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CSU Dominguez Hills Sustains A Rich Historic Heritage

The Inauguration Ceremony takes place on a site rich in California history: Dominguez Hill, which rises gradually from the Los Angeles coastal plain to a summit of 214 feet, high enough to provide sweeping views of the surrounding countryside. It is named for the family of Juan Jose Dominguez, a Spanish soldier who received a grant of 75,000 acres for grazing cattle from the governor of the Spanish province of California in 1784. Called the “Rancho San Pedro,” it was the first California land grant, and the first to win a patent from the President of the United States in 1858.

Dominguez Rancho AdobeJuan Jose’s original grazing permission stretched from present-day Compton to the Palos Verdes Peninsula, but did not become a title to land until it was “re-granted” to Juan Jose’s nephew and heir Cristobal Dominguez in 1822. Cristobal died soon afterward, but his three sons settled on the ranch, building adobe homes. That of the eldest son, Manuel, located roughly two miles east of the university and today a national historic site, was completed in 1826. The following year Manuel Dominguez married Engracia Cota and commenced a successful career raising cattle and serving in a variety of elected and appointed offices in Los Angeles.

Manuel and Engracia had eight children who reached maturity, but their two sons died in their early 20s. Of their six daughters in the 1850s, two were considered too elderly to marry, but two teenagers were heavily courted. Dolores, 17, in 1855 wed a lawyer-gunfighter named James Watson in the Plaza Church in Los Angeles. Watson later served three terms in the California legislature, and his heirs would form the Watson Land Company, a firm prominent in the industrial development of the Dominguez ranch.

Two years later in the same church, Dolores’ sister, Victoria, 15, married George Carson, a New York-born veteran of the Mexican War and owner of a hardware and livery business in Los Angeles. Carson coupled his ranch activities (e.g., managing a large herd of sheep) with service as County Public Administrator for 12 years. His heirs would form the Carson Estate Company, later combined with other enterprises into a broader rubric, The Carson Companies.

In the 1880s, following the death of Manuel and Engracia Dominguez, the Rancho San Pedro was divided between the six sisters. The Watsons settled in the southern section near what became the town of Wilmington and reared four sons. The Carsons built a large Victorian-style home just north of the Dominguez homesite, and over a 30-year period Victoria bore 13 children who reached adulthood. Two of the Dominguez sisters married rather late in life—Reyes in 1892 to John F. Francis, a Los Angeles businessman, and Susana in 1890 to Dr. Gregorio del Amo, born in Spain and a prominent Los Angeles physician, who also served his native country as a consul in California. The del Amos adopted two sons and formed the Del Amo Estate Company, which managed land in the Torrance area and eventually was instrumental in creating the Del Amo Shopping Center.

Over the years, sections of the vast Rancho San Pedro passed from Dominguez family ownership. In 1834, the California governor deeded 31,629 acres, including Palos Verdes, to the Sepulveda family. In 1854, 2,424 acres were sold to a group of men headed by Phineas Banning for development of the port of Wilmington, and in 1867, 10 square miles to George Dickenson Compton, leader of a group of families seeking to create a settlement in a mild climate. The “estuary tract,” 1,700 acres that included Rattlesnake Island, was purchased for $300,000 by a group of businessmen who renamed it Terminal Island. In 1887, the sisters sold 434 acres of beach property to a syndicate that developed the resort town of Redondo Beach. These transactions, which provided income necessary for the Dominguez family to pay increasingly heavy taxes and maintain the core of their holdings, culminated in the sale in 1911 of a 3,000-acre tract to Jared Sidney Torrance for development of a model industrial/residential town.

1910 Aviation Meet PosterThe principal economic activities on the ranch passed through many stages, emphasizing cattle raising, sheep herding, dairying, sugar beet and grain harvesting, truck gardening. Access to markets was eased by construction of a steam railroad from Los Angeles to Wilmington and San Pedro in 1869 and an electric railroad in 1902 from the city to Long Beach and San Pedro. Railway stops along the lines grew into mini-communities with names like Carson, Watson, Del Amo, Los Cerritos. But family fortunes truly took off with discovery of oil in the 1920s, first in the Torrance area and then, most resoundingly, on Dominguez Hill itself, where productive wells functioned for a half century.

Another family company in which descendants held shares was the Dominguez Estate Company, formed in 1910 to manage the properties of those daughters of Manuel Dominguez who died childless, and which subsequently supervised land rentals and regional economic development. That same year the name “Dominguez” was celebrated around the world as the site of the Los Angeles International Airmeet, an 11-day, history making event that pitted flyers, biplanes and dirigibles in competitive events that brought aviation (and the aviation industry) to southern California.

1910 AviatorsBy 1965 the oil wells on the hill largely were exhausted, and the owners, the Dominguez Estate Company and the Carson Estate Company, realized that the property soon would be urbanized. They were aware that the state of California was seeking a site in the South Bay area of Los Angeles County for establishment of a state college. In the spring of 1965, the companies and a coalition of community leaders headed by Gil Smith and William Huston outlined to the state Department of Finance and the State College Board of Trustees the advantages of a tract on Dominguez Hill—virgin land, central location, access to freeways, strong local support. On Oct. 14, 1965, the Trustees approved purchase of the 346-acre tract for more than $10 million and a few months later named the site California State College Dominguez Hills. The new college was successfully functioning when the surrounding community incorporated as the city of Carson in 1968.

1970 GradsFollowing the sale, the Dominguez Estate Company disbanded, but members of the Watson, Carson and del Amo families continued their support of the fledgling campus, serving on its advisory boards, donating materials to its library and archives, providing financial backing for student scholarships—a nurturing role that continues to this day and provides a direct linkage to the heritage of Juan Jose Dominguez, founder of the Rancho San Pedro 223 years ago.

–Judson Grenier, Emeritus Professor of History


Photos: (top to bottom)

The former home of the Manuel Dominguez family, built in 1826, is now the Dominguez Rancho Adobe Museum, and on the National Registry of Historic Places.

1910 Los Angeles International Air Meet Poster.

Aviators from all over the United States and Europe attended the International Air Meet of 1910 on Dominguez Hill.

June 1970: Graduating seniors and faculty parade past dirt mounds on their way to the first commencement on the permanent campus.