In 1769, Gaspar de Portolá led a party of Spanish explorers and missionaries to an Indian village near present-day Los Angeles. Two years later Franciscan monks founded a mission at nearby San Gabriel. Los Angeles itself was founded in 1781 by Felipe de Neve, a Spanish colonial governor. During its early years under Spanish and Mexican rule, it was a cattle-raising center. As late as 1800, there were only 70 families in the settlement.
The first United States ship to put in at San Pedro, port of Los Angeles, was the Leila Byrd, in 1805. The captain, William Shaler, brought back such enthusiastic reports that other ships soon arrived to carry on trade. The first English-speaking settler, Joseph (José) Chapman, a New Englander and former privateer, arrived in 1818. He later supervised the construction of Our Lady Queen of the Angels Church (completed in 1822). Mexican rule, which followed a rebellion against the Spaniards in 1821, brought no important changes.
The city fell to United States troops in 1846 during the Mexican War. It was retaken by the Mexicans, but in January, 1847, was again occupied by United States forces. It was incorporated in 1850. By 1854, Los Angeles had gained a reputation for crime and violence, and became infamous for “a murder a day.” After 19 Chinese were killed by a mob in 1871, a reform movement was established.
The Southern Pacific Railroad reached Los Angeles in 1876, and the Santa Fe came 11 years later. There followed a railway price war to attract newcomers from the Midwest, and from 1886 to 1888 the population jumped from 12,000 to more than 60,000. The real-estate boom that resulted soon collapsed, and thousands left the city. By 1890 the population had dropped to 50,000, but it soon began to rise again due to a civic campaign to attract new residents.
The discovery of oil in 1892 proved of only temporary benefit to the city, for most of the 1,400 wells that were drilled were soon depleted. It was not until new oil fields were discovered near Long Beach in 1921 that petroleum production and refining became a major industry in southern California. The growth of the citrus fruit industry paralleled the development of oil production. The improvement of San Pedro harbor, the opening of the Panama Canal, and the establishment of the motion-picture industry all furthered the city's growth from 1910 to 1920.
In the period from 1930 to 1940, Los Angeles marked the 150th anniversary of the city's founding, played host to the 1932 Olympic Games, and erected a number of impressive public buildings. Hoover Dam (then called Boulder Dam) began to provide electricity for the city, and the Colorado aqueduct greatly increased the water supply.
During World War II, war production helped establish the city as the nation's greatest aircraft manufacturing center and a leading industrial center. The decade from 1950 to 1960 was marked by continued industrial and civic development, and by expansion of the few miles of freeways into a network of more than 300 miles (480 km). One result of urban development was smog that often hung over the city for days.
In August, 1965, a violent race riot broke out in Watts, a black neighborhood. The rioting lasted for six days; more than 30 persons were killed and more than 1,000 injured. The National Guard was sent in to restore order. Efforts later were made to improve economic conditions in Watts.
Heavy rains in 1969 caused flooding and mud slides that destroyed many canyon and hillside homes in the area. In 1970 a severe brush fire swept through the outskirts of the city, causing widespread damage. A major earthquake rocked the area in 1971.
During the 1970's and 1980's, many immigrants from Asia and Central America settled in Los Angeles. In 1980, after a legal battle that lasted 17 years, mandatory school busing for the purpose of racial desegregation was ordered for Los Angeles by the California courts. However, the program was halted in 1981, following approval of a statewide referendum banning busing.
In 1992, the acquittal of four Los Angeles police officers on charges of beating a black motorist led to two days of rioting, looting, and arson, mainly in the poor, black sections of the city. In 1994 a major earthquake struck Los Angeles, killing some 50 persons and causing 13 to 20 billion dollars in damage.