The Founder of the City of Martinez: Col. William Smith

(This article was orignally published online in the Martinez, CA Patch, January 4, 2012, )

Editor’s Note: Then City Historian Charlene Perry wrote this column for a June, 1981 edition of the Martinez News-Gazette. It is reprinted here courtesy of the Martinez Historical Society.

Last week a young man came in to the Martinez Museum with a question. He had noticed that on several corners along Alhambra Avenue, the name "Smith" was incised. He wondered why, and it occurred to me that others might also wonder about it.

It was in 1849 that the heirs of Don Ygnacio Martinez, through their agent and brother-in-law, Col. William M. Smith, commissioned Thomas A. Brown to survey for a city on the west bank of El Hambre Creek*, an area that encompassed some 120 acres that extended to what is now G Street.

Colonel Smith had joined the Martinez family in 1848, marrying Susana, young widow of Capt. William S. Hinkley, ship-owner and member of the business community of Yerba Buena*, who had been killed in a fall from a horse two years earlier.

Though Smith had come from a respected family of Savannah, GA, his reputation in Yerba Buena was rather unsavory. He was known as a crack pistol shot, a bareback rider and minstrel black-face performer, a hard drinker and an opportunist.

Evidently deciding to turn over a new leaf, his first job, with William A. Leidesdorff, collecting hides and tallow for shipping, must have prospered, for within two years he was in business for himself with Frank Ward, for whom our Ward Street is named, and was referred to as a leading citizen by William Heath Davis, noted historian of California.

Following their marriage in 1848, Dona Susana and Smith moved to Rancho el Pinole, probably following the death of Don Ygnacio, which made her an heir to the 17,000-plus acre rancho, along with 10 brothers and sisters.

By now, summer of 1848, the gold rush was on. Traffic through the Martinez property that summer, to ferry across the Strait on Dr. Robert Semple’s flat-bottomed boat to Benicia and beyond, was tremendous. Accounts tell of up to 200 wagons waiting for transport. This prompted Smith to convince the family that a city should be established. To this end he was given permission to hire Brown, son of pioneer Elam Brown, who two years earlier had settled in Lafayette.

Blocks were laid out, consisting of lots 50 by 100 feet, and sales took off immediately. One deed at least calls for a building to be erected within six months. At any rate, building began, with the first structure a trading post at what is now Ward and Berrellesa Streets.

It was only natural that the main street leading in to the new town from both San Pablo and San Jose, and terminating at the water’s edge, should be named for the man who began all this activity. Smith Street it was, and though there is mention in a newspaper as early as 1893 that the street name should be changed to Alhambra, it wasn’t until 1924 that the change was actually made.

Smith, who had so prospered in Yerba Buena, who had changed from a ne’er –do-well to a respected man of property, who worked so hard to create a metropolis for the Martinez family, who memorialized many members of his wife’s family by naming streets after them, found himself in a business deal that went awry. Over extended financially, in a fit of depression at age 39, he put a bullet through his head.

Only the name "Smith" on a couple of concrete curbs serves to remind us today that the city’s founder ever existed. He lies buried in a now unmarked grave at Alhambra Cemetery*.

Interestingly enough, when his widow, the lovely Susana who later married a French Trader, Benoit Vasero Merle, passed away in 1881, she left some 109 city blocks to her heirs, all a part of her inheritance so many years earlier.

It seems she learned her financial lessons far better than did her ill-starred second husband. Susana Street* is named for her, and it is an indication of her value to Smith. Susana Street came after Howard (now Marina Vista), Ruden (now Main), Ward, Green, Thompson and Mellus – all (named after) San Francisco business associates of Martinez’ forgotten founder, Col. William M. Smith.

--Charlene Perry, June 1981

Answers to possible questions:

  • Alhambra Creek was originally named Arroyo del Hambre (Stream of Hunger) according to Bill Mero’s recent book of the origins of place names in Contra Costa County. Some have said that the name came from the experience of Spanish soldiers on an exploration trip out of the San Francisco Presidio in the early days of the settlement. According to Mero the name "Hambre" was probably given to the creek by hungry Mexican soldiers chasing a band of Indian raiders. The name "Canada De Hambre" (Valley of Hunger) was placed on the valley the stream flowed through. In the late 19th century, Dr. John Strentzel’s wife, Louisiana, who lived in the middle of the Alhambra Valley’s thriving orchards planted by her husband thought naming the creek and its valley Alhambra after the lovely palace in Spain described in Washington Irving’s book was much more appropriate for such a beautiful and prosperous agricultural area. Source: William Mero: Shadows on the Hills, Liberty Hills Publishing, Concord, CA, pp. 2-3. On sale at the Contra Costa History Center, 724 Escobar St. Martinez, CA 94553.
  • Yerba Buena was the name of an outpost of shacks on the peninsula of San Francisco separate from the Presidio that Samuel Brannon arranged in 1846 to be designated part of the United States. In 1848 when he shouted the news of the gold discovery, the ensuing Gold Rush caused the change of the town’s name to that of the Bay it was next to.
  • According to Martinez Cemetery Commission information, at the time of Col. Smith’s death in 1854, suicide was considered a disgrace meriting no honors on burial. In the 1980s during the restoration of Alhambra Pioneer Cemetery in which Smith was one of the first to be interred on property bought for the purpose from his sister-in-law, Juana Estudillo, the Commission erected a monument in his honor as founder of the first town in Contra Costa County. Ironically, it was a dispute over a financial deal between Smith and members of the Martinez family that led to his suicide.
  • Susana Street runs east from the City Hall Plaza which was developed in 1976 in honor of the city’s centennial and the nation’s bicentennial to Grandview on the western border of the Shell Oil refinery. Susana Park is a popular community gathering place just west of the Martinez Unified District administration headquarters. Henrietta Street on which the City Hall is located is also named for a Martinez daughter while sons-in-law Castro, Estudillo, Richardson and Berrellesa are also memorialized on north/south streets on the western side of the valley.
Editor’s Note: Comments are welcome as well as any questions you have or topics you would like to know more about.

Harriett Burt
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