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July 20, 1862: Benicia

July 20, 2012

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Downtown Benicia; by Tom Hilton, on Flickr

Camp 82

I am glad enough to be here, although our camp is not in a pleasant place, yet it is preferable to the city. The crowds of the city make me feel sad and lonely. I feel restless and long for the quiet of camp life—quiet, yet active—rich in that excitement that arises from the contemplation and study of nature, but quiet in all that relates to strife with the busy, bustling world.

We are camped in a little valley among the treeless hills that lie on this side of the Strait of Carquinez. On crossing from Martinez a great change comes over the landscape. There are open groves, beautiful trees, and cool shade; here, not a tree to break the wind or to invite rest in its shade. Yet the land is fertile, and rich fields of grain lie on every side. Although Sunday, the clatter of a reaping machine is borne on the breeze from a neighboring field. I heard it before I was up in the morning. It sounds strange to hear it, the sound mingled with the tones of the bells of the churches and convent from the neighboring town.

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Downtown Benicia; by Tom Hilton, on Flickr

Benicia is a very dull place—scarcely any business, although once the rival of San Francisco and the capital of the state. A large city was “laid out,” and thousands were prospectively rich. But, alas, the abundant “lots” and “water fronts” were held at such high prices—everyone must get rich rapidly by the rise in the value of his “city property”—that no one could buy. All speculated and none built—the same old Californian story—so that capital hesitated about coming, trade kept away and sought cheaper quarters, and industry, the natural foe of speculation, stood aloof. The “city” remained in its “lots,” and now Benicia—the “City of Benicia”—is merely a little, dull, miserable town of not over five hundred inhabitants, and were it not for its United States Arsenal and the shops of the Panama steamers, where they make their repairs, there would be nothing here.

Another curious history is just now developing here, a true Californian episode, and one of those which more than any other retard the progress of the state. The entire point of land, some fifty thousand acres, has been held under an old Spanish grant. Under this title it has all been sold and converted into farms, now valuable. Two villages, the “cities” of Benicia and Vallejo, have grown up upon it. At last—at this late date, when men who bought property in good faith and paid its full value have been living in undisputed possession for periods of from five to fourteen years—the United States court rejects the claim, and immediately the whole is considered “unoccupied public lands.” What a field for the squatter, the sovereign squatter, that highest type of the American citizen!

Instantly the whole is “taken up” by squatters. Within sight of our camp are numbers of these “actual residences.” The squatter goes in some man’s field, even his orchard, and, usually in the night, erects his “residence,” a board shanty worth at most five to ten dollars. He spends one night on it, which is sufficient for him to swear that he has erected a residence and resided there. He thus lays claim to 160 acres of the “government land.” In this way men have actually squatted on lots in the city of Benicia occupied by brick stores. Of course, the population is intensely excited. One man tore down the shanties erected on his farm. The squatters in turn tore down his fences and burnt his fine barn. The rest of the residents now are doing nothing—grain is ripe, the fields dry, but they dare do nothing, for the free and independent squatter who would take possession of a man’s farm is none too good to burn his house, if molested. Courts now will quarrel, lawyers make money, some men get money, and honest industry suffer.

The story of these Spanish grants is a long one, and a black one. Our central government has much to answer for. This case ought to have been settled long ago—there is neither reason nor justice in such delays. If the claims are poor now, they could not have been good fourteen years ago. Political corruption has other sins to answer for as well as the rebellion at home.

This case here is by no means an isolated one—every year tells of numbers of such. The great drawback on the settlement of this state has been, is now, and will be for years to come the insecurity of land titles, and for this southern politicians more than northern are the cause, but the explanation is too long to write now.

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