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Simon M. Mezes

Simon Montserrate Mezes helped to establish Redwood City and was one of San Mateo County's most prominent citizens, yet we know very little about his personal history. He certainly possessed a shrewd and brilliant mind. He was educated in both Spanish and English, had some training in the law, and was an accomplished musician. He married Juliet Johnson of San Francisco and had three children.

Simon M. Mezes A manuscript written by a member of his family, asserts that he was a native of the Basque provinces of northern Spain and was always proud of his pure Spanish ancestry. The same source describes him has having "regular features, light chestnut hair, fair, fine skin," and "fiery, pleasing blue eyes."

Mezes arrived in California on February 22, 1850, at age 28, having moved to the U.S. from Puerto Rico where it is believed he had been president of a bank. He soon developed a large legal practice as counsel for claimants of Mexican land grants who were required to establish titles to their property under American law. He set up his home in Belmont near that of his law partner, Count Leonetto Cipriani, whose home later became the Ralston place.

Trustworthy lawyers like Mezes provided much needed services to Mexican land holders who needed to defend the title to their land from several threats. For years, people had been moving from the East Coast to the San Francisco Bay Area drawn at first by the gold rush and then by the growing opportunities offered by the shipping and lumber industries. If the U.S. government refused to recognize the titles of the Mexican land holders, then these squatters could claim the land for their own.

The question of who owned the land arose after the end of the Mexican-American war (1846-1848) when California became a U.S. territory and in 1851, the 31st state. The U.S. government became the legal authority to settle land disputes and Spanish-Mexican property owners were forced to defend the titles to their land before a U.S. Land Commission. The property owners did not always win their cases and were often the target of unethical lawyers who sought to take advantage of them.

Mezes' shrewdness was apparent from the start when he associated himself with the claimants to the largest land grant on the Peninsula, the Rancho de las Pulgas, owned under Mexican law by the widow and children of the late governor of California, Luís Argüello. The family was very much in need of an attorney and manager and Mezes became both.

Mezes successfully piloted the Pulgas title through the Land Commission and then on to approval by the United States Supreme Court. He succeeded in gaining the broadest interpretation of the land's boundaries. The rancho was surveyed by the United States Surveyor General, the courts approved it, and the patent was issued to the Argüellos and Mezes by the President of the United States. Their grant consisted of 35, 240 acres -- covering all of what is present-day Redwood City. Mezes also acquired one-fourth of this grant for himself, including the area we now call downtown Redwood City.

The Argüello's victory was a bitter defeat for the squatters who had been living on the land. They wanted to claim the land for their own and hoped the U.S. government would deny the Argüello's request for title. The squatters were further irritated when Mezes named the town Mezesville and advertised "lots for sale" in the San Francisco newspapers. He told the people already living on his property to pay for the lots they were occupying or to get off the land and allow others to buy (the standard price was $75).

In time, the squatters reluctantly accepted this situation, writing into their deeds such sour phrases as "the so-called town of Mezesville" or "according to the Mezesville map." However, they went on calling their town Redwood, or Redwood Landing, and when they got a post office in 1856, naming it Redwood City.

Mezes created the beginnings of an organized city by settling ownership disputes among the Argüellos and the squatters and by developing a proper legal method for the buying and selling of property. He was the first to subdivide the land. He ordered surveys made and designed the map that determined the streets as we know them today. Before his efforts, the settlement of squatters had been large and without shape or design.

His streets and property lines had to run through or around existing buildings, but they provided the first orderly way of identifying property. Although Redwood City has far outgrown Mezes' original tract, the streets in that central area are still about as he drew them, though now they have different names (with the single exception of Main Street). The peculiar dog-leg shape of some of the downtown streets is due to the fact that Mezes' business district needed to parallel the creek where the industrial life of the town was centered, while the residential area needed to parallel the County Road, now El Camino Real.

Mezes and the Argüellos set aside two blocks for public use. One, called California Square was designed for a park and is now occupied by the Hall of Justice. The other, at Warren and Standish streets, is still what Mezes planned it to be -- a neighborhood park. These blocks are believed to be the first property in California donated for public use and recreation. When San Mateo County needed land for a courthouse, Mr. Mezes offered to donate any block the county supervisors might select. The block chosen was on Broadway between Hamilton and Middlefield, where our courthouse is today.

Simon Montserrate Mezes died at his home in Belmont, December 6, 1884. Due to poor health and his preoccupation with business affairs, he had ceased to be a public figure for some time. The news of his death rated only an obscure item, "Another Pioneer Passes," in the San Mateo County Gazette. He was buried in Union Cemetery, in a lot he had purchased in 1859 at the time of the cemetery's founding .

(The source for this history was La Peninsula, Journal of the San Mateo County Historical Association, May 1967, vol. xiv, no. 2.)

 

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Photos provided by the Local History Collection at the Redwood City Public Library.
Copyright © 1999. Redwood City Public Library. All rights reserved.
Exhibit date: February 1998.