The Place I Pretend to Own, Part One

In the polite fictional parlance of housing tenure, I “own” a 25′ by 91′ piece of land and the house that sits on it, a little rectangle within a rectangle on a street called 56th Street, in a neighborhood called Golden Gate, in a city called Oakland. A lot of other people owned this land — or at least, like me, pretended they owned it — before I got here, and they called it by many different names. I’ve been trying to find out who those people were and what names they used for this place. It’s a long story, so I’ve split it up into parts. Here’s the first part of the history of my 2275 square feet of California dirt.

The Huchiun band of the Ohlone people lived in this place for a long time — long enough that we might as well go ahead and call them the first people to live here. They didn’t practice individual land ownership, but it was theirs. They fed themselves from the fertile land and the nearby waters, like the creek just south of my house. They spoke a language now called Chochenyo. In that language, I’m not sure what they called this place. (I’m working on finding out and will edit this if I can.) I do know that they called it home.

In 1542, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo sailed past this part of the world on an expedition for Spain. Cabrillo was the first European to “explore” this land, though as explorations go, it was cursory. He actually missed the entrance to San Francisco Bay, so he wouldn’t have seen the place where I live now, or the people who were living here then.

According to the logic and practice of European exploration, everything Cabrillo sailed past became a Spanish possession. Spain owned it because they saw it first (and because the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas said so). Nobody told the Huchiun in 1542 that they were on Spanish land. I imagine it would have come as a shock. The Spanish called this place, from Mexico all the way north, Nueva España. This is not the most inspired piece of geographic christening in the world, but seems to have been state-of-the-art for the 16th Century.

The name “California” had also made its way into the Spanish cartographic lexicon by that point. Early explorers thought the Baja California peninsula was an island, and they named it after an imaginary island (inhabited only by women) described in Las Sergas de Esplandían, a chivalric romance novel published in 1510. The early Spanish explorers pretty quickly figured out that they were wrong, but the name stuck, applied broadly to the western coast of North America. (Their initial cartographic error also stuck, propagated in maps into the 18th Century.)

Sir Francis Drake stopped by this part of the world for a quick looky-loo in 1579 and claimed much of western North America for England, not caring much for the earlier Spanish claims. Queen Elizabeth initially kept his journey and findings a secret, so as not to antagonize Spain, but after the two nations began fighting an undeclared war in 1585, she released an account of Drake’s journey. By the early 1600s, the English were producing maps that labeled the western American coast New Albion (“Albion” being an archaic and poetic name for Britain). The English didn’t make another visit to the West Coast for a long time, though, and the name didn’t take, nor did their claim to possess what is now California.

The Spanish maintained their claim on the whole West Coast, but it took them a couple of centuries before they paid much attention to anything north of San Diego. In the 1760s, prompted partly by concerns about Russian expansion from Alaska and British movement across the continent, Spain began organizing for the settlement of the territory north of Baja (“lower” or Vieja: “old”) California. They called that territory Alta California, or Nueva California.

The Spanish method of rationalizing the landscape rested on a system of three types of settlement: missions, forts (presidios), and towns (pueblos). The first settlers arrived in the Bay Area in the last quarter of the 18th Century and began laying this patchwork across the land. Nearly all of the native inhabitants of the Bay Area were taken into the mission system: baptized, relocated, used as farm labor on the mission lands. (Most of the East Bay Huchiun people ended up across the bay at the Mission San Francisco de Asís, or Mission Dolores.) This conversion and subjugation, along with disease and some armed conflict, rapidly emptied what had been a well-peopled land. This created both a challenge and an opportunity for Spain.

As their early settlements grew, the Spanish colonial rulers needed a way to productively settle the lands beyond the walls of the missions, pueblos, and presidios. They began granting vast tracts of land to prominent individuals, often as a reward for military service. The grants were called ranchos. The grantees got grazing and farming rights, but the Crown retained the title to the land. Title ends up making a lot of difference, as the native Huchiun had discovered, and as many of the Alta California grantees would discover in later years.

Luis María Peralta received one of the last of Spain’s Alta California land grants in 1820. Peralta had served all his adult life as a soldier in the army of New Spain, and in 1804 he settled in the pueblo of San José, with a small rancho nearby. (The house he moved into, still standing, is the oldest extant building in San José: the Peralta adobe.) He worried that the expanding pueblo would swallow up his ranch lands, so he requested a grant further north, in a swath of unclaimed land that lay east across the bay from San Francisco.

Luis Peralta, his sons Domingo and Antonio Maria, and witnesses Nicolas Berryessa and Juan Miranda, all rode north with a party of soldiers led by Lieutenant Ygnacio Martínez on August 16, 1820, to stake out Peralta’s new claim. Domingo gave a detailed recounting of that journey over 40 years later, in an 1861 court deposition. (The deposing attorney asked him for so much detail, in fact, that at one point Domingo asked him sarcastically, “Do you want to know what color our horses were?”)

The party made their first stop at what is now called San Leandro Creek, where Peralta marked the southern boundary of his request. Martínez gathered handfuls of earth and “threw this earth toward the four winds.” He asked how far north Peralta wanted his claim to extend; Peralta replied “Let us advance.” They rode on, well north, and stopped at a creek near a prominent hill, or cerrito, which had a creek running on its north side — now called Cerrito Creek. Peralta said it should mark the northern boundary of his claim. The party attempted to eat lunch nearby, but they were run off by the mosquitos. They moved to a new spot to eat, crafted a landmark out of some rocks, then rode back south to make the claim official by submitting the diseño.

Peralta’s party had marked out nearly 45,000 acres nestled between the bay and a range of hills, bounded by the creeks on the north and south. The Viceroyalty of New Spain called it Rancho San Antonio. Today we call it the cities of Albany, Berkeley, Emeryville, Oakland, Piedmont, Alameda, and part of San Leandro.

The next year, in 1821, Mexico won its independence, and a new regime took control of the Spanish possessions in North America. In this new nation, this land was part of the province of Las Californias. The Mexican authorities continued the Spanish practice of establishing ranchos through land grants, further carving up the territory of Alta California, while honoring the older Spanish grants.

Luis Peralta never moved from San José to his Rancho San Antonio, but as his four sons became adults, the Rancho became their home. They built houses, established families, and ran thousands of head of cattle across the ten square leagues of land. The elder Peralta decided in 1842 that he should formalize what had been clear for years. He apportioned his holdings to his sons roughly equally. Vicente Peralta got the land that included where I live now; he managed it jointly with his older brother Domingo, who had been deeded the northernmost portion of the rancho (present-day Berkeley and Albany).

Some people called Vicente Peralta’s portion Rancho Temescal, named after the creek that ran through the territory to the Bay — the creek the Huchiun had drunk from and fished in, though they weren’t around to use it anymore. Not far from the mouth of that creek, Vicente built a set of large cattle corrals. My house would be inside one of them if the fences were still standing.

The Peralta brothers continued their cattle ranching more-or-less unperturbed through the 1840s, which proved to be a momentous decade. By the middle of it, Mexican authorities were struggling to administer a territory so large and so distant from their center of power, and the first American settlers were arriving in Alta California by wagon and boat. In May of 1846, the United States, with an appetite for westward expansion that would not be denied, launched a war against Mexico. Just two months after the war’s declaration, American forces had secured northern California from Sonoma to Monterey. Within another five months, all fighting in Alta California ended by informal agreement.

On February 2, 1848, in Mexico City, representatives of the United States and Mexico signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, settling the Mexican-American War, which had lasted less than two years. As part of that treaty, the U.S. took possession of almost all of what had been Alta California (what is now California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, and parts of Colorado and Wyoming), plus Texas. The United States government called its new territory the Mexican Cession. 

What the signatories didn’t know — what almost no one knew at the time, because news traveled slowly in 1848 — was that nine days earlier, on January 24, James Marshall had found gold at Sutter’s Mill in the foothills near Coloma. And then things got complicated.

That’s for Part Two.


12 thoughts on “The Place I Pretend to Own, Part One

    • I recommend it. You learn all kinds of neat stuff along the way. I just helped a friend and near-neighbor start looking at the history of his house — which despite being only blocks away has a very different pathway to the present than mine.

      Now I’m curious about what the property records for Santa Clara County look like, compared to Alameda.

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