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‘48ers: Benicians rushed for gold before it was cool – PART 1

and other assorted tales.
by Steve McKee on December 22, 2010

I recently had the chance to read a source for interesting stories about the history of Benicia and I’m quite certain that almost none of you have seen it. I plan on sharing the best stories from it with you here.

This history is actually less a book and more a large “document” that was recently commissioned by the city especially for use by the Historic Preservation Review Commission in order to help provide historical background information that may aid with preservation decisions. I’m currently serving on that commission which is why I had access to the early drafts of this slender tome.

It’s named “Benicia Historic Context Statement,” which is as unglamorous and wonky a title as there ever was. (A copy can be viewed online. See directions in the last paragraph of this article.)  If you mostly ignore the analytical sections at the end of each chapter and stay with the narrative parts, then it’s a pretty snappy read. Credit is owed to HPRC members Toni Haughey and Leann Tageepera and Historical Society members Jerry Hayes and Bonnie Silveria for their volunteer work with the paid consultant in creating this compelling manuscript. Just so you all know, the cost of writing this history was paid for by a grant. So the city spent zip on this resource.

And now I get to use all this good research to “cherry-pick” the most interesting anecdotes to share with you here. I make no effort to create a comprehensive overview of the city’s history. Rather, if a tidbit of info was intriguing enough that I paused in my bedtime reading to look over my glasses and share it with my wife, then it passed the test to be included.

Native Americans that lived in the Benicia area were rebels

There was native American history of course, but not much of it was recorded, unless you count the two huge “shell mounds” that existed in Benicia (one near the end of First Street) because the Patwin Indians, like most bay area tribes, discarded mollusk shells into the same pile over hundreds of years and actually altered the terrain in the process.

Benicia history, as recorded by Europeans, began in 1772 when Spanish soldiers standing on the Contra Costa side of the Strait observed several native villages at the water’s edge on the other side.

Over the next twenty years the Spanish Missions became established throughout the Bay Area and natives were mandated to be baptized and made to work at the missions. History shows that the Benicia natives were having none of that, going so far as to raid the Spaniards for horses and livestock, and even providing a safe haven for other natives who ran away from the missions. It seems they wanted to live as they wished without being forced into anything. Seems kind of reasonable to me. An effort by Spanish soldiers in 1810 to subjugate the Benicia tribes was fought off by the natives. Seven years later a far larger group of soldiers returned and drove the natives north where they fled to the Fairfield area where many are said to have committed suicide. Such terrible despair for them at the end.

Benicia: “the nearest and best way”

With Mexico breaking from Spain, the vast mission lands became privately held by military big-shots like Mariano Vallejo, who lost much cattle during the American “Bear Flag” uprising (in which the swelling number of American residents in Alta California decided to flex their muscle) and became cash poor in the process. So he gave a half interest in a portion of some good looking land at the big bend of the Carquinez waterway to American go-getter Robert Semple, a dentist from Kentucky who envisioned a major city there to be called Benicia. Semple promoted his new city in print with glowing language extolling the potential for agriculture in the surrounding region and stating that “the country is so situated that every person who passes from one side of the bay to the other will find Benicia the nearest and best way.”

The vast optimistic grid of planned city streets was laid out not on compass points, but so that “First Street” would align well with the angle of the peninsula of land that was clearly the prime area of town. Because of that angling of the street grid, all of us living in the old part of town have houses that face slightly southwest or northeast – which I happen to know is a benefit for getting sun into all sides of a house, a technique espoused by Frank Lloyd Wright many years later.

The first three structures are built

The first settler in Benicia was William Tustin from Virginia who constructed a small adobe house at the northeast corner of West G and West Second Street. (Let’s pause a moment while we all envision exactly where that is.) Then came a wood frame house by Robert Semple himself on the short stub of West C Street (that’s the street that leads to Phil Joy’s boatyard.) The third structure was the small Von Pfister General Store which remains in existence as a tired formation of wood planks and slumping adobe dirt that currently hides under a metal protective structure (also near the boatyard.)

Benicians were the first gold rushers

When news of the gold discovery reached Benicia in the spring of 1848 (and was probably first blabbed about in the Von Pfister store), it promptly emptied the town of most able bodied men. During that first year most of the gold rushers were Californians. By the following year the world had joined in. While Benicia watched rival city San Francisco become the major city for the region, at least Benicia began to grow and benefit from the rush of people. It turned out Benicia really was the “nearest and best way” to the gold diggings.

Robert Semple ran a ferry that crossed the Straits to Martinez. During the height of the gold rush a two day wait was required to get a lift. This fact was reported by William Tecumseh Sherman on his way to Monterey from the gold fields. (That’s right, that W.T. Sherman, future Union General and implementer of infamous “scorched earth” invasion tactics in Georgia.)

A pattern of growth is put in place

By 1850 there were over a hundred houses in Benicia. The original building lots in town were laid out with a very generous 150 feet of width, which put in place the opportunity for future splitting off of side lots of 50 foot wide parcels. These one-at-a-time acts of subdividing happened throughout the city over many decades and resulted in the slow infill and transformation of Benicia’s downtown with houses from a variety of eras. Indeed, just recently such a split was granted for a new lot at West I and West Second Street. The act of splitting off these 50 wide lots is a Benicia tradition.

That’s all for this time. Plenty more to come next column. You can view this recently written account of Benicia’s past by going online and Googling the words “Benicia context statement.”

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