John Braddock Watson and Benedict Arnold Clark Watson, children of John Watson, appear to have been close. In 1850, they were both living a few miles away from their family, on their eldest brother’s farm.
Elsewhere in the United States in 1849, folks are streaming west by the hundreds, lured to California by the promise of gold. Completion of the Transcontinental Railroad is 20 years off yet, so this migration is happening in wagon trains, on horseback, and on foot. Others set out on months-long voyages on clipper ships, around the tip of South America to reach the west coast of the United States – the Panama Canal won’t be completed until 1914.
How did two brothers from upstate New York end up in Oakland? An incredibly colorful man named Horace Walpole Carpentier probably played a role.
Horace was born in Galway, Saratoga County, New York, in 1824. He graduated from Columbia College (now Columbia University) in 1848. He sailed on a clipper around Cape Horn, the long-way-‘round from New York and California, arriving as “a pioneer of August 8, 1849”.
Horace worked as an attorney in San Francisco (then called Yerba Buena) for a couple years, and then moved across the Bay to the Brooklyn Township, adjacent to a town that wasn’t called Oakland yet.
In 1852, Horace Carpentier oversaw the incorporation and naming of Oakland. As one source put it, “Incredible as it seems, the town had been incorporated, the city council duly elected and the waterfront appropriated by Carpentier before most of the residents were aware that Oakland existed!” Horace was Oakland’s first mayor, and his name is still “celebrated” there, in the form of the “Horace Carpentier Dinner”, an event to support and raise funds for the organization charged with the preservation of the Oakland/ Alameda estuary. They also freely and gleefully lambaste the man who commandeered the Oakland waterfront, almost forever.
The Watson brothers probably went to California because of Horace. Either a promise of a job, or an exciting description of what he had found out there… Horace must have been the draw.
First, they almost had to know each other in Providence/Galway. The villages are immediately adjacent to each other. Perhaps they went to school together (Horace was 3 years older than John; 2 years younger than Elisha), or church, or social functions. Horace is even buried in Providence, rather than Galway, which shows how incidental village names were to life there.
Second, it would be an astronomical coincidence for three men from the same five square miles of New York State to each take journeys of several months duration to ultimately reach Oakland, a California town that doesn’t even exist yet. Maybe gold is part of the motivation – but they weren’t miners; the Watson boys were farmers and Horace was an ambitious young lawyer. And they didn’t go to the hills or the gold fields. They went to Contra Costa – the “opposite shore” of San Francisco Bay. The lawyer probably had a big idea – but it had more to do with the people chasing gold than the gold itself. And he probably sold this idea to his friends, including John and Benedict Watson.
Third, John named his youngest son Horace Carpentier Watson, and Benedict named his only child Frank Carpentier Watson. Probably not a coincidence.
While it is doubtful the Watson brothers sailed for California on the same 1849 ship with Horace (the 1850 census definitively places them in Saratoga County), John, at least, was not far behind.
It is likely Benedict headed for California some time after John, as he is still shown in the family home in the 1855 New York State Census, and his name doesn’t actually show up in any California records until 1865.
John lived in Brooklyn/Oakland, California for many years, 1880 being the last census record in which he appears. His wife was Phydelia (picking one of several spellings of her name), and they had five children: three boys and two girls. His occupation is generally listed as “Real Estate Dealer” or something similar. He and his family lived well, and appeared to have employed servants to run the home.
Benedict Arnold Clark Watson, full name intact, turned up on the Great Register of 1865, the first-ever attempt to document all residents of San Francisco. He gave his address as “Mason b. California & Pine”, a block at the very top of Nob Hill, currently occupied by the Mark Hopkins Hotel and a row of private homes across the street, on the hill above Union Square. Since this entire block, as well as most of the city, was wiped out in the Great Earthquake & Fire of 1906, the hotel and other structures on today’s Mason Street are not the buildings Benedict may have lived in. He married Sarah, and they raised a son, Frank, in the Brooklyn/Oakland area, as census records from 1870 through 1910 confirm.
Horace always seemed to leave scandal behind him – including his purchase of the Oakland waterfront. This ownership came as a result of a series of very low-profile, notoriously shady deals over several years, culminating in the sale of twenty-five miles of waterfront to Horace Carpentier’s niece, Harriet, for the sum of $6,000. The land was then leased to a large group of people (with Horace’s cronies controlling the majority) for some 20 years. But no one can figure out who actually sold Horace the land. In order for someone to buy something, it stands to reason somebody else must be selling it.
According to an Alameda County historical document from 1914:
“…and on August 16, 1855, John B. Watson sold the entire water front property to Harriet N. Carpentier for the sum of $6,000. How the property ever passed into the hands of Mr. Watson was a matter of the profoundest mystery.” It appears Horace Carpentier Watson was in the right place at the right time to facilitate a single, outrageous real estate deal before he was 30 years old, a deal that still has folks scratching their heads 150 years later.
In reaction to the land grab, not surprisingly, Mayor Carpentier was removed from office. The question of ownership of the waterfront were argued in California courts for the next 55 years. In 1868, the possibility that Oakland might be selected as the western terminus for the transcontinental railroad brought the waterfront dispute with Carpentier to a head. Carpentier grudgingly agreed to deed his rights to the Oakland Waterfront Company. (It was later discovered that Carpentier was President of the Oakland Waterfront Company!) Finally, in 1907, courts finally determined that the Oakland Waterfront is rightfully owned by the City of Oakland.
Also in the 1860s, Edward Creighton, a Western Union general agent, organized two teams of builders for the Transcontinental Telegraph, one to work on the line from Sacramento, in the West; the other from St. Joseph, Missouri, in the East. On October 18, 1861, workers of the one subcontractor, Pacific Telegraph Co., reached Salt Lake City, completing the eastern section of the line. The western section, shorter but covering more difficult terrain, was finished by the Overland Telegraph Co., another subcontractor.
On October 24, 1861, the first messages to utilize the brand-new Transcontinental Telegraph were sent to President Abraham Lincoln. The message from the president of the Overland Telegraph Co., one Horace W. Carpentier, read:
"I announce to you that the telegraph to California has this day been completed. May it be a bond of perpetuity between the states of the Atlantic and those of the Pacific." This telegraph line would remain in use until 1869, when it was moved to follow the tracks of the newly-completed Transcontinental Railroad.
Horace retired to New York City in 1883, and also spent time in his country home (the family home) in Galway. In his retirement, he became quite a philanthropist – from a watering trough for the village to a sizeable endowment for Columbia University, and another for Barnard College. Sometimes, however, his generosity was more of backhanded.
Dean Lung, an immigrant from China, was a long-time servant in Carpentier’s home. When Horace returned to New York City, Lung went with him. As the story goes, one evening, in a drunken frenzy, Carpentier beat his servant unconscious. The next morning, when he regained his senses, Horace was astonished to find Lung still in the house, attending to his usual household chores. Carpentier, apologetic and embarrassed, asked how he could thank Lung for his incredible loyalty. Lung replied that he wished Carpentier would do something to help the American people understand Chinese culture and history, so Carpentier subsequently donated $10,000 to Columbia University in the name of Lung. (Lung also contributed his lifetime savings of $14,000.) In 1901, Columbia University established a Chinese Department and a Dean Lung Professorship of Chinese Studies.
Horace died in Galway in 1918, and was buried in the Barkersville Cemetery, Providence, New York.
The John and Benedict Watson lines probably continue to this day.