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A Nice Piece Of Real Estate

May 2024
16min read

One day San Franciscans suddenly learned that their city was the property of a Frenchman, one Monsieur Limantour

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.

In this respect, however, as in many others, California was an exception to the American rule. California already had a sedentary population, a central government, and a law of property (albeit rather strange and loosely administered) before the westering Americans arrived. Both the Spanish and Mexican governments, which looked upon the arid coast of California as practically useless except for largescale cattle grazing, had authorized local administrators to grant up to 48,712 acres to anyone who was willing to colonize the province. The only important requirements were that the grantee be a Mexican citizen and that he actually take possession of the land.

Between 1784, when Governor Pedro Pages issued the first two land grants in the San Gabriel Valley near Los Angeles, and 1846, when the American Army and Navy invaded the territory, the various governors of Alta California had portioned out some eight hundred grants, totalling close to fourteen million acres. Most of the ranchos were so large that they were described in square leagues rather than in acres, a square league being 4,439 acres. One Californian named Eulogio de Celis owned 116,858 acres in the San Fernando Valley. Another, Luis Peralta, ran cattle over a range that now embraces the cities of Oakland, Berkeley, and Alameda on the east side of San Francisco Bay. The Swissborn colonist John Sutler claimed 146,131 acres surrounding a fortress trading post on the Sacramento River; the Nieto family of southern California presided over three hundred thousand acres in Los Angeles and Orange counties. By these standards the Limantour claim was picayune. As the Virginia-born humorist Joseph Glover Baldwin expressed it, a typical claim to the land commission involved “some five or six degrees of latitude and longitude, to say nothing of a few outside counties and some cities.”

Most California land grants were not only huge but vague. To establish a claim the applicant had only to file a simple petition with the governor, stating his name, nationality, and occupation and describing the desired land in language of Biblical limpidity: so-and-so-many square leagues within such-and-such natural boundaries near this-or-that ex-isting rancho. Occasionally, the petition would be adorned with a painted map (diseno), but most disenos were as imaginative as they were beautiful.

As for landmarks, they were fragile and inconsequential. On an enormous grant in southern California a large oak tree served as the boundary point, and to distinguish it from dozens of other oaks the head and bones of a beef had been tucked among the branches. Surveys were made (if at all) by two men on horseback, carrying between them a lariat some fifty varas in length (approximately 1374 feet) with a long wooden stake tied to each end. Taking a creek or woodland as a starting point, the two horsemen would plant first one stake and then the other until they had completely measured off the boundaries of the rancho.

Before completing the grant the governor usually would refer the petition to someone in the neighborhood who could make a quick inspection and report whether the land was vacant. The results of this crude title search (called the informe) would be written onto the petition or attached to it, and the two papers would then be bound together with the governor’s signature in a packet called the espediente, which was filed among the records of the local province. Although the grant was supposedly subject to approval by the departmental assembly—or, in the case of foreigners, by the central government—hardly anyone bothered to obtain this official sanction. Nor was there a central office to maintain an official record of all grants. If a man had his land and a copy of the documents, what more did he need?

This crude system worked satisfactorily for a scattered, pastoral people. Whatever its defects, it had the force of law and tradition in Mexican California, and the United States was bound by international custom and a protocol to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848) to uphold land titles that had been perfected under Span- ish and Mexican rule.

Foreseeing that disputes would be inevitable, the American authorities on the Pacific coast ordered two studies to be made of land records immediately after occupying California. The first, by Captain Henry W. Halleck, an opinionated young artillery officer who doubled as a civilian lawyer, cast considerable doubt on the quality of existing titles. The second, by William Carey Jones, a lawyer and linguist who was related by marriage to John Charles Frémont, took a contrary position, holding that most existing titles were perfect or would have been perfected had the territory not been disturbed by war.

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.

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.

Jouan’s slithery reputation, his changeable and mercenary temperament, and his free-flowing, hearsay style of narration tainted the testimony, and the government felt compelled to spend thirteen thousand dollars to bring Jacomet to San Francisco to corroborate the story. Next, the alleged forger, Letanneur, was haled before a federal grand jury, where he admitted to having written the documents. But he proved to be as squirmy as Jouan; outside the jury room he promptly recanted his “confession,” explaining that he had thought he was addressing a committee of vigilantes who would hang him if he refused to cooperate.


Even Jacomet’s testimony collapsed. It turned out that he had gone into a court in Mexico after learning of Jouan’s deposition and had sworn that he knew nothing about any possible fraud in the case. Obviously, somebody was not telling the truth.

On the basis of Letanneur’s “confession,” however, the grand jury indicted Limantour for criminal fraud and perjury. His arrest occasioned a civic celebration in San Francisco. Newspapers all over the Western Hemisphere reported the event. Limantour filed a denial, posted bail, and went back to Mexico to gather more evidence. Like the half-mythical bandit Joaquin Murrieta, Limantour was being transmuted gradually into a Latin martyr-saint, a symbol of Hispanic resistance to Anglo-Saxon domination.

By August, 1857, he was back in San Francisco, gleefully declaring he had found conclusive proof that his grant had been properly registered with the national government in 1843. Asked how he dared return to a city controlled by an antiforeign vigilance committee that despised him, Limantour replied with Breton valor: “Je voudrais mieux être pendu que passer pour faussaire"—"I should rather be hanged than to pass for a forger.”

The United States attorneys were increasingly apprehensive. Their case was fragile, and the criminal indictment had shifted the burden of proof onto the prosecution. If Limantour should win the criminal case, he would almost certainly win the civil case, and thus ownership of the city.

A new President, James Buchanan, had taken office since the beginning of the trial. There was a new Attorney General, Jeremiah S. Black, in Washington and a new United States attorney, Peter Delia Torre, in San Francisco. For partisan reasons they were even more eager than their predecessors to polish off the Limantour claim. By winning the celebrated “California land fraud cases” that were now pending in several courts, the administration could take credit for saving dozens of government buildings—offices, court houses, hospitals, prisons, and military installations—from the clutches of alien scoundrels like Limantour. Attorney General Black asked Congress for thirty thousand dollars toward the cause and then went back for forty thousand more. He virtually pledged his career on winning the Limantour case, which he called “the most stupendous fraud ever perpetrated since the beginning of the world.”

In February, 1858, exasperated by the slow process of the civil case, Black dispatched a special counsel to the West Coast to administer the deathblow to this unspeakable monstrosity. His choice was Edwin M. Stanton, the brilliant but arrogant Washington lawyer who was later to be Lincoln’s Secretary of War.

Stanton’s role in the case was compared by one of the local attorneys to “kicking a dead Indian.” He arrived in San Francisco with considerable fanfare in March, and within a few weeks there was one of those strokes of luck that can turn a difficult proceeding into a game. A boxful of Mexican records turned up at the United States Armory in Benicia, California, and among the papers were the account books of José Abrego, Governor Micheltorena’s treasurer.

Abrego had told the land commission that he knew in 1843 of the financial transactions between Limantour and the Governor and was aware of the land grant. But the entries in his record books were not as he had described them—nor was there any mention of an account with Limantour. Furthermore, the box contained an exchange of letters between Micheltorena and one Manuel Castanares, customs administrator at Monterey, showing that the sealed paper allegedly used in writing the Limantour grant had not been printed at the time the grant allegedly was written.

Confronted by these evidences of forgetfulness or mendacity on the part of a star witness, one of Limantour’s attorneys withdrew from the case. Other, equally damaging material also had been introduced by United States Attorney Delia Torre. It consisted of a series of photographic enlargements of the Limantour documents side by side with land-grant documents of unquestioned authenticity. They showed that the lettering and the government seals on the Limantour papers were significantly different from the others: the wing of the Aztec eagle curved more; the serpent twisted less; the fruit of the prickly pear grew lower and wider; the typeface differed in spacing and shape. It was the first physical evidence the government had brought forward to contradict the oral testimony of Limantour’s many witnesses, and perhaps the first photographic evidence of this sort that had ever been used in a court of law. Its impact was devastating to the Limantour claim.

Stanton spent three and a half hours summing up the government’s case, and he might have better used the time celebrating at the Bank Exchange Saloon. Theatrical, bombastic, captivated by the glories of a heroic theme and a twenty-five-thousand-dollar fee, he accused Limantour and most of his witnesses of a vast conspiracy against the American Republic. Limantour’s one remaining attorney, James Wilson, sat in silence and declined Judge Huffman’s invitation to reply.

On November 19, 1858, the judge handed down his decision. It ran on for fifty-six pages, and Judge Hoffman confessed at one point that it was “not easy to confine within the limits of judicial moderation the expression of our indignation at the fraud which has been attempted to be perpetrated.” He accused high Mexican officials of a “scandalous conspiracy” and found in conclusion that “the proofs of fraud are as conclusive and irresistible as the attempted fraud itself has been flagrant and audacious.”

Immediately, the government reactivated its criminal case against Limantour. But the brave Breton had slipped away to Mexico some months earlier, just before the United States attorney began to introduce into evidence the damaging photographic enlargements. The government did not even succeed in collecting the thirty-five-thousand-dollar bail: the United States Supreme Court released the bondsmen on a technicality.

Having pursued his cause with admirable vigor, Limantour chose not to explain the peculiar defects of his claim. Historians who muse on it nowadays lean to the kindly view that it was no less valid than many of the squatter claims to millions of acres of American soil. The documentation was, of course, an afterthought—a tardy attempt to collect a bad debt from a government that had been superseded, to interpolate a wishful notion into the impenetrable fabric of the past, and to substitute that which might have been for that which was.

As the chief nonresident villain of San Francisco, Limantour suffered ritual vilification for a generation and was then forgotten. Back in Mexico he prospered. He left a large fortune when he died in 1885. His son, José Y. Limantour, Jr., vastly increased the family estate and distinguished himself as a resourceful minister of finance in the regime of Porfirio Di’az in the iSgo’s; and Limant our’s grandson, the third José, became a symphony conductor of international renown.

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