Augusta Barrett Sherman (1839-1913)

augustasherman[Augusta Jane Barrett was born on April 17, 1839, in East Sumner, Maine, on a farm that had belonged to her ancestors since the American Revolution. She died January 5, 1913, at her home in San Diego. The following are excerpts from her memoirs, housed in the San Diego History Center Document Archives.]

When I was a very small girl I used to say that when I grew up I was going to California to teach school. When I was grown my dream was realized for I came to California, and after residing in the vicinity of San Francisco for a year or two, fortune or fate led my steps to San Diego – there to take charge of the only school in the county. My friends thought I was going out of the world, but there was something about this far away, almost unknown, southern country that seemed to have a charm for me.

On September 1, 1866, I left San Francisco on the Steamer “Pacific,” Captain Thorn, Master; and on the morning of September 4 we rounded Point Loma and steamed into San Diego and dropped anchor off shore in the vicinity of what is now known as F Street. There were no wharves then and we were put into small boats and rowed as near the shore as possible, and then the sailors waded the rest of the way, carrying the passengers in their arms, and landing them safely upon dry land.

There was one vehicle upon the beach awaiting our arrival, and in it I took my seat and was driven to Old Town. The settlement was at Old Town, as what is now San Diego was simply to me that morning a long stretch of brush covered land. The houses around the Plaza (Old Town) were in good repair, and the ruins one sees at the present time (1890) were thrifty looking places and were filled with people. Such a change! It makes one sad to contemplate. There were very few women, besides the native population, less than a dozen all told. The school children numbered about forty, mostly of Spanish origin.

There were no steam laundries in those days. Most of such work was done by Indian women. They would take the clothes to the bed of the San Diego River and then dig in the sand until they found water, which was very near the surface. They would sit by this miniature well and wash all day long. I used to say, “What patient creatures!”

We had mail once a week, and a steamer once a month. Our mail was brought by stage from Los Angeles, and was supposed to come and depart once each week, but sometimes it would be delayed because of storms. It was impossible to cross the streams, as there was not a bridge between here and Los Angeles. Sometimes in the rainy season we received our mail in a very wet condition, but of course that did not happen often. We were so glad to see the mail stage come we never thought of making any complaints.

There was but one church, the Roman Catholic, where services were held occasionally. The same church building and bells are still in use. Father Ubach came late in that same year, 1866, and remained permanently. Once each month be held services in the English language, so I used to attend them when I could understand.

The feast day for San Diego is on the 8th day of December, and how they used to celebrate! I witnessed my first bull fight on that day. The Plaza was fenced in for the arena, the animals turned loose in the enclosure, and then the fun began — if fun it could be called. This generally lasted two or three days, but the festivities kept up until after the New Year, with the different kinds of Spanish sports. One could hear the violin and guitar in all directions, for the Spanish people are very fond of music and dancing.

After my marriage to Captain [Matthew] Sherman in May, 1867, I came to New Town to live, as this portion of the town was called at that time. My husband and myself were the only inhabitants, our nearest neighbor being four miles away at Old Town. There were four houses, besides the Barracks. The Barracks, it might be interesting to know, was framed in the state of Maine and brought around Cape Horn in a sailing vessel and put up in San Diego, I think in the year 1852 — soon after California became a part of the United States. In April of 1867 “Father” [Alonzo] Horton came and made his purchase of land and returned to San Francisco. In the autumn of the same year our population increased by two, an old gentleman and his wife, so that I had one near neighbor.

In 1867 our “fathers” at Washington got the idea that smuggling was being carried on at this port. I never knew what it was that was being smuggled. So they sent the revenue cutter Reliance for our protection. She sailed around the Horn and arrived here early in 1868. The vessel remained here a number of months, but finding that there was nothing for them to do, she was ordered to Alaska.

I will speak of our water system. Of course we had one. The idea had always prevailed that there was no water to be had in this portion of San Diego. But during the Civil War the soldiers dug a well and found water at a depth of about 24 feet. The location of this well was below what is now known as K Street, between 14th and 15th Streets. They put up a primitive windmill and used to haul water in barrels. This was the way the soldiers at the Barracks were supplied with water. Our own water system was a burro and two 10-gallon kegs. These kegs were fastened upon the back of the little animal. We gave him the name of “Patient Peter,” he was so patient and wise. This little fellow used to bring his load of water for more than a mile. One day a stranger came along and was talking with my busband about the possibilities of the place (San Diego), and he asked, “Where do you get your water?” My husband, in reply, said, “I will show you where we get it.” Just then Patient Peter came in view, led by an Indian, and my husband continued, “Here are our water-works.” This stranger must have left, for we never saw him afterward.

As you will remember, “Father” Horton came to San Diego and made his purchase of land and then returned to San Francisco. Early in 1868 he returned with his family to reside. He soon commenced the survey in laying out the future city of San Diego. Now and then a settler came to make the new place his home. On the 4th of July we held a picnic in Rose Canyon, about four miles from Old Town. There was a stranger in our midst and of course curiosity was on tiptoe, for it was such an unusual occurrence, that we all wondered. He was an Englishman and came from Australia. We soon knew why he was there, for he built a store building on the corner of G and State Streets, and opened a store. His bill-heads read in this way: “J. Nash. General Merchandise. Established in 1868. Population, 23.”

It takes plenty of courage to open a store under such conditions, but that is the material that pioneers are made of. Later Mr. Nash moved to Fifth and I Streets. About the same time, Captain Dunnells came with his family and purchased one of the four houses above mentioned, situated at the corner of “F” and State Streets, and opened a hotel called the “New San Diego Hotel.” We began to feel by this time, with a store and a hotel, even if our population was only 23, we were getting to be quite a commercial town.

In the spring of 1868 we built a house and moved into it in the month of May. Then my nearest neighbor was over a mile away, as there were no buildings of any description on Horton’s Addition at that time. We built the house before the streets were laid out, but we were fortunate enough to build the house upon a lot and not in the street. We were more unfortunate with the well we had dug, however, for later we found it to be in the street, and we had the trouble of filling it up again. This house is still standing on the northwest corner of 19th and I Streets.

On November 4, 1868, a memorable day for the whole country, for it was the Presidential election, the day that General Grant was elected President of the United States, and it was an interesting day for San Diego, as it was steamer day, and the steamer arrived on that morning. Everyone who could went to see it. On this particular morning there were more passengers than usual, and among them an Episcopal minister. He established a Mission, and our first Protestant services were held in the Barracks the following Sunday. Everything was very primitive. A very common table, covered with a white cloth, served for the altar, and our seats were boards resting upon boxes and oil cans. Mrs. Dunnells was the proud possessor of a musical instrument, a melodian, I think it was called, which she kindly loaned. It was taken to the place of meeting in a wheelbarrow and returned in the same way. The service of the church has never been more beautiful to me than it was in these plain surroundings. It was not very long before we had a building erected in which the services were held, and the following year nearly all denominations had their church societies organized. Two years later our Episcopal mission held its first Sunday School Christmas festival, There was neither paint nor whitewash, but we covered the studding and rafters with green boughs that grew on the bills. There were only eight scholars, and four of that number belonged to the Rector’s family. We had a very small organ, and the children sang their Christmas carols and enjoyed the Christmas tree. The older folks enjoyed it, too.

On Christmas Eve, 1868, we had a Christmas tree, and there were gifts and good wishes for everyone. J. Nash, our merchant, gave all the ladies living in the new settlement material to make a calico dress. I always thought it was very generous, for common calico sold at that time for twenty cents per yard. A collection was taken up to purchase a bell for the school we hoped soon to establish. We had a bountiful supper and closed with dancing. Everybody was invited, and everybody came that could be there.

During the years 1868 and 1869 we made quite a rapid stride forward. A stage line to Fort Yuma was inaugurated by the Government, and the San Diego Union was first published, both with offices at Old Town. The Court also convened at the latter place. We had mail service twice instead of once a week, and steamers twice a month. A Post Office was established at New Town called South San Diego. You see, we were a suburb of Old Town.

We petitioned to the Supervisors for a School District, and succeeded in getting one, J. S. Mannasse & Company, merchants, gave lumber. We gave land and money and built a school house on the corner of 21st and N Street. We hired a young girl to take charge of the school, and paid her with money subscribed for the purpose. The following year an appropriation was made in regard to school money. I do not remember the exact number of pupils, but there were less than a dozen. That was the beginning of our school system, and when I see the children coming out of the school buildings now, I think to what large proportions small things can grow.

In March, 1869, I gave a party for my niece on her birthday and invited all the little girls. There were nine, including the recipient of the party. One little girl said to me, “Mrs. Sherman, I’ve come all around the world to get here. No doubt it did seem a very long way from Union and B Streets to 19th and I Streets, with no direct road. Our streets had been surveyed, but had not been travelled, and as they were covered with brush, they were not very easy walking. One of the girls, now grown-up, said to me not very long ago that she remembers so well what a lovely time they had. That was the first social event held in New San Diego for the “younger set.”

On the fourth of July, 1869, we had a celebration. The exercises were held in a warehouse at the foot of Fifth Street, where the Pacific Coast Steamship Company’s depot is now located. It was a small building built by Mr. Horton, and was afterwards used by A. Pauly & Sons as a store for general merchandise. We had a very modest procession: Mr. G. W. B. McDonald was President of the Day; Reverend Sydney Wilbur made the prayer. Captain Matthew Sherman read the Declaration of Independence, and Daniel Cleveland, Esq., was Orator of the Day. We had good singers in those days, the same as now, and the patriotic songs were sung with truly patriotic spirit. Our celebration was enthusiastic. It was not such a large gathering but it was an animated one. The fact that we were here, in this far away town of San Diego, did not keep us from feeling our joy and expressing it at the anniversary of our nation’s birth. Tables stood on one side, spread with many good things to eat, and there was plenty for all. After the dinner was served, the tables were cleared and we indulged in a good old fashioned dance.

Our celebration last three days; the second day at Old Town, with horse racing and fancy riding, and the third day at Monument City. And for the information of those who never heard of Monument City, I will say it was situated somewhere in the vicinity of what is now South San Diego.

(Here, a portion is missing from the original text. Her memoirs resume with an account of San Diego’s efforts to acquire a railroad.)

The City of San Diego gave a princely domain of land, and the citizens generally subscribed very liberally. In Washington, a bill for this railway was before Congress, and on March 3rd, 1871, the bill passed both houses and was signed by the President. The telegraph had been extended to our place (San Diego) and the news came over the wires. Of course, we were jubilant! We could almost hear the locomotive whistle. The following year in 1872 Tom Scott came here, and he was given a very warm welcome. A mass meeting was held and plans made for the future and everything seemed very bright and promising. We felt that San Diego’s prosperity was assured. The following year ground was broken for the road, and the roadbed graded for a short distance. But alas, the money panic in New York stopped all further progress and we fell back into the old groove, and had to start again to build a railroad.

In the meantime, a local company had been organized to build a railroad to San Bernardino. Ground was broken in 1872 and about ten miles of roadbed graded. For some reason it was never finished.

From now on we improved slowly, and although we missed the railroad, we never lost faith. Then came the time when the Santa Fe built into the city, and although it was not what we hoped to have – a direct line to the East, yet it gave us some way of communicating with the outside world.

Then came the boom in 1886, with its influx of people and excitement. Improvements were now rapid, and San Diego commenced to take on its present aspect.

Editor’s Note: Augusta Barrett was San Diego’s second “school marm” at the Old School House in Old Town. A few months after arriving in San Diego, she married Captain Matthew Sherman, and moved with him to New San Diego, where he was Collector of Customs, stationed at the Barracks. In June, 1867, only a month after Alonzo E. Horton purchased Horton’s Addition, Sherman bought 160 acres adjoining Horton’s on the east. This became known as Sherman’s Addition, and is bounded by 15th, 24th, Market and Commercial.

The Sherman’s first home, at 19th and J, still stands, altered and changed in appearance, at 418-22 19th Street. Their last home was at 22nd and Market, also stillstanding, but remodeled as the Sherman Apartments. The Sherman School at 22nd and Island is named for Captain Sherman, who donated land and money for the first school in New San Diego. Captain Sherman was a member of the Board of Supervisors, 1885-1886, and was Mayor of San Diego, 1891-92.

These memoirs were dictated by Augusta Barrett Sherman to her son, Matthew Barrett Sherman, in 18 90, and provide a graphic eyewitness account of the beginning of New San Diego. The memoirs were recently given to the San Diego Historical Society by Mrs. Sherman’s granddaughter, Miss Frances A. Sloane, a member of the Society.

[from MacPhail, Elizabeth. “Early Days in San Diego: The Memoirs of Augusta Barrett Sherman.” The Journal of San Diego History 18.4 (Fall 1972): 28-34.]

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