Blue Oak Ranch Reserve sits on the ancestral and unceded land of the Ohlone people and the neighboring Northern Valley Yokuts. This land continues to be of value to the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe, the Tamien Nation of Santa Clara County, and the Northern Valley Yokuts. It is important to understand that the Muwekma Ohlone, who trace their ancestry through the Missions Dolores, Santa Clara, and San Jose; and who were also members of the historic Federally Recognized Verona Band of Alameda County, have been petitioning the U.S. Government for recognition for more than 20 years. Nearly one-third of California’s 21 Spanish missions are located on native Ohlone lands. These extend from modern-day Carmel and Pinnacles National Monument north to San Francisco and Vallejo and across eight Ohlone language groups. The pre-colonization diversity of these communities and the high value of their land to Spanish, Mexican, and American colonization have significantly impacted the ability of the Muwekma Oholne to gain federal recognition. This is despite the fact that their tribe was never officially terminated, their genealogy is documented, and they have around 800 enrolled members.
The Ohlone of BORR spoke the Tamian language and were perhaps members of the Werwersen tribe. Prior to Spanish and American colonization, many tribes and languages persisted throughout the Bay Area and were connected through trade and alliances based on economic interests, territorial defense, and marriage and familial ties. The South Bay region transected several major linguistic boundaries (Tamien Ohlone, Northern Valley Yokuts, San Francisco Bay Ohlone, Patwin, Coast, Bay and Plains Miwok). Many of these groups practiced the Kuksu religion and the Tamien Ohlone and Bay Miwokan populations made up the southern reaches of the Kuksu interaction sphere in Northern California (Hedges, 2019). Whether or not these practices extended into the Mt. Hamilton area is not evident.
It is possible that there was a territorial separation between the Ohlone and Yokuts along ridges of BORR’s southern border, with the largest settlement of Yokuts located in Hall’s Valley and estimated to be up to 60 individuals (Ron Bricmont, pers. comm.). Rob Edwards (1984) first reported evidence of a large Ohlone village site in the large meadow south of where the Cedar Barn now stands. Further excavations were conducted by the UC Davis Archaeology Field School in 2015 with the support of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe. Named Chitchomini Arweh Wallaka-tka by the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe’s Language Committee (translated as Blue Oak Rancheria Site), olivella shell beads, flake stone tools, and ground stone tools were recovered along with human burial remains. At the request of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe, stable isotopic analysis was performed that dated the earliest individuals sampled to have lived about 500 years ago and the most recent to have lived about 200 years ago. These data cannot be extrapolated too broadly but the totality of evidence suggested that, within this period, the site was occupied year-round by Ohlone people who heavily utilized seeds and acorns here. Lasting evidence of habitation is present throughout the reserve, including midden sites and locations in which cupules were carved into the bedrock. Cupules are smaller and more shallow than bedrock mortars and are thought to have symbolic or religious meaning, rather than a utilitarian function. The orientation of cupule patterns as well as of trees (which would have been planted for this purpose) were in some cases used to demarcate celestial events pertaining to solstices, equinoxes, lunar phenomena, and asterisms (Ron Bricmont, pers. comm).
Following the establishment of the Alta California mission system in 1769 by Franciscan missionaries, many Native people were compelled to abandon their ancestral villages and live in mission settlements. Many Tamien-speaking Ohlone people became neophytes of Mission Santa Clara. Missionization was highly destructive to Native lifeways and, together with the ecological and economic disruptions caused by the expanding Spanish colonial empire, malnutrition, and the ensuing spread of European-introduced diseases including smallpox and measles, the Ohlone people suffered a major demographic collapse. The timeline and degree to which the Ohlone of this area were evicted and missionized are not clear. At least some people persisted and the last “full-blooded” Ohlone in the Mt. Hamilton area is reported to have died in Halls Valley in 1918 or 1919 (Ron Bricmont, pers. comm). Today, the Muwekma Ohlone have approximately 800 enrolled members and continue to seek recognition from the federal government.
According to Historian Ron Bricmont, the Yokuts tribe in Halls Valley were not missionized by Mission Santa Clara, in part because they were not on friendly terms with the neighboring Ohlone. For many years, the group was led by a missionized indigenous man named Pala who came up from Mission San Diego, and was assigned to the tribe by the missionaries at Santa Clara as their contact with the tribe. In 1818, the band was relocated to the territory of Mission San Diego. It is not known if Pala went with them since the date of his death is not known.
One reason for bringing these Yokuts to the south was to take advantage of both their labor and the language that they spoke in the Franciscan’s plan to build a second chain of missions in California. This chain of missions was to have run the length of the Central Valley, an area largely inhabited by Yokuts tribes. As a result of the secularization of the missions, this plan was never carried out, and the group remained in an asistencia of Mission San Diego called Santa Isabel.
These relocated Yokuts were known as the Santa Isabel people, a name which derives from the fact that what is now named Mount Hamilton, Mount Copernicus, and Mount Isabel was named Sierra de Santa Isabel by the missionaries at Santa Clara. The name went south with the Santa Isabel tribe, and was given to the new asistencia when it was established in 1818. What had been planned as the anchor mission of the Central Valley chain of missions remained an asistencia.
After Mexican Independence and the secularization of the missions in 1834, they and other so-called Mission Indians worked on newly established ranchos around the missions but they continued to be exploited and there was little improvement in their living conditions. Eventually, they would have lived on the Pala Indian Reservation that was established on this site by the U.S. Congress and that included the Mission Indians from the local ranchos and “such other Mission Indians as may not be provided with suitable lands elsewhere, as the Secretary of the Interior may see fit to locate thereon”. The modern Indians of the Pala Reservation are the Pala Band of Mission Indians who trace their origins to the Payómkawichum (Luiseño of the San Luis del Rey Mission) and Kuupangaxwichem (Cupeño) peoples.
On August 9, 1839, José de Jesús Bernal, a Mexican citizen and Spanish descendent of the de Anza Expedition, was granted Rancho Cañada de Pala by the Mexican government (Gudde, 1960). The Mexican system of land title, reaffirmed in American courts, disregarded most Native American land claims. The name of the grant was derived from the same Pala who led the Yokuts in Halls Valley (Ron Bricmont, pers. comm.). The word pala translates as “shovel” in Spanish but means “water” in many Native Californian dialects. This 15,714-acre land grant included present-day Blue Oak Ranch Reserve, most of what is now Joseph Grant County Park, and other smallholdings. Bernal built a small, thatch-roofed adobe house on the rancho in 1838, a year before receiving the land grant, and raising cattle and horses. His family lived on the land for many years, The United States claimed California from Mexico in 1846 and passed the Federal Land Act of 1851, which required all landowners to file claims or lose the rights to land grants deeded under the former Mexican government. Bernal pursued his claim but legal fees and court costs from fighting other settlers’ claims on the land plied up, eroding Bemal’s finances and drawing him into debt. After his death, his family sold parcels to pay legal fees and deeded a very large parcel to his attorney, Frederick Hall, to pay for processing his claim. Although Halls Valley is named for Hall, who was a prominent and prosperous lawyer in San Jose and the author of the first history of San Jose to be published, he never lived in the valley and didn’t own land there for long.
Bernal’s family won his claim to the property in 1868, well after he died, but the holdings had shrunk considerably in the process. Between 1850 and 1880, as many as six different families raised cattle and farmed the area now known as the Blue Oak Ranch Reserve. The foundation of the Guerraz family home is still visible near the Windmill Gate and the cabin built by Amos White, who purchased land from Bernal in 1859, still stands today. Santa Clara County built Mount Hamilton Road in 1876 to construct Lick Observatory.
Joseph D. Grant, son of a wealthy San Francisco merchant, began buying most of the land in the area, and by 1900 owned most of what had been the Rancho Cañada de Pala land grant, as well as other, contiguous lands. Grant used the property for grazing cattle and game hunting. He offered recreational use of the Pala Seca Cabin (which was located near the Sawtooth above Deer/Nile Creek) and the Amos White Cabin to friends such as Leland Stanford and Herbert Hoover. Hoover stayed at Grant Ranch for more than a month after his election loss to Franklin Roosevelt.
Joseph D. Grant died in 1942. In the years after his death, his heirs sold off about half of his land (Ron Bricmont, pers. comm.). When his last remaining heir (daughter Josephine Grant McCreery) died in 1972, she bequeathed what remained of the land to the Save the Redwoods League and the Menninger Foundation of Kansas. Santa Clara County purchased the land in 1975 and created Joseph D. Grant County Park. The park currently occupies 10,882 acres, contiguous with the southern boundary of BORR.
From about 1940 to 1960, the Reserve lands were held by a few families that raised livestock and lived off of subsistence farming. In the 1960s the lands were purchased by the MacDonald Land Company and consolidated into the current boundaries of the Blue Oak Ranch Reserve. MacDonald raised cattle until 1972 when the Rancho Pilon’s Ownership Group bought the land with plans to convert it to vineyards, complete with a reservoir system and hydroelectric power plant. Rancho Pilon’s plans were derailed by the property’s location on the Calaveras fault – some reservoirs had been planned to sit right on the fault – and by mitigation requirements to relocate proposed reservoirs that would have inundated archeological sites. In 1990, Rancho Pilon’s sold the land to the Blue Oak Trust.
Far too many cattle were on the property for the steepness of the slopes and the soil development. The Blue Oak Trust removed cattle except for one cow named Gramps who persisted until 1993. Gramps Pond is named in their honor.
In 2000, the Blue Oak Trust entered into a conservation easement agreement in partnership with The Nature Conservancy that restricts new development to 10-acres surrounding the current facilities, supporting the TNC’s campaign to acquire open space for conservation in the Mount Hamilton Range. The campaign continues to work towards protecting up to 500,000 acres in the 1.2 million-acre region surrounding Mt. Hamilton. The Nature Conservancy has purchased land and/or acquired the development rights for more than 100,000 acres in the Mt. Hamilton area including a conservation easement on the venerated 28,359-acre San Felipe Ranch—as well as the Willson Ranch, a 1,557-acre connection between Rancho Cañada de los Osos Reserve and Henry W. Coe State Park.
On December 1, 2007, the Blue Oak Ranch Trust transferred ownership of the 3,280-acre Ranch—and the beautiful Cedar Barn that they built in 1993—to the Regents of the University of California, creating the 36th reserve in the UC Natural Reserve System. UC Berkeley took ownership of the property, accepted the terms of the Conservation Easement, and formed an open space agreement with the County of Santa Clara. In addition to the land and the existing facilities, The Blue Oak Trust provided significant start-up capital and a lasting endowment that will continue to support BORR’s operations and mission far into the future. California voters passed Proposition 84 in 2006 and BORR used these funds to renovate the barn and build new facilities and infrastructure designed specified to the needs of a field station. These efforts were completed in February 2016 and today the field station can house up to 50 users all year round.