Notes on Supposed San Francisco Records in the Contra Costa County Historical Society History Center.

January, 2002

The History Center of the Contra Costa County Historical Society is the primary repository of the early original records of Contra Costa County, including a large number of Contra Costa County probate case files. The Historical Society was organized in 1951. We opened our archives in 1984 in temporary quarters in Pleasant Hill, California, moving to the present permanent home in Martinez, California on May 1, 2000.

Recently there has been great interest in our collection of probate records from the 1850s, because of the claims of Emory University historian Michael Bellesiles that he located a substantial cache of San Francisco probate inventories from that period in our collection of Contra Costa County records. Because the San Francisco probate inventories are widely believed by historians, genealogists, and archivists to have been destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, locating a cache of San Francisco County probate records would be a major historical find. As much as we wish this to be the case, we have no evidence that such a cache of San Francisco County records exists at the History Center. We are a Contra Costa County archive, we hold Contra Costa County records, not San Francisco records.

To the best of our ability, we have investigated the claims that Professor Bellesiles made about our collection in the Atlanta Journal Constitution and in Emory University's Academic Exchange.

Michael Bellesiles wrote that he sent copies of pages from these supposed San Francisco County records to various journalists. We received photocopies of 26 pages of records that Bellesiles reportedly sent to one of these journalists and compared them against our records in the History Center. When Professor Bellesiles visited the History Center in January of 2002 he made approximately 30 photocopies. In doing so he failed to copy the verso where the identifiers for the court cases are, and where there was no identifier he neglected to note the case file being copied. Without this information it is very difficult to confirm that the photocopies were from documents in our collection. Still we spent over 15 working hours searching the case files to find and verify that the originals were indeed in our collection. We were successful in all but 3 or 4 pages. We could probably verify those if Professor Bellesiles could provide us with the names of all the case files he copied.

Based on checking his 26 pages of evidence against our records, we have reached the following conclusions, which are of course, subject to revision based on further investigation:

  1. Every identifiable estate in the 26 pages was a Contra Costa County estate, not a San Francisco County estate.

  2. Every identifiable decedent in the 26 pages was a Contra Costa County resident, not a San Francisco County resident.

  3. Every judge who signed orders in the 26 pages was a Contra Costa County judge, not a San Francisco County judge.

  4. The only clerk who signed an order in the 26 pages signed as "Clerk" of the "Probate Court Contra Costa County."

  5. Bellesiles makes reference to 1872 tax assessment records and includes a copy of one in the 26 pages. Its heading is: "Assessment List, County of Contra Costa, 1872-73." This is from a Contra Costa County taxpayer and taxing authority, not from San Francisco.

If a probate file is even partially complete, it is usually easy to determine in which county the estate was probated. Probate administration is a civil court case. One need only look at the court, the judge, and the clerk who are handling the case. Bellesiles' 26 pages of our records show no evidence of being from San Francisco County estates, courts, judges, or clerks.

Examining the 26 pages of Bellesiles' probate records that were supplied to us, it appears that Professor Bellesiles merely photocopied estate documents that contained the word "San Francisco" somewhere in them. For example, one of his documents was an affidavit from a San Francisco newspaper that ran an advertisement for a Contra Costa County estate sale: "Pursuant to an order of the Hon. the Probate Court of the county of Contra Costa . . . in the town of Martinez." This affidavit, signed by a San Francisco notary public, states that it is a Contra Costa County estate. There was no newspaper in Contra Costa County until 1858, therefore it was common practice to publish legal notices in the San Francisco newspaper.

We are not claiming that there are no early San Francisco documents anywhere in our archive (or in any other Northern California repository). Occasionally, in a Contra Costa County civil or criminal case, some issue might arise that might cause a San Francisco probate document to be used as evidence in a Contra Costa County case. We have located two such cases, but none so far in the 1850s or early 1860s. We certainly do not have "an entire bookcase of probate record files" from San Francisco County. From what we know, it would appear to be impossible to count guns in San Francisco probate inventories from 1849-50 or 1858-59 in our collection, since we have no such inventories.

We were disappointed to read Michael Bellesiles' criticism of our staff and History Center. In the Emory Academic Exchange he states: "the staff appeared unaware that they had any probate materials in their collection." In fact, all of our dedicated volunteer staff know that the probates along with the civil and criminal case files are the core of our collection. We have been directing researchers to these records every week since 1984. The Director of the Center was present when we helped Bellesiles find probate and tax records in Jan of this year [2002], and she has worked with our Civil and Probate case file collection since 1984.

Further, Bellesiles mistakenly calls us the "California History Center," which would suggest that we have records outside Contra Costa County. We are instead the Contra Costa County History Center, and our official name is the Contra Costa County Historical Society History Center, as is evident on our web site. Contrary to Bellesiles claim that we do not have a web site, we have had one since 1998. While we welcome family history and genealogy researchers, the majority of our researchers have been writers, attorneys, academics, environmentalists, local governments and commercial historical research firms.

Last, we cannot confirm that Professor Bellesiles did substantial research in our collection in 1993 (as he claims) or at any other time before his visit in January, 2002. We do not remember him visiting our collection before his recent visit. We have searched our log books and invoices for the years 1993, 1994, 1995 and 1996 and find no record for research fees or photocopies. Further, we are not cited or acknowledged in his book, something we always expect and receive. During Professor Bellesiles recent visit he did not reveal his primary reason for the visit. He did not tell us that he had been in our archives before and now wished to confirm aspects of his previous research. He did not say he was the author of a book and needed some help confirming his previous work. Had he done so we would have immediately begun a search of our invoices and log books. We only discovered after his visit, when we began getting phone calls from both scholars and reporters, that we were in the eye of a hurricane. We had to learn from others what it was Professor Bellesiles really needed. We have, in response to our unwitting involvement and on our own initiative, completed the search of our old invoices with the result stated above. We hope that this clears up a large number of points that have recently arisen about the Contra Costa County History Center and its collection.

Betty Maffei, Director
Contra Costa County History Center

This document last updated: 27 JANUARY 2002

Following are some questions and answers that we have dealt with over the past couple of weeks from some of the national media:

Q. Where is the California History Center?
A. Not here, we have never been known by that name.

Q. When did Bellesiles visit the Contra Costa County History Center?
A. Our Visitor's Register records his visits to our archive in January 2002.

Q. What probate records do you have?
A. We have two distinctly different types of probate records. We are the official archival repository for the records of the historic Contra Costa County Superior Court records. The collection continues to grow as transfers are made from non-publicly accessible storage facilities. We also possess 4500 to 5000 civil, criminal and probate case files covering the years 1850-1920's. These were salvaged by our founder Louis Stein over a period of several years prior to 1984. Case files differ a great deal from the bound ledgers that contain the Superior Courtís official records. We estimate we currently have about 1700 individual probate case files.

Q. When did we get the probate case files?
A. They were given to the Historical Society by Louis Stein, local historian and co-founder of the Contra Costa Historical Society in 1984.

Q. Do we have all Contra Costa County probate files?
A. No. Case files were also distributed by Stein to community societies within the county. Many escaped Louis Steinís rescue efforts and were destroyed. Further, the largest collection of Contra Costa County Superior Court records are on microfilm in custody of the public file room of the Contra Costa Count Superior Court, 1111 Court Street, Martinez. The History Center has a copy of a microfiche index to the Civil and Probate files still in custody of Superior Court.

Q. Where else are such Contra Costa County case files found?
A. One such collection from Stein is carefully preserved at the Moraga Historical Society. There are likely others.

Q. How does one access Contra Costa County probates at the History Center?
A. Currently, there is a listing of the Court Books held on our web page. 1,200 probate case files are also indexed on our web page. This will be updated regularly until all probates are listed. The balance can be found in a card index at the History Center. Researchers can visit the History Center to work with these files or request a file be copied and mailed to them for a modest fee.

Q. Do we have a collection of San Francisco Probates?
A. No.

Q. Are there fragments from San Francisco County probates at the Contra Costa County History Center?
A. Very likely, they were occasionally included when a question involving someone's San Francisco estate became an issue in a Contra Costa County lawsuit. There are none in the 26 pages that we examined that purportedly came from Bellesiles.

Q. Is there always a fee to research in the History Center?
A. No. Members in good standing are permitted unlimited personal research rights, students working on class assignments pay no fee, newspaper reporters researching stories pay no fees, teachers researching materials for their students pay no fees. However, they all pay for their photocopies. Research fees are charged for private commercial research firms, environmental firms, and authors to name just a few. Some commercial companies choose to purchase an annual Corporate membership which allows them unlimited research for the year.

Let us say in closing that despite the questions regarding Professor Bellesiles, the Contra Costa County History Center is a treasure trove of primary source documents including some 5000 case files, criminal, civil and probate. We welcome all researchers whether from the halls of the university or the offices of the free lance writer. Our staff is always ready to be of assistance in guiding the researcher to the materials he or she may need. No one is happier than we are when information obtained from our archives appears in print to be enjoyed by all that have an interest.

We look forward to serving the academic community in the years to come. While our primary operation is that of self-directed research, we also provide full research services for those who cannot visit us in person. Please contact us by e-mail if you have questions or requests.