Saturday, July 4, 2020

The Antebellum Past at Cameron Lane in DTLA

Cameron Lane is an ancient 1885 alley running west to east from Figueroa to Grand in Downtown Los Angeles.  Two other alleys intersect it - Pembroke Lane begins here, and Lebanon Street runs through.  

Long ago two other "lanes" ran parallel to Pembroke:  Alexander Lane and Catesby Lane.  Alexander was absorbed as a continuation of Lebanon Street in 1917.  Catesby is non-existent today, but shows in the 1955 map page below.

From Thomas Bros. Popular Atlas of Los Angeles County and Orange County, 1955
(Courtesy of blogger's collection)
(Click to zoom)

All the "lanes" ran within the Cameron Tract, a subdivision developed by Cameron Erskine Thom (1825-1915) as the Los Angeles land boom was getting started.  From the scholarly research of David Pembroke Neff's dissertation The Thom Family of Culpeper County, I learned that Cameron told a magazine in 1912 that he picked up the land bounded by Figueroa, Pico, Grand and Washington for the sum of $153 back in 1855.

Cameron E. Thom
(Image courtesy of the Seaver Center for Western History Research,
Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County)

In learning about details of Thom's family it becomes clear that the street names were family namesakes. His brothers and his own children had Pembroke and Catesby as part of their names. Alexander Thom was his paternal Scottish Highland grandfather (and member of the Clan Cameron of Lochiel) who escaped in 1746 to an American colony in exile.

Today, designation of Cameron Lane enjoys some overkill, as there is a street sign in front of the Los Angeles Convention Center on Figueroa Street. But the Lane's beginning point is actually across the street as seen in the below picture.

A view looking north on Figueroa Street


Alexander Thom - Cameron's Grandfather

Alexander Thom participated in a failed attempt to expel the British from Scotland in a battle known as Culloden Moor.  This prompted him and fellow Cameron clansmen to set sail from Lanarkshire, Scotland to Leedstown, Virginia in 1746.  In short summary, at age 48 he married the daughter from a planter family with means.  In 1768, the year of their marriage, also marked the first occurrence on record that Alexander owned slaves.  In 1784 the Thom slave holdings increased with his wife's inheritance.  (Many details of this blog post are gleaned from a dissertation by descendant, David Pembroke Neff, The Thom Family of Culpeper County).

John Thom - Cameron's Father

Alexander's son, John Watson Triplett Thom, inherited the Culpeper County tobacco-producing property when he died in 1791, which included at least 12 slaves under age 12 and nine slaves who were older than 16.  John Thom's wealth enabled him to purchase neighboring land, consolidated to be known as "Berry Hill."  John's stature throughout his life did not rest on wealth alone - he was a captain in the War of 1812 and held a senatorial seat in Virginia lasting 30 years.

John Thom had two marriages.  His first produced three children (John Catesby, Warner Lewis & Lucy Lewis).  His second marriage was to Abigail DeHart Mayo (another distinguished Virginia family associated with Powhatan).  The six children completed his legacy:  Elizabeth Mayo, Janet Marion, William Alexander, Cameron Erskine, Joseph Pembroke and Abby DeHart Mayo.

Secret Slave Offspring of Alexander and John Thom

Late author-journalist Scott Christianson explored the Thom family's connection to the life of runaway slave Charles Nalle in Freeing Charles (University of Illinois Press, 2010).  Charles has remained in the public knowledge in part due to a plaque in downtown Troy, New York, where his rescue in 1860 took place.

Christianson connected Charles and his wife Kitty through their respective slave masters Blucher Hansbrough and John Thom.  Christianson wrote that Blucher and the light-skinned Charles were half-brothers (contending Charles was conceived by Blucher's father).

Christianson explained that slave marriages were not legal in Virginia, but Charles was able to marry Kitty within customs between the two slaveholders.  His book maintains that Kitty and her mother Fanny Simms held preferential status in the Thom household because Fanny and John Thom had an extramarital relationship.

(John Thom's death in 1855 unleashed turmoil to the slave household as paying estate debts entailed slave-trading to settle scores.  The couple were never able to live together.  But Charles Nalle's wife Kitty and their five children were eligible for manumission (a situation that freed them but propelled them far away from Berry Hill by law, and away from Charles).

Colonization of Freed Slaves in Pennsylvania

In 1908 Cameron (at about age 73) wrote to Beverley B. Munford detailing his father's attempt in 1839 to colonize a group of his slaves without success.  This recollection was included in Munford's Virginia's Attitude Toward Slavery and Secession (Longman's, Green and Co., 1909).  Cameron would have been 14 years old at the time to recall that clothing, tools and provisions were allocated, along with land selected in advance to establish a new colony of 18 slaves in Pennsylvania.  Only one person was willing to go so the rest had to be conscripted, but it was a failed venture - within a week two members returned to Berry Hill plantation and within a year nearly all returned.

Neff''s dissertation examined John Thom's practice to go against the grain by employing free black laborers in addition to slaves.  At a later time following the failed venture of 1839, he would attempt again to manumit some of his slaves.  The dissertation points to his own declining financial circumstances that possibly made manumission to be John's advantage.

Body Servants

When each of his children left the family nest, John Thom provided a send-off in the amount of $1,000, a thoroughbred horse and one body servant.  For Cameron, he chose Dave Lycurgus, who was Cameron's playmate as a youngster.  A Works Progress Administration (WPA-produced) historical account of Cameron from 1938 described his body servant as they traveled to see Cameron's sisters in 1848.  Dave managed to purchase his own freedom before the age of 25, according to the WPA account.

Cameron Thom Goes West to California

24-year old Cameron was intrigued with the California gold rush.  He finished college and seemed bound for a law career, but he took off to California as his imaginations was sparked by adventures awaiting.  The new hard life yielded little gold to support the steep cost of eating and living.  

His 1849 gold-rush chronicles of his emigrant trail overland experiences are preserved at the Huntington Library in San Marino.  Since his drive to go west was prompted less by a financial need, his travel accommodations were richly appointed for its day:  the 30 male Argonauts in canvas-roofed, mule-drawn wagons, eight "negro cooks and wagon men," riding horses, arms, ammunition, two fiddlers, three banjoists and even a platform for dancing.

The soured mining experience prompted him to turn to other livelihoods as he quickly made use of his jurisprudence training.  He became a agent for the U.S. Land Office in Northern California, sorting out claims that native Californios were required to prove (as stipulated by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo after the U.S. War with Mexico).   Some of the land hearings were held in southern California, and we now know his trip here led him to settle permanently in Los Angeles to build his life, career and family.  (It is of note that when President James K. Polk waged war with Mexico in 1846, Cameron and his younger brother Joseph Pembroke signed on to fight.)


Arriving in the city in 1854, he soon relinquished the job with the Land Office and was elected as District Attorney, a position he held until 1858.  He was also city attorney simultaneously from 1856 til 1858.  (The Los Angeles County website also lists his service as DA 1869-1873 and 1877-1879.)  He served as city Mayor from 1882-1884.

He became Senator for the district encompassing a huge swath of southern California.  During the two-year term from 1859 to 1860, he introduced a controversial bill enabling German colonists to make real estate transactions and cultivate land - that enabled for the town of Anaheim to be formed.

As mentioned previously, Cameron in 1855 invested in the tract of land near today's Convention Center for which two extant street names were established in the late 1880s, Cameron and Pembroke Lanes are tangible remnants of his life here.  

His personal life in California had many downturns as he survived two wives who died in their twenties.  With his second wife, Susan Henrietta Hathwell (1839-1862), they produced three children who also did not survive.


Allegiance with Virginia

In Neff's dissertation, he argues that upon the death of his wife Susan Henrietta in 1862, Cameron moved closer to a decision of returning to Virginia to support the Confederacy.  His older brother William Alexander and his younger brother Joseph Pembroke also joined as Surgeon and Captain respectively.  Cameron became a volunteer officer as Captain.  When the Confederates fell, he surrendered at Petersburg and soon rode by ship back to Los Angeles.


Back in the city, he was shut out of practicing law because he fought against the Union.  After he was pardoned by President Andrew Johnson in June, 1865 he was able to resume, and he again held offices in subsequent years as DA and L.A. Mayor.

He resumed friendships with men who fought for the Union as well as the Confederacy, including General Edward Ord.

Cameron also became a proponent in the movement to divide California into two states.

Rioting on the night of October 24, 1871 pitted those in the Chinese quarters against a mob.  Cameron was one of the white men who attempted to stop the violence.  An outnumbered Chinese community saw 19 men and boys dead in the Chinese Massacre, a news event that overtook the Chicago Fire.

He also re-married in 1874 to the sister of his deceased second wife.  Belle Cameron Hathwell (1859-1924) bore four children:  Cameron DeHart, Catesby Charles, Erskine Pembroke and daughter Belle Buford.

Cameron, along with his attorney nephew Erskine Mayo Ross, and several other individuals were involved with the founding of Glendale in the 1880s.  Interesting note:  Erskine married heiress Ida Hancock in 1906.


Cameron Erskine Thom, by Clare Wallace (Municipal Reference Library, March 15, 1938)

Freeing Charles:  the Struggle to Free a Slave on the Eve of the Civil War, by Scott Christianson (University of Illinois, 2010)

The Thom Family of Culpeper County:  The Rise, Fall, and Restoration of a Nineteenth Century Virginia Planter Family, 1746-1935, by David Pembroke Neff (M.A. dissertation, Georgetown University, 1998)

Virginia's Attitude Toward Slavery and Secession, by Beverley B. Munford (Longman's, Green and Co., 1909)

Looking east on Cameron Lane from Figueroa

Looking west on Cameron Lane towards the Los Angeles Convention Center

Antiquated brick building along Cameron Lane

Pembroke Lane
(Courtesy of Google Maps)

View of the rest of Pembroke Lane
(Courtesy of Google Maps)

(Courtesy of Google Maps)