Back when California was a province of Mexico, much of the East Bay belonged to two Spanish land grant families, the Estudillos and the Peraltas. Now, about 700,000 people and five cities — including San Leandro — sprawl across the East Bay grasslands where the Estudillos and Peraltas raised cattle amidst grizzly bears and elk.
At the end of the war between Mexico and the United States, California became an American territory. The inevitable Americanization of Spanish California hit warp speed when gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill and tens of thousands of Americans immigrated to the new territory to seek their fortune.
The Californios, the Spanish who lived in Mexican California, wove their own tragedies and triumphs into the fabric of the new territory that would soon become an American state.
San Leandro’s historic house museum, the , though built after the American town of San Leandro took root in the 1850s, is a beautiful reminder of those first Spanish families. Three widows — two daughters and a granddaughter of ranchero Ygnacio Peralta — lived and died in the Casa Peralta in the early 20th century. All three Spanish women married American men.
The last of the three women, Herminia Peralta Dargie, moved into the grand old home in 1926. Tragedy struck her life repeatedly. She was orphaned as a child (and raised by one of her aunts who would later live in the Casa Peralta).
Her only daughter died at age 5; her only son passed away at age 21. Her husband, the Oakland Tribune publisher William Dargie, died soon after their son’s death.
Despite the tragedies in her life, the wealthy widow seemed determined to wrest some happiness for herself. She is frequently mentioned in social columns both locally and in the New York Times.
She loved to travel. On one of her visits to Spain, where she was welcomed at court, she met Captain Antonio Rodriguez Martín, a former member of the Royal Engineer Corps who was the same age as her deceased son.
When her aunt died in 1926, Herminia acquired the Casa Peralta and asked Captain Martín to come to California to remodel it in the style of a grand Spanish villa. He first remodeled the water tower into an apartment for himself and connected it to the house. (There has been speculation about the exact nature of the relationship between Mrs. Dargie and the “dashing, handsome” Capt. Martín ever since.)
He surrounded the garden with a tall wall, built arches and balconies onto the home, and placed old adobe bricks, from the first Peralta homestead in the East Bay, on display in the front wall of the Casa Peralta.
He imported tiles from Toledo, Spain, to build a fountain and decorate the courtyard and fireplaces. These beautiful, vividly colored tiles depict the story of Don Quixote.
Was Mrs. Dargie, like the quixotic knight, clinging to the lost traditions of the past?
Herminia Peralta Dargie died in 1929; her devoted Capt. Martín was at her bedside.
The Casa Peralta, Herminia’s legacy, embodies the fusion of Spanish and American California in a beautiful old home and tranquil garden in downtown San Leandro.
The stories of the three Spanish women who lived there are the stories of how descendants of the Peraltas made new lives in the American town of San Leandro, marrying American men while retaining Spanish customs; becoming in later generations comfortable in the American social milieu while building reminders of the past into their home.
The San Leandro Historical Society is holding the 27th annual Day at the Casa fundraiser at the Casa Peralta on Sunday, July 31. There will be lunch, ballet folklórico and a raffle and auction.
If you are interested in tickets or more information about the Historical Society’s fundraiser, call 510-910-3215 or email email@example.com.