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February 6, 2007 > A historical glimpse of Milpitas

A historical glimpse of Milpitas

By Karen Werkheiser Kolander

Home to a large population of Tamyan Ohlone Indians, the temperate climate, clean, fresh waterways and abundant wildlife of the Milpitas area favored these hunter-gatherers. Tulles, used for housing, canoes, watertight baskets and clothing, were plentiful in the marshes. Plentiful varieties of fish and other seafood and grizzly bear were still in the area. The foothills were full of natural orchards of oaks providing acorns, a staple food that required no farming. (Tamyan Ohlone didn't practice agriculture until the Spanish arrived in the area.) Acorns were gathered, crushed and made into a mush. Indian bedrock mortar sites dating back to approximately 1600 BCE can be found in the Milpitas foothills.

Remnants of shell mounds have also been found throughout Milpitas. Some consider these mounds a result of ceremonies that marked an anniversary of the death of a loved one. Relatives and friends of the deceased gathered for feasts leaving behind layers of bone and bay shellfish.

The 1776 De Anza expedition introduced Europeans to the area and soon Father Junipero Serra began founding missions. Father Fermin Lasuen founded Fremont's Mission San Jose, the 14th mission, in June of 1797. Ohlone Indians were used as labor and many converted to Christianity. Jose Loreto Higuera, a soldier of the expedition, was awarded a land grant by the last Spanish governor of Alta California in 1821. The 4,394 acre area was named Rancho Tularcitos, meaning "place of the little tulle thickets". Covering most of the northern to central area of present-day Milpitas, an adobe building remains in the small Higuera Adobe Park off North Park Victoria Drive in Wessex Court.

In the 1860s, a second story was added by Clemente Columbet who tried to entice people to his resort, without much success. It later became a bunkhouse for workers on Henry Curtner's ranch.

In time, the adobe deteriorated and in the 1950s, the second story was removed and the adobe was protected by a new surrounding structure built by Curtner's granddaughter, Marion Weller who gave the adobe and adjoining land to the city of Milpitas in 1970. Portions of the original adobe ruins can be seen through Plexiglas windows cut into the structure that encloses the original crumbling building. The fig, pepper and olive trees in the area are believed to have been planted by Jose Higuera in the 1830s.

Stretching from the northern border of Milpitas into Fremont, Rancho Agua Caliente, Spanish for "hot water", was granted to Jose Higuera's son, Fulgencio Francisco Higuera, in 1839. Much of the 9,564 acres were originally land taken from Mission San Jose property by the Mexican government.

The central to southern portion of Milpitas - 4,457 acres - were part of Rancho Milpitas, roughly translated as "little cornfields", or "place where corn grows." This lands was granted to Jose Maria de Jesus Alviso in 1835. Records show that Nicholas Berryessa had an older claim, giving him the parcel in May of 1834, but in the end, Jose Alviso was awarded the land. Both were prominent citizens, although Berryessa went insane and died in 1863, a broken-hearted man. All attempts to regain possession of the land by his heirs were denied. Jose built a three-room adobe house, (adding a second story in 1856, just prior to his death), that still stands at the end of Alviso Adobe Court, near the intersection of Calaveras Road and Piedmont Road.

The hacienda stayed in the family until it was acquired by the Cuziz family around 1918 who planted orchards of fruit trees. They sold some of the land but lived in the adobe until it became city property in 1996, making it one of the oldest continuously inhabited adobe homes in California. It is now on the National Register of Historic Places. The city has plans to complete restoration of the adobe, which is in bad shape due to age and earthquake damage, and eventually turn the site into a historic park. The Milpitas Historical Society has been endowed with money to help with the restoration after geological and environmental studies are completed.

Our little town, once commonly known as Penitencia for the little creek that runs through it, was officially named by postal clerk Joseph Weller in the 1880s. He selected the name in honor of Jose Alviso's property, rejecting Penitencia since it sounded too much like "penitentiary."

For more information about Milpitas History, you are invited to attend a meeting of The Milpitas Historical Society at the Milpitas Community Library, Josephine Guerrero Room, on the second Wednesday of the month, at 7:00 p.m.

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