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Henry Hancock

Portrait of Henry Hancock with text reading Henry Hancock Surveyor (1853)

The Hancock Survey

On February 5, 1856, the United States Land Commission confirmed four square leagues of land to the City of Los Angeles (using 2.63 miles per league) with the center of the Plaza designated as the center of city land.

Part of the United States Land Commission’s description follows: “contains four square leagues...and is bounded on the north and south by two parallel lines, each two leagues in length running due east and west, and on the east and west sides by two parallel lines, each two leagues in length and running due north and south, said boundary lines being so drawn that their respective centers shall be in a direction due north, south, east, and west from the center of the plaza of said City of Los Angeles, and each at the distance of one league from the same.”

The Plaza referred to in the above description was the one shown on Ord’s survey and had occupied its present position since at least the 1820’s. The original square lay slightly to the northwest probably about where the parking lot is north of the Pueblo Church, but its exact limits are now unknown. It was the existing Plaza then that gave direction to the streets of the growing city.

In 1858, United States Deputy Surveyor Henry Hancock, and a prominent local surveyor, surveyed the lands confirmed to the City by the United States Land Commission Patent of 1856.

He ran the boundaries setting markers at the corners referring to landmarks, and using compass courses and distances on the ground. The original patent boundary can be easily seen on a map of the City; bounded by Hoover Street on the west; on the north, Fountain Avenue produced to Indiana Avenue except where it deviates from a straight line by following the channels of the Los Angeles River (formerly the Porciuncula) and the Arroyo Seco. On the east, Indiana Avenue; on the south, the line of Exposition Boulevard produced from Hoover Street. Quite noticeable within the area described is the orientation of the streets running several degrees from cardinal direction.

Extract From: The Making Of Los Angeles Charles F. Lummis (1909)

HANCOCK, (MAJOR) HENRY (deceased) and (MADAM) IDA were married in Sonoma, California, in the later ’60’s. Three children were born to them, of whom one survives, George Allan, General Manager of the Rancho La Brea Oil Company. Henry Hancock was born in Bath, New Hampshire. At twelve he ran away from home, shipping on a mackerel schooner from Boston. From that time he took no money from his father. At seventeen he was a surveyor in St. Louis. The Mexican war breaking out, he enlisted as a private, later being promoted to aide on General Donaldson’s staff for gallantry in delivering dispatches under fire. He refused to accept payment for his service as a soldier. Entering Harvard to study law after the close of the war, the call of California drew him from college three months before graduation. He came to San Francisco by way of Cape Horn in 1849, took out $20,000 in six weeks from a rich placer: then went to San Diego being for a time Collector of Port there. In 1852-53 he was a member of the State Legislature. In 1853 he made the second survey of Los Angeles, at that time urging upon the Council that the streets should be made wider since “Los Angeles would one day be a city of 300,000”. To which the natural reply was “Oh, visionary Hancock!” Throughout his life he remained firmly convinced of the great destiny of Los Angeles. In following years he surveyed most of the large ranchos between Monterey and San Diego, the United States paying part of the cost and the owners the rest. This work completed, he took up the practice of law, confining himself practically to land cases, in which branch he became one of the foremost authorities in the State. He continued law practice till his death in 1883.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Major Hancock, a “War Democrat.” enlisted a company of the 4th Infantry, hoping to be sent East for service. He was held in California, however, having commands at Benicia and at Wilmington.

After the war he commenced the commercial development of the asphaltum deposits on the Rancho La Brea, a tract of nearly 5000 acres between Los Angeles and Santa Monica (the present sites of Hollywood, Colegrove and Sherman), which, with his brother, he had bought from the Spanish grantees. These deposits had been known and used from the earliest days indeed, the roofs of the adobe houses built by the first settlers of Los Angeles were covered with asphalt from “the Brea Springs.” Major Hancock developed its use for sidewalk and paving purposes, shipping considerable quantities to San Francisco by schooner. The brown asphaltum was also used as fuel by Los Angeles manufacturing establishments during the ‘80’s.

As soldier, as civil engineer, as lawyer, as citizen, Major Hancock held himself to the very highest standards, and more than a quarter of a century after his death his memory is held in loving esteem by the friends who survive.

Madam Ida Hancock, born in Imperial, Illinois, is the daughter of Agostin Haraszthy (a Count of Hungry, exiled in 1840 and his estates to obtain freedom from Austrian rule) and Eleanora de Dedinskyi, a noblewoman of Polish descent. Purchasing large tracts in Wisconsin with his wife’s dowry, he took active part in the formative period of that State. In 1849, with his father, his wife and five of his six children (the eldest being in the Annapolis Naval Academy), he set out across the plains for California, via the Santa Fe trail. Madam Hancock was too young to remember much of the trip, but she can recall that a Comanche chief encountered en route first offered to buy her for four squaws and eight ponies, then attempted to kidnap her, and finally raised his bid by twelve additional ponies. Soon after their arrival in San Diego her father was elected first Sheriff of the county and Marshal of the city, while his father became first Justice of the Peace and President of the first City County. In 1852 her father was sent to the Legislature from San Diego, being a member in the same term with his daughter’s future husband. Later he moved to Sonoma county, and established the largest vineyard in the State. In 1860 he was sent by Gov. Downey to Europe to collect cuttings of the finest wine grapes to use in developing the California industry. This he did, but at his own expense. In 1867 he moved to Central America, and died the following year.

In 1851 the children, with their mother went to New York by sailing vessel around Cape Horn, remaining in the East five years for educational purposes. Again, in 1860, Madam Hancock and her mother went to Paris for further study, remaining there two years. Married to Major Hancock after the Civil War, and coming to Los Angeles at once, her first sight of the neighboring country was at the end of the 500-mile night and day stage ride, and disclosed it strewn thick with the carcasses of cattle destroyed by the awful drought of 1863-64. A more pleasant recollection of those early Los Angeles days is of the habit the young American men had of moonlight serenading with aid secured from “Sonora-town.”

At her husband’s death, Madam Hancock assumed entire management of the Rancho La Brea and other properties, retaining it for the next two years, when she was relieved by her son. She continues as President of the Rancho La Brea Oil Company, and gives daily attention to its affairs. This company was organized after the Salt Lake Oil Company, working under lease, developed oil on the property in 1900.

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