A Nice Piece Of Real Estate


Oddly, neither Halleck nor Jones had seen any record of this considerable transaction in the California archives. The documents that Limantour brought to the land commission were his own copies. Happily for his cause, however, a clerk named Vicente P. Gomez, who had been poking through some Mexican records in Monterey, turned up what purported to be the original espediente, complete with official seals and signatures that could easily be verified.


To authenticate these documents Limantour came up from Mexico with an entourage of witnesses that included the former administrator of customs at Monterey, the former treasurer of the province, and a French lieutenant colonel from Micheltorena’s staff—in all, eight former officials of the Mexican regime, each of whom swore to the validity of the signatures or testified that he remembered some aspect of the various legal and financial transactions. Micheltorena himself had died, but Limantour’s old friend Richardson, the respected founding father of the civilian community at San Francisco, testified that he had received a letter in January, 1843, from the secretary of the department of Alta California, asking on behalf of the governor whether certain lands adjoining the Yerba Buena settlement were vacant. Richardson had said they were.

Having listened to hundreds of hours of similar testimony, the land commission retired with its law books and Spanish lexicon, examined the documents for the final time, and issued a ruling in Limantour’s favor in January, 1856.

That winter was a particularly gloomy one for the property owners of San Francisco. Limantour, comfortably installed at the Washington Hotel, did a sprightly business selling quitclaim deeds. According to his enemies he collected between $200,000 and $250,000 through his “Limantour tax,” assessed at 10 per cent of property value; but there is evidence that Limantour often would relinquish claim on a large city lot for a token one-dollar fee. Many San Franciscans, clinging to the hope that the Limantour claim was bogus, refused to negotiate. An anti-Limantour committee formed and collected a legal defense fund. Meanwhile, the United States Attorney General filed suit in federal court to have the land commission overruled.

Despite Limantour’s array of documents and witnesses, despite his forthright manner, and despite his coherent narrative, the government lawyers believed that the grant had been cooked up as recently as 1852, probably in Mexico City or possibly even in San Francisco. Why else had there been no mention of it in the archives examined by Halleck and Jones? Why else had Limantour never taken possession of the land? Limantour said he had been in Mexico, busy with other affairs, and had seen no pressing need to assert his property rights until the United States decided how to deal with Mexican grants. But if that were true, how could he have ignored the thousands of gold-hunters from all over the world squatting on his rancho? How could he—and the land commission—now brush aside the legal requirement that he take possession of the land?

It was a former business associate of Limantour’s named Auguste Jouan who seeded most of the doubts. Jouan had come to San Francisco in the early 1850*5 as an advance man for the Limantour claim. Then, sensing that he might profit by defecting to the enemy, he had quarrelled with Limantour, quit his job, and started blurting out stories of trickery and chicanery. While the claim was still before the land commission, he had published an open letter in a newspaper accusing Limantour of luring him back to Mexico to collect a twenty-thousand-dollar fee and then having him tucked into jail on a trumped-up charge. The implication was that Limantour was trying to silence the truth.

Limantour readily admitted he had maneuvered the annoying fellow into leaving San Francisco—but for a quite different reason. Jouan, he said, had stirred up the property owners “to such animosity and furor, thinking that with false and spurious titles I was going to make them pay large sums of money, that my life and property were in danger.”

Soon after the land commission had announced its decision, Jouan popped up again with another open letter, this time offering to prove (for twenty thousand dollars) that Limantour had committed fraud. For an additional thirty thousand dollars Jouan guaranteed to supply enough evidence to overthrow the Limantour claim in court. But no one came forward with the money, and Jouan prudently left town.

When the government finally brought its appeal into the district court of Judge Ogden Hoffman, the first material put in evidence was a deposition from Jouan. In this remarkable treatise Jouan swore that he, personally, had erased and changed a date on one of Limantour’s key documents; that Governor Micheltorena had told him the grant was not prepared when it purported to have been; and that a man named François Jacomet had told him that one Emile Letanneur, employed by Limantour, had forged the papers.