by Paul R. Spitzzeri
In 1856, after reading in the Los Angeles Star newspaper that an attempt was made by the San Francisco banking firm of Palmer, Cook and Company to claim Alcatraz Island, F.P.F. Temple, who agreed to sell the island nine years before for $5,000 to U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel and acting California governor John C. Frémont, was stirred to action.
As noted in part two of this post, Temple penned a letter to San Francisco attorney Volney E. Howard (and, according to another source, N. Callahan and Los Angeles politician and real estate investor John G. Downey) asserting his right to the island because, Temple said, he never received the money. The federal government refused the sale as part of Frémont’s court-martial, which took place in late 1847, and Temple, the following year, forwarded the bond Frémont gave him to ship captain William D. Phelps, who, Temple added, could not get the bond redeemed.
Meanwhile, Frémont was subject to a court action in which his interest in Alcatraz was sold at a sheriff’s auction for $200 to Edward Jones, who then handed over the certificate to William H. Palmer. Not only was Jones a partner of Palmer in the firm of Palmer, Cook and Company, but the company had Frémont as one of its major clients.
It is not known what Howard, who was offered a share of Temple’s claim if he chose to take up the case and help forward a claim, did. But, on 15 January 1858, Temple executed an agreement with Downey in which, for $1, the minimum amount for a deed and commonly known as a “straw deed,” Temple
doth hereby grant, bargain and sell, remise, release and quitclaim unto the said part of the second part [Downey] his heirs and assigns forever all and singular the equal undivided one-half part of that certain Island, tract or parcel of land, known as Alcatras or Bird Island situated in the bay of San Francisco, near the entrance to the harbour of San Francisco in the State aforesaid, and being the same premises granted by Pio Pico governor of the territory to William Workman.
The document was witnessed by Los Angeles attorney and future federal judge Kimball H. Dimmick and recorded at the end of March. Clearly, Temple hoped that Downey, who was in the state Assembly for a term in 1856-1857, could use his growing connections in state government to help move the claim forward to success.
It is not known specifically what efforts were made from there, but, just over two years later, on 27 February 1860, a new tack was taken. An agreement was filed in San Francisco between Frémont, Downey, and Temple as parties of the first part and Walter H. Harvey as part of the second part that stipulated:
whereas on the day above mentioned the said John C. Fremont and the said Downey and Temple respectively claimed to be the owner in fee simple and entitied to the possession of all that certain island situate, lying and being in the mouth of the harbor of San Francisco known and called the “Alcatras” or Bird Island, which was originally granted by Pio Pico Governor of California to William Workman, under whom both the said Fremont and the said Downey and Temple, claim title and which said island in now occupied by the United States as a Fort or Fortification . . .
and given that the three wanted to recover possession and selling the island to the United States, “it was advisable and necessary to finally adjust and settle their own conflicting claims to said property.”
To this end, it was decided that the three men “should respectively convey to the said Walter H. Harvey all their right and title in and to said property in trust for the purposes aforesaid.” Having done this, Harvey, in turn, agreed “to stand seized of said property to the use and benefit of said parties” and that “he will allow suit to be brought and prosecuted to final judgment in his name for the recovery and possession of said property” and “allow all other acts necessary and property to be done, in his name, for the benefit” of Frémont, Downey and Temple.
Moreover, once this goal was accomplished, Harvey was to “convey one undivided half-interest to the said Fremont . . . and the other undivided half to the said Downey and Temple.” If Alcatraz was to be then sold to the federal government, Harvey “will receive and hold one half of the proceeds of said sale for the said Fremont and the other half for said Downey and Temple.” The three claimants agreed to cover all the costs in the process of securing and selling the island.
The document was notarized by Henry H. Haight, a future governor of California from 1867-1871 and whose father Fletcher was a federal judge who, in 1862, ruled in favor of John Rowland and William Workman’s land claim to Rancho La Puente. Attorney D.W. Perley acted on Fremont’s behalf.
As for Walter H. Harvey, he was born about 1820 in Georgia and graduated from West Point, evidently becoming a major in the U.S. Army. He was a miner in both Georgia and Alabama and commanded a company of men as the Holmes County [Mississippi] Mining Company, which headed west for the California Gold Rush in spring 1849.
Harvey wound up in Tulare County working as a miner and then had a store in partnership with Major James D. Savage, who came with emigrants to California in 1846 losing his wife and only child on trip. Savage, who served with Frémont’s California Battalion of volunteers during the Mexican-American War, was said to have been very close to Indians in the Tulare area, but was a militia major seeking out Indian chiefs accused of leading an uprising against Americans and raiding settlements. Savage and his Mariposa Battalion company in search of these natives and stumbled upon Yosemite Valley, becoming the first non-Indians to see the wondrous region.
In 1852, Harvey was said to have either led or directly influenced the decision to send a party into a native reservation where a massacre took place. Savage fiercely criticized Harvey for his role in the attack and the two got into a fight at a spot near the Kings River, in which Savage, who was unarmed, knocked Harvey down. The latter pulled out a pistol and shot and killed the former. However, Harvey was acquitted of the murder charge.
Harvey had been an attorney and the first Tulare County Judge, but migrated south where he was appointed port collector at San Pedro and then registrar of the federal land office in Los Angeles. In 1858, he married Downey’s sister Ellen, and the two had a son, John Downey Harvey.
When Downey was elected lieutenant governor in late 1859 and then became governor early in January 1860 when Milton Latham was appointed United States Senator, he made sure his brother-in-law was given a sinecure in early 1861 as superintendent for immigration at the port in San Francisco.
He was not in that position long, as he died in mid-August, leaving his widow, young son, and an unborn child. Ellen Downey Harvey remarried wedding prominent San Francisco banker, Edward Martin, and lived to be 100 years old, dying in 1928.
Whether it was Harvey’s death, Frémont’s rejoining the Army at the outbreak of the Civil War by appointment of President Abraham Lincoln as a major general in command of the Department of the West (though Frémont proved to be less than satisfactory there and on the battlefield in Virginia, upon which he relieved of command at his own request), or general Civil War-era conditions, any further talk of a claim on Alcatraz lapsed.
The story, however, continued on . . . and on . . . and on. We’ll pick up another thread tomorrow, so check back then!