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The Dean and the Pathfinder

Q: I just read that William Carey Jones, the first dean of Boalt Hall, was the brother-in-law of the explorer John C. Frémont. Can that possibly be true? -- RM, Berkeley

A: William Carey Jones was indeed the brother-in-law of John C. Frémont., but what you read was a bit muddled. They have the right Frémont, but not quite the right Jones, or the right Jones but the wrong kinship relation.

William Carey Jones, Jr., the first dean of Boalt Hall, was the son of William Carey Jones and Elizabeth Benton, the eldest daughter of Senator Thomas Hart Benton. Elizabeth’s sister Jessie was married to John C. Frémont, which made Frémont the dean’s uncle. The family was close, and for a period the two sisters and their husbands lived in San Francisco, until Frémont was elected one of California’s first two senators and the couple moved to Washington. Elizabeth Jones traveled east for the birth of her first child; the dean was born in his Grandfather Benton’s house in the nation’s capital. His father remained in San Francisco, trying to untangle one of the most knotty problems facing the government of early California.

How much do you remember about early California property law?

When, after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848), California became annexed to the United States, the nation was faced with the question of what to do about the huge Spanish and Mexican land grants that extended throughout the territory. The choicest sections of property had already been claimed, leaving mostly arid deserts and steep mountain terrain of lesser value. Many of the grants were vaguely drawn and questionably legal, at best. Politicians were divided between those who looked at the new acquisition as conquered territory in which Mexican law and custom should have no further force, and those who felt that unless the grants were recognized and verified by some official body, years of litigation would hold up development. President Zachary Taylor sent William Carey Jones, Sr. to California to investigate the problem, and in his official report to the government Jones opined that “any measure calculated to discredit, or cause to be distrusted the general character of the titles ... would ... retard the substantial improvement of the country.”        

Part of the reason that the dean’s father and his uncle supported a quick recognition of the legality of the Mexican grants was that they themselves were hurriedly buying them up. Jones pére acquired an interest in Punta del Año Nuevo in San Mateo County, and a rancho near the head of the San Joaquin River. Another of his acquisitions involved names familiar to anyone driving around modern day San Francisco. Historian Paul Gates writes:               

“Jones’ interest in the Potrero of San Francisco of one-half league brought him into conflict with the City of San Francisco over its pueblo claim of four leagues. The one-half league tract had been assigned to the young de Haro brothers for use as pasture for their livestock and was not an outright grant. According to [Hubert Howe] Bancroft the brothers were brutally murdered by Frémont’s men in 1846 [during the Bear Flag Revolt] after Frémont had stated he had no room for prisoners. It was a mere coincidence that Frémont’s brother-in-law later acquired an interest in the claim....”

So our first dean had roots deep in California history, though his life was not quite so colorful as those of his father and his uncle.

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