In 1542 Spanish explorer Juan Cabrillo sailed the Southern California coast in search of trade opportunities and a route to China. He met and befriended the Tongva tribe living on Santa Catalina Island (later to be renamed by Cabrillo to “San Salvador”). Sixty years after Cabrillo explored the coast, Sebastian Vizcaino explored the same area and encountered the Tongva as well; his reports said that the Natives he met were friendly and peaceful, which was further supported by later accounts. Juan Crespi of the Portola expedition recounted:
“Their chief told us by signs which we understood very well that we must come to live with them; that they would make houses for us, and provide us with food…They urged us to do this telling us that all the land that he saw, and there was certainly a great deal of it, was theirs and that they would divide it with us.”
In the early 18th century, the Spanish began setting up missions, presidios (frontier fortresses) and pueblos (small towns) in an effort to colonize the coastal area of California. Father Junipero Serra arrived in California in 1769 and began the establishment of a chain of missions from San Diego to Sonoma. All of the peoples from the Tongva and Acjachamen tribes were sent to these missions; members of the Tongva were collectively renamed (alongside other tribes in the immediate area) the Gabrielinos and forced into labor and service at Mission San Gabriel Arcángel, while the Acjachemen were renamed the Juaneños and forced into service at Mission San Juan Capistrano. Many were killed by smallpox epidemics and other foreign diseases, and those that survived were forced into the practice of Christianity and Spanish language and culture, resulting in the loss of much of their culture and devastation of their lives.
In 1787, a retired Spanish soldier, Manuel Perez Nieto, was granted a massive expanse of land (~300,000 acres) that stretched across the San Gabriel River, Santa Ana River and all the way to the foothills of the San Gabriel mountains. While this expanse of land was later reduced to around 150,000 acres, as the padres of Mission San Gabriel argued that the grant included land that belonged to the mission, it was still one of the largest land grants to occur in California. Following Nieto’s death in 1804, the property was divided into several smaller sects of land. Nieto’s widowed daughter-in-law, Catarina Ruiz, acquired some of this land, and gave her brother, Joaquin Ruiz, a small section of the land. He named his property Rancho La Bolsa Chica, or “The Little Purse.”