The grantee of Rancho Pinole, Ygnacio Martinez, Comandante of the Presidio in San Francisco and later a civil officer in San Jose, moved his family to the rancho after he retired in 1836. His vaqueros had already been working on the rancho, tending large herds of cattle, which roamed across the rolling hills. In 1848 Don Ygnacio died. His son, Vicente Martinez, inherited the portion of the rancho which became the original townsite of Martinez.
Dr. Robert Semple had started a ferry service in 1847 from the future town site, across Carquinez Strait to Benicia. The ferryboats transported thousands of head of livestock to pastures in the north. Later, during the Gold Rush, the same boats helped thousands of miners get across the strait on their way to the Mother Lode.
In 1849 Colonel William Smith, son-in-law of the late Don Ygnacio, saw an opportunity. He persuaded Don Vicente and other rancho heirs to authorize him to start a town in the area around the ferry landing, which was named Martinez. 10 He hired Thomas Brown, Son of Contra Costa pioneer Elam Brown, to survey and lay out the town. People came from San Francisco and elsewhere to buy lots.
In 1850 Martinez became the county seat of the newly established Contra Costa County. At that time, the town consisted of three stores, a blacksmith shop, a hotel, and about 15 other buildings. In 1851 part of the neighboring rancho, owned by the gout family, was added to the town.
The Gold Rush subsided, but there were golden fields of wheat raised by American farmers in the countryside around Martinez. By the 1860s the town had become a shipping center for this wheat. For the next 20 years three-masted schooners were often seen anchored off the Martinez shoreline, ready to take on cargos of wheat. The photo shows such a scene.
Cowell Historical Society