In the mid-19th century, a Breton trader owned most of the US city of San Francisco as well as a further 900 square miles of the then newly established state of California; landholdings that would have made him one of the richest men in the world. Just two years later, his ownership was unrecognised by the US government but that may soon change as an international court demands restitution for his defrauded descendants.
For a man who, for a time, could have been counted amongst the world’s wealthiest, we know little about the early years of Joseph-Yves Limantour save that he was born in the south coast town of Ploemeur; a short distance from the major Breton port of Lorient where his father was employed. By the time of his twentieth birthday, in 1832, he was serving in a trading vessel off Veracruz on the Gulf of Mexico. However, within five years, Limantour seems to have gained command of his own vessel which he used to transport and trade goods back and forth along the Pacific coast of the newly-independent State of Mexico.
On 26 October 1841, his ship ran aground off the coast of Point Reyes, north of the village of Yerba Buena, in the Mexican province of Alta California. Providentially, Limantour was able to save the bulk of his cargo but its value far exceeded the purchasing power of what was then an impoverished and remote region. It was therefore necessary for him to arrange sales for cash, credit and land and to barter his way to a serviceable ship that would eventually allow him and his men to return south, late in the following year.
Once re-supplied, Limantour is reputed to have continued his coastal trading with a now distinct emphasis on delivering supplies to the Governor of Alta California, General Manuel Micheltorena y Llano. Such goods were apparently often paid for by official land grants; a policy that was by no means unique at that time in that part of the world.
When the considerable tensions between the United States and Mexico eventually broke out into war in 1846, Limantour used his skills and resources to keep the Mexican forces of Alta California supplied with arms and ammunition. Accounts vary as to how personally active he was during the war but the forces of the United States had gained control over all significant ports and coastal settlements by the end of August 1846. With no Mexican facilities to supply in the north, Limantour was forced to re-focus his efforts in the south of the country.
Mexico capitulated in the middle of September the following year and the peace treaty that followed in early 1848 was as savage as it was humiliating. Mexico was forced to cede almost 1.4 million square kilometres of territory to the United States and to accept the permanent loss of Texas, admitted into the Union at the end of 1845. The total land lost by Mexico was therefore closer to 2.4 million square kilometres or over half its total land area.
The value of some of this land soared with the discovery of rich deposits of gold in California in early 1848. The subsequent ‘gold rush’ saw a massive influx of new settlers to the region; the village of Yerba Buena, now renamed San Francisco, alone saw its population explode from under a thousand to over 25,000 in less than two years. Not unexpectedly, official bureaucracy found it difficult to cope with hundreds of thousands of new arrivals into an area that was transitioning from Mexican rule and US military oversight while acceding to the Union in September 1850.
Once formally part of the Union, the US government focused on bringing administrative order to California and soon established a Commission to assess and endorse the validity of land claimed under grants made by Colonial Spanish and subsequent Mexican administrations. Landowners were controversially given two years to prove their ownership to the satisfaction of the Commission; those that did not or who failed to satisfy the Commission would see their land confiscated by the State.
In February 1853, Limantour presented his first batch of deeds, authorised by the provincial Governor some ten years earlier, amounting to over 200,000 acres of land covering Cape Mendocino, the Tiburon peninsula, the Farrallones and Alcatraz, as well as land in what are now Tulare, Fresno and Monterey counties and the land now covered by parts of the cities of Burbank and Clearlake.
However, his most lucrative title asserted ownership of a large part of San Francisco; over 30,000 square acres immediately south of the city’s California Street. Later that month, Limantour submitted further deeds claiming ownership of additional land in California amounting to almost 595,000 square acres or about 2,400 square kilometres (925 square miles) in total.
Almost immediately, counter claims and rumours of falsehood spread throughout northern California most likely fuelled by Samuel Brannan, a controversial businessman and land speculator who owned the town’s highest circulating newspaper.
In January 1856, the Commission delivered its assessment and endorsed most of Limantour’s claims. An act that, unsurprisingly, caused no little consternation to the thousands of people, including government agencies, who now found themselves adjudged as illegally occupying what they had considered their land. Given the challenge of physically reasserting his land ownership, it was not long before Limantour began accepting payments to renounce his claim to certain parcels of land; reputedly for a modest 10 per cent of market value.
For whatever reason, the Federal Government seems to have taken a particular interest in Limantour’s claim and filed legal suit to have the judgment of the Land Commission overturned. At the end of 1856, on the basis of a very questionable witness who later recanted, a grand jury ruled that there was enough evidence to bring forward charges of fraud and perjury against him.
A mass of witness testimonies and documentary evidence were collected and the new US Attorney General pledged $70,000 to help win the case in addition to $25,000 spent securing the services of leading Washington lawyer Edwin M. Stanton, later to serve as President Lincoln’s Secretary of War, as chief prosecutor. In November 1858, the federal court concluded that there had been fraud and duly annulled the earlier decision of the Land Commission. Efforts to reactivate criminal charges against Limantour were frustrated due to him having absconded to Mexico some months earlier.
By all accounts, Limantour enjoyed a lavish lifestyle in Mexico where he was accepted into the highest echelons of society and built-up an impressive property portfolio. With his family, he briefly returned to Brittany in 1884; the year before his sudden death in Mexico City. His eldest son, José Yves Limantour, was an accomplished lawyer who served as Mexico’s Minister of Finance for 18 years before eventually retiring to France in 1911.
A claim disputing the findings of the 1856-58 trial was first lodged in an administrative court in southern Brittany during the summer of 1944 by Limantour’s grand-daughter. This alleged that the decision of the US court had been based on fabricated evidence conveniently discovered in a US government building almost eighteen months into the trail and that the findings of the court had been heavily influenced by local and national officials who stood to gain materially from a verdict against Limantour. The notion that such collusion was directly responsible for depriving Madame Limantour of her rightful inheritance was accepted by the court who also decreed that she was entitled to full restitution as well as compensation for the then nine years she had been denied the right to enjoy her family inheritance (her father had died in Paris in 1935).
It seems that the judgement of the 1944 court was included amongst a series of exemplar cases that were put forward as instructive trans-national precedents during the formative years of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the late 1940s. The court’s ruling might have been forgotten but for the diligence of Madame Limantour who secured a ‘reminder to comply’ verdict from the Supreme Court of Brittany in May 1968. Speculation abounds as to why it has taken a generation for this potentially explosive case to appear on the roster of the ICJ’s Special Court for Restitution, Arbitration and Perfidy but now that is has, it will be fascinating to see how justice unfolds.
161 thoughts on “California Dreams Can Come True”
Thus the United States seems to have always operated, in a manner that continues to this day.
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I guess money and power always talk loudest but back then at least they had the ‘excuse’ of it all being confused and new? 😔🤔
Bonjour from us duorempong, couple van life from Indonesia 🙂
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Greetings! I hope that you are doing well! 🙂
Fascinating. Guess I should be glad I live near LA and not up North. hahaha
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Haha, well, all the songs say that the weather’s good in southern California! 😉
After this year, we can not longer sing the one that goes “it never rains in California”. But being a midwestern girl gone wrong, I LOVE rain and miss it having lived out here in the desert far too long.
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Ha that is true (I recall reading of the rain and storms of earlier!) but it is a notion still too heavily embedded in the public consciousness I think! 😉
We get a lot of rain here and although I should be used to it, I still wish for just a little less! 😉