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The Legacy of Vicente Peralta
(published in the fall 1999 issue of the Alameda County Historical Society Quarterly)

by Jeff Norman

On April 11, 1999, ACHS members met for their spring dinner at the Colombo Club, located on Claremont Avenue in north Oakland. A mere one hundred yards to the west of the club was where, in 1836, Vicente Peralta had constructed his first adobe, the forty-by-forty-foot dwelling that lay at the heart of what would become his large rancho. Just beyond the north wall of the adobe, Vicente and his wife of three years, Maria "Encarnacíon" Galindo, had laid out their first garden, and beyond that was the corral. How many times, I wondered, had Vicente and Encarnacíon traversed the very spot where we late 20th century Californians now stood, gazed at the same (albeit differently vegetated) Berkeley and Oakland hills visible to us from the club’s front door, or felt a breeze like the one that greeted us that evening? Here was the very place of Vicente’s life–and yet hardly any sign of it remains. Unlike his brothers, Antonio and Ygnacio, whose last homes have been preserved by the community, almost nothing has survived of Vicente’s that has catalyzed a similar effort to preserve his memory. But perhaps more evidence of his life has survived than we think. As a resident of this neighborhood who has explored some of the ways in which it has changed over time, I believe that Vicente’s legacy continues to express itself in tangible ways, and that by looking at the historical record and keeping alert to our surroundings, we might discover the substance of that legacy in our own lives–right here, right now.

Vicente’s Path to Oakland

Born November 21, 1812, in San Jose, the small settlement that had been established near Mission Santa Clara, José "Vicente" Peralta was the last of seventeen children born to Luis Maria Peralta (1759-1851) and Maria Loreto Alviso (1771-1836). Vicente’s father, Luis, had traveled as a 16-year-old from Sonora, Mexico with his parents as part of the Anza expedition of 1775. From 1781, when he enlisted at the Presidio of Monterey, until his retirement in 1820, Luis worked his way up through the ranks of the military, helping to carry out the Spanish crown’s colonial policies in Alta California. As was the custom among higher ranking officers, Vicente’s father petitioned for a royal land grant for his many years of military service. Although he had been stationed at the San Francisco Presidio and, later, in San Jose, he received a grant in 1820 for land on the contra costa, or east side, of the bay. Extending from San Leandro Creek on the south, to Cerritos Creek on the north, and from the crest of the hills to the bay shore, Luis’s nearly 45,000 acre Rancho San Antonio included what is today Oakland, Alameda, Piedmont, Emeryville, Berkeley, and part of San Leandro and Albany. Thus, with the region all but emptied of the original native inhabitants through the missionization process, Luis Maria Peralta became the first landowner–in the sense that we understand the word today–in this part of the East Bay.

Whereas Señor Peralta never resided on Rancho San Antonio (his sphere of influence remained centered in San Jose), the four sons of his who survived into adulthood eventually took up residence, each carving out as his own roughly one-quarter of the original land grant. "Antonio" Maria Peralta (1801-1879) was the first of Luis and Maria’s sons to move to the rancho, settling as early as 1821 near the west bank of Peralta Creek in what today is Oakland’s Fruitvale district. Vicente, the youngest son, was next to arrive, overseeing from Antonio’s home his one-fourth of the rancho, which extended roughly from what is now Lake Merritt to the Berkeley border (and which included all of the original city of Oakland). With the help of another brother, José "Domingo" (1795-1865), who came north from San Jose in 1834, Vicente built his own adobe in 1836 near Temescal Creek in what is now north Oakland. Continuing in this leap frog fashion, Domingo eventually moved farther north to homestead his portion of the elder Peralta’s estate, settling around 1841 on Cordonices Creek in north Berkeley. Finally, the oldest brother, Hermenegildo "Ygnacio" (1791-1874), who in 1835 had built an adobe on San Leandro Creek in the eastern-most portion of the rancho, took up permanent residence in a new adobe he erected in 1842, the year in which the elder Peralta made legal the division of Rancho San Antonio among his four sons.

Vicente’s Homestead: A Pacific Eden

Locate in your mind (or, better yet, visit) the block in north Oakland bounded by Telegraph Avenue, 55th Street, Vicente Way and Highway 24. Roughly in the center of this block, behind the assorted apartment buildings, houses and a gas station, is the place Vicente chose in 1836 to build the modest, earthen floor adobe (see illustration, p. ). Fifty feet to the south, toward the back of what is now 486 55th Street, he constructed his larger adobe, begun in 1847 and built in three stages over a ten-year period. Midway down the car wash exit lane at the rear of the gas station was the site of the small chapel that he erected in 1846–the first to be built on the east side of the bay north of Mission San Jose. By the late 1880s, all of these structures were gone, and today what the casual onlooker sees is a fairly typical city block. With the drone of the nearby freeway, the busy traffic on Telegraph Avenue, and the closed-in urban feel, it’s difficult to see what it was that drew Vicente to settle here. But peel away the layers of concrete, the sequential alterations of land use, and the high population density, and perhaps we can begin to understand why he chose this place from which to oversee the approximately 9,000 acres that comprised his portion of Rancho San Antonio.

It is no coincidence that all of the Peralta brothers settled near creeks, for their survival–and the survival of their livestock–depended on easy access to fresh water. Vicente chose Temescal Creek, one of the few arroyos in the central part of the contra costa, and probably the only one in his portion of Rancho San Antonio, that flowed year around. Although Vicente also dug a well, the creek, which flowed at its closest point a mere 200 yards to the southeast of his adobe, no doubt initially served more than adequately as a fresh water source in those first years of homesteading.

It’s easy to imagine Vicente’s gaze following the corridor of willows, cottonwoods, alders, oaks and sycamores that traced the path of Temescal Creek as it meandered to the bay. Among the plants which grew in the shade of these trees were blackberries, huckleberries and currants, laden with fruit at the right time of the year and accessible enough if one were careful to avoid the poison oak and stinging nettles. Trout, salmon and steelhead ran in the creek. Birds and small and large mammals, including rabbit, deer, elk and bear, were abundant. This was a habitat as rich in food sources as it had been for the native Huchiun Ohlone who had lived here for 2,000 years before the Spanish arrived.

And the soil was fertile as well. Today it is probably only the bicyclist who perceives the flatlands of north Oakland as the gradual hill that it is. All of the flatlands of the East Bay, in fact, are made up of overlapping, gently sloping accumulations of sediment carried down from the hills by the creeks and deposited in fan-like configurations as the creeks shifted their course over the millennia. This created a rich soil, a fact that had not been lost on Vicente’s father who in 1820 claimed his newly bestowed land grant by moving his herds north to feed upon its abundant grasslands. Vicente, like his brothers and other Californio land grant families, was essentially–and deeply–a rancher and horseman: the economy of his rancho revolved principally around the trading of hides and tallow for those things which he, Encarnación, and their ranch hands could not produce themselves. It was estimated that the Peralta brothers’ combined herds at their peak totaled 8,000 head of cattle and 2,000 horses. They were also horticulturists (in the tradition of the self-sufficient Franciscan missionaries before them). In time, Vicente’s gardens and orchards reportedly extended on both sides of Temescal Creek all the way to present-day Emeryville. This was prime, agricultural land.

Just south of where Temescal Creek entered the bay, Vicente built a small boat-landing, the embarcadero de Temescal. As his trade in cowhides and tallow with Boston shipping merchants grew, eventually to be augmented by the sale of foodcrops to scurvy-vulnerable crews of whaling ships, his adobe compound would have provided an exceptional vantage point from which to note any maritime activity on the bay. Situated a little more than halfway up the gently sloping, oak-studded flatlands, it also would have afforded a beautiful view of the bay, its opposite shore where the fledgling town of Yerba Buena had taken hold, and the narrow opening to the Pacific Ocean beyond. It was a view–unobstructed except perhaps for the large willow grove that lay just to the northwest of his adobe–that people today find only by ascending to the higher elevations of Rockridge, Montclair and Piedmont. Given its natural abundance and beauty, it is easy to see why Vicente’s portion of Rancho San Antonio was described in his own time as a "Pacific Eden."

From 1820 until the mid-1840s, life for the Peraltas continued relatively unchanged. The original, 1820 Peralta land grant was honored by Mexico which had wrested its independence from Spain in 1822. Any potential conflict with Mission San Francisco–whose territory extended to part of the contra costa–over ownership of Peralta lands was put to rest when the missions were disbanded in the 1830s. Meanwhile, the East Bay remained sparsely populated and daily life at the rancho continued in its steadfast way, punctuated by the occasional, graciously welcomed visitor or merchant and the treks by horseback to a family member’s casa in observance of feast days, weddings or burials. In 1846, however, the failed Bear Flag Revolt, during which Vicente was briefly imprisoned with several other leading Californios at Sutter’s Fort, foreshadowed the profound changes that were to come only a few years later with the discovery of gold and California statehood.

Vicente’s Loss

Like nearly all of the Spanish and Mexican land grant families of California, Vicente lost most of his rancho to Gold Rush era squatters, hucksters and the lawyers he hired to defend against them. The concept of real estate, of land as a commodity to be bought and sold, was foreign to Vicente whose own land he regarded as his birthright and whose productivity he knew to be the basis for his wealth. This difference in world view left him vulnerable to the onslaught of newcomers who regarded the Peraltas’ land as free for the taking. In 1856, after years of legal battles, a tribunal of the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Vicente and his brother, Domingo’s, title claim to their portions of their father’s original land grant, but it was too late. On the southern portion of Vicente’s land where the spectacular encinal, or oak grove, once stood, the town of Oakland had sprung up (incorporating as a town in 1852, and as a city in 1854), rustlers had decimated his herds, opportunistic loggers had clear-cut the Peralta redwood groves, and all that remained of his rancho that had not been sold off to cover debts and taxes was 700 acres.

In time, Vicente’s first adobe, the larger three-wing residence, and the small chapel all succumbed to fire, earthquake and the gradual wearing away by the elements, only to be removed once and for all in the late 1880s. The stately, yellow, wood-frame Victorian that he built in 1867 survived relocation in 1892 to the corner of Claremont Avenue and Vicente Street a half-block away, only to burn to the ground in 1932. Even his lineage had come to an end. Lovers of children, including the six they either legally or informally adopted, Vicente and Encarnación grieved when their only child by birth, José Loreto Guadalupe (b. 1834) died in infancy. In June of 1871, at the age of 58, at his home in what by then had become the town of Temescal, the end came for Vicente as well. Soon after, much of the 700 acre Vicente Peralta Reserve was subdivided and sold off.

Vicente’s Legacy

Except for volumes of legal documents preserved in various archives, not much remains today that we readily associate with Vicente’s life. The bell he had ordered from Spain in 1846 and which adorned the small adobe chapel on his rancho hangs today in the tower of St. Leanders School in San Leandro. One can still see Vicente’s mausoleum (and Encarnación’s marker) atop the hill in St. Mary’s Cemetery in north Oakland, but it, too, has suffered from exposure to the elements and would have crumbled entirely were it not for a dedicated group of preservationists who have been working to restore it.

Unlike his brothers, to whom persons alive today proudly trace their lineage, Vicente’s legacy is much more ephemeral. But it is with us nevertheless.

On the east side of the block where his adobes once stood is the street, Vicente Way. It is the short, southernmost end of what had been Vicente Street before Highway 24 severed it. Unlike many of the streets in this neighborhood whose names were changed a decade or so after the town of Temescal was annexed by Oakland in 1897, Vicente Street still retained at the beginning of the 20th century its living link to the first man of European descent to have settled here.

There are, in fact, no fewer than fourteen street names in Oakland, Alameda, Berkeley and Albany which refer in some way to the Peraltas (not to mention other entities named for the family, such as the Peralta School District, Peralta Elementary School, and Peralta Creek). Were we to connect all these streets with lines, would it not in some way mirror the web that once bound the Peraltas to each other, and to the many other prominent Californio families to whom they were related by marriage? On the north side of Highway 24, for instance, one block east of where Vicente Street continues, runs the three-block-long Ayala Avenue, named for Manuel Ayala, whose elegant Victorian once faced onto Telegraph Avenue below 55th Street. Señor Ayala, descendent of Juan Manuel de Ayala who commanded the crew that first charted San Francisco Bay in 1775, came to own numerous properties in this neighborhood–all of which had once been part of the Vicente Peralta Reserve. He was also the man who Encarnación (1814-1892), a widow for four years, married in 1876. Thus, walking along Ayala Avenue today offers us a reminder of the time when these two Californio families lived, and of their inextricable ties of friendship, marriage and business.

Across Claremont Avenue, opposite the Colombo Club, we find another tangible reminder of Vicente’s time in the form of the modest, shallow stream that flows through the Department of Motor Vehicles property. Constructed by the Alameda Flood Control District in the 1970s, this "reconstituted" creek follows the same path as the original Temescal Creek. In fact, Temescal Creek still runs here–buried, however, in a large, concrete culvert and so hidden from view. (The water we see flowing intermittently in the artificial stream is actually pumped up from Temescal Creek below). This stretch marks the creek’s closest point to what was Vicente’s compound; when we realize this, that just a stone’s throw beyond what is now Claremont Avenue Vicente rose every morning to his cup of hot chocolate or coffee, we can begin to understand the lay of the land as it was in his time, and sense the strategic importance this creek held for him.

Though contained and buried along most of its course through the flatlands, Temescal Creek continues to flow into the bay at present-day Emeryville. Trees, towering over roof tops in places, still mark the route of the creek, though eucalyptus largely have replaced the willows and cottonwoods of Vicente’s time. Using these trees as clues, and the wide, linear swaths that wind through back yards where the creek was culverted, we can follow the creek just as Vicente did as he rode to the matanza, or slaughter yard, that he built not far from the creek’s mouth, or to his embarcadero de Temescal.

Several stories have come down to us explaining how Temescal Creek got its name. One legend tells us that the first Spanish explorers to the area named it after the temescal–an Aztec-derived word meaning "sweatlodge"–that the local Ohlones had erected on the bank of the creek. Another story has it that Vicente named it for the sweatlodge he came upon when first exploring his portion of Rancho San Antonio. Most likely, Temescal Creek got its name from a temescal erected by native retainers who Vicente employed on his rancho. Whatever the inspiration, the name stuck–probably in no small measure because that is what Vicente continued to call it. When in the 1850s a town began to form on the edge of Vicente’s now diminished estate, where Telegraph Avenue crossed Temescal Creek, it, likewise, was called Temescal. Even as the town metamorphosed into one of Oakland’s neighborhoods, and despite some citizens’ efforts to change it, the name persisted, so that when we who live in this neighborhood today refer to "Temescal" we utter a sound that reverberates back through time, to when Vicente and Encarnación called this place home.

Finally, with a little help from our imagination, the site of Vicente’s adobes itself, though now located within people’s back yards and inaccessible to the public, can provide some meaningful access points into Vicente’s past. Peer through the fence at 5527 Vicente Way, for instance, and the ample side yard that we see, with its vegetable garden, fruit trees, and profusion of morning glories, suggests the milpa where Encarnación grew her watermelons, beans, onions, tomatoes and peppers. Next door, at the back of 5521 Vicente Way, is where Vicente dug his well. Though it was filled in and forgotten long ago, can we not still sense it as something that has survived, pulsing in its darkness like an animal in hibernation? Even busy Telegraph Avenue has its roots in this past: an old stagecoach line and the second road to have been constructed in Alameda County, its route linked the young city of Oakland with Don Vicente and Doña Encarnación’s homestead. Then there are the squirrels that we see here today, the jays, hummingbirds, mockingbirds and sparrows whose habitat includes this city block: is it possible that they have descended from those which nested in Vicente’s compound? Finally, it may not at all be an exaggeration to say that the very air which Vicente breathed in some small way mingles with the air we breathe today.

Though his adobes have vanished, his surviving personal possessions few, and his history lost to most of us today, there remain many tangible clues to Vicente Peralta’s time which in coming to appreciate can deepen our own connection to where we live.

##

Jeff Norman, a community artist, coordinates the Temescal History Project. To commemorate Vicente Peralta and the Ohlone people who preceded him, he designed a marker which was installed in early 1999 on the northeast corner of 55th Street and Telegraph Avenue.



Sources

Bagwell, Beth. Oakland, The Story of a City. Oakland Heritage Alliance, 1996

Bowman, J. N. "The Peraltas and Their Houses." California Historical Quarterly 30:3 (1951).

Davis, William Heath. Seventy-Five Years in California. John Howell Books, San Francisco, 1947.

Enz, Beverly Peralta. Personal papers.

Fiorillo, Jessica Thomson. San Leandro Creek, 1853-1993. The Aquatic Habitat Institute, 1993

Richard, Christopher, Editor. Guide to East Bay Creeks. Oakland Museum of California, 1995.

Milliken, Randall. A Time of Little Choice: The Disintegration of Tribal Culture in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1769-1810. Menlo Park: Ballena Press. 1995.

Oakland Township Tax Assessment Block Books.

Verbarg, Leonard H. Celebrities at Your Doorstep. The Alameda County Historical Society, 1972.

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