By John B. Goodman
In 1849, the Fourth of July was celebrated in San Diego with great spirit and, one might add, with a considerable amount of spirits. It was a celebration in which not only the rough-and-ready Yankees, but also the Spanish and Mexican residents and the half-clad redskins from the surrounding hills participated with great enthusiasm.
There was, of course, no local newspaper to chronicle the event. But Fourth of July in San Diego must have been newsworthy on a national level, and so effective were the written accounts of local participants to the home-town journals that San Diego’s celebration made the New Orleans Picayune, the New Orleans Crescent, the New York Tribune, the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Philadelphia Public Ledger. And all of this without benefit of either telegraphic wire services or a local Chamber of Commerce!
H. R. Robinson, who later became State Printer for California, got off a letter under date of July 16, 1849, which the Enquirer printed it was more than two columns long – on September 18. It went, in part, as follows:
” . . . On the 4th the ‘natives’ hereabouts were treated with a novel sight to them — a celebration of the American Anniversary of Independence. A procession of citizens, strangers and military around the spacious plaza – an eloquent extemporaneous oration by Col. Welter, to a large audience, among whom were a number of neatly dressed and handsome ladies, some Americans and some Californians, all seated around a platform erected in the center of the square, elegantly decorated, and over which floated the banner of the Union. Thence the company marched to an adjoining plain, where an ox and three sheep had been finely barbecued for the occasion, which was partaken of by all, including a goodly number of Indians, who hugely enjoyed their feast, and have since wished for the ‘4th’ to come every month. In the evening a sumptuous supper, with toasts and all the attendant spirits of each patriotic occasion, the whole ending with a ball, got up in fine taste, and participated in by a large number of the military and civilians stationed here, as well as the Mexican Boundary Commission, and the elite of the native citizens. It was a great day on the shores of the Pacific! . . . “
Of course, Robinson’s letter was concerned not only with the celebration in the Plaza; its contents bore the headings Mexican Boundary Commission, Arrival of the California, Stragglers from the Gila Route, 4th of July on the Pacific, Government, Constitution of California, Best Route to California, Gold, etc.
Writing for the Picayune, J. E. Durivage described the same ox and sheep, the same speech, and added that the banquet was ” . . . graced by the presence of several ladies and officers, and scores of dark-eyed signoritas of San Diego … After the honors of the feast had been appropriately closed, and the – ladies had retired, the scores of Indians, who were interested spectators, were admitted to the table . . . An ‘orderly’ was stationed by a barrel of whiskey, the head of which was knocked in, and from which they were permitted to appease their frequent thirst; in short, it was their part of the day, and the way they went in for a big drunk was a caution to the teetotal society . . . (The celebration) closed with a splendid balle, given at the hospitable mansion of Signor Bandini, where the guests were again feasted to their hearts content. I had omitted to mention General Conde (Mexican Commissioner) and suite, accepted the invitation which was politely tendered them, and were guests both at the dinner and the ball.”
Even as today, those correspondents of a century ago differed as to details; the Crescent did not mention “a barrel of whiskey” but told of how some mischievous officers, wishing to enliven the Indians at the party, ” . . . ordered a number of boxes of gin to be opened” – with results which coincided with those described by their rival paper. The story from the Crescent (which was reprinted in the Philadelphia Public Ledger for October 2, 1849) describes a bit of highly commendable restraint in the customarily flamboyant Fourth of July speechmaking.
That part of their story follows:
“At 12 M. the Mexican Commissioner came up from the Caroline, and as it was the appointed hour, Major Emory mounted the stand erected around the flag staff, read the Declaration of Independence in English, followed by Mr. Gahegan in Spanish. Col. Weller, the orator of the day, delivered a neat and appropriate address, which was particularly well received by the Americans present, and also by those of the Mexican and Californians who could understand the language. I was much pleased at the studied manner in which the Colonel refrained from allusion to all matters calculated to grate hard on the ears of the Mexican Commission, and the gentlemen composing it seemed highly to appreciate the delicacy. In referring to the glorious achievements of American arms, without which an oration on such an occasion seems unfinished, he confined himself principally to the days of ’76 and ’12; and Major Iturbide, who understands our language and history well, seemed to thank him in silence for refraining from mention of the recent events in Mexico.”
And so San Diego’s first Fourth of July was celebrated. Inspired by the whisky and/or gin the Indians, as night approached, ” . . . got hold of an old tattered American flag, and with drums and fife at their head, marched through the streets cheering and huzzaing for the people, and government of the United States.” Meanwhile candles were being lighted in the home of Don Juan Bandini, for the first official ball under the new regime.