Known Only by the Space They Briefly Occupied

Annabelle Long

Peter Mathews land in the Carnall & Eyre Map of Berkeley, 1880

February 2022

On the 1880 Carnall and Eyre Map of Berkeley, there is nothing remarkable about the land owned by Peter Mathews except, maybe, for the fact that “Mathews” lacks a second “T.”1 The text reading “Peter Mathews” is plain and serifed, the land he owned appears beige and undeveloped, and it requires a significant stretch of the imagination to conceive of anything exciting occurring there, in that apparently yet-un-built-upon pocket of West Berkeley. The land was empty and fertile, and to Peter Mathews, it probably smelled of untilled earth and the very thing he’d left Ireland for in 1849: opportunity. The Mathews Tract, as his land would come to be known, was his foothold into Berkeley, the first sign of his new Californian wealth, and it would go on to become a thriving, working-class neighborhood for long after his death. But the story of the development of his land was not without its complications, and the Mathews Tract saw much more disorder than its idyllic-looking, generic-reading map depictions would indicate. Peter Mathews himself, for the most part, stayed out of it, the industrious, pious patriarch of a large family and a larger plot of land, but his sons did not, and even his careful management of his property could not prevent trouble from tumbling into it and out of it. There is a rich history to the neighborhood now known more for the broad greensward and playing fields of San Pablo Park than for Peter Mathews. Being that the land bore his name for half a century, and that there is indeed still a Mathews Street, just west of the park, the events of his life and of his land, when it was indeed still his land, are worth paying some attention to.

Peter Mathews was born in County Meath, Ireland in 1821, the second son of two parents that the historical record remembers only as Mr. and Mrs. Mathews.2 An 1883 history of Alameda County says that his parents shaped his conscience in “virtue and that pure simplicity of faith which characterized him in after life as a man.”3 This, while flattering, seems to be only part of the picture of Mathews, who seemed driven by a dogged desire to succeed despite all obstacles as much as by his faith. The 1883 history describes him as hard-working and interested in business from a young age, “especially that business so peculiar to County Meath.”4 What this peculiar business was, the history neglects to say, but Mathews traded cattle between Ireland and Great Britain until 1849, the fifth year of the famine, and the year he left his country for America.5 His older brother, John Mathews, preceded him in immigrating to the United States by two years, and he lived in Boston, Massachusetts for six years.6 Peter Mathews spent nine months in Salem, Massachusetts before permanently heading west, “following the train of his business thoughts.”7

In California, predictably for an 1849 immigrant, Peter Mathews looked for gold. He spent four years in the mines, “moving hither and thither,” but apparently without much luck.8 Ever the striver, he left the ungenerous mountains for the Sacramento Valley, and he left the Sacramento Valley for the untapped opportunities of Alameda County, where his wife’s father, another Irish immigrant, controlled a significant amount of land. Patrick Dunnigan, Mathews’s father-in-law, had four daughters, and he reserved four plots of land to give to each of them upon their weddings.9 That reserved land did not become the Mathews Tract, but in any case, the 1883 history recalls that “at no time was Peter Mathews other than a rich man since his arrival in Oakland until his death.”10 Most of the Dunnigan farm (which was located between 59th and 60th streets) was eventually donated for railroad right-of-way.11 John Mathews followed his brother west in 1854 after purchasing “squatter’s rights,” and the two brothers established themselves as some of Alameda County’s most prominent men.12

Plots 56, 57 & 58 in Kellersberger’s Map, surveyed in 1853 and partitioned in 1854.

The land that Peter Mathews owned—the land that became the Mathews Tract—consisted of plots 57, 58, and a portion of Plot 56 in Rancho San Antonio, also known as the Peralta Grant. The Peralta Grant was given by the last Spanish governor of California in 1820 to Lu�s Mar�a Peralta, a sergeant in the Spanish army, in recognition of Peralta’s long and faithful service to his country. In 1842, Peralta divided the land amongst his four sons, who quickly found themselves overwhelmed by squatters who stole and sold their cattle. The Peraltas took their squatters to court, but by the time the United States Supreme Court confirmed their title, they had been forced to sell most of the land to cover legal fees and taxes.13 Consequently, one of the Peralta sons, Jos� Domingo, frequently found himself in debt, unable to pay his county taxes, and in 1862—notably, after Peter Mathews had already purchased some of his land—his property was confiscated by the sheriff and sold at an auction.14 The other Peralta land had been previously sold and partitioned into plots, and these plots were recorded in Kellersberger’s Map, which was surveyed in 1853, partitioned in 1854, and filed on 21 January 1857.15 Peter Mathews is recorded as one of the first twelve landowners in the area after California received statehood; his plots were just three of many. Many of the settlers on Rancho San Antonio land were squatters, as John Mathews had been, and a history of Berkeley states that “…most of them left without a trace… they remain known only by the space they briefly occupied.”16 Peralta “died a wretched man” in 1865.17 A colorfully written and unsympathetic local history criticized his decision to leave his land to his children in an attempt to deny others’ claims to it: “Peralta, this pathetic, stupid, broken man, managed to figure out what was happening much too late.”18 On the Carnall and Eyre map, printed fifteen years after Peralta’s death and nearly thirty years after Mathews came to own land in plots 56, 57, and 58, the land looks no more exciting than it did on the earlier Kellersberger’s map. Two creeks wend through the property, and surrounding plots are visibly further subdivided into neatly squared-off blocks, but nothing appears to be happening on the three sections that Mathews owned. In between the time of Kellersberger’s map and Carnall and Eyres’, though, plenty happened.

The Glasgow Mining Company was one of several mining ventures in which Peter Mathews speculated (Marysville Daily Appeal, 7 February 1875)

Oakland Tribune, 18 August 1876

Peter Mathews died in his home on San Pablo Avenue in 1879, at age 58. According to the 1883 history, he left his eight children a legacy of “honesty, industry, and truth.”20 Read one way, where Peralta left a legacy of being “pathetic, stupid, [and] broken,” Mathews was apparently a model of vigorous business management and fortitude. He founded the Oakland Bank of Savings, engaged in mining speculation, owned properties across the East Bay and in Santa Barbara, and alongside other Irish Catholic settlers in Berkeley, he offered up a portion his land to the San Francisco Sisters of Presentation to build their convent.21 Mathews and his other Irish Catholic acquaintances were eager to establish a more robust religious life in Berkeley, especially as it pertained to educating his children, which is why he was so intent on recruiting the Sisters of Presentation, a teaching order, to Berkeley.22 The Sisters didn’t end up building on his land, instead building on land offered to them by James McGee, another prominent businessman and member of the Berkeley Irish Catholic community, but Mathews’ offer of his land displays his public reputation for “honesty, industry, and truth.” His children’s adherence to these principles, though, certainly remains up for debate.

The Mathews homestead, 2853 San Pablo Avenue, in the 1911 Sanborn fire insurance map

Peter Mathews and Mary Dunnigan had eight children: Mary Alice, Charles, Peter Jr., John, Annie, Joseph, Teresa, and Francis.23 The family lived in a palatial farmhouse on San Pablo Avenue, and the Mathews Tract was used as farmland while it was under their ownership.24 Upon Peter Mathews Sr.’s death from consumption in 1879, the fate of the Mathews Tract became the responsibility of his two eldest sons, Charles and Peter. Charlie, as he was known, and Peter Jr. did not seem to be particularly interested in following in their father’s footsteps. Peter Jr. worked as a teamster in the stockyards in West Berkeley, driving animals around the yards, and it’s unclear if Charlie worked at all. In 1886, seven years after his father’s death, Peter Jr.’s life took a melodramatic, almost fatal turn that emphasizes the Wild West aura of the Mathews Tract in the years after Spanish control and before development. In October of that year, while he was working at the stockyards for Hayes, Carrick, & Co. wholesale butchery, he provoked—or was provoked by—a fellow teamster, Louis Dockery. Dockery stabbed Mathews twice in the abdomen and fled for San Francisco, wearing a “checked suit and soft felt hat” and armed with a rifle.25 The original reporting on the incident actually alleged that Mathews stabbed Dockery and then fled, but every subsequent report over the months that Mathews was hospitalized and treated for his wounds flipped the attributions.

Oakland Tribune, 11 November 1886

Mathews was not expected to survive his wounds. He suffered from peritonitis, a bacterial infection in his intestines, and an article in the Oakland Tribune described him as “hovering between life and death, with the chances greatly against his recovery.”26 But Mathews persevered, and thanks to the dutiful care of Dr. E. H. Woolsey, he beat the odds. Months later, after Mathews was discharged from Woolsey’s hospital, the Oakland Tribune wrote a short feature about the hospital, praising it for its impeccable service and “pleasant and extensive grounds” and praising Woolsey for his “best and intelligent supervision.”27 Mathews was noted as the hospital’s most famous patient, his case having been regularly written about in the Tribune and elsewhere. So, Peter Mathews Jr. survived his brush with death, his brush with the disorder and apparent lawlessness of the land he lived on. His story, while melodramatic and perhaps reminiscent of something from an old western film, is as telling about the nature of the time as it is about the details of his life: despite being the son (the namesake) of one of Berkeley’s wealthiest men and the grandson of one of Oakland’s wealthiest men, and despite inheriting valuable property that quite literally bore his name, Peter Mathews Jr. still worked in manual labor, and still found himself in the midst of a distinctly unglamorous drama, his insides literally hanging out. “Honesty, industry, and truth”? Maybe, but not obviously.

Charlie Mathews found himself similarly troubled—and even, somehow, further than Peter from their father’s legacy. In August of 1888, the Oakland Tribune wryly reported that “Charlie is evidently trying to follow in the footsteps of his illustrious brother,” the brother being Peter Jr.28 It continued, “Yesterday he dropped into a saloon on San Pablo avenue and while there got into a discussion on athletic subjects with a number of men who were refreshing their desicated [sic] throats with cool lager.”29 This, somewhat predictably, did not end well. Charlie wrestled one of the men, Greco-Roman style, and then wrestled another, and upon beating them both, “A brother and several friends of the vanquished wrestler jumped on Charlie and began to beat him. They thought if they could not beat him wrestling they could beat him with their fists. And they did.”30 From there, the Tribune goes into graphic detail about the rest of Charlie’s near demise: a bulldog was set on him and “took the traditional ground floor” out of his pants (and with it “a large slice of epidermis”), several men stabbed him in the wrist, and the dog almost finished the job when it took a bite out of his ear and scratched his face.31 When Charlie was taken to Dr. Woolsey for treatment—like his “illustrious brother” before him—he said that he had cut his hand by hitting it against a window.32 “Charlie wanted to keep the affair quiet,” the article concludes, “and hence there have been no arrests.”33 The saloon in which the incident took place was in Butchertown—now Emeryville—and the name is fitting for the events that transpired there.

Oakland Tribune, 6 December 1875

The Mathews Tract saw several other Wild West-style events worth noting. In 1875, Peter Mathews’s barn burned down—an act that the paper described as “incendiarism” and that Mathews blamed on vengeful Chinese laborers who worked on a nearby farm. “Mr. Mathews says that a number of his hired hands have lately had several ‘musses’ with the Chinamen on an adjoining ranch,” the paper said, “in fact, had ‘wallopped’ some of them—and that it might be that some ‘Heathen Chinee’ now consider they are about even.”34 Other records reveal no more information about this fire, or the veracity of Mathews’s obviously charged allegations, but this report alone is revelatory of tensions that defined life on and near the Mathews Tract. Census records from 1870 and 1880 reveal a fledgling Chinese population amongst west Berkeley’s thriving Irish one. In 1870, records indicate that across Alameda County, there were several households of Chinese laborers—all bachelors, all immigrants—and a few other Chinese immigrants who worked as live-in laborers for white families.35 Nearly all Chinese immigrants were listed as having the last name “Ah.” Mathews’s allegations fall within an important broader context of relations between Irish and Chinese laborers in California. Some have argued that Irish immigrants fanned the flames of anti-Chinese sentiment in order to secure their own standing in California; their own standing as white.36 Though the cause of the particular “musses” Mathews spoke of have been lost to time, it is more than likely that Mathews and his men were influenced by—and acted on—the prevailing anti-Chinese views of their community. Another noteworthy detail of the barn fire is the fact that the Mathews Tract was “beyond the fire limits” and so “the engines did not proceed to the scene of conflagration.”37 This gives a sense of the Mathews Tract as out in the boonies, beyond the reach or jurisdiction of any sort of government or succor—not yet West Berkeley, but the wild, wild west. And fifteen years later, not much had changed. In 1890, Mrs. Peter Mathews’s barn burned down, killing several horses and other livestock inside.38 No other information is known about this fire, but its occurrence emphasizes the challenges of life on the Mathews Tract, the disorderliness of life in west Berkeley before it was developed and became West Berkeley, the proper noun, not the geographic descriptor.

The same year as that barn fire, though, the Wild West aura of the Mathews family and their tract seemed to fade. Peter Mathews, Jr. got involved in politics, following in the footsteps of his father. He joined a group of men as “Vice Presidents” of Alameda County’s Democratic Party.39 He worked on a congressional campaign for John P. Irish, an anti-women’s suffrage, anti-organized labor, pro-Chinese and Japanese immigration, pro-gold standard newspaperman-cum-politician, who went on to lose his congressional race to Joseph McKenna, the future Associate Justice of the Supreme Court and U.S. Attorney General.40 It is important to note that political involvement did not entirely signal the end of chaos; American political culture at the turn of the twentieth century was still very much a culture of raucousness and disorder, where bosses and gangs prevailed and election days were as much celebrations of debauchery as they were of democracy. In fact, the platform of the Sun and Letter, a West Berkeley-based newspaper that was in circulation from about 1900 to about 1920 (records are sparse), is revealing of much about pre-development West Berkeley. “We stand for the improvement of West Berkeley in every possible way,” it began. “Politically we are independent of any gang or bosses and will support the best men and the best measures. We favor the stopping of all trains at West Berkeley.”41

Daily Alta California, 25 October 1887

The Mathews Tract, subdivided in 1888

The next couple of decades saw the realization of many of these principles, but not without digressions back into chaos. The area saw the arrival of so-called “gypsy” caravans, attempted (and also, successful) stick-ups, and even more incendiary barn fires that somehow landed outside of the jurisdiction of both Berkeley and Oakland fire departments.42 But by 1906, the Mason-McDuffie Company was knocking on the door of the Mathews Tract. It had been almost twenty years since two-thirds of the Mathews Tract had been parceled up and auctioned off by the Woodward and Gamble Company in 1887—then, ads for the properties ran every day, and special train lines were routed from across and outside of California—and Mason-McDuffie was ready to transform the area into Berkeley’s newest, swankiest neighborhood.43 Perhaps “swanky” is not entirely accurate, but Mason-McDuffie certainly saw the area as a diamond in the rough, as it were. In 1906, a provision was made for a “public playground,” and a year later, Mason-McDuffie aggressively advertised the Mathews Tract as “the best of it.”44 “The best of SAN PABLO PARK is now to be sold,” one advertisement said. “The Mathews Homestead, the one un-subdivided block in San Pablo Park, has at last been mapped and will on Saturday be placed on sale in lots. The CHANCE TO SECURE A HOMESITE in the garden locally celebrated for its splendid trees is here.”45

Berkeley Gazette, 11 April 1907

All of the ads were enthusiastic and hyperbolic—probably too dramatic—and all of them described the Mathews Homestead as the crown jewel of the shimmering San Pablo Park neighborhood. “SAN PABLO PARK is coming to be recognized as the tract best suited for modest homes,” another ad read. “There’s a stir in SAN PABLO PARK.”46 The description of development as “a stir” is interesting. It seems to imply that before bungalows popped up, or before there were artfully trimmed hedges and a neat, sprawling park, the area was sleepy. But the area was arguably always stirring. It makes sense that Mason-McDuffie would want to frame the Mathews Tract as the idyllic, scenic area that it appeared to be on maps; if the activity to be spoken of was mostly criminal or agricultural in nature, high-minded, comfort-seeking buyers probably would not have been interested. So instead of being “west of it” or “the rest of it”—as the Mathews Tract’s previous distance from infrastructure and civic activity had maybe previously implied that it was—the Mathews Tract was now marketed as “the best of it.” The brothers were surely proud (if they paid attention).

San Francisco Call, 19 June 1909

Peter Mathews’s legacy is most visible on Mathews Street, located just a block west of San Pablo Park and east of San Pablo Avenue. There, early bungalows sit side-by-side with more modern feats of architecture, and there, no barns have burned down (or existed) for a century. The area, on maps, looks no more exciting than it once did, save for the existence of neatly carved out blocks, but I can imagine similar dramas—maybe less Wild West in nature—unfolding where the Mathews family once lived and worked and recovered from gunshot and knife wounds. It is easy to assume that maps are indicators of activity—because if there were no blocks, and no houses, how could there have been such drama? But the forgotten stories of Peter Mathews and his sons are evidence of what is lost when the human side of history is neglected. How might Berkeley be different if Peter Mathews had found gold in the Sierra Nevadas? If he had left Alameda County when his barn was burned to the ground? If Patrick Dunnigan had not saved land for his daughters? All of these questions are certainly interesting and probably unanswerable, but the point remains the same: Berkeley, along with the rest of the world, is as much the product of very human decisions, and very human dramas and squabbles and misjudgments, as it is the product of bigger, more rememberable political decisions and unchangeable natural forces. Berkeley exists as it does because the land was fertile and the views of the Golden Gate were stunning, yes, but Berkeley also exists as it does because Domingo Peralta could not pay his county taxes, and because Peter Mathews tried his luck in the gold mines and failed, and because Patrick Dunnigan thought his daughters deserved the farmland he owned, and because the Sisters of Presentation built their convent on James McGee’s land, not Peter Mathews’s. Berkeley exists as it does because Peter Mathews once existed here, and that fact, alone, is the source of so many stories worth telling.


This article was researched and written in a seminar at UC Berkeley, “Berkeley’s Built Environment: Two Residential Neighborhoods,” Fall 2021, sponsored by The Art of Writing Program, Professor M. M. Lovell, GSI Elizabeth Fair, as part of a larger project to engage undergraduate students in original research and in Public Art History.


  1. Map of Berkeley, Smith, Carnall, & Eyre, 1880.
  2. Peter Mathews profile in, accessed 23 October 2021.
  3. History of Alameda County, California, Oakland: M. W. Wood, 1883, page 934.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. History of Alameda County, page 933.
  7. History of Alameda County, page 934.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Alan Cohen. A History of Berkeley, From the Ground Up, Chapter 6: The Irish.
  10. History of Alameda County, page 934.
  11. Alan Cohen. A History of Berkeley, From the Ground Up, Chapter 6: The Irish.
  12. History of Alameda County, page 933.
  13. Daniella Thompson. City of Berkeley Landmark Application for the Captain James F. & Cecilia M. Luttrell House, 2328 Channing Way, 2000, page 17.
  14. Alan Cohen. A History of Berkeley, From the Ground Up, Chapter 6: The Disposition of the Peralta Homestead.
  15. Map of the Ranchos of Vincente and Domingo Peralta Containing 16,970.68 Acres, Surveyed by Julius Kellersberger, originally filed 21 January 21, 1857, Recorder’s Office of Alameda County, re-filed June 22, 1870.
  16. Alan Cohen. A History of Berkeley, From the Ground Up, Chapter 6: Introduction.
  17. Alan Cohen. A History of Berkeley, From the Ground Up, Chapter 6: Jose Domingo Peralta.
  18. Ibid.
  19. History of Alameda County, page 934.
  20. History of Alameda County, page 934; Members of the McGee-Spaulding-Hardy Historic Interest Group. “Pioneer Farmer and Benefactor: James McGee,” Berkeley Historical Society Newsletter, Vol. 26, Number 2, Winter 2007, pages 1, 3, 4, 5.
  21. “Pioneer Farmer and Benefactor: James McGee.”
  22. History of Alameda County, page 933.
  23. Ibid.
  24. “A Stockyard Quarrel: A Teamster Seriously Stabbed by a Companion,” San Francisco Chronicle, October 15, 1886, page 3; “Oakland Items,” San Francisco Chronicle, October 16, 1886, page 3.
  25. “Between Life and Death,” Oakland Tribune, November 11, 1886, page 3; “A Remarkable Case: Recovery From a Wound Always Regarded as Fatal,” San Francisco Chronicle, January 9, 1887, page 10.
  26. “The Oakland Hospital: Dr. E.H. Woolsey’s Well-Managed and Finely-Appointed Hotel for Invalids,” Oakland Tribune, January 20, 1887, page 47.
  27. “Rough and Tumble: An Excited Scrimmage Among the Roughs at Butchertown,” Oakland Tribune, August 20, 1888, page 4.
  28. Ibid.
  29. Ibid.
  30. Ibid.
  31. Ibid.
  32. Ibid.
  33. “Incendiarism: A Fire on Saturday and Another on Sunday,” Oakland Tribune, December 6, 1875, page 3.
  34. Year: 1870; Census Place: Oakland, Alameda, California; Roll: M593_68; Page: 247B. 1870 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2009. Images reproduced by FamilySearch.
  35. Frank A. Bozich III. “The Unwanted Immigrant,” James Madison University, 2016, page 72.
  36. Ibid.
  37. “Bay Gleanings,” The Pacific Bee, Sacramento, January 9, 1890, page 8.
  38. “The Democratic Rally: John P. Irish Will Address the Citizens at the Oakland Theater,” Oakland Tribune, October 4, 1890, page 7.
  39. “John P. Irish,” Los Angeles Times, January 8, 1894, page 3.
  40. “Our Platform,” Sun and Letter, August 19, 1905, page 2.
  41. “Emeryville Notes,” Berkeley Gazette, February 27. 1897, page 4; “Held Up at Emeryville,” Berkeley Gazette, June 17, 1903, page 6; “Another West End Fire This Morning: There is Reason to Believe it a Case of Incendiarism,” Berkeley Gazette, August 10, 1897, page 1.
  42. “Credit Sale!” San Francisco Examiner, October 16, 1887, page 8; “Lots at Auction: Sale of the Smith Subdivision of the Mathews Tract,” Oakland Tribune, October 29, 1887, page 5.
  43. “Routine Business of Board,” Berkeley Gazette, November 27, 1906, page 3; “The Best of It,” Berkeley Gazette, April 11, 1907, page 10.
  44. Ibid.
  45. “A Stir in San Pablo Park,” Berkeley Gazette, April 18, 1907, page 12.

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