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Living - January 26, 2007

Presenting the Past: The Spanish Frontier in the San Ramon Valley, Part 1

by Beverly Lane

California and the San Ramon Valley changed forever when a Spanish expedition traveled north from Baja California in 1769. The Spanish wanted to protect Alta California from Russian intrusion, convert and civilize the large Indian population, and establish missions, forts and towns.

The first Europeans came to the San Ramon Valley in 1772. The Fages-Crespi expedition, led by Capt. Pedro Fages and accompanied by Father Juan Crespi was returning to Monterey after skirting the Bay in an unsuccessful search for a route across the Strait. This expedition is memorialized in a historical society plaque at the corner of El Portal and Danville Boulevard.

Crespi's diary for March 31, 1772, included this description:

"We entered a valley having the same characteristics as the first (well covered with grass, with good arroyos well grown with alders, cottonwood, laurels, roses and other trees) ... in the course of it we came to three villages with some little grass houses. As soon as the heathen caught sight of us they ran away, shouting and panic-stricken without knowing what had happened. From this valley we turn south, and halted in the same valley on the bank of an arroyo with plenty of running water ... This valley appeared to me to be a charming site for a settlement, with all the advantages that are required."

This was the first time the valley Indians had seen Europeans on horseback and they probably thought the soldiers and horses were some strange new creatures. Reports of the newcomers had evidently not penetrated the interior valleys.

Franciscan missions were Spain's main colonizing institutions and eventually four missions were established in the San Francisco Bay Area. Mission San Jose (1797) was the mission closest to the San Ramon Valley. Indians were drawn to the missions because of the unusual gifts, weapons and music as well as the desire to ally themselves with the powerful newcomers. For these and many other reasons Indians migrated to the missions but, once baptized, they could leave only with the missionaries' permission.

Almost immediately diseases for which the natives had no immunities killed them. An estimated 85 percent of natives who came in contact with the Spanish died, with typhus, tuberculosis, syphilis, measles and smallpox taking their toll. The record of Bay Area Indian resistance to the new settlers is extensive but, in the end, disease decimated the population and traditional villages were no longer viable with so few people.

Mission San Jose was founded near to Santa Clara because of tribal hostility in the inland valleys, including documented resistance from the Saclan, Volvon and Suenen tribes. Eventually the mission flourished with up to 2000 Indian recruits living there. Its grazing land extended as far north as Concord and the mission proper had extensive vineyards, olive and fruit orchards, wheat fields and livestock. The mission was famous for its Indian orchestra and choir, and was blessed with two very capable Franciscan missionaries: Father Narciso Duran from 1803 to 1833 and Jose Gonzalez Rubio from 1833 to 1842.

There were many links between the mission and the San Ramon Valley. Soldier Pedro Amador helped site and build the first mission. His son Jose Maria Amador was the mission's administrator on and off for years. A mission Indian, Ramon, herded sheep in the San Ramon Valley and, according to land testimony by Jose Amador in 1852, the creek and valley were named for him.

Mexican independence in 1821 transformed Spanish policies toward the Indians, the missions and land ownership. Californios (native-born Spanish settlers) who had served as soldiers were eager to receive land and, when the mission system ended in 1833, mission lands became available for land grants. The rancho era began.

Sources: ND Land Case 287, Jose Maria Amador's "Recollections"; Randy Milliken's "Time of Little Choice"

Beverly Lane, a longtime Danville resident, is curator of the Museum of the San Ramon Valley and co-author of "San Ramon Valley: Alamo, Danville, and San Ramon."

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