Upon our collective shelves can be found more than a few historical accounts of the City of Berkeley. In large measure, these books tell a tale of the many merchants, educators, clergymen, architects, hospitals, libraries, artists, public utilities, recreational facilities, merchants and farmers, and a few of the politicians who, to a greater or lesser extent, found common cause in the development of a community. While these stories describe a portion of the developmental path of this city, there remains a neglected facet which gives account of a somewhat more fundamental aspect of our history.

The essay which follows attempts first to give a picture of the land upon which the city has been built. Of course the land itself yet remains, but for its material improvements, largely unchanged. However, the claims to ownership have changed, and changed again. In what follows, you will find an attempt to follow the title to these lands, and in that context that a wondrous drama involving heroism, guile, deceit, outright corruption, brilliant maneuvering, greed and pathos.

The land was always here. But for the natural boundaries set by water or elevation, the land remained undivided, continuous and without imposed limits. Boundaries were established when claims were made on portions of these lands. The territory was divided, ownership was claimed, ownership was challenged, forfeitures were endured, sales were made, and eventually a sense of relative order was achieved.

The first part of this essay describes the initial claims and transfers of the land. It attempts to give some account of the wonderful and diverse cast of characters who participated in that drama. As in all dramas, there are good guys and bad guys, actors playing major and minor roles, and inevitably, the winners and the losers. The remainder of the story maintains the commercial bias, and attempts to describe the context within which the settlers and inhabitants of the town and city pursued their respective interests.

There were, overall, four phases in the transformation of the land’s natural state to the refined divisions which exist today. The first is represented by the claims made by national powers. The second is concerned with the parcels of land granted to individuals by those national entities. The third phase is described by the entrepreneurs who obtained the land from the original grantees. The fourth step involves the improvements made to these acquisitions, improvements that were made in pursuit of some commercial advantage. The fifth phase involves the retailing of smaller parcels to an interested public, for their private use. It is at this step that the stories of the local politics, the economics, as well as the contributions made by individual merchants, ministers, educators and architects becomes a conceivable reality. Each step in this progression is complicated by the competitive interests as well as the personalities of the actors who we find involved. The final portions of the story are necessarily played out upon a stage that had been designed and set by the then unknown, forgotten, and nearly invisible predecessors.

The story that follows is first of all of the land upon which the local interests find their meaning. When the land has been largely distributed, other large scale commercial issues become prominent. The cast of characters therefore includes a disproportionate number of entrepreneurial types who tend often to be left out of most local histories. The motives and the methods of many of these actors have been, in many instances, lost to time. The story is complex and all too often obscured for the elusive character of this relevant information. What follows has been written with the belief that it is the responsibility of the historian to make educated guesses, to supply those motives and those methods, and in many cases the implicit nature of the relationships between the actors, in order that plausible continuity may be portrayed.

There are several other books which promise the story of the history of Berkeley. Their focus is different than the one taken here. Several of these books describe the growth of the city in terms of the development of the University. In their efforts, this aspect of the tale is sufficiently told. Others focus on the architects, the churches and the prominent businessmen. None of these topics are attempted in the present effort. The issue is not one of which is the more correct, or the more useful history. All aspects are valid and need only be co-related, one with the other. It is suggested that the present essay be taken as a context, or frame of reference for those that have preceded it. As such, this essay will be lacking in what might seem to some readers as the development of essential topics. And that it is.

I suspect that the contents of the present essay would have greatest meaning to those familiar with the prior histories. Certainly it would be good to have an awareness of the gaps that need be filled. But even without that familiarity, I think the stories told are of sufficient interest. The final chapter will bring us to about 1910. After that Berkeley’s history is a in large measure a subsection of a more inclusive regional history.