Back on the streets of Martinez…
By Harriett Burt
There have been a number of positive comments about the series on downtown street names written over 30 years ago by City Historian Charlene Perry and updated and expanded for this series. But recently, one friend stopped this writer the middle of Estudillo Street (named after one of William Smith’s brothers-in-law as we all now know) to compliment me on the series followed immediately by “are you going to do Soto Street?” Not surprisingly, that’s the street where she lives. Fortunately, I could answer “yes” immediately.
But I do want to remind everyone that this is really Charlene Perry’s series and not mine. Although Charlene left us over ten years ago, her legacy is all the research she did that fosters the greater knowledge and appreciation we all have for our town’s history whether we were born here or not. She also left, along with other townspeople of the 1970s and since, the legacy of the Martinez Historical Society, the museum, the website, the Oral History Project and so much else including the MHS newsletter, the Our Town and the Underground Echoes series in the News-Gazette, the Library programs, the support of the annual Historic Home Tour and a burgeoning growth of traffic on the MHS Facebook page (just a partial list of MHS activities and programs).
This week features a follow-up on downtown street names from Charlene Perry and, of course, the promised Soto Street. Some Information about that name comes from “Shadows on the Hills”, a book of place names in Contra Costa County compiled by William Mero, a long-time volunteer at the Contra Costa County Historical Society. The rest comes from Charlene Perry’s second book, “Martinez: A Handbook of Houses and History”.
Soto Street, two blocks south of Brown, could be named after a descendant of Ignacio de Soto who was born in Sinaloa, Mexico in 1740 and who joined the De Anza expedition that opened up California in 1776. According to Mero, The Sotos were prominent Californios, enough to have at least three streets named after them in Contra Costa County, two in San Ramon and one in Martinez. It is not clear but seems possible, that a descendant of Ignacio, Albelardo Juan de Soto (1858-1916), described by Mero as ‘important politically’ as the County Auditor for many years until 1907 and an assistant district attorney and county tax appraiser until his death in 1916, is remembered with this street name just south of Brown and Allen Streets.
However, Teodora Soto, a widow and a tough cookie when it came to property, challenged the ownership of 13,000 acres in the Welch and Martinez grants in 1842. It took 15 years to be settled in her favor. That caused a major problem for those who had bought land in the 1850s from the then southern boundary of the city to Alhambra Valley. Senora Soto, Perry continues, “issued eviction notices to scores of families who were unable to raise funds to re-buy their holdings. Others simply paid what she asked or found new land to buy.” She built an adobe for herself on the southern edge of her windfall land acquisition, near what is now Forest Hills.
At some point during the 15 years in court, the widow is thought to have lived in a skin-covered shelter along Alhambra Creek. The precise location is not mentioned in Perry’s “Martinez: A Handbook of Houses and History” but Soto Street does end at Alhambra Creek so possibly that’s where the name came from. Interesting thought but there is probably no way to prove it as the City has apparently never kept records of why a street is named what it is with the obvious exception of the Mayors’ streets, Marina Vista (formerly Howard) and Alhambra Avenue. Albelardo de Soto built a house for himself far from Soto Street at 1126 Court Street at Henrietta near the school district offices. It still stands and is privately owned after having been a nunnery for a time in the 1930s and a rather rundown rental for a number of years. It is quite a walk from Soto Street. Although, he and his family may have lived on Soto Street before moving ‘uptown’ in 1907. At that time, the first Alhambra Union High School was just a block south.
After this story went to press, however, the true origin of the Soto Street name came to light when a local resident, a great-granddaughter of the actual person after whom the street was named stepped forward. The street was actually named after her great grandfather, Frank Silva Soto, a Portuguese man from the Azores who came to Contra Costa in the 1870s, worked hard and saved enough to buy land in the then southern part of the new town of Martinez. That story will appear in the next “Our Town”.
Another interesting story about early Martinez streets concerns Green Street, one of the three west to east through-streets in the downtown. Charlene Perry discovered the story in a book written almost 40 years ago by Gwen Bristow. “Golden Dreams” is a true account of several pioneer parties crossing the plains, the desert and the mountains to California in the 1840s while the state still was part of Mexico.
“One item we found interesting,” Perry notes, “is that our own Green Street is named for Talbot H. Green, a business acquaintance of Col. William M. Smith, founder of our city, who was an embezzler.
“Smith, who named many of the east to west streets in honor of his businessmen friends in San Francisco (hoping to inveigle them into buying some of the lots he had for sale in 1849), couldn't have known that his well-respected friend had left Philadelphia carrying a pack of gold and silver he had purloined from his bank employer.
“This was in 1841 and Green had a most prosperous career in San Francisco until 1851 when, with the influx of easterners, many from Pennsylvania, he became uneasy with the thought that he could be recognized. He decided that flight was to his advantage and he remained a fugitive, never to return to California. Green’s real name was Paul Geddes.
“Another fact we discovered in this book was that Elam Brown, the second American citizen of record to locate in Contra Costa County after Dr. John Marsh, was already excited about California as early as 1840 (before the discovery of gold), when many farmers were looking west to the land of agricultural wealth.
“John Bidwell, one of our state’s best known pioneers, was a boarder at the home of Elam Brown in Missouri in 1840 while he taught school and organized the Western Emigration Society which was to be the first to break a new trail over the Sierras into California.
“Elam Brown encouraged Bidwell, even to supplying a map that, combined with other maps was no more accurate beyond the jumping off place into the Oregon territory. He then sent the pioneering party off on an adventure that was very nearly their last.
“Bidwell, of course, survived to become nationally renowned as an authority on California, (and founder of the city of Chico) while six years later, Elam Brown and his extensive family joined a wagon train which crossed the Sierras just before the Donner Party. Their trip is recorded in Slocum’s 1882 “History of Contra Costa County”. “
Editor’s note: Elam Brown is considered the founder of Lafayette. His son Thomas, surveyed both the Martinez land grant portion and the Welch land grant portion of Martinez with the assistance of his brother, Warren. Both held various offices in early Contra Costa County with Thomas becoming the county’s first Superior Court judge when that system was established by the State of California in the 1870s. The Brown family has a crypt in the Alhambra Cemetery.
Martinez Historical Society
1005 Escobar Street - Martinez, CA 94553 (925) 228-8160