A Nice Piece Of Real Estate


In the end it was Halleck’s skeptical view that prevailed. William M. Gwin, one of California’s first two delegates to the United States Senate, shared the settlers’ characteristic bias against traditional grazing rights, favoring instead small homesteads. Arguing that most California land grants were only “incomplete cattle range concessions” with “ill-defined, vagrant, or floating limits,” he proposed a bill, approved by Congress in March, 1851, that required all claimants to Mexican or Spanish titles to establish the validity of their claims by bringing evidence before a three-man land commission to be appointed by the President. This put the burden of proof on the claimants. The government also retained the privilege of disputing rulings of the commission in court.

The United States Land Commission set to work in San Francisco at the beginning of 1852. For the next four years it was in almost continuous session, usually in chambers just off the palmy central lobby of the Montgomery Block, the largest and most prestigious office building in the Far West. At least fifty of San Francisco’s most ambitious lawyers dedicated themselves to the practice of land law before this august body, and both Halleck and Jones made fortunes defending claims in which they held personal interest. Generally, the commission was sympathetic to the claimants. It validated Spanish and Mexican land titles to almost nine million acres, sometimes on rather feeble evidence.

Of all the personal histories recited in support of poorly documented claims, none was more plausible than that of Limantour. As the story went, his interest in California real estate had begun in October, 1841, when he brought his little bark Ayacucho to San Francisco with a cargo of silks, brocades, perfumes, and brandy. Limantour was twentyeight years old at the time and well acquainted with the sea lanes around Mazatlân and Veracruz; but he had never before ventured to the lonely coast of Alta California. In a heavy fog he grounded the vessel a few miles north of the Golden Gate.

Fortunately, Limantour was prei cisely the sort of man who got along well in challenging situations: uneducated and a trifle uncouth, but courageous, candid, and resourceful. His French was ungrammatical and tarnished with a strong Breton accent, but it never failed to express his meaning; his Spanish was atrocious but equally fluent; and he had the further advantage of being a citizen of a powerful European nation that was well represented in all the provinces of Mexico. As a result of his rough cosmopolitanism, his privileged nationality, and his tenacious Breton disposition, he invariably found a way to surmount the hazards of a perilous career.

Enlisting the help of “Captain” William A. Richardson, a renegade English seaman who had settled at the bayside whaling station known as Sausalito, Limantour succeeded in getting most of his swamped cargo ashore. He sold it for cash or credit and then spent a few months disporting himself in the farmhouse society of the Bay Area, which was then at the height, or perhaps the depth, of its pastoral innocence.

There were precious few Europeans around, but among those whom Limantour met was a Frenchman named Duflot de Mofras, an unusually perceptive traveller who was on a sort of intelligence tour for King Louis Philippe. It was de Mofras who suggested the prudent idea of laying hold of some well-situated land that would increase in value when the Americans took over, as they were bound eventually to do.

At the moment the California government was teetering with civil insurrection; and when the new military governor arrived in Los Angeles in August, 1842, bringing along five hundred disagreeable former convicts as riflemen to keep the colonists in line, he found the government warehouses empty and the treasury reduced to precisely one real. Somehow, Limantour got acquainted with the governor, a courtly patriarch named José Manuel Micheltorena, learned about the shortage of funds and supplies, and agreed to deliver a shipment of goods on credit. The following year, on another visit to Alta California, Limantour again filled a warehouse with pots and pans, yardage, clothing, liqueurs, shoes, and firearms. Each time, the governor paid with a draft on the Mexican customhouse at Mazatlân; but on at least one occasion Limantour magnanimously agreed to accept a few thousand acres of pasture in lieu of cash.

In accordance with the required formalities of Mexican law Limantour presented a written petition asking for two described tracts of vacant land, about fifteen thousand acres in all, which adjoined the tiny settlement that Captain Richardson had established near Yerba Buena Cove on San Francisco Bay. In return for the grant Limantour promised to cancel four thousand dollars of the debt owed him by the “public hacienda” (the treasury of Mexico). He asked, as a Frenchman, to be ex- empted from the requirement that he be a Mexican citizen.

Governor Micheltorena had investigated, found the land to be unoccupied, and attached an informe to that effect. The grant was signed in Los Angeles on February 27, 1843.