Life in the Moraga Valley from 1849-1870

Edited by Susan Sperry – Excerpt from Newsletter 2022 Q2

Digested by Susan Sperry from “Moraga Before 1900: A Community’s History”, Donald D. Walker, April 1989, Thesis for California State University, Hayward

In 1849 there was no Town of Moraga, just a traditional frontier settlement of people trying to become an identifiable community. Although many of the inhabitants may have initially come to California in search of gold, when they migrated to the Moraga Valley their ambitions became more conventional and conservative. Their sole desire was to own land that they believed was “free for the taking”. However, these ambitions were later thwarted by a land grabbing lawyer named Horace Carpentier.

Most of the early Moraga settlers were young men in their twenties and thirties, and women were few-in-number. These “adventurers” were farmers, clerks, merchants, teachers, preachers, and gamblers. Many were not of little means as passage from the East required an outlay of several hundreds of dollars.

By 1852 the days of pick and shovel mining were over. The wealthy left and returned home. Those who did not have enough money to return home spread out over California, taking jobs where they could. There was a substantial group who saw agriculture or business ahead in this yet unsettled country. To the ex-miners was added the increasing number of immigrants who were attracted by reports that California offered many other opportunities to people looking for a place to settle.

Between 1852 and 1854 the first settlers found their way to the Moraga Valley. In 1852 Zelotas Reed, Lewis Masson, Frank Hostetter and J.D. Allen were among the first settlers. In 1853 a man named Immer settled on the “tule patch” (Campolindo field), and in 1854 William Southard, Jackson and Wilson Gann, Jack Allen, Jesse Williams, George and David Meacham, Phineas Harrington, Edward Curry, William Brown, John Courter, and John Merrill had moved into the Indian Creek vicinity (Indian Valley). Legally these settlers in the Moraga Valley were “squatters” but they came before the title to the Moraga/Bernal land grant was confirmed by the United States government. Many of those who came falsely believed property ceded by Mexico was now public property of the United States.

It brought much consternation to Joaquin Moraga to watch these “squatters” occupy his land and run their livestock on the grasslands and hilltops. Unable to read or write, and speaking no English, Moraga probably had little understanding of his rights under American law, and it would have been difficult to find any law enforcement agency that would intercede in his behalf. These “squatters” took their choice of the land, selecting the flattest portions which were more suitable for farming. John Merrill settled on land which is now St. Mary’s College;Zelotas Reed on the hills to the south; the Meacham brothers to the west, and Williams settled the land on the present-day Hacienda site. Southard, Harrington, and Gann settled on the present-day Moraga Shopping Center area.

The new settlers who came to the Moraga Valley were innovative and promoted agriculture by improving methods, diversifying crops, increasing productivity, and upgrading their livestock. The rancheros could not keep up with these new farm techniques. That fact and the many, diverse financial problems of the Moraga family led to the dismantling of the Rancho de los Palos Colorados! They tried to continue their free and easy lifestyle after the settlers came but the fiestas and fandangos began to fade.

The initial years for these settlers were lean, filled with back-breaking work and hardships. Wells had to be dug, shelter built, planting done, and fences built. The shortage of rain from March to November was another problem. The fact that Moraga lies in an irregularly shaped bowl, creating a natural barrier, made it remote from the population areas of Oakland and San Francisco. More easily accessed were Martinez, Pacheco, Concord, and Walnut Creek. Even these towns were two to four hours away by horseback or wagon. Moraga residents were more dependent upon their near neighbors and thus a sense of community developed very quickly to fulfill material and social needs. Because there were no natural passes bisecting these barriers, traveling from Moraga to either the coast or the east was a formidable task in 1860. Only about half of the Moraga acreage was tillable land; the balance was used mainly for pasture of cattle and horses. Soil conditions on the flat land and gentle slopes were good for raising wheat and barley as well as gardens and orchards. With this abundance of grasslands, dairying became an important source of income.

There were relatively few trees on the Moraga landscape when the settlers first came. As today, there were coast live oaks in the ravines, and willow thicket along the creek beds. The savannas on the hill tops and slopes were covered with tall grasses, mostly wild oats, and scrub patches of coyote bush. The climate was mild, and the average rainfall was approximately twenty to thirty inches.

Moraga was once the habitat of bear, elk, and antelope. James Lamson wrote in 1854 of women and children needing protection from the bears when berry picking along the Indian Creek. He also recalled seeing flocks of as many as 50California condors wheeling and circling the valley.

By 1860 there were 43 households with a population of 240 in the valley and adjacent hills. The median age of the home builders was thirty-three years. There was not a town “center” but most of the farms were centered around the Larch area. Much of the town’s activity centered around “The store” (present day St. Monica location)) where basic supplies were purchased, mail was distributed, where poll taxes were collected, where a document could be notarized, and often it was the precinct polling place.
Before the second crops were harvested, a school was built with timbers from the redwoods to the west. Willow Spring School, twenty by thirty feet, was located at the present site of the Moraga Shopping Center with Philip Sage as the first teacher. James and Angeline Magee, although childless, donated the property for this school and the lumber bought at the local mill cost only two or three hundred dollars. In 1860, 39 children attended school. The schoolhouse also served as a place of worship.

Land values ranged from $1.50 to $2.00 per acre for range land and $10 to $15 for good tillable soil. Most farmers had a combination of crop and range land for each had milk cows, beef cattle and work animals to pasture. Several were strictly cattle and horse ranchers. Because of the demand for meat to feed the miners, beef prices were sky high, and ranching was a profitable business. Sheep and hogs were also raised by the Carrick brothers and Frank Hostetter in the acreage just east of now St. Mary’s College. Initially these early pioneers were subsistence farmers, growing what they needed in their own gardens as there were only three stores in the area—Martinez, Lafayette, Alamo, plus John Courter’s store in Moraga. Dairying entered the valley in the later 1850’s and James Magee produced cheese. Early 1860’s saw wheat and barley as a major source of cash. Moraga Valley farmers hauled their wheat to Pacheco.

The primary government authority was the county. An annual poll tax of $3 was required of each male over the age of 21 and under the age of 80. Property taxes were based on assessed value of all land and improvements. Although violence did occur in Moraga Valley, it was not persistent, and the county sheriff handled these cases. Poor roads continued to be a problem due partly to shortages of funds and inadequate maintenance. Postal service was slow and infrequent due to the poor roads and lack of transportation. Mail from outside the Bay Area came by commercial ocean-going vessels. Local mail came by ferry to Martinez and was taken to an office in Lafayette. If a Moraga resident happened to go to Lafayette, any mail for Moraga residents was sent with said resident to the aforementioned Moraga store. There was a bag hanging from a tree outside the store for out-going mail. The local newspaper was The Contra Costa Gazette, published weekly in Pacheco.

The Moraga Valley’s population stayed consistent over the 1860’s. By the end of the decade the whole valley was settled, and all the arable land was under cultivation. Dairy cows grazed on the hills instead of the tough, lean Spanish cattle, lumbering oxen had been replaced by horses and mules; calves, colts, pigs, and chickens were in every barnyard. Lush fields of wheat, barley and hay covered the valley floor. Although everything looked prosperous and stable, the stability was more perceived than real. The specter of losing title to their farms and homes loomed large to all and many had already succumbed to the threat and left. Horace Carpentier, Joaquin Moraga’s lawyer, had begun to successfully transition some of the “squatters” into sharecroppers. This shrewd lawyer had now become owner of much of the original rancho.