The story of Henry Hancock is one of the few who left the California gold mines richer than when he entered and who turned his gold to even greater success which is immortalized today.
Henry Hancock was a major, lawyer, and surveyor who grew up in New Hampshire and moved to California after his service in the Mexican–American War. A Harvard trained lawyer, Hancock opened a law office in California in 1849 but turned his interests to gold mining in the American river. As observed (and romanticized) in a 1915 history book:
Hale, hearty and penniless, he had crossed the plains in 1849 and in a rich placer mine he shortly took out $20,000. With shrewd foresight he invested the money in the great Mexican grants, for which he paid $2 or $3 an acre. The largest of these grants, Rancho la Brea, lies west of Los Angeles and on three thousand acres of the land Hollywood, Sherman and Colegrove were built.
This Rancho la Brea had been a Mexican land grant held by Antonio Jose Rocha. With the secession of California from Mexico to the United States, however, it’s ownership had been challenged. Rocha hired Hancock as a lawyer and surveyor for the land. After years of legal battle, the Rochas did eventually win the land back, but were so broke from the struggle, that they sold the land to Hancock.
Hancock turned around and began profiting off of a new natural resource: tar. He shipped the tar to San Francisco, barely noting the bones found in the sticky substance. What was initially dismissed as lost livestock, was later recognized as extinct animals, and la Brea was excavated for fossils. Today, this former claim comprises the Wilshire Miracle Mile, Hollywood, parts of West Hollywood. 23 acres of tar soaked land was later donated to the Los Angeles County as Hancock Park and the La Brea Tar Pits.
Guinn, James Miller. “A History of California and an Extended History of Los Angeles and environs.” Volume 2. Historic Record Company, Los Angeles, CA 1915.