Finding A Home For History

Primary resources, in a historian’s world, are original materials upon which researchers can study to begin writing books or articles about any person or subject. If someone collected my handwritten draft of this newspaper story and saved it they’d have a primary resource. Once the Anderson Valley Advertiser printed it that article would become a secondary resource.

Kelley House Museum in Mendocino had a docent named Marty Simpson who passed away this spring. Your correspondent came into possession of his library and in it was a mini treasure trove of important primary resources. Marty’s dad Seth Simpson had been the librarian of the Oakland Tribune for decades and somehow, somewhere, he was given a packet of 26 letters from the early 1870’s. In it was correspondence from the Peralta family, early settlers on the shores of the East Bay.

Marty Simpson looked forward to digging into these letters, written in Spanish with an English translation, and writing a story about them, but he never got the chance. He left it to me to decide what to do with them. While I have a wide range of interests the financial doings of a California rancho family is not one of them, so I went looking for a new home for them.

The history of this esteemed Peralta family is an interesting one. Don Luis Peralta served 40 years in the Spanish Army in California before the Mexican revolution and was awarded a 44,800-acre land grant, known as Rancho San Antonio, in 1820. It embraced the sites of the cities of San Leandro, Oakland, Alameda, Emeryville, Piedmont, Berkeley and Albany. That’s not a bad chunk of real estate.

Settling these lands were the four sons of Peralta, their families, Mexican laborers and native peoples. The hacienda became a social and commercial center of the East Bay with 8,000 head of cattle, 2,000 horses and a wharf into the bay for shipping. Over 50 years 16 houses were built and in 1842 the family started fighting over land splits and distribution and court battles continued for decades. While they had clear land titles they had problems with squatters over-running their lands, especially after the Gold Rush, and had to sell off lands to pay legal fees and newly imposed taxes.

I believe it was the grandsons of the Perlata dynasty that were writing back and forth in 1872-73 about the financial difficulties they were experiencing and legal entanglements. So what to do with these new found letters? Contact the nirvana of California State history, the Bancroft Library of the University of California at Berkeley. Did they want these letters? You bet they did. What are the chances of finding 145 year old Peralta family primary resources in this day and age? Slim to none.

Librarian Peter Hanff welcomed me when I arrived with the papers and an 1848 Oakland Tribune newspaper that I found in the materials. I was given a tour of the Bancroft and assured there were researchers who would be thrilled to go over theses Peralta papers. So I was pleased, the Bancroft was delighted, and I think Marty’s spirit would approve. But this little adventure made me think about finding old documents and what to do with them.

Be it a city, town or village most every place has a library or museum. If you inherit your Great-Aunt Mable’s papers what are you going to do with them? As with the Peralta papers “one man’s trash is another man’s treasures…” they might mean something to someone. It’s just a matter of how much time you can dedicate to the project.

Say Great-Aunt Mable died here in California but she came from Nebraska and there’s lots of letters, photos and a land deed or two from home place. Check to see if there is a museum in her home town that would like the materials. Her high school yearbooks from the 1940’s could be sent back to her old high school to be enjoyed in the library there. Then Great-Aunt Mable moved west and settled in the Sierra foothills. She became locally famous for her variations of apple pie and you have all her recipes. What to do with them? There’s a lovely series of cookbooks done by the Apple Hill Grower’s Association in Camino of apple recipes. Send them Great-Aunt Mable’s recipe collection for the next edition of their book.

The possibilities are endless as to what group might like and use Great-Aunt Mable’s possessions and when all else fails there are always thrift stores. Ever seen an “Instant Ancestors” box of old photos of people in a thrift store? I have. Yes, all this is more work than walking to a dumpster and tossing the box of letters, books and photos away, but someone somewhere down the road may make use of those resources. Think before you toss! Your local museum may thank you.

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