History of San Diego, 1542-1908

PART TWO: CHAPTER 13: The Journalism of Old San Diego

The 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 (Sí Señor). 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 inhabitants? 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 ontlet 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, and 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 all 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, 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, he 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 Gorgona, 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.

Ames’s frequent trips to San Francisco, doubtless made for the purpose of looking after his political fences as well as his advertising patronage, began soon after his settlement in San Diego. It has been suggested that his readers, as well as him­self, needed an occasional rest. Having no partner, it was his custom to leave the paper in charge of his foreman or some friend whom he could induce to undertake the burden. This course led to trouble on more than one occasion. It was quite the usual thing for an issue or two to be skipped at such a time. While he was away on these and other trips, it was Ames’s cus­tom to write long letters to the Herald, which he signed “Bos­ton,” and hence he became locally known as “Boston.”

His first trip to San Francisco seems to have been on Octo­ber 30, 1851, when he left his foreman, R. M. Winants, in charge of the paper, “with a good pair of scissors and a vast pile of exchanges.”

On January 24, 1852, he went to San Francisco again, leav­ing “the amiable trio, Vaurian & Co.,” to occupy the editorial chair. Vaurian was the pen name of a contributor to the Herald, whose identity is unknown.

In the latter part of August, 1852, Ames left for the Atlan­tic States, and did not return until the following March. He left the keys of his office with Judge James W. Robinson, but in December a man named William N. Walton came to San Diego and, representing to Judge Robinson that he had arranged with Ames in San Francisco to publish the paper, was allowed to take possession. He proceeded to publish the paper in his own name from December 4 until Ames’s return, March 19-21, 1853, when he suddenly disappeared. The only allusion Ames made to this affair upon his return was this:

“During our absence in the Atlantic States, last winter, a friend to whom we loaned the keys of our office allowed a usurper to enter there, who made such sad havoc with our working tools, to say nothing of the injury done to the reputation of theHerald, that it will take some time yet to get things established on the old basis.”

Six years later this Walton was arrested in Portland, Oregon, on a charge of robbery, and the Herald, in commenting on this, says that at the time of the Walton episode he had closed the office “for the season.”

The Herald of August 13, 1853, contained the following announcement:

“We shall leave on the first steamer for San Francisco, to be absent about two weeks. A friend of acknowledged ability and literary acquirements will occupy the Old Arm Chair during our absence.”

This was the prelude to the most amusing scrape that Ames’s absences led him into, as it was the occasion when Lieutenant Derby edited the Herald for six weeks (instead of two) and changed its politics, as related farther on. Ames seems to have learned something from this experience, for upon starting again for San Francisco, about December 3rd, of the same year, leav­ing one “Borax” in charge, he gave the editor pro tem of the paper “strict injunctions not to change its politics,” as Derby had done.

In April, 1855, Ames went East again. It is said this trip was made on public business, but nothing has come to light to show what the public business was. Ames himself states that he was present at the convention of the American (Knownoth­ing) party, in Philadelphia when Fillmore was nominated for president. It is a matter of record that he brought out Phoe­nixiana at this time, and it is also understood that he married and brought his wife to San Diego with him upon his return, some time the following spring.

During this prolonged absence, Ames left Wm. H. Noyes in charge of the paper, who took good care of it, not only at this time, but also on several subsequent occasions when Ames went to San Francisco. In April, 1857, when about to depart on such a trip, Ames left the following savage attack upon certain officials for insertion in the next issue:

“Malfeasance in Office: . . . We have for a long time been aware of the utter unfitness of our County Clerk and Re­corder for the position which he occupies. . . It is well known that this County is deeply in debt, but it is not so well known that the greatest portion of this debt has gone into the hands of county officers . . . The salary of the County Judge of this county is fixed by law at $1000 and yet for a long time Mr. Couts, the County Auditor, has been issuing scrip to him at the rate of $1200 per annum.”

He then goes on to say that a party had a bill against the county, of long standing, which after some trouble he got ap­proved, and demanded the issuance of scrip to him first, so that it would be the first paid when the county had any money. He charges that Couts promised to do this but evaded it and issued scrip clandestinely to his friends ahead of it.

“It is to be regretted that there are not other offices in the county to which he (Couts) could be elected or appointed, as he at present only fills the following: County Clerk, County Re­corder, County Auditor, Clerk of the Court of Sessions, Clerk of the First District Court, Clerk of the Board of Supervisors and Clerk of the Board of equalization; the income of which offices is greater than that of any other officer in the county.”

This looks as though Gilbert had been reading the San Diego Herald when he drew his character of Pooh Bah, in the opera of the Mikado. In the next issue of the Herald Noyes repudi­ates this blast and “wishes it distinctly understood that it owes its paternity to the regular editor.”


The issue of May 30, 1857, contains an apology for its lean­ness in the matter of news, “the editor being absent in San Francisco, the sub-editor gone into the country, and, to crown all, the ‘devil’ having sloped, leaving us ‘alone in our glory,’ with an overabundance of labor to perform, and a dearth of local news.”

It is probable that on account of his relations with Senator Gwin, Ames had free steamer transportation during the first two or three years of the Herald’s life. Derby seems to have had some such thought in his mind when writing this:

“Facilis descensus Averni, which may be liberally translated: It is easy to go to San Francisco. Ames has gone.”

During the last year or two of the Herald’s publication in San Diego it was not so “easy,” for the paper severely criti­cises 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 criticised 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 Know­nothing party appears not to have produced any results. The town and county were Democratic up to the time that Horton came, and for some little time thereafter. When the Know­nothing 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 they 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 news of the outside world he was dependent upon a semi­monthly 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 postoffices in California and at all times it was 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 Ames, whose 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 then Mr. Harvey C. Ladd, a Mormon who had been a resident of San Diego, hauled the outfit to San Bernardino, and Ames began the publication of the San Ber­nardino Herald. The new 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.

The press which was used in printing the San Diego Herald was an old-fashioned Washington hand press, made by R. Hoe & Co., New York and numbered 2327. It is still in use, in Inde­pendence, Inyo County, where it prints the Inyo Independent. After using it for a time to publish the San Bernardino Patriot, at the beginning of the Civil War, Major Sherman employed Mr. Ladd to haul it across the mountains to Aurora, then in California, but now in Nevada, where in May, 1862, he com­menced the publication of the Esmeralda Star. Three years later he sold the outfit to other parties, and it was later taken to Independence. It should be brought to San Diego to form the nucleus of an historical collection. There may be a few scattered numbers of the Herald in the hands of old residents, but the only collection known is that in the San Diego public library. A few numbers are missing, but it is almost complete. The preservation of this invaluable file is due to the care of Mr. E. W. Morse.

In estimating the character and achievements of John Jud­son Ames, there are some things to condemn, but, on the whole, much to praise. He was large-hearted, generous, and enterpris­ing. For that time, his education was good and he wrote with clearness and fluency. He had opinions of his own and was not backward about expressing them. In speaking of the New Eng­land Abolitionists, he refers to them as “such men as Garrison and Sumner, who are distracting the country with their treason­able and fanatical preachings.” Like other journalists, he found it impossible to please all the people all the time, and there was frequently local dissatisfaction with his utterances. June 10, 1852, he published a letter, signed by nine residents and business men of San Diego, discontinuing their subscriptions, and made sarcastic comments on it; and a few months later he says: “There are several individuals in this city who don’t like the Herald. We don’t care a damn whether they like it or not.”

On another occasion he broke out thus:

“Insolence.—There is a man in this town, holding a public po­sition who has got to using his tongue pretty freely of late, and but that we esteem him beneath the notice of responsible citizens we have been half inclined, on several occasions, to knock him down and give him a good sound thrashing. If we thought the better portion of the community would justify us, and the District Attorney would not bear down too hard upon us for a fine, we would try what good a little pummeling would do an insolent official.”

It is probable that Ames’s immense size kept him out of trou­ble, as no one cared to tackle him. There is no record of his hav­ing been engaged in a duel, or in any personal combat, except the mythical one with Lieutenant Derby, but an item in the Herald of August 13, 1853, shows that he was a valuable peace officer and something of a sprinter as well.

“Indian Rows.—There is scarcely a day passes that there is not some fight among the Indians about town, in which one or more is cut or otherwise muitilated—and all through the di­rect influence of whiskey or some other intoxicating drink sold to them by Californians or Americans . . . . A row occurred last Sunday night in which some fifteen or twenty drunken In­dians participated, some of whom got badly beaten or cut with knives. Sheriff Conway called upon a number of citizens about 12 o’clock to go and arrest these disturbers of the peace. They succeeded in capturing eleven of the tribe, who were arraigned the next day before Justice Franklin. One was fined $10 and sentenced to ten days imprisonment, another to receive 25 lashes each for two offences; and two were fined $5 and costs. On arresting the last “batch” the ringleader was put in charge of Judge Ames, to convey to the “lock-up.” They had ad­vanced but a few rods from the rest of the party when the Indian made a sudden spring from his leviathan escort and made tracks towards the river. The Judge commanded him to stop, but he kept on, and was fired at twice—the last ball tak­ing a scratch at his side just under the left arm. Having no more shots, legs were put into requisition, and then came the tug of war. The Indian held his own for about fifty yards, when the Judge began to gain on him, and when he had got within striking distance, that ponderous arm of his came down twice with a “slung shot,” breaking the Indian’s right arm and his left collar bone, which brought him to the ground, when he was secured and taken to the calaboose.”

Soon after this occurrence, Ames advertised for the return of a sword cane. It also appears that he had some difficulty with Major Justus McKinstry, which mutual friends thought it nec­essary to arrange before Ames’s departure for the East, in April, 1853, and J. R. Gitchell published a card stating that a reconciliation had been effected. It is clear that, notwithstanding his gigantic size, our first editor was not altogether a man of peace. It is also a fact that he was very remiss in the payment of his debts. That he had enemies in San Diego and vicinity is shown by the fact that he held but one elective office, and that a minor one.

Lieutenant George H. Derby made San Diego his home for about two years, from 1853 to 1855, and left behind him mem­ories which the people of San Diego cherish to this day. This, not merely because the scene of so many of the funny things in Phoenixiana is laid here, but quite as much on account of his lovable personality. It may be assumed that the reader is famil­iar with that delectable book and it will therefore not be profit­able to reproduce any considerable part of it; but it is believed that something about Derby’s life and personality, with a few selections of local interest from Phoenixiana and others from the old Herald files not so familiar to the public, will prove of interest.

George Horatio Derby was born in Dedham, Massachusetts, April 3, 1823. He attended school in Concord and is remem­bered by Senator Hoar, who says in his Autobiography that Derby was very fond of small boys. Afterward he tended store in Concord, but failed to please his employer, “who was a snug and avaricious person.” During the proprietor’s weekly absences in Boston, Derby would stretch himself out on the counter and read novels, and at such times did not like to be disturbed to wait on customers and was quite likely to tell them the goods they wanted were out. He afterward entered West Point and graduated with distinction, in 1846. He served through the Mexican War, was wounded at Cerro Gordo, and was made a first lieutenant.

In April, 1849, he arrived in California on board the Iowa, with General Bennett Riley and a part of the Second Infantry Regiment. He was employed on different tours of duty in the Topographical Corps, until July, 1853, when he was detailed to superintend the turning of the San Diego River to make it debouch into False Bay. His description of the voyage down and of the appearance of the town of San Diego at that period, in Phoenixiana, are among the funniest things he ever wrote. He met Judge Ames, and has this to say about him: “I fell in conversation with Judge Ames, the talented, good-hearted, but eccentric editor of the San Diego Herald . . . . I found ‘the Judge’ exceedingly agreeable, urbane and well informed, and obtained from him much valuable information regarding San Diego.” Ames appears to have proposed to Derby almost immediately to take charge of his paper for two weeks, while be made one of his frequent trips to San Francisco. Ames and Derby had probably met in San Francisco. At least, it is quite certain they were acquainted, for Derby had been in San Diego during the preceding April, on business connected with the work on the river, and at that time visited the Masonic Lodge, of which order they were both members. He was undoubtedly well acquainted with Derby’s reputation as a writer, as his sketches had appeared in the San Francisco papers over the pen name; of “John Phoenix” and “Squibob.” Derby readily fell in with the proposal, doubtless foreseeing opportunities for no end of fun. The situation is developed thus in the Herald:

In his issue of August 13th, Ames said:

“Our Absence.—We shall leave on the first steamer for San Francisco, to be absent about two weeks. A friend of acknowledged ability and literary acquirements, will occupy the “old arm chair” during our absence.”

Derby writes, in his letter to a San Francisco paper:

“Lo, I am an editor! Hasn’t Ames gone to San Francisco (with this very letter in his pocket), leaving a notice in his last edition, “that during his absence an able literary friend will assume his position as editor of the Herald,” and am I not that able literary friend? (Heaven save the mark). “You’d better believe it.” I’ve been writing a “leader” and funny anecdotes all day . . . and such a “leader” and such anec­dotes. I’ll send you the paper next week, and if you don’t al­low that there’s been no such publication, weekly or serial, since the days of the “Bunkum Flagstaff” I’ll crawfish, and take to reading Johnson’s Dictionary.”

In the Herald he made the following announcement:

“Next week, with the Divine assistance, a new hand will be applied to the bellows of this establishment, and an intensely interesting issue will possibly be the result. The paper will be published on Wednesday evening; and, to avoid confusion, the crowd will please form in the plaza, passing four abreast by the City Hall and Herald office, from the gallery of which Johnny will hand them their papers. “E pluribus unum” or “A word to the wise is bastante.””

Ames neglected to ask what Derby’s politics were, or to give instructions respecting the policy of the paper during his absence. The result was disastrous, for Derby immediately changed its politics from Democratic to Whig. The mingling of fun and seriousness in his political leaders of this time is inimitable. He sometimes mixed up the two gubernatorial can­didates, Waldo and Bigler, referring to them as “Baldo and Wigler,” or “Wagler and Bildo.”

“Old Bigler,” he declares, “hasn’t paid the people of this county anything for supporting him (though judging by the tone of the Independent Press, he has been liberal enough above). We think therefore they will do precisely as if he had,—vote for a better man.”


“Frank, our accomplished compositor, who belongs to the fighting wing of the Unterrified Democracy, “groans in spirit and is troubled,” as he sets up our heretical doctrines and opinions. He says ” the Whigs will be delighted with the paper this week.”

“We hope so. We know several respectable gentlemen who are Whigs, and feel anxious to delight them, as well as our Demo­cratic friends (of whose approval we are confident), and all other sorts and conditions of men, always excepting Biglerites and Abolitionists. Ah! sighs the unfortunate Frank, but what will Mr. Ames say when he gets back? Haven’t the slightest idea; we shall probably ascertain by reading the first Herald published after his return. Meanwhile, we devoutly hope that event will not take place before we’ve had a chance to give Mr. Bigler one blizzard on the subjects of “Water-front ex­tension,” and “State Printing,” We understand these schemes fully, and are inclined to enlighten the public of San Diego with regard to them. Ah! Bigler, my boy, old is J. B. but cunning, sir, and devilish sly. Phoenix is after you, and you’d better pray for the return of the editor de facto to San Diego, while yet there is time, or you’re a goner, as far as this county is concerned.”

On September 17th, Derby says that Ames had promised to write to the Herald regularly.” We present to our readers ­this week the only communication we have received from him for publication, since his departure. It contains the speeches of William Waldo, advocating his own election; the remarks made by the Judge himself before the Railroad meeting, in favor of San Diego as the Western terminus; and the political principles in full of John Bigler. Apart from these matters of interest, it may be considered in some respects a model communication, for it contains no personal allusions whatever, nor anything that could cause a blush on the cheek of the most mod­est maiden, or wound the feelings of the most sensitive or fas­tidious. As a general thing, it may be considered the most entirely unexceptionable article the worthy Judge ever composed. Here it is :

“Letter from J. J. Ames, Esq., for the San Diego Herald.” (A blank space.)

But although Ames was strangely silent for a time, he did write Derby, at last, protesting against his policy. This letter was not received, however, until after the election and remembering this fact it is interesting to note how Derby treated it:

“We have received by the Goliah, an affecting letter from Judge Ames, beseeching us to return to the fold of Democracy from which he is inclined to intimate we have been straying. Is it possible that we have been laboring under a delusion­—and that Waldo is a Whig! Why! lor! How singular! But anx­ious to atone for our past errors, willing to please the taste of the Editor, and above all, ever solicitous to be on the strong side, we gladly abjure our former opinions, embrace Democracy with ardor, slap her on the back, declare ourselves in favor of erecting a statue of Andrew Jackson in the Plaza, and to prove our sincerity, run today at the head of our columns, a Democratic ticket for 1855, which we hope will please the most fastidious. Being rather hard up for the principles for our political faith we have commenced the study of the back numbers of the Democratic Review, and finding therein that “Democracy is the supremacy of man over his accidents,” we hereby express our contempt for a man with a sprained ankle, and unmitigated scorn for anybody who may be kicked by a mule or a woman. That’s Democratic, ain’t it? Oh, we un­derstand these things—Bless your soul, Judge, we’re a Demo­crat.”

The ticket which he “ran up” was as follows:

“Democratic State Nominations.
Subject to the Decision of the State Democratic Conven­tion, May, 1855. For Governor, John Bigler. For Lieutenant­-Governor, Samuel Purdy.”

Concerning the Whig ticket he says:

“The “Phoenix Ticket” generally, appears to give general satisfaction. It was merely put forward suggestively, and not being the result of a clique or convention, the public are at perfect liberty to make such alterations or erasures as they may think proper. I hope it may meet with a strong support on the day of election; but should it meet with defeat, I shall endeavor to bear the inevitable mortification that must result with my usual equanimity.

“Like unto the great Napoleon after the battle of Water­loo, or the magnanimous Boggs after his defeat, in the guber­natorial campaign of Missouri, I shall fold my arms with tran­quillity, and say either “C’est fini,” or “Oh shaw, I know’d it!””

The Whig ticket carried the county, but the Democrats car­ried the state. His comments upon the result of the election are interesting:

“News of the Week.—We publish this week the gratifying intelligence, sobre la izquierda (over the left), of the trium­phant re-election of John Bigler to the chief magistracy of this commonwealth. The voice of the Democracy has been heard, pealing in thunder tones throughout the length and breadth of the State, waking the echoes on Mokelumne Hill, growling in sub-bass from the San Joaquin (Republican), reverberating among the busy and crowded streets of Monterey, and re-echoed from the snow-capped summits of San Bernardino, with extensive shouts of Extension and John Bigler for­ever! While we of San Diego, through the culpable negligence of the Goliah (which put the Voice aboard but left it at San Pedro), have gone on unhearing and unheeding and voted for William Waldo, just as if nothing extraordinary was taking place. Many reasons are assigned by the Independent Press of San Francisco, and our Whig exchanges, for the election of Bigler. I am inclined to attribute it principally to the de­feat of Waldo, and the fact that the San Diego Herald took no active part in the Gubernatorial election. Had Waldo been successful, or our course been of another character, there is every reason to suppose that the result would have been differ­ent. But “whatever is, is right,” as the old gentleman sweet­ly remarked, when he chopped off the end of his nose with a razor, in an endeavor to kill a fly that had lit thereon while be was shaving. “There is a Providence that shapes our ends rough—hew them as we may.” Governor Bigler is still Governor Bigler, there’ll be no Ex. to his name (unless it be ex-tension) for the next two years; the people are satisfied, he is gratified, and I am delighted, and the Lord knows that it stakes very little difference to me individually, or the people of this county at large, whether the water front of San Fran­cisco remains unaltered, or is extended to Contra Costa. San Diego boasts a far finer harbor at present than her wealthier rival, and when that of the latter is entirely filled up, it will be more generally known and appreciated. “It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good.” If this election should, how­ever indirectly, cause San Diego to assume its proper position as the first commercial city of California, I shall reverence the name of John Bigler forever, and I will bestow that hon­ored appellation upon my youngest child, and have it engraved upon a piece of leather or other suitable material, and suspended about that tender infant’s neck, until such time as he shall be old enough to learn and love the virtues of his hon­ored Godsire.”

LIEUT. GEORGE H. DERBY. Author of “Phoenixiana” whose fame has endured and seems likely to grow with the years.

Derby never wrote anything more delicious than his account of the combat (which did not occur) between himself and Ames upon the latter’s return, when “we held ‘the Judge’ down over ­the press by our nose (which we had inserted between his teeth for that purpose),” until “we discovered that we had been laboring under a ‘misunderstanding,’ and through the amicable intervention of the pressman, who thrust a roller between our­faces (which gave the whole affair a very different complexion), the matter was finally adjusted on the most friendly terms.” The people of San Diego took the change of politics of the Herald rather seriously, greatly to Derby’s delight. One old gentleman, still living, admits that he hurried to the Herald office and paid a year’s subscription in the belief that the change ­was genuine. There was quite a little speculation as to “what Ames would do to Derby when he got back,” and Derby played upon this apprehension and purposely let it be understood that he was awaiting Ames’s return in trembling terror. Thus, he says:

“Though this is but my second bow to a San Diego audience, I presume it to be my last appearance and valedictory, for the editor will doubtless arrive before another week elapses, the gun will be removed from my trembling grasp, and the Herald will resume its great aims, and heavy firing, and I hope will discharge its debt to the public with accuracy, and pre­cision. Meanwhile “The Lord be with you.” “Be virtuous and you will be happy.””

The friendly relations between Ames and Derby were never broken, and the combat which Derby describes was purely imaginary. The editor was a very large man, and had a rep­utation as a fire eater, while the lieutenant was small, and such a combat would have been a very unequal affair. Ames’s own comments, in the first number after his return, show that, if he did not entirely relish the joke, he reconciled himself to bear it:

“Turned Up Again! Here we are again! Phoenix has played the “devil” during our absence, but he has done it in such a good humored manner, that we have not a word to say. He has done things which he ought not to have done, and has left undone things which he ought to have done; but as what evil he has done cannot be undone, we may as well “dry up” and “let it slide.”

“He has abused Captain Wright, and like David of scripture Memory, he has killed off the Goliah. He has abused our noble friend, Governor Bigler, but as the people in this region con­sidered it only a faint echo of the Independent (?) Press of San Francisco, it had a contrary effect from that intended, and we are perfectly satisfied with the result. Notwithstanding the great hue-and-cry throughout the State, that Gov. Big­ler was the father of the “Extension Scheme,” and every imaginable outrage against the rights of the people, and that hired emissaries were sent down here from San Francisco, to stir up discord in the ranks of the Democracy, Waldo got but about thirty majority in the county—and these votes were all cast in one precinct. Well, it’s all over, Bigler is Gov­ernor, and the country is safe for the next two years, at least.”

The files of the Herald give incontrovertible proof of the friendship which continued to exist between these two men, so long as they both lived. In 1855, Ames compiled Phoenixiana and superintended its publication. This was done against Derby’s judgment, he apparently thinking the matter too ephemeral for such a setting. It is possible that he also doubted Ames’s competency, and if so, he was justified, for a more sloppily gotten-up book has seldom been issued. Notwithstanding this, the naive humor and exquisite drollery with which it abounds made it a success and today it is a classic. It was with considerable pride that Ames announced, in 1859, that he had re-engaged the services of “John Phoenix” to write for the Herald exclusively.

The fun which Derby had while conducting the Herald, aside from the famous politicalbouleversement, has received too lit­tle attention. In his first number, he added to the editorial col­umn, under the name of Ames: “Slightly assisted by Phoenix.” He had fun with ex-Governor McDougal, who chanced to visit the city:

“Distinguished Visitors.—His ex-Excellency, the Hon. John McDougal, and Col. J. B. Wells, from San Francisco, have ar­rived among us on business, which will detain them until the arrival of the next steamer (as they have no other means of getting away).

“The Governor looks as hale, hearty and roseate as ever; don’t think Bigler stands much chance of election, and wouldn’t be quite inconsolable if he should be defeated. He has been engaged in a theological and polemical controversy with the Rev. Dr. Reynolds since his arrival, in which they have had it “Nip and Tuck,” the Gov. taking an occasional “Nip” to clear his mind and fortify his spirits as “Friar Tuck” would get a little advantage in the argument. At their last sitting, the discussion turned upon the “Divinity of the Scrip­tures,” and was closed by a remark of the Governor’s, “that the Bible (like his adversary’s nose), was a good deal read.”

“Governor McDougal goes to the Playa today to wait for the Northener to take him to San Francisco. The Gov. expresses himself much gratified with his visit; and we are pleased to hear that it is his intention to purchase an elegant man­sion lately erected at New Town, bring his family here in the spring, and make San Diego his permanent residence. He will devote himself to the profession of the law, and will be a most valuable acquisition to our bar.”

The Herald having received a letter from the resident physician of the Stockton Insane Asylum, asking for a copy of the paper, Derby says he will send it, and anxiously inquires whether two could not be used? He also asks whether the idea of sending for the Herald was the doctor’s or the patient’s; and if the latter, “they’re sensible to the last,” “there’s method in their madness,” and “they ought immediately to be discharged, every mother’s son of them.”

Derby was fond of San Francisco, and his writings abound with allusions to it. This remark may aid somewhat in the appreciation of the following:

“The Press of San Francisco.—The steamer of the lst from San Francisco brought no papers, none whatever—Some three or four weeks since, two little papers, called, we believe, the “Alta California” and the “Herald,” were published regularly in that village, and we used occasionally to receive them. They were made principally of excerpts from the San Diego Herald, and we cannot but regret that the failure of the Goliah, and the uncertainty of the mails, preventing our paper reaching them with its customary regularity, should have caused their publication to be discontinued.

“San Francisco is a place of little business or importance, but in a large city like this, country intelligence is occasionally ­amusing, and should either of the above papers be republished or a new press started in San Francisco, we shall be willing to exchange. We are just informed that two little political sheets called the“Commercial Advertiser,” and the “Placer Times and Transcript,” are occasionally published yet in San Francisco. Ah, we dare say we have never seen them, however. Willing to encourage the humble efforts of any individuals if exerted in a proper direction, we shall not object to an exchange with either of these little affairs, if they think proper to request it.”

While the work on the San Diego River was progressing, he allowed himself the luxury of a few jibes about it. Upon his arrival, he wrote:

“Here I saw Lieut. Derby (himself), of the Topograph­ical Engineers, an elderly gentleman of emaciated appearance and serious cast of features. Constant study and unremitting at­tention to his laborious duties have reduced him almost to a skeleton, but there are not wanting those who say that an unrequited attachment in his earlier days is the cause of his careworn appearance.

“He was sent out from Washington some months since “to dam the San Diego River,” and be informed me with a deep sigh and melancholy smile, that he had done it (mentally) sev­eral times since his arrival.”

A little later he noted that: “The report that Lieut. Derby has sent to San Francisco for a lathe, to be used in turning the San Diego River is, we understand, entirely without foundation.”

“The Indians at work on the river behave well and shovel with great ardor con amore. There are at present 47 of them at work, and 50 more are expected early in the week. They are under the control of Mr. Conroy and Charles Gage, over­seers, and their own chiefs, Manuelito and old Tomás. Tents have been pitched for them, and with an unlimited supply of beans, and the flesh of bulls (a burnt offering they do not des­pise), they are as happy as circumstances will admit, and “doing as well as could be expected.”

The shanty occupied by the workmen on the San Diego River has been christened “The Phoenix Hotel,” out of com­pliment to the brevet editor of the San Diego Herald.”

One more quotation from his writings must suffice. In 1856, Colonel Warren, secretary of the California State Agricultural Society, invited Derby to deliver an original poem at the annual meeting of the society, in September. Derby accepted the invi­tation by letter, and wrote the following as a sample of what he could do:

“Here’s to the land of potatoes and carrots,
Whose banks grow wild, rich bacon and parrots;
Where each apple and pear a dollar apiece is,
And a man may devour just as much as he pleases (Spoken—
if hes the money to pay for them.)
Where the soil is teeming with vegetable treasures,
And a pumpkin ten feet in circumference measures;
Where to root up a turnip, an ox employed is;
By each laborer a very large salary enjoyed is; (Play on
    the word celery
And kind Colonel Warren with interest watches
The growth of parsley and marrowfat squashes,
And stirs up the farmers, and gives them rules of action and
incentives to exertion, and constantly teaches
How they ought not to let Oregon get ahead of them, but
establish nurseries at once, where they could raise at
very trifling expense, all kinds of grafted fruit,
pears and apples, and cherries, and the most delicious
peaches, &c, &c, &c.”

Listening to the stories told about him by old San Diegans, it becomes clear that Derby was an incorrigible joker and player of pranks. One lady recalls that, having one day climbed into an empty crockery cask, for fun, Derby slipped up and started the cask rolling with her, so that her dress was sadly torn on the projecting nails. She and her husband lived in upstairs rooms at the old Gila House, and Derby used to come into the room below, when he knew she was alone, and rap on the ceiling with his cane, to frighten her. Once while he and Mrs. Derby were calling on this lady and all sitting on the hotel piazza, Derby climbed upon the head of an empty barrel and began to make a burlesque speech. While he was in the midst of this, waving his arms and talking loud, the head of the barrel suddenly fell in with him and he took a tumble, to the great amusement of his audience. The house in which he and Mrs. Derby lived is still standing. He had a very remarkable memory, could recite chapter after chapter of the Bible, and, after hearing a sermon, could repeat it from begin­ning to end. It is said that he expected the appointment to make the Pacific Railroad survey and was greatly disappointed when he did not receive it.

In later years he was employed in the erection of lighthouses on the coasts of Florida and Alabama. He died May 15, 1861, in the prime of his years, and his friend Ames died at San Bernardino two months later. His son, George McClellan Derby, is now a lieutenant-colonel in the army.

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