THE STORY OF MORAGA begins with the history of the Rancho Laguna de Los Palos Colorados, the Spanish land grant, which included present-day Moraga. Translated, it means the Lake of the Redwoods Ranch. Before the Spanish arrived the land was inhabited by the Indians, and before the Indians, prehistoric animals roamed this land that had once been covered by the sea. Its very foundation is rich with evidence of pre historic creatures that existed millions of years ago. The fossils of mastodon, giant tortoises, three-toe horses and camels, to name a few, have been found at excavation sites, and until this day there remains evidence of sea life in the surrounding hills. The Indians inhabited the land from sometime before Christ, into the 19th century, contributing to its rich heritage. The Saklan Indians were one of several tribes in the area, and today a California Historical Landmark officially marks the site of a Saklan Village in Tice Valley over the hills to the east of Moraga. Some of the Indian tribes remaining about the time the Moragas were granted the land had been painted in 1816 by the French painter, Louis Choris, who had accompanied the explorer, Otto Von Kotzebue, on his expedition to California. The Indians are depicted in the painting as displaying chin tattoos and other body marks similar to those seen on the Siberian tribes.
In 1824 after more than three centuries of Spanish exploration,
military conquests and colonial activity, the Spanish had established a strong
foothold in California, then known as Alta California, and it was in that year
that the newly formed Mexican government won its independence from Spain. In
1835, two first-generation Californians, Joaquin Moraga and his cousin, Juan
Bernal, had successfully petitioned and were granted their request by the Mexican
Assembly for the large tract of land known as Rancho Laguna de Los Palos Colorados.
The practice of petitioning the government for land came about as a result of
military service which had gone uncompensated. It was appropriate that these
two young men, both of whom had served in the Royal Spanish Army of Ferdinand
VII, and members of a prominent Spanish colonial family should be granted their
request. His grandfather was Jose Joaquin Moraga , who was the first of the
Moragas to reach Alta California, being a Spanish soldier and explorer who joined
the explorer, Anza, on his expedition from Sonora. Jose Moraga was a distinguished
officer and is credited with having founded the San Francisco presidio and mission,
and today his grave is located in front of the sanctuary on the floor of Mission
Dolores in San Francisco. His son, Gabriel, the father of Joaquin Moraga, also
distinguished himself in the service by his exploration of the interior regions
of Alta California and he was known to be a successful " Indian fighter"
and yet a man of compassion in his dealings with the Indians. But more important
to the history of Moraga was Gabriel's fifth child, Joaquin, the Moraga to whom
the Rancho Laguna de Los Palos Colorados was granted .
Joaquin Moraga and his cousin, Juan Bernal, occupied the land
with their growing families, as was customary in the world of Mexican rancheros.
It is estimated to have been about 1841 when the Moraga adobe was constructed.
During the years that followed, the Moragas, with the help of the local Indians
engaged in the raising of cattle in response to the thriving trade in hides
and fat which they rendered into tallow. Some wheat and other crops as was necessary
to sustain the families was also harvested. For more than forty years the adobe
was to be the center of family activity, business and social affairs, such as
the Fandango or festive dinner-dances held at the adobe on special occasions.
In the diary writings of the local Justice of Peace during that period, Mr.
Joseph Lamson, describes just such an event which he attended on New Year's
Eve, 1854. He wrote of the demeanor of the principal male members of the Moraga
family as "very gentlemanly" in their deportment, and described their
ladies in their Spanish dresses. Also present were some Mexicans, some Indian
woman with their "papooses," and a number of Americans who were described
as "rough men from the Redwoods." These men were the lumberjacks who
worked in the nearby redwood groves.
It would not be long before the Mexican Rancheros would begin to disappear. The 1849 Gold Rush would set in motion the dismantling of the land grants. Thousands of gold seekers traveled from their homelands in the East to Alta California in search of their fortunes, but as time passed and the gold strikes and the hope for riches faded, the fortune seekers had discovered another kind of gold. They had discovered the beautiful California landscape with its vast open spaces which appeared to be waiting for them to claim. One must speculate that they were also influenced by the abundance of sunshine and mild temperatures, something they had not experienced in their homeland in the East. The miners sought out select parcels of land on which they intended to build their homes, and many of the "squatters" settled on the Moraga Rancho and other Mexican grants, traveling to the county seat, Martinez, to register their claims. The nearby redwood groves provided work for many of them at the mill, as the gold rush had brought prosperity to the young State and the demand for wood was overwhelming,. Yerba Buena, the community over the hills and across the bay, later to be known as San Francisco, was growing at a feverish pace and builders were willing to pay a handsome ransom for rough redwood, the price reported to have been $350 to $600 per one hundred board feet. By this time the entire 505-acre redwood tract had been sold by Joaquin to his neighbor, Elam Brown, for only four thousand dollars.
In 1855 Joaquin Moraga died at the age of 63. His cousin, Juan
Bernal, had preceded him in death in 1847 at the age of 45 years. Events were
unfolding that would eventually transfer all of their land to the newcomers.
In 1848 the American government had taken steps to protect the rights of the
grantees in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgos which ended the Mexican War and
ceded California to the United States. The Treaty also stated that "Mexicans
shall be maintained and protected in the free enjoyment of their liberty and
property, and secured in the free exercise of their religion without restriction."
By this action the Mexican land grantees in Alta California were automatically
granted citizenship and their deeds which had earlier been inspected had now
been officially validated. However reassuring, this was to be only temporary.
California's Senator William M. Gwin, representing the new State and the gold
miners, now "squatters," was successful in persuading the Congress
to reverse the conditions of the Treaty. It now became incumbent on the grantee
of the land to validate, through long and costly court procedures, his right
to the land. For this purpose there was a board of three commissioners installed
to review the land cases. The records reveal that an average of seventeen years
were required from the filing date of a petition to the granting of a final
patent for the land rights. In the final analysis, it can be said that the dismantling
of the Mexican rancheros was hastened as a result of the gold rush and its remnants,
the American "squatters." The Mexicans bore neither the sophistication
nor patience to deal with the legal maneuvering forced upon them by the "squatters."
They were land rich and cash poor, and the burden of attempting to defend their
claims was financially overwhelming . Land passed from the grantees as a result
of mortgage default, in payment of attorney fees or for other personal debts
owed; and land was lost also as a result of fraud. The land was used in lieu
of cash, and according to the records the land appeared to have a value in the
mid 1800s of approximately five dollars an acre.
By 1859, through a series of complex and often questionable transactions,
most of the Ranch Laguna de Los Palos Colorados had been acquired by Horace
W. Carpentier who had ventured West from his home in New York during the gold
rush. Little is know of Mr. Carpentier other than he arrived in San Francisco,
then Yerba Buena, in 1849. After practicing law for two years in the city by
the bay, his quest for land began. Through what has been described as a series
of "slick tricks" he and two other attorneys set forth to invade the
rancheros, beginning with the Peralta land grant in Oakland, they succeeded
in acquiring a great deal of land in Oakland, including the Oakland waterfront.
Moving eastward he set his site for the Moraga property and then the rancho
lands in the Danville area. But during all this activity Carpentier was also
active in the political and business world. He ran for several public offices.
In 1853 he was elected to the California Assembly and in 1854 he became Oakland's
first mayor. An unsuccessful bid for the Democratic nomination as attorney general
for California ended his political career, and for the next ten years he was
president of the California State Telegraph Company which built the state's
first telegraph system. He was also president of the Overland Telegraph Company
which linked California with the East Coast. He was a director of the Bank of
California. In 1880 he returned to New York where he died in 1918 at the age
of 94. Carpentier was obviously a man of immense energy, who in his unorthodox
and often ruthless tactics had become a land baron of great significance. At
the time of his death in 1918 he was held in both contempt and esteem. On October
17, 1877 the Oakland Daily Transcript wrote: "If the early settlers had
taken Horace W. Carpentier to a convenient tree and hung him, as they frequently
threatened to do, the act would have been inestimably beneficial to immediate
posterity." Upon his death in 1918 he was applauded as a philanthropist,
endowing a number of learning centers. He bequeathed one million dollars each
to Columbia University and to Barnard College. At the time of his death, the
President of Columbia University wrote, "We hold General Carpentier's memory
in highest esteem." The reference to "general" is not understood,
but could perhaps be better explained by the comments of the librarian at Columbia
University who is quoted as saying, "He was a real man of mystery; even
the Trustees who served on the [ Columbia University] Boards with him knew nothing
about him or about his past." But Carpentier, the one who knew himself
best, had written in 1901 that his life, as he saw it, was a mix of good and
By 1859 Horace W. Carpentier had acquired most of the Moraga
ranch lands, but the acquisition of the entire 13,316 acres was completed at
the time of the probate of Joaquin's estate in 1885 when the Moraga heirs relinquished
all rights and claims to the property for a settlement of ten thousand dollars.
In the years that followed, the land exchanged hands, but for the most part
it remained in one-man or one-company ownership which preserved it from subdivision
and development for many more years. The land was perceived by Carpentier as
an investment and it was rented out to farmers and ranchers. Carpentier held
the land until 1889 when he sold it to two investors, both railroad men , one
president of the Atlantic and Pacific Railway and the other a contractor with
the Santa Fe Railroad. They formed the Moraga Land Association with the plan
to subdivide the property into town sites and small ranches, and to make the
area more accessible they envisioned a railroad, but the plan never materialized.
By 1899 and three mortgages later the land company still owed Carpentier $788,587.36
on the original contract of $434,076. Carpentier, now living in New York, foreclosed
on the property and repurchased it at public auction for $450,000.
It was not until twelve years later in 1912 that interest in
the Moraga land surfaced again. There was talk of a railroad which would be
built through the valley. Two investors, Charles A. Hooper of Alameda and James
Irvine of Southern California were interested in purchasing the property. Mr.
Hooper purchased the property and just a week later he made the first of a number
of sales to his rival, Mr. Irvine, who would eventually acquire most of the
Moraga Ranch land. By 1923, the Moraga Company which had been created by Mr.
Irvine to hold title to the land and of which he was president, completed the
last of the transactions. In later years, through the urging of Mr. Irvine's
second wife, the once-proud but now condemned Moraga adobe was also acquired
and handsomely restored by Mrs. Irvine. She resided there for nearly ten years
until her death in 1950. Mr. Irvine had preceded her in death in 1947.
Under the ownership of the Moraga Company the old Spanish land
grant was transformed into a giant agricultural business headed by one of California's
most powerful and unpopular entrepreneurs. The change was dramatic as now the
small farmers who rented their parcels could no longer make decisions regarding
use, nor could they pay their rent in cash. It was paid in hay and grain. From
tenant farmer to sharecropper, for more than thirty years, the early settlers
farmed the land for the Company. As far as one could see, the Rancho was planted
in orchards and cover crops. Pear and walnut trees dominated the scene. Peaches
were also grown, and the cover crops consisted of tomatoes, corn, navy beans
and pumpkins. The orchards produced more pears under one management than any
other place in the world. Though the business was a big success, Mr. Irvine's
tactics were viewed with disdain and fear. His company was described in a 1938
editorial in "The Collegian", the Saint Mary's College newspaper,
as "a medieval institution with modern methods." It is true the farmers
were little more than serfs.
The land held by the Moraga Company that was not under cultivation
was reserved for development through sale to developers or through subdivision
by the company. The Oakland & Antioch Railroad which had been granted a
right of way through the Rancho had been completed in 1913 and finally the Moraga
land was accessible to outsiders, thus setting in motion the beginnings of a
long delayed development. While surrounding areas were experiencing growth,
the Moraga Valley's time for development had not come. Plans for development
were drawn up, but never materialized. Perhaps one of the most interesting plans
proposed was the promotion of this lovely isolated valley as the site for the
headquarters of the United Nations at the end of World War II. The idea was
received enthusiastically in Washington, and one member of the inspection tour
is quoted as having said, "If the United Nations headquarters should become
permanent in such a peaceful setting, surely most controversial world affairs
could not help but be settled peacefully." But it was not to be. An offer
of land in New York City was made by John D. Rockerfeller, Jr. and the gift
Fifty years later that same tranquility pervades the hills surrounding
the Moraga Valley. At the threshold of the 21st century the population
of this well-planned community has grown from a few thousand in the 1950s to
a population of an estimated seventeen thousand people. It is the home of Saint
Mary's College, founded by the Christian Brothers and relocated from Oakland
to Moraga in 1923. On its campus the community participates in many cultural,
social and athletic events. Within the boundaries of the community are located
some of the finest schools and homes in the country, and a population that is
very much involved in the community and intent on protecting its special qualities.
In 1953 when the Moraga Rancho passed into the hands of the Utah
Construction & Mining Company, the company proposed an ambitious plan for
the land. The proposal was considered to be not compatible with the preservation
of the natural beauty of the valley and was met with organized opposition from
the community. During the thirteen years that Utah Construction owned the land,
they never built a single home although this was the period of the great growth
in the valley. They did, however, develop the subdivisions that were sold to
numerous building contractors. Among those building contractors emerged the
Rheem brothers, Donald and Richard, who in 1961 formed the Rheem Land Company.
The brothers acquired large tracts of land from Utah Construction and on one
tract they developed a shopping center for the growing community. The center
is located in the other valley of the original Moraga land grant and is known
today as Rheem Valley. In 1964 the Bruzzone name entered the cast of land owners
in the Moraga valley, subdividing and building , and it was in that year that
they developed the 108-acre site which became Moraga's second shopping center.
As the building of the new community progressed, there emerged
a spirit of involvement and commitment among the homeowners in which the focus
was on preserving the natural beauty of the area. Faced with the specter of
uncontrolled development, the homeowners organized to protect the land and to
force the issue of incorporation in order to insure local control of future
development. On the fifth day of November, 1974 the votes were counted, and
the new Town of Moraga had been born.
Note: The foregoing narrative is based on information obtained
from the publication, " Moraga's Pride" [Ranch Laguna de Los Palos
Colorados] which was published in 1987 by the Moraga Historical Society.
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Last update: 19 October 1998 3:58 pm