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#119 Henry Hancock, Class of 1843, Surveyed Los Angeles and Owned the La Brea Tar Pits

Jeff Dobbin 200 Things about Norwich, Leaders & Legacy

Henry Hancock was a native of Bath, N.H. who, before enrolling at Norwich University, attended Newbury Methodist Seminary in Newbury, Vt. This makes him a “double graduate” of Norwich. Newbury Methodist Seminary later moved to Montpelier, where it became Montpelier Seminary and then Vermont College, which merged with Norwich University in 1972.

Hancock attended Norwich around the turbulent time of Alden Partridge’s resignation from the presidency. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1843 and briefly worked as a civil engineer before enlisting to serve in the Mexican American War.

After the war, he attended Harvard Law School, but it wasn’t long before he headed out west—this was, after all, the age of the California Gold Rush. He tried his hand at mining—before settling in Los Angeles, where he would reside from approximately 1853 until his death thirty years later.

When Hancock moved to Los Angeles, it was a small, recently incorporated town with fewer than 2,000 residents. Drawing upon his civil engineering training from Norwich University, he joined the efforts of Henry Washington, who in 1852 had begun a comprehensive land survey of Southern California on behalf of the U.S. Surveyor General’s Office. Hancock served as city surveyor and conducted the second-ever official survey of the city of Los Angeles. He foresaw the city’s future prominence in the region and urged the city council to widen the streets.

When the Civil War broke out, Hancock joined the 4th California Volunteers, serving at Benicia and Wilmington, Cal. After the war, Hancock turned his attention to his legal practice. He also began developing the commercial potential of a tract of land he had been deeded by a legal client, called Rancho La Brea. The nearly 5,000 acres of land contained extensive deposits of asphaltum, a newly discovered mineral that Hancock promoted for paving, fuel, and other uses. Later, the discovery of petroleum on the land led to the establishment of the Rancho La Brea Oil Company.

Hancock passed away in Santa Monica in 1883, but his legacy was only beginning. Throughout the history of Rancho La Brea, it was known that animal bones could be found among the tar-like asphalt deposits. It wasn’t until 1901 that scientists realized the bones were fossils left behind by prehistoric creatures. Extensive excavation of the fossils took place beginning in 1905. In 1924, Henry Hancock’s son George donated 23 acres to Los Angeles County, establishing Hancock Park. He stipulated that the land’s natural features be preserved and that the excavated fossils be displayed for the public.

Today, Hancock Park and the La Brea Tar Pits are popular Los Angeles attractions, and scientists continue to uncover new fossils, adding to the rich history of which Henry Hancock and his family are a part.

You can learn more about the La Brea Tar Pits & Museum at http://www.tarpits.org/.