The History of the San Gabriel River

The San Gabriel River has been home to many different cultures throughout the years, all of which have depended upon the River for survival. The Discovery Center, through its education programs and informational displays, will illustrate the vital role the River has played in the region.

Prehistoric

The river starts in the San Gabriel Mountains and flows all the way to the Pacific Ocean. The mountains were formed by the San Andreas Fault about 75 million years ago. Over the course of millions of years, other fault lines and ice ages in the region helped to create what we now know as the San Gabriel River.

The region was home at one point to ancient mammoths, saber-tooth tigers, and camels, as well as natives we’re familiar with today like wolves, cougars, bison, elk, and turkeys. Until Europeans came and planted barley and oats, the land was covered in native grasses and trees.

Native Americans

Native Americans lived throughout the Los Angeles Basin, the San Fernando Valley, and Channel Islands. They were hunters and gatherers who lived in small settlements throughout the region consisting of about 50 to 100 people each. The San Gabriel River, along with the Los Angeles and Santa Ana Rivers, provided water to the native inhabitants. The influence the Native Americans had on the region

The names of several of cities in the Greater Los Angeles region come from the Native American languages, including Pomona, Pasadena, and Rancho Cucamonga.

When the first Spanish explorer, Juan Rodrigues Cabrillo, arrived in 1542 off the shores of San Pedro and Santa Catalina, the Native Americans rowed out to greet them in their ti’ats (plank canoes).

The San Gabriel River Discovery Center Authority has respect for all Native Americans. We are committed to working collaboratively with all tribes who call the San Gabriel Valley home, and will utilize the Discovery Center as an opportunity to celebrate local cultures and educate the community, and all visitors, about the important impacts they have had on our region and watershed. The goal is to do so with respect, sensitivity, and using multiple forms of interpretive tools, including those used by local indigenous cultures.

The following links provide additional information about local Native American tribes.

Contact Information

Spanish & Mexican Settlements

Soon after Cabrillo’s exploration of the Southern California coast in 1542, Spain began to explore and settle in California through the mid 18th century. As Spanish settlements started to increase in the region during the late 18th century, they built the Mission San Gabriel Arcángel. In fact, the San Gabriel River got its name from the mission. The Mission served as the heart of the Spanish colony in Southern California. Both the Spanish and, later, Mexican settlements used the river to grow crops and raise cattle, two of the major trades in the region at the time.

United States

After California became part of the United States in 1850, agriculture and ranching became the main industries in the San Gabriel River basin. Water from the river irrigated the lands that depended on its waters for survival. Then, in 1913, the opening of the Los Angeles Aqueduct led to the development and founding of many of the cities that now line the San Gabriel River. The river is known to produce severe flooding, and after a devastating flood in 1938, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers constructed several dams and other water-controlling measures to help reduced the occasional excessive flooding. This led to a housing boom in the areas where the river originally ran. Old agricultural areas were also being converted into urban areas.

With these added urban pressures, we must act to preserve what remains of the San Gabriel River. Through our educational programs and informational displays, the Discovery Center will raise awareness on the impact the river has on our lives and encourage active participation in programs to help preserve the river for future generations to benefit and marvel.