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Must-see historical site in Milpitas: José Maria de Jesus Alviso Adobe and Rancho Milpitas

This is the second article in a continuing series published in The Milpitas Beat describing historical sites in Milpitas from information provided by the Milpitas Historical Society.



Since the opening of the José Alviso Adobe Park in 2013, the Milpitas Historical Society has been conducting docent-led tours of this historic site to help the community appreciate its importance. Prior to that time, we have been providing historical information about the José Alviso Adobe, built nearly two centuries ago, and about Rancho Milpitas at two websites: Steve Munzel’s website, as well as ours.

Lately, in preparation for the opening of the Adobe as a museum by the City of Milpitas, I intensified my research into the site’s past to ensure the accuracy of information about it. This effort has yielded both new insight as well as corrected a few “facts” in its orthodox history. We hope you enjoy the resulting article. 


Background about the Adobe

The José Maria Alviso Adobe in Milpitas is the only remaining original Monterey Colonial style building in the San Francsico Bay Area. It is also historic in another sense – it is the oldest continuously occupied adobe house in California (about 150 years, until the 1980s).

Its architectural style features such elements as a hipped roof in which all sections meet the roofline (refer back to first photo) in contrast with a peaked roof, hand-split wood shingles rather than Spanish tile, wood balconies, paired French doors, multi-panel windows, interior fireplaces for heating, and a symmetrical layout (typically three rooms downstairs and three rooms upstairs).

The Monterey Colonial style, which combines Hispanic and Anglo architectural traditions, was originally developed by Thomas Oliver Larkin, a merchant who immigrated from Boston, Massachusetts in 1832 to Monterey, then capitol of Mexican Alta California. He began construction of his own house in 1835, which was completed in 1837. In 1843, twenty-two years after Alta California switched from Spanish to Mexican administration, Larkin was appointed the region’s only American Consul, and in 1849 he was a signer of the first California Constitution in preparation for its imminent statehood. 


Family Background

José Maria de Jesus Alviso (1798-1853) was the son of Francisco Xavier Alviso (1765-1803), and the grandson of Domingo Alviso (1739-1777). Domingo was one of thirty-eight soldados in Juan Bautista de Anza’s expedition of 1775-1776 to colonize Alta California; Francisco Xavier was one of four Alviso children in that migration of mostly military and four civilian families. By authorizing this colonization, the Viceroy of New Spain, Antonio Maria de Bucareli y Ursúa, was strengthening Spain’s claim on Alta California in order to thwart settlement by foreign powers.

As a young adult, José enlisted in 1819 as a soldado in the San Francisco Company, continuing in the military tradition of his father and grandfather, but he left after a short career of eight years in 1827. He became a ranchero as early as 1828 with a herd of two hundred cattle grazing on rangeland he did not own but had obtained permission to use; his post-military life also included a brief foray in civic service in 1836 when he was elected Alcaldé (magistrate and lay judge) of El Pueblo de San José de Guadalupe.


Early History of Rancho Milpitas

On September 23rd, 1835, “the tract of land named Milpitas” on which the Alviso Adobe was built was granted to “Don José Maria Alviso” by then Estados Unidos Mexicanos’ Acting Governor of Alta California, Lt. Colonel José Castro. At first, the grant provided land measuring 1 Castilian league north-south by one-half league east-west, which amounts to about 2,228 acres, but nine days later, on October 2nd, Castro doubled the grant to a full square league of 4,457.66 acres). José Alviso had always petitioned for one square league, but it was repeatedly being cut it half. Today we know his persistent effort to secure a rancho for himself had been an arduous, labyrinthine pursuit because Alviso’s original application was filed five and one-half years earlier on March 1st, 1830 with the Mission of Santa Clara de Asis, well before the Secularization Act of 1833 that transferred authority regarding land ownership from the Church to civic authorities. Numerous applications followed until he was successful.

Later, another life-reshaping complication arose. All early Spanish and post-1821 Mexican land grants were affected by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the 1846-1848 war between Mexico and the United States. All of Alta California — in today’s terms, all of California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, and the western half of New Mexico (the eastern half became part of Texas) — was ceded to the United States as part of this treaty, which officially attempted to respect Hispanic ownership rights by stipulating that early landholders would retain their property if they could legally prove their ownership, a task which proved to be both difficult and very expensive.

On March 3, 1856, the California Land Commission confirmed Alviso’s land title, but this decision was legally contested by Nicholas Antonio Berryessa Jr. (1789-1873), whose son Carlos Antonio in 1841 had married Juana Francisca Josefa Maria Galindo, sister of José Maria Alviso’s wife. This challenge was undertaken by Nicholas Berryessa because in April 1834 he had been granted ownership by the Alcaldé of El Pueblo de San José to some land adjoining the tract of land being requested by José Alviso, thus the legal boundary became a point of contention later. Ultimately, the Berryessa’s heirs failed in their claim to Rancho Milpitas when, on October 16th, 1865, the Land Commission rejected their appeal and reaffirmed José Alviso’s original land grant from Acting Governor Castro. On June 30th, 1871, a final patent was issued to Alviso’s estate, José himself having died in 1853. 


This September 8th, 1863 map of Milpitas Rancho, documentation in José Maria Alviso’s probate court hearings, also marks the location of “Milpitas Village” in the northwest corner of the Rancho (see the inset enlargement in the upper corner).


With the advent of the Gold Rush and the growing groundswell of westward migration to California, Oregon and Washington states in the 1850s, incoming settlers started a small but thriving community called “Penitencia” named after the nearby Penitencia Creek (it is today’s straightened flood control canal on the west side of Abel Street), but the township also appeared on some maps as “Milpitas Village,” after its namesake, Rancho Milpitas.

Although early maps consistently identify the tract of land as Rancho Milpitas or Milpitas Rancho, José Alviso also named this property Rancho San Miguel, in my opinion in honor of his grandparents who were born and married in San Miguel de Horcasitas, Sonora, New Spain before their migration to Alta California in 1776. This “alternate” name appears on several deeds to various individuals, including one dated February 14th, 1856 for a northwestern portion of land sold to Milpitas township pioneer Michael Hughes. 


Other details about life on Rancho Milpitas

According to the history described in the National Register of Historic Places Registration Form filed in 1997 by the City of Milpitas, the original Alviso Adobe was built in 1837 as a single-story Spanish-style adobe. It is worth noting that by then, the Alviso family was comprised of José, his wife Juana Francisca Galindo, as well as six children ranging in age from 12 years to 2 years. This raises a substantive question in my mind: Was the family residing in another location before 1837, such as in El Pueblo de San José de Guadalupe, where José had been Alcaldé the year before, or, instead, was the Alviso Adobe actually built earlier than 1837? 

A major clue is contained in José’s second petition dated November 1st, 1834 asking again for a grant of the tract of land that eventually became Rancho Milpitas. He in part declares there (in the following translation from the original Spanish), “I herewith present for the purpose of asking for the concession of the said tract of land in ownership within the limits described on the map, in consideration of the stock (author’s note: his earlier herd of 200 cattle by then had grown into a herd of 600 cattle and 30 mares) I possess as set forth and the improvements I have on said place, consisting of two walled houses, an orchard of sixty fruit trees, and a vineyard of six hundred vines, and other lands enclosed and cultivated.” Such extensive “improvements” were offered frequently as proof that the prospective grantee was acting to utilize the land productively as an upstanding member of the community and not let the land be idle as a personal instrument of land speculation. Given this fairly detailed documentation, I ask, were either of these “two walled houses” actually the same one (albeit upgraded years later to two stories) that currently exists? If yes, which I believe is certainly possible and even likely, then today’s adobe actually was built in 1834 or earlier and not in 1837 or later.

As José’s children grew up to raise their own families, several additional adobes were built to the south along Piedmont Road, but they were demolished in the early 1900s after those Alviso descendants no longer owned these partitions of land.

Originally Rancho Milpitas had been part of the outlying area of El Pueblo de San José de Guadalupe. Indeed, proof of this is that almost all of José’s grant applications for “the tract of land named Milpitas” had been carefully reviewed and recommended to the Governor by the Ayuntamiento (i.e., Town Council) of the Pueblo. The time-consuming procedure even required the testimony of three upstanding citizens to certify his worthiness as a member of the community.


Some aspects of early life in Milpitas Village

Only a little more than a decade later, a whirlwind of unforeseen events blew in. In the mid-1800s, new fortune-seeking settlers poured in from the eastern U.S. and elsewhere because of the California Gold Rush and its prospects of statehood. Upon leaving the gold fields (after having struck it rich, though more commonly not), or even bypassing them entirely, new Milpitas townfolk settled on the western edge of the Rancho along what was referred to as The Mission Road (from El Pueblo San José Guadalupe to Mission San José); others put down roots in the more open eastern foothill rangelands. They typically grew private gardens of squash, corn, beans and other edible crops along or near the banks of the nearby Penitencia and Coyote Creeks. Penitencia Creek was the western boundary of Rancho Milpitas; Coyote Creek was the western boundary of Rincon de los Esteros. 

Briefly Milpitas township was known as Penitencia by its locals until the first postmaster objected that the name was too reminiscent of “penitentiary,” which is quite ironic because in this era Milpitas is the site of Elmwood Correctional Facility. During the 1870s immigrant John O’Toole owned a 584-acre property in southern Milpitas with Elmwood trees lining the lane leading from the Mission Road (aka the Old Oakland Highway) to his residence; it was later purchased by Santa Clara County to be used initially as an almshouse (a home for the poor), but it gradually transitioned into housing for low-security inmates presaging its current use.

Like the townspeople, José Maria Alviso grew some table crops near to the Adobe, close to the Arroyo de los Coches that ran along the northern boundary of his land, but primarily he was a conventional Hispanic ranchero who raised cattle. It should be noted that during the Spanish and Mexican eras, the chief source of income for the owners of ranchos came from the sale (or desirable trade) of cattle hides and tallow, a practice described in detail in the 1840 book by Richard Henry Dana, Two Years Before the Mast. Thus, during the Mexican era, there existed a highly commercial and profitable shipping economy of exporting goods from Alta Californa and importing other goods from the Eastern United States.

As José’s family expanded to nine children, additional living space was needed, so a second story was added to Alviso Adobe in the early 1850s, transforming his original single-story Spanish Adobe with 22-inch thick adobe walls into the Monterey Colonial style described previously. 


The fragmentation of Rancho Milpitas

Juana Francisca Galindo Alviso (1806-1885), widow of José, in 1858 married her manager of Milpitas Rancho, José Galacion Urridias, not long after he was hired, as it turns out, who thereafter acted as guardian of the three youngest Alviso children. 

Sadly, the pressure of unstoppable and life-altering changes resulted in the beginning of the slow dissolution of Rancho Milpitas. A major reason was that legal expenses incurred to defend the Alviso family title to the property necessitated an occasional need for hard-to-come-by cash, resulting in acreage being sold off piece by piece as legal action seemed to never end. Another reason for decreasing the amount of the Rancho acreage was providing inheritances of property to José’s descendants.

Sometime about 1871, with the Rancho’s title finally secured, the now twice-widowed Juana gave her second oldest daughter, Maria Carmen Alviso (1829-1890), then wife of Jose Antonio Narvaez (1824-1901), a 78.79-acre parcel of land that included the current Alviso Adobe. Juana also gave her youngest daughter, Maria Guadalupe de los Angeles Alviso (1844-1920), wife of Bartolome Sepulveda (1839-1926), a 35-acre section of land (south of Maria Carmen’s section) on which there was another (probably smaller) adobe. 

When Juana died in 1882, the remaining land that had not been sold off previously was legally partitioned among the surviving nine descendants. That land is depicted in a plat map dated 1890 and is referred to as “The Urridias Partition” running west of the Alviso Adobe along Calaveras Road and extending partly toward the Oakland Highway (our Main Street).


The Cuciz era of Rancho Milpitas begins

The Cuciz family bought the northeastern section of the original Rancho from the Gleason family in 1922. This property had been inherited earlier by Catherine Christina Narvaez (1857-1948) from her mother, Maria Carmen Alviso Narvaez, who in turn had received it from her mother, Juana Francisca Galindo Alviso. Thus, Catherine Narvaez was the direct granddaughter of José Maria de Jesus Alviso and the wife of James A. Gleason (1857-1919), so the chain of title is clearly established and definitively identifies who sold the property to the Cuciz’s.

The Cuciz family gradually made many improvements to their farm and the house. They planted orchards of fruit trees, replaced the original exterior lean-to kitchen with an attached kitchen addition integrated within the house, remodeled and electrified the interior, erected a water tankhouse, built a carriage shed, a drying shed, and a barn partly constructed of timbers salvaged from three adobes that were town down, all of which is documented in the site’s Historic Landmark registration of 1997. 

Even so, while making these changes, they respectfully retained as much of the historical legacy of the original property as practicable. In the early 1980s, the Cucizes sold most of the property to the nearby Calvary Assembly of God Church. 


The final transformation of Rancho Milpitas and its Adobe into a public park

The City of Milpitas acquired the historic Adobe site, which includes 2.2 acres of land, from the Calvary Church in 1996, and this building is now an historic landmark in final stages of restoration (from an architectural point of view, more accurately the Adobe has been renovated, that is, refinished and repurposed for its new role as a multi-faceted museum). 

The City of Milpitas has spent almost two decades strengthening the residence against earthquakes and slowly repaired it and the outbuildings to yield the current historic park. It showcases the original Mission black fig tree, two old sycamores (one dating back an estimated 165+ years), as well as replanted apricot trees to evoke the orchard that previously existed during the Cuciz period. Positioned under the giant sycamore is older-era farm equipment donated by the family of the now-deceased Mabel Mattos, former Milpitas historian and namesake of the newest Milpitas elementary school, not far from the Great Mall.

In Spring of 2013 the City had a dedication ceremony opening this public park located at Alviso Adobe Court cul-de-sac near Piedmont and Calaveras Roads. The grounds are securely gated at night to protect the historic buildings, but Alviso Park is opened for visitation in the morning and closed about dusk. In terms of facilities, it provides two bathrooms and eight picnic tables located around four grills for cooking hot food. Also, there is prominent signage providing historical information at many places of interest within the park.

Happily, the renovated and adapted ground floor of the Alviso Adobe is nearly completed and will be opening as a museum providing docent-led tours for the public in general and by special arrangement for busloads of curious Milpitas students. In doing so, the Alviso Adobe will become alive again with people ambling through its historic spaces and teaching people about life spanning almost two centuries.


The recently restored Alviso Adobe residence as it appeared in 2013. (Photo courtesy of Joseph Ehardt, Milpitas Historical Society)


Joseph Ehardt
Joseph Ehardt is a research local historian with the Milpitas Historical Society and one of its annual historical tour docents. Additionally, he is the Society’s current Director of Educational Outreach Programs, which supports Milpitas’ elementary school teachers with local history presentations for young students. He also is a member of the Society’s Board of Directors.



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