Before the Transcontinental Railroad was built, it took an average of 6 months from his hometown in the Béarn to reach San Francisco. By sailing around Cape Horn, he would then walk or go on horseback via the Camino Real to Los Angeles.  In 1860 no less than 230 Frenchmen were living in the city of Los Angeles. Between 1870 and 1880 more Béarnais came to Los Angeles choosing to settle in downtown or in the vast open spaces of the county.  They were cooks, bakers, vintners, housekeepers or sheepherders.  Due to the lack of records, it is unknown if the Béarnais came directly to Los Angeles, or if they first went to South America since many Béarnais left for Argentina or Mexico in the 1840’s.  Some came to work as miners seeking fortunes in the Gold Rush areas of Northern California before settling down in Southern California.  The city of Los Angeles had started to grow from a village to a town, shedding its Spanish/ Mexican past, and developing its economy to provide agricultural goods to the large market that San Francisco had become.

After 1880, improved communication cut the length of the trip.  Railroads and steamships could take the immigrant from his French village to the city of Los Angeles in less than three weeks.  Several conditions existed which enticed an individual to leave his home for the unknown; there was the hope of achieving the American Dream by becoming a landowner, or perhaps a desire to start a business in a promising country.  Compensation was much higher than in France and a new worker was able to send money back to the family. Income at home was often not enough to sustain a large family.  Towards the end of the 19th century, because of better nutrition and medical advancement, the French family had grown larger in some lesser rich areas of France. Distant valleys affected by a difficult climate during the long winter months did not provide enough for the growing family.  As a member of this large household, the chance of inheriting the cultivated land from the parents was limited.  The firstborn son had the rights to the land.  With no more land available for purchase, the valleys of the Béarn confined by the mountains, made subdividing impossible. The New World, however, offered vast stretches of land and America needed hands to develop it.


In California, the banks and railroad companies who owned large parts of it, worked with the local Chambers of Commerce to attract newcomers. These same railroad companies had agents who roamed the European countryside advertising opportunities in a country of plenty.  These agents offered a “package” that included the trip by land and sea to the final destination.  The desire to immigrate surfaced in many ways.  It could have been the stories of some countrymen who went to America and realized their dreams.   Some eventually left to get away from the pressure of the family, or to escape military duty.  Whatever the reason, boarding a boat was quite an experience for someone who had never seen the ocean or traveled to a country where another language was spoken.   It took a few days ride aboard a train before the immigrant arrived in Los Angeles.  Once there, he could have brought with him a piece of paper, which had the name of a boarding house or a person to contact.  His first stop was the nearby hotel, that welcomed him in French.  It most likely would have been on Aliso Street where several boarding houses were run by French owners. The railroad station was within walking distance of Aliso Street, the most French populated street in Los Angeles.  The boarding houses had familiar names for the newly arrived Béarnais:  The Hotel Henry IV, as the name implies, was named after the most famous Béarnais of all times.  Located at the corner of Alameda and Aliso was the Hotel des Pyrénées, a reminder of his native region.  Both hotels had a restaurant and a saloon on the street level.  In the 1900’s the Hotel Champs d’Or, at 321 Commercial Street welcomed the more recent new arrivals.  Besides offering a bed for the first nights in Los Angeles, the boarding house was the place where our immigrant’s native language was spoken.  It was a place where Béarnais and Basques mingled.  Conversations were about the homeland or the family left behind, about sharing work experiences in the new country. The saloon was also where employers went looking for a herder, farmhand, maid or a local French baker looking for an apprentice.  Within a few days, the immigrant would be at work, cutting wood in the San Bernardino mountains or serving tables at a local restaurant.




                           THE AMERICAN DREAM

California Booster Art

Ellis Island, New York

Los Angeles early

20th century

The symbol of the Béarn, les vaches, (cows) recalls the ancient Iberic tribe of Vacceans, who were subjugated by the Romans and are said to be the ancestors of the Béarnais.

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Los Angeles in the early 1900’s

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