In a corner of the history in one of America’s more obscure wars lies one of the few times the Palos Verdes Peninsula has been directly touched by armed conflict.
Unlike the panic instilled in the 1942 Battle of Los Angeles, or the installation of nuclear-tipped Nike missiles on land that would eventually become Rancho Palos Verdes City Hall in anticipation of Soviet bombers, haughty invaders’ boots did indeed trammel the soil of Palos Verdes, and soldier's blood would encarmine the ground of the South Bay in 1846.
Of course, in that instance, we were the haughty invaders. The Mexican-American war was in full swing, the last remaining phase in America’s “Manifest Destiny” march to the Pacific coast.
It all began in August, when American forces, under General Fremont and Commodore Stockton, captured the Pueblo of Los Angles. The battle itself was short and, it seemed, decisive. The Californian Army was scattered and effectively destroyed. However, the Americans, needing troops for other phases of the conquest of California, left a paltry 48 men to garrison the restive area.
The Californian Army was destroyed.
The Californians, on the other hand, were not about to take the defeat lying down. They besieged the pueblo and forced the garrison to retreat to San Pedro, where they were taken on board a merchant ship, but not before informing Stockton, then at Monterey, of their plight.
Meeting the merchantman Vandalia in early October was the USS Savanah, with 300 marines on board, spoiling for a rematch with the Californians.
They landed on the shore of San Pedro (somewhere near the southern terminus of South Pacific Avenue) under the command of Naval Captain William Mervine.
The Californios were outnumbered four to one against the Marine landing party. But they still had the advantage.
They knew the rancho—their home—like the backs of their hands, while the Marines would have to learn the hilly chaparral terrain as they went. The Californios had horses and mules, a crucial mobility edge over the foot-slogging Marine raiders.
And, they had the help of The Old Woman.
“She” was an old 4-pounder brass cannon, a pedrero, once used for ceremonial salutes, but buried just before the capture of Los Angeles in Innocentia Reyes’ garden (near the modern-day intersection of San Pedro and Second in Little Tokyo).
Reyes and others dug up the venerable swivel-gun and mounted it on a new limber donated by a British carpenter who lived in the town. Hitched to a team of somewhere between six to eight horses, the cannon became part of an audacious plan of misdirection.
Riders went before The Old Woman, kicking up dust and creating noise, leading the Marines to believe a larger force was at work in the area.
As the Marines advanced, they traded desultory shots with Californio Lancers, while being peppered from multiple directions from The Old Woman.
As soon as a shot was taken, the gunners would quickly hitch the limber up and move to a new location, eventually fooling Mervine into believing he was facing a far larger force than the ragtag militia who opposed him.
In the end, five Marines died in the battle.
The dead were buried on an island just off San Pedro (alternately called Rattlesnake Island or Dead Man’s Island). The remaining Marines performed an orderly retreat back to San Pedro harbor and on to Monterey.
For Los Angeles, it was but a mere respite, however. The course of the Mexican-American war was clear, and by January, Los Angeles was firmly in American hands.
As for The Old Woman, her fate is unclear. According to Wikipedia, one theory is she was surrendered to the Americans and later used by Californio dons in a 1853 Fourth of July celebration.