The following is a true account of the struggle of the Colma pioneers for the possession of the land they occupied and to which they had rightful title. The legal battle, which finally left them in undisputed title to their soil, was important, not only to them but to a large proportion of the land holders in the county.
This narrative is based upon a short historical account of Colma and the Colma Valley from the pen of Mr. Robert Sheldon Thornton, still residing at Colma, and fast verging upon his ninety-seventh year.
Mr. Thornton mentions the names of the earliest settlers who from 1853 to 1860 entered the government lands as homesteaders. Few of these men are still living, although the names of most of them are familiar to the older as well as the younger generations. Charles Clark, James S. Clark, John W. Locker, A. D. Willard, J. E. King, J. E. Clebey, A. J. Vanwinkle, Mary Dingman, I. G. Knowles. M. Hollingsworth, Franklin White, S. S. White, B. S. Green, Michael Comerford, Robert Patten, William Burley, Sr., Edward Robson, Hippolito Poleto, A. S. Easton, Jeremiah Smith, Herman Duncks. James Wood, John S. Colgrove, William T. Prince, John Cooper. Henry L. White, F. E. Pierce, Edward Burley, Jr., and R. S. Thornton. Those who settled upon private lands were Patriek Brooks, James Casey, Sr., Owen McMahorn, Patrick McMahorn and John Gardener.
From 1853 until 1859 the settlers upon these lands busied themselves in improving their homes, cultivating, fencing and building houses and barns, when suddenly one morning they were startled by the sight of surveyors upon their premises trampling their crops. The surveyors pretended that these lands belonged to the Laguna Merced Rancho, at that time an almost worthless waste.
The Government had given them patents to all these lands and they felt secure in their rights, yet there followed one of the most unjust litigations that has ever been known in the history of the State. The settlers of course, filed protests in writing to the General Land Office at Washington, D. C. against the encroachment on their lands, whereupon their opponents began suits of ejectment in the State Courts. This necessitated the organization of the Settlers’ into a club called the “North San Mateo Settlers’ Union,” for the purpose of defending their rights in the State Courts in the protection of their homes. The Club selected Mr. R. S. Thornton as their legal fighting man to prosecute the cases in the Federal and State Courts and endowed him with power of attorney to fight the cases, to the best of his ability and judgment, for the interest of all concerned. Mr. Thornton then entered into the hard task of fighting against rich capitalists, who had ejected him and his clients from their homes and merely wanted to steal their lands. He spent the principal part of his time for six years scouring the country for testimony, and attended strictly to the courts and land departments, going back and forth to Washington to look closely into all matters, so that the record should not be tampered with in the Supreme Court. The Attorney General warned him that it was war time in Washington and sometimes it has been known that slick thief writers have tampered with the record papers.
The decision of the State Supreme Court, which was rendered against the settlers, was a hard blow. The different members of the club then pledged themselves to fight it out legally first, but if not able to do so legally, to defend their rights regardless of the means employed and the consequences. They asked the court for an injunction to- stay State Supreme Court judgment until the Federal Court had determined the question of the encroachment of the surveys of the Laguna Merced Rancho on their lands.
When this injunction was denied, the settlers prepared for war, and at once secured through a friend, seventy-five Kentucky rifles, a four-pounder brass cannon, with grape and canister-shot and plenty of ball cartridges for the rifles. On Mr. Thornton’s 160-acre place they fortified a barn by piling the walls high with sacks of potatoes, and cut port-holes in the walls. A consultation with judge Crocket, their main attorney, decided them to surrender possession until the Federal Court had decided the cases.
As soon as their opponents discovered they had given up the fight, they sent the sheriff on June 6, 1863, supported by a band of hired roughs from San Francisco, with guns and bayonets, to take action against the settlers. They appeared early in the morning at Mr. Knowles’ house and ejected him and his family, leaving two men in possession with their guns for defense. The next day the Sheriff went to every settler’s house and left a gunman in possession.. The settlers were ordered to move out and leave their cultivated crops, which were about ready to be harvested. The value of these crops averaged $1,500 to each 160 acres of land.
There was Mr. Pierce and Mr. Van Winkle who had acknowledged some lease of the Deharros, who owned some interest in the ranch, whom the Sheriff concluded not to eject. Therefore, Mr. Pierce’s and Mr. Van Winkle’s places were opened to the ejected settlers for protection. Mr. Charles Clark who was not ejected, also furnished similar quarters on his place. Most of the settlers stopped near the outskirts of the land until the Federal Court had determined the cases. Mr. Knowles purchased the two acres of land which is now called Hillcrest, and built a cow barn and dwelling house which still stand on that high point.
All this time Mr. Thornton was pushing these cases in the United States District Court, and finally secured a decision by that Court in the settlers’ favor, that the survey encroaching on them was wrong, and ordered them to take the old survey of the ranch made in 1853. This decision left the settlers’ land outside of that survey. Soon after, David Mahoney, the man put forward by the capitalists, filed. affidavits of fraud, and it took about six months to rebut these charges. The court held there was no fraud proven, although reversing its first decision by altering the survey, so it took in most of their lands again. The judge announced, however, in the last words of his decision that it afforded him much satisfaction to feel that the decision was subject to a review by a higher tribunal, where any errors into which lie had fallen would be corrected. This decision was made on July 25, 1863.
Mr. Thornton immediately entered an appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States, and sailed. on the steamer Sonora for Washington on the 23rd of October, 1863, arriving in Washington November 19, 1863. He then fought the case’ through the Supreme Court and on the 15th day of December, 1865 had the satisfaction of obtaining a unanimous verdict rendered in favor of his clients and himself, thereby establishing their titles as good titles from the United States. He arrived back in California with the titles and the final decree of the Supreme Court on May 24, 1866. The owners then commenced taking possession of their homes which their opponents had occupied for three years without ever paying damages or rents for their lands.