By George Ruhlen
Colonel, U.S. Army, retired
Ed. Note: The following article on the San Diego Barracks was written in
1955 and printed first in the April issue of the San Diego Historical
Society Quarterly for that year. The author, Col. George Ruhlen, served for six
years as President of the Historical Society, and held that office at the time
he wrote this article. The article is reprinted here because of its notable
historical accuracy and the additional light it throws on the role of William
Heath Davis in the development of New San Diego.
Military camps of the United States Army first appeared in Southern California
with the advent at San Diego of Brig. Gen. S.W. Kearny’s "Army of the West,"
Dec. 12, 1846. The Mormon Battalion, under command of Lt. Col. Philip St. G.
Cooke, made camp at San Diego Mission Jan. 29, 1847, and for a decade thereafter
the mission was an army post.
San Francisco was the army’s source of supply on the Pacific Coast. The increase
of military garrisons in Southern California was brought about by the need for
military escorts to accompany the Boundary Commission, then establishing the
boundary line between the United States and Mexico under the Treaty of
Guadalupe-Hidalgo, and for the protection of travelers and settlers against
hostile Indians. Supplying
small contingents from San Francisco was expensive, slow, and often uncertain; a
distribution center closer to the activities involved was needed. The Army
Quartermaster’s Department had erected a building at La Playa, on Point Loma,
but this being insufficient, plans were made to augment the storage space at San
In 1850 William Heath Davis and Andrew B. Gray, surveyor for the Boundary
Commission, with their associates, formed a partnership for the purpose of
developing a townsite which became known as New San Diego. Before papers were
signed, however, a vessel arrived at La Playa with materials for the
construction of an army warehouse, in charge of 2d Lt. Thomas D. Johns, 2d
Infantry. Realizing that the location of the government buildings at La Playa would make it difficult to
attract population to their townsite, they
prevailed upon Lt. Johns to reship the materials from La Playa, across the bay
to the new townsite. Johns evidently joined the syndicate, for he received one
of the 18 shares and was one of those who deeded land for the military
reservation which became New San Diego Depot.1
The land embraced in the reservation was conveyed to the government Sept. 12,
1850, by warranty deeds for a nominal consideration, by Gray, Johns, George F.
Hooper, Davis and wife, Jose Aguirre and wife, and the heirs of
Miguel de Pedrorena. The deeds, eight in number, were not placed upon record with the
recorder of San Diego County until Jan. 17, 1870.2
Originally, the reservation consisted of the whole of Blocks 31 and 39, and
one-half of Block 18, New San Diego. Blocks 31 and 39 are each 200 by 300 feet.
The first, known as "barrack block," later was occupied by barracks, officers’
quarters, offices, storehouses, shops, etc.; the second, known as "corral
block," by stables, hay houses, etc. The other lands in Block 18, 75 by 1500
feet, partially covered by water at high tide, were intended for wharf purposes.
Part of the wharf block now is occupied by the Municipal Court and Police
Headquarters buildings. The "barrack block" was bounded by the present Market,
G, California Streets, and Kettner Boulevard. The "corral block" was
bounded by Union, State, F, and G Streets, and now is
occupied by the U.S. Custom and Court House.3
In 1909 the Treasury Department and the War Department exchanged tracts of land
in San Diego, In exchange for Block 39, the War Department received lots E and F
in Block 44 (southwest corner of India and F Streets), and Block 156 in
Middletown lying between Kettner Boulevard, California, Vine and Walnut Streets.
These tracts later were sold and not used by the government.4
The first building was erected on the "barrack block" in 1850 and later was used
for enlisted men’s barracks. Smith, in his Story of San Diego, states that the
frame of the structure was brought around Cape Horn from Maine.5
Capt. Nathaniel Lyon, 2d Infantry, was constructing quartermaster in charge of the erection of
the depot buildings. He became celebrated during the Civil War, rising to the
rank of brigadier general. It is recorded that it was mainly by means of his
activity and judgment that Missouri was held in the Union. The Union victory at
Boonville, on June 17, 1861, "decided the fate of the state in favor of the
Union." General Lyon was killed Aug. 10, 1861, at the Battle of Wilson1 Creek
(Springfield), Missouri. For their gallantry and distinguished services at this
victory, he and his command received the Thanks of Congress. 6
Lyon celebrated the completion of the supply building with a baile, attended by
guests from the army and the community, augmented by the fair sex assembled from
the ranchos, Old Town, and Los Angeles, which latter places were noted in
early times for their attractive women. It required only an event of this nature
to bring from far and near those seeking a good time; distance meant little,
even in those times.7
As part of the agreement with his partners, Davis was to
build a wharf where the old Santa Fe wharf afterwards was built, at the foot of
Market Street. The wharf and several buildings were erected in 1851. It was " L"
shaped, 600 feet long, and cost $60,000. Military supplies for the depot were
unloaded from ships onto the wharf and then transported by pack or wagon train
to Fort Tejon, Fort Yuma, Fort Mohave, San Luis Rey, Chino, Santa Ysabel, San
Bernardino, and other places. A line of pack trains across the desert was
successfully established in 1851 by Wm. H. Hilton, who carried supplies from San
Diego to Fort Yuma for some time, under contract.8
The new town built around the army supply depot thrived for only a short time.
Army officers built homes about the place and two hotels were built, the San
Diego at State and F Streets, and the Hermitage on State between Market and
Island Streets. The first store was at G and California Streets, owned by George F.
Cooper; it was over this store that the first
San Diego newspaper, the San Diego Herald, was published Aug. 29, 1851 —a four
page, four column weekly, edited by John Judson Ames, a new arrival from
Boston. There was a lumber yard and three stores. Fresh water was hauled from
the San Diego River.9
In the meantime, Old Town being the county seat, La Playa the center of
population and New Town the center of governmental activities, a desperate
three-cornered struggle went on between them. New Town was referred to at home
and abroad as a wild, speculative boom; for years after it was known as "Davis’
Folly." In 1853, New Town and La Playa were compelled to yield to Old Town
supremacy. Business and residential buildings were moved bodily to Old
Town; the government buildings were left practically
In May 1858, the Pacific Slope Indians went on the warpath in Washington
Territory. An expedition was fitted out, under command of Col. George Wright,
9th Infantry, for the purpose of chastising them. The only remaining company at
San Diego Mission, Company D, 3d Artillery, Capt. Francis O. Wyse, which had
arrived Feb. 1, 1858, was ordered north in June to join Col. Wright’s
expedition.11 The departure of the soldiers created considerable consternation
in San Diego, as it left the southern border exposed to Indian
depredations, or worse, to pillage by desperados of every nation, whose crimes
had forced them to seek refuge in the unsettled territory south of the line. The
citizens were called upon to hold themselves in readiness to lend assistance to
the local corps of state Guards.12 The departure of Company D ended the use of
San Diego Mission as a military post. The Washington Indians were signally
defeated in three successive battles fought near the present city of Spokane,
early in September, 1858. The rifle-muskets of the soldiers, which had recently
been issued, mowed down the Indians before they could get within range with
their smoothbore weapons; they never went on the warpath
On Dec. 6, 1858, Company G, 6th Infantry, Capt. W.S. Ketchum commanding, moved
into New San Diego Depot which now became a garrisoned post. The company had
just completed a 2000-mile march from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, to Benicia
Arsenal, California.14 The San Diego Herald reported that New San Diego had
taken on an animated appearance since becoming the headquarters of the Southern
Division of the U.S. Army of the Pacific. The buildings, which for the past few
years had been the dwelling places of owls and "ould" Indians, had been
converted into officers’ quarters and barracks. The storage depot also had
undergone changes, and instead of being piled full of flour and commissary
beans, was the abode of Uncle Sam’s soldiers.15
For several years much of the water for the post was hauled from the San Diego
River. A large cistern was put in at the barracks, and after being filled by
rains furnished good drinking water until the barracks were taken down. A well
was put down in New Town at F and State Streets about 1851, and another well was
installed about a block from the Court House in 1868.16
Upon the promotion of Captain Ketchum to major in June, 1860, command of the
post devolved upon Brevet Maj. Lewis A. Armistead, of Gettysburg fame, who was
killed at the head of his brigade on Cemetery Ridge during Pickett’s charge.
The outbreak of the Civil War caused the transfer of most of the regular army
troops on the Pacific coast to the eastern theater. Early in November, 1861,
Captain T.L. Roberts with Company E, 1st Infantry, California Volunteers, relieved the
regular troops at San Diego who departed shortly afterwards by steamship for the
During the winter of 1861-62 an unusual rainfall of thirty inches occurred in
San Diego County. The grounds around the barracks became a quagmire and travel
by wagons was almost impossible. Fuel gave out, there being no way of
replenishing the supply of hauling, and deeming it a matter of survival and
military necessity, the soldiers proceeded to demolish Mr. Davis’ wharf and use
the lumber for fire-wood. After the war Davis submitted a claim before Congress
for reimbursement for damages to his property. Years of wrangling followed until
finally the claim was settled for $6,000, about one-tenth of what Davis thought
was owed him.18
Late in January 1862, Captain Roberts was ordered to march his company to
Warner’s ranch. That capable officer informed Colonel West, his commander, that
it would be impossible to move a wagon over the roads for two months; however,
if the trail were passable the company would make Warner’s in two and a half
days, even if they had to swim at some places. The march was successfully made
in February. Later, Captain Roberts distinguished himself in a fight with
Indians at Apache Pass, Arizona, July 15, 1862, while in command of an escort
conducting a supply train of the California Column from Tucson to the Rio
Company D, Capt. Wm. H. Ffrench, and Company H, Capt. Sylvester Soper, both of
the 5th Infantry, California Volunteers, occupied the post of New San Diego in
February and March, 1862. The latter organization was ordered away shortly afterwards and
Captain Ffrench’s company was transferred in November, being replaced by Company
G, 4th Infantry, California Volunteers, Captain Grant. Captain Grant remained in
charge of the post until August,
1865. when he and his company were moved to La Paz, Arizona. Captain Grant
returned to San Diego after the war and served as Clerk for San Diego County.20
The post was vacated in June, 1866. the barracks and other buildings
remaining empty of military personnel for
years.21 Davis, in a letter dated Oct. 23, 1869, states that the barracks
building was in use as
a public school. The post was reoccupied from Dec. 1869 through June 1871,
chiefly as a supply depot, and was again abandoned.22
On Jan. 2, 1876 Company G, 1st Cavalry, Capt. R.F. Bernard, reactivated New San
Diego Post. Several times during the summer they went to Campo as a result of
trouble from Mexicans and Indians from south of the border. On one occasion a
band of Indians from across the line had been living on cattle belonging to a
Mr. Larkins. Larkins asked the alcalde to do something about this, and was
advised by him to gather a party and clean out the Indians: Larkins and 14 armed
men moved on the Indian camp with the intention of seizing six of the
ringleaders and shooting them. A fight ensued at the camp;
the ringleaders escaped, but one Indian was killed. The Indian chief, Pedro
Blanco, asked protection of the alcalde, who immediately assembled a party of
Mexicans and drove all of Larkin’s cattle south of the line. Upon hearing of the
approach of the U. S. cavalry the Mexicans and Indians dispersed and abandoned
Indian troubles in Idaho caused the transfer of Company G, which departed June
27, 1877, being replaced by Company H, 8th Infantry, on Nov. 17, 1877. The
Bannock Indian outbreak in Oregon on June 15, 1878, called away Company H, which
in turn was replaced by Company I of the same regiment.24
General Orders No. 2, Military Division of the Pacific, dated April 5, 1879,
changed the designation of the post to San Diego Barracks.25
During the next decade various companies of the 8th and 9th Infantry regiments
garrisoned the Barracks. Occasionally the company was called out when Indian
troubles arose; sometimes it returned to San Diego, but again was replaced by
another. The Barracks was under the jurisdiction of the Department of Arizona
during this period, which afforded opportunities for rotating the stations of
troops from the hot, windy, dusty and desolate wastes of Arizona to the more
refreshing climate of San Diego. 26
On Feb. 2, 1898, Battery D, 3d Artillery, Capt. Charles Humphries, which had
been occupying the Barracks for a year or so, was moved to Point Loma where a
new post, Fort Rosecrans, was under construction. Modern seacoast batteries were
nearing completion and artillery soldiers were needed to finish the
work of mounting the 10-inch seacoast armament;
the approaching threat of hostilities with Spain tended to accelerate the task.
Battery D remained to garrison the post as the work continued, thus becoming the
first organization of the army to be stationed at Fort Rosecrans, as it was the
last to serve at San Diego Barracks. The Barracks then became a sub-post of the
new fort and continued in this status until its final disposition.
Activities at the Barracks increased and subsided as military operations
developed along the border. It was in use from time to time as administrative
headquarters for military units and as a focal point for supplies when needs
Orders were issued for its abandonment as a military post, in the interests of
economy, and on Dec. 15, 1921, the place was vacated and the buildings
dismantled. The city of San Diego acquired the property July 13, 1938.
During World War II the U.S. Navy was permitted to erect temporary buildings on
the property which were used for the fleet post office. The property reverted to
the city at the end of the war and, in 1946, was loaned to the state
of California for use as a National Guard armory,
for which purpose the buildings are now occupied. The site is marked by
California State Historic Landmark No. 523, located on Market
Street between Kettner Boulevard and California Street.
1 William E. Smythe, History of San Diego (San Diego, 1907), 317-318.
2 QMG, US Army, Outline Description of Military Posts and Reservations in the United States
(Wash., 1904), 483.
4 Ibid, Revised edition, 1916, 34-35. Now occupied by Century Lumber & Mill Co.
5 Walter Gifford Smith, The Story of San Diego (San Diego, 1892), 139.
6 Matthew F. Steele, American Campaigns (Wash., 1909), Vol. I, 130. Francis B.
Heitman, Historical Register and Dictionary of the United States Army (Wash.,
1903), Vol. I, 650.
7 William Heath Davis, Seventy-Five Years in California (San Francisco, 1929), 336.
8 H.C. Hopkins, The History of San Diego (San Diego, 1929), 185. Smythe, op.
cit, 318, 698. For a more detailed description of the wharf and the buildings
erected near the barracks see Andrew F. Rolle, William Heath Davis and the
Founding of American San Diego, Cal. Hist. Soc. Quarterly, Vol. XXXI, No. 1,
9 Smythe, op. cit, 318. Hopkins, op. cit., 188.
10 Smythe, op. cit., 318.
Hopkins, op. cit, 165, 188-189.
11 Major George Ruhlen, The Third Coast Artillery (Ft. Monroe, Va., 1925), 12-13.
12 San Diego Herald, July 3, 1858.
13 Ruhlen, op. cit, 13.
14 The Army of the United States, Historical Sketches, ed. T.F. Rodenbough and
William L. Haskins (New York, 1896), 491. T.H.S. Hamersly, Army Register of the United States for 100 Years (Wash., 1880), 146.
15 San Diego Herald, Jan. 15, 1857.
16 Hopkins, op. cit., 268.
17 War of the Rebellion, A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and
Confederate Armies (Wash., 1897), Ser. I, Vol. L, pt. I, 677.
18 Davis, op. cit, 335.
19 War. Reb. Ser. I, Vol. L, pt. I, 387. Ibid. pt. II, 128-132.
20 Ibid, pt. I, 874, pt. II, 222. R.H. Orton, Records of California Men in the War
of the Rebellion, 1861 to 1867 (Sacramento, 1890), 597.Douglas Gunn,
A Historical Sketch of San Diego (San Diego, 1876), 11-12.
21 Mil. Posts and Res., op. cit, 483. Gen. James F.
Rusling, Across America, A Journey Made in 1867-8.
22 Letter from QMG Office to author, 1 March 1954.
23 Reports of Secretary of
War, 1876, (Wash., 1876), 84-85.
24 Ibid, 1878, 113.
25 Mil. Posts and Res., op. cit, 483.
26 Reports of the Secretary
of War, 1881 et seq.