Unlocking History

San Quentin prison wasn’t always known by its current name

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

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

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

Newspaper accounts from 1852 to 1859 refer to the State Prison at Corte Madeira. 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 have advertised to receive proposals for its construction. A wharf will also be extended into the bay and proposals will be received for building that. The location selected is said to be excellent.”

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 in olden times Corte de Madeira, and paid for 20 acres of land in the woods.”

Sacramento Daily Union, Sept. 13, 1854: “Escaped Convict – 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 of a vessel in the harbor … which he had shipped as a sailor. He is now in confinement, and will be conduced back to his old quarters at Corte Madeira.”

Daily Alta California, Oct. 7, 1854 (in a letter to the editor): “Do you know the capacity of the prison at Corte Madeira, furnished by the State, for keeping prisoners? … To sum it up, do you know any facts in connection with the prison except the unfortunate one that prisoners often make their escape?”

The Daily Alta California newspaper publicly criticized the governor and prison management lessees. In a Nov. 17, 1854, edition of the paper, S.W. Haight, an agent for the State Prison Contractors, took issue with what he characterized as unwarranted public attacks.

“I understood … from a report that seemed to be generally circulated through this city (San Francisco), that four prisoners had escaped … from the State Prison at Corte Madeira, and knowing the want of facilities for securing and retaining the prisoners sentenced by the laws of this State to serve their several terms, I made a visit to the State Prison … and found that no one had ever been allowed to go out ‘and hunt, or otherwise take such recreation as they choose,’ and none had escaped,” he wrote in the newspaper.

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.”

He also wrote the prison contract holders “would be happy to see the State Prison Inspectors or any members of the Press of this State at the Prison grounds, with or without notice, and let them judge for themselves whether due diligence has been used to take such care of the prisoners as the State has furnished them with, or not. All they ask is a full and fair investigation.”

Sacramento Daily Union, Dec. 29, 1854: “The Evening Journal is indebted to Gen. Estell (holder of the prison contract) for the … particulars relative to the escape of a large body of prisoners from Corte Madeira.”

Sacramento Daily Union, Jan. 25, 1855: “Roderigo … escaped from the prison at Corte Madeira a few weeks since (and) has been recaptured in San Francisco. He was (caught) burglariously entering a dwelling at the time of his arrest.”

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.
Gen. James Estell, circa 1850s.

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 July 19, 1855, edition of the Daily Alta California.

“Gen. 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 and voter fraud in the small town of 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, and the institution which should be a dreaded place of punishment, becomes merely an asylum,” stated the complaint, signed by C.J. Dempster and Geo. R. Ward.

He subleased his contract to others and the accusations of prison mismanagement worsened, causing the state to seize the prison and cancel the contracts (as covered in a previous story on San Quentin history).

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