Palo Alto Centennial
Publication Date: Wednesday, April 13, 1994

Who was who way back when

by Kathleen Donnelly

The Peninsula's past is full of colorful characters, from the "Mysterious Frenchman" to the bartender who became a millionaire to the rather rakish lady novelist who wrote about them all. Below is an abridged list of who was who in Palo Alto during the early days.

Don Gaspar de Portola: Portola's exploring party, the first white men to see the Santa Clara Valley, emerged from the San Andreas Canyon on Nov. 6, 1769 and headed toward Palo Alto, following San Francisquito Creek.

Historians debate whether Portola camped beneath El Palo Alto in Palo Alto (where the Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West placed a plaque in 1926) or if they camped on the north side of the creek near Alma Street in Menlo Park (where the state Historical Landmarks Committee set up its plaque). At any rate, Portola left his camp on Nov. 11 and headed back up the canyon after envoys found no clear route through the East Bay, a phenomenon that exists to this day.

Juan Bautista De Anza: Although the banks of San Francisquito Creek had been selected for the site of a new mission, when De Anza's party reached the creek in March 1776 they found it dry. As a result, De Anza, who was accompanied by a Spanish priest named Father Font, decided not to locate a mission in the area. Instead, the mission was established in Santa Clara.

Don Rafael Soto: The son of an explorer who came to California with the De Anza party, Soto built a landing on San Francisquito Creek about a half-mile upstream from the site of the Palo Alto harbor. From there, he did a good business shipping lumber, hides and tallow to San Francisco. But Soto had the misfortune to stake his land claim on the north side of San Francisquito Creek, land already granted to the Arguellos. Later, Soto's widow moved to the south side of the creek and received a land grant that took in most of north Palo Alto, from the creek to about Oregon Expressway and from the bay to El Camino Real. The area was named Rancho Rinconada del Arroyo de San Francisquito.

John Greer: Greer, an Irishman, left his ship in San Francisco in 1850 and sailed a small skiff down the Peninsula, looking for the proper place to settle. He stopped by chance at Rancho Rinconada del Arroyo de San Francisquito, fell in love with Rafael Soto's daughter Maria Luisa, married her and eventually came to own the Soto's land. Since Maria Luisa was the widow of the owner of 12,000 acres around the area where Woodside now stands, the Irishman became an important leader in the community.

Thomas and Henry Seale: These two Irishmen profited from the Soto land grant, although they did not marry into the family. When the U.S. Land Grant Commission denied the ownership claims of Maria Luisa and other Soto descendants, the Soto family agreed to give Thomas Seale half the land if he could convince the commission members to change their minds. Although Thomas wasn't immediately successful, his brother Henry proved a better persuader and convinced the Lands Commission it was wrong in 1861. The brothers received about 1,400 acres for their trouble. Timothy Hopkins later bought some of this land for Leland Stanford, who wanted to establish a town to go along with his university.

Gertrude Atherton: A novelist, Gertrude Atherton lived for many years at Valparaiso Park after marrying one of Faxon Dean Atherton's sons. Gertrude scandalized her mother-in-law and others, who believed ladies should not write, by documenting early Atherton, Menlo Park and Palo Alto life in her popular novels.

Don Secundino Robles: Robles owned most of south Palo Alto in the late 1840s and early 1850s. A blue-eyed Castillian, Robles knew the wisdom of diversifying holdings even then. In 1853 he sold a chunk of his land to Elisha Crosby, who developed Mayfield Farm. The town of Mayfield, located in and around California Avenue, took its name from Crosby's farm.

Peter Coutts: The mysterious Frenchman arrived in Mayfield in 1875 and acquired 1,400 acres bounded on the south by Page Mill Road and on the east by El Camino Real. Coutts raised cattle on his land and developed an irrigation system that included the brick tower that still stands on the old section of Page Mill Road. Coutts was the cause of much rumor and speculation in Mayfield, and it wasn't until nearly 50 years after the Frenchman showed up in town that his neighbors found out he was actually Jean Baptiste Paulin Couperin, a political exile from France. In 1881, Coutts/Couperin returned with his family to France. The political climate had changed.

Leland and Jane Stanford: Leland Stanford bought the Mayfield Grange in 1818, and followed up by buying Peter Coutts' lands in 1881. The family lived an idyllic life, with Sen. Stanford busy raising horses. But in 1884, Leland Stanford Jr., the only child of Leland and Jane Stanford, died of typhus while traveling with his family in Italy. The Stanfords spent the rest of their lives building the university dedicated to the memory of their son and molding the surrounding towns.

Anna P. Zschokke: The first resident of Palo Alto, Zschokke, a widow with three children, came in 1890 to the new town purchased by Timothy Hopkins for Leland Stanford. Stanford wanted to establish a town free of liquor to serve his university. Five other families followed the Zschokkes, making a total of six families who were residents of Palo Alto during its first year.