History: William Heath Davis, Tragic Founder Of San Leandro

Our last San Leandro Historical Society Time Capsule followed the adventurer's early years in Mexican California and his marriage to Maria Estudillo. Today, the woes that led to the founding of San Leandro and his heartbreaking demise.

(Editor's note: In January, the San Leandro Historical Society Time Capsule followed the : his adventures in Mexican California, his marriage to Maria Estudillo and the fortunes he gained and lost. This installment focuses on his role in founding San Leandro and the tragedies of his later years.)

After his failure in founding American San Diego,  was only 29 when he and moved to San Leandro to live with her parents (Rancho San Leandro land-grant owners José Joaquín and Juana Estudillo). Rebuilding his fortune would prove to be elusive. The world had shifted under his feet. California was now an American state, and the leisurely world of the hide-and-tallow trade and the good-old-boys network of the Spanish Californio land-grant elite was disappearing. 

Joaquín Estudillo invited his son-in-law to join him in the management of Rancho San Leandro. An American voice would be helpful in the disputes with squatters and his neighbor Castro over the boundaries of their ranchos, and the aging Joaquín could use the young man’s help. Joaquín died not long after the Davises moved to San Leandro, and Davis became the overseer of the large estate.

William and María and their growing family lived with Juana in the Estudillo mansion, located where the rectory is today. This fourteen-room, two-story structure was flanked by a shady garden with fruit trees and shrubbery. Bottles of champagne were brought up from its subterranean wine cellar for the Estudillo's and Davis’s lavish social events. Piano lessons for the children, clothes from New York for María, fine cigars – despite the fortune lost in San Diego, the Davises were living the good life in San Leandro. 


The treaty that ended the Mexican-American War provided that Spanish and Mexican land grants would be honored. But the U.S. Congress passed an act that required all holders of land grants to present their title for confirmation before the Board of California Land Commissioners, placing the burden of proof of title on landholders.

Long court battles (sometimes decades of legal wrangling) to prove their claims eroded the wealth and land holdings of the Californios (the Spanish settlers of California)Squatters took advantage of the confusion, settling on rancho lands, often stealing cattle, and threatening violence when confronted.

In his memoirs, Davis wrote that his neighbors, the , “found squatters on their rancho killing and freighting cattle almost nightly. Vicente Peralta once stumbled upon squatters loading some of his steers into their boats and was so outnumbered that he had to flee for his life. In a matter of months, as much as $100,000 worth of Peralta cattle had been stolen.”

Law enforcement in the new territory and then state of California was weak and poorly organized at first, and Davis found it necessary for several years to keep a gun strapped around his waist because of squatter violence.

In the early 1850s, there were so many squatter tents and shacks along San Lorenzo Creek, in today’s southern San Leandro and northern San Lorenzo areas, that the area was called Squatterville. (Some of those squatters, by the way, became San Leandro pioneers and leading citizens.)

One squatter, Jacob Harlan, asserted that an area in dispute between the Castros and the Estudillos belonged to neither. When Davis ordered him to cease building a shack and to leave the site, Harlan warned “that it would be unsafe for him to meddle with the squatters.”

Davis yielded, and even hired Harlan and paid him $1,800 for plowing 200 acres for the Estudillos. In a further outrage, the squatters built a fence preventing the Estudillo cattle from reaching water in the creek, and when Davis tore down several squatter shacks, he received a court summons to answer for his audacity. Over $200,000 was spent in court costs to protect Estudillo land titles. 

Squatter Resolution And A New Town

Davis’s lawyers hit upon a plan to bring the squatters to terms. By deeding an interest in Rancho San Leandro to a Frenchman, their case fell within the jurisdiction of the United States Circuit Court rather than the local court dominated by squatters. The judge rendered a verdict favorable to the new plaintiff, and thus to the Estudillos.

The Estudillos and the squatters were then able to reach a compromise that allowed the squatters to buy land. Still, the years of wrangling with squatters were ruinous, and the land sales only brought temporary relief.  

Meanwhile, an election in 1854 to move the Alameda County seat from Alvarado gave Davis the opportunity to try again to found a new town. He and his brother-in-law John Ward rode up and down the county lobbying for San Leandro as the new county seat. They convinced Doña Juana to deed 200 acres of land for a courthouse and other civic amenities. San Leandro won the county seat, an honor San Leandro would hold until 1873. 

Davis and John Ward built some frame stores and an elegant hotel, called the , along the old  El Camino Real (today’s East 14th Street). This area would become San Leandro Plaza and the heart of the new town. It was not the grand scale of his San Diego venture, but it was successful. San Leandro, with bay access, water from two creeks, and fertile fields, blossomed as the new government center in the middle of Alameda County.  

Dispute Between Davis And Doña Juana

The price of beef remained high for almost a decade after the Gold Rush, helping to keep the Estudillos and Davises afloat. But California’s rancho economy had been caught in a web of rising costs, diminished income, and heightened competition, and the squatters and drought delivered a crushing blow to the rancheros.

In 1857, Davis was forced to give up management of Rancho San Leandro and his gracious life at the Estudillo mansion because of a dispute with Doña Juana and one of her sons. He turned to ranching and farming some 200 acres of his wife’s portion of the family lands. He and María and their children lived on this farm at the foot of for about 15 years raising cattle, grain, and vegetables. 

But these were hard times for ranchers and farmers. Grasshoppers, years of drought and then floods in 1861-62, and a diminished demand for cattle brought the Davis finances to desperate straits.

Then the 1868 Hayward Fault earthquake struck. The San Leandro newspaper reported that the Davis house “was literally twisted in pieces and prostrated to the ground but the family escaped as if by a miracle. Mrs. Davis was caught in the ruins. She was badly but not dangerously wounded about the head and face…” 

The Davis Family In Oakland

The Davises sold their land and the family moved to Oakland. Soon after the move Willie, the youngest child, was killed by a fall from a horse. The Davises were caught in a downward spiral of personal and economic misery.

Davis cobbled together a living by selling insurance and real estate, appraising property, and translating documents. He became a recognized authority on land titles and often testified in cases involving boundaries of land-grant ranchos. Money occasionally came in from the remaining odd parcels of his once extensive real estate holdings, and their grown children Lilly and George joined their father in selling insurance, while two of the older children, Juanita and Anita, gave Spanish lessons.

Davis began to think about recording the events he had witnessed in the transformation of California from Mexican province to American state. Finally, he interested some newspaper publishers in his writings, and his articles began to appear in the Call, the Bulletin, and the Chronicle. At the same time, Hubert Howe Bancroft paid Davis to dictate his recollections. 

The first book and a start on the "Great Manuscript"

Davis decided to  publish his collected articles and recollections in a book, and his chronicle, Sixty Years in California, was published in 1889. Encouraged by its reception, he decided to begin a memoir, which he called his “Great Manuscript.” Although the family was still living in Oakland, Davis found a room in San Francisco, the city he had loved since his first visit as a boy, where he could gather his materials and concentrate on his writing.

As he aged, Davis seemed to grow increasingly bitter over the transformation of the old Spanish California he had loved.  He romanticized Californio society – all the women were beautiful and gracious, all the men tall, handsome, courteous, and brave.  He adopted some of the hateful and obnoxiously mistaken opinions of his time, including a belief that his difficulty was rooted in the Chinese “infiltration” of the labor market.  He joined Denis Kearney’s Workingmen’s Party whose slogan was “The Chinese must go.” 

Davis continued to write for years, amassing old photographs, letters, and abundant source materials. Unfortunately, he had a basic literary handicap – he couldn’t stop writing. When he finished, he had two volumes of 1,200 pages each. No one wanted to publish it.


María Estudillo Davis died of cancer in 1905. In 1906, the great earthquake and fire wreaked havoc in Davis’s beloved San Francisco. Marshals prevented Davis from entering his San Francisco building to retrieve his manuscript while the fire raged nearby. By the time Davis was allowed to return to his room, his manuscript had disappeared. No one has ever found out what happened to it.

Eighty-four year old Davis was devastated. One of his grandchildren remembers, “I can see him coming up the street and sinking down on the front steps in tears” because of his anguish over having just lost his “Great Manuscript.”

He attempted to rewrite his story, but it was a difficult task for an old man. Soon after, he moved across the bay to live with his married daughter Anita and her husband Edwin Clough in Hayward. His biographer notes that Davis would hobble around Hayward streets or sit on a bench under Chinese elms watching people pass by and children at play. On April 18, 1909, the 87-year-old William Heath Davis died.

A lasting legacy, "Seventy-Five Years In California"

Some time after his death, Davis’s children gathered together all the fragments of his manuscript and took them to  publisher John Howell of San Francisco. In 1929, Howell published Seventy-Five Years in California (345 pages, not 2,400!). It is a rare first-hand account of that remarkable period of history in the decades before and after the transformation of California from Mexican province to American state. To quote one review:

There are . . . accounts from which the historian builds his mature estimate . . . or to which the lover of old journals turns for picturesque detail or amusing incident. Certainly such a one will not neglect William Heath Davis, Seventy-Five Years in California, in which that son of Hawaiian-Yankee merchants tells of his early visits to California from the Venice of the Pacific, or of the open smuggling of the island traders, or of the many incidents of rancho life which he saw…

And so William Heath Davis lives on, in the stories he told of a time when elk and grizzlies, hide-and-tallow traders, and Spanish dons and doñas lived in beautiful California.

Would you like to read more about William Heath Davis? "An American in California: The Biography of William Heath Davis 1822-1909" by Andrew F. Rolle and "Seventy-Five Years in California" by William Heath Davis may be found at the San Leandro Public Library.

(Follow us on Twitter @sanleandropatch or like us at Facebook.com/sanleandropatch)

Chris Crow January 31, 2012 at 08:11 PM
Hi Cindy, Thanks for this article and pre-thank you for all future articles. As for Casa Peralta, yes the dahlia's are great (saw them), but that front area could also be wonderful, and right now it's just dirt. :) (Leadership class of 2011 - woot woot! best class ever - next to yours and Leah's of course)
Cindy Simons January 31, 2012 at 08:28 PM
Chris, you're right about that sad front garden. The entire Casa Peralta -- lovely hand-painted Don Quixote tiles and fountain (time and vandalism having taken a serious toll), interior, grounds -- could be extraordinarily beautiful with a massive infusion of cash. It's a San Leandro treasure.
Jamie February 01, 2012 at 05:23 AM
I have Cindy's book and it is awesome! Even saw her presentation at the library. Keep these articles coming. Always fun to learn and read about my hometown.


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