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March 30, 2008

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The Ohlone:
First Inhabitants of Silicon Valley
and the San Francisco Bay Area

Santa Cruz Mountains - view over Saratoga, CaliforniaWhat was life like for the people who lived in the Los Gatos area before the colonists arrived?  For thousands of years before Europeans set foot in the beautiful Santa Clara Valley, the native people – who called themselves “Ohlone”, meaning “the people” made this sub-tropical climate their home. (There were appx. 5000 of them living here when the area was colonized.) The Ohlone ranged from about Carmel to the south and up the Peninsula and across the East Bay, at the least. They were a mobile people who were hunters and gatherers. They made great use of tule reeds for clothing, housing, and bowls. The acorn (several types from several varieties of oak trees) was their staple food, made into bread, soup, and a type of hot cereal after it was leached with water. In a bad year for acorns, they could use the California Buckeye instead. Adorned with shell & rock jewelry and tatooed with cinnabar, they must have been a lovely people. They hunted, they fished, and they traded with other Ohlones. They followed the seasons to collect berries and seeds; their homes did not need to be permanent.  

Sadly, there are few traces of their presence here now – names like “Ohlone College” in Fremont remind us that they were here first. Sometimes we read in the papers of an old Ohlone burial ground being uncovered as new houses are being built. But there are no tribal Ohlone lands, unfortunately, and it seems that there are only a few Ohlones left now, and I believe most of them are also part Miwok (from the Yosemite area). As I understand it, the tribes who had a formal treaty with the later United States government were given lands, and those who did not have treaties did not get lands of their own to keep. Because the Ohlone were mobile (they did not create permanent houses), there’s very little tangible left of their legacy. We have some early photographs and some beautiful baskets, but not a lot more. (If any readers of this have information they’d like to share, I would welcome the input warmly.)  

Los Gatos inThe Mission Period
& Spanish Land Grants

In the late 1700s the California Missions were being founded by Spanish Franciscans. Spain had claimed this land as its own and it saw in the friars a way of cementing that claim. The friars, meanwhile, saw this as an opportunity to claim more souls for the faith. So with an alignment of “church and state” the padres made their way north from San Diego, placing most missions just a day’s horseback ride apart (appx 30 miles) – and frequently up on a hill so they could be found easily. Spain gave out giant land grants to those who would settle and tame the land.  

Mission Santa Clara, at the heart of what we now call Silicon Valley, was founded in 1777. It was originally on the banks of the Guadalupe River, but as anyone who’s lived here awhile can tell you, the Guadalupe is notorious for flooding – so that location did not work out. Floods, fires and earthquakes made a mess of the mission named for Saint Clare of Assisi and this church was moved several times before it settled into its present location, which is now surrounded by the beatiful campus of Santa Clara University. The Franciscans were given a very large land grant, which would include shared ownership of the New Almaden Quicksilver Mine. (A religious aside: St. Clare is the patron saint of communications, and I have to think she would smile that the Silicon Valley is at the heart of the development of the computer industry and communication brought about by internet and email.)  

Mexican Revolution & Mexican Land Grants 

Despite Spain’s attempt to solidify its hold on California and Mexico with the Church, it was too far away to prevent the predictable revolution. When Mexico did declare its independence, it too claimed this area, San Jose and the Santa Clara Valley, as its own.  

So how was Mexico going to keep a tight reign on this vast land (when Spain couldn’t manage it)? It likewise decided to go the way of land grants. Settlers were allowed to apply for a land grant and the initial requirement was simply that they live on the land.

Sebastian Fabian Peralta and Jose Maria Hernandez, brothers-in-law to each other, were out searching for good land so that they could apply for a land grant like other early settlers. While near what is now Vasona Lake County Park, the heard Mountain Lions fighting and screetching. The men understood that cats signaled the nearby presence of water, and they found what is now knows as the Los Gatos Creek.

They named the area “La Rinconada de Los Gatos”, or Cat’s Corner or The Corner of the Cats. This took place in 1839. They received a huge area of land, 6631 acres (one and a half leagues). The region stretched from about both sides of the Vasona area to beyond Quito Road and then in to Campbell. You can view a plat map, care of UC Berkeley, online.

Incidentally, their first adobe home was somewhere in that region along the Los Gatos Creek which is now part of Vasona Lake County Park. Sadly, we do not know the exact location of the home as no traces of it remain.

The Earliest Beginnings of The Town of Los Gatos  

In the 1840s logging was beginning to be important, and after the gold rush of 1848 local growth made it crucial. By the 1850s there was a road across the mountain path and Mountain Charlie was running his stagecoach across it. (During the heyday of stagecoaches, Los Gatos saw them come every 15 minutes during the busiest part of the day!) This was the wild west era, complete with horse thievery, stagecoach holdups and home robberies – it all happened here!  

By the 1880s fruit orchards had begun making an important appearance and with them came the railroad to get the fruit from local canneries to market. The first Los Gatos housing subdivision came about in 1877, though the 48 lots werent’ for sale until 1881.  

By 1887 there were enough people settled in Los Gatos, 1645 to be exact, to incorporate into a town, so it was begun officially with 100 acres on either side of the Los Gatos Creek. In the 1880s Los Gatos saw the springing up of the “walk to town” areas: Edelen, Fairview Plaza, and Almond Grove. Then, as now, those were prized neighborhoods full of lovely Victorian style homes.

As you know, the Town of Los Gatos has grown and grown and is now more than 10 square miles with about 30,000 inhabitants, and its popularity has never dimmed.