Noe Valley Voice September 2001

Neighborhood Historian Sheds New Light on the Image of Jose Noe

By Larry Beresford

San Francisco pioneer Jose de Jesus Noe (1805 ­ 1862) is remembered today by the neighborhood and street that bear his name. (Noe is Spanish for Noah.)

Noe's landholding, called Rancho San Miguel, comprised one-sixth of present-day San Francisco -- including Noe Valley, the Castro, Glen Park, Diamond Heights, and many neighborhoods to the south and west. In 1846, California's Mexican governor, Pio Pico, granted the land to Noe, who then sold it off in pieces starting in 1852.

An old photograph widely purported to be a portrait of our neighborhood's founder -- first published in the Voice in 1989 and now on display on the Voice web site, as well as in the History Room of the San Francisco Main Library and the Mayor's Gallery in City Hall -- may in fact be his son, Jose de Jesus Noe Jr. (1843-1872), says local historian Mae Silver.

Silver, who has studied the scant historical record from San Francisco's Mexican era, discovered the discrepancy after meeting two of Noe's descendants still living in California.

She reports the correction and presents a hand-drawn sketch of Noe Sr., obtained from the family, in her new book, Rancho San Miguel: A San Francisco Neighborhood History. Published in a limited edition by Silver's Ord Street Press, the book updates her two previous monographs on Noe and his rancho, both now out of print.

(Silver will talk about her book and show slides at Noe Valley History Day, Sept. 15, at the Noe Valley Library.)

Last year, Silver was contacted by Joy Johnson Woodworth and Julie Thompson, who are the great-grandchildren of Jose Noe's eldest son, Miguel. Their family archive includes a group photograph of Jose's three sons and a sketch of Jose Noe Sr., attributed to an artist named E.A. Burbank. Together, the visual evidence suggests that the older sketch is the father and that the Voice web-site photo, showing a gentleman with a luxurious mustache and goatee, is probably his son Jose Jr., who died at the young age of 29.

Silver describes her connection with the Noe family as a little "spooky," coming at a time when she was busy revising her rancho texts. "It took them nearly 10 years to find me," after the first Noe book was published.

Thompson came down from Waterford in the California foothills for a visit, touring the Noe homestead site near 23rd and Guerrero streets with Silver, who then visited Woodworth at her Livermore home. The two women were aware of their illustrious ancestor's historical significance and his role in the city's birth and development, but were more keenly interested in filling in the blanks in their family genealogy, Silver says.


Jose de Jesus Noe was born in Puebla, Mexico, in 1805. Along with his wife, Guadalupe Garduno, and their infant son Miguel, he emigrated to Alta (Upper) California in 1834 with the Hijar and Padres Colony, a Mexican company formed to promote settlement in the region.

Noe lived at various times in Sonoma and San Mateo counties, at Kearny and Clay streets in downtown San Francisco, and in a homestead called Las Camaritas ("the little cabins") located near present-day 15th and Mission streets.

In 1845/6, Noe applied for and received a land grant of one Spanish league (4,443 acres) for a rancho of his own, on which to raise cattle and grow wheat and fruit trees. Noe began selling off Rancho San Miguel in 1852, after he realized the 1848 discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill and the American conquest of the state had forever altered the rancho lifestyle he had known.

During the last years of Mexican California, Noe held important administrative posts in the village of Yerba Buena, as San Francisco was then called. He was a juez de paz (justice of the peace) and an assistant alcalde, a Spanish term roughly equivalent to mayor. And for part of 1846, Noe actually replaced Jose de la Cruz Sanchez as alcalde.

Noe also was listed as the first secretary of the San Francisco Ayuntiamiento (Board of Supervisors). However, from the American takeover in 1846 until his death in 1862, Noe's name rarely appears in the historical record. In the City Directory of 1862, he is listed simply as "Joseph Jesus Noe, farmer, dwelling on old San Jose Road."

In 1895, several of Noe's children sued unsuccessfully to have half of the rancho land -- their mother's share -- restored to them. But by then, it was largely filled in with Victorian houses.

Besides exploring the lives of the Mexican rancheros, Silver's new book develops the theme of rampant capitalism in early San Francisco, and describes some of the subsequent owners and developers of Noe's rancho. A few of the best-known are:

e John Meirs Horner, dubbed California's "First Farmer" for his agricultural prowess. He surveyed, laid out, and named the future streets of Noe Valley, but lost his claim to them in the Financial Panic of 1857.

e Francois Pioche and Lester Robinson, Gold Rush financiers and partners who established many of the homestead associations that settled the rancho. Pioche also founded the original Poodle Dog Restaurant in downtown San Francisco, and Robinson built the first Market Street Railroad in 1857.

e Adolph Sutro, a German-born mining engineer, builder of the Cliff House and Sutro Baths, and later a San Francisco mayor.

Another key rancho pioneer, Behrend Joost, introduced an electric railway to the neighborhood in 1892 and lived in his father-in-law's home, a gorgeous Victorian farmhouse that still stands today at 3224 Market near 19th Street. Yet another, Alfred "Nobby" Clarke, is remembered today for the grand but eccentric mansion at the corner of Douglass and Caselli streets, known in its day as Nobby Clarke's Folly.

In 1999, Silver founded Ord Street Press (named for the Castro District street on which she lives), in response to the lack of outlets for history writing about San Francisco's neighborhoods.

"None of the local sources was interested in my work, so I decided to publish it myself," she explains. Silver worked with graphic designer Chris Carlsson of Typesetting, Etc., on Market Street.

A native of New Jersey, Silver has retired from a career as a clinical social worker, but she continues to follow her nose for historical research.

"Something about history speaks eloquently to me. I like to understand how things happen," she says. "I was curious about the land I lived on, and when I heard that my house sat on rancho land, I thought: How romantic! I figured I could just go down to the library and read all about it, but there was very little written about the rancho era.

"That really shows how the victors get to write history," she says. "The history of Rancho San Miguel is Mexican history, and there's really very little interest today in San Francisco's Mexican era."

Ord Street Press has issued two other historical texts by Silver. One, The Sixth Star, written with Sue Cazaly, chronicles the women's suffrage movement in early California. Silver has collected additional historical material, much of it on San Francisco women artists of the 19th and early 20th centuries, which she hopes to publish someday. She would also like to write a Noe sequel imagining Christmastime on the rancho.

One Noe-related mystery that awaits her successful sleuthing: "We still don't know where Noe is buried. The family is satisfied with the idea that he's buried under the floor in Mission Dolores," along with his first wife, who died in 1848, and two children, Silver says.

"But if so, why isn't his name carved on the floor stone that lists his wife and his daughters? Did he find political disfavor in the American era? Did the church turn on him? It's still a mystery."

Former Voice history columnist Larry Beresford wrote a farewell to Noe Valley published in the October 1999 issue of the Voice, following his move to Washington, D.C. But luckily for us, "the move didn't exactly work out." He returned to the Bay Area in November of 2000 and now lives with his wife on the island of Alameda.

Excerpt from Mae Silver's Rancho San Miguel: A San Francisco Neighborhood History

Even as President James Buchanan assigned to Jose Noe the patent to Rancho San Miguel ("to have and to hold the said tract, with the appurtenances, unto the said Jose de Jesus Noe, and to his heirs and assigns forever,..."), Rancho San Miguel was no longer his. The exact transactions of the sale of Rancho San Miguel are not clear. It is evident that like so many other California ranchers, Noe could not hold his property. The essential reason must have been he could not afford the expenses to maintain such land in San Francisco.

After his wife died in 1848, Noe began selling his land. He sold half of his 50 vara Portsmouth Square lot to Charles A. Gurley for $20,000.... Noe deeded the rest of that Grant/Clay lot to his son Miguel on December 26, 1855. Miguel sold that property to Francisco de Leon on November 24, 1856, for one dollar.

Before he decided to sell his rancho, likely Noe realized that Rancho San Miguel was one of the many prizes the Americans won when they conquered California. Aside from the gold fields, the great treasure found in California was the land. Having acquired his land by complying with the various laws of Mexico, California, and now America, Noe had to surrender San Miguel in the end to the law of the American marketplace. Supply and demand forced his hand. He had to sell.

Reprinted with permission from Rancho San Miguel: A San Francisco Neighborhood History, by Mae Silver (San Francisco: 2001). To order by mail, send $23.56 to Ord Street Press, 71 Ord Street, San Francisco, CA 94114. For catalog and other information, go to