1846-1869

Early American Period

This frontier period is bracketed by the military conquest of California in 1846 and the com­­­­pletion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, and is dominated by the superimposition of American culture on the former Hispanic culture.  In May 1846, the United States de­clared war on Mexico and shortly thereafter the Americans raised the flag in Monterey and San Jose.  In 1848, the United States acquired the Mexican prov­ince of California in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.  Closely following the annexation of California by the Unit­ed States, the discovery of gold in the Sierra foothills pre­cipitated a sudden influx of popu­lation to the State.  This event served to accelerate Cali­fornia statehood, achieved in 1850, with San Jose serving as the first State capital.

As the last town on the route to the southern Mother Lode, San Jose became the sup­ply cen­­ter for hopeful miners as they passed through the area.  Large numbers of these miners were farmers from the eastern United States and Europe, and could not fail to recog­nize the agricultural potential of the Santa Clara Valley.  After a period in the Mother Lode, many of these miners returned to the Valley to take up farming.  The high cost and scar­city of flour, fruit, and vegetables during the ear­ly Gold Rush made agricultural and commercial pur­suits as profitable and more dependable than mining.

Prior to California’s statehood, San Jose endured a turbulent era in civil government.  The American military occupation force was small and stationed at Monterey, beyond effective reach of San Jose.  There was confusion as to what laws were now in force, Mexican or American.  The Hispanic Californians resented the American authority and the Americans refused to be ruled by the Californians.  All basis for effective discipline was gone and near anarchy reigned.

John Burton stepped into this difficult situation as temporary alcalde of San Jose in October 1846.  Married to a Mexican woman, Burton had been a resident of the pueblo since 1829.  As a long time resident he was the a good choice for the post.  He was familiar with the Mex­ican culture and language, and he could also deal effectively with the ambitious Ameri­cans.  To cushion the criticism of his office, Burton appointed a committee of twelve men–six Cali­fornians and six Americans–to help govern the pueblo by majority vote.  This junta  only ruled for a year, but during that period some of its important decisions and actions af­fected San Jose’s future development.

The rapidly growing, land-hungry population did not understand the Mexican concept of land tenure and was greatly frustrated since much of the best land in the San Francisco Bay area was taken up by the large Mexican grants.  In many cases the boundaries of the grants were only roughly identified, a factor also frus­trat­ing to the American settler.  The pre-Gold Rush settlers to California obtained land by gaining Mexican citizenship and being granted land, marrying into the families of Mexican landowners and enjoying his wife’s inheri­tance, squatting on unoccupied and unclaimed land, or by illegally buying it from the unso­phisticated Mexican owner.

During this frontier period, a combination of many factors formed the beginnings of the San Jose that we know today.  One of the dominating cultural traits of the American popu­lation was its urban value system.  The American settler naturally wanted to settle down and establish towns, to speculate in property, and to start businesses and related activities.  Each town colonized by Americans in the West during the nineteenth century began with a pre-conceived plan expressed by the gridiron survey (Reps 1979).  The reason for the grid plan’s popularity was its simplicity.  It was easily laid out by semi-skilled surveyors, it ap­portioned land quickly and efficiently, lots were a suitable shape for the erection of build­ings, and the plan was easily expanded beyond its original limits.  It also facilitated the trans­fer of property ownership and tax assessment.

In response to pressure by American settlers, the junta commissioned a survey of the pueb­lo.  The survey embraced lands east of Market Plaza to Eighth Street, north to Julian and south to Reed streets, all of which were adjacent to the occupied pueblo area.  Those with claims to land in the surveyed area were granted legal title and the unclaimed lands were sold by the Alcalde at $50 per city block.  The initial survey in 1847 was followed by sev­eral others.  In 1850, Thomas White’s survey extended the city limits to Coyote Creek on the east, and just beyond the Guadalupe River on the west.  The city was approximately three miles long, northwest by southeast, and about two miles wide.  These limits were not ex­panded until after the turn-of-the-century.

Besides the overall effect of facilitating speculation, these early surveys were important ele­ments in the evolution of the urban fabric of San Jose.  Once a street plan has been es­tab­lished it becomes relatively inflexible as structures are erected and money is invested to lay road surfaces.  This early plan determined transportation patterns within the town, and in­flu­enced the development of business and residential districts.  Today, we are living with de­cisions made by a few men over 130 years ago.

Throughout California, the new immigrants, believing that the territory ceded by Mexico in the Treaty of Guad­a­lupe Hidalgo was now the public domain of the United States, tried to make claim to lands outside the pueblo.  They immediately came into conflict with the Mex­i­can rancho owners.  Many settlers took matters into their own hands and occupied the land in defiance of the law and the grant­ holder.  The squatter maintained the belief that the lands were public and attacked the legality of Mexi­can titles.  To bring order out of chaos, the United States government created the California Land Claims Commission in 1851 to vali­date the Mexican titles by determining legal ownership and establishing fixed bound­aries for Mexican claimed property.  Intended to protect the Mexican landowner, this pro­cess in many cases worked to his detriment.  The process of title con­firmation was long, cumber­some, and expensive, and many Mexican rancheros found the economic and legal diffi­culties insurmountable.  Even when the Mexican prop­erty owner gained legal title to his land, the eviction of the numerous squatters was an almost impossible task (Broek 1932).  The confirmation process was also necessary to prove ownership of lands within the pueblo, a fact that served to delay the development of property between Market Street and the Guadalupe River for a number of years.

As the productivity of the placer mines fell off and the enthusiasm for gold mining began to wane, many immigrants began to look to the cities and fertile range lands as sources of in­come.  At the time of the Gold Rush, beef was the only commodity that could be supplied in large quantities by the Californians.  It was necessary to import other foodstuffs plus ad­ditional supplies of beef and mutton.  Until the drought of 1864, stock raising continued to be the primary economic activity.  At first the Mexican open range methods were fol­low­ed since grazing lands were ample.  As smaller farms began to spread throughout the Valley, pastur­age was reduced and stock raising was concentrated in the foothill ranges.  More in­ten­sive stock farming began in the 1860s when cattle were moved from the foothill pas­tures to valley feed yards until ready for marketing (Broek 1932).

On a smaller scale, sheep raising, paralleled the cattle industry.  Large flocks were imported during the Gold Rush that thrived in the mild California climate and on the cheap range in the low foothills around the valley.  Sheep populations peaked during the 1870s, the num­ber declining thereafter as farm lands extended, and markets for local wool and mutton de­creased (Broek 1932).

The dairy industry developed in areas that had well-watered pastures, primarily located in the lowlands along the Bay and near Gilroy.  Transportation of fresh milk was a problem in the early years and in the outlying districts most of the milk was used for but­ter and cheese production.  Almost every farm in the Valley kept a couple of milk cows, self sufficiency being the goal (Broek 1932).

The staple agricultural product after the Gold Rush of 1848 became wheat.  A ready market was assured and the crop was easily handled.  The easy cultivation and high fertility of the soil of the Santa Clara Valley facilitated wheat production with little capital invest­ment.  By 1854, Santa Clara County was producing 30 percent of California’s total wheat crop.  In 1868, one observer noted, in summer the Valley was an almost unbroken wheat­ field.  Other grain crops, primarily barley and oats, followed wheat in productivity (Broek 1932; Detlefs 1985).

When the cattle industry shifted to more intensive methods, hay production became a ne­ces­sity.  The planting of forage crops and the establishment of feeding sheds led to bet­ter utilization of the range.  Hay production developed during the 1880s and 90s and on­ly be­gan to drop with the increased appearance of the automobile after 1900.  Most of the hay and forage crops were used by the dairy industry (Broek 1932).

The discovery of gold made the establishment of cities even more important.  The life in the gold fields was difficult and the miners sought the city for relief from these hardships by having well-cooked meals and enjoying what entertainment could be found.  San Jose was one of several towns in northern California that responded to the stimulus of gold fever by establishing hotels, houses of entertainment, restaurants, saloons, and stores that provided merchandise needed by the miners.  Whatever the miner was willing to pay for, someone was willing to provide.  An added impetus to San Jose’s early development was its selec­tion as the first state capital in 1850.  The combination of migrating miners and the arrival of legislators, newsmen, and interested onlookers spurred the rapid development of San Jose.

Urban development moved at a swift pace during the 1860s.  Gas service was introduced in 1861 and gas mains were extended from San Jose into Santa Clara.  The San Jose Water Company was incorporated in 1866, supplying piped water to city residents.  The first sew­ers were con­tracted by the city this same year.  During the 1850s, regional stage lines were established between San Jose, Santa Clara, and Saratoga.  These were replaced by the arrival of the street car line, chartered by Samuel Bishop in 1868, establishing the first ur­ban transit lines in San Jose.

The need for a railroad was recognized in the early 1850s; however, the railroad line be­tween San Francisco and San Jose was not completed until 1864.  This event was followed a few years later with the completion of the Central Pacific line from San Jose to Niles con­necting San Jose with the transcontinental railroad in 1869.  San Jose thus became part of the national and world economic network that opened new markets for the agricultural and manufactured production of the valley.  The railroad, increasing population, and agri­cultur­al developments ushered in a new era of land use.

Even after the capital was removed from San Jose in 1852, the city exhibited steady growth through the following two decades.  This period of growth was characterized by San Jose becoming the major service center for the expanding agricultural hinterland, increasing in­dus­trial and commercial activities, developing transportation services both internally and re­gionally, increasing ethnic immigration, residential expansion, and the development of ur­ban services and utilities.

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