A Map from Early California

Last year, I got a telephone call from a gentleman in Southern California exploring the possibility of giving the Museum a diseño of early San Joaquin County. I had no idea what a diseño was, but the more I learned about it the more interested I became.

Photo by Robert A. Estremo © 2004

A diseño is a hand-drawn land map sketched in Mexican California between 1822 and 1845. In the 1820s, Mexico’s Congress enacted legislation intended to encourage settlement in California and other areas under its rule. A diseño was an important part of the process. Settlers who wanted a land grant were required to submit a diseño of the property they wanted.

The document that the gentleman from Southern California owned is a contemporary copy of what seems to be the earliest Stockton and San Joaquin County map known to exist. It was prepared for William Gulnac, a former resident of New York, naturalized Mexican citizen, and partner of Stockton founder Charles M. Weber, as part of the application process.

This particular diseño, which dates from the 1840s, depicts a swath of land that extends from French Camp to the area we now know as Stockton. It includes hand-drawn lines to represent tule reeds, squiggles to depict trees, geographic features labeled in Spanish, and boundary lines showing the limits of the proposed grant.

Gulnac’s petition succeeded; Weber later bought him out and became sole owner. After the United States gained possession of California in 1850, such diseños helped land holders like Weber secure legal title. Another copy of this document eventually found its way into the U.S. District Court papers at the Bancroft Library, U.C. Berkeley, a digitized image of which can be viewed online at the Library’s Web site.

Members of the museum staff jumped at the opportunity to hold this diseño, and last December they took legal possession. The map currently sits in air-conditioned security awaiting the day it goes on display.

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