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Report by Galen Hunter

The 1856 Depositions of Tomas Talamantes

[ Page updated - June 17, 2020 ]

This is a report about the meaning of two 1856 depositions. The documents are question and answer records and part of a U.S. District Court case in Los Angeles at the time. The case was about who owned the Old Salt Lake site. Tomas Talamantes is the deponent. He was an owner of Rancho La Ballona and an authority about who owned the salt lake. Talamantes gave two depositions. (Figure 1) is page one of the first deposition. (Figure 2) is page two of the second deposition. There are significant situations underlying the deposition text. This report briefly reveals backstory. For instance, despite the fact Talamantes was articulate on the matter, his testimony had no impact because the court case was decided before it even began. With a bit of explanation, the 1856 depositions of Tomas Talamantes can provide access to California's deep and relevant political and legal history about control of water.

[Figure 1 - Page 1 of 8, Deposition 1 of Tomas Talamantes, December 13, 1856 - Los Angeles]

[Figure 2 - Page 2 of 2, Deposition 2 of Tomas Talamantes, December 15, 1856 - Los Angeles]

There is no photograph of Tomas Talamantes. There is a photograph of "P. Ord", the U.S. Attorney in the case, whose full name is Pacificus Ord (Figure 3). There is a photograph of "J. L. Brent", the attorney for Manuel Dominguez, owner of Rancho San Pedro. Brent's full name is Joseph Lancaster Brent (Figure 4). There is a photograph of the judge in this U.S. District Court case, Judge I. S. K. Ogier, whose full name is Isaac Stockton Keith Ogier (Figure 5). It is unknown whether a photograph exists of the Clerk, C. Sims. Another name appears out of the blue on page 5 of the first deposition. The name is "E. O. Crosby", He is referred to as the Assistant Attorney for United States and is noted as objecting to one of Brent's questions to Talamantes. Crosby's full name is Elisha Oscar Crosby (Figure 6). He was an attorney, a delegate to the California State Constitutional Convention and California State Senator.

[Figure 3 - Photograph of Pacificus Ord]

[Figure 4 - Photograph of Joseph Lancaster Brent]

[Figure 5 - Photograph of Isaac Stockton Keith Ogier]

[Figure 6 - Photograph of Elisha Oscar Crosby]

Backstory 1

This is a brief write up of the general context or situation in the U.S District Court case in which Tomas Talamantes gave his two depositions. The case was about who owned the Old Salt Lake site. The place was common property of the Pueblo of Los Angeles in the Spanish and Mexican period and was still considered common property of the City of Los Angeles in the years immediately after the American conquest. In 1835, the Pueblo owned the site and taxed the Missions for the salt they extracted from it. After the American conquest in 1846-47 and the resulting treaty, the Pueblo became a municipal corporation, a City. The City successfully obtained an Act from the newly formed State of California allows it to claim within its jurisdictional boundary all of the area previously claimed by the Pueblo. The city went into an historic amount of debt to pay the fee for the attorney named Joseph Lancaster Brent to aggressively confirm in U.S. court the boundary lines of its land. However, Brent was also Manuel Dominquez's family attorney. Manuel Dominquez owned Rancho San Pedro and Dominguez had a problem. Even though he had a lot of land, Dominguez had no cash to pay Brent for the legal work required to confirm in court the boundary of Rancho San Pedro which on the north at the coast bordered the Salinas, the salt lake common property of the City of Los Angeles, as it was known then. However, Dominguez did have Brent, who was playing the City and the rancho owners on each side of their border line for what they were worth. In the case of the salt lake site, what gave was the City of Los Angeles losing the salt lake as its common property.

All of the property in Redondo Beach, particularly the Old Salt Lake site, goes back to the Patent of the Rancho of San Pedro, signed by President Buchanan in 1858. Joseph Lancaster Brent got that Patent for Dominguez. The disputed northern boundary line of the Rancho at the salt lake was resolved by Brent involving a scheme for himself to obtain legal ownership of the salt lake site. In 1854, the salt lake was occupied by Los Angeles merchant Alexander Bell and Los Angeles County Surveyor Henry Hancock and they organized a salt works there, on land they did not own, and were selling the salt in San Francisco for a good price. So, Brent's scheme in late 1854 was to incorporate the salt works as the Pacific Salt Works Company, the second registered corporation in Los Angeles County, the stockholders of the salt company being Brent, Bell and Johnson. Next, Brent had Dominguez sell the salt lake site, land Dominguez did not own, to the Pacific Salt Works Company for $500. Then Brent had the Los Angeles County Surveyor confirm in a survey that the northern boundary line of Rancho San Pedro was drawn to include the salt lake site. When the rancho owners to the north, the Abila family of Rancho Sausal Redondo, learned about the survey, they protested the location of the boundary line -- claiming the salt lake or Salinas, as it was called then, was supposed to be located in their rancho. The Abila protest resulted in the U.S. District Court case with Judge Ogier and depositions were taken from several persons in the matter, including Tomas Talamantes.

Backstory 2

This is a brief write up about the situation of the U.S District Court case in which Tomas Talamantes gave his two depositions. Brent was the attorney for Manuel Dominguez of Rancho San Pedro. Dominguez was the appellee and claimant in the case. Although Joseph Lancaster Brent had actually appropriated/owned the salt lake site before, during and after the case proceedings -- each person in the room either did not know this or pretended not to know. Brent owned Pacificus Ord, the U.S. Attorney in the case. The Brent family in Baltimore, who have been there since the 1600's, sponsored Ord's father when the father emigrated to Maryland from England. The Brent's sponsored Pacificus Ord's Georgetown University law school education. Brent owned Isaac Stockton Keith Ogier, the judge in the case. Ogier was a well paid legal assistant for Brent in a previous famous Los Angeles murder case. Manuel Dominguez did not testify in the U.S District Court case he was appellee and claimant in -- for a reason.

Backstory 3

This write up briefly traces the meta situation of the U.S District Court case in which Tomas Talamantes gave his two depositions. American corporate ownership of the Old Salt Lake site begins with J. L. Brent's scheme in late 1854 to incorporate the salt works there under the name Pacific Salt Works Company with himself a stockholder. Obviously, Brent did this because he could. Two follow up questions then are: 1) what is the overall context of Brent's actions in the matter? And, 2) where did Brent get the idea to appropriate the salt lake site?

For how to think about the what Brent did there is none other than Elisha Oscar Crosby. Crosby is an generally recognized authority in these matters and he was in the room the day of the first deposition of Tomas Talamantes. On page 5 of the deposition, the document indicates E. O. Crosby was present and engaged in the testimony that day. The record states Crosby objected to a Brent question. So, a way to answer the question -- what is the overall context of Brent's actions in the matter? -- is to know more about E. O. Crosby and his work in this matter. A relevant summary of Crosby and his work is this text from the "Find a Grave" web page about him:

"In August of 1849, Crosby was elected a delegate to the California State Constitutional Convention convened in Monterey on September 1, 1849, and became the chair of the Finance Committee. He wrote an account of the Convention describing his fellow delegates and the constitution writing process. He unsuccessfully argued for an appointed state judiciary to achieve judicial independence. Crosby then became the election officer for the Sacramento District for the constitutional election that was held on November 13, 1849. The voters ratified the constitution and elected Crosby a state senator.

Crosby, at age 31, took up his position as a California senator in San Jose (Sacramento would become the capital, following Benicia, in 1854) and was elected chair of the Judiciary Committee. As chair, he championed the adoption of English common law as the basic legal system of California while retaining what he viewed as some superior elements of Mexican law, including the concept we now know as "community property." The Committee also organized the first Supreme Court of California, as well as district courts, and divided California into counties.

He left the Senate in 1852 and went into private legal practice in San Francisco, specializing in defending Spanish-speaking Californios whose land grant titles were being challenged. He argued over one hundred such cases before the United States Land Claims Commission during its 1852-1856 tenure. Crosby would write that the United States Supreme Court "perpetrated the grossest outrages upon equity and common honesty" in its California land decisions in violation of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848) which had guaranteed Californios the same rights as other California citizens."

This writer has a working theory about the answer to question 2 -- where did Brent get the idea to appropriate the salt lake site? The theory is Brent's idea is basically a Southern California instance of the California Supreme Court water rights case Irwin v. Phillips (1855). Brent may have received the idea from California Supreme Court Justice Hugh C. Murray that this would be a good time to appropriate the mining of salt from the lake. It is likely Brent knew Judge Murray. They were attorneys in California, had common political interests, both attended the 1852 California Democratic Convention, etc. Murray may have told Brent in mid-1854 a decision was about to be made in the case which brought water appropriation problems to light. The case originated in water rights issues involving gold mining operations in Northern California during the Gold Rush. The court ruled in favor of prior appropriation water rights (for the miners) instead of riparian water rights which has its origins in common law.

This interpretation at least is an explanation of the timing in Brent's "prior appropriation" of the salt lake site in late 1854. Moreover, this working theory may also explain why many of the questions in the 1856 depositions of Tomas Talamantes and others are about the above/below ground flow of water east of the salt lake, referring to the Los Angeles and the San Gabriel Rivers. The Pueblo/City of Los Angeles claimed the water rights, including subterranean, of those rivers and the salt lake. Brent's last question to Talamantes -- Brent: "Before you put the stone there in 1815 did not the Dominguez claim the salt lakes?" Talamantes: "No. The Pueblo claimed it." SeƱor Talamantes.