Live From the Archives:
"Ownership: People, Property, and Otherwise"

By Melissa Jacobson

(This article was orignally published in the Martinez, CA Gazette, February 13, 2011)

The History Center is a veritable warehouse of historic information, yet finding what you want to know -- like all good sleuthing -- is often all about asking the right questions. So, not long ago, while we were out on a coffee break, I asked Ms. Priscilla Couden, the Executive Director of the Center; "Out of all of the archives, which one do you think is especially interesting?" She gently set down her cup of Cafe Americano and briefly explained how The County Assessment Records, located in stacks GG, held interest because they detail the belongings of County property holders all the way back to the nineteenth century.

Just as Ms. Couden said this, I was reminded of how historians of the Southern States often use records just like these to unearth the family histories of people who were enslaved and thus were considered "property." As we left the coffee shop and walked back to the History Center, my mind raced ahead and I thought about the ruthless treatment of Native Americans in California: Spain, Mexico and the United States all considered "Indians" as their own personal cheap labor. Some landowners in Contra Costa County kidnapped and sold "Indians" and vehemently claimed "Indians" as property. If I looked, would I find California "Indians" listed as "property" in our Assessment Records just as enslaved people had been listed in the South?

The Assessment Records that we have at the History Center start in the year 1850 and end with 1904. They are located on three -- towering -- eight foot tall stacks. There are various types of volumes and some years are missing. Stamped inside each volume with distinctive, ditto-like purple ink, is the name of Louis Stein, one of the principal founders of the Contra Costa County Historical Society. It is his personal collection of archives -- 50,000 papers and books, 20,000 photos and negatives, 500 slides and 200 maps -- that he donated in 1984 which is the archival foundation of the History Center; the County cleared out old records and switched over from hard copy to microfilm and Louis Stein eagerly acquired these Assessment Records before they were permanently destroyed. I only had a few hours at the History Center to peruse this massive treasure trove, so I concentrated on just three of the earliest volumes that gave me the most information;1853, 1854 and 1855. The 1850 volume was very sparse, yet of interest as Contra Costa County was one of the original 27 counties when our non-slave State was created in 1850.

What jumps out from the pages are the names of famous players in Contra Costa County history: Ramon Briones, Elam Brown, David Glass, William Lynch, Leo Norris, Salvio Pacheco and Samuel Tennant, just to name a few. And next, a list of their real estate such as William Lynch's "100 acres valued at $720" or William Tennant's lots in town that "valued at $400." But later, in the 1855 volume of Assessment Records, something radically changes: Now the Deputy Assessor begins to list, in addition to acreage, more personal property such as; "Spanish Horses, American Horses, Furniture, Reaper Thrasher, Pigs, Hogs, Spanish Sheep and Wagons." One man, Mr. William Franklin of Martinez, possessed a "library" valued at $400. After a quick fact check, I found that a new County Assessor had been elected in 1855; it appears he literally meant to "clean house."


Property List Sample


What caught my eye in all of the property listed was the differing "value" of individual's wagons or carriages. Fernando Pacheco's "wagon" was valued at $80 while Ramon Briones' "wagon" was valued at $50 and the wife of Leo Norris, Mary Jane Norris, her "wagon" was valued at $25. I noticed that one man had two carriages listed; one "carriage" was valued at $100 and the other "old carriage" was valued at $210." In the same year, Salvio Pacheco's "carriage" was valued at $200. Apparently there were no Kelly Bluebooks for horse drawn vehicles; why were the values so random?

In addition to the property listed, near each individual's name were two other consistent columns that stood out; that the individual had paid their "poll tax" and that the individual had taken an "oath." But I found that not everyone, at least one woman named Mary Jane Norris, took kindly to giving oaths. Out of the three Assessment Records that I investigated, Mrs. Norris was the only one who refused -- twice -- to sign her name, thus refusing to give an oath. The actual wording in the 1853 Assessment Record is pretty startling: "Mr. Norris not being at home Mrs. Norris refuses to be sworn. Was informed that there was more personal property on this ranch than has been given in." Mary Jane Norris doesn't make an appearance in the 1854 volume, but she appears in the 1855 Assessment Records, not as a voice for her husband Leo's property, but as an owner of her own: "4,340 acres of the San Ramon Ranch including that part upon which she now lives and is cultivating." Mary Jane Norris "refused to be sworn, June 21, 1855."

These Assessment Records were a bit of a puzzle and left me, at times, with more questions than answers. I understood that a "Deputy Assessor" must have rode out to people's property, but who were these men and how did they get their jobs? Was the assessment of property always "fair?" And why would Mrs. Norris refuse to be sworn? And why would she want additional property to be listed on her husband's record? There aren't many books about the history of Assessment, so I called up Mr. Gus Kramer, our present County Assessor, and made an appointment to talk with him about Assessment history.

As I walked into Mr. Kramer's Martinez office my eyes caught a very large -- at least 2' X 2' -- 1912 Assessment Record that he had placed on the table. This was much larger than the Assessment Records I had examined in the History Center. He explained that by 1912, the County was much larger and had more property to record. As we perused the book, Mr. Kramer explained how an Assessment Officer was elected, he then deputized various men who rode out to assess the value and to tax property. "Today," said Mr. Kramer, "we use professional appraisers to do that. " When the Deputy Assessor rode out to your property, he simply spoke with the owner about the property. During most of the 19th century, Assessors did this every year and then, by the late 1800's the County created five year assessment cycles according to Supervisor districts.

When the Deputy Assessor arrived on an individual's property, explained Mr. Kramer, "he essentially asked the owner what property he had and what the property owner thought it was worth." This answered my question about the various values of wagons. Then, the property owner took an oath, thus giving his word, as to the attested value of the said property. But why, I asked, would Mrs. Norris claim there was yet more property to be assessed? Mr. Kramer gave a wry smile and admitted it certainly was NOT because she was a woman who didn't understand the process. He emphasized that women in California, since the Spanish period, could own property and that they absolutely knew the value of land and possessions. He shook his head and his eyes wandered out beyond his fourth story windows; there had to be some "personal story" going on here that we are not privy to today. Simply put, we both agreed that life "back in the day" wasn't that different than our own complicated lives. Indeed, I confided that I did discover, after a little more research at the History Center, a quote that stated that Mrs. Norris in 1856, had actually "purchased land from William Lynch and claims it as her own." This is the property that she was living on, separately from her husband, until the day she died in 1857.

The question about whether I would find California Native Americans listed as "property" in our Assessment Records remains unresolved. Only "Indian, Henry" was listed in one of the three Assessment Records that I investigated. Whether he was listed as the "property" of a land owner or whether he was listed alphabetically -- right after that land owner, Mr. David Glass, is unclear. Absolutely nothing was listed after "Indian, Henry's" name, unlike all the other persons listed in the Assessment Records. Why would "Indian, Henry" be listed at all if he owned no property, took no oath and paid no taxes? Only the firm check mark by his name bares out his existence -- but as what, property or person?

At the end of the day, asking the right questions only took me so far. I mentioned this unusual listing to Mr. Kramer; he momentarily showed surprise and said "It was contrary to law to own an individual in California at this time," but he quickly admitted that the treatment of Native Americans in California was abominable and he therefore wouldn't be too shocked to hear of a Native American listed as property. But as yet, it cannot be proven with my short and limited foray into our Assessment Records. As always, in the absence of answers, we must dig deeper into more, if not all, of our Assessment Records in order to sort out for sure whether property owners in Contra Costa County considered Native Americans to be people, property or something in-between.

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