A group of Kizh (also called Tongva or Gabrieleno) people were witnesses to a very unusual sight on July 29, 1769. An exotic new people had arrived at their village, speaking a totally unfamiliar language, accompanied by bizarre animals, and with unknown technology. Despite any misgivings they may have had, the Kizh eventually decided to welcome the strangers, extending their hospitality by showing them the location of a valuable pool of fresh water, an especially valuable commodity in a typically hot and dry Southern California summer.
The ways of the Kizh were also very bizarre to Gaspar de Portola, put in charge by the government of New Spain of an expedition to explore California, and his men, who would be among the first European men to ever explore California by land. Particularly puzzling to the Spaniards was the common habit of the Kizh of taking tar, located in plentiful amounts near the local creek, and applying it to their bodies, as Emerson Little has previously described in The Observer. Although the Kizh mainly practiced this due to tar’s medicinal benefits, the Spaniards simply thought of the Kizh as unhygienic. Despite these differing opinions, the tar evidently made an impression on the Spanish, as they would come to name the creek and canyon Brea, which means “tar” in Spanish.
By the time this encounter was commemorated some 163 years later with a historical marker placed in Brea Canyon by the Native Daughters of the Golden West. The Kizh had long disappeared from the Brea Creek region, being involuntarily placed into Catholic missions by the Spanish and regularly criminalized by the Americans who soon took possession of the region, with many leading newspapers and anthropologists inaccurately declaring them fully extinct in this time period.
The Brea Creek of today has also been drastically altered in the two centuries since Portola’s expedition. Once a wild creek where the Kizh had fished with nets or lines with hooks made from bone and shell, it is now mostly a channelized flood control channel running through the middle of one of America’s densest urban areas, and is a member of the San Gabriel River watershed, as is Fullerton Creek.
Brea Creek begins its course near the intersection of S. Diamond Bar Blvd. and Pathfinder Rd. in Diamond Bar, emerging as a man-made concrete channel. After flowing southward through the neighborhoods, schools, and parks of Diamond Bar, it turns into a canyon paralleled by Brea Canyon Road and California State Route 57 (also known as the Orange Freeway), reflecting its historic and modern importance as a connection between the San Gabriel Valley and north Orange County. Many commuters bored from their rush-hour commutes can occasionally be treated to the curious sight of cattle grazing on brush from the side of the canyon’s hills, which was once the region’s economic mainstay during the Mexican rancho period as part of the Rancho Rincon de la Brea.
This stretch of Brea Creek also contains numerous oil fields, showing that the region’s latter inhabitants continued to make important the tar the Kizh had regularly used. Just before the creek enters the city of Brea is the aforementioned Native Daughters of the Golden West monument. Just one problem with the monument, though—it’s not actually located at the site where Portola and his men camped back in 1769. In the book The Portola Expedition in Orange County, local historians Phil Brigandi and Eric Plunkett note that, based on diaries written by the Portola Expedition’s members, the actual campsite along Brea Creek was further south, possibly near what is now the Arovista Elementary School in Brea by Brea Creek Golf Course. Even worse, the monument gets the campsite date incorrect, listing July 31 rather than July 29.
Next to the monument, the creek is densely forested with non-native pepper and palm trees, and dotted with abandoned oil equipment. However, the whiz of cars along Brea Canyon Road never remains out of earshot, a reminder that one is still in the middle of busy civilization.
Caring little for historic inaccuracies, the creek meanders on into suburban Brea, passing through more neighborhoods, schools, and shopping centers. North of Imperial Highway, it is accompanied by The Tracks at Brea, a former railroad that has been converted into a multipurpose, recreational-use trail popular with joggers, bicyclists, dog-walkers, and members of the community.
After passing south of Imperial Highway, the creek runs through the middle of Arovista Park, a community space vibrant with local kids shooting hoops, people walking their dogs, and others simply trying to enjoy a breath of fresh air. More recreational opportunities abound as the waterway passes through two consecutive golf courses—the appropriately-named Brea Creek Golf Course, where Brigandi and Plunkett place Portola’s actual campsite, and then Fullerton Golf Course further downstream.
One is witness to yet another one of Brea Creek’s transformations as it leaves Fullerton Golf Course and passes south of Bastanchury Rd, where a series of hiking trails paralleling the creek commences. With a lush, green canopy of plants protecting the rushing creek from the bone-dry, scorching heat of the surrounding hills, the author found this section of Brea Creek to appear truly wild, with no homes or roads in sight (or in sound), and enjoyed much of his hike to the Brea Dam.
The Brea Dam was built by the Army Corps of Engineers in the early 1940s in the aftermath of devastating floods in northern Orange County, and can be explored by the general public (in contrast to the nearby Fullerton Dam) and can provide a scenic panorama of the surrounding community from its top. The section between Bastanchury and the dam is particularly recommended by this author for an enjoyable hiking experience.
The Brea Dam was built by the Army Corps of Engineers in the early 1940s in the aftermath of devastating floods in northern Orange County.
Downstream of the Brea Dam, the creek soon enters the small and unimpressive Brea Dam Park, before crossing into Hillcrest Park on the other side of Brea Blvd. This segment of Brea Creek is its last natural appearance, as it forms the park’s western boundary.
From then on, the creek exclusively appears as a concrete channel in the middle of suburban Orange County, passing by Fullerton College before paralleling Malvern Ave for the rest of its course throughout Fullerton and Buena Park.
This transformation of Brea Creek had also occurred for flood control purposes. It was built as a New Deal-era Works Progress Administration (WPA) project in 1940 under the authority of the Flood Control Act of 1936, signifying the drastic changes wrought in the Southern California region by American settlement and urbanization that had occurred by the time the Native Daughters had placed their monument by the creek.
Finally, 16 miles from its source, the creek ends by flowing into Coyote Creek, also a concrete flood-control channel, on the border of Orange and Los Angeles Counties. At this ending, the workers who gaze at the channel from the neighboring office park are most likely unaware of the rich history and ecology of Brea Creek.
On behalf of Grace Parlor No. 242, Native Daughters of the Golden West (NDGW), thank you for this article. The Portola marker found in Brea Canyon was researched by Grace Parlor Member, Carrie McFadden Ford, in a State wide journey by the NDGW organization to mark Portola’s trail in the early 1930’s. Research was based on translations of cartographer Juan Crespi’s maps and the diary of Miguel Costanso edited by Frederick J. Teggart in August 1911, California State University, Berkeley.
I enjoyed this story very much. I was born and raised in Fullerton and always wonder why a dam in Fullerton was named Brea and the dam named Fullerton was not located in Fullerton. A minor point however, the channel for Brea creek runs by Fullerton High School an not Fullerton College