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John Judson Ames (1821 – 1861)

johnamesThe first paper published in the city of San Diego was the San Diego Herald. The initial number appeared on May 29, 1851, only twelve days after the first publication of La Estrella de Los Angeles (The Star of Los Angeles). In September of the preceding year a small sheet called the San Luis Rey Coyote had been issued by some army officers stationed at that mission, purporting to be edited by one C. Senior (Si Senor). It was a comic journal neatly written, and contained a map and some useful information; but it was not in any proper sense of the word a newspaper, and only one number was published. It is not known how many copies were issued.

The Herald was at first a four-page four-column paper, published every Thursday. The subscription price was $10 per annum and the advertising rates were: 8 lines or less, $4 for the first insertion and $2 for each subsequent insertion; business cards at monthly rates and a discount offered to yearly advertisers. The reading matter in the first number, including a list of 320 letters which had accumulated in the San Diego post office, filled five and three-fourths columns. The local advertisements made two columns, and those of San Francisco advertisers eight and one-fourth columns. The paper contained quite a little local news and was well set up and printed.

The editor and proprietor of this paper was John Judson Ames. He was born in Calais, Maine, May 18, 1821, and was therefore a few days past his thirtieth birthday when he settled in San Diego. He was a tall, stout, broad-shouldered man, six feet six and one-half inches high, proportionately built, and of great physical strength. His father was a shipbuilder and owner. Early in the 40’s young Ames’s father sent him as second mate of one of his ships on a voyage to Liverpool. Upon his return, while the vessel was being moored to the wharf at Boston, a gang of rough sailor boarding-house runners rushed on board to get the crew away. Ames remonstrated with them. saying if they would wait until the ship was made fast and cleaned up, the men might go where they pleased. The runners were insolent, however, a quarrel ensued, and one of the intruders finally struck him a blow on the chest. Ames retaliated with what he meant for a light blow, merely straightening out his arm, but, to his horror, his adversary fell dead at his feet. He was immediately arrested, tried for manslaughter, convicted, and sentenced to a long term in the Leverett Street Jail. The roughs had sworn hard against him, but President John Tyler understood the true facts in the case, and at once pardoned him. After this, he was sent to school to complete his education. A few years later, being of a literary turn, he engaged in newspaper work, and in 1848 went to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and started a paper which he called the Dime Catcher, devoted to the cause of the Whig party, in general, and of General Zachary Taylor’s candidacy for the presidency, in particular.

After the discovery of gold, he joined the stream of immigrants and came to California via Panama, arriving at San Francisco October 28, 1849, without a penny in his pockets. Borrowing a handcart, he engaged in the business of hauling trunks and luggage. He always kept as a pocket-piece the first quarter of a dollar he earned in this way. His financial condition soon improved and he formed a number of valuable friendships, especially among his Masonic brethren at San Francisco. He was present at the first meeting of any Masonic lodge in California, that of California Lodge (now No. 1) ; on November 17, 1849. On the following 9th of December he became a member of this lodge, presenting his demit from St. Croix Lodge No. 40, F. & A. M. of Maine. He also became interested in newspaper work, writing under the pen name of “Boston.” The question naturally occurs at this point: What was it which induced a man thus situated to leave these friends and settle in a little town of five or six hundred? Ames’s own writings may be searched for the answer, in vain. It is scarcely sufficient to suppose that it was due to his desire for independent employment, for at that time the region could not support a paper which would pay its publisher a living. The matter has excited wonder in other quarters. Thus, a writer in the Sacramento Union says:

“A number of young but well-defined interests called for the publication of an organ in this end of the Western American seaboard, though San Diego at that early day, no less than in later times, offered very little encouragement of the quality of local support to a newspaper. Any person who was willing to accept the chances of an easy living, and endure the dull routine of a little out of the way place, holding on for advantages that must certainly come by and by, might publish a newspaper in San Diego successfully; and such a person seems to have been found in the conductor of the organ at that place. To him belongs the merit of establishing the press on that lonely shore.”

The answer to this question rests upon the testimony of living men, to whom Ames disclosed it in confidence, and is strikingly confirmed by the whole policy of the Herald. Ames established the Herald as the organ of United States Senator William M. Gwin, who expected to bring about the division of the state, the annexation of Lower California and the Sandwich Islands, and the construction of a Southern transcontinental railway terminating at San Diego. This, of course, would have made San Diego the capital of the new state, and probably the most important city on the Pacific coast. That Gwin had the purposes mentioned, and that the first transcontinental railway project was for a line on the 32nd parallel and intended as an outlet for the Southern states, are historical facts too well known to require proof. From the first, the Herald vigorously supported Senator Gwin’s policies, the project of state division, and the Southern transcontinental railway. Moreover, the surprisingly large volume of San Francisco advertisements in the Herald can scarcely be accounted for on any theory except that the paper was subsidized by means of these advertisements. It is scarcely reasonable to suppose that there was business enough here to justify San Francisco merchants in using more than half of Ames’s space for their advertisements, at the start, an to keep this up for years. As a matter of fact, Ames took only a slight part in the public life of San Diego, and spent all the time he possibly could in San Francisco. Gwin failed in a these schemes, although he served as senator from California two full terms from 1849 to 1860. He also failed to keep his promises to Ames, and the editor’s end, broken in health, fortune tune, and ambition, was truly a sad one. But this is anticipating; at the present point in our story, our editor is young strong, and full of hope.

In getting his paper established at San Diego, be had to overcome obstacles which, as he himself says, “would have disheartened any but a ‘live Yankee.'” He issued a prospectus in December, 1850, and took subscription and advertising contracts on the strength of it. Had his plans prospered, the Herald would have been the first newspaper printed south of Monterey; but delays and difficulties followed. He says in his first number:

“We issued our prospectus in December last, and supposed at the time that we had secured the material for our paper; but when we come to put our hand on it, it wasn’t there! Determined to lose no time, we took the first boat for New Orleans, where we selected our office, and had returned as far as the Isthmus, when Dame Misfortune gave us another kick, snagged our boat, and sunk everything in the Chagres River. After fishing a day or two we got enough to get out a paper, and pushed on for Gorgora, letting the balance go to Davy Jones’ Locker. Then comes the tug of war, in getting our press and heavy boxes of type across the Isthmus. Three weeks of anxiety and toil prostrated us with the Panama fever by which we missed our passage in the regular mail steamer-the only boat that touched at San Diego-thereby obliging us to go on board a propeller bound for San Francisco. This boat sprung a leak off the Gulf of Tehauntepec-came near sinking-run on a sandbank-and finally got into Acapulco where she was detained a week in repairing. We at last arrived in San Francisco, just in time to lose more of our material by the late fire.”

Some side lights are thrown upon his adventures, by the way, by those to whom he related them more in detail. On arriving at Chagres, he found much difficulty in getting his outfit transported across the Isthmus. The only means of conveyance was by barges or canoes up the Chagres River to the head of navigation at Gorgona or Cruces, and thence on the backs of mules to Panama. He engaged a bungo with a crew of native boatmen and started up the river. When the boat was snagged, the standard of the press, a casting weighing about four hundred pounds, was part of the sunken material and, although the river was shallow, the boatmen were unable to lift it up on the boat again. After watching their futile efforts for half a day, Ames lost his patience completely and, jumping overboard in a frenzy and scattering the boatmen right and left, he seized the press and placed it upon the boat, himself. Arriving at Cruces, he experienced great difficulty in getting his goods transported by mules, and had to pay exorbitant prices. When he reached Panama, he was compelled by the attack of fever to remain some time, along with a number of California immigrants waiting for a steamer. During this time of waiting, he set up his plant and published a paper called the Panama Herald, half in English and half in Spanish.

It would seem that a man of so much strength and tenacity of purpose was of the sort to make a success of his newspaper venture at San Diego; and, indeed, though the Herald was somewhat erratic, it never lacked in vigor.

Ames cast in his lot with the new town (Graytown, or Davis’s Folly), which was then just starting. He had met William Heath Davis before coming, and the latter aided him to the extent of almost $1,000 in getting his press set up-a debt which was never discharged. The office of the Herald was over the store of Hooper & Co., at the corner of Fourth and California Streets. About two years later, when the new town had proven a temporary failure, the Herald was removed to Old Town, and for the greater part of its life occupied the second floor of a building owned by Louis Rose, at the northwest corner of the plaza.

During the last year or two of the Herald‘s publication in San Diego it was not so “easy,” for the paper severely criticizes the Holliday steamship line, complains of its poor service and high fares, “which prevent the editor from going to San Francisco on pressing business,” indicating, possibly, that the free pass had been called in.

The political complexion of the paper was changed several times. The first issue announced it to be “Independent in all things, neutral in nothing,” but soon afterward it supported Bigler for governor, and the full Democratic ticket nominated by the Benicia convention. But Ames was independent enough to kick over all party traces when he felt like it. He opposed President Pierce and severely criticized him at times; one reason for this doubtless being the fact that Pierce had vetoed a bill appropriating money for the improvement of the San Diego River. In April, 1855, he hoisted the name of General Sam Houston for president. In May, 1856, he came out for Fillmore and Donelson for president and vice-president, and went over completely to the Knownothing party, substituting for his original motto the following: “Thoroughly American in principle, sentiment and effort.” This bolt to the Know nothing party appears not to have produced any results. The town and county were Democratic up to the time that Horton cattle, and for some little time thereafter. When the Know-Nothing movement died out Ames returned to the Democratic fold. In 1857 his motto was changed to: “Devoted to the interest of Southern California.”

It is clear that Ames suppressed many things which he thought might hurt the reputation of the town. The trouble with the San Francisco volunteers, following the Garra insurrection, is scarcely mentioned in the Herald. Again, while Ames was away on one of his trips, the, editor pro tem. thought proper to write up and condemn certain disorders. Some of the citizens protested against this publicity in a letter in which he declared it was contrary to Ames’s policy to have such items appear. It may be inferred from this that much interesting historical material has been lost, on account of this policy of suppression-a policy which is not yet extinct.

The many difficulties under which the paper struggled would make an interesting story could Ames himself tell it. There was no telegraph, no telephone, no railroad in those days and for Dews of the outside world be was dependent upon a semi-monthly mail service by steamer, which service was poor and irregular. He seems to have depended for his exchanges almost entirely upon the pursers of the steamers calling at this port.

In almost every issue of the paper he acknowledges the receipt of bundles of papers, or growls about the neglect of those who should deliver mail and do not. After the transcontinental stage line was opened to the East (August 31, 1857) matters went somewhat better.

In the latter part of 1855 the Herald ran for some time a list of all the post offices in California and at all times it wag found necessary to fill up with miscellaneous matter.

Another source of trouble was the difficulty of obtaining supplies of print paper, and several issues were printed on common brown wrapping paper, for the reason that the paper ordered had, through some neglect or blunder at San Francisco, not arrived.

The failure of Gwin’s schemes had a very depressing effect upon hopes and expectations had been very high, and other causes tended to discourage him. His wife died March 14, 1857, and not long after unknown parties mutilated and destroyed the monument at her grave. On October of this year, while he was absent in San Francisco, a gale blew down and completely demolished his house, at Old Town, known as “Cosy Cottage.” These things saddened and embittered him and, already somewhat given to indulgence in liquor, he became dissipated and broken in health. He married again, about 1858 or 1859. Soon after this, Brigham Young ordered the Mormons living at San Bernardino to come to Salt Lake to aid him in resisting the United States troops under Albert Sydney Johnston, and most of them sold out in haste for whatever they could get. The influx of Americans who bought them out, together with the discovery of gold in Holcomb Valley, made San Bernardino quite lively and Ames determined to remove his paper to that place. The last number of the San Diego Herald was issued April 7, 1860. and their Mr. Harvey C. Ladd, a Mormon who bad been a resilient of San Diego, hauled the outfit to San Bernardino, and Ames began the publication of the San Bernardino Herald. The now paper did not prosper, however, and in a short time he sold out to Major Edwin A. Sherman. Ames’s end was now near, and he died on the 28th day of July, 1861. He had one son, called Huddie, born in San Diego, November 19, 1859, and died in San Bernardino March 27, 1863. His widow married again, and she is now also deceased.

[from Smythe, William Ellsworth. History of San Diego, 1542-1908. San Diego: History Co., 1907. (pages 295-303)]

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