Live From the Archives:
The "MO" 1850s Census Mystery

By Melissa Jacobson

(This article was orignally published in the Martinez, CA Gazette, December, 2012)

"So, what did you do for the holidays?" Haven't we all been asked this cheery question a million times in the last month? And our lame response -- at least mine -- is a bleary eyed stare while my mind, like a slow hard drive, tries to fish out the important events from the random errands and the family obligations. "Where did my holiday go? Pre-Christmas, Post-Christmas, New Years; What did I do? Did I accomplish anything beyond adding a few extra inches to my waistline?"

Let's face it, trying to accomplish much of anything during the holiday season -- besides checking items off the gift list -- is nearly impossible. In 2012, it was doubly so with the relocation of the Contra Costa County Historical Society's History Center in Martinez. As many of us have heard, the History Center with its over 5,000 square feet of archives had to move; to do so, it had to close down for a few weeks. And that means my passion for historical research had to be put on hold... unless, like a true junkie, I could find another local archival source to satiate my curiosity. Who would have guessed that the vault inside the Pleasant Hill library provided such a fix?

What caught my eye as I walked into the library's vault last December, were three yellow, microfilm boxes entitled "1852 California Census." Normally the federal census is conducted every ten years, but in 1850 life was just too crazy in California; the 1850 census was incomplete because of the ongoing Gold Rush mania, and it had to be conducted again to get an accurate count of our population. This number would then be used for determining the correct number of Congressmen to be sent to represent California in Washington D.C. Until 1960 the census takers went door to door, and in 1852 it was done this way as well -- except on horseback and probably by boat.

After taking an oath and receiving a commission, the man chosen to count our county (which included Alameda) was an Englishman, Samuel Tennent from Pinole. At first glance, the Contra Costa County census is rather pedestrian. People's occupations were generally listed as "farmer, laborer, merchant or domestic." It makes one wonder, what would have happened to Mark Twain if he had landed in Contra Costa instead of Calaveras? The Calaveras County census was written by an Irishman and his ribald sense of humor makes the reader grab his gut with laughter; "horse thief, loafer, gentleman." Eldorado County has page after page of "miner" and Placer County's census has the distinction of listing occupations such as "prostitute and gambler" -- quite a number of them -- alongside a "minister" from New York.

Tennent, like all the federal Census Assistants, was given a specific rubric with over 20 headings such as name, age, sex, and occupation to record inhabitants. Yet what became very clear, after the initial humor in perusing the original gold rush counties, was that Samuel Tennent recorded Native American inhabitants of Contra Costa very differently than his colleagues elsewhere.

The original 1852 California Census is located in the State Archives at Sacramento. A drive, I might add, that was absolutely precluded by the madness of our holiday season. The 1852 Census that is located in the Pleasant Hill vault is actually a transcription, twice removed from the original. It gives the flavor and the original names of the counties in 1852, but not the technical accuracy or completeness of the original document. One requirement regarding the federal census, is that it must remain private for 72 years. During the 1920's our original 1852 census became public, microfilmed, and then shortly afterwards volunteers of The Daughters of The American Revolution (DAR) transcribed -- or typed out what they could read -- from the microfilmed copy. This is the document in the vault, however imperfect, that piqued my interest and led me -- amidst the holiday rush -- to find out more about our 1852 census and the man, Samuel Tennent, who compiled it.

What perplexed me most, was the way Samuel Tennent recorded Native Americans. The federal government's census rubric, with its twenty columns, gave clear directions regarding the notation of the "color" of the inhabitants of the county (the DAR transcription says "race.") It's the one Hugh Kelly methodically used for Calaveras: "C" is colored. "CH" is chinese. "I" is indian and "MU" is mulatto. Tennent, didn't do it this way and I wanted to know why.

First, I called the State Archives to confirm that what I was reading from the DAR transcription was correct; next to some people, Tennant had written --in his 19th century curlicued script --"MO" where color should have been noted. Yes, the state archivist said that curlicued "MO" was correct, but could not tell me what it meant. This was the veritable conundrum that spun my brain in circles and occupied way too much of my holiday. I felt strongly, yet could not prove it, that most of these people with the "MO" notations were Native Americans and some sort of "possession" of the family. They had names like "Napoleon" and their "occupation" was almost always "domestic." But, why would Tennent invent a new notation? -- directions from the federal government for noting "color" were crystal clear; either you are or are not a Native American, right? Why did Tennent complicate an already tedious job by creating new notations? The federal rubric also provided another column -- one of the twenty -- to mark if someone was a "Domesticated Indian" but that was inconsistently marked. Tennent also made hand written notes when large numbers of Native Americans – such as 45 --were located on a "Ranchria [sic]," but did not mark anything in the "color" column, nor "domestic Indian" column nor used the notation of "MO" for these groups.

After striking out with the State Archives, I called my colleague Dean McLeod from the History Center. McLeod specializes in the research of Contra Costa County Native Americans. Sitting down with me for coffee, McLeod alerted me to the inaccuracies of the DAR census. He also pulled out research documents he had generated regarding Native Americans that I was unable to access because of the History Center's move. One was a hardcopy of his own transcription of the original 1852 Contra Costa County Census, secondly some xerox copies of the original census and third, a dossier of legal cases in Contra Costa County that involved Native Americans. Eagerly looking at McLeod's transcription, I could see that he added an additional column of information culled from the county assessment and baptismal records. McLeod's initial interest in the census, years ago, was to locate and geographically place the original Native American villages in Contra Costa County.

McLeod's big beef with the 1852 Census and Samuel Tennent in particular, is that Tennent did not venture out to John Marsh's ranch to count and to describe the people living there. Tennent was paid $1,000 for conducting the census but, it's like a drive out to Brentwood today, "He probably didn't want to go way out there -- it would have been an extra trip" said McLeod. It is a grievous omission in the census, for it is recorded that Marsh, an American, had a large number of Native Americans working on or near his ranch. As we sat in the wintery coffee shop, I wondered how Tennent would have recorded those Native Americans working on Marsh's property? Then, McLeod's eye's sparkled, "There's a million little mysteries in there" he said, referring to the 1852 Census.

I went home and counted up 94 people designated as "MO." It was my feeling that these people were listed, some how, as possessions. They did not have surnames and they were listed in an indented fashion beneath other members of a family whose given names and surnames were listed. They were also very young: Seventy percent were 21 years of age and younger and thirty percent were over 21. Over half of the total number were under eighteen years of age. Tennent did state on his final summary report that he counted 278 "Domesticated Indians." So, my question was, "if it's true these people were Native Americans, how do the 94 people fit into the 278? And why did Tennent differentiate them?"

Tennent arrived in San Francisco in 1848 and like most men he was ready to seize the Gold Rush moment and make his future. He wasn't going to pan for gold though; he was on his way to Sacramento, near the gold fields, to open up a medical practice. As chance would have it, on his journey north through Pinole he met and quickly married into a prominent "Californio" family. Talk about a lucky first date! Tennent's new wife, Maria Rafaela Martinez, was one of the daughters of Don Ignacio and Martina Martinez, owners of over 17,000 acres in Contra Costa County. Don Ignacio had recently died, and given that the United States had just taken over California, Rafaela and her mother must have felt that Tennant was an especially strong candidate for marriage: he was in a class of learned men, skilled as a doctor, readily spoke both Spanish and English and was willing to convert to Catholicism. In fact, he's buried in St. Catherine's Cemetery in Martinez. By 1849, Tennent, along with Rafaela's brother Jose, found himself taking on the new role of patriarch for his budding family and his growing community surrounding Pinole. As Mexico lost control of California, Tennent settled on Rancho Pinole with his wife and their eventual ten children. It has been said that life on the Tennent ranch during these days was steeped in old world Spanish ways; their children dressed in Spanish finery and Dr. Tennent, took on the mantel of a local Padrino.

It was McLeod's dossier of Native American legal cases that began to unravel my holiday mystery of "MO." The first case, which is rather well known involves Samuel Tennent in 1850. This is the case where four Native Americans were kidnapped by Ramon Berryessa who was later found murdered. Once they killed Berryessa, the four Native Americans escaped, then they were found and then they were brought to Martinez for the murder trial of Ramon Berryessa. Samuel Tennent was serving as an Associate Justice of the Peace on the day that the Native Americans were brought in and since two of the Native Americans were only 11 he decided it was best to take them home to Rafaela for safety and care until the actual trial instead of locking them up with other adult prisoners. For three months the two young boys stayed on Tennent's ranch until the conclusion of the trial. This trial is one of the colorful moments of Contra Costa County history because the two adult Native Americans were pronounced guilty, yet only had to pay $1 to be freed. We should be proud to know that many people in Contra Costa County frowned on the likes of Ramon Berryessa who was a notorious Indian kidnapper. The Judge also pronounced that the two young boys on the Tennent ranch may leave as well. The boys, Diego and Jose Maria said they would rather stay with Samuel Tennent, their "Padrino."

"Padrino" like "Madrina" means God Parent. God parent relations were taken seriously in the Spanish and Mexican period of California. Elite or wealthy Californio families commonly adopted or sponsored young children and adults of their same elevated class thus welcoming them into their family and trade networks. Elite families, particularly the mothers, frequently sponsored or adopted various wayward people, Native American children and adults. This is how Native Americans became part of an extended family kinship system, albeit on a subservient level, where the elite families assumed responsibility and cared for them. Native Americans customarily underwent baptism and were given a new first name as well as taking the surname of the family that adopted them. The patriarch and the matriarch of the family had obligations to those who were dependent upon them, such as their material and spiritual welfare, and the dependents were to give faithful service and loyalty. In a frontier society such as California, the idea of bringing various peoples into one Spanish speaking community and then keeping tabs on them seems particularly important for those elites trying to run or maintain the dominant culture. It was also viewed or justified at the time, as a compassionate form of protection for Native Americans against the chaos of violence and kidnappers. In order to check on this adoption concept, I looked at Dean McLeod's transcription of the 1852 Census and saw that both Diego and Jose Maria (their given, or baptized names) were listed as "MO" and that -- according to McLeod's additional column -- they were both baptized at St. Mary's Church in Oakland and that Rafaela was listed as the God Mother or Madrina and perhaps the curlicued "MO," of the two boys.

Another case, People vs. Rafael (also a murder) took place in Martinez in 1856. The important part here is that a Native American man named Manual was admitted as a witness in this case because of his kinship relationship with "his Godfather," Vincent Martinez. Once again, I looked at McLeod's transcription under Vincente Martinez. Martinez' occupation was listed as "Ranchero." His children, and presumably his wife, are listed noting sex, age, color (white) and their given names and their surnames. And below them is listed Manuel, aged 11, male, "MO " and his occupation is "domestic." The additional column on McLeod's transcription once again makes note that Manuel was baptized at St. Mary's Church in Oakland.

All of this makes me believe that Tennent, who had been adopted into a Californio family himself, felt that these kinship relationships were important distinctions but he didn't know what to do with them. Under Mexican rule, these Native American people were, in a civil and contractual sense, part of an extended, white family. They were subservient, but they were not "slaves" in the American sense. And to further compound semantics, "slavery" was illegal in California. These natives, says Tennent, were also different than other Natives who were simply inhabiting rancherias. Tennent must have known that according to the U.S. Constitution only free people, those bound to service, Indians taxed and 3/5 th of all other people (enslaved African Americans) were supposed to be counted. Yet, what he produced tells us that he recognized that not all people fit into neat little boxes as easily as that.

Contra Costa County was a frontier society in 1852. While Tennent busily counted the people, and more people flowed in, Native Americans were being kidnapped, sold and legally coerced into false "Apprenticeships" and black holes called "Indentures" to fill the cheap labor demands of new settlers. Perhaps the new settlers equated the Californio kinship or compadre system with the likes of slavery. An 1852 Letter to the Editor in the Alta California newspaper pleaded with the public to "correct such un-Christian like treatment of unfortunate creatures who cannot explain or make their complaints." The Alta California speaks of a kidnapper, who brought Native Americans into town only to "hire them for two years at the rate of four reals per day." It's clear that Tennent saw the distinction between these unfortunates and those who had been baptized and adopted into white, stable families. It's the new settlers and the bureaucrats back east who did not.

Researching the Census brought home to me the apparent confusion and tragedy that must have been taking place in people's lives in 1852 and suddenly all of my petty holiday angst was put into perspective. Now that the holiday rush is over, I must visit St. Catherine's Cemetery and see Tennent's grave, situated next to his beloved Rafaela. I hope his headstone says that he was a man, perhaps a Padrino, who was committed to our county and that he tried to create order out of chaos.


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