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THE STORY OF MORAGA

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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 ill.

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 was accepted.

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: 17 July 2012 at 9:16 pm