House History, Condensed and Reflected

The history of my house — and thanks to those of you who read the long blog posts about it — can now be found in a different form in the Winter issue of the journal Boom. I wrote an essay for Boom about why I started the project, what I found (a condensed version of the story of my house I wrote starting here), and reflections on what I had learned once I was done. I also had help from pseudonymous friend Burrito Justice creating some custom maps for the online version of the essay.

If you’d rather hear the story in audio form, I read the essay (plus a few embellishments that were cut from the published version) on my podcast recently. Stick around after the reading for a talk with Burrito Justice about the challenges of mapping history and a bit more reflection on what I hope is next for my city.


The Place I Pretend to Own, Part Five

Parts one, two, three, and four of the history of where I live covered from the Ohlones to 1899. You don’t have to read them, but it probably helps.

As the 19th Century neared its end, the place where I live now had taken on a form that I would have recognized. The old farm and ranch plots north of Oakland, first carved out of the Peralta Rancho in the initial wave of Gold Rush settlement, had been further subdivided into suburban lots. Streets were cut through and named according to the subdivider’s fancy. Small-scale developers and individual owners had erected middle- and working-class houses along those new streets — though lots of gaps remained between the houses, empty lots whose owners could afford to sit and wait.

Golden Gate, a community about three miles north of downtown Oakland, had gone from a sparsely settled farming district to a full-fledged streetcar neighborhood in under 30 years. The land had been tamed and named — and in the process stolen, then stolen again with a bit more legal complexity, then bought and sold several times over in ever-shrinking slices. The land baron still had a future in Oakland, but for the next few decades, Golden Gate — my neighborhood — would be shaped largely by those who dealt in smaller pieces of land, and by one event that affected all of the land.

Eliza Donahue had purchased one of those small pieces of the Golden Gate neighborhood: a 50′ x 91′ patch of land identified in public records as Lot 8 of Block D of the Gaskill Tract. Donahue lived in San Francisco with her husband Henry and children — five in 1887 when she bought the lot; ultimately nine. They were no doubt more than enough to keep her busy while Henry sold sewing machines, but she found some time in the 1890s to oversee the construction of a small house on the western side of the lot. It was about 11 feet wide and 30 feet long, smaller than most of the other houses on the block, but it provided the Donahues with a bit of rental income.

The address of Eliza Donahue’s rental house was 1073 Sutter Street, but after the neighborhood’s 1897 annexation to Oakland, the city changed the street names to conform to its preexisting numbered system. Eliza Donahue was now the owners of a place called 1073 56th Street.

More was changing in the area than just street names. Golden Gate owed much of its allure to its transportation connections. (Transportation was in fact the chicken, not the egg, in the area’s development process.) Golden Gate had experienced its first subdivision boom after the construction of a rail line that connected residents to San Francisco via ferry, then a horsecar line to downtown Oakland. The horsecar line originally stopped a bit south of the neighborhood at the property of Joseph Emery (as in Emeryville), who built the line to provide easy access to the lots he was selling. Cable cars replaced the horsecars in the 1880s, and the line was extended northward into the heart of the neighborhood. The impetus for the extension had come from Charles Klinkner, an early developer in the area who had attempted to have it named Klinknerville.

Shortly after annexation, the San Pablo Avenue rail line was electrified under the hand of Francis Marion “Borax” Smith. His nickname derived from the same source as his fortune: borax mining in Nevada and southern California. In the 1890s, Smith turned his millions toward real estate — as is so often the way of things in the Bay Area — and to transportation. He began buying up the area’s many privately-owned streetcar lines, including the San Pablo Avenue line, while also working with other investors to buy up cheap, still-undeveloped land in the East Bay. He modernized and expanded his transportation holdings, including a new ferry link to San Francisco, competing with the Southern Pacific railroad. Within a few years, Smith would give his combined transportation network a new nickname, based on the shape its main lines and hubs outlined on a map: the Key System.

The Donahues didn’t have a mining fortune to invest, and their empire was not growing. Henry Donahue died on February 19, 1900, leaving Eliza to manage the household with the nine children — though some were hardly children anymore, ranging in age from 21 to 3. At the time, Eliza was renting 1073 56th Street to two local stablemen, William Dingle and Vincent Perkins. The rent was probably her only direct source of income, though her older sons were already working outside the home. John was a salesman; Henry Jr., a day laborer; 15-year-old Andrew, a photographer’s apprentice.

These were not easy times for the Donahues. The next year, in March 1901, Eliza’s youngest son Joseph died, a month shy of his fourth birthday. Eliza continued to rent the house for a few more years; different tenants cycled through. The 1903 Oakland directory shows it occupied by John Gilmore, a laborer. In 1905, the occupants were George R. Sharp and Frank D. Wilson.

Sharp and Wilson would be the last tenants. That year, Eliza Donahue decided to get out of the rental business. She sold Lot 8 of Block D of the Gaskill Tract and the house known as 1073 56th Street on July 20, 1905.

The buyers were a couple: John and Johanna Kavanagh, 53 and 52 years old, respectively. (The last name sometimes shows up as Kavanaugh, with a “u”.) John Matthew Kavanagh was born in Ireland and had come to the United States in 1864. Johanna was Canadian by birth, immigrating in 1867. John was a long-time employee of the Southern Pacific Railroad, working in 1905 as a gateman. They had two sons, John F. (called John Jr.), who was 16, and Matthew, 13. Both worked in printing shops, one for the now-defunct Oakland Herald newspaper. For several years prior, the Kavanaghs had been living in rented houses around the Golden Gate neighborhood.

The Kavanaghs’ 1905 purchase put them just ahead of the next great boom in East Bay property values — a boom even less predictable than usual. On April 18, 1906 (108 years ago, to the day, as I write this), a powerful earthquake struck San Francisco. The quake toppled buildings, buckled streets, and leveled great stretches of the city. But it was the fire — four days of it, sweeping through the center of the city — that finished the job the quake had started. The quake and fire together destroyed 80% of San Francisco and left over a quarter-million people homeless. Many of the refugees fled the flames and the rubble by boarding ferries east.

Fleeing East on Ferry

Fleeing East on the Ferry (from Calisphere)

Before the earthquake, the East Bay had been a mostly sleepy set of small towns, suburbs, farms and ranches. Oakland had some claim to the status of city, but even prosperous neighborhoods like Golden Gate still had plenty of relatively cheap, undeveloped land. The East Bay had been damaged in the quake, but no firestorm had followed, so the area had fared much better than San Francisco.

200,000 San Franciscans moved east in the immediate aftermath of the quake. Three-quarters of them ended up staying for good. Oakland, Berkeley, and other towns built rapidly to accommodate these new residents, and the Golden Gate neighborhood was caught up in that wave. (For a bit more about the East Bay’s post-quake boom, read Kevin Fagan’s San Francisco Chronicle article, published for the earthquake centennial in 2006.)

The Kavanaghs, as we might say now, happened to be in the right place at the right time. On the other hand, if Eliza Donahue — who survived the earthquake and stayed in San Francisco — had held onto the lot for just a year longer, her fortunes might have been considerably improved. Real estate markets are hard enough to time, even before you introduce the possibility of geological cataclysm.

1911 Sanborn crop

1911 Sanborn Map

When the quake hit, the Kavanaghs were still living in the small house that Eliza Donahue built at 1073 56th Street, which only occupied part of the western half of the lot. In late 1907 or early 1908, John Sr. built a bigger, more modern five-room cottage on the eastern half. The new house was roughly twice as large as the old, but still quite simple in layout: living room, dining room, and kitchen down one side, two bedrooms on the other. It had a front porch, just big enough for a couple of chairs or a bench, overlooking a small front yard and the street. The 1909 city directory lists the Kavanaghs at their new address: 1071 56th Street.

The Sanborn Map update published in 1911 shows the lot in this state: Donahue house on the west (left), the new, larger Kavanagh house on the east (right).

After their move, the Kavanaghs brought in a little money by renting the old 1073 house. From 1909 to 1911, Louise Bernatas, a widowed refugee from San Francisco, lived there with her three children. Another tenant, Leon Bertin, is listed there in the 1912 directory — but the directories lagged behind both building and moving.

Building permits and tax assessor’s records show instead that in 1911, John Kavanagh tore down the small house at 1073 56th and built a new one to replace it. He re-used the plans from his previous project, and built on the western half of his lot an exact twin of the house he’d put up on the eastern half: the house so nice he built it twice. These two identical houses, each about 750 square feet, nearly filled the 50′ width of the lot, save a narrow passage of not quite three feet between them. This second John Kavanagh house is the one I live in now. (When my wife and I bought our house three years ago, the date of construction was listed incorrectly as 1905. We thought it had survived the 1906 quake, and we felt pretty good about that. We don’t anymore.)

By 1913, the continued infill development of the neighborhood — spurred by the post-earthquake boom — had added enough new houses that they had to be renumbered. The Kavanaghs’ two houses were relabeled as 1077 and 1079 56th Street, the numbers they still bear today.

The 1915 city directory shows all the Kavanaghs living at 1077, with Matthew working at the Pacific Manifold Book Company, a relatively new factory at Powell and what is now Doyle Street in Emeryville. Every time I walk to my favorite local bar, I recreate Matthew Kavanagh’s walk to work. That site is now being redeveloped into a large apartment building, though they have preserved the factory’s eastern brick wall, including the window openings and the arched doorway you can see in this photo from around 1917.

Pacific Manifolding Book Company

Pacific Manifolding Book Company

The older Kavanagh son, John Jr., found time around his own printing job to be active in his local chapter of the Native Sons of the Golden West, the “Claremont Parlor”, Number 240. The Native Sons are a fraternal order for men born in California, whose primary mission is to preserve the history of the state. His parents were both immigrants from other countries, but John Jr. embraced his Californian identity with gusto. He served as President of the Claremont Parlor in 1913, the year he turned 24.

Among John’s brothers in the Native Sons chapter was a man named William C. Boehm (himself the son of German immigrants). Boehm had a younger sister named Marie, who lived nearby and worked as a telephone operator. Marie Katherine Boehm and John Kavanagh met, likely introduced by her brother, and married around 1916. As might be expected, John moved out of the family home at 1077 56th. The newlyweds started their life together in a house of their own — next door, at 1079 56th.

The 1920 Census gives us a picture of the Golden Gate Kavanaghs. John M. (68), Johanna, (67), and Matthew (29) lived at 1077 56th. John Sr. listed no occupation; he had retired from the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1919, after 35 years and 4 months of service. Next door at 1079 56th were John F. (30), Marie (24), and their two sons, William (3½) and John (2½) — yes, another John.

The Kavanaghs were on a real tear on 56th Street in this period. Just to the east of their twin houses was an older house, dating from the 1890s — complete with water tower and windmill, which was the style at the time. Around 1920, Matthew Kavanagh bought that property from its long-time owners, the Pendletons. Within a couple of years, the old house and the water tower came down. John Sr., with some time on his hands post-retirement, built a new house, larger than the twins he’d built next door. That new house was given the number 1073 56th. (You can imagine the knots I tied myself into during the early phases of this research when I was trying to track the Kavanaghs across several changing house numbers, one of which repeats.) 1073 would eventually acquire a carriage house at the rear of the lot, though I haven’t yet figured out the year of its construction.

1079 56th on 1951 Sanborn

The three Kavanagh houses

After construction, John Sr., Johanna, and Matthew moved in to the new, larger house at 1073. John Jr., Marie, and their young sons swapped in to 1077. (Because they wanted to hurt future researchers like me.) And the family began renting 1079 — where I live now — to a succession of tenants. The Sanborn map to the right shows the Kavanagh holdings. This one family was now responsible for three out of the 13 houses on their side of the block.

John Kavanagh was no Borax Smith, but he had nonetheless shaped this neighborhood. He wasn’t motivated by a desire to name the place after himself or to make a fortune. He was motivated to provide for his family.

Kavanagh and other small property owners like him gave my block of 56th Street the built form it has today. Nearly every house on the block was built before 1925, a plurality (including mine) between 1906 and 1913. They had help from a terrible earthquake — an unusual antecedent for a real estate boom, surely, but the 1906 quake pushed up land values and housing demand in Oakland in the same way the previous, man-made booms had done. The quake tore (or burned) down buildings in San Francisco, and it built my neighborhood.

By 1930, John Kavanagh and his family (and the earthquake) had already left their legacy in the Golden Gate neighborhood. But I’m not through telling their story, or the story of this place. More of both in Part Six.

The Place I Pretend to Own, Part Four

Parts one, two and three of the history of where I live brought us up to 1877, when this land was called the Gaskill Tract.

In early 1877, DeWitt Clinton Gaskill returned from a months-long trip back East with his family and his mining money to find the area around his 17-acre tract north of Oakland booming with activity. A new horse car line and rail line promised easy trips to downtown Oakland and, via ferry, San Francisco. Some of the nearby plots were still farms and ranches, but many had been subdivided for housing development. Cultivation was giving way to speculation.

Gaskill joined in the fun by promptly subdividing his tract and selling lots. Among the buyers was David Leeman Emerson, a local real estate investor and orator who spoke passionately (if self-interestedly) on the potential for development around Oakland just a few years before. In August 1877, Emerson purchased around 20 of Gaskill’s lots, including one identified as Lot 8 of Block D, where I live now. It didn’t have an address yet, but it was about 250 feet east of San Pablo Avenue on the newly-christened Sutter Street (a continuation of the same street from a tract to the east that had been platted out in 1871).

Emerson didn’t stop with that initial bulk purchase. He bought more land from Gaskill, and from others to whom Gaskill had initially sold. Within a few months, he owned over 50 of the 112 lots in the Tract. He might have planned to hold the lots until continued development pressure in the area pushed prices up; he might have intended to build houses on spec and sell them to middle-class commuters. Whatever the plan, he saw a speculative opportunity and poured all that he had into it.

But Emerson had miscalculated, or had been credulous of his own real estate boosterism, or both. The entire country, including relatively insulated and well-off California, was still reeling from the Panic of 1873 and the major recession that followed (which people called the Great Depression, until the Greater one in the 1930s). Unemployment was high and still rising, and the primary cause of the boom in subdivision in the area around the Gaskill Tract had been an epidemic of me-too-ism, not a genuine demand for new houses. Most of the lots carved out of the farms and ranches north of Oakland in the late 1870s were still empty. Land values stagnated or fell. The bubble popped.

From reports mentioning D. L. Emerson around this time, one gets the impression of a man who had stretched himself too thin and was searching for a solution before he snapped. In April 1878, he was sued by Margaret Briceland to recover $670 for breach of contract in a land purchase. He was also involved in at least one other real estate suit later in the year. Just two weeks after that April suit was filed, he threw his hat into the ring as a Republican candidate for Congress, despite never having held political office. His reputation for powerful speechifying did not translate into success; the party ultimately chose incumbent Congressman Horace F. Page. Later, in July 1879, he sought the State Senate nomination of the Workingmen’s Party, a short-lived socialist and anti-immigrant faction that was already wheezing its last breaths at the time. He failed in that bid, as well.

Whatever Emerson might have hoped to do with the Gaskill lots, financial reality forced him to sell quickly. On June 8, 1878, less than a year after his initial purchase, he held an auction on the premises. The newspaper ad for the auction assured people attending from San Francisco that lunch would be served, so they needn’t “refresh the ‘inner man'” in advance. The ad talked up the “extensive and unobstructive [sic] views of the Bay” — only viewable because so few buildings yet stood in the way. And Emerson made an offer that amounted to a primitive Community Benefits Agreement: if 50 or more of the lots sold that day, he would donate a 50′ x 91′ lot for “a Protestant church.”

Emerson never had to make good on that offer. He sold a handful of lots at the auction, then over the following years further off-loaded his Gaskill Tract holdings in dribs and drabs that kept him afloat but not prosperous. In one of those transactions, in June of 1880, Emerson parted with Lot 8 of Block D, along with neighboring Lots 6, 7, 9, and 10. He sold the five for $2000, about what he’d paid D.W.C. Gaskill for them three years before. This sale marked the end of David Leeman Emerson’s speculation in the Gaskill Tract, and of his real estate business generally. He disappeared from the public records around this time.

The man who bought the place where I live now from Emerson was Wendell Easton. Easton ran a successful real estate brokerage in San Francisco; he had weathered the recession with relative ease (as so many in that city did during our most recent recession). From County deed records and newspaper transaction reports, it’s clear that Easton was gathering up a large chunk of the Gaskill Tract, just as Emerson had done. He saw the same speculative opportunity. But Easton had deeper pockets filled with San Francisco money, and he could afford to sit across the Bay and be patient with his new Oakland holdings.

For the next several years, Easton left his Gaskill Tract lots mostly unsold and untouched, as did the majority of the other landowners in the area. The 1888 Sanborn map shows only three or four buildings per block. Lot 8 of Block D remained bare, sitting quietly between two modest houses. (The Sanborn Company created these maps to help estimate fire insurance risk. They also happen to provide an extraordinarily detailed record of the development of American cities, block by block, building by building, from the late 1800s until nearly the present. For urban history nerds like me, they are gold.)

1888 Sanborn Map Sutter Street

In 1887, around the time the Sanborn surveyors would have been putting together that map, Easton began to move more aggressively to shed some of his Gaskill Tract holdings. The economy had recovered from the recession, and in fact rebounded into another local boom — this time with more substance. The farmland north of Oakland that had been prematurely subdivided in the 1870s was beginning to sprout a crop of houses, some of which were captured in the Sanborn map, but with many more to come.

Just north of the Gaskill Tract, an eccentric but enterprising character had taken it upon himself to give the place a fresh coat of paint, a cluster of new buildings, and a name. Charles Alexander Klinkner, born in Germany in 1852, had come to California in 1872 and made his living in sales for several years. His most profitable venture had been selling rubber stamps, which he did mainly from San Francisco. In 1877, Klinkner had used some of his San Francisco money — you may be sensing a motif — to buy 14 acres of farmland near the San Pablo station on the new rail line leading to the ferry pier, perhaps spurred by the same speculative frenzy that had prompted D.W.C. Gaskill to sell lots and D.L. Emerson to buy them. Klinkner intended to turn his sales acumen toward real estate.

Klinkner’s ambition was put on hold by the recession, but in 1886, he picked it up again. He constructed a large commercial building on San Pablo Avenue (at what is now 59th Street) that housed a store and offices, and a hotel across the street. He borrowed money to build houses on spec and found willing buyers through a combination of good economic timing and outlandish sales tactics, like walking around with a dog that wore a blanket advertising his development, on the back of which dog rode a monkey. Never one for modesty, he began calling the place he’d built Klinknerville.

A few blocks south of Klinkner’s eponymous development, Wendell Easton was selling. On August 25, 1887, he sold Lot 8 of Block D to Eliza Powers Donahue. Donahue was a 31-year-old  San Francisco resident, originally from New York. She married Henry Donahue, ten years her senior, in 1877; by 1887 they had five children. Henry was a sewing machine sales agent. Eliza was occupied keeping house.

The Donahues weren’t wealthy — San Francisco city directories show them bouncing among modest rented houses in Hayes Valley for the next decade — but they had a little money to invest, and they chose to put it into Oakland property. The deed specifically lists the buyer as “Eliza Donahue, wife of Henry Donahue,” implying that Henry had little to do with the transaction, else he would have been listed first. She paid $250 in cash, meaning Easton lost money on the lot, but he was hardly in danger of dissolution in the style of D.L. Emerson.

Indulge me in a return to Emerson. After his abortive flirtation with speculation in the Gaskill Tract in the late 1870s, he disappeared from public records and from Oakland city directories. He reappeared in 1884-85 in the Berkeley directory, identified as an “attorney-at-law.” He had apparently attempted a career change, but without much success. (An 1893 newspaper article about his daughter said that during this period he “studied law, but did not practice much.”)

In April 1888, D.L. Emerson requested alms from the Alameda County Board of Supervisors, in the amount of $12, “wherewith to buy medicine for blood-poisoning.” A newspaper item about the request acknowledges that Emerson was once “one of Oakland’s wealthiest men” — his property holdings in 1876, before his Gaskill Tract investments, had been assessed at $34,450 (over $740,000 today) — but says that “business reverses and revelry downed him.” If the real estate records are any guide, the revelry really had very little to do with it, but we have always liked our economy served with a heavy helping of morality in America.

A year later, he gave his family a fright by disappearing for more than two weeks. In early June, he soon resurfaced, saying that he had not in fact been missing, just visiting his son in Amador County.

The next mention of David L. Emerson in the newspapers came about a month later, in the form of a brief note in the July 12 edition of the Daily Alta California. It was a death notice. He had died two days before in San Francisco. The man who showed such bright promise early in life had been ruined by Bay Area real estate, and had never recovered. His legacy, such as it is, is captured on microfilm in the Alameda County Clerk-Recorder’s office, in newspaper archives and books that no one reads anymore, and in an 1873 patent for a primitive earthquake bracing system. Given enough time — sometimes just a few years — ownership feels awfully hollow.

Eliza Donahue did very little with Lot 8 of Block D of the Gaskill Tract in the first few few years that she owned it, but the area around her property went through an incredible change. Charles Klinkner ended up building more than 75 houses in his plot; other developers followed suit. The population of the still-unincorporated town shot up, and a post office opened in Klinkner’s commercial hall, outside of which he had hung a huge banner with the “Klinknerville” name in massive letters, probably legible from Donahue’s lot, and an illustrated hand pointing down to his sales office. “Stop here,” it said. “This is the place.”

Klinkner petitioned the U.S. Post Office to officially apply that name — his name — to the district, but other residents weren’t so keen on that idea. They preferred a more descriptive (and less personal) name that had been used as early as 1878, when the local agricultural association had begun holding its annual fairs at the nearby trotting park. It was a name that evoked those views of the Bay that D.L. Emerson and many others had used as a selling a point. Several years of dispute and lobbying ensued. In early 1893, shortly before Klinkner’s death, the local post office, and by extension the town growing around it, was christened “Golden Gate.”

An 1895 article in the San Francisco Call — which may have been an “advertorial” — speaks glowingly of the rapid development and many fine qualities of Golden Gate. The article mentions the local sanitary district, set up by residents in 1894, which had issued bonds to build a local sewer system. It also mentions a “Mrs. Parsons” as an important land owner in the area. Lucena Parsons, the diary-keeping early settler, was still living in a fine house on what is now 55th Street, after she subdivided and sold the remainder of the land she and her husband George had farmed. (George Parsons had died in August of 1882, when he was thrown from his wagon against a car of the new railroad connecting San Pablo Station to the San Francisco ferry pier. I’m just going to let that metaphor sit there.)

Golden Gate’s rapid development spurred Eliza Donahue to build. At some point in the 1890s — existing records don’t allow me to be any more specific than that — Donahue put up a small house on her lot. It shows up on the 1903 Sanborn map of the area, though it was standing at least as early as 1900, when the Census shows tenants living there. (More on that in the next post.)

The structure seems to reflect the Donahues’ limited means. The house was only about 11 feet wide and 30 feet long, probably a “railroad house,” with a narrow hallway down one side of three rooms. It was one story with a wood shingle roof. It sat on the western side of the 50′ x 91′ lot, its footprint entirely within that of my house today. It got a street address: 1073 Sutter.

Golden Gate’s ascendance did more than just prompt Eliza Donahue to build. In the rapidly-growing areas north of the city of Oakland, including Claremont, Temescal, and Golden Gate, some of the larger local property owners began calling for annexation by the city, espousing a vision of “Greater Oakland.” They reasoned that having reliable city services would increase the value of their holdings.

The movement had begun in 1894, though an 1895 election to annex Temescal alone failed. The “Greater Oakland” backers kept at it, and convinced more residents of the benefits of joining the city: lighting, sewers, police and fire protection, free entry into the city schools, and so on. (Meanwhile the little town of Emeryville incorporated in 1896, in part to fend off Oakland’s advancing greatness, which local business leaders didn’t think would be that great for them.)

The Oakland advocates tried again two years later, and Golden Gate was annexed to the city in an election in June of 1897. Legal challenges followed; none succeeded. The place where I live now had become a part of the City of Oakland.

In 1899, the City changed many of the street names in the areas annexed two years before, extending northward the numbering system for east-west streets that had started at Oakland’s original waterfront. Sutter became 56th (though the old name would persist in public records for decades).

And that is how Eliza Donahue found herself owning a little rectangle within a rectangle on a street called 56th Street, in a neighborhood called Golden Gate, in a city called Oakland, just like I do today. In Part Five, I’ll tell you how my house got here.

The Place I Pretend to Own, Part Three

It’s probably helpful, though not required, for you to read Part One and Part Two of the history of where I live before reading this.

When George and Lucena Parsons rolled west from Wisconsin in a covered wagon in 1850, they hoped they were headed for easy riches in California’s gold fields. They arrived too late; the easy money had already been dug out of the ground or claimed by others. George and Lucena had to try for a harder-won living in a more conventional kind of field.

In late 1851, they settled on a plot of “unoccupied” land north of the nascent town of Oakland, along the San Pablo Road, and farmed there through the 1850s. He wasn’t able to claim the land by squatter’s rights, but George did well enough that he was able to buy it — 74 acres in all, known as Kellersberger Plot Number 40 of what had been the ranchos of Vicente and Domingo Peralta — in May of 1858.

Just 10 years before, this land had been part of a huge, open ranch, the cattle vastly outnumbering the few Spanish-speaking people who tended them. Now it was fenced off into smaller homesteads, many of them plowed and planted (beginning a long tradition of pretending this place had more water than it actually does), and the language of the majority was English. The little city of Oakland three miles to the south was thriving, with leading residents founding cultural and educational institutions like the (then-private) College of California, founded in 1855, though it wouldn’t admit its first students until 1860. This place had begun to look less like the frontier and more like the eastern side of the country. One boom had ended. Another would start soon.

Once the matter of land title was settled, George and Lucena Parsons’ lives progressed conventionally and, for the most part, happily. In October of 1859, the Oakland Agricultural Society held its first fair, where George won awards for “best collection of peaches” and for best “Yankee pumpkins.” By 1860, they had three children: Ellen, Mary, and Charles, respectively 7, 4, and 2 at the time the 1860 Census was taken. In that Census, Parsons declared the value of the real estate at $12,000 (well above the $2,590 he paid for it two years before), and the personal property at $4,000. They were doing well enough to have two resident farmhands and a cook.

Another daughter, Martha, was born in 1860 (after the Census-taker visited, apparently). A second son arrived in 1862, named after his father: George Washington Parsons, Jr. But then young Charles died on Christmas Day of the same year. I could find no record or announcement of the cause, not that knowing it would really have explained the death of a four-year-old 150 years ago. There would be no more children for the Parsons.

Sometimes I look out a window and try to imagine what this neighborhood was like when it was George and Lucena Parsons’ farm. It’s hard to see through the fences and houses and parked cars. Occasionally, when I’ve had either not enough sleep or too much coffee (or both), just at the edge of my vision I can see a patch of beans or a tree weighed down with prize-winning peaches. Probably, though, I’m just seeing the raised bed in our back yard, where my wife is growing beans, or the withered, unloved peach tree next door, which will never win any prizes — little echoes everywhere.

Into the 1860s, George was surrounded primarily by other prosperous gentleman farmers like himself. Gradually, urbanizing pressures started to creep northward from Oakland. Early in the decade, newspaper real estate advertisements offered large tracts of “first-rate land” (i.e., for farming) near the Parsons’ place. By 1868, ads began to appear that emphasized subdivision, like this one offering 144 acres on the San Pablo Road, three miles from Oakland — again, near the Parsons — as “a fine opportunity for parties desiring to purchase a large tract for the purpose of dividing the same into small lots.”

Over the course of the decade, George Parsons began to cash in, transforming his land into more liquid wealth. By 1865, he had already sold the portion on the west side of the San Pablo Road (some of which became the grand estate of A. C. Dietz). He kept the eastern portion of the tract whole for another several years of farming.

Then in November of 1869, Parsons sold the northern half of his remaining land to Rollin C. Gaskill, for $15,000. The deed describes a roughly rectangular parcel running east of the San Pablo Road containing almost exactly 17 acres. In the same deed, Parsons agreed to give up half of the land necessary for a road connecting San Pablo Road with Adeline Street, running east-west along the boundary between his remaining lands and the 17-acre tract, whenever it came time to lay out such a road.

Rollin Carolus (R.C.) Gaskill had come to California from Vermont in 1853, joining his older brother, DeWitt Clinton (D.W.C.) Gaskill in a mining goods business in Butte County. The brothers passed the business between them until 1860, when D.W.C. took the whole thing over and R.C. got himself elected to the State Senate. He served two two-year terms, was then appointed Superintendent of Railway Mail Service for the Pacific Coast Division, and, after a few years, ended up farming 360 acres in Napa County. He moved to Oakland in 1869, when he bought the Parsons land (though the sale deed identifies him as still residing “in the County of Napa”) and set up shop as an agent for Wells Fargo, later also selling insurance.

R.C. Gaskill seems to have had no interest in being a real estate developer, and he wasn’t buying the Parsons land for himself. Just a few months later, on July 1, 1870, he sold the parcel to his brother, who was still living in Butte County at the time. Somewhere in there, this land got a new name: the Gaskill Tract.

For most of the 1870s, the Gaskill Tract sat exactly as it had when it had belonged to George Parsons. (He may have even continued to farm it under lease.) D.W.C. Gaskill remained in Butte County, tending to his businesses there. He sold those holdings in 1875 and made his way to the Bay Area, where, according to a biographical sketch published in 1892, “he was attacked by nervous prostration in the home of his brother, Rollin C., in Oakland.” A rich man from the mining country came to Oakland and had a nervous breakdown. We’re still trying to shake our reputation as a dangerous place.

After recovering, Gaskill traveled to the east coast with his wife and children, and stayed through 1876. A map of the Oakland area from that year shows the undivided Gaskill Tract, bordered on the south by the remaining Parsons land. What the map shows mostly clearly, though, is how much had changed since he acquired the land six years before.

The same month R.C. Gaskill bought 17 acres from George Parsons, November of 1869, the Central Pacific Railroad had completed the last few miles of its transcontinental route ending in Oakland. (Actually, the railroad didn’t quite reach across the continent yet, but marketing matters.) The railroad brought people, money, growth — more demand for residential lots and houses. By late 1876, most of the large farms near the Gaskill Tract had been platted out for subdivision, with named or numbered streets running roughly parallel and perpendicular to the area’s main road, now called San Pablo Avenue.

West of San Pablo was a horse racing track, the Oakland Trotting Park, which had opened in 1871 and immediately started drawing more business to the area. A little ways to the north, at the intersection of San Pablo and what was then called Kearney Street, sat a station of the “Berkeley Branch of the Northern Railway.” Starting in August 1876, trains ran from that station to the Central Pacific Wharf projecting into the Bay, where passengers caught the ferry to San Francisco. Also depicted on the map, though unlabeled, is the horse railway running north from downtown Oakland along San Pablo, which had a stop just a few blocks south at Park, near the property of Joseph Emery. A new local boom was on.

In early 1877, D.W.C. Gaskill came back to Oakland with his family. There’s a very good chance they traveled west on the (by that point truly) transcontinental railroad. The speculative explosion in the area around his land must have been obvious. He filed a map for subdivision of the land in January and began selling lots immediately. The first sale shows up in County records on February 2.

Many of Gaskill’s buyers purchased only one lot, most likely intending to build a house for themselves. But whenever someone is selling real estate, there will be others who think they might be able to profit by selling (or renting) a smaller piece of that same real estate. A few of these people bought groups of two or four adjacent lots from Gaskill, sometimes for building their own house with an additional one to sell or rent. This was becoming a common investment and building pattern in streetcar suburbs around the country at the time.

Then there was David Leeman Emerson. Emerson, usually referred to as D.L., had been the valedictorian of the first graduating class of the College of California in 1864. He was also the first person awarded a master’s degree from the College’s successor, the new public University of California in Berkeley, in 1870. Emerson subsequently went into business in Oakland, and had a sideline as a public speaker, apparently of the motivational variety. (He made the rounds in 1870-71 with a lecture entitled “The Elements of Success.”) Emerson went east in 1873, spent two years in Boston, and headed west again in November 1875.

Almost immediately upon his return to Oakland, D.L. Emerson delivered a speech on “Oakland, Judged from an Eastern Standpoint.” The introductory pages of the printed version of the speech are a sales pitch for Emerson’s orations, including clippings from favorable write-ups in both the eastern and western press. The body of the speech itself is essentially a sales pitch for Oakland real estate.

Emerson proclaimed the area’s many virtues and needled his audience, meant to be the city as a whole, for their unwillingness to speculate — not his word, but his meaning — in more development in and around Oakland. He closed with a vision of the city’s future meant to motivate their investment. He saw, he said, thriving businesses “occupying ground which will sell at $1500, $2000, and $2500 per front foot,” “two thousand charming villas lining the foot hills north of the city,” and “200,000 people, the most intelligent, the most happy and the most free.”

It strikes me now, nearly 140 years later, as an odd subject for a speech from someone who has just come back to town from a long absence. But Emerson seems to have believed it, and he set about building the vision he spoke of, at least as far as he was able to as one person. He entered the real estate business, and in August of 1877, he purchased almost 20 lots in the Gaskill Tract.

When D.W.C. Gaskill had mapped out the subdivision of his 17-acre tract, he’d carved it into four blocks, A, B, C, and D, set off by new streets — one of them the east-west street promised in the 1869 Parsons-to-Gaskill deed. (That one he named Parsons Street.) He divided each block into numbered lots of roughly equal size: 50 feet wide, averaging around 100 feet deep, but with variations because of the imperfect rectangularity of the overall parcel. This layout is most clearly visible in an 1878 map of the area from the Thompson & West Atlas of Alameda County.

One of the parcels that D.L. Emerson purchased in August 1877 was a 50′ by 91′ lot, beginning at a point 259.37 feet east of San Pablo Avenue on the south line of Sutter Street, another of the tract’s new east-west streets. It was labeled as Lot 8 of Block D of the Gaskill Tract.

I’ll pick up the story of Lot 8 of Block D (and, briefly, of D.L. Emerson) in Part Four.

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.

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.

Mirror, Mirror, on the Ground

On the day after Christmas, I went under my house and stomped a mirror to pieces. This wasn’t a unique household counter-superstition meant to guarantee good luck in the coming year. (In that matter, we hew to the old ways.) It was spring cleaning.

The calendar tells me it’s “winter.” I put the word in quotation marks, because we shouldn’t kid ourselves that what passes for winter in the San Francisco Bay Area counts as a real expression of that season. But we do have a part of the year when both rain and temperatures fall. Usually.

This year, though, we’ve had warmth and drouth. The high temperature in Oakland on Christmas Day was a record-breaking 69 degrees. About a quarter-inch of rain has fallen in December. The historical average is around five inches.

Without the seasonal cues telling us to hibernate then reemerge, we’re left to puzzle out our schedules as we please. If winter never starts, when, or how, can spring come? Might as well do the “spring” cleaning now, when we’ve got some extra time around the holidays. 

We don’t have a basement. We have a dirt-floored cavern that runs the entire length and breadth of our house, has windows (now nailed shut), and is tall enough for me to stand with only occasional crouching under pipes and ducts. I don’t know what to call this. It’s not a crawlspace; crawling is entirely optional. Does that make it a walkspace? A sometimes-crouchspace?

Whatever it’s called, it’s nice to have, since our 1905 house is short on closets. As you’d expect, we stow our infrequently-used belongings down below: Christmas lights and ornaments, camping gear, paint, and so on, most of it packed in heavy-duty plastic bins with adhesive labels, all stacked on wooden pallets.

We also put things under the house that we think or hope might be useful some day. This includes a bin full of art supplies, the fenders that I took off my wife’s bike, and the two fluorescent tube fixtures that used to illuminate our kitchen. We replaced them not long after moving in, but I wanted to keep them. In the broken place that is my brain, I have “plans” to one day install the fixtures over the little workshop space I’ve carved out under the house. (I put the word in quotation marks because we shouldn’t kid ourselves.)

Then there’s the third category of objects down below: things that no longer have any utility for us, that never will have, but that I’ve been too lazy to get rid of. The word for these objects is “trash.” If we end up with something that’s difficult to dispose of properly, I’m likely to shove it under the house, close my eyes tight, and hope with that it goes away, like I do with feelings. Objects in this category include: an old mop, a tub of used antifreeze, and, for the past year or so, a broken mirror.

My Boxing Day mandate was to get rid of the broken mirror. I knew that there was a proper way to do it. I don’t mean the various prescriptions applied by superstition to ward off the bad luck earned by breaking the thing, which seem to vary nationally and regionally. My personal favorite: bury the pieces of the mirror on the night of a full moon. Some people say you have to bury it under a tree; others are silent as to location. This means that there are non-trivial amounts of glass buried in the ground pretty close to where people live, all over the country. So that’s cool.

I mean, instead, that my local waste management authority almost certainly has a procedure one must follow or a place one must go to properly dispose of a broken mirror or other piece of plate glass. Standing under the house though, I had no idea what it was, and I had no interest in finding out.

Once I do work up the resolution to deal with an unpleasant remnant under the house — often prompted by my wife, who is always reasonable and correct when she says “It’s time to deal with the unpleasant remnant under the house” — I become very motivated and focused on that task, to the exclusion of other activities. Never mind that I was carrying a device that connects me instantaneously to all world knowledge, including my local waste management authority’s prescriptions for mirror disposal. I wasn’t under the house to look things up on my phone. I was under there to get rid of a mirror.

Put another way, I’d spent over a year willfully ignoring this mirror under the house. Why would I spend a whit more of thought on it now? I just wanted it out of my life.

So I improvised. I have a roll of thick plastic sheeting — which I can’t remember buying, and wonder now what I intended when I bought it — and I cut off a piece about eight feet long. I stretched it out on the ground and put the mirror at one end. I then applied the technology of stomping, spending a couple of minutes stepping repeatedly on my own reflected face, to break the mirror into lots of smaller pieces. In the end I had to tear the pieces apart by (gloved) hand because the safety backing kept them together. Little shardlets would sometimes fly up toward my be-goggled eyes.

When all the stomping and tearing was done, I had a pile of mirror parts  and lots of pieces of myself staring back at me. I rolled it all up in the long plastic and stapled the whole thing shut. Into the trash bin it went, never to be thought of again.

And that’s how we deal with feelings broken mirrors where I live.