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Sunday, December 27, 1981

Thomas O. Larkin

Ernest D. Wichels

The biographical sketches of early Americans who came to California while it was yet Mexican territory could, and do, fill many volumes.  No single column can begin to tell the complete story of any individual.

We will briefly mention one: Thomas O. Larkin, who, with Dr. Robert Semple (a member of the Bear Flag Party of 1846). founded our neighboring city of Benicia.  One of the most concise stories on Larkin, the opportunist who became wealthy, is written in the winter 1975 California Historical Quarterly. Also, there are the 10 volumes of ‘‘Larkin Papers,” William Heath Davis’ “Seventy-five Years in California,” Richard Henry Jana’s “Two Years Before the Mast.”

Naval Duty in California” by Joseph W. Revere, a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy who raised the American flag in Sonoma Plaza after taking down the Bear Flag in July 1846, and the countless works of Historian Huber Bancroft in U.C. Bancroft Library in Berkeley.  There-are many other references to this man who was truly a Solano County pioneer.  Larkin, one of the many Massachusetts citizens prominent in early California history, was for years the American consul in Monterey before we became American territory.

Some of his cohorts were Sam Brannan (founder of Calistoga), Jacob P. Leese (General Vallejo’s close friend), Dean Atherton (whose name was given to a city in San Mateo), Nathan Spear (a street in San Francis-co), etc.  Some of these men took out Mexican citizenship and married into the aristocracy of Mexican California (the Ortega, Martinez, and Carillo families and others), which enabled them to accumulate large Mexican land grants.

One of Larkin’s activities in early days was as a trader acquiring large cargoes of hats, shoes, woolens, hardware, cotton fabrics and fancy goods from Boston in exchange for hides and tallow from Mexican California farms. With that activity came wealth and influence.  By purchase or assignment, Larkin had acquired large ranchos in upper Sacramento Valley, in Colusa County, at Point Lobos, Manual Jimeno’s huge land grant in Sacramento County, the Boga Rancho on the Feather River, the Cienega de Gabilan Rancho in Monterey County, Carmel Rancho, part ownership in a quicksilver mine in San Benito County, and more.  With Semple, Larkin purchased the site for Benicia ‘from Mariano Vallejo with certain stipulations - that he name the city-to-be for Vallejo’s wife, Francesca Benicia Carillo, establish a ferry to Martinez, and so on.

But Larkin and Semple, had other ideas - to make Benicia a state capital (which succeeded for two years) and a port of entry with a custom house, build a railroad to Marysville (which South Vallejo succeeded in doing first), and persuade the Pacific Mail Steamship Co. to operate between there and the East Coast.  This latter ambition did succeed very admirably. For several years anyone in San Francisco wishing to travel to the East Coast by boat had to come to Benicia by ferry to board the eastbound Pacific Mail steamer.

Undoubtedly it was because of his friendship with Maj. (and governor) Persifer F. Smith, U.S. Army, which helped establish the Benicia Arsenal a Solano County fixture for more than 110 years.  Larkin also cultivated the acquaintanceship of Commodore Thomas Catesby Jones, commander of the Pacific Squadron, and then tried to convince Congress that its appropriation for a $150,000 floating drydock and $74,000 for a site should be assigned to Benicia.  But, as most readers know, it was the recommendation of a commission headed by Commodore John D. Stoat that succeeded in having Mare Island selected and purchased, and sent Commander David Glasgow Farragut here on Sept. 16, 1854, to build the great naval station within our city limits.

Larkin also owned property in Sonoma and Los Angeles counties.  While Larkin’s business activities concerned merchandising, mining and real estate, in 1851 he be-came an organizer and director of the Pacific and Atlantic Railroad Co.; two years later he joined with Sam Brannan in a petition to the city of San Francisco for a franchise to build a street railway on’ Market Street; he was the largest stockholder in the San Francisco and Sacramento Railroad, and participated in plans for a transcontinental railroad. The latter was not accomplished until 1869.  At the age of 56 in 1858 Larkin died; his will left many bequests in addition to what he left for his wife and children.

The former American consul to Mexican California, the founder of Benicia, one of the state’s largest land-owners, a leader in transportation proposals, and an exceptionally successful merchandiser has certainly left . one of the glamorous stories in the California heritage.  Professor emeritus Paul W. Gates of Cornell University, who wrote the California Historical article, and Bancroft, in his many volumes of early California in-habitants, have recorded the history of a man who in perhaps less than 15 years left permanent footprints in the history of our area.