Giddyup!: Four ladies wait in a buggy outside the Silver Pharmacy in Pleasanton, circa 1880s. (Photo courtesy of Museum on Main in Pleasanton)

Before it was home to the Alameda County Fairgrounds, Safeway headquarters and more than 80,000 Bay Area residents, the city of Pleasanton was a Gold Rush stopover rife with bandits and cattle, set amongst a grove of sycamore trees — it was then called Alisal, nicknamed “The Most Desperate Town in the West.”

Local historians say that may be a little dramatic. 

Pre-contact, the Indigenous Ohlone people populated the now-called Amador Valley and much of what is now “the Bay Area.”

The first Spanish missionaries arrived in 1772, but seemingly dawdled for a few decades before establishing Mission San Jose in 1797. For half a century or so, the population was sparse and life was quaint, even with many rancheros receiving land grants from the Mexican government and California’s annexation to the United States in 1848. Three major changes would impact Alisal’s transition into Pleasanton — gold, war and railroads. 

Mission San Jose in Alameda County is seen in half of an 1866 stereoview published by Lawrence & Houseworth. (Image courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Ken MacLennan has been the curator of Pleasanton’s Museum on Main for the last 12 years. The museum is housed in the former Town Hall building on Main Street, where legend and Wikipedia say desperados shot at each other and robbed miners of their daily hauls.

The museum hosts year-round exhibits of different eras in the city’s history from its first inhabitants, the Ohlone people, to Spanish missionaries and Anglo settlers, to the impacts of both world wars.

The museum has little on the almost-mythic period of Alisal’s existence, MacLennan wrote in an email, because “we have never had enough material (either artifacts of historical documentation) to support an in-depth exhibit about a period that was less than two decades and had almost nonexistent news coverage. Most of the lore surrounding the Pleasanton area in the 1850s consists of family stories that lack documentary support.”

“Lore” is apt.

Few documents exist to support Alisal’s existence, and those that do MacLennan says don’t make for a very compelling exhibition.

A Pleasanton Downtown Historic Context Statement from 2015 barely mentions it as a ranching community, incorporated into Alameda County in 1853. The Alisal Wikipedia page is seriously lacking in citations. Even the local newspapers dating from the 1860s and 1870s, according to MacLennan, referred to the area as Pleasanton. “Alisal” was used as an alternative name or alluded to as the prior name, now outdated with the influx of Anglo-Americans.

Still, the “Most Desperate Town in the West” lives on, if only in reputation. 

Juan Pablo Bernal, above, and his brother Augustín, owned the land grant that was to become Pleasanton. (Photo courtesy of Museum on Main)

After the end of the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), among many other reverberating national changes, the United States cracked down on landowner residency (rather, lack thereof) on their ranches, and landowners could no longer run things remotely.

Opening up the territory to settlement brought, among others like the eponymous Robert Livermore, three very important men to the area: the Bernal brothers, Augustín and Juan Pablo, and John W. Kottinger, Juan Pablo’s son-in-law, who in 1864 would christen the town as Pleasanton after U.S. Civil War Union Maj. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton. Yes, with two “o’s.” Apparently, there was a typo at the clerk’s office.

An early town store was built where the Pleasanton Hotel now stands, and there are paved streets named after the Bernals and Kottinger where there was once valley dust. 

Despite the gold and new land laws, not many flocked to Alisal in the 1850s, the land of sycamores, or alders, as is the direct translation. Its proximity to mining sites, lack of political supervision and established horse-driving routes made it a great hideout for bandoleros, desperados and all manner of gun-slinging, sheriff-shooting criminals.

John W. Kottinger, the founder of Pleasanton. (Photo courtesy of Museum on Main)

This is where the “desperate” reputation comes from, but MacLennan insists there isn’t much to differentiate the Alisal shenanigans than any neighboring town. 

“From the 1850s into the early 1870s, the valley was a favorite hideout for outlaws, since it was so thinly populated. Somehow this later got translated to the entire “West,” largely by people who wanted to play up the more dramatic aspects of local history. To be fair, Laddsville (later Livermore) had just as bad a reputation as Pleasanton did, and for the same reasons,” MacLennan wrote in an email. 

The desperados in question are as mythic as the land they supposedly lived, robbed and killed on.

One of the earliest figures, Joaquín Murrieta, may be the most notorious.

MacLennan has not found any evidence that Murrieta, a Robin Hood figure of his time, committed crimes within the immediate Pleasanton area, but there are rumors his mother lived nearby.

This newspaper illustration of the bandit Joaquín Murrieta by Thomas Armstrong, titled “Joaquin, the Mountain Robber,” was published in the Sacramento Union Steamer Edition on April 22, 1853. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

If you’re not a fan of the Western genre, Murrieta inspired the first novel to be published in California, “The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta,” as well as the character Zorro. states he was killed by a special team of California Rangers on July 25, 1853. His head was severed and preserved in a large jar of whiskey so the rangers could collect the bounty on him. Allegedly, the head went on display at a San Francisco museum until the 1906 earthquake destroyed it. 

With the new generation of residents in the Gold Rush era came new bandoleros, and newspapers to contextualize who these men were.

Murrieta had a nephew, known as Procopio or Red Dick, who was 12 at the time of his uncle’s death by the rangers and who supposedly followed in his crooked footsteps.

There was also Juan Soto (no, not the baseball player), who an 1871 article in the Daily Alta California described as “the worst man of that class who has lived since the famous Joaquin Murietta,” though it looks like there may be a name-spelling error. Soto died in a shootout with Alameda County Sheriff Harry Morse in 1871, and by then most of the desperados were dead, jailed or back in Mexico.

MacLennan acknowledges that newspaper reporting at the time was far from the Society of Professional Journalists standards employed today and “you will occasionally find stuff that is made up.”

Life went on, quietly.

The Southern Pacific Railroad Station in Pleasanton, circa 1890. (Image courtesy of Museum on Main)

The local population didn’t even reach 500 until what at the time was called the Western Pacific Railroad finished its construction through Pleasanton in 1869. By then, Kottinger had served as local town judge, stepped down to move to San Francisco, delved into real estate and returned to capitalize on the growing white population.

“In 1862, the railroad was announced, and the following year John Kottinger started selling plots near the planned route,” MacLennan said. “In 1868-69, the railroad was built after a hiatus, and Kottinger got together with his neighbor and fellow Bernal in-law Joshua Neal to draw up a town plan, which they filed with the county. The name on the town plan is ‘Pleasanton.’ After that, some people might use the name ‘Alisal,’ but by 1869, the town is definitely Pleasanton.”

And just like that, it seems, Alisal was no more. MacLennan believes the mysticism comes from Pleasanton’s current economic prosperity, in part as the headquarters of multiple corporations and upstanding citizens. Its “respectability” is what allows the myth to live on. 

“It’s safe to go back to the ‘shoot ’em up years’ as ‘shoot ’em up years.’ We can treat it as entertainment, not something to sweep it under the rug,” he said. 

Who knows, maybe five years from now the Museum on Main will host a coronavirus exhibition documenting how the city transitioned through a new historic period. 

“Curating that exhibit would be a challenging experience,” MacLennan said.