In 19th century California, some California Indians sought to recover their native lands by requesting grants from the Mexican government. We visit two historic sites that honor native ranchers.
When Mexican officials ordered the dismantling of the mission system in Alta California (secularization), they had to decide what to do with the thousands of acres of property from each mission. The original idea behind the missions was that the land continued to belong to the native people. Once the missions had exhausted their usefulness, the Indians were to continue to own the land.
Nevertheless, indigenous people received only a small part of these lands. Instead, many natives wound up seeking jobs in towns and on ranches, using the skills they learned in the missions to make a living.
Some Indians did, however, obtain grants to portions of their ancestral lands, a number of them in the San Francisco Bay Area. I recently had the chance to visit two places that commemorate native people who owned ranches during the Mexican era. The first is the Roberto – Suñol Adobe in San José, and the second is Olompali State Historical Park in Novato.
The Roberto – Suñol Adobe
The Roberto – Suñol Adobe is nestled in the heart of San José’s Willow Glen neighborhood. It is named for Roberto Belarmino, an Indian from Mission Santa Clara, and for Antonio Maria Suñol, a Spaniard who settled in San José during the mission period. Both men owned the property at different times.
Roberto Belarmino was a member of the Tamien (or Tamyen) people, the local branch of the Ohlone/Costanoans in the Santa Clara Valley. For a period of time, Roberto had been a cook at Mission Santa Clara. In 1836 Roberto built an adobe house, and in 1840 petitioned for a grant of the surrounding land. He received approximately 2,000 acres from Governor Juan Bautista Alvarado. Governor Manuel Micheltorena confirmed the grant four years later.
Roberto eventually sold his adobe and property to Antonio Suñol, and later it passed on to different owners. Roberto’s original adobe, along with the house Antonio Suñol built, has been restored and cared for, and today it is a museum open to visitors. The Roberto-Suñol Adobe site is maintained by the California Pioneers of Santa Clara County, a group of people dedicated to honoring the early pioneers of the area. When you visit the adobe, docents of the California Pioneers can tell you all about it and the efforts they put into restoring the site. There are excellent displays throughout the museum, providing information about Roberto, his times, and thehouse that grew up next to the adobe.
Olompali State Historic Park
Olompali State Park lies just north of San Francisco, in Marin County. It is located in a beautiful rural setting, on the site of an ancient Coast Miwok village, named Olompali. Olompali was the home of Camilo Ynitia, a leader of the Coast Miwok Indians.
Like Roberto Belarmino, Camilo requested and received a land grant around 8,000 acres from the Mexican government, which was confirmed in 1843. Camilo was an associate of General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, who had a great deal of influence in the areas north of the San Francisco Bay. It seems Vallejo was the one who encouraged Camilo to request the grant. Camilo also built an adobe home on the site, portions of which still stand, protected within a wooden building. According to the interpretive displays, Camilo’s descendants still live in the area and are proud of their Miwok ancestry.
Like the Roberto-Suñol adobe, on the site of the Ynitia adobe there is also a larger house that was built later and which passed through several owners before becoming a public trust. Up the hill there is also a reconstructed Miwok village that you can visit.
While the similarities between the two places are obvious, the differences are also notable. Roberto Belarmino’s adobe has been lovingly restored, and you can go inside it and get an idea of how Roberto lived. Camilo Ynitia’s adobe is in a state of disrepair, although a wooden structure has been built around it to preserve it from the worst effects of the North Bay weather. Furthermore, the outdoor signage that accompanies and explains the Olompali site and has suffered the effects of the weather, which makes it difficult to read.
This is not surprising, since in recent years, the California State Parks have seen drastic cuts to their budgets and their personnel are stretched thin. As a former State Park employee, it is sometimes disheartening to see, since so many of the cultural resources of California are under the care of the State Parks and so many parks staff members are passionate about taking care of them.
There is a non-profit group known The Olompali People, that helps to support Olompali State Historic Park. According to their website, the State of California hopes to create a plan to manage the archaeological resources at the park, which is very rich in Miwok and other historical artifacts. Let’s hope this can happen.
Why Not Help Out?
Unique places like the Roberto – Suñol Adobe and Olompali tell an important story about the history of native peoples in Alta California. They also tell us about how they lived through the difficult time after the secularization of the missions. And they help connect that story with the present, by providing visitors the details of descendants and subsequent owners of these sites.
If you are interested in keeping these places alive, why not think about joining an organization like the California Pioneers of Santa Clara County or the Olompali People? I am sure they could use your help.
How to get there:
Roberto – Suñol Adobe (click on the marker for directions)
The adobe is the Willow Glen district of San José, right off of Highway 280.
Olompali State Historic Park (click on the marker for directions)
The park is in Novato, California, close to Highway 101.