Searching for Tom-or Joshua-down in Dominguez

December 20, 2008 § 34 Comments

OK.  I need to begin by telling you that there is an offensive and insensitive word in this post, one that I regret being here, but that is also the genesis of my search.  I apologize for its presence.

Some of you have also been looking for it.  We can see search terms that lead you to the LA Creekfreak.  And ever since that map exhibit at the Public Library, we’ve been seeing those two words, one of which is really ugly.  I bet you have wanted to know how the hell a waterbody ends up with a name like that on a federal map.  In any era.  If you don’t know what I’m talking about, the image below contains racist language, in a shockingly banal context.




USGS map, circa 1900.

USGS map, circa 1900.

Clearly a loaded topic, and one which links our environmental history to our racial (and racist) history, something which has been lurking in the background in a number of our posts on historical LA and its waterbodies, and which I also feel as an angelena is often not readily acknowledged.  

I have been avoiding writing about this slough in part out of the theory that it is better to let sleeping dogs lie. We have a lot of trauma in the city caused by racism, we are still living out the effects of this trauma, and unfortunately there are those creating new traumas.  All the time.  And I don’t want to re-traumatize our African-American neighbors by reviving this horrible name.  But I have also regretted that the story behind the name can’t be turned on its head, and wondered if there was a way to elevate the story to help unwind history a little.

And so this is my attempt, and an incomplete one at that.  

There has been quite a bit of speculation as to the origin of this former place name, later renamed the Dominguez Slough, and today the Dominguez Channel (the slough being all but gone).  Some have asserted that its desultory name came from the black mud that surrounded the area, but I don’t buy it.  The 1914 Reagan papers have repeated references to this Slough, one of which added the name Tom:

“The water was pouring through the bridge that caused our wreck and was running into the Nigger Tom slough…” Mr. A. C. Cook, 1914, in Reagan.

Who was this man Tom, if this name refers to an actual person?  Rudy Mattoni and Travis Longcore, in their 1997 publication, The Los Angeles Coastal Prairie, A Vanished Community, provide the following comment in a footnote: “The wetland was reportedly named after the freemen who farmed near it and the name appears on historic maps of the area (Nelson 1919).”  To further complicate matters, I went over to the CSU Dominguez Hills archives to see what information they had.  In 1977, a student researcher, Bonita Lucille Braddock Miramontes, pulled together archival resources to what she could piece together.  She had met with Bill Mason, then of the Natural History Museum (I don’t know if he’s still there), who shared the view that our  mystery man was believed to be a hog farmer who lived on the old Rancho Dominguez lands, near the slough, in the 1870s.  Bonita then tracked down Robert C. Gillingham, who wrote a history of the Rancho San Pedro.  Gillingham elaborated that he had heard this story from an old caretaker and Dominguez-Carson family members, who in turn heard it from old Mexican farmhands.  He also noted that our mystery man arrived sometime after the Civil War, but that by the 1880s there were no blacks living in the vicinity of the slough.  He also mentioned that “one conjecture is that” the hogfarmer “may have been a descendant of one of the pioneer settlers who founded Los Angeles in 1871, which included a number of negroes.” Bonita went further with her research, locating the name of a black man, Joshua William Smart, who owned property near the slough, in the Assessment Book for LA County, 1870-71.  So…Joshua or Tom?  Or someone else?or all of them?  How did they come to live there, and why did they leave?  How did the slough affect their lives and livelihoods?  How were the neighbors?

Clearly more research is needed.  Bonita listed newspapers that could be consulted, including the California Eagle, a black LA newspaper that began publishing in 1879.  There are other historical society archives to visit, and perhaps even descendants of early settlers.  I haven’t given up this thread just yet.  You see, I can’t help but think of how courageous and resilient he or they would have been, and I think his or their presence lends yet more richness to the diversity that was early Los Angeles.    

If only the County could have been as aggressive in erasing housing covenants and other forms of discrimination as it was in erasing this glaringly embarrassing and insulting name from the maps.  If only they didn’t have to erase the history of Tom/Joshua when they did this.  

I will write more about the slough and its story another time.  For now, I’d just like to point out to you that it was so large as to extend from Carson (think Victoria Golf Course) to Torrance (Madrona Marsh), Gardena, and parts of Compton, with fingerlets in Hawthorne and West Athens(fragments still remain at the Devil’s Dip/Chester Washington Golf Course).  Other bits of remaining marshland include the Gardena Willows near Vermont and Artesia, and what’s called Albertoni Farms in Carson, a bit of slough in the middle of a trailer park.  

I think it would be pretty cool if one day,  a park or greenway or remnant wetland was properly named after Tom X, or Joshua Smart, or whoever our mystery man is.  Smart Creek has a nice ring to it.


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§ 34 Responses to Searching for Tom-or Joshua-down in Dominguez

  • What a fascinating bit of history. I hope you find out more.

  • Before it became Los Angeles Street it was called Calle de los Negros and I’ve seen it referred to in print and on maps of the original Chinatown as “N—-r Alley.” As shameful was its common name, even more shameful is it being the site of the Chinatown Massacre of 1871, when a mob of some 500 lynched 19 Chinese men.

  • Clare Fox says:

    thank you for doing this research and sharing this story with us. it’s so important that we name our past clearly and honestly- as ugly and painful as it is- and recover the stories of those who came before. i really appreciate that you are doing this research, i will stay tuned for more!

  • Ballona Institute’s Roy van de Hoek has studied the history of this slough; I’ve shared with him your blog site, and hopefully, he will be posting something more. Some interesting things.

  • Alex Flores says:

    I grew up in a Mexican-American barrio in Torrance which was surrounded by the slough, or swamps, as we referred to it. Our little enclave was named La Rana (The Frog) after the millions of frogs that lived in these swamps and on rainy days, were everywhere, jumping down the street, in yards, etc. The slough was bounded by Van Ness Ave, to the west, 190th street to the north, Torrance Blvd. to the south, and Western Ave. to the east. It was part of the much bigger swamplands that ran through Carson in to Wilmington and Harbor City. Our portion is all paved over now, just concrete channels where the swamps used to be…..what memories.

  • Jessica Hall says:

    Alex, thanks for this memory. La Rana. I bet you had a lot of fun playing with those frogs.

  • C. Bier says:

    I acquired maps of S.CAlif. and trip tics prepared by the local automobile club (circa 1928) and they identified that area as n slough. Also i think there was canyon north of route 10 and east of of L.A. identified as n ….. canyon. The items that I had that identified the noted arers were sold via eBay.

  • george says:

    the n. slough I knew was E of Vermont & S. of Gardena Bl. I played there as a child before WW2. Catching crawdads, rafting, & picking wild berries. Carrell Speedway was built on the edges of it & when Artesia Bl. (later the 91 fwy.). went through the middle of the speedway. After that the swamp .was filled in & houses were built, a large phone co. (Pacific ?) was built on Vermont. My father hunted ducks there in the early 30’s

  • infosherpa says:

    try searching for the slough here:

    lots of articles in the 30s

  • Robert says:

    Joshua Smart was a Black seamen who jumped ship in California to find his fortune. He leased land to Black farmers after the Civil war in the area that was called “Nigger Slough” until the 1940’s and is now known as Dominguez slough.Many places in California from nigger head Mt.. , nigger bar,nigger grade ,nigger canyon, and nigger alley(behind the Pico House) in downtown Los Angeles mark the places where Black people owned land or lived in any number.The casual racism should remind us that it was very difficult for Black people to live and work as men and women in this country ( racist laws were banned in this country only in the mid 1960’s). From the Dunbar farm (1902) in the area now known as Inglewood to Joshua Smart in what is now Carson many Black farmers worked land in the greater Los Angeles area after the Civil War dealing with racist laws and people in order to just feed and educate their families.Now here is the question.What happened to those land owners and who ownes the land now?

    • There’s a Joshua William Smart listed in the 1850 federal census in Rhode Island whose occupation is listed as “mariner.” He was born in 1827. Later I find him in the 1860 federal census in Los Angeles. This must be the same man. Do you have any more information about him?

    • Jessica Hall says:

      Robert, I am slowly assimilating all the info – so Joshua Smart rented land to other farmers. That may explain why one document referred to him and oral histories to a Tom. Thank you for helping piece the picture together.

  • Robert says:

    Los Angeles was founded in 1781. Over half of the founding settlers were of African descent.This is true of many of the cities in California.
    Compton ( settled in 1869 incorp. as a city in 1888) was the 2nd American settlement in the area after El Monte.The cities of the southbay ( Dominguez Land Grant ) have very interesting histories that we should take the time to learn about so we know how we got here and what was here before.

    • Jessica Hall says:

      Thanks for contributing Robert, I agree that our history is far more dynamic than we have been led to believe – and hopefully there is healing that can come from appreciating it.

  • I used my subscription to to see if I could learn more about Joshua William Smart. I found Joshua William Smart listed in the California Register of Voters for 1870. He was listed as a black man, 43 years of age, from Rhode Island. His occupation was listed as farmer, and his residence as Halfway House. I have found a few census listings for Joshua or William Smart, but have yet to discover they all relate to the same person.

    • Jessica Hall says:

      Thank you for doing that and sharing! I have seen references to Halfway House on old maps. I was under the impression it was a spot halfway between downtown LA and Santa Monica although I’m sure we have history buffs out there who know better.

  • Sophie says:

    I think you’re taking the “Tom” reference too literally. In old American speech, “Tom” was just an expression indicating a male, like the tom in tomcat. “N**** Tom” could have been a nickname applied to any black man.

  • John Sage says:

    What amazing (and saddening) stories. I ended up here after seeing “Gardena Valley and N*gger Slough Drainage Channel” on MAP-00006 at the LA Library Map Collection. I went “What the hell?” and went off to Google and ended up here.

    I was born in Pasadena (Altadena, actually) in 1947 and lived in San Pedro from 1955 to 1967 when I moved to Long Beach, while attending Cal State Long Beach. Moved to Seattle in 1975.

    A wonderful project you have here. I’ll be back to read more.

    Best, John

  • I am still very much interested in this area. The African American Pioneer Society on Facebook had this to say —

    African American Joshua Smart arrived in Los Angeles from Rhode Island in the late 1850’. He acquired a parcel of swampy land on the Dominguez family’s Ranchero San Pedro in 1860’s. Mr. Smarts settlement was located near a marsh on, or near today’s Cities of Compton, Carson, and Gardena.
    A portion of Rancho San Pedro was swamp land, replete with Ducks and other water fowl. Think of todays Gardena Willows, the marshland near the Gardena Ca.intersection of Vermont and Artesia, Joshua Smart settlement was located on the vast Dominguez families Rancho San Pedro land grant. Mr Smart shared his space with newly arriving African Americans, many were ex slaves that crossed the country by wagon train to settled in Los Angeles, They found refuge on his land and paid for their tenancy by helping Joshua and his wife care for his land. Due to a growing African American presents the area, it became known as Nigger Slough.
    There is no written or recorded history of Joshua Smart and what happened to his settlement or the Black settlers that lived on it. A December 1894 Los Angeles Herald Newspaper article reported NIGGER SLOUGH IS DOOMED and needs to be cleaned up. There is no mention of Joshua Smart or his settlement. Following the reported court ordered clean up due to health concerns, the article referred to the Slough as Dominguez Channel a name change from Nigger Slough to Dominguez Channel.. Today the Dominguez Channel is a flood control channel that starts in east Hawthorne passes through LA County and empties in the LA Harbor.

    I find it still called N—– Slough as late as 1949 in the Los Angeles Times.

    Gardena thrived as an agricultural area because it had water from the slough, apparently.

  • testing2 says:

    OMG. Calm down, people. The “n word” was not a racist word in the 19th century. It was just a word. It came to be seen as racist in the 1950s when the polite word became negro. Now that’s practically a racist word. The polite word became black and now African-American. Words change in meaning and accepted use. Just like Chicano ws a slur but became as acceptable word, or Oriental became Asian, and retarded became mentally handicapped and now mentally challenged. The slough was named because of African-Americans living nearby, so they were acknowledged and given a place on the map. That’s a good thing. For all we know, they gave it that name. African-Americans used to use the “n word” naturally in the 19th century and, as we all know, use it all the time among themselves today. So quite falling all over yourselves trying to feel all super smart and better than everyone who lived over 125 years ago. Just look at it as an unfortunate name that came to mean something else later on.

    • Jessica Hall says:

      I know enough about LA to understand it has a complicated and colonialist racial (and racist) history that predates the 1950s. Also, that slavery’s legacy ingrained racist attitudes in whites and multiple burdens upon blacks (I don’t know how amyone can imagine it didn’t filter into people’s interactions). But since you thought you have a better grip on history than me, I did a quick check on at which point the descriptor negro became the n-word, and at which point it was understood to be pejorative. According to this piece, it was recognized as pejorative in the 17th C.

      The website Teaching Tolerance may be a good resource for you generally.

    • Testing 2, just before I calm down could you please tell me where do you get your, and I’m using this word loosely, information from? The word nigger was always used to demean enslaved Africans. “It was always meant as a racial slur against a particular group of people, “those people were enslaved Africans and their descendents. In the 19th century it was used to describe a whole race of people who were viewed as not equal to white people. Many times slave owners would say “my nigger” to denote ownership of someone who was less than them. It was a kin to saying “my dog”. Over the years after emancipation Black people sought to define themselves referring to themselves as Afro-Americans, colored, Negro and then with the advent of the Black consciousness movement of the 50s and 60s Black people began to refer to themselves as “Black people”not so much to denote skin color or shade but to denote consciousness as in”Black consciousness”. And just in case you’re not sure the” polite” Word to use when you are addressing an adult Black man or woman is”Mr. or Mrs. or Ms.”. This simple courtesy was not extended to Black people in the 19th and 20th and many times in the 21st century. Black people were referred to as boy,( as in never a man) uncle, gal, aunt, or sometimes just “nigger”. So again I ask where do you get this faulty information from? Just in case you’re not sure many a Black lynching victim heard one word ringing in their ear before they were hung, beaten to death, burned to death and then cut into pieces for souvenirs, yes the last word that they heard ringing in their ears before they were cut off for souvenirs by the rabid white mob was “nigger”. Now in California and In many other places in America, whenever a Black person owned a piece of land or when a group of people lived in a certain place it became known as nigger whenever. Canyon, Alley, mountain and most of the people were referred to by their, yes” racist” in word and deed neighbors as “nigger” Jim, or Bob or Nate as a way to humiliate and Try to strip away a person’s humanity. So don’t be stupid the word did not all of a sudden become racist after the 1950s. What happened was that soldiers who fought in World War II against fascism were no longer willing to tolerate it at home and demanded to be able to define themselves as human beings, this led to protests, marches and the eventual demise of legalized segregation in 1964.I’m surprised I have to give you this history lesson.But if you don’t believe me, I get together with a few friends every second Sunday of the month at simply wholesome restaurant in Los Angeles you could come visit us and explain your point of view. I hope one of my Chicano or Asian friends reading this will help you out with the other part of your stunningly stupid assertions. And I’m not trying to be hurtful but you cannot actually believe what you’re saying if you know any Black, Brown , or Asian people. Actually you sounds suspiciously like Donald Trump… “Nigger Slough” Received It’s name (And I’m positive that this was not the name that the Black residents gave the area) because the area was settled by former slaves after the Civil War who apparently subleased land from Joshua Smart. A Black man who Came to California as a seaman jumped ship to find his fortune in California.The area was peopled by Black pig farmers by the mid-1940s most of the families who were living in the area seem to have disappeared…….

  • Flora Stewart says:

    I was looking for a nice screensaver for my work computer when I came across the 1871 map of Los Angeles. Beautiful and quaint until you look closely and see the words Nigger Alley. The word was used by ignorant whites and other races when black people didn’t have rights and could be hanged for objecting. Users of the word did not care if it was offensive. I’m thinking that if they cared, things would have been different. So down comes the screensaver. Now, I’m looking for Lena, Dorothy or the many photos from the Adams area of Los Angeles. And into the archives of the American Eagle.

  • julie says:

    jessica, the photo of the black folks at the beach is probably a photo from “bruce’s beach”… google it. such an interesting story!

    • Jessica Hall says:

      Yes, I’d learned of Bruce’s Beach when I first started looking at the old photos. I didn’t have a specific ID for that one, and didn’t want to name it incorrectly.

    • Jessica Hall says:

      I didn’t realize it was still called Parque Culiacán though! (I moved out of the area 5 yrs ago.)

  • You may want to get a copy of “Notable Southern Californians in Black History”. The book is available at Barnes & Noble, and in the Los Angeles area Eso-Won bookstore.

  • rrrapture says:

    Thank you for writing about this. Racism can’t be eradicated if white people avoid the topic.

  • bob carter says:

    My dad left me copies of his 1932 Olympic documents and included was a Union Oil promotional map of the Olympic sites in the LA area. Much to my surprise was the name n-sough in the now named Dominguez area. I was shocked.

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