Why Google Sued the Descendants of a Railroad Tycoon and a Civil War General

“Writing legal descriptions was much less of a science back in the day,” says Nanci Klein, the city’s director of real estate. “To my knowledge, Google’s extensive historical research did not turn up anyone who could meet the criteria to control the property.”

However, Google took the time to track down the families of the original owner. In February, he sent letters to 115 possible descendants of the three men, including Peter Adams, a product manager at a data center technology company in Washington. Google believes that Adams may be a remote descendant of Archibald Peachy, through the nephew of Peachy’s son-in-law’s niece’s husband.

In its letter to Adams, Google wrote that it was “in the process of clearing title” to San Jose roads and would pay Adams a “courtesy fee” if he filed a claim deed waiving his rights and interests in the property and kept the agreement strictly confidential. The $5,000 offered was almost an insult, according to a legal expert WIRED spoke to; another defendant described it as “a meaningless sum” in a court statement. Commercial lots in San Jose have recently sold for $2 million an acre, or more, even for traditional lots unpaved by roads and alleys.

Although most of these 115 descendants signed the waiver, Adams did not. Nor, presumably, did 33 other possible heirs of the original men. So Google sued them, in what’s called a “quiet title” lawsuit. (Mark Zuckerberg used similar demands in an effort to secure control of a 700-acre estate in Hawaii in 2017.)

“In order for Google to proceed with its development plans for the project, fee title to the subject properties must be perfected to Google,” says a lawsuit filed by Google and the city of San Jose in Superior Court in California, Santa County. Clara, in April.

Some descendants of Frederick Billings are still prominent, including some who married into the Rockefeller family. Many of the defendants can claim direct descent from Peachy and Naglee. None of those contacted by WIRED wanted to comment on the case.

Others are proving more difficult to locate. In May, Google and San Jose admitted in a filing that “despite reasonable diligence, [they] had been unable to find addresses or locations for a number of defendants,” and asked the court for more time to serve his subpoena.

To complicate matters, Adams filed a counterclaim in Santa Clara in early May — later joined by five of the men’s descendants — asking the court to confirm his ownership of the two largest parcels. Google did not respond to questions related to the lawsuits, but spokeswoman Bailey Tomson issued this statement: “We are working with the City of San Jose on a land transfer process. Our shared goal is to optimize the public benefits of this project, including reconfiguring streets into open spaces and bike and pedestrian paths to give the community a more walkable and transit-oriented downtown.”

Although the city had stated that construction could begin in 2023, the case may change that date. “It’s impossible for me to give any time frame,” says Klein. “But you have to control the land before you start putting the shovel in the ground.”

It seems unlikely that a few dusty old works will derail the estimated $19 billion Downtown West project entirely. In late June, Google dismissed its complaint against eight of the descendants after they accepted payments of an undisclosed amount. And last week, Adams and his co-defendants dismissed their counterclaim, possibly as a result of another settlement.

Whether the remaining descendants of Billings, Peachy and Naglee are online or not, the original entrepreneurs would surely have been impressed that their modest real estate investment is still generating returns, a century and a half later.

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