Men of Good Character, All.TALES OF THE BLUE OAKS © David A. Scharlach
The federal land commissioners leaned back from their bench in their new courtroom in San Francisco. They shared the new digs at the pretentiously ornate Merchant’s Exchange Building on Battery Street. A three-story structure half a block long with marble columns rising from the top of the first floor to the roof. They moved in mid-September 1850, only two years after Mexico turned California over to the U.S. And only a year after the gold rush and just three weeks after California became a state.
Now, on the 21st day of May 1852, surrounded by splendor and due process, yet another land dispute has pushed through the docket. These disputes were like a muddy runoff from the 800 or so land grants that dated prior to the ’48 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. One can picture these politically appointed justices trying to distance themselves from the scruffy “real parties in interest” and the haughty attorneys arguing cases before them. It could be they are all trying to prove the new West was as sophisticated as the old East. Next up, title to Rancho Murieta’s Sacayac Land Grant. The current owner, Emanuel Pratt wants to “patent” his land claim. But the case has an embarrassing wrinkle to it.
To understand the early ownership of Rancho Murieta, we have to take an interesting little detour back to old Mexico.
In June of 1841, Commandant General Alvarado granted Sutter 49,000 acres to be called “New Elbetia,” a few miles north of the fort. That patent went smoothly. No issues there.
Then, another huge chunk of land came Sutter’s way in February 1845 when he approached then Governor Micheltorina for a second grant. It was land Sutter considered under his control as “part of his ranch.” That patent went, well, not so smoothly.
This was land in the greater vicinity of the fort. Sutter was asking for a small area, really. Just some 97,550 acres, 152 square miles! No one else wanted it. The governor agreed to give him general title to the second grant. After all, the governor needed Sutter’s men to fight against the Californio rebellion, remember? But Sutter would first have to have the land surveyed before official title could transfer. The usual practice.
The end of the larger conflict with Mexico was marked with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. To take title, Sutter had now to obtain a fresh survey under the laws of the U.S. But before title could be patented under the new laws, parts of the second grant had been given away, bought or sold many times. Sacayac fell into that category. Pratt was the last of these owners to trace title to Don Sutter. Time had torpedoed the Sutter transactions. Mexican land grants, Micheltorina and old Alta California had been quickly relegated to the pages of history primers.
In 1852, Sutter filed to patent his first Mexican land grant, New Helvetia. Then in 1853 he amended his petition to include the second grant. That’s when the trouble started.
Sutter’s survey of the second grant had people scratching heads. The big problems were his vague descriptions. Some thought they were intentionally fuzzy. A second survey was ordered! This time, it was proven that Sutter had given away, leased or sold more land than he actually owned (if that was possible). Even so, the lower federal court said “no worries.” Too much water under the bridge and all that. But the fight continued on appeal and U. S. Supreme Court finally ruled the second “general title” was worthless.
Incidentally, the official description of the second land grant, one that included all of Sacramento, started liked this, “Commencing at a sycamore tree, with four prongs on the left bank of the Sacramento River about three miles southerly from the foot of Y Street…” (History of Sacramento County, Thompson and West, 1880). I love Where’s Waldo.
So what about Sacayac progenitors to the Supreme Court’s ruling? On April 1, 1844 (no irony there), and six years before the federal land commission stepped in, Sutter put the deed to Sacayac into the eager hands of his blacksmith John Chamberlain. No irony there. The blacksmith even went back to Micheltorina to get his patent blessing and received it. The property would change hands three more times before Sutter’s original ownership was challenged in court.
One might say that John Chamberlain was an unusual man, a person of principle and moral conscience. He was from Ireland but that probably didn’t explain his nature. In early 1840, he was working as a blacksmith on a whaler. His job was uniquely crucial to the operation of the ship. But the whaler held no magnetism for this iron worker. He jumped ship in Acapulco and the crew went out after him with a noose. He made his way up to Montana where he landed in jail. It appears that he was working as the prison blacksmith. He quietly escaped and some speculate that he had made his own shackles. His next stop was the fort on the Sacramento where he hammered iron for Captain Sutter.
Now… John Chamberlain was a bit different. Surrounded by the lustful and lascivious nature of the fort’s adventurers, he stood out. It was well known that John Chamberlain would bed only the woman he married. Our a man of scruples married and divorced 18 times! Then hearing Oregon was giving free land to those who got married there, he packed up and road north, leaving No. 18 behind. It was then that our serial monogamist sold Sacayac to its next owner, a drunken sailor and murderer. You’ll want to hear about that story.