The Silver Dons, 1833-1865
CHAPTER NINE: Life on a Frontier
San Diego, crowded with gold seekers, Mexican and American gamblers, destitute settlers, the discontented soldiers of two nations, and burly teamsters of the government mule trains, was a frontier town. The Indian wars were about to begin, and the deserts and mountains were to be stained with blood. The executioners would return to the Spanish Plaza.
The artist Powell, in his terse and illuminating notes, tells us a little of the San Diego of the gold rush during two months of his stay:
“The public square is boarded in for a bullfight. Miserable affair . . . Got the blues terribly . . . Bullfight again . . . miserable bullfights continue. Thin ice this morning. Snow in mountains all around back of foot hills . . . Very cold. Bullfights still. Pigs here are very good . . . Monte banks; drinking, etc., their manners here are detestable. Dreadful lumbago last night . . . bed of river dry when we came in; today the water came rolling down a foot deep. Strange sight . . . Very sick . . . Many immigrants in same condition. River falling. Beautiful weather. Changing silver for gold . . . Hard work to get it. Singular in this gold country. California sports in Plaza . . . Gamblers and gambling rife here Sunday or no Sunday . . . Everybody gets drunk here. The gambling and drinking of the officers here and their exceedingly supercilious manners to the immigrants is very reprehensible . . . A party came in from Mexico City today… they set up a Monte Bank in the evening; piles of doubloons . . . Large lumps of gold. In better spirits now . . . Owens (Dragoon) died a/c for cutting and maiming another Dragoon . . . a Mexican soldier . . . murdered another right here in town last night . . . so little notice taken of it that I did not hear it until evening.”
Powell slept in wagons and sold sketches and maps of San Diego to keep himself alive, and tried to interest Miguel de Pedrorena and a “Mr. Fitch,” presumably one of Capt. Fitch’s sons, in starting a school, but nothing came of it. He sketched San Diego and the Mission for Lt. Couts for $8. The sketch of the Mission has survived, as has another Powell sketch of San Diego. The arrival of so many settlers set off a land boom, especially at La Playa, the site of the old hide houses and ship anchorage, and Powell was kept busy preparing maps and site sketches. By March 9 he had earned enough money to depart for the gold fields and left San Diego, “I hope for ever.”
Provisions were scarce, flour from Valparaiso selling at a price of four to six dollars for a fifty-pound sack. Nearly all of the ranchos had been depopulated. Wages of common laborers rose to $150 a month, and of carpenters to $10 a day. By the spring of 1850 American settlers and immigrants were dominating the affairs of the little pueblo, though the Californios remained active, both in business and in ranching. The Dons clung to their old ways and their costumes, and the gold rush created a demand for meat which they were to supply from their ranchos. For a brief time, at least, the silver on their saddles would grow richer and heavier. Powell referred to several wedding processions in the Spanish tradition, including one for the daughter of Alcalde Marrón, with their rich and colorful costumes and bedecked horses. To Powell, being a stern Protestant, it was all a “miserable mummery.”
The process of setting up a formal government continued through the winter. Peter H. Burnett had been installed as governor in December. Symbolic of the change with the years was San Diego’s designation of E. Kirby Chamberlain to serve as senator, and Oliver S. Witherby, who had come to San Diego with the Boundary Commission, as assemblyman, to the first Legislature in California, which was described as the “legislature of a thousand drinks.” It doesn’t seem to have been any different from modern legislative assemblies, though it did successfully launch the great state of California, and under an act of February 18, 1850, created San Diego as the first county. It contained at first 37,400 square miles, an empire in itself, from the Pacific coastline 200 miles east to the Colorado River, and included the present counties of San Diego, Riverside, Imperial and San Bernardino, and the easterly portion of Inyo. It was to be governed by a Court of Sessions.
While the residents of Old Town were preparing to organize governments for the county and the city, and at last break away from the laws and customs of Spain and Mexico, the bark Hortensia was lying at anchor off La Playa, in ballast, with the owner, William Heath Davis, who had first seen San Diego as a boy in 1831, ready, as he wrote in his memoirs, “for any adventure that might offer a profitable voyage.” Instead, he listened to a different proposition. Gray, the engineer with the Boundary Commission, suggested that he join a number of other San Diegans in building a new port and laying out an entirely new town, on the broad, flat land on the bay south of the old pueblo and directly on Punta de Los Muertos, or the Point of the Dead, where the Spanish Expedition of 1782 buried those who had died of scurvy. The old point lies under filled land at the intersection of Pacific Highway and Market Street.
Davis, known as “Kanaka Bill,” perhaps because he used so many Hawaiians, or Sandwich Islanders, as crewmen, assented. The other partners were José Antonio Aguirre, Miguel de Pedrorena, and William C. Ferrell, who became San Diego’s first district attorney. However, they soon acquired a new partner. A vessel arrived at La Playa with lumber for enlarging an Army depot at La Playa. The Army also planned to erect a barracks and other installations, as supplies for military posts were to be brought in by sea and transshipped by mule train to posts in Southern California and Arizona. The promoters quickly realized the advantages that would accrue to them if the Army could be induced to move its operations across the bay to New San Diego. Second Lt. Thomas D. Johns, of the 2nd Infantry, in charge of supplies, was given one of the eighteen shares in the project and he agreed to re-ship the lumber to the new site. On March 18, 1850, the town attorney, Thomas W. Sutherland, the first American attorney to arrive in San Diego, transferred 160 acres of land to the promoters for $2304 but it was stipulated that a wharf and warehouse should be built within eighteen months. The area included all the land lying between the bay and Front Street on the east and Broadway on the north. In return for his share of the realty, Davis agreed to build the wharf and warehouse, and the new town eventually became known as “Davis’ Folly.”
Davis and the other investors counted heavily on the Army’s plans, but they hadn’t counted on the Army running out of money. Davis laid out a subdivision of fifty-six blocks, thirty-one of which were on dry land and the rest of which were on tide flats. The mean high tide line ran parallel with the west side of Pacific Highway to Market Street, then angled southeast to Front and J Streets.
The Army had two full blocks, one for the depot and barracks and the other for stables and stock. The depot was on the block northwest of Kettner and Market Streets, the stables were on the block which in 1963 was the site of the Federal Building. A park block laid out between F and G, India and Columbia Streets, is still known by its original name, Plaza Pantoja.
The land was low, gently sloping back from the bay and covered with low, stunted brush, a little cactus, and the streets, other than those on Davis’ subdivision maps, consisted of a wagon track from Old Town that came down Pacific Highway to Market Street, turned eastward and connected with the main wagon road that followed south along the bay to La Punta and Tijuana. The site for the wharf was a sandbar that extended from the corner of Market Street and Pacific Highway about 750 feet due south to the present Coronado Ferry landing. There, the bar dropped off sharply into the channel, where there were six fathoms of water, sufficient for even large ships.
From March to December 1850, there was a flurry of activity in New Town. The Army brought in its shipload of lumber and Davis purchased lumber, bricks and some prefabricated houses which had been brought from the East Coast by the brig Cybele, and work began on his warehouse and wharf. The latter was an L-shaped structure that probably was about six hundred feet long, though the original bid had specified 1100 feet. The new settlement experienced some embarrassment by the failure to locate a supply of fresh water, and a water train had to be sent each day to the San Diego River in the vicinity of Old Town. Eventually two successful wells were sunk, one near Front and B Streets and another near State and F Streets.
One of the partners, Pedrorena, died on March 29, of apoplexy. In a letter to Davis, who had returned to San Francisco, Lt. Johns wrote that “not only his family but the whole town has been thrown into deep gloom at this melancholy announcement.” He was only forty-one years of age, and though he possessed large tracts of land, his widow, son and two daughters were left in strained financial circumstances.
The first county election was conducted on April 1, with votes cast at two precincts, Old Town and La Playa, for the election of judges and county officials. John Hays was elected county judge though Witherby had been designated by the Legislature as district judge. Juan Bandini and José Antonio Estudillo were the only Californios elected to office, Bandini as treasurer, though he never served and was replaced with Philip Crosthwaite, and Estudillo as assessor. Agoston Haraszthy, a native of Hungary, was elected sheriff.
For seven hundred years the family of Haraszthy had been prominent in Hungary. Haraszthy, often identified as a count, became involved in rebellions, encouraged Hungarians to migrate to America, and came himself in 1840, settling in Wisconsin and laying out what is now Sauk City. He visited Hungary to find his estates had been confiscated, and returned to the United States with his father, known as the “old general,” and his wife and three children. In the spring of 1849, seeking relief from financial difficulties, he packed his wife, six children and his father in an ox-drawn wagon and came to San Diego. Father and son planted acres of grapes in Mission and San Luis Rey Valleys, as the padres had done before them. Politics and trouble came naturally to this son of Central Europe.
The Legislature also had incorporated San Diego as a city, and the first election was held on June 16. Joshua H. Bean, who had been serving as alcalde, was chosen as the first mayor. José Antonio Estudillo was elected as treasurer and Bandini as assessor, though he again failed to serve. Sheriff Haraszthy also was designated as city marshal, and his father, Charles Haraszthy, was elected as one of the five councilmen. Bean, who had fought with Gen. Zachary Taylor in Mexico, served as mayor less than a year, and removed to San Gabriel where he opened a grog shop and became a general in the State Militia.
The first official acts of the Council were to approve maps of San Diego and its tidelands as made by Lt. Couts and Mayor Bean, and to certify the legality of certain grants of land made while Bean was still serving as alcalde. They soon voted to provide themselves with salaries, despite pre-election assurances they were anxious to serve only for the honor of it; set up license fees for games of chance; provided that Indians jailed on one pretext or another could be let out for private labor, at the discretion of the mayor; organized a committee to determine the best possible means of diverting the flow of the San Diego River into False, or Mission Bay, and awarded a $5000 contract for building a new jail to Councilman Haraszthy’s son, the sheriff. It was constructed so poorly that there has been some suspicion through the years that this was San Diego’s first example of official graft.
The lands of the pueblo were being divided among eager buyers, mostly friends and relatives, for speculation. A syndicate which included Agoston Haraszthy, Couts and Emory obtained 687 acres to form still another town to be known as Middletown, a narrow strip of land running along the bay from Old Town to New Town. The promoters grandiosely offered to donate land around a projected central plaza for the grouping of all public buildings, which was the first mention of a civic ambition that was to go unfilled for more than a century. Emory invested heavily in San Diego, because he believed implicitly that the railroad to the West would follow the 32nd parallel and terminate at San Diego, which then would become the metropolis of the Pacific Coast.
Land prices set by the Council ranged from $25 for a lot to $80 for twenty acres, all to be paid for by installments expected to be extracted from a stream of immigrants. The prices of some lots at La Playa were to reach as high as $500. But already the stream was beginning to slow, though the indications were not clearly visible as yet in a town which in a few years would be cut off from the main stream of the Westward movement. The bright hopes of the early 1850’s for a great metropolis would have to wait for a new generation.
The frontier conditions were disturbing to some of the Dons, and if they were not to be overwhelmed by the Protestant invasion, and if sin was to be held at bay, a church would have to be built. The Catholic chapel in the Estudillo home no longer was large enough for religious services and weddings and festivals. On August 24,1850, the Council granted land for church purposes to Fr. J. Chrisostom Holbein, who had come to San Diego as a successor to Fr. Oliva, and José Antonio Aguirre, Juan Bandini and Pedro J. de Pedrorena. This land was on the other side of the river near where the padres’ road to Mission San Diego intersected with El Camino Real. The cornerstone of the new church, however, was not laid until October 9,1851.
The national census of 1850 gave San Diego County a population of 798 and the city, including La Playa, 650. Indians weren’t counted. There were 157 registered voters, eighty-eight in Old Town and sixty-nine at La Playa, of whom 136 had arrived during or since the conquest.
In the mountains the wily Warner built a new trading store three miles farther down the immigrant trail coming up through the Carrizo Corridor and San Felipe Valley. Here the trail forked off, one branch leading directly west over a low hill to meet the regular trail from Agua Caliente to Santa Ysabel, and the other leading north in the direction of Los Angeles. Sections of the old trace were visible in 1963 on the hill above the old ranch house which is now an historical monument.
Out in the desert, along the Colorado River at the edge of San Diego County, the Yuma Indians became more apprehensive and more aggressive as thousands of immigrants invaded their territory. They exacted tribute for the crossing of the river, in return for assistance that sometimes was more costly than helpful, in the loss of horses, mules and goods. Early in 1850 a native of Illinois, Dr. A. L. Lincoln, returned from the gold fields and established a ferry at the junction of the Gila and the Colorado. It proved to be immensely profitable. He had six employees, and he kept them heavily armed.
Riding out of Chihuahua and Sonora with a band of desperadoes came John Glanton, a native of Tennessee. After service in the Mexican war, Glanton became a bounty hunter, collecting the scalps of ravaging Apaches and selling them to a grateful Mexican government. Soon, however, the Glanton gang turned to murdering Mexicans and selling their scalps as those of Apaches. When finally driven out of Mexico, they came to the Colorado and imposed themselves on Dr. Lincoln and his profitable ferry business.
The Yumas sought to divide the river business with Lincoln but Glanton became abusive and struck their chief. When Glanton went to San Diego to purchase provisions and more whiskey, the Indians sent spies into the ferry camp and at the same time gathered 500 warriors. On the night of April 23, when Glanton and his men had returned, and had gorged themselves on food and drink and fallen asleep, the Indians, upon signal from their spies, attacked. Glanton, Lincoln and four men were hammered or axed to death before a shot could be fired in resistance. Five men operating the ferry were surprised and killed. Three others who had gone to cut willow poles managed to escape, jumping into a skiff and floating down river, shooting and possibly killing ten of their pursuers. They drifted as far as fourteen miles below Algodones, a little Mexican town on the border below Yuma, and then worked their way back toward the camp on foot.
All of the structures had been burned, along with the bodies which had not been thrown into the river. There were reports that three bags of silver and a bag of gold, had disappeared. In a deposition taken in Los Angeles, Jeremiah Hill testified that he was one of fourteen immigrants arriving at the crossing just after the massacre and that the Indians had held another council of war and were determined to kill all Americans coming to the river. Hill’s party, however, was allowed to cross, but were told they were to be the last, and Hill warned that there were between seventy-five and a hundred men, women and children approaching the Colorado.
One of the men who had escaped, William Carr, gave a deposition at San Diego as well as at Los Angeles, and said he had asked the commanding officer of United States troops to send a force to the river but that none had been sent, and “there are forty U.S. soldiers, infantry, at said town of San Diego.” When the reports reached the state capital, Governor Burnett ordered the sheriff of Los Angeles to raise forty men and the sheriff of San Diego, twenty, and place them under the command of Joshua Bean, the former mayor and a general of the State Militia. Bean, however, remained at his grog shop and sent Joseph C. Morehead, the state’s quartermaster general and a former member of Stevenson’s Volunteers, marching against the Indians. By the time they reached the river his force of twenty men had grown to more than one hundred but the Indians proved illusive, fading into the tangled thickets of the broad Colorado River bed. So, the story goes, Morehead and his Indian fighters, after indecisive brushes with the enemy, vigorously attacked their rations, liquid and solid, harrassed the immigrants and robbed passing Sonorans of their gold, for three months, before being ordered to disband and return, with many guns and much ammunition missing and the new-born state in debt $120,000 for supplies and salaries.
Reading in a San Francisco newspaper of the massacre of the Glanton company, and of the huge sums which had been earned, George Alonzo Johnson, an unemployed seaman, decided to go into the ferry business himself. He arrived in San Diego with a number of partners, including Louis J. F. Jaeger, or Iaeger, as it was sometimes spelled, who was to become the best known of the Colorado River ferry men. They purchased mules from Couts and Bandini and reached the river in July. In October, three companies of soldiers under Maj. Heintzelman left San Diego Mission to establish a fort at the river for the protection of the immigrants. They went by way of San Pasqual, driving their loaded wagons up the hilly carreta road with great difficulty, and reached the river on December 1. They soon established a camp on the ridge opposite the mouth of the Gila, where the Yuma Indians had attacked and burned the mission settlement in 1781.
A large proportion of the immigrants now entering California were seeking land and opportunity more than gold, but conditions in California continued to be turbulent, with titles to land in dispute and with government largely ineffective. The question of the admission of California to the Union as a state, which had become embroiled in the controversy over the extension of slavery, finally was resolved, with California admitted under a compromise as a free state. The news of the signing of the law on September 9, 1850, by President Fillmore, did not reach California until six weeks later, but it set off a wild celebration, from San Diego to the gold fields.
The ranches of the Spanish and Mexican periods were slowly passing into new hands through death or marriage. Lt. Couts, the young West Point officer and nephew of a Secretary of the Treasury under President Polk, married Ysidora Bandini, a daughter of Don Juan, on April 5, 1851, and in October he resigned from the Army. He later made his home on Guajome Rancho which had been a wedding present to his wife from her brother-in-law, Abel Stearns, of Los Angeles. A brother, William Blounts Couts, also came to San Diego and married a daughter of Santiago E. Arguello. Henry Clayton, a surveyor with the Boundary Commission, who was elected county surveyor in 1850, in time married the widow of Capt. Snook and owner of Rancho San Bernardo. Among the many immigrant trains arriving in 1850 over the Gila Trail was the Robinson party, led by James W. Robinson, who had been lieutenant governor and governor of Texas during its days of independence, and had been seized and held captive by the Mexican general, Santa Anna. With him came Louis Rose, a native of Germany and former resident of New Orleans, who was to engrave his name on the geography of San Diego. Old San Diego was reaching its height.
For more than a half-century efforts to establish and maintain schools in San Diego had never borne fruit. In 1845, before the arrival of the Americans, only eleven of twenty-five voters were able to write. Now the Council voted to hire a Miss Dillon as a teacher, and was able to induce the sheriff to rent two rooms in his residence for use as classrooms. These were in the adjoining homes of the dead sea captains, Fitch and Snook. Sessions were conducted intermittently, and again soon were abandoned.
In San Francisco, a young newspaperman who also wrote under the name of “Boston,” learned of the prospects of New Town and the desire of its promoters to establish San Diego’s first newspaper. He was John Judson Ames, born in Maine. On his sixteenth birthday, his father, a shipbuilder, had called his son before him. Ames later told this story:
“On the day on which we completed our sixteenth year, a wise father turned us out into the world with the parting words: “Jud, you are now old enough to take care of yourself, and I think there is enough of the Yankee in you to insure your success. If you make a good beginning, I will render you any assistance you may require — if you must try again. Be industrious — practice economy — shun wine and women — and I’ll insure you for ten per cent on your original cost.” “
After some years at sea, he got a job helping to build the pioneer telegraph line from Memphis to New Orleans, in 1847, and then turned to newspaper work, founding The Dime Catcher in Baton Rouge, the new capital of Louisiana. The gold fever seized him and in 1849 he closed his little newspaper and went to San Francisco by way of Panama. A visit to San Diego late in 1850 convinced him of its future, and in December he issued a prospectus on his projected newspaper. He returned to New Orleans by boat and packed up his old press and printing equipment and shipped them to Panama. While crossing the lakes of the isthmus, his boat sank, though he managed to salvage the press and boxes of type. Upon reaching the Pacific Coast side with his equipment strapped to mules, he fell ill of fever and missed his ship to San Diego. He finally obtained passage on another boat which promptly sprang a leak, almost sank, and had to be laid up at Acapulco for a week for repairs. He finally made it to San Diego, and the first four-page issue of the weekly San Diego Herald came off the press on Thursday, May 29, 1851, just twelve days after the first newspaper had appeared in Los Angeles. He was thirty years of age, and six feet, six inches tall.
His opening editorial promised that the Herald would be independent but not neutral. It was neither independent nor neutral, as far as politics were concerned. He did, however, have an aversion for unhappy news and probably many of the more exciting local events of those days never reached print even though he had no source of national or international news except the newspaper exchanges which arrived weeks and months late.
In a period of ten days in May, eleven ships from ports in many parts of the world, from Liverpool to Valparaiso and San Francisco, put into San Diego harbor with their cargoes of gold seekers and settlers. As significant, perhaps, were reports in the Herald that in June 3000 sheep from the states of Durango and Chihuahua, in Mexico, had arrived in San Diego, after being driven over the Anza route from Sonora up through San Felipe Pass on their way to the gold fields, where the demand for meat was jumping the price of cattle higher and higher. Cattle once killed for their hides which sold for $2, brought as much for awhile as $500 a head.
In the following month 6000 more sheep from Mexico reached the Colorado ferry crossing, and they were to be driven through San Diego over the new route by way of Jacumba. Behind them were reported 4000 sheep being driven West by Americans. The trailing of these sheep opened the way for cattle drives over the Gila Trail from Texas that were longer and far more difficult than those of the famed Chisholm Trail of the Western Plains two decades later.
The soaring cattle market in the North did not at first affect the three communities around the bay of San Diego. With most of the soldiers away at the Colorado, and with the tide of immigration slowing up, a temporary depression brought a halt to much of the building and land speculation.
Old Town still huddled around the barren, dirty Plaza, but the old adobe houses were being converted into commercial establishments. Only a few trees along the river’s edge offered a touch of greenery. At high tide, the bay was three blocks west of the Plaza; at low tide, a mile and a-half. Merchants, landowners and cattlemen were the hard core of officialdom. They executed the laws and spoke for stability and sanitation. In practice, their efforts ranged from mild success to total failure. The frontier had overwhelmed the remote pueblo which once stood on the rim of empire.
On the south side of the Plaza the home of José Antonio Estudillo was still considered one of the finest in California. On the west was the small brick courthouse and office of the alcalde. Next door Cave Couts had converted a store into a hotel and saloon known as the Colorado House. With his marriage to Ysidora Bandini, Couts was well on his way to becoming one of the wealthiest men in the county. His hotel was a wood and adobe structure with a high false front, and besides food, liquor and lodging, it offered such pleasures as billiards and monte bank. George Tebbetts had his Exchange Hotel next to Couts’ hotel. It was a one-story adobe. On up the street Judge John Hays and Councilman Charles P. Noell were partners in a mercantile store. Two recent arrivals, James Marks and Charles Fletcher, also had opened a store. Two blocks away, across the river, William Leamy, the local butcher and a city councilman, took on a partner named M. M. Sexton in the operation of a slaughter house and small store.
The local physician, Dr. Fred Painter, also served as county assessor and deputy postmaster. His medical practice was on the Plaza, and his official offices over Hooper’s Store in New Town. Sheriff Haraszthy’s office was a few doors off the northeast corner of the Plaza on Calhoun Street, probably in the old Carrillo-Fitch adobe. Josefa Fitch still owned the family store across the street.
Other merchants were A. J. Matsell, a farmer and Army forage contractor who was to sell out before the end of the year; Francis Hinton, a wagon master turned merchant, and his new partner, R. E. Raimond, a well-respected businessman who later would move to San Francisco. Louis Rose, a man of many ventures, was just beginning his business career in his first store near the corner of present Juan and Wallace Streets, next to Pío Pico’s old house. San Diego would remember him for Rose’s Store, Rose’s Tannery, Rose Canyon, Roseville, Rose’s Hotel and Rose’s Wharf. Two other newcomers to San Diego that year were two San Francisco associates of William Heath Davis. They were Lewis Franklin and Thomas Whaley, who opened their Tienda California. Both were to play major roles in San Diego’s future as businessmen and civic leaders. P. A. Goldman, a San Francisco merchant and an associate of Louis Strauss, opened a store in San Diego that year destined to become one of the city’s largest.
On the southeast side of the Plaza, the main room of the famed Bandini house, where the social life of San Diego had once held sway and Commodore Stockton had danced while the Battle of San Pasqual moved to its tragic finale, had been converted into a store to fill the needs of the travellers and hopeful settlers.
Near the edge of the bay, two blocks south of the Plaza, was the largest structure in Old Town, the Gila House. A frame building with an adobe kitchen, it was built by Bandini and was more than 250 feet in length and two stories high. It proved to be a monument to bad judgment. Before the year was out, Bandini was in financial troubles and he turned the management of his property over to a son-in-law, Charles R. Johnson, a former San Francisco cattle auctioneer who had married Dolores Bandini, and retired to his Guadalupe Ranch, fifty miles southeast of San Diego and resumed Mexican citizenship. Adolph Savine, a wealthy businessman who had come West seeking new opportunities, held a $10,000 mortgage on the hotel at four per cent per month. Another son-in-law, wealthy Abel Stearns, of Los Angeles, took over the mortgage to save Bandini in mid-1851.
Despite the bitter disappointment of having the Army establish its depot at New Town, La Playa held its own and even had expanded a little by the end of the year, as there still were considerable numbers of ships in and out of the harbor. The little cluster of rough wood and adobe buildings five miles west of Old Town included the four dilapidated hide houses, four stores, a ramshackle customhouse, a hotel of sorts and a few scattered dwellings. Commercial buildings were all near the water’s edge where the shoreline bulged out into the stream and the land lifted gently back to the base of Point Loma’s highland backbone. The area is now the site of the U.S. Navy’s Refueling Depot. Stores were operated by Holden Almy, Frank Ames and Eugene Pendleton, John Cooke, and David Gardiner and John R. Bleecker. Charles Johnson, Mrs. Fitch and José Aguirre owned three of the hide houses. William E. Ferrell was port collector at the customhouse. The name of the owner of the New Orleans Hotel is not known. By October, Abel Watkinson had opened the Playa House Hotel and James Donohue the Ocean House Hotel in a combined store and residence building purchased from John Cooke. The hide house owners were going into their second year of boring an artesian well that was to prove a dry hole at six hundred feet seven months later. The Army had two companies of troops living in tents near the business center, and the Pacific Mail Steamship Co. had its freight and passenger depot there.
Frank Ames was not related to the editor of the Herald but was a cousin of Julian Ames, the otter hunter, though he was employed as a compositor on the paper and wrote articles under the by-line of “Puff.” His partner in the mercantile business at La Playa, Eugene Pendleton, was a brother of George Pendleton.
New Town virtually was a Davis enterprise. He established a store operated by George H. Hooper across from the Army depot, and a saloon and billiard parlor known as the Pantoja House on the east side of Pantoja Plaza. It was operated by Charles J. Lanning and William P. Toler. The Herald had its offices on the second floor of Hooper’s store. Ames and Pendleton crossed the bay and founded a lumber and mercantile business two lots south of Hooper’s store on California Street; Levi Slack and Ephraim W. Morse, partners from San Francisco, opened the Boston House, an eating and lodging establishment on the south side of the Pantoja House. Capt. Nathaniel Lyon, Lt. Col. J. Bankhead Magruder, Lt. D. M. Beltzhouver, and Andrew B. Gray were among those who built houses in New Town.
New Town did not prosper and Hooper reported to Davis at San Francisco in September that “with respect to the Pantoja House, everything goes on very quietly — indeed too quietly, for there is no business doing here or anywhere.” A month later he wrote that New Town “appears to be perfectly deserted.” In November he was selling off the goods as fast as he could, some at cost and some at a loss, and there is “no use auctioning goods as hardly a week passes without an auction at Old Town or the Playa . . . there is no money here, and the Lord only knows when there will be any.”
At the year’s end, Hooper had left. He later operated a store on the Colorado River with Francis Hinton, the Old Town merchant. Lanning and Toler faded from the scene. All that remained were Ames & Pendleton’s Store, the Boston House, the Pantoja House and the Herald. Business had come to a standstill. Old Town had entered the year with eight stores, two hotels and three low groggeries, or small saloons. At the year’s end, there were twelve stores, three hotels and three small saloons. La Playa started the year with four stores, four hide houses, a custom house and one hotel, and by year’s end had lost one store and gained two hotels.
The first stages began to creak over El Camino Real in 1852 with the establishment of irregular service between San Diego and Los Angeles. Phineas Banning and D. W. Alexander started a stage line which followed the regular trail up Rose Canyon, across the mesa and down through Soledad Valley, with an overnight stop at San Juan Capistrano, and gradually replaced the carretas and mule trains which had been seen in New Spain for more than three hundred years. The next year a rival service was begun by J. L. Tomlinson. Others soon appeared, and by the end of 1853 Northern and Southern California were linked by stage service through connections at San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Buenaventura. It was to the East though that San Diego always turned its eyes.
In the spring of 1851 Capt. Nathaniel Lyon, looking east from San Diego on a clear day, saw two mountains, one covered with vegetation, which he believed was named San Miguel, and the other, higher and appearing white with granite boulders piled in huge masses, and noticed “the inviting appearance” of a depression on the north side which “determined me to attempt a passage.” Thus a new route east to the desert was discovered.
This route would have taken him through Chollas Valley, Lemon Grove, Spring Valley and across the Sweetwater Lake basin through Jamul Rancho and to the base of Lyons Peak. In a small depression on the north base of the second peak he discovered an Indian trail which he followed slightly south of east into “one of the most remarkable mountain gorges in nature, having on either side, high, steep mountains, covered with huge granite blocks. Though the rocks appeared impassable from a distance, the trail opened onto a “fine valley, having grass and water and beautiful oak groves,” and extending along the foot of the mountains most of the distance to the high country. Lyon traveled eight miles along the water course, gradually climbing to its source. Then he noted a slight rise beyond which the water flowed eastward: “High, undulating country stretches far in every direction, oak groves, valleys, grass and water extending north and south.”
Lyon’s description probably was of a route across the Barrett Lake Basin and up the great natural declivity of Cottonwood Creek and Hauser Creek, which would have brought him out on the high woodlands north of Campo. From there, he travelled a little north of east for twelve miles, crossing a low ridge and descending its steep and rocky east side by an old Indian trail to Jacumba Basin. “East out of the valley are mountains bordering the desert,” and the trail followed a northerly direction with a slight ascent, then began descending gradually in the same direction to a steep, rocky declivity, “which everywhere presents an obstacle to a direct route.” Here again, the Indians from Jacumba showed Lyon a gradual descent which “with little work, it could be the best pack mule trail of all, short of the long wagon road” by way of Warner’s. From the foot of the trail, where there was water, but little grass, Lyon said he wound a northerly route for five miles along a dry creek bed.
This route would have taken him down Boulder Creek through In-ko-Pah Gorge. It did not become a wagon road, but it was a pack trail eighty miles shorter than the wagon route by way of Warner’s and San Felipe. This trail was used by sheepmen and cattle drovers coming west and by Army pack trains going east to supply Fort Yuma. Interstate Highway 8 would twist its way through In-ko-Pah Gorge in later years, but the struggle to fulfill the dream of a practical low-level route over the mountain barrier, to end the geographical isolation of San Diego, would have to go on.
The new city, which had been lavish in salaries for its officials, soon went bankrupt and issued scrip in an attempt to meet its current bills. The legislature revoked the city charter, and in 1852 a Board of Trustees was organized to administer public affairs. Pueblo lots were ordered sold off to raise money. One of the lots contained a “fine brick building” which was identified as the courthouse.
But prosperity would come again to the ranchos, as it had done in the days when they belonged to the Franciscan missions. Hooper, in one of his last letters to Davis, had written “it is expected that San Diego will be quite gay this winter. Forster of San Juan, Don Joaquín Ortega and several other Spanish families are expected to pass the winter here. If so, San Diego will look up a little.” The rancheros of San Diego County, their cattle multiplying on the grassy hills and wet valleys, began putting together great herds which were driven up the old mission route 600 miles to Stockton, Sacramento and San Francisco, the Mexican and Californio vaqueros taking the trail with riatas and chaparerras that had come down from Spanish days and which gave the cowboys of America the traditional costumes of the Western Frontier.
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THE SILVER DONS
Ch. 1 California in 1830
Ch. 2 The Lash of Greed
Ch. 3 Winds of Change
Ch. 4 Rise of the Ranchos
Ch. 5 A Manifest Destiny
Ch. 6 The Bloody Lances
Ch. 7 End of the Pueblo
Ch. 8 The Burning Trail
Ch. 9 Life on a Frontier
Ch. 10 The Garra Uprising
Ch. 11 Empires of Cattle
Ch. 12 The West is Linked
Ch. 13 Chasing the Whale
Ch. 14 Journey of Death
Ch. 15 Last of the Dons