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Limantour, Joseph-Yves (1812-1885)

by 

Philippe Argouarch

        Joseph Yves Limantour also known in California as José Limantour war born in Lorient, France in 1812 and died in Mexico City in 1885. He is the father of José Limantour who became the finance minister of Porfirio Diaz and is well known for having solved Mexico huge national debt.
Limantour, the father, was a Breton trader and navy captain who traded all along the Pacific coast from Valparaiso to California. He was based since 1836 in Mexico City but arrived in Vera Cruz in 1831 at the age of 19 years old.
        A famous beach in California, the Limantour Beach bears his name because he wrecked his schooner, the Ayacucho, on Point Reyes in October 1841. [California Place Names, University of California Press 1960].
        The story goes that after the wreck, Limantour crossed the land over to Sausalito, was helped by Richardson (an English settler who is recognized as both the founder of Sausalito and Yerba Buena, the pueblo that became San Francisco).  He was able to fret another ship to rescue his cargo, mostly supplies aimed at colons , and sell it in Yerba Buena.
        From then on, Limantour continues trading and shipping goods from the lower part of Mexico to Alta California. Up to the war of 1846 between Mexico and the US. This is during this time, that the Mexican governor General Micheltorena, desperate for help, seems to have paid for arms shipment to the Californios fighting the US., with land grants. The properties were mostly land that had been confiscated from the Franciscans Missions during the Mexican War of Independence two decades  earlier. Limantour got his fair share, in exchange for services he did for the Mexican government and apparently a big part of the land where San Francisco was to be built. It was few years before the gold rush and nobody had any idea that these rocks and marshes were to become the most expensive pieces of real estate in the world.
        By the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo signed in February 1848, the young Mexican Republic abandoned Alta California to the United States. One important clause of the treaty was that the US government accepted to recognize and respect the ownership rights of all Mexicans established in Alta California. It did not, although a Land Commission was created by the federal government to examine the claims.
        Thus, on February 5 1853, Joseph-Yves Limantour presented to the US Land commission a claim for 47 square leagues of land. The claim included Cape Mendocino, Tiburon peninsula, the Farallones, Alcatraz, and four square leagues of San Francisco, all the land south of California Street. The whole thing signed by the last Mexican governor himself,  General Jose Manuel Micheltorena.
        After few years of deliberations,  the San Francisco claim  and the islands claims were validated [California Historical Society Quarterly, Volume XXI, December 1942]. This land, South of California street was estimated at several millions dollar or 100 millions in today dollar.
Joseph-Yves went ahead and collected the Limantour Tax, which was 10% of the value of the property from bewildered and angry San Franciscan. He grew rich enough to pursue the matter in courts from 1853 to 1858 since the federal government did appeal the land commission decision. He hired General Wilson as his lawyer, one of the best layer in town. . The stakes were high.  The US  District Court finally rejected all Limantour's claims on count of forgery, but to this day the decision is controversial.
        Some of  Limantour friends and employees turned against him and did damaging depositions accusing Limantour of forgery. Limantour had many witnesses but unfortunately their were, excepted for Richardson, all Mexican government officials. The suspicion is that the grants were real, on true stamped and dated official paper, but fabricated in Mexico in 1852 with the help of Micheltorena himself and Castanares, the former custom manager of Monterrey. The government  accusations were infamous, serious and not surprising considering what was at stake. They had to prove it since witnesses were in contradiction. Somebody was lying. They needed some evidence.
        Unfortunately all the proofs were based on not verifiable assertions on the signatures, the seals, the paper, the handwriting, nothing that could not be manipulated. So the mystery continues.
        The case was closed but is not solved.
        Limantour was thrown in jail in December 1857.  He posted bail, went back to Mexico and never came back North.
         In any case, it is said that he had collected at least $100,000—enough to continue a flourishing business and finish his life quietly in Mexico. He died in 1885 in Mexico City.