By Orion Zink
George P. Tebbetts was born in Concord, New Hampshire, Oct. 26, 1828. He was a graduate of Dartmouth as a medical student in 1848. After finishing his schooling, he took a position with a large shipping company in Boston, and while there decided to take a long trip for his health. The discovery of gold in California inspired him to change his sailing course in that direction.
The sailing vessel he took from Boston landed him at Colon, and he hiked across the isthmus with two natives carrying his heavy luggage. On his arrival at Panama he discovered that an epidemic of yellow fever was raging, and he attended the sick until the steamer on which he had arranged passage arrived.
He landed in San Francisco in the spring of 1849, outfitted himself and, securing the services of a Chinese boy, he left immediately for a location on the middle fork of the American River near Sacramento. Luck was with them, and within a few months he and the Chinese boy, who would not separate from him, returned to San Francisco with about $70,000 in gold. There the boy expressed a wish to return to China, and Tebbetts settled with him for $3,000.
The boy returned to China, and as the years rolled by, nothing was heard from him. Forty-five years later he walked into Tebbett’s office in Santa Barbara and introduced himself. The surprise meeting after so many years was an enjoyable occasion, with much reminiscing by the two lucky gold seekers.
Just when Tebbetts arrived in San Diego is uncertain, but he is listed as one of the electors at the first election held in San Diego in 1850. In 1851 he was elected Councilman and served two years. As Chairman of the Council he automatically became Mayor, and held that office for two successive years. He was also a member of the Board of Supervisors in 1854-1861-1862-1863 and 1864.
The hotel business seemed a good field and in 1850 or 51 he became proprietor of the Exchange, a hotel on the south side of the Plaza. His partner in this enterprise was Philip Hooff, and Lt. George H. Derby, in his Phoenixiana, immortalized them both by referring to them as “Two bitts” and “Cloven Hooff”.
In 1851 the uprising of the Indians at Warner’s occurred, and Tebbetts served as an ensign with Fitzgerald’s Volunteers. It was during that campaign and while the troops were stationed at San Diego, that Tebbetts participated in a so-called “Duel.” The humorous account of that episode appears in the San Diego Herald, November 27, 1851. It reads:
A worthy medico and learned disciple of Aesculapius, conceiving his honor wounded by some remark of the Major General commanding the Southern Division of the State troops, demanded reparation after the most approved method. Seconds duly appointed, with Derringer’s best, loaded with blank cartridges, posted the parties on the Plaza at two o’clock A.M. on the morning of the 24th. inst.
“Gentlemen are you ready? Fire! One, two, three, Bang!” went Medico’s pistol, and down tumbled the General, who quickly recovering himself, advanced upon his alarmed antagonist, threatening to blow his brains out.
It is said that Medico (notwithstanding John Barleycorn tempted him to stand firm) furnished the amused spectators with a specimen of tall walking, and has since claimed the protection of martial law, painting his grievances in a light most amusing to all who were in the secret. If Medico will refer to his early reading he may chance to remember the account of the aspiring boy, who in his efforts to get to the top of a tall Bean, met with a mighty fall – pointing a moral that has since adorned many a tale.
This story, told and retold over the years, has become so garbled that only the name of one of the original participants, Tebbetts, now appears in the tale. The most recent version of this hoax is included in John Phoenix Esquire by George Stewart. He has the principal figures as Colonel John Bankhead Magruder, Tebbetts, and Lieutenant Derby. However, the actual participants were General Joshua H. Bean, San Diego’s first Mayor, but at that time in command of State troops, and the “Medico” was none other than George P. Tebbetts. Nathan A. Tebbetts, son of George P. Tebbetts, told me that his father, in relating the incident, described the duel as a practical joke.
During Tebbetts stay in office as Mayor, a series of killings, horse stealing and general lawlessness aroused San Diegans to a fever pitch. When local authorities seemed unable to cope with the situation, public spirited citizens got together and organized “The Vigilantes.”
The San Diego Herald was crying out at the time for better law enforcement, and suggested that drastic punishment should be meted out to these law breakers. On July 10, 1851, the following article appeared in the Herald:
Mayor Tebbetts had his horse stolen on Wed. night about 12:00 from his very door. If thieves are caught they will be hung up to the flag staff in the Plaza without trial.
Apparently the thieves, three in all, were caught, and Nathan Tebbetts, relating the story as told by his father, stated that the men were paraded through the streets with ropes around their necks, before they were strung up, and nearly every man in San Diego took part in the execution.
Word of the lynching spread, and when the news reached Washington that the town’s mayor had done nothing to prevent the lynching, and had actually participated in it himself, investigators were sent out to inquire into the incident. When these special agents arrived at San Diego, they called on Tebbetts at his office and informed him they had orders to arrest him and everyone that was implicated. When they asked for the names of those who took part in the lynching, Tebbetts informed them they would have to arrest nearly all of the people in San Diego, as practically every male in town had hold of the ropes. When the investigators heard this, they quickly completed their reports, returned to Washington, and nothing further was heard of the matter.
Nathan Tebbetts permitted me to glance through his father’s diary. Some of the notations during the year 1850 are of special interest.
Friday Feb. 22, 1850.
Weighed 176 lbs. never so much before. A grand ball up town in celebration of Washington’s birthday.
Sat. Feb. 23rd.
Been up town to see Delorez – Beautiful!
Sunday Mar. 3rd.
Started to go to town, but the river is so high, I could not cross it.
Monday March 4th.
Steamer Oregon came in during the night.
Sunday, April 7th.
A little rain last night. Been to town. A man shot another there and they arrested him – great excitement.
Monday April 8th.
The man that was shot is yet alive, though shot through the lung.
During the late 50s and early 60s, Tebbetts acquired the San Luis Rey Ranch, and he often related how the padres permitted him to drive his cattle into the Mission during bad weather for protection. In turn he supplied them with grain and meat, when food was scarce.
Tebbetts left San Diego in the late 60s and settled in Santa Barbara, where he bought the San Roque Ranch. In 1868 he was appointed Post Master at Santa Barbara by President Grant. He was a charter member of the Society of California Pioneers.
Entering the newspaper field, he was instrumental in starting the Santa Barbara Press. Later in the 80s he launched the Daily Independent, which he published until 1893. He lost the paper through a foreclosure during the panic that year, but with the aid of townspeople he started the Daily News soon after, a paper he continued to publish until 1907.
In 1907, at the age of seventy-nine, he moved to San Francisco and made his home with his son, Nathan A. Tebbetts, until his death, January 9th, 1909.
Tebbetts was made a Master Mason in San Diego Lodge No. 35, July 13, 1852. On December 8, 1868, he demitted and became a member of Santa Barbara Lodge No. 192 and served as Secretary of that Lodge from 1869 to 1893.
Tebbetts was married twice. The maiden name of the first wife is not known, but the first name was “Delorez,” and four children came of that marriage. Nathan Tebbetts could only remember the names of three: Stella, Horace and John. His second wife was Mary Jones, and they had three children, Jasper, Marjorie and Nathan.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Orion Zink, who solved the mystery of the Exchange Hotel, continues his Old Town research with a paper on the colorful Mayor Tebbetts.