by Paul R. Spitzzeri
This week news has emerged that an archaeological investigation on the infamous Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay has revealed an extensive set of remains of buildings and tunnels underneath the prison yard of the federal penitentiary that housed such notorious convicts as Al Capone before it was shuttered in the early 1960s.
The articles note that the remnants are from a Civil War-era military fort, though there were previous fortifications there. Not only that, but before the American government seized control of the island in 1850, the island was owned by the Workman and Temple families.
For whatever reasons, this fact is virtually ignored in almost any discussion of the island’s history, including current materials put out by the National Park Service, which has jurisdiction over Alcatraz, and which starts its explanation of the history with the 1850 proclamation that the island was to be a military reservation.
Known also as Bird Island, Alcatraz was uninhabited and unused when, on 30 April 1846, William Workman petitioned his friend, Governor Pío Pico, the chief executive of the Mexican department of Alta California, for a grant to the island. In his petition, Workman wrote:
within the entrance to the port of San Francisco there is a small island called “Alcatraces” or “Pajaros” which has never been occupied at all and which has no future. I beg your Excellency to concede it to me after proper inquiry, ordering the corresponding title of ownership issued to me.
On 20 May, Second District Prefect Manuel C. Castro wrote the Juan de Jesús Noe, Judge of the First Instance at Yerba Buena, the pueblo that was soon renamed San Francisco, if there was “anything he believes necessary in regards to this petition.” Two days later, Noe replied that he’d asked William Richardson, a resident of Yerba Buena, about it, and stated, “not understanding the object with which the said Mr. Workman seeks the totally vacant above-mentioned island, I submit the matter to Your Honor in order that you deign to resolve it as you see fit.”
Castro then wrote to Pico on the 25th that:
said island is found to be entirely vacant and . . . is considered to be useful only for the establishment of some type of illumination to provide some light on dark and stormy nights for the protection of ships which frequent the area, and with these considerations Your Excellency can well determine what you believe fitting in favor of the petitioner.
Pico then, on 8 June, issued his decree, stating:
using the power conferred to me by the laws of colonization and decrees upon the alienation of property and the islands adjacent to the Pacific Coast of Alta California, I have decided to concede to Don Julián Workman, a naturalized Mexican citizen and resident of this city’s [Los Angeles] district, the small island called “Alcatraces” or “Pajaros” . . . under the single condition that he endeavor to establish a light that can protect ships and smaller vessels which frequent the area as soon as possible . . .
A month later, invading American forces seized Monterey and subsequently captured Los Angeles as part of the Mexican-American War, with Pico and other leaders having fled to Mexico. At some point, Workman transferred the island to his daughter’s husband, F.P.F. Temple.
In the aftermath of the war (discussed here in recent posts), U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel John C. Frémont assumed the role of governor, though this was contested by Brigadier General Stephen Watts Kearny, after he arrived from the east late in 1846. One of the many acts of Frémont was to arrange a deal at Los Angeles on 2 March 1847 with Temple:
In consideration of Francis Temple having conveyed to the United States of North America a certain island commonly called White or Bird [Alcatraz] Island situated near the mouth of San Francisco Bay, I, J.C. Fremont, Governor of California, and in virtue of my office as aforesaid hereby oblige and bind myself as the legal representative of the United States and my successor in office to pay the said Francis Temple, his heirs or assigns the sum of five thousand dollars (5000) to be paid at as early a day as possible after the receipt of funds from the United States.
Temple then certified, on 13 May, that “I delivered to Gov. J.C. Fremont the Title to the above mentioned Island.”
Frémont, however, was soon arrested, tried and convicted in a court-martial on charges of mutiny, disobedience, and conduct prejudicing good order and military discipline. One of the actions cited at the trial was his purchase of Alcatraz without the proper authority to commit the United States to the transaction. This was the sixth specification of the first charge and the third specification of the third charge.
Though Frémont was convicted on all counts, President Polk, who was often influenced significantly by Frémont’s very powerful Senator Thomas Hart Benton, did not accept guilt of the charge of mutiny. Though he accepted that of the other two charges, he cited Frémont’s service to the country, the “peculiar circumstances of the case,” and recommendations of the majority of the military court, he remitted the penalty of dismissal and ordered him to “report for duty.”
Frémont, however, resigned his commissioned and later returned to California, where he obtained a large land grant, Rancho Mariposa, and was elected one of the new state’s first two senators. He also was the Republican Party’s first presidential candidate, though he lost the election of 1856 to Democrat James Buchanan. Decades later, Frémont’s wife and indefatigable defender Jessie, claimed that her husband was forced to acquire Alcatraz from Temple because of designs on the island by France.
The editor of a work on Frémont’s papers stated in a footnote to the 2 March transaction that “Temple, fearful that the United States might not pay, refused to sign the contract until JCF [Frémont] executed his personal bond.” This account went on to say that the federal government did disown Frémont’s arrangement but that “eventually JCF paid through Simon Stevens of New York the $5,000 plus interest to the holder of the bond, and thus claimed to be the owner of the island.”
In April 1850, William Carey Jones, who happened to be a son-in-law of Senator Benton and, therefore, brother-in-law of Frémont, was appointed a special agent by Secretary of the Interior Thomas Ewing (the first to hold that office) to investigate California land grants and determine their general validity. Jones addressed the question of “Alcatras island,” which he said was granted to Temple (though it was actually to Workman) and believed that “the indispensableness of this point to the government” for a fort and lighthouse “induced Lieutenant Colonel Fremont, when governor of California to contract for the purchase of it on behalf of the United States.” While, he continued, the government “has never confirmed the purchase or paid the consideration,” the island “is indispensable.”
Then came an executive order of President Millard Fillmore on 6 November 1850 reserving certain areas of the San Francisco Bay area as government land, including Alcatraz. When Congress passed a California land claims act the following March and a commission met in Los Angeles in fall 1852 to hold hearings on land grants under Mexico and Spain, Temple did not file anything with regard to Alcatraz, likely because he assumed it would be a moot point given the president’s proclamation.
As the footnote above, however, stated, Frémont did try to claim the island as his own in 1856, leading to a response from Temple. This will be taken up tomorrow in part two of this post!