August 2010

Potrero Hill’s Street Names Tell California’s History

By Lester Zeidman

It was a confusing moment in California history. In 1846, after decades of calm with little interference from Mexico, the native Californios became concerned about the steady influx of Americans, and the Mexican government’s neglect of the area.  Mexican forces were thought to be preparing to expel all foreigners from Northern California.  In Sonoma, Captain John C. Fremont singlehandedly declared a state of war on Mexico, and the Osos, the local insurgents of the day, jailed the alcalde – mayor – of Sonoma, Jose de los Santos Berreyesa and his two brothers. The Bear Flag Revolt was in full swing.

A distraught mother urged her husband, Jose de los Reyes Berreyesa, to travel to Sonoma to check on the welfare of their three sons. Berreyesa enlisted the help of his nephews, the twin brothers Francisco and Ramon de Haro, the eldest sons of Don Francisco de Haro, the first Mexican alcalde of what would soon become San Francisco. They traveled at night in a small boat.  On the early morning of June 28, 1846, they landed near Point San Pedro, near San Rafael.

Upon learning of the boat’s arrival, Fremont dispatched his aide, the famed explorer Kit Carson, and two others to meet the small party.  Carson started off on his horse, stopped, returned to Fremont and asked, “Captain, shall I take those men prisoners?”  Fremont dismissed the question with a wave of his hand and replied, “I have got no room for prisoners.”

Jose de los Reyes Berreyesa was 62 years old. The de Haro twins were not yet twenty. The three were unarmed.  Carson rode to a distance of roughly fifty yards, alighted from his horse, shot and killed all three men. The famed surveyor Jasper O’Farrell witnessed the sordid murder.

Barely two years earlier, in spite of still being minors, Francisco and Ramon De Haro had received a land grant from the Mexican government for the pasturelands east of Mission Dolores. After their encounter with Carson, the owners of one square league of land now known as Potrero Hill were stripped of their clothing and left unburied on the shore of San Pablo Bay.

For a brief moment – barely 25 days – California was a new nation:  the California Republic.  But unbeknownst to Fremont, war had already broken out between the U.S. and Mexico along the Texas border.  California’s fate would be determined by the conflict’s outcome.

Dr. John Townsend came overland to California in 1844.  Like most travelers, he stopped at Sutter’s Fort.  Townsend was born in Pennsylvania, and traveled extensively. He was educated in Tennessee; worked in Missouri, married in Ohio, and departed from Council Bluffs, Iowa to journey to California. He was part of the Stephens-Townsend-Murphy party, known for being the first to cross the Sierra Nevada with wagons by way of the Truckee River. They met an old Paiute Indian who guided them.  They, in turn, named the river after him. Not that the Indian didn’t already have a name for the river, but the Truckee River name has won the test of time. Their trip was not without peril.  They encountered snow, split-up and ultimately all made it safely to Sutter’s Fort. The doomed Donner Party traveled the same route two years later, using a few of the shelters that Townsend’s party had erected.

At the fort, Captain John Sutter enlisted Townsend’s help in forming a battalion to aid then Mexican Governor Manuel Micheltorena. They were to battle the parliamentary force of Pio Pico, who would soon replace Micheltorena. The Battle of Cahuenga, near what is now North Hollywood, quickly became the Capitulation of Cahuenga, as no battle ever took place. Pio Pico convinced Sutter’s land-hungry American conscripts that Micheltorena couldn’t grant land to non-Mexicans. The Americans then proceeded to vote on which side they’d support, prompting the not very famous quote by Sutter, “This is not the time to vote, this is the time to fight!”  Sutter, embarrassed and broke, returned to his fort with what was left of his battalion. O’Farrell accompanied Sutter and Townsend, serving as quartermaster.

Many records of early San Francisco were destroyed in the Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906.  However, it’s well documented that after the death of his twin sons, Don Francisco de Haro became despondent. He had good days and bad ones, but there would be no recovery from his grief. De Haro had served as the first alcalde of Yerba Buena in 1839, was well-known and well-respected. The Bear Flag revolt had failed, and the United States had raised its flag at Monterey and at Portsmouth Square.  In 1847, the village of Yerba Buena became the town of San Francisco. De Haro knew that the land that had been granted to his sons was now at risk; the Americans weren’t granting land to anyone.

The Mexican–American War didn’t go well for Mexico. U.S. troops occupied Mexico City.  The Mexican government was in such disarray there was no one of any authority to sign a treaty of surrender.  On January 24, 1848, James W. Marshall found gold in the spillway of the mill at Coloma. He dutifully reported the find to his employer, Sutter, and both vowed to keep the discovery secret. Just one week later, on February 2, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildago was signed, ending the war with Mexico. The treaty recognized the annexation of Texas, and ceded all the lands west, including all of California, to the U.S.  It took until August before Sutter’s secret reached Mexico City.

By 1848, Townsend had acquired property along California Street.  Townsend was instrumental in establishing the first public school in San Francisco, and served as the City’s fourth alcalde under American rule. But the school didn’t last, and Townsend didn’t spend much time as an administrator. His term began in April, 1848 and ended the following September. He, along with everyone else, had headed for the hills to seek their fortune in gold.

Winter rains brought many gold searchers back to San Francisco, after which that great San Francisco tradition of land speculation moved into high gear. Lots that had been worthless during the summer were now commanding exorbitant prices. But the real gold rush hadn’t yet begun; it was still just a local affair.  In the midst of a swirl of rumors, in December, 1848, President James Polk, in his final state of the union address, held up a large chunk of gold from California and said, “The accounts of the abundance of gold in that territory are of such an extraordinary character as would scarcely command belief were they not corroborated by the authentic reports of officers in the public service…”

That pretty much did it, triggering the greatest mass migration of the nineteenth century. At the height of the Gold Rush, during the summer of 1849, an ad appeared in the newspaper, Alta California, inviting people to inspect the lands of South San Francisco. They were referring to Potrero Hill, not yet a part of San Francisco. The ad was placed by Townsend and a recent emigrant, Cornelius De Boom. They were ready to sell full blocks of Potrero Hill, and they laid out the streets, probably with O’Farrell’s help.

Even before California became a state, Potrero Hill emerged as an intersection of California and the United States. Streets running north and south on the Hill were named after states; east-west streets were California counties. El Dorado, Butte, Santa Clara, Napa, and Sierra crossed paths with Pennsylvania, Texas, Iowa, Missouri, and Wisconsin.  Some say it was a land grab, to steal De Haro’s property.  But more likely De Haro knew his hold on the land was tenuous, and it was time to sell. O’Farrell and Townsend both knew De Haro, who had aged fast after the death of the twins. Townsend and De Boom put on a patriotic display of marketing genius. Merging the United States with the counties of California would surely attract homesick easterners with pockets full of gold to establish their homesteads with their newfound riches.

But it didn’t work out the way it was planned. The lots didn’t sell; they were too far away from the City’s center.  De Haro died in November 1849 and was buried at Mission Dolores. His family fought for years to maintain control of the land, but they lost that too. Squatters came and established their own rights to the land. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where De Haro’s heirs lost in 1866. Those who lived on Potrero Hill celebrated the victory by building bonfires at the top of the Hill, which could be seen all over San Francisco.

What survived were the street names.  Industry was just establishing itself along the eastern shoreline, centered at Michigan, Illinois and Kentucky streets. St Teresa’s Church was built on Tennessee Street, and homes were constructed along Iowa Street. Later on, larger houses were built on Pennsylvania Street.  In 1849, there were no streets, except on paper; by 1850, that changed too.

The Hill’s lower streets may have been named after the states through which Townsend traveled, with extra-wide Pennsylvania Street getting special treatment as his home state. However, some streets were not even states yet, including Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Utah. Wisconsin Street, over the top of the Hill, was admitted to the union in May, 1848.  Iowa, Texas, Florida, Michigan, Arkansas, Missouri, in reverse order, were all recently admitted.  But Townsend was never near Texas or Florida, and Florida Street didn’t even appear on maps until long after 1849. De Boom arrived from Venezuela, O’Farrell came to San Francisco from Ireland via Chile, and Francisco De Haro was born in Mexico and never traveled beyond California.  For all anyone knows, Townsend, De Boom, De Haro, and O’Farrell drew cards in a late night poker game and filled out a grid. Some early maps show Delaware Street changing to De Haro Street after his death, a sign of respect towards the first alcalde. Delaware Street was then relegated to the watery depths east of Michigan Street.

The east-west county street names survived until 1895. New streets were being developed and named all over the City as San Francisco’s borders expanded. The U.S. Post Office couldn’t keep track of all the streets; they implored the Board of Supervisors to simplify the street grids. The numbered streets that began downtown had curved around into the Mission area. But the street grid didn’t line up exactly, so a few county streets survived. Mariposa, Alameda, Marin and Amador continue to bear traffic today. On the maps, Sierra Street reached the Mission from the bay, but topography doomed it to a small stub between Texas and Missouri. Even little El Dorado Street survived until the Mission Bay project pushed it into oblivion.

Potrero Hill’s street names were a culmination of patriotism born at the height of the Gold Rush; a true monument of San Francisco history, later decimated by the Post Office. Perhaps now, with the invention of new-fangled computers, the Post Office could let us restore the Hill’s original county street names. California’s future was uncertain in 1849; it would be another year before being admitted into the Union.  But Potrero Hill was the first new neighborhood in San Francisco, and the streets foretold the news that California and the United States would forever be intertwined. To restore Potrero Hill’s original street names could once again capture the excitement of the Gold Rush and stoke the imaginations of San Franciscans to newly appreciate our amazing history.

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