A Nice Piece Of Real Estate


For several years after the California gold rush San Francisco was notorious around the world for the frequency and magnificence of its municipal disasters. Time and again, devastating fires swept through the business district. City officials defalcated with the contents of the public treasury. Banks failed, epidemics raged, and gangs of murderers ruled the streets. But there was never anything to equal the calamity that befell the boisterous little town one day in January, 1856, when a federal tribunal, after almost three years of travail, concluded that most of the land within the city limits did not belong to the householders and merchants who lived and worked there but to a wealthy French capitalist living in Mexico—a wily, willful buccaneer named Joseph-Yves Limantour, known to his friends (who were few, indeed, in San Francisco) as José.

The “weight of evidence,” in the opinion of the three members of the United States Land Commission, was decidedly with Senor Limantour; and, so saying, they confirmed his Mexican land grant to four square leagues—17,756 acres—of red rock hills and billowing sand dunes, comprising half the built-up area of San Francisco and practically every square inch of its future growing space. On the inner side of the city, overlooking the harbor at Yerba Buena Cove, Limantour owned virtually everything south of California Street. On the outer side, toward the ocean, he owned everything, everywhere.

Although San Francisco was no Byzantium, it was an imposing parcel of real estate. The settlement had outgrown its awkward infancy of gunny-sack casinos and open-air commerce on the decks of scuttled brigantines. It now rejoiced in several thousand substantial commercial buildings, warehouses, and hotels, inhabited by thirty-five to forty thousand relatively permanent settlers. The tax appraiser estimated the value of local property at close to twenty-eight million dollars.

Predictably, the newspapers hailed the city’s new landlord as an errant knave, extortionist, and fraud—a “cormorant” who was trying to gulp down honest citizens like a school of minnows. The laws of defamation were permissive then, and Limantour would hear worse before the case was settled. Within a week or two the land commission enhanced his popularity by confirming his ownership of an additional forty-five hundred acres on the Tiburon Peninsula in Marin County, north of the city; the Farallon Islands outside the Golden Gate; and the islands of Alcatraz and Yerba Buena in San Francisco Bay itself.

“Can’t he also find in some corner of his office some papers that will permit him to establish claims to Vancouver Island?” one of the newspapers asked peevishly.

When Limantour had filed his petition with the land commission three years earlier, the same newspapers had written him off as a lunatic. His pretensions seemed even more preposterous when he reappeared a month later and laid claim to a half dozen additional grants scattered from the redwood forests of the north coast to the plains around Los Angeles, bringing his total demand to 620,000 acres.

Wasn’t it natural to assume that a sane, honorable man who owned all this property would have spoken up earlier? Where had he been while Jasper O’Farrell was surveying the long diagonal axis of Market Street? Where had he been while the town fathers were measuring out lots along the plank road to the old Spanish mission and platting the gridiron of new streets that clung precariously to the windy hills? In any case who was this Limantour to claim such a baronial estate?


Only a handful of San Franciscans —Yankee factors and Spanish cattle ranchers who had lived on the shores of the bay before the American conquest—had ever heard of JosephYves Limantour, and they knew him as a seafaring merchant, one of several dozen independent traders who used to bring in shiploads of textiles, hardware, furniture, and brandy to exchange for hides and tallow. According to a few of the old timers, Limantour had dealt primarily in firearms and ammunition to be used by Mexicans against Americans. One of his schooners had been overtaken and searched by an American sloop of war off San Diego in 1847, during the war with Mexico; and,’ although no rifles had been found, one was free to assume that the rascal had tossed them overboard.

But if Limantour had been guilty of mischief before the conquest, it was not to be compared with this outrageous land claim, which most San Franciscans regarded as a personal affront, an act of flagrant piracy. Like all settlers the San Franciscans found it difficult to understand how anyone could maintain prior rights to land that their country had taken by force of arms. Elsewhere in the far West land was vacant, undeveloped, and free to anyone who would establish a homestead.