Los Altos, California Everbody goes back to school and work today as the Christmas Holidays 2008 come to an end. There were more cars on the road, and moms and dads walking children to school as I pedaled the old Raleigh bicycle (with the picnic basket on the back) to the Los Altos Bakery and Cafe for my morning (free and wireless) connection to the Internet.
The view from the top of the Rancho San Antonio Nature Preserve in the San Francisco Bay Area.
One of my high school friends welcomed me back to California on Saturday night with a dinner and a couple of presents: two books on local history. One, called Santa Clara County Ranchos is especially fascinating. In it, author Clyde Arbuckle researched the history of the Spanish and Mexican Land Grant ranchos in this part of the San Francisco Bay Area, from their initial grant to their eventual patents from the U.S. government, and describes a few of the shennanigans in between.
The land was astonisingly rich and mild for these early settlers, some from Spain, some from Mexico and, beginning in the early 19th century, some Americans from the East who managed to struggle out here and find this paradise. Game was so rich, one local man, known as Mountain Charley, made his fortune hunting deer and hiking it down from the Santa Cruz Mountains to San Francisco where it sold for high prices to the gold miners who flooded in after 1849. The land was also heavily populated by the ferocious Grizzly bear, and almost all the early settlers had run-ins with them at one time or another. Mountain Charley lost an eye in an encounter with a Grizzly and had facial scars so disfiguring he wore his hat low on his head the rest of his life so as not to scare people. The Grizzly bear is on the California flag, though it lost its battle with civilation in California by the 20th century.
The two main ranchos that made up my hometown of Los Altos ("the heights") were the Rancho La Purisima Concepcion ("the immaculate conception") and Rancho San Antonio. The Rancho San Antonio of 4440 acres was originally granted to Juan Prado Mesa in 1839. He was the officer who fought and killed one of the few hostile California Indians, Yoscolo, who liked to raid mission storerooms. It explains to me why the main road into Los Altos from El Camino Real ("the king's highway) is called San Antonio Road. It was probably the original dirt track from the main road or camino into Senor Mesa's rancho.
The Rancho La Purisima was actually granted by California's Mexican governor to two California Indians: Jose Ramon and Jose Gorgonio, in 1840. It is nice to know at least some of the California natives were rewarded for their kindness to the padres of the California missions. Legend has it that a California Indian named Truckee helped the early pioneers find the route over the Sierra Nevada Mountains into California. A river and a town are now named after him. All of California's native population was wiped out by the diseases brought to the state by the Europeans. The two Indians who owned Rancho La Purisima "sold" it ten years later, but did live on it for the rest of their lives. They were the first residents of Los Altos, and some mighty fine real estate they enjoyed during their lifetimes.
Now the parking lot of the Los Altos Bakery and Cafe where I sit is filled with luxury cars: Mercedes, Range Rovers, and BMWs and it seems that it must have been long ago and far away when the hills above me were filled with Grizzlies and two kindly Indians owned the land where multi-million dollar houses now stand. But the past is not completely forgotten. Part of Rancho San Antonio is now a spectacular nature preserve in Los Altos Hills.
And the little shopping center where I write today has a name that at least conjurs up our history.
It is called The Rancho.