See the actual photo yourself on this weekend's - or next weekend's - walking tours of Historic Downtown Los Angeles. But until then - here is the photo and below that - is what is written on the back of the photo:
There are two main questions here. First - is there any truth to the inscription on the back? Were these breastworks every used by Fremont - or by anyone - during the Mexican-American War? And, if so - were they on Fort Moore Hill, overlooking the Plaza area, despite the statement they were 12 miles from the city?
To first address the Fremont question, by not saying that they were built by Fremont, but merely that they had been used by Fremont - that corresponds with the fact that Fremont does not appear to have built any breastworks himself during any of the battles near Los Angeles.
The only battle of any kind in the LA area outside of the pueblos itself during 1846 was the 'Skirmish of the Old Woman's Cannon' north of San Pedro and the two 'major' LA area battles were the 'Battle of San Gabriel' on January 8th, 1847 and the 'Battle of La Mesa' on January 9th, 1847. And Fremont was not present at any of them, nor would he have had a reason to make any use of anything which might have been built at any of those places. Additionally neither the terrain nor the lay out of any of those engagements - and particularly the short time frame of those battles... appears.... to match what is seen in the photograph.
Lastly, the signing by General Fremont and Andres Pico of the Cahuenga Capitulation Treaty on January 13, 1847 involved no hostilities of any kind - and no fortifications of any kind were needed or built.
That appears to limit any possible breastworks to Fort More Hill, assuming there is any truth at all to the inscription. And if the writer meant to say 1/2 miles and just left out the slash line - that would be an accurate description of the site. Either way, though, no matter what the writer's intentions were regarding the distance, it appears that if this photograph was taken in LA and if the fortification was part of the Mexican-American War - then the photograph must have been taken on Fort Moore Hill.
As for when this installation might have been first built, there are three possible options and one very unlikely option.
Option Number One - These breastworks were constructed (likely by Captain Archibald H. Gillespie USMC) soon after the peaceful occupation of Los Angeles on August 13, 1846 under the command of Commodore Stockton and the then still Col. Fremont. Some accounts claim some fortifications were built at exactly that time, but I have not seen any first hand sources that confirm that.
Option Number Two - Either those first breastworks were reinforced (assuming they existed) or a totally new set of defenses were built when Gillespie's martinet-like ways angered the citizens of the town, causing them to revolt on September 11th, 1846. That revolt forced him to retreat with this fifty men to the Hill where he either built a barricade of earth filled sacks or reinforced what had already been built there.
Now this last option seems the most likely to me; that these earthworks were built to deal with a temporary and very dangerous situation since any real long term fort would not be built upon a sloping hillside.`Plus the attackers would be oat a disadvantage by having to attack from an slope with no cover. That would also explain why this site had not been more photographed and publicized as compared to the far larger and more longer used site at the top of Fort Moore Hill.
Option Number Three - After Los Angels was again peacefully reoccupied on January 10th, 1847, on January 11th Lt. William H. Emory was ordered by Stockton to design and build a fort to secure the city and he started construction on the 12th. On January 20th, though, work stopped
Option Number Four - The Mormon Battalion arrived on March 17th under the command Col. Phillip St. George Cooke and he broke ground the new new fort - what became Fort Moore - on April 23rd and it was dedicated on July 4th, 1847. And while it has been speculated that is was built on the same site as the 'Emory' Fort - and possibly even one or both of the Gillespie 'forts' - none of that has ever been proved and I feel fairly confident that if this photo is of Fort Moore Hill - then it does not show the final spot where Fort Moore was built.
And for the best history of this area in that time - here is an excellent site on the history of Fort Moore.
Now - what can be done next to see if this is a photo of Fort Moore Hill?
1. Does any one know of any photos of that hill taken in the 1850's, 1860's or 1870's that might at least identify the ridge line at the top of the photo? Even better yet - is there any photo which also shows these breastworks, if that is indeed what they are?
2. Are their any diaries or letters that might shed further light on what was built on that hill in the 1840's?
3. What early surveys and topographical maps exist that could confirm either the ridge line - or maybe even the earthed features shown in the photo?
4. A better reproduction and enlargement of the photo should enable someone to identify the types of grasses and the shrubs that are in the photo to see if they are typical of the area. And I might add - photos only a few years part show some hills in this area covered with just grasses while others just a short distance away or a few years later show very different types of vegetation.
5. Once the photo has been properly enlarged, the clothing on the two figures should be able to be identified as to era and their heights should be able to help establish the approximate height, with and length of the earthworks.
6. An expert in photography might be able to look at the paper of the original photo and determine when it was printed taken.
7. I believe I got this from the old Culver archive - since the bar code appears to be one of theirs. So can anyone tell if the handwriting looks as if it belongs to one of the people who often label their photos? Or might it have been written back when the photo was taken? The initials just look so... familiar... to me. Could they be by someone who was working to save LA's history? And the fact it says - DO NOT USE - on the photo shows the photo service knew it was an original.
And if you have any suggestions or comment - either put them in the remarks or we can talk on this weekend's four tours of Historic Downtown Los Angeles.