Unlocking History

San Quentin wasn’t always known by current name

Drawing of a building, long prison walls, a dock and mountain in the background.
San Quentin, circa 1859. (California State Library.)

San Quentin State Prison is well known today but during its early days, the prison was known by a different name: State Prison at Corte Madeira.

Newspaper accounts from 1852 to 1859 refer to San Quentin using this alternate name. From about 1860 on, newspaper accounts begin to refer to the prison as San Quentin.

California State Prison at Corte Madeira

Daily Alta California, Oct. 1, 1852: “State Prison – A site for this building has been selected near Corte Madeira. The Stockton boats pass within two miles of it in their daily travel. The Commissioners (seek) proposals for its construction. A wharf will also be extended into the bay.”

Daily Alta California, Nov. 1, 1852: “The sum of $10,000 was appropriated for the purchase of the prison grounds. The State Prison Inspectors solicited an out of the way place, called Corte de Madeira, and paid for 20 acres of land in the woods.”

Sacramento Daily Union, Sept. 13, 1854: “From the Marysville Herald we learn that Bryant, arrested in this city a few days ago for stealing a horse in Marysville, turns out to be an escaped convict from the penitentiary at Corte Madeira.”

Sacramento Daily Union, Oct. 5, 1854: “Wm. Furey, alias ‘Cock-Eyed,’ an escaped convict from the State Prison, was recaptured this morning about one o’clock, on board a vessel in the harbor. He is now in confinement, and will be (returned) to his old quarters at Corte Madeira.”

The Daily Alta California newspaper publicly criticized the governor and prison management lessees. On Nov. 17, 1854, S.W. Haight, an agent for the State Prison contractors, took issue with the negative publicity.

“I understood (from rumors around San Francisco) four prisoners had escaped from the State Prison at Corte Madeira. I made a visit to the State Prison and found none had escaped,” wrote Haight.

He claimed the paper was purposely out to “injure the lessee and owners of the State Prison contract” and promote “the idea to the public that the whole management at the Prison is wrong and ineffective.”

Who was Gen. James Estell?

In 1851, Gen. James Estell, a politician and former member of the California militia, was granted the contract to run the state prison, taking over from San Francisco Sheriff Jack Hayes. At the time, it was the floating prison ship, Waban.

Black and white photo of a man.
James Estell, circa 1850s, held the contract to run the prison.

In 1852, he was elected as a State Senator, serving two years. In 1857, he was elected to the state Assembly.

He left the day-to-day management of the state prison in 1855 to assume the editor post of the State Tribune, according to the Daily Alta California, July 19, 1855.

“Estell is a man of ability and great force of character, and wields a facile and effective pen, and can hardly fail in making the Tribune a paper of leading character,” the Daily Alta California reported.

Estell’s treatment of prisoners was often called into question.

On Jan. 24, 1857, in sworn testimony to the state Legislature, former guards and those who dealt with Estell charged him with conspiracies to allow escapes in San Quentin.

“If criminals condemned to confinement in the State Prison are permitted to escape without any effort for recapture, and even worse than this, if the payment of bribes by themselves or relatives will secure their freedom, the law is deprived of its terror,” stated the complaint, signed by C.J. Dempster and Geo. R. Ward.

He then subleased his contract to others and the accusations of prison mismanagement worsened, causing the state to seize the prison and cancel the contracts.

Estell, 48, passed away April 26, 1859, at his home in San Francisco.

By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
Office of Public and Employee Communications

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