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Who Really Owns Alcatraz?

December 2, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

By Phineas Upham

Alcatraz is a federal landmark that attracts thousands of tourists every year. The site has been popularized in films like The Rock, and it occupies a unique aspect of American history. It’s also on disputed land, and there has been some question as to who owns it since the 1960s.

Tracing ownership of the island takes us back to 1846. A man named Julian Workman was gifted the lands by Pio Pico, the governor of Mexico at that time. He and Pico were friends, and Workman had declared his intentions to build a lighthouse there. Following the United States’ acquisition of California, the area became designated as a military site.

It became a prison complex because it was naturally isolated by waters, cold weather and a treacherous swim. It became a Federal penitentiary in 1934, where it had its most storied history. Al Capone, Whitey Bulger and Mickey Cohen all stayed there. By the time of its closure, the prison had 14 escape attempts and staff claims that not a single one was successful. 23 prisoners were caught in the act, six were shot and died, two drowned and five went missing and are presumed to have drowned.

Then, in 1969, a group of Native American college students from San Francisco occupied the island in an attempt to change federal attitudes toward native treatment. They held the prison first under the Treaty of Fort Laramie (which actually gifted Alcatraz to the Sioux nation), and then under the Right of Discovery. The occupation ended in 1971. As a result of this change, Richard Nixon began a policy of self-determination for natives. This change allowed them to regain control of their culture, and govern themselves under the protection of the Bill of Rights. Today, Native Americans hold several rituals at the site, including “Sunrise Gatherings” each Thanksgiving and Columbus Day.


About the Author: Phineas Upham is an investor at a family office/ hedgefund, where he focuses on special situation illiquid investing. Before this position, Phin Upham was working at Morgan Stanley in the Media and Telecom group. You may contact Phin on his Phineas Upham website or Facebook page.

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