Excerpted from MHS Newsletter 2022 Q3
The First of the Land Barons (edited by Sam and Susan Sperry)
Horace W. Carpentier was a Columbia University educated lawyer who had left New York in 1849, arriving in San Francisco at the height of the gold rush. He practiced law in San Francisco for two years before his quest for land began. He and two partners, Edson F. Adams and Andrew J. Moon crossed the bay from San Francisco and in 1850 began to lay out the “town” of Oakland, then known as Contra Costa with a population of 70, in the area west of Lake Merritt through a series of “slick tricks”. They succeeded in acquiring a great deal of land in Oakland, including the Oakland waterfront, moving eastward to the Moraga property and then the rancho lands in the Danville area. By 1868, Carpentier agreed to transfer his rights to the waterfront to a new entity, the Oakland Waterfront Company making himself president of the entity.
Carpentier was elected in 1853 to the State Assembly, the first mayor of the Town of Oakland in1854 (at age 29) and engineered the establishment of Alameda County as an entity separate from what had been Contra Costa. An unsuccessful bid for the Democratic nomination as attorney general for California ended his political career and for the next ten years, he was president of the California State Telegraph Company which built the state’s first telegraph system. He was also president of the Overland Telegraph Company which linked California with the East Coast, and a director of the Bank of California. In 1880 he returned to New York where he died in 1918 at the age of 94. At the time of his death, he was both applauded and vilified. He was applauded as a philanthropist bequeathing one million dollars to both Columbia University and Barnard College, and $200,000 to the University of California, Berkeley.
The vilification was local and stemmed primarily from the manner in which, over a period of 40+ years, he acquired ownership of virtually all of the Rancho Laguna de los Palos Colorados land (the Rancho) originally granted to Joaquin Moraga and Juan Bernal. Carpentier’s scheme for achieving this required cash, legal knowledge, and patience. He had an abundance of each of these resources.
Beginning in the 1850’s he first bought up defaulted mortgage loans which had been given to various lenders by Bernal heirs and then proceeded to foreclose, thereby acquiring title to the Bernal share of ownership of the Rancho. In this process he became a co-owner with farmers who had initially moved onto portions of the land as squatters and who had then bought the Moraga share of ownership of their respective farms through an 1857 probate sale following Moraga’s death. These farmers, who wrongly believed that they had acquired clear title to the full ownership of their land, included John Gardiner, Lenora Nelson, James Magee, John Fine, George and David Carrick, W.F. Merrill, William Southard, and Frank Hostetter (the Farmers).
Then, in 1862, Carpentier initiated County Superior Court proceedings to (a) authoritatively establish his ½ ownership and (b) invalidate ownership claims of Hugh O’Donnell, an Oakland land speculator and lender who had loaned money to the Moragas and Bernals. However, O’Donnell’s mortgage was subordinate to the mortgages on which Carpentier had foreclosed, thereby wiping out the O’Donnell claim. Following these successful court proceedings, Carpentier then proceeded to buy the ½ interest of the respective Farmers, most of whom still owned their equipment and livestock and therefore chose to stay on their lands as tenant farmers.
In 1889, now living in New York and prior to his 1918 death, Carpentier sold the Rancho to the Moraga Land Association, only to then foreclose and repurchase in 1899. This one-man ownership by Carpentier set the demographic pattern for Moraga for the next 75 years.