History of San Diego, 1542-1908

PART TWO: CHAPTER 4: Early Homes, Visitors, and Families

As the citizens and tourists of today look upon the crumbling adobe walls of Old Town, they naturally wonder in what order the houses were built, by whom they were inhabited in the early time, and what visitors from abroad mingled in the life of the place and went away to speak the name of San Diego in distant parts. It is these quiet annals of the old time to which this chapter is given.

There is no record of the erection of any dwelling outside the Presidio enclosure earlier than the year 1801. It seems likely that the first house at the foot of the hill was a very humble affair, and that it was built by Captain Francisco María Ruiz. The earliest authentic list of houses that has come down to us begins with 1821. At that time the following houses were standing on the present site of Old Town:

The small house of Captain Ruiz, on the tract afterward known as “Rose’s Garden,” where he lived until his death in 1839. The house has now disappeared.

The “Fitch house,” a row of buildings where Captain Fitch lived and had his store from the early thirties; this is now a heap of ruins.

A building on the corner of Washington and Juan Streets, belonging to the Doña María Reyes Ybañes, the maternal head of the Estudillo family. This house was afterward used by José María Estudillo as a stable. It is now in ruins.

A two-story house on Juan Street, nearly opposite the one last named, belonging to Rafaela Serrano. This is now owned by Louis Serrano and was occupied until a recent date.

A small house on the plaza, owned by Juan María Marron. This house afterward became the property of Andrés Pico, and the late E. W. Morse was responsible for its final destruction. Some of the early views of Old Town show this building standing as it did out of line with the others and quite near the “Rose house,” where Morse’s store was located. Having tried in vain to buy it from Pico, Mr. Morse bided his time until the easy-going Californian allowed it to be sold for taxes, then bought it and immediately had it torn down and removed. He remarked, with a quiet smile, while telling this story, that he supposed the tax title really gave him no right to act so summarily, but he correctly reasoned that no trouble would come of it.

These were the five oldest buildings, all of which were standing in 1821 and only one of which (the Serrano house) stands today. There were in this year several small gardens, or rancherías, at the foot of the hill and near by in the valley. Don Blas Aguilar recalled the following names of persons then cultivating such places:

THE MACHADO HOUSE, OLD TOWN. West side of plaza.

Ignacio Lopez, Villobobo, Miguel Blanco, Pedro Garcia, Tenorio, José Manuel Silbas, and Andreas Ybarra who afterward owned the Encinitos Rancho; all of whom were soldiers and whose gardens were in the valley. Rafaela Serrano, whose place adjoined “Rose’s garden”; Juan Machado, who lived a short distance up the valley; Juan María Ybarra, a lieutenant from Mazatlan; el Alferez Delgado (“the thin lieutenant”), whose name Aguilar did not recall, but who was also from Mazatlan; Lus Ruiz, whose place was across the river, opposite the Presidio; Juan Marine, who had a garden and small vineyard on the other side of the river going toward the Tecolote ; Los Arcias, who had garden and vineyard adjoining that of Marine; Santiago Argüello, whose garden was at the first cañada, above the Presidio, called by the pious Cañada de la Cruz, but by the wild soldiers Cañada del Diablo, just above the present waterworks. These little farms were seriously damaged in the flood of 1821, as already related.

Building in the new town began to progress as the military establishment decayed and commercial prosperity increased. In 1824 the “Pico house” was built, on Juan street, and between that year and 1830 several large and substantial residences were constructed. Alfred Robinson, the earliest American visitor who has left a good account, says that on his first visit in 1829 the town “consisted of about thirty houses of rude appearance, mostly occupied by retired veterans.” The house of Don Juan Bandini, then in an unfinished state, excited his admiration. This house is one of the utmost historical interest, having been the center of social gaiety and political affairs for nearly twenty years. It was the headquarters of Commodore Stockton during the Mexican war. Soon after the civil war it was purchased by A. L. Seeley, who added a second story of wood and used it as a hotel (the Cosmopolitan) in connection with his stage line between San Diego and Los Angeles. It is now occupied by Ackerman & Tuffley, who use it as an olive pickling works, and it is still in a state of very good repair.

THE ESTUDILLO HOUSE, OLD TOWN. Popularly called “The Ramona House.”

Other houses built before the year 1830 were: the house of Juan Rodriguez, adjoining the Franklin house in later years; the house of José Antonio Estudillo, later the residence of José Guadalupe Estudillo, and long an important landmark, (this house is the picturesque ruin at the south end of the plaza popularly, but erroneously, called the “Ramona house”); the house of Doña Tomáso Alvarado; the “French bakery”; the house of Rosario Aguilar which was situated on what is now a vacant lot adjoining the house of Louis Rose; and the Carrillo house in “Rose’s Garden,” adjoining the Serrano house on the east. Bandini and Estudillo were granted a lot in common in 1827, which doubtless marks the time of their beginning preparations to build.

Some of the accounts of foreign visitors at this time, though not always accurate, are worth quoting. Vancouver and Capt. Cleveland have already been mentioned. Benjamin Morrell, junior, on the American schooner Tartar, arrived in April, 1825. He remained twelve days, and in a book which he published in 1832 told some remarkable stories. According to this veracious chronicler, the form of the Presidio was “nearly circular, and it is surrounded by a wall about 20 feet in height, which forms the back sides of the houses. There are about 250 houses erected in this manner, from one to two stories high, built of freestone and neatly finished. There is also a large church, one nunnery, and a very neat little court-house. This town contains about 1,500 inhabitants, principally natives of the coast.” Does the reader care for more? Well, it seems that while here, he and seven Spanish companions had a desperate hand-to-hand conflict with fifty mounted Indian warriors of whom they killed seventeen, while on a hunting expedition. Notwithstanding the gallant captain’s evident weakness for drawing a long bow, his statement that a whale boat was built during his stay here is perhaps entitled to belief.

In December, 1826, the American explorer and trapper, Jedidiah S. Smith, and party, who had crossed the desert, following down the Colorado river and reached San Gabriel, were brought to San Diego to be dealt with by Governor Echeandía. They had a somewhat unfriendly reception, but were allowed to secure supplies and depart. The accounts of this visit do not seem to include anything of interest regarding the town or people of San Diego.

The next visitor was the French Captain Duhaut-Cilly, who came in 1827 and liked the harbor better than the town. He writes that the port is “without doubt the best in all California,” safer than that of San Francisco even, and that this is due to natural advantages rather than to artificial improvements. He continues: “A sad place is the Presidio of San Diego, the saddest of all that we had visited in California, except San Pedro. It is built on the slope of an arid hill and has no regular form. It is a shapeless mass of houses, all the more gloomy because of the dark color of the bricks of which they are rudely constructed. Under the presidio on a sandy plain are seen thirty or forty scattered houses of poor appearance and a few gardens badly cultivated.”

The American, James O. Pattie, claimed to have spent the greater part of the year 1828 in the Presidio prison, and afterward published a narrative in which he described only his prison, thus: “My prison was a cell eight or ten feet square, with walls and floors of stone. A door with iron bars an inch square like the bars of window sashes, and it grated on its iron hinges as it opened to receive me. Over the external front of this prison was inscribed in capital letters Destinacion de la Cattivo.”

The episode of the Pattie party in 1828 is a most interesting one and not as well known as it deserves to be. These eight Americans occupied a prison on Presidio hill for several months, and the leader died there. The feeling of the Californians was not particularly hostile to Americans, perhaps rather less so than to Spaniards; but all foreigners were regarded with suspicion and kept under as strict a surveillance as the inefficient administration of the time could contrive. The earlier visits of sea rovers on the coast were now being followed up by incursions of trappers and semi-military parties from the interior. Many books had appeared giving glowing accounts of the country, and the mysterious ichor in the blood of the American pioneer which still draws him ever toward the setting sun was full of potency. The Californians had just cause for alarm, as events soon proved. Some acts of violence and injustice resulted, at other places, notably the arrest and deportation to Tepic of a large number of foreigners at Monterey and other places in 1840. But on the whole, considering the volatile temperament of the ruling class and the difficult situation in which they found themselves, it must be said that they acted toward foreigners for the most part with moderation and good sense. The treatment of the Pattie party, if Pattie’s narrative is to be believed, is the single notable exception to this rule, so far as events at San Diego are concerned.

Sylvester Pattie was a Kentuckian, an Indian fighter, lumberman, and trapper. In 1824 he and his son, James O. Pattie, a young man of about twenty, went on an expedition to New Mexico, where they remained three years. In September, 1827, a company was organized at Santa Fé for the purpose of operating on the Colorado river, and the elder Pattie became its captain. Eight of this company, including the two Patties, reached the junction of the Colorado and Gila rivers on December 1, 1827, in desperate straits for food and supplies. After floating down the Colorado to tide water in a vain search for a mythical settlement of white men, they buried their traps and furs and started westward across the desert. They reached the Mission of Santa Catalina, in Lower California, on March 21, 1828, after suffering severely, and arrived at San Diego, under guard, by Echeandía’s order, on the 27th. The names of the companions of the Patties appear to have been James Puter, Jesse Ferguson, Isaac Slover, William Pope, Richard Laughlin, and Nathaniel H. Pryor.

The governor, for some reason, chose to regard the unfortunate men with suspicion and disfavor. He accused them of being Spanish spies, tore up their passport, and ordered them to prison. They were quite willing to die resisting this indignant treatment, but they were disarmed, carefully guarded, and locked up in separate cells, so that there was never an opportunity to attempt an escape. The elder Pattie died within a month, and if the account of the son is to be believed, they were all fed on insufficient and nauseating food and subjected to continual taunts and insults. It is clear that he totally misunderstood the character of the Californians, and in the printed accounts cannot sufficiently express his scorn and contempt for the supposed cowardice and treachery of his captors. Through the grated door of his prison he could see the governor at his residence in the center of the Presidio, and the sight filled him with bitterness. “Ah,” he exclaims, “that I had had but my trusty rifle well charged to my face! Could I have had the pleasure of that single shot, I think I would have been willing to have purchased it with my life.” And again: “How earnestly I wished that he and I had been together in the wild woods, and I armed with my rifle!”

But Echeandía’s mood was not always inflexible. Within a month he allowed young Pattie, who had picked up a little Spanish in New Mexico, to leave the prison for the purpose of acting as interpreter during the trial of Captain Bradshaw, of the Franklin. The governor also employed Pattie as an interpreter and made friendly overtures to him, which the young man regarded from the first as “vile and deceitful lies.” He took advantage of the opportunity to plead his cause and debate questions of international law, as well as to endeavor to secure permission to return to the Colorado and recover the buried traps and furs. He even carried the matter, in his own words, to the extent of “teasing him with importunities.” But when he refused to translate any more letters, Echeandía lost patience, struck him on the head with the flat of his sword, and had him returned to prison.

In the following September the governor released the prisoners and proposed a plan by which the buried traps and furs might be recovered. A military escort was to be provided, greatly to the delight of the prisoners, who at once formed the resolution to overpower the guard and escape at the first opportunity. Pattie’s vindictiveness shows itself in his instant resolution to “rise upon them, take their horses for our own riding, flea (flay) some of their skins to show that we knew how to inflict torture, and send the rest back to the general on foot.” At the last moment, however, the shrewd old general spoiled the whole plan by refusing to send any horses and by keeping the young fireeater himself as a hostage for the safe return of the party. “At this horrible sentence,” he declares, “breaking upon us in the sanguine rapture of confidence, we all gazed at each other in the consternation of despair.”

The expedition returned in the latter part of September and reported that the furs had been spoiled by a rise of the river and the traps had to be sold to pay mule-hire. While his comrades were gone, Pattie seems to have had a stormy time of it in his prison cell, where he lay under constant expectation of a violent death. He had some consolations, however; Captain Bradshaw had been kind to him, and W. H. Cunningham, A. W. Williams, and Seth Rogers are named as captains of American vessels who befriended and gave him money. He also had a guardian angel in a Spanish young lady whom he calls Miss Peaks, but whom Bancroft says was Miss Pico. His ungovernable tongue seems to have been largely responsible for most of his troubles, as he would not leave off from importuning and disputing with the governor. There is no doubt his conduct and language greatly exasperated the proud old Spaniard.

There is nothing to show that the six men who went after the outfit were incarcerated after their return. The final release of the whole party was due to an epidemic of smallpox which broke out in the northern missions. It chanced that Pattie had a small quantity of vaccine matter with him, and he resolved to use it as a means of obtaining their liberty. As he tells the story, he now became master of the situation and dictated terms, refusing to be set at liberty or to vaccinate the governor or even Miss Pico, unless his demands were granted. In return for the liberty of himself and men, he would undertake to vaccinate everybody in Upper California. The stories of Pattie and others do not agree about this and many other matters. He would have it that vaccination was a mystery to the Californians and Russians, which is not correct. It seems strange, too, that if he had this vaccine matter among his effects, the Californians should possess neither the intelligence nor the power to find it for themselves. After his release he vaccinated everybody at the Presidio and Mission and on his arrival at San Francisco, in June, 1829, he claimed to have operated on 22,000 persons.

The truth of the matter probably is that Echeandía was tired of the whole business, perhaps convinced that the men were harmless, and anxious to find an excuse for releasing them, and that Pattie’s threats and violent tongue did him more harm than good. At any rate, the governor seems to have seen in Pattie’s possession of the vaccine virus and ability to use it, an opportunity to get rid of his unwelcome visitors and to do something for the public health at the same time.

The principal points in this story, as related above, are in accordance with Pattie’s Narrative. Considerable doubt has been thrown upon Pattie’s veracity, however, and the present writer cannot vouch for it all. Indeed, it seems highly probable that the party was not badly treated at San Diego, at all. Pryor, Laughlin, and Ferguson remained in California and lived in Los Angeles, and the stories they told differed materially from young Pattie’s. It seems that young Pattie (or, more probably, the man who wrote his Narrative, had an unreasoning hatred of Catholics and Spaniards, and the whole book is colored by it. For instance, he entirely suppressed the fact, which is well authenticated, that the elder Pattie became a Catholic before his death and was buried in consecrated ground on Presidio Hill, although the picture of “The Burial of Mr. Pattie,” in his Narrative itself betrays the fact that the interment took place on the hill.

From 1830 onward, the town grew rapidly and was soon, for the time and country, an important commercial and social center. When William Heath Davis first came, in 1831, he found it quite a lively town.

Captain J. C. Bogart was in charge of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company’s coal hulk, Clarissa Andrews, for many years. His reminiscences of the country at that period relate chiefly to trees, agriculture, and live stock. He says: “In 1834 it was good to see the hills about San Diego. Wild oats grew upon them to a height which reached above the head of a man on horseback. Cattle were abundant and rolling in fat. Whenever any of the crew of the Black Warrior wished to use a horse, the animal was furnished by the native Californians for a whole day for a dollar. It made no difference if the rider pressed the horse to death, so he packed the saddle back. Horses were too plentiful to be a matter of any consequence.”

The next visitor, in order of time, was the well known Richard Henry Dana, who was here in 1836, and whose story has already been drawn upon in earlier pages.

In 1838, there were nine foreigners in San Diego, among whom were Thomas Russell and Peter Weldon, who were concerned in a search for treasure supposed to be buried at the Mission.

In the early part of 1839, a Mr. Spencer came here as one of the crew of the Boston ship Sophia. In 1873 he revisited San Diego, and in his recollections given at that time recalled the San Diego of his earlier visit as “a few miserable huts.” He may have had a disagreeable experience here which influenced his opinion of the place. During their stay, they purchased 6800 hides of very fat cattle. “San Diego,” he said, “was at that time a beautiful picture of fertility. A luxuriant vegetation graced the mesa. Chaparral and mesquite grew abundantly and countless herds of cattle pastured around the edge of the bay.”

The decline of San Diego began about 1836 and continued steadily until the Mexican War. In 1840, the population was the smallest for fifty years. De Mofras estimated it at one hundred and Bancroft thinks it was about 150. Late in 1841 the newly appointed Bishop of the Diocese of Upper California, García Diego, came with the intention of making San Diego his residence. He abandoned the idea, however, and located at Santa Barbara, instead, chiefly on account of the poverty of the Mission and town of San Diego. In 1844-6, in an effort to raise troops for the defense of the country in the pending American invasion, there were only about seventy men capable of bearing arms.

The foreign settlers living in San Diego in 1845, according to Crosthwaite’s recollection, were: Himself, Henry D. Fitch, Don Juan Warner, Abel Stearns, John Forster, Captain John S. Barker, Thomas Wrightington, John Post, Peter Wilder, John C. Stewart, Thomas Russell, Caesar Walker, Captain Edward Stokes, an English carpenter known as “Chips,” Enos A. Wall, Albert B. Smith, and two negroes named Allen B. Dight [Light] and Richard Freeman.

Frequent reference has been made to Alfred Robinson and William Heath Davis. Robinson was a native of Massachusetts who came here in 1829 as clerk of the ship Brookline. He was baptised as José María Alfredo before 1833, and early in 1836 married at Santa Barbara, Ana María, daughter of Captain José de la Guerra y Noriega. This wedding is the one described in Dana’s book. The following year he and his wife went to Boston. He returned in the Alert in 1840, and remained two years. His employment in these days was as clerk and supercargo of different ships. In 1849 he returned to California as agent for the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, and in later years was engaged in some real estate transactions in San Francisco. His Life in Califoria is a standard work and one of the best of its kind. They had eight children. Mr. Robinson, although of a somewhat reserved disposition, was a competent man and his standing in California was good. He deserves to be remembered among the pioneers who saw clearly, and judged with common sense.

William Heath Davis was born at Honolulu in 1821, and came to California as a boy on the Louisa, in 1831. In November, 1847, he married María de Jésus Estudillo, daughter of José Joaquin Estudillo. His wife lived in San Diego when young, and Mr. Davis’s book is full of information about the life here in early days. For many years he was one of the most prominent merchants in San Francisco, and engaged in some of the largest trading ventures on the coast. He took little part in public affairs, but was a thorough and successful businessman. He resided at San Diego for a short time and part of his account of his life here is used in the following chapter. He was one of the founders of New San Diego, and built the first wharf there in 1850, a circumstance of which he was always proud, although the venture was not a financial success. In 1889 he published his Sixty Years in California, which is one of the most interesting and informative books ever written about California. In this book, like Alfred Robinson, he stands up manfully in defense of the Californians—that is, of the better families, such as that into which he married.

He is still living in Oakland, California, and has a new set of reminiscences written and ready for publication.


It is on the bough-roofed dancing-floor,
‘Way back in the brave days now no more:
It is among the cavaliers,
A-tripping with the lissome dears
That bared those famous ankles, down
In gay old San Diego town.
The viols strike up and the guitar,
And yonder, as comes the evening star,
Her filmy skirt a little lifted—
A curling cloud afloat, wind-shifted,
Blown now to the left, and now to right—
Glides Josefita into sight.
Yon rider, he to every dear
The boldest, gayest cavalier,
Is rocking, rocking in his seat,
Keeping the motion of her feet.
He turns his horse, he runs him round
The circuit of the dancing-ground.
The earth is heaving like an ocean,
Witched with Josefita’s motion.
He comes again, he comes a-riding,
And comes, too, Josefita, gliding.
The bamba! Brighter shines the star;
He claps his spurs, he leaps the bar.
Dancing! Sweet heavens, look on her now!
Not so light are the leaves that dance on the bough.
The brimming glass upon her head
Dreams like a lily upon its bed!
See! Something she whispers in his ear
That you would give the world to hear.
Aha! Somebody will come down,
Tonight, in San Diego town;
But where’s the shape that he would fear,
He, Josefita’s cavalier!

-John Vance Cheney.

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