  

The Californian force consisted of about five hundred mounted horsemen and artillery pieces stationed along the western bluff.  Admittedly, many of the Californios did not have their heart in this war and some just went home.  At this time of year the San Gabriel River was knee deep and thirty to forty yards wide flowing over patches of quicksand.  High bluffs paralleled the two-mile wide river plain for miles.  By the time the American forces reached the upper ford, the Californian forces had their artillery pieces well entrenched and aimed at the river crossing, and the mounted skirmishers were in position.  

The battle commenced at about 3:00 p.m. when Kearny gave the order, “Forward.” Since Stockton was primarily a gunner, he personally took charge of the Americans’ two nine-pound cannons.  The artillery of the Californian force were quickly silenced by the American’s nine-pound cannon, and the cavalry attacks were stopped after repeated musket fire under the command of General Kearny.  The American forces charged up the hill to see the Californians in retreat.  

The hour-and-twenty-minute battle came to a quick end with the American forces occupying the bluff that was previously occupied by the opposition.  Many men did not even fire their weapons.  About two men were killed and nine others injured on each side.  Since the American forces had no means to pursuit the well-mounted Californian force, they camped that night on the edge of the bluff where the Californian force had been positioned.  

The next day, January 9, 1847, the American force marched toward Los Angeles.  On their way they encountered the Californian forces in what is now the City of Vernon, roughly in the area of the old stock yards.  The mounted Californians were again quickly defeated by the American’s artillery.  Although there were few human casualties, I would venture to guess that many of the horses were not that lucky.  Since it was late in the day, the Americans held off reentering the City of Angeles until January 10, 1847, to prevent any overzealous celebrating.  

I have been unable to locate the exact locations of the river crossings known as La Jaboneria and Paso de Bartolo Fords.  The Battle of San Gabriel River appears to have been somewhat north of Washington Boulevard and Bluff Road, where the historic monument of the Battle has been placed.  The battle could have been as far north as Beverly Boulevard.  Apparently, Frank Jeffredo, the son-in-law of Juan Matias Sanchez, found a cannon along the bluff just south of the Sanchez Adobe, an historical site in north Montebello.  If anyone has better information, please let me know and I will make corrections next year.   

Why is the marker along the Rio Hondo River?  Prior to 1866-7, the San Gabriel River would normally cross over to the Los Angeles River but there was a great flood and the river changed course and emptied into Alamitos Bay.  To avoid confusion of two rivers called the New and Old San Gabriel Rivers, the river emptying into the Los Angeles River was renamed the Rio Hondo River.  

In 1944 a temporary redwood plaque was placed on the northeast corner of Bluff Road and Washington Boulevard to mark the site of the Battle of the Rio San Gabriel.  The permanent bronze plaque for State Historic Landmark #385 was commemorated at the site on April 17, 1956.  Currently, developers are working across the street from that corner, and we will have to wait and see what they will do to promote this historic site.

(1) The river crossing near the former community of Gallatin-Downey which was not far from Lemuel Carpenter’s soap factory, located in the vicinity where Telegraph Road crosses the Rio Hondo River.

Submitted December, 2007, by Gary Brougher, Montebello Historical Society.  For source documents, contact Gary at  

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