Pacific Postcards

A Man and The Ocean (Ethan Newman)


When gathering information about societal development alongside the Pacific Ocean, scholars might turn to old texts, documents, or academic journals for evidence. While textual evidence directly displays information in words, a simple photograph uncovers just as valuable information from history. On the topic of Pacific Beaches, the USC digital library holds a unique primary source of a photograph. The person behind the camera was C.C. Pierce. The title is “View of the Santa Monica coast looking south from Ninety-nine steps on the Palisades.” From this primary source, Pierce’s image illustrates Reid’s argument that Native American communities towards the late 19th century were pressured to sign peace treaties and lose authority in coastal regions. In addition, Pierce’s photo strongly fits into the historical context of Deveral’s argument about the free harbor fight between railroad companies and the public in Santa Monica and San Pedro.

As background, Pierce took his photo in 1889.  Pierce was famous for taking thousands of photographs of the Los Angeles region. Whether it was street views, architectural views, missions, or native American photos, Pierce captured the unique setting. Pierce had motives to show the aesthetics and beauty of the Southern California region for appreciation purposes. Hence, this is why Pierce took this scenic photo of the Santa Monica coast. The intended audience of Pierce was definitely future scholars who wanted to learn visually what the scenic and cultural scene of Southern California was in the 19th and 20th centuries. The photo has numerous natural and structural features occurring. On the very left side, there are trees visible that extend into the distance. In the center-left of the image, there is a cliff elevated above the Pacific Ocean. The cliff has a beautiful and detailed rock formation. On top of a cliff, we see a man sitting on top of the bench and facing the ocean. On the right of the photo, the pacific coast is visible with shacks structured along the coast. Farther off in the distance, there is a view of a building and pier extending into the Pacific Ocean.  Pierce angled his image to include all these details so he could maximize the viewer’s perception of what Santa Monica looked like in 1889.

Pierce’s photograph visualizes Reid’s argument that indigenous people started to lose authority in their homeborn coastal communities and were forced to move elsewhere from signing treaties. For context, In “The Great Ocean,” David Igler reveals how the power of pacific indigenous natives started to diminish when Europeans and Americans came in contact with the natives. Deadly and contagious diseases would wipe out the majority population of these indigenous people. In addition, violence between Europeans and natives in the Pacific lead to tribes weakening over time. Reid in, “The sea is my country,” shares how native communities had no choice but to sign treaties and give up land to the United States. With a pacific northwest example, Reid talks about the Treaty of Neal Bay. The Makah people were forced to leave their coastal civilization and move to reservations. A closer date to Pierce's image, the Dawes act of 1887 is another example of natives being kicked off their homeland by white settlers. C.C. Pierce’s goal as a historical photographer was to capture the scenery of Southern California throughout the years. Because Pierce’s photo was taken in 1889,  there are no indigenous people and no reminiscent of native American Culture in the image. If Pierce took a photo 50 years prior, native American civilization and culture would have been present in Santa Monica and the Los Angeles region. In the photograph, the man sitting on the bench, dressed in “civilized” clothing with a hat, reveals that white colonizers are the people who took over the region. In addition, the pier and building structure in the background represent the new civilization that took over and developed Santa Monica.  Pierce’s image fits perfectly into Reid’s argument that Indigenous people in the pacific lost their community and settlements when they signed treaties because the photograph unveils no evidence of Native Americans still living on the coast of Santa Monica but instead captures the new civilization of Americans who conquered the region. 

Pierce’s image fits into the historical context of Deveral’s argument about the free harbor fight between the cities of Santa Monica and San Pedro. In the 1890s,  Deveral shares how railroad companies and the local public battled over constructing a harbor in Santa Monica or San Pedro for business purposes. The monopolized Southern Pacific Railroad Company pushed for congress to fund the harbor in Santa Monica. Conversely, Senator White and a large population of Los Angeles wanted the harbor to be housed in San Pedro. The promoters of Santa Monica and San Pedro knew a government-funded wharf would promote local business in each respective town. There were arguments against the wharf being built in Santa Monica. Before selling railroad land to the Pacific Railroad Company, Senator Jones and his wife worried a beachfront railroad due to the construction of a wharf would ruin the natural beauty of Santa Monica. Similarly, Thomas Gibbly claimed numerous railroad companies wouldn't have room for their tracks if the harbor was built in Santa Monica because the coastland was so narrow. When Pierce took his photo in 1889, the free harbor fight took place. The press coverage of Santa Monica at this time might have motivated Pierce to come to Santa Monica and take this photo shot. Since Pierce took photos for over 40 years, he knew viewers would appreciate what Santa Monica would have looked like before the harbor was put in, which the city seemed likely to have one in 1889. In Pierce’s image, there is a lack of development on the Santa Monica Coast. Besides the Pier, a building, and shacks alongside the beach, the coast is empty. Relating to Deveral’s argument, a harbor built in Santa Monica would create local businesses and attract people to Santa Monica. Thus, Pierce’s image of the vacant coast fits into the argument that the Pacific Railroad company wanted a harbor in Santa Monica to promote new local business. When C.C. Pierce captured his image, he was lured by the beauty of the Santa Monica coast. His photo angle includes crashing waves, cliff edges, and natural trees. Hence, Pierce’s appreciation of Santa Monica’s coastal features supports Senator Jones and his wife’s concern that industrializing the Santa Monica coast would ruin the coastal community. Lastly,  Pierce’s photograph reveals the limited recreational space there is off the coast. The cliff in-between the trees and the ocean makes the space narrow for the development of a railroad and wharf. Pierce’s image helps support one of the reasons why the port ended up in San Pedro because his photo illustrates the logistic limitation the coast has for commercial development. 

Pierce’s image is a perfect visualization of Reid’s argument that native American communities got kicked off their land in coastal communities when they lost power and signed treaties with the United States. In addition, Pierce’s image fits into Deveral’s argument that there were incentives but also push back for congress to fund a harbor in Santa Monica. At first glance, Pierce’s image is just an ordinary photograph. But, there's always a hidden purpose behind capturing a moment. Pierce’s image works as primary evidence and historical context for scholarly arguments of the 19th century. Never overlook a photo’s purpose because it will always fit into what is happening during that period. 




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