Archive for the ‘Other topics’ Category

Anza and the Fan

18 January 2021

After Pedro Fages came through the East Bay in 1770 and 1772, no one from New Spain appears to have visited the land on which Oakland sits until Juan Bautista de Anza led an exploring expedition here in the spring of 1776. Scholars seem to be quite sure of where the group went, but when I examine the record I find more and more room for interpretation and inference.

I’m not going to pretend I’ve examined the manuscripts or know 18th-century Spanish. I’ve accessed translations of those manuscripts and, well, here’s some of the questionable things and wiggle room I see in the record.

  • Apparently no one in the group, neither Anza nor the group’s diarist, Father Pedro Font, had been with Fages in the earlier visits, so they had only a slim written record to compare against the countryside they saw. We can’t rely on their interpretation, especially as it appears they took a different route than Fages.
  • We can’t rely on their directions. The East Bay from Berkeley south is persistently slanted 33 degrees west of north (thanks to the Hayward fault and the plate boundary of which it’s part) making it hard to eyeball true directions; magnetic north was apparently 12 degrees east of true north at the time (thanks, NOAA); and Font complained about the poor quality of his compass, so the explorers’ impressions are suspect. The men were not experienced sailors either, people I might trust, but army soldiers. Moreover, I wonder about the transcriptions. There seem to be too many instances of “northwest” (noroeste) and not enough of “northeast” (noreste) to fit the written route on modern maps. And the scholars, whom I trust on this topic, point out that very discrepancy between different copies of these documents, all of which were made by hand.
  • We can’t rely on their distances. No one had odometers. Font did his best, prefacing his notes with a discussion of the length of the Spanish league (approximately 2.6 miles, apparently), but even so the men were on horseback whereas Fages had been on foot. On the day they came through Oakland, Anza wrote down that they went “about ten leagues” while Font put it at “some fourteen leagues.” The day’s ride was long, from Hayward to Pinole, and the group was in a hurry, with their goal still ahead of them. (And just as Fages had complained in 1772, the Anza party was beset with mosquitoes all that day.)

Long story short, I think that whereas Fages mostly skirted the Fan as he sought (and failed to find) an easy level route through Oakland, Anza rode pretty straight through it.

Anza’s group set out from their camp on San Lorenzo Creek, in present-day Hayward, that morning at 7 and rode along the foot of the hills, with a jog upstream to get across the deep arroyo of San Leandro Creek, and then on to the edge of the Fan, the hill of Pleistocene gravel occupied by Evergreen Cemetery, in the lower right corner of this digital elevation model.

Where Fages turned left to stay on the flats, Anza headed the horses straight, toward a promising gap in the hills,

and into the Allendale flat. Almost fifty years later, Luís Maria Peralta’s family would put the first hacienda on their huge East Bay land grant there, just across Peralta Creek. “About two leagues” after crossing San Leandro Creek into Oakland territory, Font wrote that they “crossed a small arroyo without water and almost without trees,” which I think was Peralta Creek. “Then a little further on we ascended a hill which is on a straight line with the mainland and the plain which runs toward a very thick grove of oaks and live oaks on the banks of the estuary,” where he sketched the view toward the Golden Gate. That is this drawing, showing the Alameda peninsula flanked by San Leandro Bay on the left and the Estuary on the right:

In my interpretation, he would have been sitting on the ridge where Patten University sits today but higher up, maybe where Lincoln Avenue starts today. It also could have been down on Carrington hill; both ridges line up with the Alameda peninsula, which was a large encinal (live-oak grove) at the time.

“Then, descending the hill, we crossed another arroyo almost without trees and with some little pools of water which did not run. This appears to be the arroyo which Father Crespi called the Arroyo del Bosque and which empties into the extremity of one arm of the estuary.” He refers to Sausal Creek as described by the Fages party in 1772.

“We continued the journey over hills and plains, crossing two more arroyos with little water, deep beds, and a heavy growth of trees, the second one having more than the other, and both of them flowing into a bay which the arm of the estuary forms on this side.” These I interpret as Indian Gulch and Pleasant Valley Creeks, which clearly both drain into Lake Merritt, which was then a narrow inlet with wide mudflats. I don’t think the group went near the Lake but instead were higher up the valleys — they were on horseback, after all.

“Afterward we entered a plain in which we crossed two small arroyos without water.” Finally they had left the hills of the Fan and were back on the East Bay plain. That would make these two streams Temescal and Strawberry Creeks. “From this plain we clearly descried the mouth of the port, and when the point of the red cliff on the inside was in line with the outer point of the mouth, I observed the direction in which they ran, and saw that it was to the west with some declination to the south.” That matches the view of the Golden Gate as seen from Berkeley.

Oakland remained something of a distant place until the San Francisco and San Jose missions had captured or driven off the native people and established their own purposes on the territory: food and fodder cultivation in the Richmond area and cattle range in the flats from Fremont to East Oakland.

I want to note that Fages and Anza did not come as conquerors. Their assignment, at the dawn of Alta California, was to establish friendly relations with the natives. They exchanged gifts with every group they met: glass beads, generally; and a surprising number of native groups gave them duck decoys in addition to food. The situation did not last. The priests could not even perceive the fine-tuned ecosystem in which the Ohlone were the keystone species, only naked children of nature who must be trained in their own god’s image.

Pedro Fages and the Oakland Fan

4 January 2021

Oakland was visited soon after the missionaries of New Spain established their capital port city at Monterey, in 1769. The area’s unusual terrain gave them trouble, and part of the reason was the set of treeless hills of sand and gravel in its midsection that I call the Fan. The Fan interrupts the nice clean plain that otherwise extends the whole East Bay. Here’s how it looks in a digital elevation model and the geologic map. (As always, click to enlarge.)

The first Europeans to have stood where Oakland sits were four scouts under the leadership of Spanish-born army captain Pedro Fages, who came from Monterey to the East Bay in November of 1770 with a party of six soldiers and a muleteer. It was a short reconnaissance visit that Fages, a seasoned leader who earlier that year had been left in charge of Alta California, made on his own initiative.

In the first part of his trip, Fages pioneered the route inland from Monterey that is traced today by U.S. 101. He then made his way up the East Bay, making camp at San Lorenzo Creek in present-day Hayward, near where scouts from the Portola expedition had apparently stopped the previous year. Fages’ notes are vague; this is the entire record of the day:

November 28. — Four soldiers set out to explore the country, and at night returned saying that they had travelled about seven leagues to the north; that the country was very good and level; that they had climbed to the top of a hill but had not been able to see the end of an estuary which lay before them and which communicated with the one which lay at our feet; that they had seen many tracks of cloven hoofs which they thought were of buffalo; that close to the hills which they passed at the right there were some springs of water; and that they had crossed two small streams of it. They said, also, that they had seen the mouth of the estuary, which they thought to be the one which entered through the bay of the port of San Francisco. This I confirm through having seen it.

(Some explanation: The Spanish league is a little over 2-1/2 miles. The “estuary which lay before them” refers to San Pablo Bay and the one “at our feet” refers to San Francisco Bay. The “port of San Francisco” means Drakes Bay, the “bay of the port of San Francisco” is the bight between Point San Pedro and Point Reyes, and the “mouth of the estuary” is the Golden Gate.)

The men apparently hiked a total of about 16 miles, or 8 miles each way, as estimated by walking. If that whole route was “very good and level” ground, they must have stayed on the flats, and they must not have reached San Antonio Slough (present-day Lake Merritt), which they would have noted because it blocks the way pretty definitively. They were passing the hills overlooking San Leandro and the lower hills of the Fan “at the right” and crossed “two small streams.” These would have been San Leandro and Sausal Creeks, at their lowest flow early in the rainy season.

The hill they climbed, I think, was the hill of San Antonio Park: it was near where they must have turned back, and from its top can be glimpsed parts of San Pablo Bay and the gap of the Golden Gate, although the actual water passage is not visible. Fages “confirmed” the sighting because he could see the gap, though less clearly, from where he spent the day in Hayward. The presence of the Golden Gate was known from the 1734 voyage of Cabrera Bueno, but it had not yet been charted. Here’s the inferred route.

And on the Bache map of 1857 I show the hill’s location with an X. At that time it was a lookout station for the Brooklyn harbor; today it’s a park that still has good views.

And here’s the topography in detail.

Fages returned in the spring of 1772 to push farther north. This time it was a proper expedition that included 12 soldiers, a muleteer, an Indian guide and a priest, Juan Crespi, whose diary served as a formal record. Their primary goal was to fix the position of the Golden Gate in preparation for founding the San Francisco mission; secondarily they sought to find a way around San Pablo Bay. Oakland, with the hilly maze of the Fan and the inconvenient slough in its midst, was in the way.

Leaving the familiar campsite in Hayward on 26 March, they hiked four leagues. Crespi recorded that they crossed five creeks, “three of them medium-sized and two very large, their banks grown with alders, cottonwoods, live oaks, and some laurels.” By my count these would be San Leandro Creek (large), Arroyo Viejo (small), Lion Creek (small), Peralta Creek (small) and Sausal Creek (large).

At the end of four leagues we halted not very far from an arm of the estuary [Oakland Estuary/San Antonio Creek], which forms with another [San Leandro Bay] something of a peninsula [Alameda], where there is a grove of live oaks, which one can enter only from the mainland side. The camping place is about four leagues from the principal estuary or arm of the sea, which we made out from this place very well, and it looks like a sea to us.

I place the camp’s location near Foothill Boulevard west of Sausal Creek and not, as others have done, up near Mills College. Crespi observed, “The site is very suitable for a good settlement; for on account of the proximity of the forest they could provide themselves with timber and firewood. This place was called Arroyo del Bosque.”

The next day they set out early heading north-northwest, but then ran into the wide tidal channel of Lake Merritt: “Because of the estuary [San Antonio Slough] which surrounds the wood [Alameda] and penetrates into the land about four or five leagues until it heads in a mountain range, we were compelled to travel about a league and a half by some ranges of hills, which, although they are all treeless and grass-covered, annoyed us very much with their ascents and descents.”

This part of town is still up and down. The land seen by the Fages party differed from modern Oakland in that the creeks feeding Lake Merritt — Indian Gulch, Wildwood and Pleasant Valley Creeks — were not culverted and paved over with nice asphalt streets, but wide marshy tracts extending well away from the Lake, especially at this time of year. The detours were surely tedious. The mosquitoes, too, drove them all nuts.

After three leagues of trudging they came out on the other side of the Fan. My idea of their route was up Grand Avenue, over the ridge at Linda Avenue, across the valley of Glen Echo Creek and over the last low ridge of the Fan on 41st Street. At this point the party “entered an immense plain,” and they saw for the first time the Golden Gate itself.

They stopped for a while to observe it closely, and Crespi noted its features accurately. We can approximate this view today from the crest of 40th Street Way. They went on to the northwest that day for another league and into history, leaving the territory of Oakland on good terms. They didn’t return this way but instead walked up toward the Delta and looped back south through present-day Walnut Creek and Pleasanton. The next visitors to Oakland were the Anza party in 1776.

DEM images from the National Map site, route maps from

The armored shore

17 August 2020

Oakland’s shore is not what it used to be, not at all. The only hint of how it was is Arrowhead Marsh, part of the Martin Luther King Shoreline Park: a broad wetland laced with tidal creeks and vegetation for all gradations of water from fresh to salt.

And yet even Arrowhead Marsh is reputed to be an accident, formed when Anthony Chabot’s dam, under construction in the hills, had a failure that washed huge amounts of sediment down San Leandro Creek. To fans of nature this history, true or not, is scant comfort.

The geologic map (in this case the map of non-bedrock deposits in USGS Open-file Report 2006-1307) shows that every foot of Oakland’s original shore has been erased and built upon, with the small possible exception of the western tip of Adams Point.

Radio Beach at Oakland’s north edge, our nearest thing to a natural beach, exists on landfill.

Everything in the Oakland Harbor complex, from the Outer Harbor to the military grounds to the airport, is on landfill — “made land” as the old-timers called it.

Coast Guard Island is an artificial pile of Bay sediment, built with dredging spoils.

Alameda doubled its land area by dredging and piling. It’s all there on the map.

East Creek Point, the little peninsula of made land directly east of Alameda on the shore of San Leandro Bay, is a good place to contemplate this great undertaking, its aftermath and its possible futures.

Sitting here in 1852, when Oakland was first incorporated, this scene was a luxuriant marsh like that shown in the 1857 Bache map of San Antonio Creek where the Harbor is today. (The photos in this post are extra big, so click for the full experience.)

From here the view shows nothing of what once was, other than the water and the distant mountains across the Bay. The scene was a planar surface of green and blue, with added brown mudflats at low tide. There were no sharp lines between land and sea; none of the trees on the Corica Park golf course or anywhere else on Bay Farm Island; no brown hill covering a former landfill; no palms and wharves and homes — no ground at all — on the Alameda side; no riprap boulders on this side.

All the land in this view is “reclaimed” from marsh or built outright. Sandy mud was dug up from the Bay floor, crushed rock freighted down from quarries, sand and gravel carried in from excavations elsewhere, construction waste dumped on the shore. Trenches drained the marshes, removing the water to create low-lying land for development.

Even much of the water is artificial, in that it exists by virtue of dredging the Tidal Canal. From initial planning to dedication, the massive project took 28 years, every dollar intermittently funded by Congress. Here’s the canal’s east end from the High Street Bridge. An extension dug across San Leandro Bay is called Airport Channel.

Like the rest of the shore, the canal is heavily armored from end to end.

But what we have reclaimed, nature works to claim back. Around the bend from East Creek Point, the gentle Bay surf winnows out the finer grit and exposes the construction debris holding up the weedy shoreland.

The made land is wearing down, and rising sea level will accelerate the decay. There are two ways to deal with that, and both will be used as the century proceeds: more armoring, and returning the sharp shoreline to gentle transitional marsh. This restored marsh is a start. Similar projects are under way in Alameda, especially in the former military zones.

The “made water,” for its part, is filling up. The harbor needs regular dredging to stay open. That will never end as long as water flows and sediment is carried to the sea.

Finally, the made land is prone to its own problems. In this example near the west end of the High Street Bridge, the ground has settled around the water main in the last 80-plus years. Eventually something will need to be done.

It turns out that the Tidal Canal didn’t work as planned. It was supposed to allow the tide to flush through the Estuary and save the work of dredging the ship channels. That didn’t happen, but now we can’t fill it back up. What an alternate history we would have if it hadn’t been built.

Black geology matters

8 June 2020

Since my last post two weeks ago, the dreams of black Americans, deferred so often and so long, have once again exploded. I’m at risk for the Covid virus and not the type to join a march; still I have support to offer from this peculiar pulpit.

Geology is the whitest science in America. The geoscience community knows this, doesn’t like it, and keeps trying different ways to remedy it. I know this, I don’t like it, and I keep trying here in what I hope is a neutral way to expose you, whoever you are, to the geological wonders of this most excellent place. My hope is that adults will catch a spark of insight from me and pass it around, or nurture it within themselves, and bring this special side of our landscape into Oakland’s public affairs and popular culture for everyone’s benefit.

The special sauce of science is its neutral, trans-human point of view, in which new knowledge is born from the encounter between nature and the pure intellect. This viewpoint feels natural to folks like me, born in suburban white America to educated parents with good intentions. It’s an ideal that fosters a freedom to follow our curiosity wherever we wish.

My life since childhood has been one of dawning, then growing awareness that I grew up within a historical and political system with deep taproots in racism. Our inner lives are affected by how white people treat us. Duty calls upon white people in general to see this clearly and act accordingly. This post aims mainly at people like me.

That neutrality so tempting in science can be treacherous by masking us from ourselves. Inevitably, what we are affects what we see. To illustrate this point, I bring you the life of the notable geologist Joseph Le Conte. Well, a few years ago in this space I brought you the shallow, all-lives-matter version of his life. Since then I’ve looked more deeply and have more to say.

Joseph Le Conte was born on a Georgia plantation in 1823 and spent a cloistered, pampered childhood there. From the earliest days his mind sought the purity of nature and the comfort of social order. He passed the Civil War as a loyal Southerner in all respects. Le Conte first visited the Sierra Nevada in 1870, chaperoning a slapdash horseback expedition of Cal’s first undergraduates. In 1875 he published an edited version of his notes as “A Journal of Ramblings through the High Sierras of California.” (The Sierra Club reprinted it in 1900.) In the entry for 25 July, their fifth day on the road, comes this jarring passage:

Soon after leaving the plains, we stopped for water at a neat hut, where dwelt a real “old mammy,” surrounded by little darkies. On inquiry I found she was from Jackson County, Georgia, and formerly owned by a Mr. Strickland. She had come to California since the war. I was really glad to see the familiar old face, and hear the familiar low-country negro brogue; and she equally glad to see me. She evidently did not like California, and seemed to pine after the “auld country.”

That Le Conte saw fit to publish this vignette, deliberately and after reflection, says much about his and California’s deeply ingrained racism, but I want to note that it reveals the depth of his self-deception. This is the reminiscence of someone raised in “free plantation life” on the throne of white boyhood, but who never had to wield a whip on a human being or sign a human being’s bill of sale with his own hands (his share of the family’s property had an overseer).

By excusing the life he was born to on the basis of racialized Darwinism, he could wash his hands in pure intellectual water. It was only pure scientific truth and plain fact, he long argued, not a matter of malice or evil, that blacks were low and whites were high. And the lofty white intellects he prized most were in polite agreement (or mild, polite disagreement) with him. The key was that the men were articulate, mutually respectful and never raised their voices.

This man had a prominent role at UC Berkeley for thirty years, where he taught geology. He was named to the National Academy of Science in 1875. (“I might have been elected sooner,” he wrote in an autobiography, “but for the iron-clad oath of uninterrupted loyalty to the United States, which of course I could not take.”) He wrote textbooks and taught classes and all the while gave high-minded cover to the vicious forces of discrimination. Today UC Berkeley’s geoscience department is first-rate — I have no aspersions at all to cast on it — but Le Conte Hall still exists on the campus, housing the department of physics. (McCone Hall, home of the geology department, is named for a former director of the CIA.)

We didn’t raise a statue to Le Conte, but we have erected monuments with his name on them: a Sierran peak, a college building, a city street, a children’s school and so forth. Those things are fair game for discussion and action. We are not to blame for our history, but we are responsible for it.

To get back to the moral, the neutrality of science is only the promise, not the guarantee, of a benign worldview or a neutral career. It’s not fair of me to suggest otherwise. What do white geologists owe this moment? I say we need to offer more effective help to those who don’t enjoy our privileges, people who are minoritized. They have reasons not to see the world as a reasonable place. They have reason to suspect our science as part of white hegemony.

A petition for geoscientists (which I’ve signed) puts this part of the problem well: “Geoscience is intimately tied to fossil fuels, mining, environmental contamination, atmospheric pollution, water quality, natural hazards, parks and tourism, and climate change. Black, Indigenous, and Latinx People and other minoritized groups are disproportionately impacted by limited access to these resources, and the negative impacts of each of these.”

We also need to admit that the minoritized have real reasons to beware being out in the wild, poking at rocks and acting unusual. I’ve encountered people who challenged my presence, and I know it’s easier being white. The minoritized need our full support in visiting the outdoors freely, without fear.

Of course black folks are doing their own work, through organizations like Outdoor Afro (founded right here in Oakland), the National Association of Black Geoscientists, the American Association of Blacks in Energy and others. For its part, the Geological Society of America presents a prize each year, the Bromery Award, to worthy scientists from minoritized communities. Nearly every awardee mentions the special problems that nonwhite geologists experience.

But white folks need to open up, open up more, and do their part. For my part, I recognize that each of Oakland’s communities has its own idea of what the hills mean, what earthquakes mean, what the land around them means, who got the benefit of our natural resources and who did not. I’ve visited every bit of this town, including places some folks fear to go, and everywhere I’ve learned something about the variety of human and natural experiences Oakland contains. I want to listen harder, study deeper, avoid unintentional offense, spread knowledge and cheer, and help in whatever ways I can to set things right.