The original residents of San Ramon were once part of the largest concentrations of Native Americans in North America. Going back four thousand years, people known as the Ohlone thrived in the valley, which had ample food and water, including elk, grizzly bears, cougars, coyotes, many birds, and fish. The valley was covered with oak trees, providing nourishing acorns, as well as sycamores, and buckeyes.
Two distinct groups of Ohlone lived within the area now known as San Ramon, the Tatcan to the north near Danville, and the Seunen to the south, near Dublin. The Tatcan lived in the San Ramon Creek Watershed, and were part of the Bay Miwok linguistic group. The Seunen sustained themselves thanks to a large marsh in the area of what is now the I-580/I-680 interchange; they shared language with other Ohlone peoples to the south.
The First Westerners Arrive
The Spanish came to the valley in 1722, bringing massive change over the ensuing years. The Catholic Padres founded Mission San Jose on June 11, 1797, which in turn led to the aggressive indoctrination of the Ohlone into mission life. The valley was utilized as pasture for cattle, which were used mainly for the lucrative tallow business. After Mexico won independence from Spain in 1821, the mission’s lands were split into ranchos.
In 1833 and 1834, the Mexican government granted two ranchos with the name San Ramon attached: Rancho San Ramon to the south, and Rancho San Ramon Valley to the north. Cattle and sheep grazed the grassy valley and hillsides during the rancho era.
The ranchos’ names came from San Ramon Creek, which reportedly got its name from an Ohlone man named Ramon who tended mission sheep along its banks. “San”, or “saint”, was added, as was the Spanish custom.
The ranchos were short lived: California was admitted into the United States in 1850, the same year American settlers arrived in San Ramon. The Norris family purchased 4,450 acres from Don Jose Maria Amador of Rancho San Ramon that same year. Other pioneering families whose names grace the streets, canyons, and hills of San Ramon today include Bollinger, Crow, Glass, Harlan, Lynch, McCamley, Meese, and Wiedemann.
Name That Town
The new residents tried on a variety of names for their community. At one point it was called Brevensville after the area’s blacksmith, Eli Breven. However, it also went by Lynchville, for William Lynch, and was even called Limerick for a time after the Irish city, because of the area’s many Irish settlers. Today, one of San Ramon’s parks is named Limerick Park, as a nod to that history.
Despite the various monikers, the name “San Ramon” was given to the first permanent post office in 1873, and in 1891 to the San Ramon Branch Line of the Southern Pacific Railroad. From that time on people referred to the unincorporated county area as San Ramon. At one point in the 20th century, it was referred to as San Ramon Village, before its incorporation as The City of San Ramon in 1983.
A small village formed in the 1860s at the intersection of what is today Deerwood Road and San Ramon Valley Boulevard. A church, general store, grammar school, saloons, a jail, Chinese laundries, and blacksmith shops provided necessary services for residents, as well as a hub of community gatherings. A stage line transported people between San Ramon and Oakland.
In 1891, big changes came to the valley with the Southern Pacific Railroad. The farmers and ranchers who previously had to transport crops and goods to ports on San Francisco Bay by wagon along unreliable dirt roads—especially in winter—now had access year round.
Within several years after the railroad arrived, attorney Thomas Bishop acquired 3,000 acres of the Norris family’s land. Bishop created a successful ranch, raising cattle, award-winning sheep, hay, grain, fruit trees, and walnuts. At one time the Bishop land was home to the world’s largest single orchard of Bartlett pears.
By 1911 the community built the San Ramon Community Hall, which became the center of local life, with farm and ranch families enjoying dances, school programs, plays, and more. The building remained standing until 1960.
Modern San Ramon
The valley remained almost completely agricultural until the middle of the 20th century. The post World War II boom brought a need for housing, and the arrival of the freeways in the 1960s brought even more suburban developments to San Ramon and surrounding cities and towns. Homes were built at a fast pace near the I-580/I-680 interchange, in the southern part of town.
Residents of these new subdivisions in unincorporated Contra Costa County grew increasingly active in representing their interests to the county seat in Martinez, more than 20 miles away. The Valley Community Services District was organized to provide basic services, like water, sewer lines, fire protection, and recreation. The South San Ramon Homeowners Association formed, and leaders spoke out various development issues, and even ran for, and won, elected office on local boards.
Wanting more local control over decisions made about the community, a number of incorporation efforts were attempted in the 70s and early 80s. Efforts to combine San Ramon with Danville or with Dublin were voted down. In 1980, the San Ramon Incorporation Study Committee drew from a wide variety of local leaders who lobbied county and state officials for two years for the right to put incorporation up to a vote. Success was achieved on March 8, 1983, when voters overwhelmingly approved incorporation and elected their first city council.
Since that time, the city’s population tripled in size to more than 74,000. The residents’ early efforts to create a livable community served today’s city well. San Ramon is considered one of the most desirable residential communities in the San Francisco Bay Area, and city leaders and residents continue to work toward keeping the city a wonderful place to live, work, and play, well into the future.