Retrospective Of Oakland's History

by Paris Williams

Ten thousand years ago the first humans came the the East Bay. They found the same mild weather and a bountiful land and sea. The huge mammals had given way to smaller animals and the forests were teeming with game. Beaches teemed with mussels, clams and crabs; creeks were seasonally visited by spawning salmon.

The people who came were from many places. Some were related to the Algonquin of eastern Canada, others to the Aztec of the Mexico Valley. Thus, the diversity we are accustomed to now began over ten thousand years ago.

The Huichum tribe of the Ohlone Indians

by Louis Choris, 1822

These first inhabitants "engaged in hunting and fishing, dressing of hides, made nets for fishing, pipes for smoking wild tobacco and rafts from river rushes. Basket weaving, among women, was developed to a high art. They were fond of sports and gambling and made ornaments of shells and feathers." No evidence has been found of organized warfare.

The East Bay was first explored by a Spanish expedition in 1769-70. In 1775 the De Anza expedition arrived. Their party included a small boy who would one day become Don Luis Peralta, the owner of Oakland and most of the East Bay area.

In 1842, Don Luis divided his estate between his four sons. His eldest, Antonio established his rancho in what is now the Fruitvale District. Ignacio was given land from San Leandro Creek to Seminary Avenue. To Vincinte went all of the land north and west of Lake Merritt to Alcatraz Avenue. Jose received the land that is presently Berkeley, Albany, El Cerrito and part of North Oakland.

Some Americans who came into this part of Mexico bought or rented land from the Peraltas. Some received land grants from the Mexican government. Others simply settled on Mexican owned land and would later claim ownership of what had indeed been stolen.

On May 13, 1846, the United States went to war with Mexico over land disputes and the extension of slavery into Texas. Rumor spread that the Mexican government would soon restrict American immigration into California. This resulted in the "Bear Flag Revolt" and the eventual annexation of California by the United States. Three months after annexation, gold was found at Sutter's Mill.

In 1848 the first Chinese immigrants arrived, two men and a woman. By 1852, over 20,000 entered through the Port of San Francisco. The first Chinese in Oakland worked as loggers (in the hills) and tenant farmers. These farmers, who were prohibited from owning land, provided most of the fresh produce consumed throughout the Bay Area. As Oakland began to grow, the Chinese built the Chabot and Temescal Dams, worked in jute mills and the explosives factory, labored on the harbors, in railroad construction and developed the shrimping industry.

By 1850, Oakland was home to a small black community. "The first East Bay census, taken in 1852, shows six black American men, one woman and eight black men from other countries.

Slavery had been abolished by Mexico in 1829, soon after achieving independence from Spain. When California was annexed to the United States, slavery once again became a threat to African-Americans as well as oppressive laws designed to prevent them from owning land and defending their rights in court. Many were subjected to the accusation of being runaway slaves and were kidnapped into bondage with the assistance of the courts.

In 1857, Elizabeth Flood, wife of pioneer Isaac Flood, opened a school for black children. After the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1872, granting voting rights to black men, the Oakland School Board voted 5 to 2 to admit "children of African decent" into public schools.

Mexicans, Chinese and African Americans were not the only local representatives of diversity. "Alameda County's population in 1870 was more than 65% foreign born. The largest group was Irish , who formed the congregation of Saint Patrick's Church in West Oakland. There were also a large number of Germans running breweries and beer gardens in Fruitvale. Later, Italians settled in the Temescal area. A community of Jews formed in the neighborhood near the Synagogue at 13th and Clay street.

"Many Portuguese arrived and went into dairy farming. The California Cotton Mills began by importing skilled Scottish textile workers to train local hands who formed a community near the mill. The English, Welsh, Norwegians, Danish, Swedes, Finns and French were also represented..

This was the beginning of our city. This exhibit is an exploration of the history of Oakland that draws its inspiration from a desire to understand the present and to better envision the future. As we approach the 21st Century our political, social, cultural and commercial decisions will be increasingly influenced by the process of forging a new notion of community. Will this strain our creed to the breaking point or will it expand the ideals of democracy?

By knowing how these questions have been answered in the past we may gain insight into the future. We may also find fragments of nature and ourselves that may be recovered and celebrated and shared.

A Biography of Paris Williams

An Oakland native, Paris Williams has always had an interest in history. She received her degree in Anthropology from Antioch College and is now pursuing a master's degree at the University of California, Berkeley. After conducting research and fieldwork in more than a dozen countries she was commissioned by Festival at the Lake 1990 to develop this exhibit on the history of Oakland's natural and ethnic diversity. She also worked on an oral history project on the California Hotel and the development of the post-war African American community in Oakland.