Joseph-Yves Limantour, San Francisco's richest man?
In the mid-19th century, a Breton captain, Joseph-Yves Limantour, was the owner of more than half of San Francisco and the islands of the Bay. He went on to make his fortune in Mexico, where his son became a minister, after his claim to be one of the world's richest men was overturned by an American court.
We know very few details about the youth of Joseph-Yves Limantour, born in 1812, in Ploemeur, Brittany, France. He was the eldest of a family of six children and his father was a guard in the port of Lorient. At 19, like many inhabitants of the Lorient region he joined the merchant navy.
For 5 years, he sailed in the Atlantic transporting goods and people between Vera Cruz and France. In 1836, after crossing Cape Horn, he continued his shipping activities based in Lima, Peru. As a trader and ship captain, he explored new economic opportunities along the Pacific coasts, from Valparaiso (Chile) to California. On October 26, 1841, his schooner, the Ayacucho, ran aground at the entrance to San Francisco Bay. A dense fog had caused him to miss the famous Golden Gate, at the entrance of the Bay. With his men, he traveled to Sausalito where he chartered a boat to collect his shipwrecked merchandise: silks, spirits, equipment and food that had been destined for settlers. The salvage was a considerable success and he was eventually able to make significant profits from his sales leading him to stay in the Yerba Buena pueblo for a year. At the time California was part of Mexico and in 1842, Limantour loaned money to the Mexican governor, Manuel Micheltorena, who offered land in the area in lieu of payment.
By 1830, American settlers began to arrive in California leading to greater tensions between the United States and Mexico. During the American-Mexican War (1846-1848), Limantour picked sides and offered his services to the Mexican army by delivering arms, ammunition and food. Short of cash, the Mexican governor of California continued to pay debts to Limantour by granting him land titles. In 1847, the American warship Warren boarded his ship, but he dumped his cargo of weapons in the ocean before they were discovered.
California becomes the 31st US state
Between 1840 and 1850, Joseph-Yves Limantour owned more than one million hectares in the San Francisco area, which made him one of the richest men in the world. But picking the right side was important, and Limantour hadn't.
On July 4, 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was proclaimed between the USA and Mexico. The treaty called for the United States to pay $15 million dollars to Mexico and to pay off the claims of American citizens against Mexico up to $5 million dollars. It gave the United States the Rio Grande as a boundary for Texas, and gave the U.S. ownership of California and a large area comprising roughly half of New Mexico, most of Arizona, Nevada, Utah and Colorado. Mexicans in those annexed areas had the choice of relocating to within Mexico's new boundaries or receiving American citizenship with full civil rights (over 90% chose American citizenship). The treaty was also suppose to ensure safety of existing property rights of Mexican citizens living in the transferred territories. Despite assurances to the contrary, the property rights of Mexican citizens were often not honored by the U.S. in accordance with modifications to and interpretations of the Treaty. In 1851, California became the 31st state of the United States of America.
Limantour, one of the richest man in the world?
The California Gold Rush began on January 24, 1848, and lasted until 1855. The discovery of gold drew nearly 300,000 people from all over the United States and the world to California. The sudden influx of gold into the money supply re-energized the American economy, and California's rapid ascension to statehood was aided by the sudden rise in population. With the Gold Rush the value of land in California skyrocketed hindering Limantour's land claims that needed to be confirmed in US courts.
On February 5, 1853, Joseph-Yves Limantour presented 57 title deeds (75,000 hectares) to the Land Commission in charge of verifying and confirming the concession titles issued during the Mexican era: 2/3 of the city of San Francisco, the islands of Alcatraz, Yerba Buena and Farrallones, the peninsula of Tiburon, Cape Mendocino, the Laguna de Tache (in Fresno), the county of Solano (between Vallejo and Sacramento) and the Cienega Valley.
To everyone's surprise, in January 1856, the Limantour's title claims relating to the concessions of San Francisco, the islands of Alcatraz and the Farrallones were validated. Panic quickly ensued amongst the population of San Francisco who, since the Gold Rush of 1848, had unwittingly settled on land belonging to the famous Breton merchant.
Hundreds of them decided to buy back their land, helping Limantour accumulate a sizable fortune.
Limantour's victory would only be short lived. The American government had established federal buildings (customs post, military fort, federal bank, etc.) in San Francisco and had no desire to pay Limantour for the land under those new buildings. They requested an appeal to the Land Commission's decision. On November 19, 1858, the Commission reversed its decision of 1856 and declared the Limantour concessions unfounded and that his titles had been fabricated.
If not for his court defeats, Joseph-Yves Limantour would have been the second or third richest man in the world during his lifetime, some American economists have estimated.
He would lick his wounds comfortably in exile in Mexico. He business activities and contacts like the general Porfiro Diaz (President & Dictator of Mexico) helped him amass a sizable fortune. In 1884, he had returned to Brittany, France with his wife, his son José-Yves, his daughter-in-law and her parents. They spent several weeks in the Lorient area, where he reconnected with relatives and the places of his childhood.
He never returned to California but you can still visit where it all started when he shipwrecked. Limantour Beach is a long narrow stretch of sand, backed by low cliffs located between Drakes Bay and an estuary.
Learn more about Breton-American history.
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