The Journal of San Diego History
April 1967, Volume 13, Number 2
Elvira L. Wittenberg, Editor

Images from the article

Ed. Note: Following is a photographic reproduction of an interview with William Heath Davis, as it appeared in the San Diego Daily Sun on December 19, 1887. Any unevenness in the lines of type, or errors therein, should be ascribed to the original typographer.



He Came to San Diego in the Year
An Interesting Interview with the Man who
Built the First House in this City
-Historical Facts.

“Come in,” said a cheery voice, as a Sun reporter knocked at the door of room 68 at the Horton House. Room 68 is occupied by William Heath Davis, the real founder of San Diego, and the man who built the first house in the city. Mr. Davis is an honored resident of Oakland, and is in San Diego on a business errand which will detain him for a month or more. He is a short, pleasant faced little man not yet sixty, with a wonderful facial resemblance to Victor Hugo. He is a gentleman of rare intelligence and an exceptionally fine conversationalist. Mr. Davis has been a resident of California since 1833, and at his home in Oakland, he has 700 pages of narrative manuscript which doubtless will be published soon. In answer to the reporter’s inquiries Mr. Davis related the following incidents of EARLY LIFE IN CALIFORNIA, and especially the story of the founding of San Diego. Mr. Davis spoke as follows:

“While California was under the government of Mexico, in the times prior to 1840, the great articles of trade were hides and tallow. The trade was monopolized by Boston ships generally. The firm of Bryant & Sturgis, of Boston, controlled most of the ships coming to this coast. Next in control was my step-father J. C. Jones, of Boston, who had three vessels in the trade. In 1833 his vessels coming to this coast were the bark Louisa, the bark Volunteer and the schooner Harriet Blanchard. These vessels all came from Boston, bringing assorted cargoes, adapted to the trade of the Spanish population inhabiting the coast at that time. These vessels traded up and down the coast from San Francisco to San Diego. They had on board large trade rooms, arranged for the retail, jobbing and wholesale trade. They, were regular store rooms, like those found on shore.


“A round trip of one of these trading vessels from San Diego to San Francisco and return occupied from two to three months. As a rule these vessels carried no passengers, and when they did the passengers were carried gratis. The native Californian, however, seldom took passage on the vessels, preferring to ride horseback through the interior. The place on the bay of San Diego now known  as La Playa was then called Embarcadero, being the Spanish term, for embarking place. It was here that the ships discharged their cargoes and loaded with hides and tallow. There were large hide houses located here, belonging to each firm trading on the coast. There were a dozen of these houses, each containing large vats sunk into the soil twelve or fifteen feet. These vats were made watertight. The green hides were here placed in strong pickling water, where they remained for forty-eight hours. They were then taken out and spread on the beach to dry. Afterward they were hung on ropes, beaten with flails and then stored away to await shipment to Boston. The vessels brought to this coast in exchange for hides, such articles as dry goods, clothing, sugar, molasses, whisky, brandy, New England rum, and various other articles.


OLD TOWN IN  1833.

“In the year 1833, our three vessels were all at La Playa, preparatory to one of the ships loading for Boston. It was at this time that Mr. Jones removed to the Presidio above Old Town, taking with him a cook from one of the vessels, two  stewards and two servants. He rented a home at the Presidio, which was then located at the present ruins on the eminence just above the palm trees in Old Town. At that time the military headquarters and the soldiers of this department were located there. In fact, all the inhabitants of this section were living at the Presidio at that time. It was quite a lively little town, I assure you. At our house, which was a building of six or eight rooms, we entertained many beautiful Spanish women at dinners, and also at dancing parties. We were there about two or three months, and during this time one of the vessels in the bay was loading for Boston. The location of the Presidio was chosen from a military point of view, to protect the citizens of this miniature city from the ferocious and savage Indians which existed in those days.



“In the town at that time the inhabitants, soldiers and citizens numbered between 400 and 500. Quite a large place. At that time there was a great deal of gayety and refinement here. The people were the elite, of this portion of the department of California. In the garrison were some Mexican, and not a few native Spanish soldiers. What is now called Old Town, was at that date laid out, but was not built for some years thereafter. Whenever a ship came to anchor at La Playa, saddle-horses were at once dispatched from the Presidio to bring up the Captain and supercargo. The voyage of these vessels from Boston, usually occupied from one hundred and fifty to one hundred and seventy-five days. Monterey being at that time the seat of government of California, and the port of entry of the department, all vessels were compelled to enter that port first. After paying the necessary duties, they were allowed to trade at any of the towns along the coast, as far south as Lower California.


“In this country at that time, there were raised large numbers of very fine horses. The breed was originally Arabian, the animals being brought here by the early Mission fathers who, I consider, were the pioneers of this great State. Their work that still exists, shows them to have  been broad-minded men of superior intellect and education. They built the Missions of this region and civilized the Indians, teaching them various trades. The Mission of San Luis Rey, in this county, at that time had 80,000 head of horned cattle and many thousand sheep. Thousands of horses were required in the herding and care of this immense band of cattle. I think the Mission had a population of from six to eight thousand civilized Indians. Each Mission generally had a corporal and ten soldiers detailed from the nearest garrison, as a guard for the protection of each Mission.



“The old Mission in San Diego, also contained many thousand head of cattle, sheep and horses, and many Indians were subdued to civilization. My experience with the native population of Southern California in those days, found the people kind and hospitable. They knew nothing but purity and honesty, not having been contaminated with trade and the outside world. I have eaten at the San Diego Mission, as far back as 1833, pears, peaches, apples and grapes raised at the Mission. These Mission fathers made their own wine from the grapes they raised, and it was wine of a most superior quality, generally red wine. The padres seemed to be masters of all trades and professions. The most of them were originally from Spain. These were my first impressions of Southern California in 1833.



“I returned to this coast in the Boston bark Don Quixote, Captain John Pattee, in 1833. Afterward I became supercargo of the same vessel. During my five-years’ absence the town, or presidio, on the hill gradually dropped down to where Old-Town now exists. The population at that time was about the same, with possibly a natural increase. The rancheros of the vicinity usually kept their families at this presidio, as a protection against Indians. From 1838 to the present time I have been a resident of California. Of the new town of San Diego, I can say that I  was its founder. In 1850 the American and Mexican commissions appointed to establish the boundary lines were at Old Town. Andrew B. Gray, the Chief Engineer and Surveyor for the United States, who was with the commission, introduced himself to me one day at Old Town. In February, 1850, he put into my head the advantages of the locality now known as New San Diego. Messrs. Jose Antonio Aguirra, Miguel de Pedrorena, Andrew B. Gray, T. I). Johns and myself were the projectors, and


of what is now known as New San Diego. All my co-tenants have since died, and I remain alone of the party. The first building in new San Diego was put up by myself as a private residence. The building still stands, being known as the San Diego hotel. I also put up a number of other houses. The cottage built by Andrew B. Gray, is still standing, and is, I think, called “The Hermitage.” Mr. Hooper also built a cottage, which is still standing near my house in New San Diego. Under the conditions of our deed we were to build a substantial wharf and warehouse. The other proprietors of the town deeded to me their interest in block 20, where the wharf was to be built. The wharf was completed in six months after getting our title in March, 1850, at a cost of $60,000. The piles of the old wharf are still to be seen on the old wharf-site in block 20. At that time I predicted that San Diego would become a great commercial seaport from its fine geographical position, and from the tact that it was the only good harbor south of San Francisco. Had it not been for our civil war, railroads would have reached here years before Stanford’s road was built, for our wharf was already built, and we were ready for business.”