History of San Diego, 1542-1908

PART TWO: CHAPTER 10: Accounts of Early Visitors and Settlers

The Panama Steamship Line was established in 1849, and San Diego became a port of call. By 1850 it had nearly 500 population, with as many more at La Playa, and with a new settlement sprouting on the site of the present city. It was a period of fluctuating hopes and fortunes, but without important achievement. In the two decades which separated the war with Mexico from the beginning of the great Horton enterprise, the steamers brought many visitors as well as settlers who became citizens of note. Several of these men and women left interesting accounts which furnish a clear idea of the appearance of town and country and of the features of local life.

Thus, Philip Crosthwaite tells us that in 1845, there was not a house between Old Town and the Punta Rancho, owned by Don Santiago E. Argüello. The San Diego Mission was partly dilapidated, but the main church edifice and some of the wings were in good condition. The priest then in charge of the mission was Father Vicente Oliva, and he came to the presidio on Sundays to celebrate mass. Besides olive orchards and vineyards, the mission owned some horses, cattle, and sheep. Near the mission was a large Indian village or ranchería. The principal business was the raising of cattle for their hides and tallow.

Major Wm. H. Emory, who came with General Kearny in December, 1846, made these observations:

“The town consists of a few adobe houses, two or three of which only have plank floors. It is situated at the foot of a high hill on a sand-flat, two miles wide, reaching from the head of San Diego Bay to False Bay. A high promontory, of nearly the same width, runs into the sea for four or five miles, and is connected by the flat with the main-land. The road to the hide-houses leads on the eastward of this promontory. . . . The bay is a narrow arm of the sea indenting the land for some four or five miles, easily defended, and having twenty feet, making the greatest water twenty-five feet. . . .feet of water at the lowest tide. The rise is said to be five

“San Diego is, all things considered, perhaps one of the best harbors on the Coast, from Callao to Puget Sound, with a single exception, that of San Francisco. In the opinion of some intelligent navy officers, it is preferable even to this. The harbor of San Francisco has more water, but that of San Diego has a more uniform climate, better anchorage, and perfect security from winds in any direction.”

JOSE G. ESTUDILLO. One of the most prominent citizens of San Diego in early American days. He held numerous offices and was State Treasurer one term.

One of the most famous visitors of early days was Bayard Taylor, who was here in 1849, and managed to impress his literary genius upon his record. In his book, El Dorado, or, Adventures in the Path of Empire (dedicated, by the way, to Lieutenant Edward F. Beale), he says:

“Two mornings after, I saw the sun rise behind the mountains back of San Diego. Point Loma, at the extremity of the bay, came in sight on the left, and in less than an hour we were at anchor before the hide-houses at the landing place. The southern shore of the bay is low and sandy; from the bluff heights at the opposite side a narrow strip of shingly beach makes out into the sea, like a natural breakwater, leaving an entrance not more than three hundred yards broad. The harbor is the finest on the Pacific, with the exception of Acapulco, and capable of easy and complete defense. The old hide-houses are built at the foot of the hills just inside the bay, and a fine road along the shore leads to the town of San Diego, which is situated on a plain, three miles distant and hardly visible from the anchorage. Above the houses, on a little eminence, several tents were planted, and a short distance further were several recent graves, surrounded by paling. A number of people were clustered on the beach, and boats laden with passengers and freight, instantly put off to us. In a few moments after our gun was fired, we could see horsemen coming down from San Diego at full gallop, one of whom carried behind him a lady in graceful riding costume. In the first boat were Colonel Weller, U. S. Boundary Commissioner, and Major Hill of the Army. Then followed a number of men, lank and brown as is the ribbed sea-sand—men with long hair and beards, and faces from which the rigid expression of suffering was scarcely relaxed. They were the first of the overland emigrants by the Gila route, who bad reached San Diego a few days before. Their clothes were in tatters, their boots, in many cases, replaced by moccasins, and except their rifles and some small packages rolled in deerskin, they had nothing left of the abundant stores with which they left home.

“We hove anchor in half an hour, and again rounded Point Loma, our number increased by more than fifty passengers. The Point, which comes down to the sea at an angle of 60 degrees, has been lately purchased by an American, for what purpose I cannot imagine, unless it is with the hope of speculating on the Government when it shall be wanted for a lighthouse.

JOSE ANTONIO ALTAMIRANO. One of the prominent early residents of Old San Diego. During the Mexican War he served on the American side.

“The emigrants we took on board at San Diego were objects of general interest. The stories of their adventures by the way sounded more marvellous than anything I had heard or read since my boyish acquaintance with Robinson Crusoe, Captain Cook, and John Ledyard. Taking them as the average experience of the thirty thousand emigrants who last year crossed the plains, this California crusade will more than equal the great military expeditions of the Middle Ages in magnitude, peril, and adventure. The amount of suffering which must have been endured in the savage mountain passes and herbless deserts of the interior, cannot be told in words. Some had come by way of Santa Fe and along the savage hills of the Gila; some, starting from the Red River, had crossed the Great Stake Desert and taken the road from Paso Del Norte to Tucson in Sonora; some had passed through Mexico and after spending one hundred and four days at sea, run into San Diego and given up their vessels; some had landed, weary with a seven months’ voyage around Cape Horn; and some, finally, had reached the place on foot, after walking the whole length of the Californian Peninsula.”

The reminiscences of E. W. Morse are among the richest we have and are necessarily drawn upon in many connections. He says:

“When I first saw the presidio (in 1850), the adobe walls of the church and portions of other buildings were still standing. The roofing tiles and most of the adobes and other building materials had been utilized in building up the new town, on the flat. It was not long, however, before even the church walls were carried away, probably by some undevout “gringo.”

“There was then no doctor at Old Town, either American or Spanish. The army surgeon at the Mission Barracks did some general practice, and he was the only physician in the country. There was literally no agriculture, and most of the live stock business was in the hands of the Spanish. Abel Stearns, in Los Angeles county, and Don Juan Forster, had large ranches. The biggest fenced field in the country was in the San Luis Rey Valley; it contained about ten acres and belonged to some Indians. The only bridge in the county was out near Santa Ysabel, and it was built by the Indians. Some years later we had an assessor who was a cattle raiser, and in his report to the State Comptroller he said that no part of the country was fit for agriculture. That was what people honestly thought, at the time.

“The river then ran in close to the high ground at Old Town, making a bluff of ten or fifteen feet near the McCoy house, where it undermined and caved down an old adobe house. There were a good many people who came here by the overland route, on their way to the mines.”

J. M. Julian, in later days editor of the San Diegan, was in San Diego Bay on May 4, 1850, on board the steamer Panama, en route to the Isthmus. The steamer stopped to bury a passenger who had died en route and to examine the bay in the interest of the steamship company. Julian records that the site of the present city was “as green and pretty as any place we had ever seen, and covered with a growth of small trees.” He carried away the impression that Old Town was a flourishing place.

Mrs. Carson can only recall one American woman who was living at Old San Diego when she came, 1864. That was Mrs. Robinson, the wife of J. W. Robinson. There were several American men, but most of them were married to Californian women.

“The old road to the mission crossed the river at Old Town and went up on the north side, instead of the south side, as it now runs. It crossed the river again. near the mission and went out by way of what is now Grantville. The San Diego River emptied into the harbor then and for some years after. There were some houses on the west side of the river, and one man had a house and garden in its bed. People told him he would be washed away, but he did not believe it. One morning, when he got up his house was floating down to the bay.”

Lieutenant Derby, famous as “John Phoenix,” made the following delightful record of his first impressions of the place:

“The Bay of San Diego is shaped like a boot the leg forming the entrance from the sea, and the toe extending some twelve miles inland at right angles to it, as a matter of course, points southward to the latter end of Mexico, from which it is distant at present precisely three miles.

GEORGE A. PENDELTON’S HOUSE. Where Lieutenant Derby (John Phoenix) lived.

“The three villages then, which go to make up the great city of San Diego, are the Playa, Old Town, and New Town, or “Davis’s Folly.” At the Playa there are but few buildings at present, and these are not remarkable for size or architectural beauty of design. A long, low, one-storied tenement, near the base of the hills, once occupied by rollicking Captain Magruder and the officers under his command, is now the place where Judge Witherby, like Matthew, patiently “sits at the receipt of customs.” But few customers appear, for with the exception of the mail steamer once a fortnight, and the Goliah and Ohio, two little coasting steamers that wheeze in and out once or twice a month, the calm waters of San Diego Bay remain unruffled by keel or cut-water from one year’s end to another. Such a thing as a foreign bottom has never made its appearance to gladden the Collector’s heart; in this respect, the harbor has indeed proved bottomless. Two crazy old hulks riding at anchor, and the barqueClarissa Andrews (filled with coal for the P. M. S. S. Co.) wherein dwells Captain Bogart, like a second Robinson Crusoe, with a man Friday who is mate, cook, steward and all hands, make up the amount of shipping at the Playa.

“Then there is the Ocean House (that’s Donohoe’s), and a store marked Gardiner and Bleecker, than the inside of which nothing could be bleaker, for there’s “nothing in it,” and an odd-looking little building on stilts out in the water, where a savant named Sabot, in the employ of the U. S. Engineers, makes mysterious observations on the tide; and these, with three other small buildings, unoccupied, a fence and a graveyard, constitute all the “improvements” that have been made at the Playa. The ruins of two old hide-houses, immortalized by Dana in his Two Years Before the Mast, are still standing, one bearing the weather-beaten name of Tasso. We examined these and got well bitten by fleas for our trouble. We also examined the other great curiosity of the Playa, a natural one—being a cleft in the adjacent hills some hundred feet in depth, with a smooth, hard floor of white sand and its walls of indurated clay, perforated with cavities wherein dwell countless numbers of great white owls. . . . Through this cleft we marched into the bowels of the land without impediment for nearly half a mile. . . .

“From present appearances one would be little disposed to imagine that the Playa in five or six years might become a city of the size of Louisville, with brick buildings, paved streets, gas lights, theaters, gambling houses, and so forth. It is not at all improbable, however, should the great Pacific Railroad terminate at San Diego . . . the Playa must be the depot, and as such will become a point of great importance. The land-holders about here are well aware of this fact, and consequently affix already incredible prices to very unprepossessing pieces of land. Lots of 150 feet front, not situated in particularly eligible places either, have been sold within the last few weeks for $500 apiece . . . . While at the Playa I had the pleasure of forming an acquaintance with the pilot, Captain Wm. G. Oliver, as noble a specimen of a sailor as you would wish to see. He was a lieutenant in the Texas Navy, under the celebrated Moore, and told me many yarns concerning that gallant commander. . . . Leaving the Playa in a wagon drawn by two wild mules, driven at the top of their speed by the intrepid Donohoe, Mac and I were whirled over a hard road, smooth and even as a ballroom floor, on our way to Old Town. Five miles from La Playa we passed the estate of the Hon. John Hays, County Judge of San Diego, an old Texan and a most amiable gentleman. The Judge has a fine farm of 80 or 100 acres under high cultivation, and . . . . a private fish pond. He has enclosed some twenty acres of the flats near his residence having a small outlet with a net attached, from which he daily makes a haul almost equalling the miraculous draught on Lake Gennesaret.

HOUSE IN OLD SAN DIEGO. Where Richard Henry Dana took dinner with R. E. Doyle, in 1859.

“The old town of San Diego is pleasantly situated on the left bank of the little river that bears its name. It contains perhaps a hundred houses, some of wood, but mostly of the adoban or Gresan order of architecture. A small Plaza forms the center of the town, one side of which is occupied by a little adobe building used as a court room, the Colorado House, a wooden structure whereof the second story is occupied by the San Diego Herald, . . . and the Exchange, a hostelry at which we stopped. This establishment is kept by Hoof (familiarly known as Johnny, but whom I at once christened “Cloven”) and Tibbetts, who is also called Two-bitts, in honorable distinction from an unworthy partner he once had, who obtained unenviable notoriety as “Picayune Smith.” On entering, we found ourselves in a large bar and billiard room, fitted up with the customary pictures and mirrors. . . . Here also I made the acquaintance of Squire Moon, a jovial middle aged gentleman from the State of Georgia, who replied to my inquiries concerning his health that he was “as fine as silk but not half so well beliked by the ladies.” After partaking of supper, which meal was served up in the rear of the billiard room, al fresco, from a clothless table upon an earthen floor, I fell in conversation with Judge Ames, the talented, good hearted but eccentric editor of the San Diego Herald, of whom the poet Andrews, in his immortal work, The Cocopa Maid, once profanely sang as follows:

“There was a man whose name was Ames,
His aims were aims of mystery;
His story odd, I think by God,
Would make a famous history.

“I found the Judge exceedingly agreeable urbane and well informed, and obtained from him much valuable information regarding San Diego and its statistics. San Diego contains at present about 700 inhabitants, two-thirds of whom are “native and to the manor born” the remainder a mixture of American, English, German, Hebrew and Pike County. There are seven stores or shops in the village, where anything may be obtained, from a fine-toothed comb to a horse-rake, two public houses, a Catholic Church which meets in a private residence, and a Protestant ditto, to which the Rev. Reynolds, Chaplain of the military post six miles distant, communicates religious intelligence every Sunday afternoon.

“San Diego is the residence of Don Juan Bandini, whose mansion fronts on one side of the plaza. He is well-known to the early settlers of California as a gentleman of distinguished politeness and hospitality. His wife and daughters are among the most beautiful and accomplished ladies in our State.”

In 1859, Richard Henry Dana revisited the place he had known and written about so charmingly, twenty-three years before. He was deeply touched by renewing his associations with old scenes.

“As we made the high point off San Diego, “Point Loma,” he writes, we were greeted by the cheering presence of a lighthouse. As we swept around it in the early morning, there, before us lay the little harbor of San Diego, its low spit of sand, where the waters run so deep; the opposite flats where the Alert grounded in starting for home; the low hills without trees, and almost without brush; the quiet little beach; but the chief objects, the hide-houses, my eye looked for in vain. They were gone, all, and left no mark behind.

“I wished to be alone, so I let the other passengers go up to the town, and was quietly pulled ashore in a boat, and left to myself. The recollections and emotions all were sad, and only sad.

Fugit, interia fugit irreparable tempus.

“The past was real. The present, all about me, was unreal, unnatural, repellant. I saw the big ships lying in the stream, the Alert, the California, the Rosa with her Italians; then the handsome Ayacucho, my favorite; the poor dear old Pilgrim, the home of hardship and helplessness; the boats passing to and fro; the cries of the sailors at the capstan or falls; the peopled beach; the large hide-houses with their gangs of men; and the Kanakas interspersed everywhere. All, all were gone! not a vestige left to mark where our hide-house stood. The oven, too, was gone. I searched for its site and found, where I thought it should be, a few broken bricks and bits of mortar. I alone was left of all, and how strangely was I here! What changes to me! Where were they all? Why should I care for them—poor Kanakas and sailors, the refuse of civilization, the out-laws and beach-combers of the Pacific! Time and death seemed to transfigure them. Doubtless nearly all were dead; but how had they died, and where? In hospitals, in fever climes, in dens of vice, or falling from the mast, or dropping exhausted from the wreck—

“When for a moment, like a drop of rain
He sinks into thy depths with bubbling groan,
Without a grave, unknelled, uncoffined, and unknown.

“The light-hearted boys are now middle-aged men, if the seas, rocks, fevers, and the deadlier enemies that beset a sailor’s life on shore had spared them; and the then strong men have bowed themselves, and the earth or sea has covered them.

ALFRED C. ROBINSON. Author of a notable book on early California life, who married into a prominent Spanish family.

“Even the animals are gone—the colony of dogs, the broods of poultry, the useful horses; but the coyotes still bark in the woods, for they belong not to man and are not touched by his changes.

“I walked slowly up the hill, finding my way among the few bushes, for the path was long grown over, and sat down where we used to rest in carrying our burdens of wood and to look out for vessels that might, though so seldom, be coming down from the windward.

“To rally myself by calling to mind my own better fortune and nobler lot, and cherished surroundings at home, was impossible. Borne down by depression, the day being yet noon and the sun over the old point—it is four miles to the town, the presidio; I have walked it often and can do it once more—I passed the familiar objects, and it seemed to me that I remembered them better than those of any other place I had ever been in—the opening of the little cave; the low hills where we cut wood and killed rattlesnakes, and where our dogs chased the coyotes; and the black ground where so many of the ship’s crew and beach-combers used to bring up on their return at the end of a liberty day and spend the night sub Jove.

RICHARD J. CLEVELAND. Involved in the exciting adventure of the Lelia Byrd in 1803.

“The little town of San Diego has undergone no change whatever that I can see. It certainly has not grown. It is still, like Santa Barbara, a Mexican town. The four principal houses of the gente de razon—of the Bandinis, Estudillos, Argüellos and Picos—are the chief houses now, but all the gentlemen—and their families, too, I believe, are gone . . . . Fitch is long since dead; and I can scarce find a person whom I remember. I went into a familiar one-story adobe house, with its piazza and earthen floor, inhabited by a respectable family . . . by the name of Machado, and inquired if any of the family remained, when a bright-eyed, middle-aged woman recognized me, for she had heard I was on board the steamer, and told me she had married a shipmate of mine, Jack Stewart, who went out as second mate the next voyage, but left the ship and married and settled here. She said he wished very much to see me. In a few minutes he came in, and his sincere pleasure in meeting me was extremely grateful. We talked over old times as long as I could afford to. I was glad to hear that he was sober and doing well. Doña Tomaso Pico I found and talked with. She was the only person of the old upper-class that remained on the spot, if I rightly recollect. I found an American family here—Doyle and his wife, nice young people, Doyle agent for the great line of coaches to run to the frontier of the old States.

“I must complete my acts of pious remembrance, so I took a horse and made a run out to the old mission, where Ben Stimson and I went the first liberty day we had after we left Boston. The buildings are unused and ruinous, and the large gardens show now only wild cactus, willows and a few olive trees. A fast run brings me back in time to take leave of the few I know and who knew me, and to reach the steamer before she sails. A last look—yea, last for life—to the beach, the hills, the low point, the distant town, as we round Point Loma and the first beams of the light-house strike out towards the setting sun.”

It is an interesting fact that in March, 1880, Richard Henry Dana, Jr., son of the author of Two Years Before the Mast, visited San Diego.

The impressions of Mrs. Morse, in 1865, are also interesting:

“Oh, the strange foreign look as I stepped from my state room and stood upon the deck as the steamer came to anchor! . . . The hills were brown and barren; not a tree or a green thing was to be seen. The only objects to greet the sight were the government barracks and two or three houses. I said to the Captain in dismay, “Is this San Diego?” He replied, “No, the town is four miles away.” I saw a merry twinkle in his eye which I afterwards interpreted as meaning, “Won’t the Yankee schoolma’am be surprised when she sees the town.”

“Wild looking horsemen, flourishing their riatas, were coming from different directions toward the landing, and the very gait of the horses seemed different from anything I had ever seen before. There were no wharves at the time. Passengers were carried in the ship’s boats to shallow water and then carried on the backs of sailors to the shore. Fortunately for me, a little skiff was over from the lighthouse, which saved me the humiliating experience meted out to others.

“Once on shore, I was placed with my trunk on a wagon awaiting me, and we started for Old Town. The prospect as we neared the town was not encouraging, but the climax was reached when we arrived safely at the plaza. Of all the dilapidated, miserable looking places I had ever seen, this was the worst. The buildings were nearly all adobe, one story in height, with no chimneys. Some of the roofs were covered with tiles and some with earth. One of these adobes, an old ruin, stood in the middle of the plaza. It has since been removed. The Old Town of today is quite a modern town, compared with the Old Town of 1865.

“I was driven to the hotel, which was to be my future boarding place. It was a frame structure of two stories, since burned. The first night of my stay at the hotel a donkey came under my window and saluted me with an unearthly bray. I wondered if some wild animal had escaped from a menagerie and was prowling around Old Town. The fleas were plentiful and hungry. Mosquitos were also in attendance. The cooking at the hotel was quite unlike the cooking at the Hotel del Coronado at the present time. I sat at the table alone, being the only woman in the house. An Indian boy waited on me at the table and also gave me the news of the town.”

Return to Books.


Main Page
Author’s Foreword
Introduction: The Historical Pre-Eminence of San Diego

PART ONE:   Period of Discovery and Mission Rule

  1. The Spanish Explorers
  2. Beginning of the Mission Epoch
  3. The Taming of the Indian
  4. The Day of Mission Greatness
  5. The End of Franciscan Rule
    Priests of San Diego Mission

PART TWO:   When Old Town Was San Diego

  1. Life on Presidio Hill Under the Spanish Flag
    List of Spanish and Mexican commandants
  2. Beginnings of Agriculture and Commerce
    List of Ranchos in San Diego County
  3. Political Life in Mexican Days
  4. Early Homes, Visitors and Families
  5. Pleasant Memories of Social Life
  6. Prominent Spanish Families
  7. The Indians’ Relations With the Settlers
    List of Mission Indian Lands
  8. San Diego in the Mexican War
  9. Public Affairs After the War
  10. Accounts of Early Visitors and Settlers
  11. Annals of the Close of Old San Diego
  12. American Families of the Early Time
  13. The Journalism of Old San Diego
  14. Abortive Attempt to Establish New San Diego

PART THREE:   The Horton Period

  1. The Founder of the Modern City
  2. Horton’s Own Story
  3. Early Railroad Efforts, Including the Texas and Pacific
  4. San Diego’s First Boom
  5. Some Aspects of Social Life

PART FOUR:   Period of “The Great Boom”

  1. Coming of the Santa Fe
  2. Phenomena of the The Great Boom
  3. Growth of Public Utilities
  4. Water Development

PART FIVE:   The Last Two Decades

  1. Local Annals, After the Boom
  2. Political Affairs and Municipal Campaigns
  3. Later Journalism and Literature [new material in second edition]
  4. The Disaster to the Bennington
  5. The Twentieth Century Days
  6. John D. Spreckels Solves the Railroad Problem

PART SIX:   Institutions of Civic Life

  1. Churches and Religious Life
  2. Schools and Education
  3. Records of the Bench and Bar
  4. Growth of the Medical Profession
  5. The Public Library
  6. Story of the City Parks
  7. The Chamber of Commerce
  8. Banks and Banking
  9. Secret, Fraternal and Other Societies
  10. Account of the Fire Department

PART SEVEN:   Miscellaneous Topics

  1. History of the San Diego Climate
  2. San Diego Bay, Harbor and River
  3. Governmental Activities
  4. The Suburbs of San Diego

Political Roster, City of San Diego
Political Roster, San Diego County