Alice Ballard was the youngest of seven children born to John and Amanda Ballard, the first African Americans to own a home above the Malibu coastline. She was born in 1870 in Agoura Hills and raised in the nearby Santa Monica Mountains.1 Ballard Mountain, recently re-named to honor her father, is visible from the 160 acres that Alice Ballard owned as a homesteader beginning in 1901. For years, National Parks Service employees searched unsuccessfully for the site of her cabin, until the 2018 Woolsey Fire made it visible. The homestead ruins that are contained within the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area are remnants of Ballard’s successful use of U.S. land policy in the West to promote black property ownership.
John Ballard, who moved to California around 1850, had lived as an enslaved man in Kentucky. Amanda Ballard was born in Texas, and because no surname was ever recorded for her prior to her marriage or on her marriage license, it is likely that she was also formerly enslaved. In 1880, the couple settled in the Santa Monica Mountains with their children.2 Tragically one year after Alice Ballard’s birth, her mother died giving birth to a baby sister who did not survive.3 Following the 1896 death of her step-mother Francis Brigs Ballard, Alice Ballard may have been responsible for many household duties, though she also attended school in Ventura, California. By 1896, she and her father were the only remaining members of the family living at the homestead, except for two small children, George Paul and Lyman Ballard, who may have been Alice Ballard’s niece and nephew.4 In approximately 1898, Alice Ballard established an independent residence nearby and began cultivating 10-15 acres of land.5
In 1900, at the age of 30, Alice Ballard applied for a homestead on the grounds that she had lived on the parcel of land for 12 years and had made $290 worth of improvements to it.6 She may have invested some of her income from employment as a nurse in her land and structures.7 Her application was approved in 1901, making her the legal owner of 160 acres of land in the Santa Monica Mountains. The same year she married a formerly enslaved man named Warner Bonettio.8
In 2018, the Woolsey Fire devasted the Santa Monica Mountains Recreation Area, including the area surrounding Alice Ballard’s cabin.9 Following the fire’s destruction, the ground site of Ballard’s former home became visible for the first time to researchers. NPS anthropologist Austin Ringelstein believes that Ballard and Bonettio may have lived at the site until they sold their house in 1903 for ten dollars.10 Following the move, the couple had a daughter named Mary and continued to raise Lyman and George Paul.11 For the next few years the family lived in Los Angeles where Bonettio worked odd jobs, including as a tailor and a shoemaker.12 Less is known about Ballard’s life during the early 1900s. She reappears in the 1930 census, where she is listed as head of household, widowed, living with her daughter Mary (28), granddaughter Dolly (2 1/2) and a 57-year-old English boarder named George Turtle.13 Existing records note that Alice Ballard had registered to vote prior to her death in 1937.14
Ballard Mountain, a 2,000-foot peak that Alice Ballard knew well, was given its current name in 2010 to honor her family. For years, it had gone by a racist moniker that denigrated the remarkable African American family who had gained a foothold as landowners in California.15 Their descendant Ryan Ballard remarked that the “mountain represents a man who considered himself an American when others called him something else.”16 Alice Ballard, too, was an American and was also able to leave her mark in the Santa Monica Mountains.
1 - Ulises Koyac, “History Professor Dedicates Career to Documenting the Lives and Accomplishments of America’s Ethnic Pioneers,” Moor Park Reporter, May 15, 2019, https://moorparkreporter.com/4013471/news/influential-african-american-pioneer-discovered-by-moorpark-history-professor/.
2 - Austin Ringelstein, “The African Heritage of the Santa Monica Mountains” (National Parks Service, 2018), p. i.-101, 38.
3 - Patty R. Colman, “John Ballard and the African American Community in Los Angeles, 1850-1905,” Southern California Quarterly 94 No. 2, (2012), 218.
4 - Cy Shafii, “CSUN Alum Uncovers Early Homestead Owned by African American Woman in Santa Monica Mountains,” CSUN Today, December 4, 2019, https://csunshinetoday.csun.edu/alumni/csun-alum-uncovers-early-homestead-owned-by-african-american-woman-in-santa-monica-mountains/.
5 - Colman, “John Ballard,” 224, 227.
6 - Colman, “John Ballard,” 226.
7 - Shafii, “CSUN Alum Uncovers.”
8 - “Aged Moor Outshone Solomon of Old,” Los Angeles Times, September 1, 1901, 7, https://www.newspapers.com/image/380060868/; “Negro Was No Circus Man,” Los Angeles Evening Express, August 31, 1901, 3, https://www.newspapers.com/image/607748558/.
9 - “2018 Woolsey Fire,” National Parks Service (U.S. Department of the Interior), accessed September 19, 2020, https://www.nps.gov/samo/learn/management/2018-woolsey-fire.htm.
10 - Shafii, “CSUN Alum Uncovers.”
11 - Year: 1910; Census Place: San Antonio, Los Angeles, California; Roll: T624_86; Page: 1A; Enumeration District: 0341; FHL microfilm: 1374099, Ancestry.com. 1910 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2006. Original data: Thirteenth Census of the United States, 1910 (NARA microfilm publication T624, 1,178 rolls). Records of the Bureau of the Census, Record Group 29. National Archives, Washington, D.C.
12 - 12“Warner M Bonettio” in the U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995, Los Angeles, California, City Directory, 1907, https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/2469/images/3385253?treeid=&personid=&hintid=&usePUB=true&usePUBJs=true&_ga=2.130424911.1522858930.1597102066-1597517491.1597007331&pId=234520936, Los Angeles, California, 1915 for Warner M. Bonettio. Ancestry.com. U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011. “Prince of Morocco Tried,” Los Angeles Herald, December 28, 1906, 4, https://www.newspapers.com/image/78279402/?terms=warner%2Bbonnettio.
13 - Year: 1930; Census Place: San Antonio, Los Angeles, California; Page: 6B; Enumeration District: 1374; FHL microfilm: 2339907 Ancestry.com. 1930 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2002. Original data: United States of America, Bureau of the Census. Fifteenth Census of the United States, 1930. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1930. T626, 2,667 rolls.
14 - “Official Death List,” Los Angeles Times, November 16, 1937, 40.
15 - Jovana Lara “Ballard’s Mountain Honors One of LA’s Black Pioneers.” ABC7, February 13, 2018, https://abc7.com/ballard-mountain-negrohead-black-history-month-african-american/3074065/.
16 - Lara “Ballard’s Mountain.”
Acknowledgements:This project was made possible in part by a grant from the National Park Foundation.
This project was conducted in Partnership with the University of California Davis History Department through the Californian Cooperative Ecosystem Studies Unit, CA# P20AC00946