Tracing Tracy Territory: Man who began Tracy’s water legacy
Oct 12, 2012 | 2771 views | 1 1 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Gen. Henry Morris Naglee
Gen. Henry Morris Naglee
Last week, the dawn of irrigation in the Tracy area 100 years ago was the topic of this column. The story concentrated on the first delivery of water by the Naglee Burk Irrigation Association northwest of Tracy in October 1912.

In the retelling of that milestone in our area’s history, the pivotal role of Gen. Henry Morris Naglee became even more apparent to me, and no doubt to many readers, as well.

Naglee’s contact with this area started during his Army service in 1847 and continued for four decades until he collapsed in 1886 while inspecting a levee on Naglee Burk Tract, dying three days later at the age of 71.

Obviously from all reports, Naglee was a man of great capacity, vigor and lust for life — sometimes a bit too lusty.

His history already has filled volumes. Tracy native Jeff Pribyl is conducting serious research into the early era of Tracy’s history in preparation for a book on the development of Tulare Township, and Sherry Stapler, a Press reporter a decade ago, wrote several articles on Naglee’s projects, both here and in San Jose. They are invaluable resources that I have used, along with other writings, in compiling highlights of his life, especially as they relate to our area:

A West Point graduate

Henry Morris Naglee was born Jan. 15, 1815, to a prominent Philadelphia family and graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., in 1835. He was ranked 23 of the 56 members of his class. After graduation, he resigned his commission to work as a civil engineer on the East Coast.

At the outbreak of the war with Mexico in 1846, Naglee enlisted in the Seventh Regiment of New York. As a captain and the company commander, Naglee went with the regiment to California by way of a six-month voyage around Cape Horn.

Upon reaching San Francisco in March 1847, the regiment was assigned to Monterey, where Gen. Stephen Kearny sent Naglee and his mounted troop to the great valley to the east to help pacify Yogut (Yokuts) Indians.

On May 12, 1847, Naglee and his troop passed along El Camino Viejo through Corral Hollow Canyon to the valley, heading through the grasslands to the Tulare, the tule-filled marshland near Tom Paine Slough. The troop then visited the Mossdale area and stopped for lunch just south of Mossdale, near what is now Deuel Vocational Institution.

In June of 1847, Naglee accompanied Kearny and Brevet Maj. John C. Fremont to this area and eventually to Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento. What Naglee saw on those two trips must have intrigued him and started four decades of connection to what became the Tracy area.

In 1848, Naglee went with a U.S. Army expedition of 114 men to Baja California, where they defeated Mexican volunteers in the Battle of Todos Santos, a battle fought after the Mexican War had actually ended. Naglee was briefly arrested for shooting prisoners but was saved by a general amnesty.

Naglee and Pico

After the Mexican War, Naglee stayed in California and went into banking in San Francisco. He purchased the western half of Rancho los Coches in what became San Jose.

In 1849, he bought the western half of Rancho El Pescadero, the 35,000-acre Mexican land grant that extended north from what is now Grant Line Road across Old River to include today’s Fabian Tract to Grant Line Canal.

Naglee bought the land, much of it still tule-covered marshland, from Antonio Maria Pico, who had received the land from the Mexican governor of California in 1843. Naglee paid Pico in three payments totaling $3,100.

Pico, who had difficulties establishing his ownership of the Mexican land grant and who was short on cash, later sold his half to explorer Fremont, who in turn sold off portions to others.

The Civil War

In 1862, after the outbreak of the Civil War, Naglee rejoined the Army and served as a brigadier general in the Gen. George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac in northern Virginia. Naglee was wounded in the Battle of Seven Pines near Fair Oaks Station and later commanded a corps in 1863.

Because of a conflict with the Union military governor in northern Virginia, Naglee was reassigned and then mustered out of the Army in April 1864.

Love and revenge

Returning to California after the war, Naglee continued developing his 130-acre rancho in the Santa Clara Valley, where he had a vineyard and also established a brandy distillery, which was quite successful. He divided his time among his home in San Jose, Rancho El Pescadero and a suite of rooms in the Occidental Hotel in San Francisco.

But one major hiccup occurred. Before going to war, he had a long-term relationship with an actress in San Francisco, Mary Schell. On returning from the war, he apparently learned of her romantic escapades while he was away. He curtly informed her in a note that their relationship had ended. The rejected woman unsuccessfully sued Naglee for breach of promise, asking $100,000 in damages.

She also tried to blackmail Naglee by threatening to publish his passionate letters. After Naglee failed to respond, she promptly wrote a self-published book, entitled “The Love Life of Brigadier General Henry M. Naglee.” The book contained the intimate love letters, along with Naglee’s unflattering comments about his superior generals and also President Abraham Lincoln. The book caused quite a stir and was a bestseller.

Married at 50

The 50-year-old Naglee promptly married Marie Antoinette Ringgold, 18-year-old daughter of a fellow West Point graduate. The young bride gave birth in 1866 to a daughter, named Marie. In 1869, two months after giving birth to a second daughter, Antoinette, she died from complications of the birth.

Faced with raising two young daughters at his San Jose home, Naglee hired a nanny, Emily Hanks. After four years in the Naglee home, the nanny became pregnant. Hanks insisted Naglee had fathered her child, but the general refused to marry her. She filed a “breach of promise” suit and was awarded a $27,000 settlement, but an appeals court later overturned the award.

Building levees

After establishing the vineyard and brandy distillery in San Jose, Naglee turned more attention to Rancho El Pescadero. Chinese laborers, who had come to the U.S. to build the Central Pacific Railroad, went to work building 30 miles of levees on Old River around the western end of the rancho. Naglee, a civil engineer, oversaw the project.

Stricken on horseback

On March 2, 1886, after working all day at the Pescadero ranch checking his levees on horseback, Naglee was stricken with what probably was a heart attack.

He was moved to his suite at the Occidental Hotel in San Francisco, where he died three days later, on March 5, 1886. He was 71.

His two daughters, then 16 and 18 years old, could not gain their inheritance until they married. The elder daughter, Marie, married wealthy Philadelphia banker Thomas Robins, and the younger, Antoinette, married James Burk, her cousin and Henry Naglee’s nephew. Burk, whom Naglee had brought from Philadelphia to help manage his properties, was active in managing Rancho El Pescadero, hence the name Naglee Burk.

In 1902, the two daughters, working with a San Jose developer, created that city’s first residential subdivision, Naglee Park, on the family’s 130-acre property, now in downtown San Jose. Many of the original homes still stand.

In 1910, the daughters sold their properties in Naglee Burk Tract to San Jose land agents Beckett, Fehren & Crothers, who organized the Land and Guaranty Co. The firm formed the Naglee Burk Irrigation Association in 1912. Irrigation had come to the land that Henry Morris Naglee first saw as a young Army officer 65 years earlier.

• Sam Matthews, Tracy Press publisher emeritus, can be reached at 830-4234 or by email at
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October 12, 2012
Very interesting and informative read. Please post more like this. Thanks.

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