The most famous example of a European given a land grant during Mexico's rule of California was John Sutter, who was awarded a large holding in the Central Valley.
Another European dreamer, Father Eugene MacNamara, also was given a large land grant in the valley. While Sutter met with some prosperity, at least until gold was discovered, MacNamara had only a fleeting moment of success, then abject failure.
Born in County Clare, Ireland, in 1814, MacNamara studied as a seminarian in Paris. After his ordination, he returned to Ireland, where his criticism of the bishop he served under resulted in his exile. Traveling about the world for the next several years, he ended up in British Guiana, where in a short time he was sent packing again for criticizing the local bishop.
During the late summer of 1844, McNamara was in Mexico and began to formulate an audacious plan. Mexico's hold over its northern territory of California was tenuous and becoming more so with a steady influx of U.S. residents from Mexico's ambitious and expanding neighbor to the north, the United States.
To assist Mexico's control over California, McNamara planned to bring a massive influx of Irishmen to Mexico's northern territory and establish them as productive farmers in the Central Valley and as a buffer against American encroachment.
In June 1846, MacNamara's plan was approved by the California General Assembly in Los Angeles and his land grant covered "all the land lying between the San Joaquin River and the Sierra Nevada and extending from the Cosumnes River near Sacramento south to near San Gabriel." Pio Pico, the governor of California, approved and signed off on the grant, which was dated July 4, 1846.
MacNamara's plan called for farmers in Ireland to sell their land to pay for passage to California. Once on MacNamara's lands, the immigrants would be given 4,000 acres to farm or raise cattle on.
To entice Irish immigration to California, the new landowners were exempted from taxes for several years and given other enticements such as no fees for merchandise they brought with them.
The plan seemed guaranteed for success; however, one thing threw a monkey wrench into it.
On July 7, 1846, the U.S. Pacific squadron appeared off the coast near Monterey. Upon landing, troops proceeded to raise the U.S. flag over the city; both it and California were declared part of the United States. Once under U.S. rule, the land grants of the previous rulers were ignored or only upheld after long and costly legal battles.
In MacNamara's case, with no Irishmen yet on his land, his grant was ignored.
MacNamara left for Mexico City, where he tried to push his plan. But with California under U.S. control, there was no point in the pursuit. What became of MacNamara has been left to rumor. Stories vary that he returned to Ireland or that he died at sea in 1853. Father MacNamara's plan failed and no Irish colony in the Central Valley was established.
Sources: The Modesto Bee: March 16, 1980; The California: Sept. 29, 1847
James McAndrews Jr. is a docent and board member of the Great Valley Museum. Send comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.