The Place I Pretend to Own, Part Two

My first post about the history of where I live covered the period right up to the discovery of gold in California. If you haven’t read it, this is going to feel like a really abrupt beginning. 

At the start of 1848, the little rectangle of land I now own was still part of Vicente Peralta’s Rancho Temescal, a portion of the nearly 45,000-acre Spanish land grant made to Peralta’s father Luís 28 years prior. In January of 1848, James Marshall found gold in the Sierra foothills, and a few days later, the Mexican-American War ended with a treaty signed in Mexico City. At that point, the history of this place shifted into a higher gear.

The U.S. Senate ratified the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in early March 1848, transferring control of Alta California to the U.S. During their deliberations, the Senate struck Article X, which had explicitly guaranteed that the U.S. would honor the Spanish and Mexican land grants in this transferred territory.

Representatives of the two nations subsequently exchanged ratifications, and when the Mexican delegates expressed concern about the missing Article X, the parties negotiated a supplement to the treaty that reaffirmed the validity of the land grants. The U.S. government would ignore that supplement. The negotiators, Congress later rationalized, never had the authority to create it.

As the two governments were ratifying treaties and coming to terms with their new borders, news of the California gold discovery was spreading. Gold-seekers began streaming in from all over the world, with the pace picking up in late 1848, into 1849. The swelling population of 49ers sought not only wealth but, soon, more representative (one could also say malleable) government than the Army officials who were administering the territory.

In the autumn of 1849, a convention of delegates in Monterey finalized California’s first constitution, set up a government, and petitioned for admission to the Union. The new California Legislature carved the not-yet-officially-a-state into 27 counties in early 1850. With that, the place I now live became part of the County of Contra Costa — in Spanish, “opposite coast,” as it sits across the Bay from San Francisco. In 1853, it would become part of a new county, Alameda County. (Whatever it has been called, this part of the Bay Area has never stopped defining itself in opposition to San Francisco.)

A golden gateway to the Pacific was a powerful motivator for Congress, as was a desire to avert a national crisis over the spread of slavery. California was admitted as a free state as part of the Compromise of 1850, in September of that year, leapfrogging a huge patch of the continent to become the first non-contiguous U.S. state. That made this land officially part of the State of California, with the borders we know today.

Immigrants in great numbers continued streaming into the new state, hoping it was still golden. Among them was a young couple who, while Congress was debating California’s admission, were on a wagon creeping across the continent. George Parsons, born in either New York or Canada, had been farming in northern Illinois when he caught gold fever in late 1849. He made his way to Janesville, Wisconsin, to find a wagon train to join. He found a wife, too: Lucena Pfuffer, the cousin of another member of his traveling party. George and Lucena married on March 18, 1850, and set out the very next day in a covered wagon headed west.

We know a fair bit about their journey because Lucena Parsons kept a diary. The Parsons’ wagon party made it to Utah by late fall, and overwintered in the Salt Lake Valley, where Lucena had some most unpleasant things to say about the area’s Mormon inhabitants. They hit the trail again in February 1851, and by the spring, they were in “Gold Canyon” in Nevada, just east of Lake Tahoe. They did a little gold panning there — making $16 one day, $8 the next, $10 the next, grain by glittering grain — but their destination was California, so they rode on.

Maybe they should have stayed. By the time George and Lucena Parsons crossed into California, later in 1851, this state’s gold rush had already entered a more established phase that made it nearly impossible for new arrivals to set up profitable stakes. They were too late. So they kept moving toward the ocean, eventually making their way to the eastern shore of the San Francisco Bay. There was a small town springing up on the waterfront. Its founders had named it after a massive grove of oaks that had been growing nearby. They called it Oakland.

George and Lucena Parsons found some land a few miles north of this new town, along the old County Road, and they squatted. George picked up where he had left off in Illinois: he started farming. They built a house. Their first child, Ellen Marie, was born in September of 1852. (Ellen was latter referred to as “the first white child” born in the vicinity of Oakland, which is both unverifiable and racist.) The phrase “the land claimed by George Parsons” appears as a geographic reference in the 1853 deed of Frederick Coggeshall’s purchase of a plot just to the southeast. That’s what people had started calling this land — notwithstanding the matter of legal title.

About that. What happened with land in California after statehood is a complicated story, and I have to leave out a lot of detail here, but I think it’s important to give at least a rough outline. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out how this went down locally, and I’m still not sure I have it entirely correct — contradictory accounts abound — so if you see something you think I’ve gotten wrong, let me know. (“Abridged” and “wrong” are not synonyms.)

One of the first laws passed by the brand-spanking-new California Legislature was the Possessory Act of 1850, enacted in April of that year. The law allowed any person to claim up to 160 acres of unoccupied public lands — provided there was no mining taking place — by clearly marking the boundaries, occupying and cultivating their claim, and not neglecting it for more than three months. “Unoccupied” just meant that the claimant was ignorant, or at least professed ignorance, of any existing valid title to the land. You might be surprised how “unoccupied” some ranch lands can look if you face west and squint.

Shortly after the California Legislature made it easier for newcomers to claim land in the state, Congress made it harder for the long-time owners to do so. In March of 1851, they passed the California Land Act, carried by one of the new state’s first Senators, William Gwin. The Act created the Public Lands Commission, charged with determining the validity of the Spanish and Mexican land grant claims. Grantees were required to present proof of their claims within two years, or the lands would pass automatically into the public domain. This is pretty much the opposite of the stricken Article X from the 1848 treaty, which had said the land grants were to be presumed valid.

Vicente Peralta and his brother Domingo submitted their joint claim on January 21, 1852, for their half of the Rancho San Antonio granted originally to their father. But even as they were filing the papers to secure their patrimony, they were losing control of it.

Immigrant squatters like George Parsons were carving up the Peralta land and claiming it as their own, empowered by state law, certainly not discouraged by federal. Rustlers were stealing the Peraltas’ cattle by night, shipping them quietly across the bay to booming, hungry San Francisco. Enterprising young men with axes were turning the Peraltas’ redwoods into lumber. The English-speaking American population was rapidly growing to outnumber the Spanish-speaking Californios, and gaining commensurate influence over local politics and law.

While he lived, Luís Peralta had cautioned his sons against selling any of their land. He died in August of 1851, and his sons buried his advice with him. They could read the writing on their adobe walls.

Vicente Peralta sold 2,000 acres in March of 1852, less than two months after submitting his Public Lands Commission claim. Shortly thereafter, he sold the majority of his remaining land, save a 700-acre “reserve.” His brother Domingo followed suit in 1853, keeping a similar reserve of 300 acres.

The Land Commission worked much more slowly than the land market. In February of 1854, two years after Vicente and Domingo Peralta had submitted their claim, the Commission confirmed a portion of it. After two years of appeals, the case finally ended at the Supreme Court in 1856. It took a ruling from the Supreme Court of the United States to affirm that the Peraltas had owned the full claim all along — by which point they had already sold nearly all of it, some to pay for the fees of their attorneys through the years of legal wrangling.

The Peraltas had made their 1852-53 sales to a group of investors including John Coffee Hays (then Sheriff of San Francisco), John Caperton, Joseph Irving, Lucien Hermann, Richard Hammond, and Hall McAllister. As those initial investors sold or reapportioned their shares, others came to own an interest in the Peralta rancho. Those additional owners eventually included: J. Mora Moss, namesake of Oakland’s Mosswood neighborhood (and park); William Gwin, the Senator who carried the 1851 Land Claims Act; and William Tecumseh Sherman. Yes, that one.

When all these would-be real estate barons grew tired of riding the boom, they started to wonder what exactly it was they owned and how they could rationally apportion it among themselves. John Hays, the ex-sheriff, had been appointed U.S. Surveyor General for California in 1853, and he commissioned — or maybe ordered — one of his deputies, Julius Kellersberger, to complete a map of the Peralta lands and divide it into parcels suitable for distribution. (Kellersberger had drafted an early map of the Town of Oakland, numbering the blocks, naming the wide streets, and giving the center of the city the shape it still has today, give or take the intrusion of the odd freeway.)

Kellersberger finally finished the map in 1856. The big “H” in “Oakland Township” hovers above the start of the old County Road — also known as the San Pablo Road. A few miles north of that origin, the road crosses a creek near a grove of trees. That’s Temescal Creek. The land around it, 74 acres of both sides of the road, is labeled as plot 40. That became the new name of this place: Plot Number 40 on the Kellersberger Map of the Ranchos of Vicente and Domingo Peralta.

Around the time Kellersberger was finishing his map, one man was consolidating ownership of the lands it depicted. François A.L. Pioche, an immigrant from France by way of Chile, had made several fortunes for himself in California starting early in the Gold Rush: first mining, then retail, then banking and other ventures. He headed back to his native France in 1853, but when he returned in 1856, he had a plan. Prices on the Peralta land had begun to stabilize, now that the great rush was slowing. Pioche dipped into his vast accounts and bought out all of the other owners: Hays, Caperton, Irving, Moss, Sherman, the whole lot. The deed for that transfer, dated July 1, 1856, includes the tract of land “known and designated as plot number forty upon the aforesaid [Kellersberger] map and containing seventy-four acres.”

Through all this — the land claims, the legal fights, the sales, the re-sales, the mapping — George Parsons had been making a steady living farming land in Plot 40. He and Lucena had another daughter in 1856. An article in the weekly magazine California Farmer and Journal of Useful Sciences from March 1857 describes a correspondent’s visit to their “nice cottage home,” around which they had planted onions, potatoes, and beans

But between the Peraltas’ own claims and the initial purchases by Hays, Caperton, and the others, Parsons was never able to invoke the state Possessory Rights Act and make the land his by squatter’s rights. He had pretended to own it, but it didn’t work.

I can’t find any evidence of Parsons’s relationship with the legal owners of the land during what amounted to his tenancy. He may have paid rent; they may have simply allowed him to farm the land unmolested as title was being worked out in the courts and among the investors.

George Parsons had no interest in being a tenant, though. On May 3, 1858, he purchased all of Plot 40 from Pioche for $2,590. Now the land was officially George Parsons’s farm. Squatting hadn’t worked exactly as advertised, but his hold on this place had nonetheless outlasted the most tumultuous period for land tenancy in California’s history (up to and including the present). He would keep it whole for about 11 years.

We’ll pick up the story of George Parsons and his land — some of which is now my land — in Part Three.

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7 thoughts on “The Place I Pretend to Own, Part Two

    • I was doing research for over a month before I posted Part One. I don’t know how many hours; it’s not like it was my full-time job, of course. It took me a long time just to figure out what the heck was going on with the movement of land around here in a general way — like taking a history course on my own. I’m still doing research to flesh out the details. I spent many hours Monday and a few today in the Alameda County Clerk-Recorder’s office looking at microfiche of deeds from the 1850s to get the last few details on the story that I already had the general contours of. That’s not a complaint. So much fun. I’ll be doing more of that in the coming week to fill in some gaps for Part Three, though most of it is already written. Again, no idea how many hours. Lots, but they flew by.

  1. I was totally going to ask the same question, Scott. I’d love to do this for my house someday. You know, like when I’m retired…

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