Col. William Smith founded a city. So why not name the streets?

by Charlene Perry - Editor’s Notes  Harriett Burt

Editor’s Note:  The late Charlene Perry, her husband, Al, and a number of other town ‘history buffs’ formed the Martinez Historical Society in 1976.  Charlene, the only official “City Historian” in Martinez, spent the next 25 years working to preserve and increase awareness and pride in the history of our city.  One of her many tactics to achieve this goal was to research and write columns that appeared regularly in the Martinez News-Gazette for a number of years. The following column appeared in the Gazette on June 3, 1981. HJB

Last week a young man came into the Martinez Museum with a question.  He had noticed that on several street corners along Alhambra Avenue, the name “Smith” was incised.  He wondered why, and it occurred to me that others might also wonder about it.

It was in 1849 that the heirs of Don Ygnacio Martinez through their agent and brother-in-law, Col. William M. Smith, commissioned Thomas A. Brown to survey for a city on the west bank of El Hambre Creek, an area that encompassed 120 acres that extended to what is now G Street.  Colonel Smith had joined the Martinez family in 1848, marrying Susana, the young widow of Captain William S. Hinckley, ship owner and member of the business community of Yerba Buena (now San Francisco), who had been killed in a fall from a horse two years earlier.

Though Smith had come from a respected family in Savannah, Georgia, his reputation in Yerba Buena was rather unsavory. He was known as a crack pistol shot, a bareback rider and minstrel black-face performer and opportunist.

Evidently deciding to turn over a new leaf, his first job, with William A. Leidesdorff, collecting hides and tallow, must have prospered, for within two years he was in business for himself with Frank Ward, for whom our Ward Street is named, and was referred to as a leading citizen by William Heath Davis,  noted historian of California.

Following their marriage in 1848, Dona Susana and Smith moved to Rancho el Pinole, probably following the death of Don Ygnacio, which made her heir to the 17,000 plus acre rancho, along with her 10 brothers and sisters. (Editor’s Note:  Her brother, Don Vincente, had moved his young family from Pinole on the eastern end of the land grant and is now Martinez.  Apparently the Smiths came with them.}

By now, summer of 1848, the gold rush was on.  Traffic through the Martinez property that summer to ferry across the Strait on Dr. Robert Semple’s flat bottomed boat, to Benicia and beyond was tremendous.  Accounts tell of up to 200 wagons waiting for transport.  It was this that prompted Smith to convince the family that a city should be established.  To this end, he was given permission to hire Thomas Brown, son of pioneer Elam Brown, who two years earlier had settled in Lafayette.

Blocks were laid out, consisting of lots 50 by 100 feet, and sales took off immediately.  One deed, at least, calls for a building to be erected within six months.  At any rate, building begun, with the first structure a trading post at what are now Ward and Berrellessa Streets.

It was only natural that the main street leading in to the new town from both San Pablo and San Jose and terminating at the water’s edge, should be named for the man who began all this activity.  Smith Street it was, and though there is mention in a newspaper as early as 1893, it wasn’t until 1924 that the change to Alhambra Avenue was actually made. 

Smith, who had so prospered in Yerba Buena, who had changed from a ne’er do well to a respected man or property, who had worked so hard to create a metropolis for the Martinez family,  who memorialized many members of his wife’s family naming streets after them, found himself in a business deal that went awry.  Overextended financially, in a fit of depression at age 39, he put a bullet through his head.

Only the name “Smith” on a few concrete curbs to give firemen a reference at nighttime  along Alhambra and a few of the side streets serve to remind us today that the city’s founder every existed.  He lies in an unmarked grave at Alhambra Cemetery, because according to reports at the time, suicides were not given named gravestones.  (Editor’s Note: The Martinez Cemetery Commission installed a monument with his name and achievement near the center of  Alhambra Cemetery many decades after his death in 1854.   The new  County Board of Supervisors had approved establishment of the cemetery, the county’s first, earlier that year  so  Smith was one of the very first to be buried there). 

Interestingly enough, when his widow, the lovely Susana, who later married a French trader, Benoit Vasero Merle, passed away in 1881, she left some 109 city blocks to her heirs, all part of her inheritance so many years earlier.

It seems she learned her financial lessons far better than did her ill-starred second husband.  Susana Street is named for her, and it is an indication of her value to Smith.  Susana Street came after Howard (now Marina Vista), Ruden (now Main), Mill  (now Estudillo) Ward, Green, Thompson (now Masonic Street between Berrellessa and Ferry Sts. and Thompson for one block between Las Juntas and Court Sts.) and Mellus – all San Francisco business associates of Martinez’ forgotten founder, Col. William M. Smith. 

Martinez News-Gazette, June 3, 1981


Editor’s Note:  Everything has a history, often fascinating.  That includes Levi jeans.  So don’t forget to stop by the Martinez Veterans Hall today at 1 p.m. to hear author Lynn Downey talk about the history of the world famous jeans and the man who invented them.  Admission is free and light refreshments will be served.  Sponsored by the Martinez Historical Society.  By the way, the City of Martinez was 23 years old and three years away from being incorporated as a city when Strauss patented them.  Levi’s probably flew off the shelves of Simon Blum’s store on Ruden/Main Street shortly thereafter!   HJB


Martinez Historical Society

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