From Wilderness to Village: Los Gatos’ Early Days

The town of Los Gatos was established on La Rinconada de Los Gatos, a Mexican land grant formerly inhabited by the Ohlone Indians that was part of Spain from the late 1700s to early 1800s.

The first inhabitants of the Santa Clara Valley were the Ohlone Indians, or Costanes. They are thought to have been descendents of aboriginal tribes that came to North America from Asia across the Bering Strait. These Indians were tall with straight noses. In religion they were sun worshippers who cremated their dead. They were hunters and fisherman and lived on animal and vegetable foods, contrary to the California “Digger” Indians who lived on roots and shellfish.

It is estimated that 5,000 Ohlones lived in the valley when the first white man arrived here. The Mission Fathers found these Indians of the West Valley very reliable, responsive and zealous converts. It was the Ohlones who found cinnebar at the Almaden mines and used this bright red clay to paint their bodies, which through long use poisoned their skin.

The Spanish claimed all of California long before 1765 when Charles III sent Jose de Galvez to New Spain to act as Visitor-General. His chief purpose was to reorganize the finances of Spain’s Pacific Empire. However, he also sought to strengthen Spain’s hold on the Californias. He organized an expedition to the north which was led by Gaspar de Portola. When Portola organized his expedition, he asked Padre Junipero Serra, the head of the Missions in Mexico, to accompany him.

Arriving in San Diego in July 1769 , Father Serra founded a Mission and remained there while Portola and his party went north in search of Monterey Bay. When they reached Monterey Bay on October 1, 1769 they failed to recognize it and started on north. Because of the rain and the illness of some of their party, they planned to camp a few days at Point San Pedro. While the party was in camp, two soldiers decided to go hunting deer. They climbed the northeastern hills and from the summit saw “a valley like a great inland sea, stretching northward and southeastward as far as the eye could reach.” These two deer hunters, whose names are not recorded, stood on the summit of the western foothills on November 2, 1769 and were the first white men to see the beautiful Santa Clara Valley.

In March 1776 Captain Juan Bautista de Anza, who was to select the site for the City of San Francisco, and his small expedition passed through the present Los Gatos area. With the Missions established all along the coast, and the Presidios erected to protect the territory, Spain felt that her Pacific Empire was safe.

However the people of Mexico rebelled and won their independence in 1821. All of the California territory came under Mexican rule. Under Mexican law private citizens could petition for lands that had formerly belonged to the Missions. Hundreds of large land grants, in the form of Ranchos, were made, some containing more than 50,000 acres, while most were 4,500 acres or larger.

Jose Hernandez and Sebastian Peralta were given a land grant of one and a half leagues by the Mexican Governor at Monterey on May 26, 1840.

American interest in California was the result of commercial activities and fear of the growing influence of England and Russia on the Pacific Coast. Confronted with the prospective separation of California from Mexico, the United States tried to purchase the territory from Mexico but envoy John Slidell had to return to the United States empty-handed.

American settlers had come into the territory, helped by private colonizing companies. These American colonists staged a “revolution” and set up the “Bear Flag Republic” in June 1846. They were aided in this by Captain John C. Fremont, who had made several expeditions into California between 1843 and 1846. Later Fremont camped “near the road to Santa Cruz” on the night of February 21, 1856 and crossed the Santa Cruz Mountains at the gap made by Los Gatos Creek.

When the United States took over California, all claims to land had to be proven in court. Sebastian Peralta and Jose Hernandez presented their claims in the Federal Court in San Francisco in January 1853. On March 9, 1860 the United States Government granted a patent to Hernandez and Peralta, recognizing their claim to La Rinconada de Los Gatos, which comprised 6,631 acres of land. The town of Los Gatos was built on part of this grant.

This is an excerpt from the History of Los Gatos by George G. Bruntz, published by Valley Publishers in 1971 and republished in 1983 by Western Tanager Press. Dr. Bruntz lived in Los Gatos for more than half a century and taught for 19 years at what was then known as San Jose State College. He taught history and was director of adult education at Los Gatos Union High School.

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