The Purchase and Founding of Piedmont
The history of Piedmont's purchase seems to vary depending on who you ask. According to City of Piedmont's website in 2021, it said Walter Blair "bought 600 acres of land from the Peraltas for $1.25 per acre." Other sources say it was through the US Government. This page is an attempt to put some of the historical pieces together and find a more accurate representation of what happened during that time. If you have more historical information about this purchase, please contact me and I will be happy to add it in.
The Peraltas and “Rancho San Antonio”
On August 3, 1820, Governor Pablo de Sola, last Spanish governor of California, recognized the forty years' service of Don Luís María Peralta by awarding him the 43,000-acre San Antonio Grant. From this point northward, the grant embraced the sites of the cities of San Leandro, Oakland, Alameda, Emeryville, Piedmont, Berkeley, and Albany. [Source] The area bounded by modern-day Piedmont overlapped two parcels , but the precise boundary is not known.
According to Piedmont's now defunct newspaper, The Piedmonter, on Jan 11, 1957, page 3, Walter Blair didn't buy his Piedmont land from the Peralta's. In 1820, today's Piedmont was called “Rancho San Antonio” and remained there until 1842 when Don Peralta divided his ranch between his four sons. Rancho San Antonio was sparsely populated except for cattle and their tenders. the site that Piedmont now occupies was included in the portions belonging to Jose Domingo and Viciente Peralta. With the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and California’s statehood in 1850, title to these lands was disputed. After lengthy litigation, the Peraltas obtained title to some of their land holdings, but these gradually passed out of their hands and became property of the United States Government.
The Piedmonter continued to say when California was admitted to the union in 1850, there was some dispute about the title of the current city of Piedmont. “Endless litigation followed so it happened that the US government held title to a considerable amount of land in the East Bay when Walter Blair appeared one day in 1852 at the U.S. Land Office in San Francisco and asked to buy some."
Filed by Kellersberger on September 2, 1853, this map shows José Domingo Peralta's "reserve" to the far left. José Vicente Peralta's "reserve" is in the center.
The map is centered on Vicente Peralta's 700 acres reserve, showing the intersection of three roads which would become Alcatraz Avenue, Claremont Avenue and College Avenue, with Alcatraz Avenue noted in pencil in an early hand. The map extends north to Cerity Creek, Albany Hill Park, Golden Gate Fields and the Berkeley Hills, south to the Oakland Estuary and the west part of Alameda Island, and east to Piedmont, Indian Gulch, Panorama Hill and Tilden Regional Park. [Source]
Who owns the hills?
The book History of Alameda County California 1928 - Volume I, Chapter XVI Piedmont describes the Peralta land on p529-530:
With the influx of American settlers, the squatter problem arose. The Peralta brothers themselves made subdivisions, with the result that when California was admitted into the Union on September 9, 1850, the title of these lands was in dispute... Great confusion arose because of the transient character of many of the landmarks used by the Spaniards and Mexicans. Stream, sand hills, even corrals, clumps of trees and plants were used as landmarks in various sections of California.
So great was the confusion that in 1849 and 1850 Congress ordered investigations, and reports were submitted on the subject of California titles. It was not until 1851, however, that Congress was able to agree upon a definite policy. In that year, on March 3rd, the famous Land Act was passed by which a Board of Land Commissioners was created to hear the claims of the Spanish grantees or their heirs. Had the United States Government adhered to the letter of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which guaranteed that the property held in the ceded Mexican territory would be "inviolably respected," the Land Act would not have been necessary. The act, however, threw many titles into uncertainty, and endless litigation followed.
Domingo and Vincente Peralta were forced to have their titles quieted under this act, and accordingly, on January 21, 1852 filed their claims to ownership before the Board of Land Commissioners which had been set up in San Francisco. The commission acted favor upon their claims on February 7, 1854, but this decision was not made binding until the United States Supreme Court handed down an opinion on February 19, 1858. On this date, the country's highest tribunal "recognized and confirmed the title and claim of Domingo and Vicente Peralta to the tract of land known as San Antonio." The United States patent was recorded in the office of Recorder Thomas A. Smith of Alameda County, at the request of H.P. Irving, on March 14, 1877. Gradually the Peralta holdings, like those of other early Californians, passed out of the hands of their original owners and their decedents. The Peraltas often surrendered a parcel of land in lieu of the purchase price of a bill of goods or in payment of some other debt.
1858 - 1859 official map of the "Northern Part of the Rancho San Antonio finally confirmed to Vicente and Domingo Peralta." [The Online Archive of California and the California Digital Library.]
This map is 6 years after Walter Blair supposedly camped and bought land in 1852, which means it should include Blair's camp but doesn't. Did he come after 1852, was he squatting or did this map just not include him?
California Historical Society quarterly, by California Historical Society, 1922:
In 1850, squatters rushed in and laid out Oakland on the San Antonio rancho in complete disregard of the Peralta family's rights.
Some details that were left out of the book above were that "by 1856 when the American courts finally said that the Peraltas owned the land, the sons had sold a lot of land to pay for lawyers. Then a group of squatters complained to the court and the Peraltas had to go to court again and lost more land just to pay the costs of going to court. The rancho was shrinking fast. The Peraltas sold some land for good prices before court costs and swindlers took it all. In 1897 Antonio’s daughter Inez Galindo sold the last 18 acres of Antonio’s land. [Source]
Squat it till you've got it
In The History of Alameda County California vol 1 published in 1928 on p530-531, it writes about in 1852, the first known settler in the Piedmont area (after the Peraltas), was Walter Blair:
Walter Blair arrived in San Francisco from Vermont. He crossed the Bay to Oakland in a row-boat, walked to the foot-hills and camped at what is now the corner of Blair and Highland Avenues. In that same year he purchased from the United States Government, which held part of the old Peralta grant, some 600 acres paying $1.25 an acre. Land was then the cheapest goods in the possession of the United States Government, it had just received and empire from Mexico.
Did Walter Blair squat/"camp" on the Peralta's land and then purchase it from the US Government after squatting lawsuits forced the Peralta's to sell land to cover legal fees? If anyone has any more information on this I would like to read it. I also can't find any deed, official news or records about him buying the land for $1.25.
In 1943 the Folsom Telegraph said that "after the discovery of gold the Peraltas were harassed by squatters who killed and drove off the cattle and involved the land in litigation...eventually all the home sites passed from the hands of the Peraltas."
The Folsom Telegraph - Fri - Oct. 29, 1943
Past and present of Alameda County, California by Baker, Joseph Eugene, 1847-1914, page 49:
In 1851, Edson Adams, A. J. Moon and Horace W. Carpentier, without paying the slightest regard to the rights of Peralta, the owner of the land, squatted on the Rancho San Antonio near the foot of the present Broadway street. They made no attempt to buy or lease any of the land, but seemed to have adopted the resolution of possessing themselves of it by other means than those of right and justice. They boldly assumed that it was Government land, and proceeded to parcel it out among themselves. They were soon followed by other squatters, and the lawful owners found themselves hemmed in on everyside by the trespassers. The thousands of cattle belonging to Peralta, roaming among the oaks and feeding upon the plains, were stolen and killed. His timber was cut and carried away without being paid for. The courts at that time were unorganized and justice was tardy.
The Bay of San Francisco : the metropolis of the Pacific Coast and its suburban cities : a history by Lewis Publishing Company. 1892:
Edward Dana Harmon...He was accompanied by his brother, John B., now of San Francisco and Berkeley. They bought a tract of 120 acres, squatter title, with a house upon it, near what is now Piedmont on the north side of lake Merritt; he followed farming there till about 1857. Then selling out, he purchased a squatter's title to 172 acres lying on the western shore of lake Merritt. In December, 1857, he obtained a Spanish title, and sold out to Edson Adams in September, 1860; at the present time it is known as "Adams Point."
Oakland Tribune - Fri -Sep. 18, 1903
Oakland Tribune - Sat - June 14, 1884
San Francisco Chronicle -
Sun - Aug 16, 1906
Oakland Tribune - Tues - Blair - Jan. 17, 1888
The start of Piedmont and the Parks
The white man thought the land was only to be seen and straight-way seized. This idea gave rise to many internal dissensions, and the Spaniard held rigidly to his rights until proper agreement could be made.
No historical record of Piedmont can be found, but several old settlers have kindly given us some authentic facts of interest. Although without the city limits, Piedmont Park and Springs is virtually an extension of Oakland. A portion of the Piedmont Park property originally belonged to Mr. Walter Blair , but he sold it to the “ Piedmont Land Company," and it now is included in the Park. “
The Piedmont Land Company" was incorporated April 14 , 1853, with Mr. James Gamble as its President, and five directors. Its object, as set forth in the original certificate, was to " engage in and carry on the business of buying and selling real estate in Alameda County," and to make such improvements as should be necessary.
Mr. James Gamble suggested the pretty name of Piedmont, derived from the Piedmontese hills of Italy, meaning " at the foot of the mountain ." No more appropriate name could be found. A hotel was built on the site of the present Club House, and the sulphur Springs were Piedmont Driveway. somewhat improved , blue gum trees were planted, and rustic seats were prepared. In those early days it became a very popular resort. At first the grounds were open to the public, but some years ago the tract passed into the hands of the Realty Syndicate, which company has made all the varied improvements mentioned at the commencement of this article. The original hotel was burned down, and the new modern Club -House is not only frequented by the public during the day, but is rented for private affairs, dinners, etc. , in the evening. In early days that portion of Piedmont known as Blair Park, was thronged by thousands on Sunday, when open- air con certs and balloon ascensions were given with a view to attracting the public. The present owners desire to keep the Park artistic and refined , and intend to make it the most beautiful pleasure ground in California.
Nestling at the foot of the mountain, on the outskirts of a thriving city, its location is unexcelled ; wondrously gifted by Nature, and aided by men who seek to let Nature be her own surveyor as far as possible, it is romantically charming.
If its old trees could speak, what stories they could tell of those mysterious first days of Alameda, when Indian and Spaniard dreamed beneath their shade until the vigorous white man put all their dreams to flight. A traditional Past of intense interest has “ Piedmont in the Hills ." With all these advantages we predict a brilliant and long- lived future for this section of beautiful Alameda County.
Oakland Tribune - Sun - Nov. 12, 1972
A summary of Piedmont from Oakland Realtor advertisement - August 1981.
(To learn more, click on the links)
Within a decade of Blair’s arrival, seven families owned the land that would become piedmont. Stock, grain and dairy products were did the principal yield of that area. The rolling hills were dotted with oaks, a few redwoods and buckeyes. In the 1870’s Australian eucalyptus trees were successfully introduced.
During the 1860’s Blair and Samuel Howe became partners in building a horsecar line from 7th and Broadway in Oakland to the entrance to Mountain View Cemetery, which had been established in 1863(sic). The horsecars encouraged settlers. Businessmen, seeing the potential growth of the area, organized the Piedmont Land and Water Company in 1868, with Blair as one of the owners.
Sulfur springs were discovered near the site of the present high school, and a park was created around them. In 1870 the Piedmont Springs Hotel was built in what is now Piedmont Park. Blair then extended the horsecar line though his field to the hotel. For the next 17 years the popular spa flourished, attracting a series of notable guests, including Mark Twain. A disastrous fire on New Year’s Day in 1887 destroyed the hotel and signaled the end Piedmont’s era as a vacation resort.
The extension of the horsecar line to the hotel has made Moraga Canyon, south of the cemetery, accessible to the public. Walter Blair developed the area into an amusement park. Blair Park attracted many visitors because of its tree-shaded picnic tables, band concerts and thrilling balloon ascensions.
In 1870 Isaac Requa, a mining engineer who had made his fortune in the Comstock Lode, began construction of the fourth home in Piedmont, “The Highlands.” The main street of Piedmont, originally called Vernal Avenue, now takes its name from this house. The Requas were the first of many wealthy San Franciscans who preferred a country estate to a house on Nob Hill. The yellow mansion with its high cupola was an Eastbay landmark easily seen from the ferries crossing the bay.
As a result of the area’s growth, Alameda County hired its first teacher in 1878. Three years later a school was built near the intersection of Piedmont and Pleasant Valley avenues.
By the late 1880’s citizens of Piedmont felt the need for better transportation facilities. Because cable cars had been operating successfully on San Francisco hills, a similar system was installed on Oakland Avenue in 1890. However, three years later the “Bobtailed Car Line” was replaces by an electric line on a right of way south of Moraga Avenue.
Oakland Tribune - Sun - Apr. 23, 1916
Perhaps the only industry ever attempted in Piedmont was the Ladies Silk Culture Society. This venture failed 1895, after an unsuccessful ten-year attempt to complete with oriental production of silk.
Early cadastral map of Piedmont, California, based upon the work of William Hammond Hall and M.G. King, from the collection of William F. Boardman. The present map is likely the same map that was filed on April 2, 1877 with the Alameda County Recorder.
1900s - 1907
A quake and the city's future at stake
(cont.) A summary of Piedmont from Oakland Realtor advertisement - August 1981.
In the first years of the twentieth century, F.M. (Borax) Smith and Frank C. Havens became partners in a real estate syndicate which built the Claremont Hotel and subdivided 13,000 acres of the East Bay hills, including part of Piedmont. In 1904 Smith established the interurban electric train and ferry system, linking the East Bay with San Francisco. The “Piedmont Line,” the second line built in the East Bay, carried passengers from the ferry to 41st Street and Piedmont Avenue. This extended transportation system encouraged more wealthy San Franciscans to settle in the surroundings of the Piedmont Hills.
The disastrous San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906 brought many refugees to the East Bay. When it became evident that Oakland, anxious to augment its tax rolls, was about to annex the Piedmont area, a charter was hastily drawn, and on January 30, 1907, Piedmont was incorporated. Varney Gaskill was the first mayor of the approximately 1,000 residents. Because there was no time to surveying the boundary lines, those of the Piedmont Sanitary District were adopted; thus over 100 homes and 1 church are bisected by the city’s boundaries. Two years after Piedmont’s incorporation, Oakland annexed all adjacent territory, and Piedmont became unique as one city entirely surrounded by another.
Many Piedmont streets today bear the names of early settlers (Bell, Blair, Craig, Requa and Sharon). Although most of the original homes have been destroyed and the estates subdivided, two houses remain from that early era. The Wetmore house, built by Jesse Wetmore between 1877 and 1892, is on the corner of Bonita and Vista Avenues. At one time it had a carriage house and cowshed at the rear and was surrounded by formal gardens. Mr Wetmore’s son Clarence was the first student ever to register at the University at Berkeley. The home is now in the National Register of Historic Places. The home of Hugh Craig, Piedmont’s second mayor, was built in 1880. It was moved in 1912 to its present location at the upper end of Craig Avenue.
Berkeley Daily Gazette - Tue - May 1, 1906
Wickhams Havens advertised (above) that not a chimney fell while the book The California Earthquake of April 18, 1906 Report of the State Earthquake Investigation Commission, of 1908, page 433 said, "A house near old Blair Park, in the present Piedmont district of Oakland, was badly damaged." Maybe the chimney didn't fall at that house.
On the morning of April 18, 1906, there was a 7.9 earthquake in San Francisco. Thousands fled across the bay to safety and many never returned to San Francisco. This caused a population boom and Piedmont grew 10 times bigger in just one year.
Famous Bohemian of Piedmont, "The Crowd's" Xavier Martinez's wife, Elsie Martinez:
We moved to Piedmont in 1902, a short while before my father took his first trip to Mexico. Piedmont was then cattle country with its golden hills upon which was raised hay for the cattle ranches on the other side of our Skyline...
Each summer our boys scouted the ranches to find the day for the cattle drive and we never failed to be there to watch this truly beautiful spectacle. And it was with sadness and regret that the year following the earthquake the cattle drives stopped and we lost our greatest thrill of the year. After the earthquake, the sleepy town of Oakland, jolted awake by the earthquake, rapidly developed into a city. And our golden hills, on which was raised the hay to supply the cattle ranches with feed for the cattle and horses, succumbed to progress and homes and tracts crept up the hills and topped the Skyline.
Oakland Tribune - Nov. 17, 1909
Until 1907, what is known as Piedmont was an unincorporated area of Oakland. The city of Oakland's boundaries were expanded to annex forty-four square miles of territory and two hundred miles of streets, which brought several unincorporated areas within the city limits. According to the Piedmonter on Jan 11, 1957, in the latter half of 1906 it was obvious that annexation by Oakland was inevitable unless quick action was taken for approval from the State Legislature.
The San Francisco Call -
Sun - Jan. 27, 1907
April 4, 2019
Why Is Piedmont a Separate City From Oakland?
Oakland city leaders kept eyeing new territory, and soon Piedmont was squarely in its crosshairs.
“The City Council took a measure to vote an annexation of all the land in what is now Piedmont, and a whole bunch of other East Oakland hamlets,” said Steve Lavoie.
Oakland’s City Council set the vote on annexing Piedmont for January 1907.
But then something went wrong. In their paperwork, they failed to name one of the districts that they wanted to annex and the vote was postponed until March. This left a really big opening for mayhem.
"In the meantime, a group in Piedmont who opposed annexation jumped on the opportunity to try and incorporate Piedmont, as a way of preventing annexation into Oakland," said Lavoie.
During the delay in Oakland’s vote, some Piedmont residents, a mix of bohemian artists and business people, filed a petition to hold their own election to become a city. If they could beat Oakland to the punch, they hoped Piedmont would remain rural and undeveloped. They saw how densely populated Oakland was, and they didn’t want any part of it.
The big vote on whether Piedmont should incorporate happened in January 1907.
"Eighteen more men voted to become a city than voted to not become a city," Swift said.
Piedmont was officially a city.
But here’s where it gets tricky. Oakland’s vote to annex Piedmont still went forward. And in March a majority of Piedmont residents voted to join Oakland. The vote was 63-43. But this was impossible now that Piedmont was its own city.
"The only thing that the opponents in the Piedmont hills can do is to hold an election to disincorporate [Piedmont]. So they hold another election in September, and more people voted to become part of the city of Oakland, to disincorporate Piedmont, than voted to stay a city," Swift said.
So then why is Piedmont separate today?
"It's one of those little nuggets of law that people don't know much about or care much about until they have to. It requires two-thirds vote of the people to disincorporate a city, and they failed to get two-thirds," Swift said.
Piedmont stayed a separate city but its edges weave in and out of Oakland. This is because in their haste to file paperwork to incorporate Piedmont, proponents grabbed the only map they had on hand to define the boundaries — a map of the sewer lines that snaked underneath the houses in Piedmont.
What does that mean for the borders of Piedmont today?
"It means that there are 136 parcels ... a portion of which are in Piedmont and a portion of which are in Oakland, and/or, where one side of the street is in Piedmont and the other side of the street is in Oakland, like Rose Avenue,” Swift said. “Sewer boundaries wouldn't ever be what you would want to use in defining city boundaries. You’d want to use streets or major roads. But they didn't have that choice, so we're stuck with it."
Berkeley Daily Gazette
- Fri - Mar. 15, 1907
One hundred and thirteen years ago, Piedmont declared independence. But the town’s special character was shaped long before that
January 25, 2020
Looming behind the fidgeting public was a familiar force: the Realty Syndicate. According to an Oakland Tribune article from September 4, 1907, in January Craig cited the “beneficent influence” of the Syndicate as a key reason for incorporating. From the Syndicate’s perspective, annexation might have meant disrupting the system of land, transportation infrastructure, and water rights it had spent the prior decade buying and developing.
But the same article cites Craig, in September, outing the Syndicate as the hand behind a new movement in Piedmont. Pro-annexationists wanted to disincorporate and reverse a decision that they feared would raise their taxes. Craig, one of Piedmont’s five elected trustees, suspected the Syndicate had been alarmed by his suggestion that the new city raise tax rates on unimproved land.
The Oakland Tribune called Craig a liar: “Every person familiar with the facts knows this is not true,” it published September 4, but he may have had a point. Leading the disincorporation movement was Piedmonter Edward Engs, who is listed in the 1907 census as the Syndicate’s attorney.
On September 7, 92 men voted for disincorporation, and 63 voted against it. But this time they were a dozen votes short of the requisite two-thirds. Piedmont remained its own city, and by 1909 Oakland had annexed the remaining surroundings, locking in the borders as we know them today.
Many of the values that guided the fight for Piedmont’s independence continue to shape life in this hillside community. The limits on commercial business development keep the town quiet, uncongested and superficially unchanged, and ensure that a “blot” the likes of the hotel saloon can never resurface.
They also keep Piedmont racially homogenous. In the decades immediately following the city’s incorporation, Piedmont’s exclusiveness would be codified into something exclusionary: discriminatory practices known as redlining, designed to keep minorities out of town.
[Read more about Piedmont redlining on our city's Sidney Dearing site]
Oakland -Tribune -Wed - Sep. 4, 1907
The San Francisco Examiner -
Wed - Sep. 4, 1907
"Piedmont citizens claim conspiracy"
Residence of exclusive Piedmont, the storeless, spotless and uncommercial "city" of northeastern Oakland, are incensed over what they declare is an attempt of a combination of real estate dealers "to deliver the city of Piedmont to Oakland at an election to be held next Thursday to vote upon the disincorporation of Piedmont."
[SF Gate 2012]:
Piedmont historian Gail Lombardi described Piedmont at the time as a quiet mix of middle-class and affluent families who "didn't want to be gobbled up by Oakland. They wanted to be their own city."
For Piedmonters, it's the small-town atmosphere they prize most, said Shirley Price of the Piedmont Historical Society.
"It's always been a wonderful place for families. That's why I came here, and I've never been disappointed," she said. "Oakland, with its reputation and its crime. ... We don't want to live in that kind of city."
(For the record -- not all of us living in Piedmont have a distain for Oaklanders.)
Oakland Tribune – Sun – Jun. 22, 1952
Piedmont, of course, was once larger than it is now. When James Gamble, an early settler, suggested the name “Piedmont,” meaning “foot of the mountain,” the area extended down to 26th street in Oakland, east to the present Diamond Canyon, and included the hill lands.