The Journal of San Diego History
January 1963, Volume 9, Number 1
Jerry MacMullen, Editor

By Helen Gohres

On December 7, 1793, unfavorable winds prevented Captain George Vancouver from sailing away from the port of San Diego. Happily for him, this delay gave him a chance to visit with his good friend Padre Fermín de Lasuén, who had succeeded Padre Junípero Serra as Father President of the California Missions. Captain Vancouver, on parting, presented to him his “…handsome barrelled organ, which, notwithstanding the vicissitudes of climate, was still in complete order and repair.”1

The barrel organ derives its name from a wooden cylinder, mounted in a horizontal position and having on its outer surface a number of brass staples or pins. As the “barrel” is revolved by a hand crank, these pins operate a mechanism which opens the pallets, allowing the wind to enter the required pipes; the wind is produced by bellows, also operated by the hand crank.2 The instrument is, in fact, the same type as the familiar hand-organ of the street musicianthe one who is, traditionally, accompanied by a monkey.

The organ in question was intended for use at the new mission of San Carlos, to which, in due time, it was taken. There it was used both for church services and for entertainment, and some of its selections were far more suited to the latter purpose than to the former. Beside the “barrel” mounted in the organ, there were two extra ones, and each of the three had ten different selections which could be played. Its selections, we are cold, included “Go to the Devil”, “College Hornpipe”, “Lady Campbell’s Reel” and “Spanish Waltz.”

Even when Captain Vancouver gave the organ to Padre Lasuen, in 1793, it was more than half a century old, for it is said to have been made, by one Benjamin Dobson — or Robson3 — of London, in 1735. By the time a full century rolled around, we find an organ, believed to be the same one, described in the 1835 inventory of San Carlos Mission as a hand-organ with three cylinders, in disrepair.4 Two years later the French explorer, Abel du Petit-Thouars, visited the now partly-ruined mission and had this to say: “We also saw in the church a portable organ aforetime given by Captain Vancouver to the President of the California missions, whom he had met at the port of San Diego. This organ, of a very Gothic design, must have been very handsome. It was not yet completely unserviceable.”5

At this point the history of the little organ with which Captain Vancouver used to while away the hours at sea, and which probably would have remained aboard had there not been head winds off San Diego on December 7, 1793, becomes a bit confused. The confusion arises from the appearance of a barrel organ at the Mission San Juan Bautista, and from disagreement among historians. Padre Felipe Arroya de la Cuesta reported receiving at San Juan Bautista, in 1829, un organo de 3 cilindros. The organ is described as having “. . . found its way down from Monterey” and is identified as the Vancouver organ.6 Hildegarde Hawthorne, in California Missions, (D. Appleton, New York, 1952) states that it is the same organ and speaks of it as the only barrel organ seen in California or in Mexico “before our own era.” On the other hand, it is stated by Edith Buckland Webb in Indian Life at the Old Mission that “. . . another such organ” was received at San Juan Bautista in 1829, that Customs officials confiscated one at San Diego that same year, that judge Benjamin Hayes speaks of one being brought to San Diego from San Francisco, and that Edwin Bryant found one in the organ-loft at Mission San Luis Obispo.

Padre de la Cuesta was well known for his musical ability and for his success in employing music to arouse the interest of the Indians. It is not unreasonable to assume that mission officials at San Carlos would lend the organ to San Juan Bautista, still keeping it on their own inventory, and that San Juan Bautista returned it some time prior to 1837. just when and under what circumstances it then returned to San Juan Bautista would remain to be told. Surely, the barrel-organ which now is a prized possession of the museum at the mission there would fit the description of extreme Gothic.

On one occasion, the organ is credited with saving the mission from destruction at the hands of the warlike Tulare Indians. who descended upon San Juan Bautista, murdering neophytes and driving off the horses. Christian Indians recovered the horses, and the Tulares, yelling war-cries, again appeared. Padre de la Cuesta hastily dragged out the organ, and began furiously grinding away at the crank. The blare of music first puzzled, and then delighted the raiders, who then peacefully came in to the mission which they had intended to destroy.7 We may not be able to trace the mission-to-mission movements of this venerable little source of music, but we are at least sure of one thing: the “handsome barrelled organ”, which Captain Vancouver unloaded at San Diego in 1793, ended its active days in an extremely worthy cause.


1. Wilbur, Margaret Eyer (Ed.): Vancouver in California; Glen Dawson, Los Angeles, 1954.

2. Grove, Sir George: Dictionary of Music and Musicians; MacMillan, New York, 1954.

3. Ibid.

4. Webb, Edith Buckland: Indian Life at the Old Missions; Warren F. tewis, Los Angeles, 1952.

5. Rudkin, Charles N. (trans.): Voyage of the Venus, etc.; Glen Dawson, Los Angeles, 1956.

6. Da Silva, Owen Francis, O.F.M.: Mission Music of California, Warren F. Lewis, Los Angeles, 1941.

7. Older, Mrs. Fremont: California Missions and their Romances, Tudor Publishing Co., New York 1945.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Helen Gohres, when not busy teaching school, is endlessly digging into. California history, making something of a specialty of early maps and charts; curiosity about Vancouver led her to taking up the trail of the venerable barrel-organ.