In 1784 a Spanish soldier, Manuel Nieto, received a land grant of 300,000 acres as a reward for his military service and to encourage settlement in California. Nieto’s acreage was reduced in 1790 because of a dispute with the Mission San Gabriel, but he still laid claim to 167,000 acres stretching from the hills north of Whittier to the sea, and from today’s Los Angeles River to the Santa Ana River. Upon his death in 1804, his children inherited his property.
After years of joint ownership, Nieto’s lands were formally divided into six parcels in 1834. Daughter Manuela Cota received the area known as Rancho Los Cerritos (“Ranch of the Little Hills”), approximately 27,000 acres bordered on the west by the (now) Los Angeles River and on the south by the Pacific Ocean. She and husband Guillermo built at least two adobes on the land and raised twelve children, as well as cattle and crops. Following her death, her heirs sold the Rancho to Massachusetts-born John Temple in December, 1843.
Temple constructed the present two-story Monterey-style adobe in 1844 as headquarters for his large-scale cattle operation. To supplement his mercantile business in Los Angeles, he pastured as many as 15,000 head and engaged in the lucrative hide and tallow trade. Although Rancho Los Cerritos was only used by Temple as a summer home and he maintained his main residence in Los Angeles, much care and expense was lavished on an elaborate formal garden at the Rancho. Significant trees from this time still exist.
The Gold Rush gave a boost to the Southern California cattle industry at a time when demand for cow hides was decreasing. Ranchers such as Temple drove their cattle north to feed the hungry miners. By the early 1860s, however, successive years of severe flooding and drought helped speed these prosperous years to a close. Tens of thousands of cattle died, and Temple decided to retire. He sold Rancho Los Cerritos in 1866 to the firm Flint, Bixby & Co. for $20,000.