Turning Points in the History of Moraga

Before the People Came

Millions of years before people discovered the valley we now call Moraga Valley, nature began to write the geological history of the area.

The earth is estimated to be about 4 1/2 billion years old. Earth at one time was covered with water. After a long time the water receded or moved and a range of coastal mountains took shape. Then over the ages sediment washed down the slopes of the ancient mountains and was deposited on the shores of a sea that geologists call the San Pablo.

Ten million years ago the bed of San Pablo Sea began to lift and drain. Sediments from the sea floor were lifted up and formed the backbone of Rocky Ridge and Las Trampas Ridge, the two most prominent landmarks east of Moraga Valley. These ridges are about two million years old.

At the same time an active volcano sent lava over the present day Berkeley hills. The location of this extinct volcano is Sibley, which now lays on its side, easily accessed by hiking trails.

Our Moraga Rancho area is known for its fossils. In the area was a series of lakes and lagoons fed by a large river that flowed from a mountain range, the crest of which is now the Farallon Islands off the Golden Gate.

A tule lake was formed where Campolindo High School now stands. The cliff along Bollinger Canyon Road near St. Mary’s College has revealed many geologic treasures. Plants and animal fossils, seashells, bones, teeth and foot prints of extinct animals, such as mastodons, three toed horses and camels have all been found in the Moraga area. Even the vertebrae of a whale was discovered near Rheem and parts of a giant bear were found near Moraga Way and Glorietta Boulevard.

The Moraga Valley area has changed over the past ten million years, with geology tilting the land up, then dropping it down. It continues still, but at a slower pace.

As you take walks along the old railroad trail or hike to Rocky Ridge or Las Trampas trail you may happen to see the remains of ocean life, with fossilized shells in the rocks beneath your feet.

Native American Life in Moraga

The Miwok Indigenous people were the original settlers of the Moraga Valley. The people who lived specifically in the Moraga area are known as Saclans. The Saclans lived in a “tribelet” of 250 to 300 people. They migrated over the seasons, moving to fish or hunt, gather seeds, or harvest acorns.

The Saclans’ houses were built around a frame of tree branches and covered with tule matting. The tules were piled on 10 to 12 inches thick. If you look at the creek across Moraga Road from Campolindo High School, you can still tules growing. The tule house was pointed at the top and looked like a beehive. The door of the house was on the south side. This would allow light in for most of the day. In bad weather a fire was built in the middle of the house. The smoke from the fire would go out the hole in the roof.

Several layers of tule mats covered the floor. Rabbit skins blankets provided warmth at night. There was always a fire burning outside the house. The Saclans would gather at the end of the day and eat before sundown. After eating they would gather around the fire and sing songs or tell stories.

In the mornings the Saclans would take a dip in a nearby river or lake and then scatter for the day. The men would take the boys and go hunting for rabbits or ground squirrels or birds or deer or insects such as grasshoppers. They would check the traps or snares they set the day before. If there was a large group of animals, the women would often help surround them and drive the animals into a circle where they were killed. The Saclans also fished. They would stun the fish in creeks with rocks and then wade in to catch the fish. The fish or animals would be taken back to the camp; some would be cooked for dinner for several days. The rest would then be dried in the sun to save for when there was no fresh food. No part of the animals was wasted. The Saclans cooked and ate the meat; they made clothes out of the fur or skin or tools were made out of the bones.

The women would go out to gather nuts and berries and grasses for food. They gathered a lot of acorns from the oak trees in Moraga Valley. They would grind the acorns with a stone to make a mush (like oatmeal) which they cooked with water. They would gather hundreds of pine cones and throw them into the fire. This would cause the pine cones to open up and the pine nuts could be taken out. They would then roast the nuts to eat.

The Saclan women also gathered weeds, grasses and bark to make baskets for many uses. One type, shaped like a very large ice cream cone, was used to carry acorns or pine nuts on the backs like backpacks. Some baskets were woven so tightly they held water.

There were many large festivals and socializing between villages and tribelets.

Artifacts from the Saclan have been found in Moraga. Lake In 1928 skeletons were found in Lake LaSalle, which was near St. Mary’s College. Mortar stones and pestles were found near the Adobe, along Las Trampas Creek and along the upper San Leandro Creek. Obsidian arrowheads were also found in the bluffs along Bollinger Canyon Road, on Rheem Boulevard and in Canyon. There was no obsidian in the Moraga Valley. It was obtained by trading with tribes further north, where obsidian was available.

Joaquin Moraga

On 20 August 1835 Joaquin Moraga and his cousin Juan Bernal formally requested a land grand from the independent Mexican State of Alta California. This was common practice for descendants of well-connected families and soldiers in the newly settled land, since Mexico passed a law in 1828 authorizing such grants. Governor Juan Bautista Alvarado awarded the land grant, initially comprising over 20,000 acres, Rancho Laguna de los Palos Colorados, to Bernal and Moragaon 10 August 1841.

The Moragas occupied temporary shelters and grazed cattle on the Rancho long before title was granted to them, maybe as early as 1828. It was not until 1841 that the “Decree of Concession” granting Moraga and Bernal the land would finally be issued. In 1841 Moraga built a two-room adobe home on a hill overlooking what is now the site of Miramonte High School. This spot was chosen because an abundant spring or running water was nearby. The entire valley could be seen from this site because it was devoid of the many trees, shrubbery or flowers seen today in Moraga. Intruders, intent on stealing cattle or horses, could easily be seen approaching. Ceiling beams and flooring were made from local redwoods. The walls were built from bricks made of adobe mud with straw, manure, and leather pieces in the bricks. The Moraga family held fandangos or parties and invited families and neighbors to join in with the festivities.

Joaquin Moraga grazed approximately 1,000 head of cattle and 4,000 horses on the Rancho. Water for the livestock was available at the pond or laguna located where Campolindo High School now stands. Cattle were raised mainly for the hides, which were treated, stored and later sold at Oakland markets and shipped overseas. Hides were also used locally for furniture, fencing, clothing, and shoes.

After the Gold Rush, disappointed gold seekers, adventurers, and farmers originally from eastern States moved down from the hills of the Mother Lode area and began squatting on Joaquin Moraga’s land. These squatters built homes on select land. They maintained the land was “unclaimed”. The colorados or redwood grove in the area of Canyon was not vital to Moraga’s ranching, and he gave permission to others to cut the trees for lumber. Lumber was important to the growing population during the gold rush area, and squatters found the location attractive. As new residents encroached on land and cut down many trees, the larger population became problematic. Litigation ensued and the area became a rougher, tougher place to live in than it had been.

Much of the wood from the redwoods was used to build the homes of San Francisco and Sacramento.Beyond their use in construction, the tall trees had another purpose. The stand of redwoods was visible from the sea. Thus, it served as a landmark for sailors to turn into the San Francisco Bay when sailing the coast of California. In 1853, Joaquin Moraga and two others sold the area now known as Canyon for $4,000 to Elam Brown, who was a developer and the founder of Lafayette. Joaquin Moraga sold land to John Courter, who established a general store. The store was located at the corner of Larch Avenue and Canyon Road. It burned down about 1920.

Moraga and his family planted grains in the vast open areas of the Rancho. This product was thrashed using 60-70 horses who were driven around and to tread on the grain. Ranchers winnowed the grain on the spot, throwing it up in the air with pitchforks, allowing the wind to separate the chaff from the straw.

Many Indigenous people worked on the Rancho. We do not have details of the type of work they did.

The Moragas only ranched like this until Joaquin’s death in 1855. By then the Rancho had begun to dismantle. The squatters settled on Moraga-Bernal select plots, built houses, started to farm and went to Martinez to register their selections as “unclaimed” lots. Under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo between Mexico and the U.S. and following the Act of 1851, those who had been awarded land grants by Spanish or Mexican governments were allowed to keep their land, as long as the original grant could be proved in U.S. court. The original survey by the Mexican government was compared to the later survey, conducted in 1855, by the U.S. government. Proving the land ownership took many years for most of the grantees, especially due to various court challenges. Thus, the squatters often stayed. The Moraga family now faced enormous expenses for attorney fees, grant surveys, court costs, witnesses, transportation and other expenses trying to prove their land title. The financial situation was complicated by mortgages taken out by many members of the large family.

Lawyer Horace Carpentier from Saratoga County, New York, became a prominent businessman and onetime mayor of Oakland. He and others represented the Moraga family and took parcels of their land as payment. Carpentier continued to acquire tracts in the land grant as time went on, with an eye to developing a transportation system through the area to carry goods, including coal. He was able to acquire many of the mortgage notes. Carpentier eventually lost interest in the original goal for a railroad extending from the Bay Area ports up to northern California, and sold off his land interests.

As was commonly experienced by land grant families after California became a state, the land holdings by the grantees diminished for the Moragas. The last of the family to live on the original Moraga grant, Gabriel Moraga, was evicted from his home in 1880. Big cattle grazing changed to smaller squatter dairies, farms and ranches. A number of squatters did acquire their land legally.Some remained as sharecroppers after Carpentier, or one of his relatives, acting as his agent, bought them out. These farms started just below the current location of the Rheem Shopping Center, continuing over the hill to St. Mary’s Road and down St. Mary’s Road to Camino Pablo. Early squatters and sharecroppers included the Allen, Carrick, Gann, Harrington, Hunsaker, Ivey, Kendall, Magee, Madson, Merrill, Reed, Southard and Whiting families.

Normal development that occurs with multiple-owner communities was not the case for the Moraga Rancho. Individual landlords would dominate the economic life of the Rancho, which led to a continued rural environment. In the next 50 years small farms and ranches dotted the landscape. A sense of community developed in Moraga as ranchers worked and socialized together. The ranchers came from Europe and the eastern U.S. They farmed according to their own plans and paid rent in cash.

  • The Bosqui family farmed on what is now Campolindo High School; therefore the field is named Bosqui Field.
  • The Carroll family was one of only three ranches sold by Carpentier in 1865 for $1,400 and was 255 acres at the intersection of present- day Moraga Road and Rheem Blvd. The family kept this land until 1983.
  • Patrick McCosker squatted and ranched on the ridge above Indian Valley, arriving from Ireland in 1873.
  • The Mulholand family rented land above what is now Rheem Shopping Center and grew barley and hay in 1876.
  • The Trelut family squatted on 225 acres in Bollinger Canyon and later applied and won a homestead patent in 1882 (They were the first family to grow grapes in the area.), Frank Trelut’s grandfather took his crops into Oakland through the Kennedy Tunnel—a two day trip. Frank was a sharecropper on Old Jonas Hill Road, paying Bill Barnes rent; working with the crew that built Rheem Blvd. His wife delivered mail after she took her 4 boys to school, using her own car to deliver to about 50 families
  • Jesse Williams was the only farmer to never relinquish his property to Carpentier, owning what ultimately became the Rheem Estate and the Hacienda today.

In 1889 Carpentier sold his land to General James A. Williamson and Angus Archibald Grant, forming the Moraga Land Association. They planned to develop Moraga into town lots and small ranches and construct a rail line from the Orinda Crossroads through Moraga to Lafayette. The project failed. The yellow house on Moraga Way, now owned by James Wright, was to be the workers quarters for the California and Nevada narrow-gauge Railroad.

James Irvine

In 1912 the land then sold to Charles Hooper and The Charles A. Hooper Company. He sold parcels of land while renting the remaining property to sharecroppers. Hooper quickly sold all the land to James Irvine who established the Moraga Company. The largest land owner in California at that time, Irvine turned the Rancho into a vast agribusiness.

The change from small time farming to large scale corporate ranching was overwhelming for the farmers and the land. Sharecroppers could no longer use their farms as they wished and rent was not paid in cash. At harvest time payments to Bill Barnes, manager of the Rancho, were paid in real crops he had selected from each sharecropper. The region now became a giant conglomerate headed by one of California’s most powerful entrepreneurs. Sharecroppers were ordered to stop their dairying activities and restrict their efforts to planting and harvesting oats and hay. This action forced the Portuguese dairy men out of the valley.Acre after acre of the Rancho was planted in walnuts, pears, peaches, sugar beets, pumpkins, navy beans, tomatoes and corn. The Moraga Valley became the largest pear producer in the world. Train loads of pears, walnuts, vegetables were shipped all over the United States from the train station across from the “Barn” (a local tavern and hotel, featured elsewhere on the website). The operations of the Rancho were moved from Burton Valley to the Moraga Ranch (by Safeway) and 100 to 150 workers were employed during harvest time while 12 to 45 workers were needed the rest of the year.Some of the land was marked for real estate activities through the sale of property to developers or subdivisions by the Moraga Company. These were 1-5-acre parcels and 500 acres was set aside for a town location to be known as Moraga.

When the Oakland-Antioch Railroad was complete in 1913, Irvine began to implement his first real estate venture. The central portion of the town consisted of 21 blocks which were to form a series of concentric hexagons. Cutting through the development was the Bryant-Moraga Highway or Munster Street, now Country Club Drive – grandly decorated with a series of immense concrete urns down the center. In the middle of the subdivision steps led up to a rose garden atop a mound meant to be a park. The project failed and of the 200 lots, only one lot was sold, and five cottages built. These cottages were situated former Munster Street, which is now Country Club Drive. Although still there in the early 1960s, the structures were burned down as practice for the Fire Department. A town center began in 1914 – the Moraga Barn, Willow Springs School and train station, and in 1920 a grocery store, Moraga Grocery.

In 1914 a country club and golf course were planned, shares were sold, but World War I and Prohibition forced the failure of this project. A Lafayette subdivision between First and Third Streets was successful. The subdivision named Valle Vista became a reality in 1914 with home sites that sold for 500 dollars each. Twenty of the proposed 57 homes were built. But in 1923 the homes were bought up by the East Bay Water Company in their work towards the construction of the San Leandro Reservoir. Hooper had sold land to John Carr for his son Alfred Carr and his son-in-law Frank G. Sanders. Irvine never acquired this land. In 1927 free land was given to St. Mary’s College in hopes this would promote development. This did not occur, at least at first. Although a new Master Plan for the town was developed, it did not succeed due to the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Depression and World War II. Valle Vista is currently a trailhead with access to the trails of Redwood and King Canyon.

In 1936, when times were improving, Irvine sold 180 acres to develop Moraga Estates at Orinda’s Crossroads. In 1937 Donald Rheem bought the Williams property then owned by Gertrude Mallett and Alberta Higgins. His big push to develop the area came in 1944 when he purchased 906 acres and later another 530 acres, from the Moraga Company, the same year my father (Gordon Frazell) bought 80 acres in Bollinger Valley,

From 1945-1947 Irvine resumed his campaign to sell off lots for development. Most of this development was from Orinda Crossroads toward Moraga along Moraga Way. After WWII, Senator Breed and Bill Barnes pushed to have the United Nations in the Burton Valley Area. However, John D. Rockefeller gave land in New York which was used. James Irvine died in 1947. Frank Draeger who worked as a civil engineer for the Moraga Company wrote a history of his time with the Moraga Company and the residential development period that accelerated after Utah Mining & Construction bought the Moraga Company in 1953. A scanned version of his type written manuscript which MHS “published” in 1986 as Developing the Moraga Company Ranch 1922-1977 is now available online. Our Old Moraga Townsite Walking Tour provides additional background about Irvine’s initial effort to turn Moraga valley into a town.

Donald Rheem

Donald Rheem’s purchase of Rancho lands saw the end of the monolithic ownership that had been the situation since Joaquin Moraga and Juan Bernal. There were now two firms operating in the area, each dividing its property among more and more individual owners. Thus began the creation of a viable community where for almost 130 years only few had lived and worked. See Donald Laird Rheem, “father” of the Rheem Valley.

1974 – Moraga becomes a Town

Revised by Susan Sperry, Moraga Historical Society