Friday, December 3, 2021

Update: What's that group of animals called?

 I got curious... 



... so I did a little follow-up research. 

Although I had a PDF of The Book of St. Albans, I somehow could not find the terms of venery in the file.  And that bothered me.  

As Isaac Asimov said, "the most important word in science isn't Eureka, but that's funny..."  (QuoteInvestigator)  

And it was funny that I couldn't actually find the collective nouns in the text.  

So I did a little more searching... 

After a bit (continuing on after I'd already written the previous blogpost), I learned that they're in the "Hunting" section of the book. 

Recall that the St. Albans book comes in multiple parts: there are treatises on hawking, hunting, and cote armour (heraldry and coats of arms).   It was printed at Saint Albans by the schoolmaster-printer in 1486, and you can download a scan of a facsimile of the book at Google Books.  That is, the Google Books document is a scan of a copy (a facsimile) of a book that was printed with some commentary to explain why this book is so important.  

Alas, that scan is difficult to read and the Google Books version doesn't help out by not providing page numbers.  (So I couldn't tell what pages I'd read or not!)  

But by searching for [ Boke of Saint Albans ] in the Hathi Trust and in the Internet Archive, I managed to find a couple more high-quality scans of facsimiles.  

In particular, the Hathi Trust version of "The boke of Saint Albans by Dame Juliana Berners, containing treatises on hawking, hunting, and cote armour: printed at Saint Albans by the schoolmaster-printer in 1486; reproduced in facsimile, with an introduction by William Blades" was a bit easier to read, and after a while, I found the section I was looking for--the list of venery terms.  Or, as it appears in the book, "The Compaynys of beestys and fowlys."  Note that the pages don't have numbers... the book predates the common use of page numbers!  HOWEVER... In the Hathi Trust version, these are pages 121, 122, 123. (That's the little numbers you see in the upper right corner of each scan.)    {Note: You can also find these pages on the Internet Archive's scan, beginning with page 114




This text is a bit difficult to read (it IS from the very end of the era of Middle English), so the spellings and characters used are very different that what you'd expect in a current English text. 

Still, if you read carefully, on page 121 you can find (in the left column, 4 up from the bottom), "An unkyndenes of Rauenes" (that is, "an unkindness of Ravens").  

There are other nice terms here: a Gaggle of geese, a Doctrine of doctors, a Melody of harpers, a Herd of harts (deer), a Congregation of people.  

And, also on page 121, left column, in the middle, "an Exaltynge of larkys" (that is, "an exaltation of larks")  followed by "a watche of nyghtyngalys" ("a watch of nightingales"). 

This is wonderful, but it's still hard to read.  What are all of those other terms?  

I figured SOMEONE must have written this all out in translation.  But how was I to find this? 

Answer: Search for a very uncommon phrase that would only appear in translation!  After trying a few of the phrases above, I finally tried this search: 

     [ "a bery of conies" ] 

(although this search also works with ["a sprynge of telis"] and ["a thong of barons"])  

In all cases, these searches led me to a remarkable paper "A Compilation of Collective Nouns" by Maurice L. Hooks.  (There's a downloadable version--many thanks Dr. Hooks.)  

In this remarkable paper, Hooks gives us a line-by-line translation of the Albans text.  Here's page 6 from his text: 

A page from "A Compilation of Collective Nouns" by M. L. Hooks


He unpacks and translates the terms I don't recognize, and in the process we learn wonderful things: 

   A shrewdness of asses
   A pace of asses
   A city of badgers 
   A tabernacle of bakers
   A mumuration of starlings

Including some that are obviously here for fun: 

   A goring of butchers 
   A school of clerks 
   An intoxication of cobblers 
   An incredibility of cuckolds 
   A charm of finches

But interestingly, we learn here that "a murder of crows" is NOT in the Saint Albans book, but first appears in the work of John Lydgate whose book, Hors, Shepe, & Ghoos (1470), seems to have the first use of "murder" as a collective noun for crows.   

And now we know.  

Keep searching!  



Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Answer: What's that group of animals called?

Murder, charm, pod, stand...

From Pexabay.com (free images!) 

... they're all supposed to be names for groups of animals.  But are they, really?  Or are they simply made up by someone as a kind of joke?  

Such questions the enquiring mind wants to know!  So, today, a fairly straightforward couple of questions that will open your mind to running down the true origins of words.

1. What are these kinds of terms called?  (That is, what do you call words that denote a specific name for a group of a particular kind of animal, such as as "pack" of wolves.)  What's THAT called?  (Once you know this term, perhaps it will be simpler to figure this out... 

In this case I happen to know the term for a collection of somethings.  If you've got a collection of things that are not meaningfully divisible, such as luggage or happiness, then that's a mass noun.  (Which, btw, is never used with the indefinite article!  You wouldn't say "a luggage" or "a happiness.") 

By contrast, the term for a collection of arbitrary things is a collective noun, words like crew, team, committee, or pack.  This also includes collective nouns for animals: pod, swarm, flock, etc.  

But for this Challenge, what's the specific term for the collective noun of particular kinds of animals?  

     [ collective noun animals ] 

leads to a bunch of great resources, including the inevitable Wikipedia page, List of Animal Names.  

But if you look at the Wikipedia page for Collective Nouns, you'll learn that 

"...Some collective nouns are specific to one kind of thing, especially terms of venery, which identify groups of specific animals. For example, "pride" as a term of venery always refers to lions, never to dogs or cows. Other examples come from popular culture such as a group of owls, which is called a "parliament."  

I'd heard that term before, but couldn't recall it without looking at that page.  But let's drill down a bit on that term ("venery").  Continuing farther down the page of Collective Nouns, we read: 

"The tradition of using "terms of venery" or "nouns of assembly," collective nouns that are specific to certain kinds of animals, stems from an English hunting tradition of the Late Middle Ages. The fashion of a consciously developed hunting language came to England from France. It was marked by an extensive proliferation of specialist vocabulary, applying different names to the same feature in different animals. The elements can be shown to have already been part of French and English hunting terminology by the beginning of the 14th century. In the course of the 14th century, it became a courtly fashion to extend the vocabulary, and by the 15th century, the tendency had reached exaggerated and even satirical proportions."

There's even a reference to several books, most notably the Book of Saint Albans  (1486) which lists 164 terms of venery, many of which are clearly humorous, such as "a Doctryne of doctoris," "a Sentence of Juges," "a Fightyng of beggers," "a Melody of harpers," "a Disworship of Scottis," and so forth.  

Apparently, the Book of Saint Albans became very popular during the 16th century and had the effect of perpetuating many of these terms as part of the Standard English lexicon even if they were originally meant to be humorous and have long ceased to have any practical application. The popularity of the terms in the modern period has resulted in the addition of numerous lighthearted, humorous or facetious collective nouns. As has been noted, "Terms of venery were the linguistic equivalent of silly hats: colorful, affected, fashionable, and very popular. And like most jargon, they were ripe for parody."  

Sample page from the Book of St. Albans (1486)


But few of these terms were in common use after the 16th century. So why are they so well-known today?  

Several of these sources point to the book, An Exaltation of Larks, by James Lipton (1968) as causing the revival of many of these terms of venery.  In this book, Lipton goes back to fifteenth century manuscripts (such as St. Albans) and dug up terms for collections of birds and beasts and types of men that he wants to restore into English usage. That is, it was a very conscious attempt to return terms like "murder of crows" to common usage and make English more colorful.   In this he seems to have succeeded.  

Interestingly, the original subtitle of Lipton's book was An Exaltation of Larks or, The Venereal Game. You now know that "venereal" is the adjectival form of "venery," and not a reference to an STD, but you can also see why the publishers might want to change the title in subsequent editions. (Also, it is not to be confused with An Exaltation of Larks, #1 in the Venery Series, by Suanne Laqueur, a novel of family, terrorism, and romance.)  

You should also know that Lipton clearly is inventing language just for the fun of it.  His coinages include "a Kerouac of deadbeats" and a "chatter of finks."  Those probably aren't in any original 16th century texts.  


2.  Where did the term "murder" as a term for a group of crows begin?  (Mind you, just linking to a random website isn't going to cut it in SRS-land.  You need to have a highly credible source, which means you need to think about what counts as "credible" for etymological sources. It's an interesting question.. what does count?)  

As we just learned, many of these venery terms originated in the 16th century, but then seem to have fallen out of common use not long afterwards.  Then, with the publication of Lipton's book in 1968, they've become popular again, primarily as humorous, lighthearted, fun collective nouns.  

In the particular case, of "murder" for crows, probably the most authoritative source for the origin of English words is the Oxford English Dictionary, aka the OED. 

The OED is the standard reference text for word origins (their etymology).  If you've ever wandered in a library, it's usually the largest book (or collection of volumes) in common use.  

Luckily, there's an online version of the OED.  

Unluckily, it costs $100/year to access it. 

Luckily, many libraries offer online OED access as a public service.  

Unluckily, my local public library does not have this. 

Luckily, I have a university connection that gives me online access. 

So... I login to my university, connect to the library's OED service and search for the word "murder."  And find the second definition: 


"murder, n.2". OED Online. December 2021. Oxford University Press. https://www-oed-com.proxy-um.researchport.umd.edu/view/Entry/244990?rskey=k58qLi&result=2 (accessed December 01, 2021).

As you can see, the OED dates the use of "murder of crows" as a collective noun to 1475 in the Porkington manuscript (reported on in the Transactions of the Philological Society in 1909) where it appears as "a morther of crowys."  

The Porkington text: 

 "Written on paper and parchment, it contains a remarkable variety of texts, mainly in Middle English though a few are in Latin. These cover subjects from political prophecy to instructions for computing the position of the moon, from weather lore to medicine, from an Arthurian poem relating the adventures of Sir Gawain to saints' lives, and from love poetry and drinking songs to carols. One text defines the qualities of a good horse, another gives lists of terms relating to hunting game - and to carving the game when it reaches the table..." 

So, "murder" as a collective noun has a long history, dating at least back to 1475, but its rate of use is a relatively recent phenomenon: 

Google NGrams comparing "flock of crows" with "murder of crows."


3. What about a "Charm" of hummingbirds? 

If we do the same OED search for "charm," we have a different kind of result.  

Checking the OED, we find no mentions of hummingbirds, but we DO see a reference to a "charme of birdes" and of angels (1548)!  Elsewhere in the OED you can find a "charme of finches" as well.  

Interestingly, other dictionaries (e.g., Merriam-Webster) have no mention of "charm" as a collective noun.  And checking NGRAM again: 

Looks suspiciously like "charm of hummingbirds" started
appearing after 1970

Surprisingly, Lipton's book doesn't mention a "charm of hummingbirds," but instead refers to that group as a "shimmer of hummingbirds" (p. 274)   He does mention a "charm of finches," but that's not quite the same thing.  

The first use of this collective term in Google Books can be found in Tom Stoppard's play, "Enter a Free Man" (1978).  

If you check archival newspapers (e.g., Newspapers.com), you'll find that the term starts appearing in the early 1980s, usually pointing back to Lipton's book as the source, which is odd, because "charm" is used for finches, not hummingbirds.  My bet is that someone took license with Lipton's text and created the "charm of hummingbirds" (rather than of finches) somewhere around the mid-1970s.  It's such a perfect term that it started to be used more widely.  

It's beginning to a look a lot like Lipton's goal of adding some fun and joy into our common language has succeeded.  As he wrote: "What is more important is that a charm of poetry will have slipped quietly into our lives."


4. And what about a "Mess" of iguanas? (Is that term for real?  Or did someone just make it up for fun?)  

NGRAMs tells us that "not enough data to plot."  And checking archival news gets us back only to 2012 (Austin American Statesman, July 1, 2012). OED doesn't mention mess as a collective term except for people eating together ("the mess of soldiers") and as a general term for collections ("a mess of eels" or a "mess of milk"--neither of which is specific to that kind of thing).  

So I suspect that "mess of iguanas" is a general categorical term, much as you might describe that pit of snakes under your house as a "mess of snakes."  I don't actually believe there is a single venery term for a collection of iguanas.   


5. And lastly, what do you call a bunch of kangaroos?  How old is THAT term? 

Checking back on the Wikipedia page for animals, we find that a collection of kangaroos (dare I say "mess of kangaroos"?) is called either a court, a troop, a herd, or a mob.  

NGRAMs, to compare the most common uses of the kangaroo venery terms: 

NGRAMs comparing "mob of kangaroos" with "troop of kangaroos." 
"mob" leads, but there are a set of people who use "troop"! 


We need to bear in mind that the term "kangaroo" only entered into common English usage in 1773 (per OED: "1773   J. Hawkesworth Acct. Voy. Southern Hemisphere III. 578   [1st Voy. Cook] The next day our Kangaroo was dressed for dinner and proved most excellent meat.")  

The first archival newspaper mention of a mob comes from the North Wales Chronicle (Wales), July 8, 1845. In the story, Dan (not me!) is being carried away by a rogue kangaroo, and the author writes that not only would he not intervene, but "I wouldn't have saved him from a mob of kangaroos..."  


SearchResearch Lessons 

Language is as language does--it's fairly hopeless to be prescriptivist about these things.  But it's pretty clear that some terms of venery really are ancient, but then fell into disuse, and were then revived in our lifetimes.  The fact that we can figure out such things is a testament to the coverage of online content.  

But let's touch on a few lessons to close out today's SRS.  

1. Etymology is tricky--you need to use multiple sources to triangulate on a trustworthy story about the origins of a word or phrase.  Here we used a combination of newspapers, books, and dictionaries (especially the OED) as reference sources.  It's tempting to do a quick Google search and find a story about word origins, but be sure to get a few confirmations (and NOT just duplications) of the story.  If you can find the word in actual use in an actual original source, so much the better.  

2. The OED is a great resource.  It really is a masterwork.  (See:  The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary: Simon Winchester, 2016, for the whole amazing backstory of how the OED came to be.  In the tale you'll learn why it's such a remarkable and trustworthy source.)  More to the point, it is the master reference on matters etymological in English, especially for older terms.  (Since it's updated infrequently, it's not so great to the origins of recent terms such as "deplatform" or "cubesat.")  

3. NGRAMs can be used to compare phrases and their occurence (in books) over time.  I'll write more about NGRAMs in a future post, but note that you can now compare different corpora (e.g. British English vs. American English)  


Search on!  

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

SearchResearch Challenge (11/24/21): What's that group of animals called?

 

You know that a bunch of crows is... 

From Pexabay.com (free images!) 

... often called a murder of crows.  

Likewise, you might have heard of a charm of hummingbirds, a stand of flamingos, a cloud of bats, etc.  

The question that always irks me in the back of my brain is this:  Are these REALLY the terms that we should use for aggregations of such animals?  Or are they just made up by a clever copywriter somewhere?  

Such questions the enquiring mind wants to know!  So, today, a fairly straightforward couple of questions that will open your mind to running down the true origins of words.

1. What are these kinds of terms called?  (That is, what do you call words that denote a specific name for a group of a particular kind of animal, such as as "pack" of wolves.)  What's THAT called?  (Once you know this term, perhaps it will be simpler to figure this out... 

2.  Where did the term "murder" as a term for a group of crows begin?  (Mind you, just linking to a random website isn't going to cut it in SRS-land.  You need to have a highly credible source, which means you need to think about what counts as "credible" for etymological sources. It's an interesting question.. what does count?)  

3. What about a "Charm" of hummingbirds? 

4. And what about a "Mess" of iguanas? (Is that term for real?  Or did someone just make it up for fun?)  

5. And lastly, what do you call a bunch of kangaroos?  How old is THAT term? 


And (on the eve of US Thanksgiving), remember to give thanks for everything--and in particular, for these lovely language bits that amuse and keep us smiling throughout the year.  

Be sure to let us know HOW you found out the answers to this Challenge.  We want to learn what brilliant search things you did!  

Search on, linguistically!  Happy Thanksgiving!  



Friday, November 19, 2021

Lessons: Why is the Carquinez Strait so undeveloped?

 

There's much to learn here... 

... and since the previous post was growing so long, I separated out the SRS Lessons Learned section for today.  Let's dive right in... 


SearchResearch Lessons Learned  

This Challenge--trying to explain a counterfactual (why the southern Carquinez Strait is relatively undeveloped)--is difficult.  This usually true for this kind of research question (WHY didn't something happen is just plain hard)!   

But I had a great time wandering through news archives, old maps, and anything I could find that might tell me a bit of the history of this region.  This was particularly difficult to do because there's not a great place name that you can use to search for information about the area.  That's why... 

1. Names, especially place names, are incredibly valuable.    At the beginning of my search I looked at several different current maps to find names of places that we could use in our searches.  Place names for villages, parkland, ranches, nearby cities, rivers, and mountains--that's all useful for searching.  The most important find for me was learning that this entire region was once called Rancho Cañada del Hambre y Las Bolsas.  That turned out to be key for later historical research.  

2. Take notes as you go. I can't emphasize this enough. When you start an SRS research project, take notes.  I find myself constantly referring back to them as I go along.  Take special care to note names, places, events... and most importantly... where you found those bit of data.  Often 90% of your notes will go unused--THAT'S OKAY!  You'll really need it for that critical 10% that you can't quite remember and need to get right.   

3. Don't forget archival newspapers. Of course.  We've covered this before, but it bears repeating.  (See my earlier SRS post about this:  Online News Archives and another one for some tips about how to do this.)  The simplest way is to search for:  [ list of newspaper archives ]  which will quickly take you to the great Wikipedia list of digitized newspapers that covers the US and many other countries.  

From that list I mostly use the Library of Congress Chronicling America site, and the California Digital Newspaper Collection.  Both have extensive collections and cover the years 1918/1919. (For backup, of course I'd check the Google News Archive.  That archive has a very different set of sources that either Chronicling America or the CDL.)  

In addition, I also use the commercial site Newspapers.com, which has a really marvelous search interface (and their display interface is, without question, the best in the business).  It costs real money, but some public libraries offer access (through their web portal), and many (nearly all?) university libraries have access to them as well.  You should hang onto your college/university library login for as long as they'll let you keep it.  

4.  Check assumptions by getting a global overview. As you saw, the first few searches I did were to look at archival aerial images for the region (using Google Earth).  I was checking to see if there was something about this place that was odd or distinctive.  Was it all covered in mines?  Was it perhaps all marshland or some kind of endlessly stony fields?  I searched for (literally) a birds-eye view to check.  (I didn't find anything, but I might have!) 

5. For archival information, Etsy and eBay are more useful than you might imagine. Yeah, who would have guessed.  But I can often find archival materials (especially ephemera that's not captured in any online archive).   

6. County assessors have the ground truth on current land ownership. I went into some depth in an earlier post (Looking up Land), but you should remember that in the US, county assessors often have decent GIS systems that let you look up all kinds of (literal) ground truth.  

7. Look for (and note) special search terms / phrases that will be useful.  In this case, the phrase "land use planning" is a special term of art that's used to describe what governments decide about a piece of land.  Searching with this phrase turned out to be incredibly useful, and revealed much about how that land is currently allocated. 

8. Triangulate what you learn. In some ways, the best learning often comes from comparisons.  In this SRS we found that comparing the OpenStreetMap view with the Google Maps view AND the Wikimapia view is very telling.  Here's a side-by-side that shows what I mean.  Always do these kinds of side-by-sides with your data (which isn't always in a neat map format).  In particular, for OpenStreetMap and Wikimapia, the rollover popups can often hold valuable information.  Pay attention! 


 


Search on! 

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Answer: Why is the Carquinez Strait so undeveloped?

 This kind of question is difficult to answer... 


The Challenge was:  "Why is the Carquinez Strait so undeveloped on the south side of the channel?"  

As evidence, I made this map to highlight the area that is still most open range lands. 


I noticed that while there's a lot of development (houses, shopping centers, etc.) on the north side of the strait, there's very little on the south side.  

So... why is there such a big gap between Crockett and Martinez, a large region of undeveloped land. Let me repeat this week's Challenge:  

1. Can you figure out what's going on in this stretch of otherwise unused coastline?  Is it really the "Lost Coast" of the North Bay? Why so... empty?  What didn't happened here?   

As I mentioned, getting simple answers to questions like this can be difficult.  This is the dog that didn't bark--the missing piece, a non-event, a gap in what otherwise seems like a normal path of progress.  

To answer this, we're going to have to create some counterfactual rationale--that's the kind of question you get when you suppose that something didn't happen, and ask why it didn't.  So, what prevented the south side of the strait from being more developed?  (Or, ask Sherlock Holmes might have said as a counterfactual question, "Why didn't the dog bark?," sometimes referred to as the "curious incident of the dog in the night time.")  

My first thought was to try and see some archival images and maps to see what we might see.  Of course, I turned to Google Earth and its collection of archival images.  Here are 3 images of the area that I've marked up with a dashed line to indicate where development DID occur.  

Google Earth - 1939

Google Earth 1993

Google Earth 2021

With these three maps I was checking to see if perhaps there was some underlying geological reason that would make this area un-developable... but I don't see anything.  What's striking about this dashed line is how much it looks like the random rectangles you see in city-use planning diagrams.  There's a blob sticking into the Rancho in the lower right, and the edge isn't one long straight line... it's pretty ziggy-zaggy.  

Here's a Google Maps version of the same area today shown as a traditional map.  Here what I'm looking for are place names that I can use to do searches of archival content.  


Here, a couple of place names leap to the fore: "Port Costa" "Crockett Hills" (a regional park), and "Carquinez Straits" (another regional park), "Martinez."  If you zoom in a bit more, you'll also see "Bull Valley" and "Eckley" as other place names of interest.  

For each of these place names, I did a small deep dive, usually starting with a query like this: 

     [ history Port Costa ] 
     [ history Eckley ] 
     [ history Martinez ] 


My goal in doing these dives is to learn as much about the place (history, dates, people, place names) as possible.  I keep a little running set of notes as I do this just to keep them all straight.  (Truthfully, I do this on a piece of paper.  It's fast, easy, and I can easily makes edits and links to other things as they come up.)  

To tell the truth, I spent a few very pleasant hours doing this, following interesting stories as they came up, but mostly learning that this triangle of land never seemed to have much development on it.  

My first dive was to figure out who owns this part of California.  My dive research told me that this area was called Rancho Cañada del Hambre y las Bolsas.  (I found this out after seeing several maps from the late 1800s with that as the place name... see below.)  The ranch was a 13,354-acre (54.04 km2) Mexican land grant that was given in 1842 by Governor Juan Alvarado to Teodora Soto. The grant consisted of "Cañada del Hambre" which means "Valley of Hunger" in Spanish, and "Las Bolsas del Hambre" which refers to "pockets" of land.

The rancho extended from present day Crockett to Martinez and south to Lafayette.

Here's a section of the plat from 1866 that I found at the Online Archive of California by searching for: 

     [ plat Rancho Canada del Hambre ] 

(Why the word "plat"?  Because I know that term means a kind of large-scale map often used in land surveying and land-use planning. It's specialized language.)  

Plat of the rancho, 1866. 

On this plat you can see a note marking "Ramon Estudillo's home" in the upper left, as well as "Big Bull Valley" and "Little Bull Valley."  These names might come in handy later, so I write them down on my notes.  

But I kept looking for more vintage maps, searching through the results of my search: 

     [ maps Contra Costa county ] 

By just clicking through the images, I was able to find several over the years.  

Here's one I found on Wikipedia: as you can see, 30 years later, some development has taken place along the north (the towns of Crockett, Aldona, and Port Costa), and most significantly, to the east (Martinez). 

Rancho Cañada del Hambre (1894) per Wikipedia, USGS Karquinez Quad.

And below is another survey from 1898, just a few years later showing even more development, especially in Benicia and Port Costa. There are also sections marked off.  

Rancho Cañada del Hambre (1898) Theodore Wagner and company. Here you can see major divisions of the land, in some cases showing who bought them, such as "McNear" in the lower right.  


The first thing I noticed after I found these maps was the immense similarity to my original chart (second figure from the top).  What are the chances?  I didn't know about this Rancho when I drew that diagram... I was just highlighting the blank spot on the map.  

Of course, I did a search for the history of Ranch Cañada del Hambre, and found a Wikipedia article, this told me that the grant for the rancho made to Teodora Soto was "sobrante," (that is, a remainder after the Rancho El Pinole on the west and the Rancho Las Juntas on the east were sold). It was estimated that the sobrante would contain three square leagues of land. (If you ask Google [ 3 square leagues of land in acres ] you'll find that it's 22,000 acres, Teodora Soto was married to Desiderio Briones.  (Now that's interesting...  Why?  Because the grant was made to a woman, which wasn't much done at the time, AND we've seen that name, Briones, before.  Desiderio was the nephew of Juana Briones, who owned land in San Francisco at this time.  See SRS from March 8, 2018-- "How did this group of houses get to be here?" Two powerful Californio women who end up related to each other?)  

In any case, after the Mexican-American War, the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo provided that the Mexican land grants would be honored. As required by the Land Act of 1851, a claim for Rancho Cañada del Hambre y Las Bolsas was filed with the Public Land Commission in 1852, and the grant was patented to Teodora Soto in 1866. 

I spent many happy hours looking up who owned which parcel of land, and where it went... but we're REALLY interested in why it's undeveloped today.  

I was curious if this land was EVER developed, so I started searching for maps of Contra Costa county.  I did the usual library searches (the Library of Congress has a great map collection of the area), but oddly, I found that the best source of maps during the time-span of 1900 - 2000 was.. Etsy and eBay!!  

Yes, there are LOTS of maps of Contra Costa County from all during that century.  Here are just a few of the many I found using the eBay search:

     [ Contra Costa county map 1970 ]   -- or whatever year you'd like 

A map from eBay, published by Chevron in 1970.  It shows a large, still undeveloped section of Contra Costa county south of Crockett and Port Costa, west of Martinez, and east of Rodeo.  

  
Another map of the area from 1990, published by Gousha, again showing a blank space. 
Sorry this is so low res--it's the best I could find--but it's convincingly empty.
You can clearly see Port Costa at the top.  It's a small village, and if it shows up on the map,
then other villages in the blank space would have ALSO appeared... and they don't.   


In any case, all of these maps show the old Rancho as agricultural lands.  Clearly, the Rancho was divided up, and kept as farms or ranches over the years.  

Another approach would be to search for land use maps.  "Land use" is often used to describe how land is zoned and how the city or county or state plans to use that area.  A search for: 

     [ land use map Contra Costa county ] 

leads to this current map from the county government, showing the zoning / plans for land use in the county: 

Current (2021) land use map of north Contra Costa county.  Here, blue is public/semi-public lands (such as highway right-of-way), while green is parkland/preserves.  The pea-soup green is marked as "agricultural" land.  P/C Contra Costa County.  



Perhaps part of the answer can be seen in who owns these parcels now.  

The easiest way to learn that information is via the county assessor's office. (Why the assessor?  They have all the information needed to assess the taxes on a piece of land.  And usually, in the US at least, they also offer a web-site with a GIS system to find out about each parcel.)  

A search for: 

     [ Contra Costa county assessor ] 


leads quickly to the Assessor's website, and it's a single click to get to the GIS tool that lets you lookup ownership of land parcels.  

Here's an example: 

Contra Costa Assessor's map of parcel 368-100-002, just south of the town of Port Costa.

If you poke around in the Assessor's map, you'll find that all of the parcels are all labeled as agricultural land, reserved in a "Land Bank" (set aside by the local government), parklands, or are federally owned (especially along the waterfront).  So the Assessor's map (who you would plausibly has ground truth) algns with the land use map above.  

But how did it get to be this way?  

If we look back into the newspapers of the day, you'll find the record of many sales published in the local press.  (Back in the day, land transactions had to be published to become part of the public record.)  If you search in Newspapers.com (or your favorite digital news archive, which for me is the California Digital Newspaper Collection).  

If you do the obvious searches (e.g., [ Rancho Canada del Hambre ] or [ Rancho Briones ]), you'll find a LOT of land transactions.  Here's one such sale (part of my deep dive taught me that Rancho del Pinole was just to the SW of Rancho Canada del Hambre):   

Contra Costa Gazette, May 24, 1907


But some of these notices also tell us who owned what, and when, and how much they owned.  In the San Francisco Call of March 20, 1907, I found this notice of someone applying for a mortgage: 

George McNear mortgaged 3866 acres (his part of the Rancho) to raise some quick cash. 

And of course, by 1916, the Rancho was largely up for sale.  

From San Luis Obispo Daily Telegram, Dec 16, 1916

And if you keep searching, you'll find the sales, transfers, and gifts that were made over the years.  200 acres here, 159 there--but always as unimproved land on the margin of the main rancho.  

There are two other resources I turn to for this kind of geographical information in an attempt to complete the story:  Wikimapia and OpenStreetMap.  Both are collaborative efforts to crowdsource all kinds of geodata, and since they're slightly different, you can sometimes find gold in the different views.  Here's the Wikimapia view: 

You can see that in Wikimapia's view, the rancho is either parkland, ag land, or John A De Martini land, still held as a ranch.  



By contrast, here's the OpenStreetMap's perspective: 



As you can see, they have very different views on what's going on the old Rancho.  The Crockett Hills Regional Park is the same, but the De Martini Ranch isn't marked on the OSM plan.  And, as you can see, the bulk of the Rancho is either Di Martini ranchland, or preserves.  

Bottom Line:  How did this all stay so undeveloped? 


There isn't a single neat, short answer, there usually isn't for counterfactual questions.  But the case is pretty clear that this area has always been seen (and valued) as agricultural land, even as it was being broken up and sold off in smaller fragments. Remember that in the late 1800's and early 1900's, this ranchland was also intensively farmed for wheat... which was then shipped out through Port Costa until the bridges made it easier and cheaper to use railcars.  

Basically, the story seems to be this:  Over the years, several families had large tracts of land that they slowly sold off, but almost always for ranching or farming uses.  From the 1970s until today, some of those sales and gifts were to the county for the purpose of preserving open space.  That's ultimately how the Crockett Preserve and the Carquinez Straits Regional Shoreline came to be.  


This post is already pretty long:  So I'll write up the  SRS lessons tomorrow.  Stay tuned!  

Search on!