Los Angeles Almanac Logo
Home | All Almanac Topics | History

Agustín Olvera
Los Angeles County's First Judge

Agustin Olvera

Agustín Olvera, undated photo.

Agustín Olvera is the namesake of the famous Olvera Street in the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Monument in Downtown Los Angeles. He served as Los Angeles County’s first elected county judge, one of the county’s first administrators, an early member of the county Board of Supervisors, and a member of the Los Angeles City Council.

Olvera came to California in 1834 during its Mexican period. By the time he arrived in Los Angeles, he had already been serving as a judge and continued serving in California in a number of judicial and governmental roles. In 1841, he served as a commissioner and judge at the Mission San Juan Capistrano, then secularized by the Mexican government. In 1846, after U.S. forces invaded California, Olvera fought back as an officer in Mexican forces resisting from Los Angeles. When the diminished Mexican force saw that the war was lost, Olvera joined a commission to negotiate terms of surrender and capitulation. Along with Andres Pico and Jose Carrillo, he was one of the Mexican signatories on the 1847 Treaty of Cahuenga that ceded control of California to the United States.

In 1849, then U.S. military governor of California, General Bennet Riley, appointed Olvera to be “Judge of the First Instance,” a judicial adaptation from the Mexican period. In 1850, after California was admitted into the union as the 31st U.S. state and the county of Los Angeles was established. Olvera was elected to be the first judge of Los Angeles County. In this role, he presided over a three-member “Court of Sessions” (another adaptation from the Mexican period). His associate judges were Jonathan R. Scott and Luis Robidoux, selected by their peers from among elected justices of the peace in the county. At that time, Olvera’s command of English was limited and at least one associate judge did not speak Spanish. Newly-elected Los Angeles County Sheriff, George T. Burrill, who was bilingual, was hired at extra pay to serve as courtroom interpreter. The Court of Sessions, besides hearing judicial cases, was also responsible for administering county affairs. This arrangement was transitional, however, until the introduction, in 1852, of elected boards of supervisors for govern counties. During Olvera’s time as county judge, he also served on the Los Angeles city council from 1851 to 1852.

As did many successful Southern Californians, Olvera ended up becoming a landowner. At one point, he owned land that would become Baldwin Hills, Leimert Park, Ladera Heights and Windsor Hills in Los Angeles, Mission Viejo in Orange County, and parts of San Diego County.

In 1855, Olvera again stepped up to county government when he was elected to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. He served on the board through 1857.

After his service on the bench, Olvera settled into private practice law.

Former Agustin Olvera Residence, Los Angeles, Circa 1880

Former residence of Agustín Olvera, looking north, ca. 1880. By then, the property clearly was being used for commercial purposes. It was located at what is now the site of the Biscailuz Building and Plaza Methodist Church, at the southern end of Olvera Street, containing the offices of the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument. Image from the Security Pacific National Bank Collection at Los Angeles Public Library

Olvera died in 1876 at the age of 58. In 1877, in his honor, the Los Angeles city council renamed Wine Street, running between the Los Angeles Plaza and Alameda Street, to Olvera Street. His residence had been located at the southeast end of the street. In 1926, civic crusader Christine Sterling found Olvera Street to be a dilapilated alleyway and its historic structures under threat of demolition. She then led a four-year restoration project that led to its 1930 re-opening as a Los Angeles historic-cultural destination. In 2015, the American Planning Association included Olvera Street in its list of Great Places of America.

Former Agustin Olvera Residence, Los Angeles, Circa 1880

Olvera Street, Los Angeles, postcard, 1936. From the Los Angeles Almanac Postcard Collection.

Sources: Agustin Olvera, Wikipedia; Curious Cases - Lawyers of Los Angeles, by Paul R. Spitzzeri; Los Angeles County’s First Judge, by Dennis F. Hernandez; Pioneer Pioneer Courts and Lawyers of Los Angeles, by Walter R. Bacon; Courthouses of Los Angeles County, by Granville Arthur Waldron.