History of San Diego, 1542-1908

PART TWO: CHAPTER 5: Pleasant Memories of Social Life

Whatever was lacking in Old San Diego, the social life was rich and beautiful. This is the testimony of all visitors and all the old residents who have lived to tell the tale. People did not take life too seriously in those days. They made the most of their opportunities for happiness, and collected large dividends of content, whether they had any other sort or not. The echo of their laughter still rings down the pathway of the years, and suggests to the nervous Americans of today that there might be some pleasant compromise between the extremes of energy and indolence which would result in forms of life peculiarly suited to the rare environment of this southern land.

The different classes of society were quite distinct in the early time, the division running on lines of birth. Natives of Spain or direct descendants of such natives, constituted the upper class and prided themselves upon the purity of their blood. Aside from this, they had other and better claims to consideration, for they were usually well educated and always possessed of considerable culture. In a society accustomed to caste, they naturally assumed a position of leadership. Some of them were gentlemen in reduced circumstances who had taken to soldiering in the hope of retrieving their fortunes. Others were men of good families who had secured official appointments. All of them were proud and dignified in bearing, even when they hap­pened to be very poor.

The lower classes consisted, first, of Mexicans with more or less Aztec and Indian blood, and, last of all, the native Indian. Most of the Mexicans were soldiers, some of whom brought their wives, while others married Indian women after coming here. They were a class corresponding to the Spanish peasantry and furnished the labor of the country.


The social customs which flourished in the midst of these conditions were so deeply marked with the spirit of common kindness that one can hardly escape the thought that something has been lost, as well as gained, in our present-day struggle to get ahead, as individuals and communities. Take, for instance, the matter of hospitality to strangers. To offer to pay for entertainment was an affront. The traveler was supplied with a fresh horse at every stage of his journey, and had no care or expense in the matter of returning them to their owners. On a table beside his bed he found a quantity of silver, to which he was expected to help himself, according to his needs, and no questions were asked. If a man needed a bullock, he might send a vaquero to lasso one from the herd of his wealthy neighbor, and pay for it when convenient—and if it did not become convenient, it was no matter. If a horse were borrowed and not returned, it was of no consequence—there were plenty more. The average of wealth among the cattle owners was large and their bounty was as free as air.

Incivility was absolutely unknown. Even the poorest peasant saluted you politely and was prepared to carry a message or do any little courtesy without charge and with an air of cheer­fulness and good humor. The kindness of the people was genuine and unaffected. It was the custom to call all persons by their Christian names, with an easy familiarity. Older men re­ceived the prefix of Don or Senor Don, and ladies of Dona or Senorita Dona, if unmarried, and Senora Dona, if married. It was also quite usual to playfully nickname one’s intimate friends in a humorous manner to which the Spanish language lends it­self most happily. For instance, Wm. A. Gale was known as Quatro Ojos (four eyes), on account of his wearing glasses. He was also called Tornzenta (gale), and Cambalache(barter), both for obvious reasons.

One of the most remarkable characteristics of the Californians was the very great respect shown to parents by their children. This deference was not abandoned with the passing years, but even a grown man coming into the presence of his father or mother always removed his hat and remained standing until invited to sit. No man, whatever his age, ever smoked in the presence of his father or mother. If a young man met an elder in the street, he would throw away his cigar and lift his hat, whether to his parents or a stranger. Servants showed the same deference to their employers. One scarcely knows what to say about the current stories of old men chastising their grown sons, and the latter, although themselves the fathers of families, kneeling meekly to receive the punishment. They may be true, and do seem fairly well authenticated.

The better class of Californians were temperate, with few ex­ceptions. They were fond of smoking, however, and the habit was almost universal with them. The Mexican ladies were also fond of tobacco. and brought the custom of smoking cigaritos to California.

Notions of propriety were strict and young people, even when engaged, were not left to themselves. Courtships were usually arranged by the mother or aunt of the young lady. This was followed by a written proposal for the young lady’s hand, from the suitor to her father, and the reply was also given in writing. Weddings were made the occasion of much social gaiety. Davis says that at a wedding which he attended in 1838, he was met on the road by a brother of the groom, gorgeously attired and splendidly mounted. Horses were lassoed for the wedding cavalcade. He had brought his own saddle, according to the custom, even though a guest. There were two cavalcades for the use of the party, one of red roan horses and the other of twenty-five blacks. On returning from the Mission and approaching the house of the groom’s father, the old gentleman fired a salute with a brass cannon which he kept in the plaza in front of the dwelling.

It was customary for the Californians to marry young. One reason for this was in order that the young men might thereby escape being drafted into the army. It was not uncommon for boys of sixteen, or seventeen, and girls of fifteen or sixteen, to marry. Balls given at the celebration of the nuptials usually lasted three days. Arbors were carefully prepared, with beaten earthen floors, and lined with sheets and other articles to exclude the wind. The feasting and dancing did not cease, night or day.

One of the best descriptions of the wedding customs is that contained in Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast, wherein he describes the wedding of Alfred Robinson and Señorita de la Guerra y Noriega, at Santa Barbara in 1836. He says:

“At ten o’clock the bride went up with her sister to the con­fessional, dressed in deep black. Nearly an hour intervened, when the great doors of the mission-church opened, the bells rang out a loud, discordant peal, a private signal was run up for us by the captain ashore, the bride, dressed in complete white, came out of the church with the bridegroom, followed by a long procession. Just as she stepped from the church door, a small white cloud issued from the bows of our ship, which was in full sight a loud report echoed among the surrounding hills and over the bay, and instantly the ship was dressed in flags and pennants from stem to stern. Twenty-three guns followed in regular succession, with an interval of fifteen seconds between each, when the cloud cleared away, and the ship lay dressed in her colors all day. At sundown another salute of the same number of guns was fired, and all the flags run down.

“After supper we rowed ashore, dressed in our uniforms, beached the boat, and went up to the fandango. As we drew near we heard the accustomed sound of violins and guitars, and saw a great motion of the people within. Going in, we found nearly all the people of the town—men, women, and children—collected and crowded together, leaving barely room for the dancers; for on these occasions no invitations are given, but every one is expected to come, though there is always a private entertain­ment within the house for particular friends. The old women sat down in rows, clapping their hands to the music, and applauding the young ones. After the supper the waltzing be­gan, which was confined to a very few of the gente de razon and was considered a high accomplishment and a mark of aristoc­racy. The great amusement of the evening—which I suppose was owing to its being carnival—was the breaking of eggs filled with cologne, or other essences, upon the heads of the company. One end of the egg is broken and the inside taken out, then it is partly filled with cologne, and the hole sealed up. The women bring a great number of these secretly about them, and the amusement is, to break one upon the head of a gentle­man when his back is turned. He is bound in gallantry to find out the lady and return the compliment, though it must not be done if the person sees you. A tall, stately don, with immense grey whiskers and a look of great importance, was standing before me, when I felt a light hand on my shoulder, and turning round saw Doña Augustia (whom we all knew, as she had been up to Monterey and down again in the Alert), with her finger on her lip, motioning me gently aside. I stepped back a little, when she went up behind the don, and with one band knocked off his huge sombrero, and at the same instant, with the other, broke the egg upon his head, and springing behind me was out of sight in a moment. The don turned slowly round, the cologne running down his face and over his clothes, and a loud laugh breaking out from every quarter. He looked round in vain for some time, until the direction of so many laughing eyes showed him the fair offender. She was his niece, and a great favorite with him, so old Domingo had to join in the laugh. A great many such tricks were played, and many a war of sharp maneuvering was carried on between the couples of the younger people; and at every successful exploit a general laugh was raised.

“The next day two of us were sent up to the town, and took care to come back by the way of Captain Noriega’s. The musicians were still there, scraping and twanging away, and a few people, apparently of the lower classes, were dancing. The dancing is kept up at intervals throughout the day, but the crowd, the spirit, and the élite come in at night.”

A more intimate view is given by Robinson himself, in his account of the wedding of his wife’s sister, a little earlier, both the contracting parties, in this case, being Spanish:

“On the marriage eve, the bride went with her father to the Mission, dressed in her usual church costume, which was deep black; where the joining of hands took place towards morning, and, at a later hour, the church ceremonies were per­formed. Breakfast was served with considerable taste, a task to which the worthy friar was fully competent. At its conclu­sion the bride and bridegroom were escorted to the house of her father. Padre Antonio had made his Indians happy by distributing presents among them; and many of the younger ones, well attired for the occasion, joined in the procession. They approached the town without any regular order, until arriving almost within its precincts; when, under the direc­tion of the friar, they formed and marched in the following manner. First came the military band, consisting of abut twenty performers, who were dressed in a new uniform of red jackets trimmed with yellow cord, white pantaloons made after the Turkish fashion, and red caps of the Polish order. Then followed the bride and bridegroom, in an open English barouche, accompanied by the sister of the former. After these, in a close carriage, came Don José and Father Antonio; in another the Madrina [godmother] and cousin; and lastly, num­bers of men and women on horseback. Guns were fired, alter­nately, at the Mission and in the Presidio, until their arrival at the house, to the fiesta de boda [nuptial feast]. At one o’clock a large number of invited guests sat down at a long table, to partake of an excellent dinner. The married couple were seated at the head with the father spiritual on the right, and the father temporal on the left. Dinner being over, part of the company retired to their homes, whilst some of the younger adjourned to a booth, which was prepared in the courtyard, sufficiently large to contain several hundred people. Here they danced awhile, and then retired. Early in the evening, people, invited and uninvited, began to fill up the booth, and soon dancing commenced. The music consisted of two violins and a guitar, on which were performed many beautiful waltzes and contra dances, together with a great number of local melodies. During the evening all took active part in the amusement, and as the poorer classes exhibited their graceful performances, the two fathers from an ele­vated position, threw at their feet, silver dollars and doubloons. The fandango . . . lasted until the morning light appeared, accompanied with all the variety customary on such occasions.

“On the next day, Father Antonio, as a further compliment to the bride, had dinner prepared in the corridor of the Mission—the table reaching from one end to the other, and the place being adorned with flags. Here all the town was invited to participate, when old and young, rich and poor, lame and blind, black and white, joined in the feast. For several succeeding nights the fandango was repeated at the booth, and they had enough of feasting and dancing intermingled with the amuse­ments of theCarnestolendas (shrove-tide) to last them for some time.

“The usual season for Carnestolendas is during the three days previous to Ash Wednesday, but here they commence two weeks earlier. Whilst these amusements last, it is dangerous for one to go into a house where he is acquainted, for he is liable to be well drenched with Cologne or scented water. This is accom­plished by the following preparatory process. As many eggs as may be required, are emptied of their contents, by perforating a hole at each end, through which they are blown by the mouth. The shells are afterwards immersed in a large basin of prepared essences, with which they are partly filled, and the holes then sealed with wax. Thus made ready, they are broken upon the heads of individuals; but it must be under­stood, that this is done only where great intimacy exists be­tween the parties. Oftentimes invitations are given for a select company to assemble at a specified place, when all attend at the time appointed, “armed and equipped” for a battle with the eggs. On such occasions, as the excitement grows warm, and the ammunition becomes nearly exhausted, they resort to wet napkins, which they slap at each other. From these they have recourse to tumblers of water, and from these to pitchers, and from pitchers to buckets, until, tired and exhausted by the exercise, they desist!”

Even a funeral was made the occasion of feasting and dancing. Dana thus describes his first encounter with this custom in Santa Barbara:

“Inquiring for an American who, we had been told, had mar­ried in the place, and kept a shop, we were directed to a long, low building, at the end of which was a door with a sign over it in Spanish. Entering the shop, we found no one in it, and the whole had a deserted appearance. In a few min­utes the man made his appearance, and apologized for having nothing to entertain us with, saying that he had had a fandangoat his house the night before, and the people had eaten and drunk up everything. “Oh, yes!” said I, “Easter holi­days.” “No,” said he, with a singular expression on his face, “I had a little daughter die the other day, and that’s the custom of the country.”

“At this I felt a little strangely, not knowing what to say, or whether to offer consolation or no, and was beginning to retire when he opened a side-door and told us to walk in. Here I was no less astonished; for I found a large room filled with young girls from three or four years of age up to fif­teen or sixteen, dressed all in white, with wreaths of flowers on their heads and bouquets in their hands. Follow­ing our conductor among all these girls, who were play­ing about in high spirits, we came to a table at the end of the room, covered with a white cloth, on which lay a coffin about three feet long with the body of his child. Through an open door we saw in another room a few elderly people in common dresses; while the benches and tables thrown up in a corner and the stained walls gave evident signs of last night’s “high go.”

“Later in the clay, the sailors rode out to the Mission and overtook the funeral procession. The coffin was borne by eight girls, who were continually relieved by others, running forward from the procession and taking their places. Behind it came a straggling company of girls, dressed as before, in white and flowers, and including, I should suppose by their numbers, all the girls between five and fifteen in the place. They played along on the way, frequently stopping and run­ning altogether to talk to some one, or to pick up a flower, and then running on again to overtake the coffin. There were a few elderly women in common colors; and a herd of young men and boys, some on foot and others mounted, followed them, or walked or rode by their side, frequently interrupting them by jokes or questions. But the most singular thing of all was that two men walked, one on each side of the coffin, carrying muskets in their hands, which they continually loaded and fired into the air.”

Some of the things at which Dana wondered seem natural and beautiful enough. Mrs. Whaley describes a funeral at Old San Diego, which was very similar, except that the body was carried on a bier and not placed in the coffin until the cemetery was reached. A priest walked before, saying prayers, and the musicians walked on both sides playing violins, guitars, and other instruments. At the rear followed a man with firecrack­ers which he was setting off as they moved.

The last interment in the cemetery within the presidial enclosure was that of Captain Fitch, in 1849. Nothing now remains to show that the spot was ever used for such a purpose. The Catholic cemetery on the mesa was used until February, 1874, when the large new cemetery, on the hill above the town, was laid out under Father Ubach’s direction, and has been in use ever since.

On the subject of dancing and other amusements, it is again convenient to draw upon Robinson. Don Juan Bandini had his house blessed during the stay of Gale and Robinson at San Diego in 1829, and they were invited to attend.

“The ceremony took place at noon, when the chaplain pro­ceeded through the different apartments, sprinkling holy water upon the walls, and uttering verses in Latin. This concluded, we sat down to an excellent dinner, consisting of all the lux­uries the place afforded, provided in Don Juan’s best style. As soon as the cloth was removed, the guitar and the violin were put in requisition, and a dance began. It lasted, how­ever, but a little while, for it was necessary for them to spare their exertions for the evening fandango. So poco a poco [little by little], all gradually retired to their homes.

“At an early hour the different passages leading to the house were enlivened with men, women, and children, hurrying to the dance; for on such occasions it was customary for every­body to attend without waiting for the formality of an invi­tation. A crowd of leperos [dependents] was collected about the door when we arrived, now and then giving its shouts of approbation to the performances within, and it was with some difficulty we forced our entrance. Two persons were upon the floor dancing el jarabe. They kept time to the music, by drumming with their feet, on the heel and toe system, with such precision, that the sound struck harmoniously upon the ear, and the admirable execution would not have done injus­tice to a pair of drumsticks in the hands of an able professor. The attitude of the female dancer was erect, with her head a little inclined to the right shoulder, as she modestly cast her eyes to the floor, whilst her hands gracefully held the skirts of her dress, suspending it above the ankle so as to expose to the company the execution of her feet. Her partner, who might have been one of the interlopers at the door, was under full speed of locomotion, and rattled away with his feet with wonderful dexterity. His arms were thrown carelessly behind his back, and secured, as they crossed, the point of his serape [sash], that still held its place upon his shoulders. Neither had he doffed his sombrero, but just as he stood when gazing from the crowd, he bad placed himself upon the floor.

“The conclusion of this performance gave us an opportunity to edge our way along towards the extremity of the room, where a door communicated with an inner apartment. Here we placed ourselves, to witness in a most favorable position the amusements of the evening. The room was about fifty feet in length, and twenty wide, modestly furnished, and its sides crowded with smiling faces. Upon the floor were accom­modated the children and Indian girls, who, close under the vigilance of their parents and mistresses, took part in the scene. The musicians again commencing a lively tune, one of the managers approached the nearest female, and, clapping his hands in accompaniment to the music, succeeded in bring­ing her into the centre of the room. Here she remained awhile, gently tapping with her feet upon the floor, and then giving two or three whirls, skipped away to her seat. Another was clapped out, and another, till the manager had passed the compliment throughout the room. This is called a son, and there is a custom among the men, when a dancer proves par­ticularly attractive to anyone, to place his hat upon her head, while she stands thus in the middle of the room, which she retains until redeemed by its owner, with some trifling pres­ent. During the performance of the dances, three or four male voices occasionally took part in the music, and towards the end of the evening, from repeated applications of aguardiente [brandy], they become quite boisterous and discordant.

“The waltz was now introduced, and ten or a dozen couple whirled gaily around the room, and heightened the charms of the dance by the introduction of numerous and interesting figures. Between the dances refreshments were handed to the ladies; whilst in an adjoining apartment, a table was prepared for the males, who partook without ceremony. The most inter­esting of all their dances is the contra danza, and this, also, may be considered the most graceful. Its figures are intri­cate, and in connection with the waltz, form a charming com­bination. These fandangos usually hold out till daylight, and at intervals the people at the door are permitted to introduce their jarabes and jotas.”

The bamba was a favorite dance, in which the lady would often dance with a glass of water poised on her head, or with her feet muffled in a handkerchief. The jota and the zorrita were danced by couples and accompanied by singing. The contra-danza was indulged in by the better classes and young persons seldom participated.


Before 1800, few houses had other than an earth floor, and the dancing was done upon the ground, which from constant use became very hard. A wooden platform was constructed, upon which the women and more skillful males might dance. After the ball was over, the men in groups accompanied the women to their homes, playing music as they went. After this, they would sometimes ride about the streets and sing or indulge in rougher sports.

“How often,” exclaims Doña Refugia de Bandini, “did we spend half the night at a tertulia till 2 o’clock in the morning, in the most agreeable and distinguished society. Our house would be full of company—thirty or forty persons at the table; it would have to be set twice. A single fiesta might cost $1,000, but in those days the receipts at my husband’s store were $18,000 a month. The prettiest women were to be found at San Diego.”

“Ah, what times we used to have,” exclaims another, “every week to La Playa, aboard the ships—silks! officers! rebozos! music! dancing! frolic!”

These “good times” continued until long after the American occupation and formed the pleasantest part of the recollections of old settlers now living. “We used to have great times here,” says one, “real jolly good times. The people didn’t think of anything else, then, but pleasure and amusement. We used to have fandangos, or little parties, at night. We could get up one of these balls in a couple of hours. There was horse-racing, too.” Mrs. Whaley relates that on the day of her arrival, the 8th of December, 1853, there was a festival and ball at the Gila House and she was prevailed upon to go. ” We had splendid dances there,” she says. “The musicians were Californians and played only Spanish airs. They looked as if they were asleep while they played. I remember particularly thecascarones—­eggs filled with tinsel and cologne water, which were broken over the heads of the dancers. I have had many a cascarone broken on my head. The suppers were also fine, but at first I found the Spanish cooking too highly seasoned for my taste.”

The frequent fiestas were one of the most highly prized fea­tures of the social life of early days, and one which persisted after nearly all the other characteristic amusements had passed away. In theHerald of September 3, 1853, Lieut. Derby wrote: “The great event of the past week has been thefiesta at San Luis Rey. Many of our citizens attended, and a very large num­ber of native Californians and Indians collected from the vari­ous ranchos in the vicinity. High mass was celebrated in the old church on Thursday morning, an Indian baby was baptized, another nearly killed by being run over by an excited individ­ual on an excited horse, and that day and the following were passed in witnessing the absurd efforts of some twenty natives to annoy a number of tame bulls, with the tips of their horns cut off. This great national amusement, ironically termed bull­fighting, consists in waving a serape, or handkerchief, in front of the bull until he is sufficiently annoyed to run after his tor­mentor, when that individual gets out of his way, with great precipitation. The nights are passed in an equally intellectual manner. ”

On August 28, 1858, Editor Ames says: “Our quiet village was nearly deserted during the whole of last week, the greater portion of our citizens being absent at the Feast. We have heard it estimated that 3,000 persons were present at San Luis Rey during the Feast week.”

Horse-racing was a common source of diversion and was in­dulged in by all classes. No feast day passed without a num­ber of races, which were always attended with great interest and sometimes large sums of money were lost and won. They were usually run by two horses, in short heats of from two to four hundred yards. Dana found the population greatly inter­ested and excited by these events. The Old San Diego race-­course was on the flat ground between the town and San Diego Bay, and in the fifties and sixties some famous races took place there.

In its first number, October 3, 1868, the Union says: “To­morrow at two o’clock a two-mile race will be run over the Mis­sion track. Alfredo Carrillo names b. h. Muggins, Jesus Mar­ron names b. h. Buck. We are not advised as to the amount of the stakes, but learn that besides a large amount of money already up, the winner takes the losing horse.” In early times, when money was scarce, the stakes were more often in cattle.

It is to be feared that bull-and-bear fights were not unknown here, although not so common as in other parts of the territory. The animals were placed in a strong enclosure and the whole population went to see the combat. seats being provided for women and children. A hind leg of the bear and a fore leg of the bull were strapped together, and the combat sometimes lasted for hours before one of the animals succumbed.

Far more pleasant to recall are the picnics, in which it was the custom to indulge with joyous abandon. The married ladies rode on their own saddles, while the young women were carried on horseback by the young men. This service was considered a post of honor, and discharged in the most polite and gallant manner possible. A bride was often carried to church in this manner. Sometimes the picnickers would ride in wagons drawn by oxen, and, if one of their number could play, there would be both instrumental and vocal music, going and coming. At the picnic grounds, mats were spread and a feast held, after which games were played. In the evening, after the return, the day would be finished with the inevitable dancing.

The only thing resembling dramatic performances were the pastores, or sacred comedies, in which the inhabitants took a deep interest. On Christmas night, 1837, such a pastorela was performed, and Alfred Robinson has left an account of it. Among the performers were Guadalupe Estudillo, Felipe Mar­ron, Isadora Pico, and other girls. He thus describes the per­formance and the midnight mass which preceded it:

“At an early hour illuminations commenced, fire-works were set off, and all was rejoicing. The church bells rang merrily, and long before the time of mass the pathways leading to the Presidio were enlivened by crowds hurrying to devotion. I accompanied Don José Antonio [Estudillo], who procured for me a stand where I could see distinctly everything that took place. The mass commenced, Padre Vicente de Oliva offici­ated, and at the conclusion of the mysterious sacrificio he pro­duced a small image representing the infant Saviour, which he held in his hands for all who chose to approach and kiss. After this, the tinkling of the guitar was heard without, the body of the church was cleared, and immediately commenced the harmonious sounds of a, choir of voices. The characters entered in procession, adorned with appropriate costumes, and bearing banners. There were six females representing shep­herdesses, three men and a boy. One of the men personated Lucifer, one a hermit, and the other Bartolo, a lazy vagabond, whilst the boy represented the arch-angel Gabriel. The story of their, performance is partially drawn from the Bible, and commences with the angel’s appearance to the shepherds, his account of the birth of our Saviour, and exhortation to them to proceed to the scene of the manger. Lucifer appears among them, and endeavors to prevent the prosecution of their jour­ney. His influences and temptations are about to succeed, when Gabriel again appears and frustrates their effect. A dia­logue is then carried on of considerable length relative to the attributes of the Deity, which ends in the submission of Satan. The whole is interspersed with songs and incidents that seem better adapted to the stage than the church. For several days this theatrical representation is exhibited at the principal houses, and the performers at the conclusion of the play are entertained with refreshments. The boys take an enthusiastic part in the performance, and follow about from house to house, perfectly enraptured with the comicalities of the hermit and Bartolo.”

In later days there was an occasional circus, which must have been a godsend to the laughter-loving people. The late Mrs. E. W. Morse, who arrived here in July, 1865, says:

“A Spanish circus visited San Diego soon after my arrival. It exhibited in the evening in a corral with high adobe walls, the company having no tents. The place was lighted by strips of cloth laid in cans of lard and then set on fire. The primitive lanterns were set on high posts and at best furnished a poor light. The spectators included nearly all of the population of the town who could pay the admittance fee of fifty cents. I think the Indians were admitted at half-price. The Americans and Spanish occupied one side of the corral, and the Indians squatted on the ground on the other. The performances on the trapeze and tight-rope looked especially weird and fantas­tic in the smoky light of those primitive lanterns.”

The Californians were famous horsemen, as everyone knows. Indeed, the Californian who was not a good rider was looked upon with contempt. The greatest tribute which could be made to friendship, was a present of a good horse. The usual gait in riding was a hard gallop, which was not slackened even when lighting a cigar. The trappings were heavy and gorgeous and covered the horse from neck to tail. Many of the ladies were skillful riders. Their saddles had no stirrup, but they rested their foot in the loop of a silken band, instead.

The only other means of locomotion was in the primitive ox­carts of the time, which were truly a survival of ante-diluvian days. They had either two or four wheels, which were made of the section of a tree about four feet in diameter, sawed off about a foot thick. The body of the vehicle was set upon the axle, with no springs. A light canopy was erected over this. They were all wood, no metal at all being used. The cart was drawn by oxen, the tongue being attached to their horns by ropes. The driver walked in front, to guide the team, and the women and children in the body of the cart prodded them with sticks. This primitive contrivance was the only means of con­veyance, besides horseback riding, for many years. All freight­ing was done in this manner and many long journeys performed, as well as nearby picnics. Considerable skill was required to guide these carts safely over the crude roads. It is said that the Californians were somewhat negligent about keeping the axles greased and did not mind the frightful shrieks which usually accompanied their progress. It is said, too, that it was not uncommon for the oxen to be trained to run races, and that this diversion was often indulged in on the way to and from church.

  1. W. Morse related that one Pedro Gastelhum left his home in Ensenada, with his family, and traveled in such a conveyance to the homes of friends and relatives in Sonora, fully a thousand miles. “It may have taken them six months to reach their des­tination,” says Mr. Morse, “but what of it? Unlike the Gringos, they saw no need of hurrying and worrying through this life. Their countrymen occupied ranches all along the route, to which they were heartily welcome, without money and without price, whether their stay was long or short. This family returned in the same manner, having been gone about two years, and, I doubt not, have always looked upon that trip as the most enjoy­able of their lives.”

This was the only vehicle in the country until the fifties. In 1853, Abel Stearns imported a carriage from Boston, which was looked upon by the Californians as a deplorable and dan­gerous piece of vanity. At Santa Barbara, where there was more wealth, we have seen that Captain de la Guerra y Noriega owned a barouche several years earlier.

WRIGHTINGTON HOUSE. Showing the court.

The Californians were not, as a rule, fond of hunting al­though they sometimes indulged in such branches of the sport as could be pursued on horseback. It was great fun to lasso a bear and lead him home, gagged and foaming, to be kept for a bull-and-bear fight on the next feast day. For game which had to be stalked on foot, or in boats, however, they had small taste. There was nothing of the spirit of the pot-hunter about them. The testimony concerning the abundance and variety of game in the country is quite conclusive. Besides those which have been previously mentioned; antelope were very plentiful. In the early fifties, Captain Bogart sowed a field of barley on North Island, but reaped nothing, for the antelope came along the peninsula at night and ate it up. In 1853, a party of four San Diegans, who had been camping on the hills for ten days, brought into town forty deer and “a cord” of smaller game, and this was only one instance out of many. As late as 1868 deer and antelope were plentiful at the Encinitos. In March, 1869, a son of Captain English, assisted by a Californian, captured a large wildcat on the mesa between old and new San Diego, and in December, 1871, the San Diego markets were well supplied with venison.

Dana tells how, while left in charge of a hide house in San Diego for some weeks, a part of his duties was to gather wood for use in cooking. This fuel consisted of scrub oak trees, which they brought in on a hand-cart, from the hills back of La Playa. While so engaged they had considerable sport with various kinds of game. Coyotes (which Dana calls coatis) were so plentiful that the pack of dogs kept at the hide houses fre­quently caught and killed them. They also shot hares and rabbits, and Dana makes quite a story of the killing of a rattle­snake.

The rodeos, or “round-ups” of cattle, were held frequently for the purpose of keeping the herds together, as well as of brand­ing the cattle. They were more in the nature of sport than of labor and gave fine opportunity for the display of horsemanship. As the importance of the cattle interest increased, regulations were enacted by the territorial assembly for the due government of these important functions, which were presided over by the juez del campo, or judge of the plains. These officials were continued under the American administration and regularly ap­pointed for several years.

The houses in which the Californians lived were of a type peculiarly adapted to the climate and to their habits of life. The walls were of adobes, or large, thin, sun-dried bricks. Us­ually there was no frame-work, and no wood in the structure except the doors, window frames, and roof timbers. The walls were laid up and cemented with mud and whitewashed without and within. The roof timbers were laid upon the walls, usually without other support, and the roof covered with thin red tiles so shaped and laid as to be an effectual protection against rain. The poorer people used tule or earth instead of tiles, for their roofs. The wealthier classes had board floors, either at first or later on, but others were content with the hard-packed ground. Doors were sometimes of wood, but not infrequently consisted of a dried bullock’s hide, especially on ranchos. When carefully built, these houses were very comfortable as well as durable; but when exposed unprotected to the weather, they soon decayed. There were no stairs to climb and no plumbing to get out of order; they were cool in summer and warm in winter; and the extent to which the later comers are reverting to the Mission type of architecture shows how sensibly they were built.

Some of these houses—the simplest—consisted of only four walls and one room. The next better ones had a partition, mak­ing two apartments, and a little farther up the scale, a very long building was erected, with numerous rooms and entrances. But the highest type of house was built in the Spanish fashion, in a square, with an inner court. This patio was surrounded by a corridor, off which doors opened into the rooms. Several of the houses in old San Diego were of this kind.

The furniture was simple—in the earliest days quite primitive. Later, the wealthier families secured furniture from Spain and bought that made at the missions. A good deal of this old Span­ish and mission-made furniture can still be found at the country seats of the principal ranchos. When the Boston ships began to pursue their profitable traffic in hides, they brought quantities of New England-made furniture, which became the rage and was preferred in San Diego to the plainer and more substantial Spanish and mission products.

The Californians ate a great deal of meat—almost subsisted upon it. The staple food was beef broiled on an iron rod, or steak with onions, and sometimes mutton, chicken, and eggs. A lunch put up for Alfred Robinson in San Diego consisted of one boiled chicken, one smoked beef tongue, half a dozen hard­boiled eggs, a loaf of bread, a small cheese, a bottle of wine, and a little paper of salt and pepper—not bad, if one were not a vegetarian. The bread was tortillas, sometimes made with yeast. Beans they knew how to cook admirably, also corn and potatoes. Their tamales and chili con carne(meat cooked with chili peppers) are too well known to require description. The use of soups was understood, and fish were considerably eaten, especially on Fridays.

Duhaut-Cilly says that the Californians considered venison unfit for food. We also learn that they cared little for mutton, pork, or bear’s meat, but were exceedingly fond of veal. They were famous makers of sugared pastry. The cooks were largely Indians who had been trained for the work, and some of whom became quite expert. This was something to which the later comers found it hard to become accustomed. Mrs. Morse said respecting this matter: “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. The landlord, an Irish gentleman, kindly told me that I could go into the kitchen and cook what­ever I wished, if I did not like the Indian style. I availed my­self of the privilege and there were some interesting discoveries. The cook was sitting on a bench in front of an open sack of flour, vigorously scratching his head. This brought unpleasant suggestions to mind, as did also his stirring of the food while it was cooking with his long hair dangling over it.”

When diet is mentioned, one naturally thinks of the fondness of Californians for high seasoning. The use of red peppers in meat was quite general. In hot countries, these peppers serve a highly important use and are to the Spaniard very much what his pork and beans are to the Bostonian. In the cool climate of San Diego, their use would not appear to have been so necessary.

The women were neat and cleanly in their housekeeping. The bedding, especially, was much praised. The coverlids and pillow­cases were frequently of satin and trimmed with beautiful and costly lace. Except in a few of the wealthiest families, no table was set, but the family would proceed to the kitchen where food was passed around in plates or clay dishes. Forks and spoons were of horn.

The subject of dress is another of those topics which can scarcely be touched without the temptation to write a volume, but to which only a paragraph can be given. The dress worn by middle class women was a chemise with short sleeves, em­broidered and trimmed with lace. A muslin petticoat was flounced with scarlet and secured at the waist by a scarlet band. Shoes were of velvet or blue satin, and with a cotton scarf, pearl necklace and earrings, completed the costume. The hair was worn plaited and hanging down the back. Others substituted a silk or satin shawl for the reboso.

The English style of dress was early adopted, especially by the better class. When Robinson first came, the picturesque Spanish costumes were almost universally worn by both sexes. The ordinary dress of the men was in short clothes and jacket trimmed with scarlet, a silk sash about the waist, botas of orna­mented and embroidered deer skin, secured by colored garters, embroidered shoes, the hair long, braided and fastened behind with ribbons, a black silk handkerchief around the head, sur­mounted by an oval, broad-rimmed hat. The “best clothes” of both sexes were very gorgeous and expensive, but cannot be de­scribed in detail here. A glimpse of the ordinary dress and diversions of the soldiers is afforded by Robinson, at his first visit to the San Diego Presidio. He says the soldiers were amus­ing themselves at the guard-house, “some seated on the ground playing cards and smoking; while others were dancing to the music of the guitar . . . . At the gate stood a sentinel, with slouched hat and blanket thrown over one shoulder, his old Span­ish musket resting on the other; his pantaloons were buttoned and ornamented at the knee, below which, his legs were pro­tected by leggings of dressed deer-skin, secured with spangled garters.”

With the coming of the Americans and the setting of the tide of business toward New England all these things soon began to be affected and, in time, passed into complete eclipse. Man­ners and customs went with the tide, especially after the Mexican War, and left only loving memories. It took some time to thaw the natural reserve between two peoples who did not under­stand each other. This thawing process, marking the period at the beginning of which Americans were regarded with distrust, if not dislike, and the time when they were received with marked favor, may be said to have occurred between 1830 and 1835. At the beginning of this period, intermarriages between the two races were rare and when they did occur created a sensation; at the end, they were too common to excite comment. In this con­nection, and to illustrate what has been stated, the story of Henry D. Fitch’s elopement and the troubles which it brought upon him, is worth telling.


Josefa Carrillo, eldest daughter of Joaquin Carrillo, of San Diego, was one of the beautiful women of the place in 1826 when Captain Fitch first came here, and he soon surrendered to her charms. He gave her a written promise of marriage in 1827, according to the custom of the country, and the family consented to the match, provided the impediments could be removed. The first impediment was that Fitch was a foreigner and a Protestant. He announced his intention of becoming a Mexican citizen, and was baptised by Father Menendez on April 14, 1829, at the chapel in the Presidio, Lieutenant Domingo Carrillo acting as godfather. Menendez had promised to marry the couple the following day, but at the last moment he weakened. The governor had decreed that no foreigners should marry within the territory without his special license, and this could not be secured. Domingo Carrillo, uncle of the bride, also refused to serve as a witness, and the case looked hopeless. But Menendez was a man of resources; though not willing to get into trouble himself, he was not averse to helping the lovers, and so suggested an elope­ment. This was soon arranged and Fitch hastily made ready for a voyage. He bade adieu to his friends, including Miss Carrillo, and got under way in the Vulture. But the departure of the Captain and the ship was only a blind, and in the darkness of night they were hovering close to the shore. Pio Pico, the cousin of Señorita Carrillo, took her on his saddle and carried her swiftly to a spot on the bay shore where a boat was in waiting, and soon the lovers were reunited on the deck. All went well, and they were married at Valparaiso on the 3rd of July, by the Curate Orrego.

This elopement caused considerable scandal, and, the matter having been arranged with some secrecy, various rumors were in circulation. One account had it that the lady was forcibly abducted. Fitch re-appeared the next year with his wife and infant son, and after touching at San Diego proceeded to San Pedro where he was arrested by Echeandía’s order and sent to San Gabriel for trial. Mrs. Fitch was at first kept under sur­veillance in a private house and later sent also to San Gabriel. It was alleged that the marriage was a nullity, and technical flaws were picked in the certificate. The couple were repeatedly interrogated before the ecclesiastical court, Fitch acting as his own attorney, and offering to marry his wife over again. The vicar finally decided, in December, that the charges were not substantiated; that the marriage, though irregular, was valid; and ordered that the wife be given up to the husband. “Yet considering the great scandal which Don Enrique has caused in this province, I condemn him to give as a penance and reparation a bell of at least fifty pounds in weight for the church at Los Angeles, which barely has a borrowed one.” Certain other easy penances were provided and poor Menendez’s conduct was the subject of an investigation. The troubles of the couple were not quite over, for on Jan. 31, 1831, Captain Fitch, writing to his friend, Captain Cooper, complained of the conduct of his wife’s parents, who, he says, abused his wife and would not leave her with him. However, although the historian cannot record that they did literally “live happy ever after,” it is pleasant to know that they had many years of life together and brought up a large family.

FINE EXAMPLE OF OLD SPANISH HOME. Residence of Col. Cave J. Couts. Rancho Guajome, nine miles from Oceanside and forty-five miles from San Diego. This view shows court yard, while the view on next page shows court yard from roof. This is the architectured which enables a household to take full advantage of the San Diego climate, as, in a sense, they get the outside of their homes on the inside.

ANOTHER VIEW OF THE HOME OF CAVE J. COUTS. Showing court yard from the roof.

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