According to "The Historic Adobes of Los Angeles County" by John R. Kielbasa, a must-read for LA history buffs, the San Gabriel River area, aka the Whittier Narrows, has a long cultural history that predates the urban ugliness that predominates today. http://www.laokay.com/halac/
Long before the mission period, Indians formed rancherias (settlements) in the area. They became known as Gabrielinos because they lived within the confines of the San Gabriel Mission. Upon the Montebello Hills, which can be seen from the Sanchez adobe to the north, there was a Gabrielino village known to the natives as "Insantcangna.” Men from this rancheria assisted with the construction of the first mission in Whittier Narrows and became the converts to the Catholic religion. The thatched huts of Insantcangna are long gone and have since been replaced by the oil pumps of the Montebello Oil Field.
Another Gabrielino Rancheria was located just east of the Mission Vieja "on a plain entirely surrounded by water on all sides.” This was the village of Ouiichi, or Ouiichingna. This land formation could quite possibly be the small island found today in the south-central section of Legg Lake in the Whittier Narrows Recreation Area. This island is situated a quarter mile from the Mission Vieja site. The first child baptized at the mission was from this island village. This settlement also disappeared and the area later became the eighty-three acre Rancho Potrero Chico.
Five miles west of Ouiichingna, where the center of present-day Monterey Park is now, another village once thrived. Monterey Pass Road now covers the trail of old Coyote Pass, which cut through the hills where this rancheria once stood. Early travelers often used this pass to go back and forth from San Gabriel Mission to the pueblo of Los Angeles. A bounty of colorful wild flowers graced these hillsides and so inspired the Indians that they named their settlement Otsungna, which in the Gabrielino tongue means the "Place of Roses". Later, the Spanish named this area "Rosa de Castillas" (Castles of Rose). Although the rancheria is long gone, the floral meadows of the past are still evident in the area to this day.
Just three quarters of a mile north of the Sanchez adobe is a little known site of great historic significance. Known as "Mission Vieja" (Old Mission), it was the site of the original Mission San Gabriel de Archangel. On September 8, 1771, Franciscan Padres Jose Cambon and Francisco Somera held the first dedication Mass here beneath a shelter of willow boughs and brush with Indians from local villages attending.
Under the supervision of the padres, the neophytes constructed the first mission structures with poles and brush, which were fashioned into huts similar to their own dwellings. These crude ramadas (brush shelters) served as; a chapel, lodgings for the padres, and barracks for the soldiers assigned to protect the mission. The problem with the original location was that the roughly built complex was placed too close to the banks of the unpredictable San Gabriel River where flooding was a common occurrence.
The mission padres were compelled to relocate to a more suitable ground, [no kidding, and also to try adobe instead of wattle-and-daub temporary housing] and in 1775, the mission was moved to its present location, five-mile northeast of Mission Vieja. At the new site the mission prospered and the soil was found to be more conducive to agriculture. The structures at Mission Vieja eventually vanished, probably washed away by the torrents of the river. Near the intersection of Lincoln Avenue and San Gabriel Boulevard, there is a small park with a plaque commemorating the original founding of Mission San Gabriel.
It could be easier to find. The area is starting to revert back to wilderness, and it isn’t hard to imagine how it looked when the Spanish arrived in 1771. Legend has it that the natives of Insantcangna were poised for attack when the padres produced an oil painting of Our Lady of Sorrows and showed it to them. Apparently they dropped their weapons and were instantly converted to Catholicism in San Gabriel’s first miracle.
There is nothing left of the first mission now, just the plaque, which was erected in 1921, but it is very interesting to see how fortunes change with time, how politics and economy, how the force of key individuals, luck and circumstance all come to bear on history. The folks at Insantcangna might have thought they were signing onto a goddess-oriented theology, or maybe they were wowed by art. Maybe they took a “wait and see” approach. They had the sense to build on the high ground and the Spanish came around to that just four years later – it was, and is, an area prone to earthquakes and floods. And then no one built in Montebello again until 1850, about 75 years later.
As an interesting postscript, this miraculous painting was stolen by an area schizophrenic, William March Witherell, in 1977 (along with a bunch of other artifacts from the mission, the LA library and some other places.) Fortunately, it was returned in 1990, none the worse for wear, thanks to a police raid on his parent’s house. Witherell got off with a wrist slap, but he did cooperate and he did have some real “issues.” Fortunately, the voices in his head told him to hang onto the painting and not burn it, so La Dolorosa is back at the mission, safe and sound.