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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp

Questionable Title

As early as 1850, San Francisco was firmly established as California’s premier

commercial center, and its port the greatest maritime facility on the Pacific Coast. Scores of individuals had invested their time and money to develop the city’s amenities, so they were stunned in February 1853 when, out of the blue, French-born ship captain and Pacific Coast trader Joseph Yves Limantour claimed what amounted to fully one-half of San Francisco real estate.

Limantour’s claim was in the form of title deeds he presented to the Land Commission, established by Congress to validate land grants awarded by Spain, and its successor Mexico, prior to the 1848 treaty that ended the Mexican-American War and ceded California to the United States. Limantour’s deeds covered all the land in San Francisco south of California Street, the islands of Alcatraz and Yerba Buena in the Bay, the Farrallones Islands in the Pacific, the Tiburon Peninsula, Solano County, Cape Mendocino farther north, and other properties in the Central Valley and the Coast Range.

The land grants were payment, he said, for having advanced considerable sums of money to Mexican California’s Governor Manuel Micheltorena, in 1843.

The claims did seem ridiculous. In the words of The Annals of San Francisco, “That Limantour should have been so long silent as to his alleged rights was a very odd circumstance that generated suspicion all was not told. He had looked on during years when the property included in his grants was being transferred over and over again to new buyers, always rising in value at every sale, and had tacitly appeared to assent to the existing state of things. When the ground was worth many millions of dollars, and hundreds, if not thousands of individuals were pecuniarily interested in it, then Limantour first declared his pretentions. His claim seemed monstrous—to one half of the great city of San Francisco, with all its houses and improvements and future prosperity! —a claim that had been mysteriously concealed for eight or ten years!”

But in January 1856, to everyone’s considerable surprise and distress, the Land Commission agreed with Limantour, granting him legal title to his claimed sections of the city, plus Alcatraz and the Farrallones. San Francisco properties were partly owned by the city, partly by the U.S. government, and partly by thousands of private citizens. Hundreds of shaken private citizens came forward to buy back land they thought they already owned, allegedly enriching Limantour by some $200,000 to $250,000. However, the United States government, which had established a number of federal buildings in San Francisco and were disinclined to pay Limantour for the land beneath those buildings, appealed the Land Commission’s decision.

Allegations of fraud soon surfaced, and were investigated. Two years later, on November 19, 1858, the Commission reversed its decision of 1856, declaring that Limantour’s titles had been fabricated. He was arrested, but posted bail and fled to Mexico City (where he had been based since 1836), and where his business and personal contacts, which included Mexican president Porfirio Diaz, helped him amass a sizeable fortune.

Joseph Yves Limantour died in Mexico City in 1885. San Francisco lived on, to achieve even greater glory.

[Drawing above by Ron Henggeler, downloaded 9/18/23]

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