by Paul R. Spitzzeri
In February 1845, Pío Pico assumed the governor’s seat in the Mexican department of Alta California, after a confrontation with Governor Manuel Micheltorena, a highly unpopular appointee of the authorities Mexico City, near Los Angeles. The sum total of the casualties of the so-called “Battle of Cahuenga Pass” was a dead horse and a wayward hat belonging to one of the combatants.
The standoff ended when Americans and Europeans on both sides of the conflict met and arranged for a peaceful solution in which Micheltorena yielded the field and returned to Mexico and Pico became governor. The captain of the volunteers of extranjeros (foreigners) for Pico was William Workman, while Workman’s long-time friend and neighbor on Rancho La Puente, John Rowland, was lieutenant. The service provided by Workman for the new governor undoubtedly led to what might be termed “spoils of war.”
One was the regranting of La Puente in July 1845 to Rowland and Workman (who was not included in the first grant, to Rowand, in March 1842–more on that in a post a couple of months from now), including expansion of the rancho from about 17,000 to nearly 49,000 acres. A second was a grant to lands of the former Mission San Gabriel, given in April 1846 to Workman and Hugo Reid, this property being made available, in Pico’s mind, because secularization in the 1830s shuttered the mission and freed up its properties for private settlement. A future post will cover that grant and its ourcome. Then, there was a grant in June 1846 to a small island in the bay near the little vilage of Yerba Buena (renamed San Francisco) called Alcatraz–another great topic for a post down the road.
Finally, there was another island that Pico doled out to Workman and the governor’s brother, Andrés. The southernmost of the Channel Islands, San Clemente was granted to the two men on this day in 1846. By then, the invasion of Mexico on flimsy pretenses by the United States was well along and it was a matter of time before American forces would descend on Alta California. Governor Pico busily handed out land grants left and right during this period and one explanation is that he did this to make sure tracts were in private hands and not to be seized by the Americans when they conquered California.
In the Homestead’s collection are some old copies of the original San Clemente Island land grant and juridical possession documents and translations of these. The grant by Pico stipulated that
Whereas the gentlemen Don Andrés Pico and Don Julián Workman, Mexican citizens, have requested for their personal benefit and for that of their families, the island of San Clemente, situated in front of the roadstead of San Pedro, which is found to be completely vacant . . . I have come by decree of this to convey to said parties the aforementioned island . . .
The reference to “the roadstead of San Pedro” is interesting as is the statement that the island was “completely vacant.” While this may have been so in 1846, the local native aboriginal people occupied the island for thousands of years, though they may have been forced off San Clemente to one of the mainland missions.
As typical for these documents, a stipulation was made that the grantees “shall be able to cultivate it in the manner best suited for colonization, putting it to the use that shall best suit them.” They were also ordered to obtain possession from a local judge and to have a map drawn up and submitted to be filed with other documents in the expediente (basically, a file for the grant). Notably, there is no known map of San Clemente from this period.
With regard to the juridical possession of the island, this was secured from Leonardo Cota, acting Judge of the First Instance, interim alcalde (basically, mayor) and senior regidor, or member of the Los Angeles ayuntamiento (approximate to a city council), with two witnesses, Manuel Enriquez and Ignacio Coronel. Cota noted that he, Enriquez and Casildo Aguilar traveled by fishing boat out to San Clemente. The official stated he had two men measure the island, but that their “names are omitted because of not knowing how to write,” though it seems they could at least have made the common “X” mark denoting illiteracy.
Cota continued that “I requested the map and since they told me that one had not been made because a land surveyor was not to be found,” he ordered a measurement using a rope tied to two poles of wood to determine the width and length of the island. With this rough survey completed, Cota stated “the proceedings were closed, and the petitioners took possession.” He ended by noting that he and Enriquez and Aguilar signed off on the survey, dating this on the 13th, adding “may a map be made to be added to these proceedings,” though, again, this doesn’t appear to have been done or one has not survived.
By the end of the summer, the Americans were on the march to Los Angeles and seized the town in September. A spirited revolt by Californios led to the eviction of American forces left behind as a garrison, though another invasion followed, culminating in the final taking of the town in early January 1847. The war ended later that year and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ratified and signed in 1848.
As with Alcatraz Island, however, San Clemente was declared by an 1850 proclamation of President Millard Fillmore to be government property for future military purposes. Yet, the government did not act to utilize the island for over eighty years. The history of San Clemente is pretty difficult to find, though there are newspaper articles that indicate that the island was used for cattle and sheep grazing as early as 1854.
Well-placed officials in Los Angeles, such as city council member, attorney and judge Stephen C. Hubbell, former county supervisor and scion from an old family Oscar Macy and F. P. Whittley, a well-known ship captain from nearby Santa Catalina Island, joined together to raise sheep on San Clemente. This appears to have been an informal arrangement and it is not clear whether there was a formal lease with rental payments made with the federal government.
In the early 1890s, however, a sudden rush of prospective settlers descended on the island, believing that they had a right to claim land there based on a pre-emption of public land. Occasionally, visitors came to the island for picnics and even hunting for native aboriginal relics. This little San Clemente land boom even featured an enterprising Angeleno taking out newspaper ads promising assistance in securing tracts on the island. When an application, though, was made to the federal government to make the island public land and available for settlement, this was rejected.
Meanwhile, in 1892, Hubbell and his associates hurriedly incorporated the San Clemente Wool Company to establish (or, reinforce) their legal right to operate on the island, stating that they had been raising their animals there for twenty years. Over the years, principals in the firm, which built structures, a dock and other infrastructure on San Clemente, included Los Angeles Mayor Arthur C. Harper, son of a pioneer tinware manufacturer and who had the dubious distinction of being the first recalled chief executive in the city’s history.
Times could be pretty rough for the company. In 1898, it declared that most of its several thousand sheep on the island were dying of starvation and thirst, precipitated (!) by a persistent drought condition that lasted through much of the decade. In 1908, a 25-year lease was arranged by the company with the feds, stipulating a mere $1,500 a year in rent. Several years later, the San Clemente Wool Company engineered a sale of their firm to Lewis Penwell, a prominent Montana sheep rancher and capitalist, who paid $300,000 for the business.
When the lease ended in 1934, the federal government decided to turn the island over to the Navy, which began the development of San Clemente for defensive and training purposes. A landing strip was built and associated structures for training and bombing practice purposes were added. Much of the work was done during the late 1930s and early 1940s. In recent years, a heavy investment has been made in upgrading the facilities on the island, which continues to be used for Navy Seal training and for bombing.
In the early 1970s, members of the Workman and Temple families began working on a proposal to solicit compensation from the federal government (attempts were made several times long before that concerning Alcatraz) for what they considered the unlawful and improper seizure of private land without due compensation. Apparently, the effort did not get beyond the cogitation stage and it is certain that the effort would have not gotten anywhere.