The Journal of San Diego History
Spring 1973, Volume 19, Number 2
James E. Moss, Editor

Images from the article

Mary Chase Walker

On the morning of July 5, 1865, a sidewheel steamer from San Francisco looped around the lofty cape of Point Loma and churned the calm waters of San Diego Bay.1 From a stateroom of the steamship stepped a diminutive New England maiden, her dark hair parted down the middle. Mary Chase Walker was relieved at the sight of terra firma. On the voyage south she had suffered a debilitating bout of seasickness, ameliorated somewhat by the care of the quadroon stewardess aboard.2 Now, staring at her new home, ambivalent feelings must have welled up within her. As much as she longed for firm footing again, what her eyes beheld dismayed her. To the sensibilities of a refined New England schoolmarm in her mid-thirties, San Diego of 1865 was a shock. “The hills were brown and barren; not a tree or green thing was to be seen,” she recalled later. An isolated and somnolent frontier town, San Diego was a dingy settlement of dirt-strewn streets amid one-story adobe and wooden buildings. “Of all the dilapidated, miserable looking places I had ever seen this was the worst.” Mary Walker, indeed, was far from home, far from the neat verdant commons, the warmth of dear ones in that genteel Christian society of Massachusetts. That first night at the Colorado House “a donkey came under my window and saluted me with an unearthly bray. I wondered if some wild animal had escaped from a menagerie and was prowling around Old Town.” And, of course, there were the infamous fleas, “plentiful and hungry.”3

Her first impulse was to flee. But there is something in the countenance of Mary Walker; determined lips, unflinching, deepset eyes, firm jaw, a strong set expression suggests the spunkiness of her Puritan forebears. She had not come alone all the way from Massachusetts to give up now. Besides, even as a child in school, she had resolved to be a teacher. Born in Methuen, Massachusetts in 1828, she first taught, at the age of fifteen, in a district school where she earned $4.00 a month and “boarded about.” After graduating from State Normal School, she resumed her career in 1861 at a salary of $400 a year. When this was cut in half during the Civil War, being venturous and believing that burgeoning California would need instructors, Mary Walker boarded a steamer for El Dorado. In San Francisco, to her consternation, there were sixty applicants ahead of her for the first opening. However, State Superintendent Swett offered her a position in the newly completed Mason Street School in San Diego. After some hesitation, she accepted.4

On the morning of July 6th, the day after her arrival in San Diego, she faced her class in the long narrow building on Mason Street. Her pupils numbered forty. “My school,” she recalled, “was composed mostly of Spanish and half-breed children, with a few English and several Americans. Many American soldiers and some sailors had come to San Diego in the early days, and married pretty senoritas. Hence the half-breed children.” With students ranging in age from about four to seventeen, she would have to cope with instructing eight grades in a fourteen by twenty-eight foot room where the only indoor plumbing was a water bucket and dipper! She curtailed the curriculum, “aiming . . . to teach what would be most useful to them, namely, reading, spelling, arithmetic, and how to write letters.”5 Absenteeism was a problem, and her “Teacher’s Report” had this explanation: “Clocks not generally used by the heads of families for marking time, consequently tardiness is the rule, and not the exception, among the pupils.”6

As the Yankee schoolmarm became acclimated to the warmer climate, rode through the countryside and began to know the inhabitants, her critical attitude softened. “My first impression of Old San Diego gradually wore away, and as winter approached and the hills were brown ahd barren no longer, I realized the advantages we had here over a bleak New England climate.” She was swept up in the lively Spanish social life of the town. Mary Walker delighted in the gaiety and refinement of bailes, weddings, picnics and Mexican circuses, although she described a sauce of tomatoes and chili peppers, half and half, that would “bring tears to the most stony eyes.” Thirty years after her arrival she would write: “Instead of leaving San Diego at the first opportunity I am still here, proud of the beautiful bay and the city that surrounds it.”7 But in her writings, she never mentioned the incident that occurred before her first year was completed.

Towards the end of May, 1866, a storm broke over the head of Mary Walker.8 She had taught school for nearly eleven months and the three School Trustees were more than satisfied with her conduct and teaching. One day, as she was walking on Juan Street, she stopped in her tracks. Inside J. S. Manasse’s General Store, eating crackers and cheese, was the quadroon stewardess. Desirous of repaying the kindness shown her during her illness aboard the San Diego-bound steamer, the schoolmarm of the Mason Street School invited the stewardess to partake of lunch at the Franklin House, a three-story verandahed hotel across from the plaza. As the two entered the dining room, Miss Walker noticed that a number of patrons arose and left the restaurant.9 The community was outraged.

“You see, we are high toned people down here,” explained Captain Rufus K. Porter to the readers of the San Francisco Bulletin, “and don’t intend to tolerate anything of that kind; so if Superintendent Sweet [sic] sends another schoolmarm here, let him send a reconstructed one who will not follow in the footsteps of the New Hampshire [sic] lady.” Correspondent Porter charged that Miss Walker also invited the stewardess to visit her Mason Street School. The fault with the stewardess, Porter wrote, was that she was “a lady of respectability and education, but who has unfortunately a bit of negro blood in her veins.”10 Mary Walker had violated a social taboo. Many San Diegans were upset that a white woman, especially a school teacher, would openly associate with a black person.

Action was demanded of the School Trustees, and many parents of children in Miss Walker’s class took independent steps. Complaints were lodged with E. W. Morse, senior School Trustee, that the new teacher was guilty of scandalous public conduct most improper for the teacher of the town’s youth. Indignant parents removed their children from her class.” Miss Walker’s “Teacher’s Report” stated that of the thirty-six pupils enrolled in May, 1866, two had newly entered, and twenty dropped out, leaving an average daily attendance of fifteen for the month of May; the incident must have occurred in the latter part of May, so the actual number of students was even less than fifteen.12 The three School Trustees of School District One met to decide on a course of action.

One Trustee took the pragmatic approach. The parent boycott had nearly emptied Miss Walker’s classroom. Why should the Trustees pay Mary Walker to teach only a few children? This was a waste of the taxpayer’s funds. While the state allotment was based on the total number of school-age children in School District One, and not the number in school attendance, the State did pay the $65.00 per month salary for the teacher. And if the enrollment dropped below a certain figure, State funds would be cut off entirely. Whatever the merits of the case, the school money should not be wasted. Miss Walker should be dismissed and an instructor hired who would be acceptable to the community.13

Trustee Robert D. Israel reacted heatedly to this reasoning. “I’ll be damned if I wouldn’t take that school money and throw it in the bay as far as I could send it, before I would dismiss the teacher to please these copperheads!” Then, speaking directly to Morse, “You may do as you please, but I will never consent to her dismissal.”14 Captain Israel, a veteran of the Mexican War and a Lincoln Republican, “believed in standing up for his rights” — in this instance, the right of Miss Walker to choose her friends.15 And, although Captain Israel was not hot-tempered, he was staunch in his position and the two Trustees nearly came to blows.16

This left the decision to the soft-spoken New Englander, Ephraim W. Morse. A general-store merchant facing a second bankruptcy through over-indebtedness to his San Francisco wholesaler, Morse was not unmindful of the possible effect of an unpopular decision upon his business.17 And yet, Morse, with a similar background as Mary Walker, was not a prejudiced man. In fact, he was a practicing Christian, a stellar citizen, and sympathized with the accused, probably in her position and certainly personally. It was a thorny problem.

Destruction of many of the school records and the lack of a San Diego newspaper leaves Morse’s decision a mystery. Rufus Porter writes as if Morse concurred in Miss Walker’s dismissal when he refers to “the dismissal of the teacher. The reason given by the Trustees was that most of the parents had taken their children from school.”18 The account of historian William E. Smythe, which he obtained from Morse himself prior to Morse’s death in 1906, is that Morse acted as a “diplomatist,” which suggests a way was found out of the impasse and which met with the approval of Mary Walker and the Trustees.”19 Ben F. Dixon, in his more recent research, concluded that Morse “cast the deciding vote in favor of retaining Miss Walker.”20Available evidence is inconclusive; probably Mary Walker resigned her position effective June 1, 1866. In any case, Augusta Jane Barrett was then hired from San Francisco as the new schoolmarm, and Smythe sardonically commented, “the country was saved once more.”21

Subsequent events cast a revealing light on two of the principals and on the only reporter of the Mary Walker incident. Rufus Porter, disparaging Miss Walker in his San Francisco newsletter, may have sarcastically reported the sentiments of most townfolk but not his own.22 He hired the unemployed Miss Walker to tutor his daughter, Rufina, in his Spring Valley home.23 While there, Mary Walker’s gentleman caller was Ephraim W. Morse. Rufina Porter wrote in her memoirs, “Of course while Miss Walker was living with my family, Mr. Morse was quite a frequent visitor. He would ride out Saturday night and sometimes spend Sunday.” On December 20, 1866, Mary Chase Walker and Ephraim W. Morse became man and wife in the Porter home. School records indicate that at the end of the school year both Morse and Captain Robert D. Israel resigned as School Trustees.24

Prejudice against blacks, epitomized by the Mary Walker incident, could scarcely be attributed to contact with the infinitesimal black population of San Diego. A census conducted by Captain Davis of the Mormon Company in 1847 found only three blacks out of a population of 2,887.25 Thirteen years later, in 1860, this number had risen to eight blacks; six residing in San Diego and two in Temecula.26 Statewide, the 1850 Census listed 962 blacks, increasing to 4,086 by the 1860 Census. Only four counties contained over 100; the only concentration was in San Francisco, where there were slightly over 1,000.27 Blacks made up only one percent or less of the total population, but the scarcity of blacks did not protect them from a wave of antiblack legislation.

Black people were not welcome. Appalled by the thought of a large black inhabitancy, state legislators sought to limit their citizenship, if not exclude immigration entirely. At the State Constitutional Convention held in Monterey in September of 1849, without either debate or opposition, blacks were excluded from the militia and barred from voting. A proposal for exclusion, however, did produce extended debate among the delegates, the exclusionist forces led by representatives from the mining district, where resentment against blacks was intense.”28

Delegate M. M. Carver, who proposed the exclusion provision, insisted “an evil so enormous” as “migrating blacks” would see “idle, thriftless, free Negroes thrown into the state.” Arguments were advanced that blacks, whether manumitted slaves or free blacks, represented an economic threat to the white miner, farmer and worker. Furthermore, it was argued, emancipated slaves in California would become either criminals or have to be supported as paupers by the rest of the population. Other delegates had dire predictions that black immigration would drive out the whites, resulting in “a black tide [sweeping] over the land . . . greater than the locusts of Egypt.”29

A clause to the proposed constitution of the new State of California was passed on September 20, 1849, excluding blacks, whether bonded or free, from the state. However, when the representatives fully realized that total exclusion would be unacceptable to Congress, and desiring statehood more than the prohibition of black immigration, the clause was deleted from the proposed constitution. Yet, another clause specifically prohibiting slavery and the bringing of indentured slaves into California was left to stand. When California achieved statehood in 1850, the effort to limit citizenship of black residents and exclude new blacks continued. Governor Peter Burnett, insisting that the state avoid “the evil . . . of mixed races,” pushed for exclusion; while this and succeeding exclusionary legislation was beaten back, bills would be introduced again in the 1857 and 1858 sessions.30

New measures cutting away the citizenship of this racial group, however, did become law. Marriage between blacks and whites was prohibited. Another important new law barred blacks (defined as those with “one-half or more of negro blood”) from giving testimony in court against a white person. This meant a black woman in San Diego, for example, could not testify against her white assailant; a black merchant would not be allowed to testify against a white who had robbed him; a black person who had witnessed the murder of a fellow black by a white would be barred from testifying, even if that black person was the sole witness to the deed. This last law sent shock waves through the black community, and state conventions were held in 1855, 1856 and 1857 to fight for civil rights. Petitions were prepared, but despite signatures from many black and white Californians, including three hundred lawyers, the State Legislature refused to lift the ban on black testimony.31

Not until the guns of the Civil War were nearly silent were these black laws repealed.32 Ten years of militant protest, as well as the practical difficulty in enforcing laws based on blood content, led to their abolition. After all, California was a multi-racial society. In 1860 Americans and Europeans constituted about two-thirds of the total population; Mexicans, Latin Americans, Indians, Chinese, blacks, and other minorities, made up the other third.33 It is known that intermarriage between races did occur before 1848.34 Fully half the blacks in California in 1860 were either mulattoes, quadroons or octoroons.35 Four out of six were listed as mulattoes in the San Diego Census of 1860.36 In such a setting, how could courts enforce statutes which defined a black as a person having (the statutes varied) from one-half to one-sixth “African Blood?” Mary Walker herself made the ironic point that the stewardess with whom she had dined was actually lighter in complexion than some of her accusers!37

Discrimination has many faces. While the black laws were repealed, racial animosity found expression in other forms. School segregation is a case in point. California policy was expressed by the State School Superintendent in 1855: “While I will foster by all proper means the education of the races, I should deem it a death blow to our system to permit the mixture of the races in the same school.”38 The school law stated that “The education of children of African descent and Indian children must be provided for in separate schools.”39 But where were these separate schools for the black and Indian children? J. B. Sanderson, a black abolitionist and educator, wrote in his diary in 1855, “There are thirty or more [black] children in Sacramento and no school provided for them by the Board of Education.” Sanderson himself established black schools in Sacramento, Stockton, Oakland and San Francisco.40

Surviving San Diego school records, although incomplete, do not indicate that such a segregated school existed during this period. Neither Mary Walker, nor her successor Augusta Jane Barrett, mention black children in their descriptions of the composition of their classes.41 Of course, the number of black children was small, and only a fraction of all school-age youth attended the only public school in San Diego in 1866. School District One, which covered most of Southern California, had 393 school-age children of whom only 63 were registered at the Mason Street School and another 20 in private schools.42 Nonetheless, the defacto policy of denying black children a public education only fostered the syndrome of ignorance and penury. Of the six adult blacks listed in the 1860 San Diego Township Census, five were unable to read or write.43 California did not change this educational policy until 1880, fifteen years after General Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House.44

The lack of education fostering perpetual poverty was nowhere as evident in San Diego as in employment opportunities. Blacks from the South were disadvantaged by limited skills and illiteracy. They drifted into the available jobs at the bottom rung of the economic ladder. They were bootblacks, servants, waiters, cooks, laborers, miners, and held various carrier jobs, such as express wagon drivers.45 Occupations of blacks in San Diego were listed as cook, laborer, miner and cowboy. Only one, James Brown, a farmer in Temecula, broke from this pattern; the 1860 Census listed the value of his personal estate at $1,000.46 Other exceptions to the pattern occurred in Northern California. For instance, Mrs. Biddy Mason, an ex-slave, through hard work and clever investments, was able to finance black projects such as the establishment of black schools.47

The black was supposed to “know his place.” In San Francisco and the larger mining towns, special hotels, rooming houses and restaurants were for blacks. Saloonkeepers catered to them, but segregated them in a certain portion of the bar or at special tables. In smaller communities such as San Diego, housing and eating segregation was impossible. Instead, blacks were permitted to use the same facilities of the whites, but not share the same room nor eat at the same table with whites, as Mary Walker painfully discovered.49 There was a saloon on Juan Street, however, frequented by a rough element from all races and nationalities.49 Social ostracism was the means employed to force the black to “know his place.” The “white only” signs were up — but invisibly. Slavery had been abolished, but a racial caste system took its place.

Prejudice against blacks was pervasive in San Diego and throughout California. There were those who disagreed with it out of moral conviction, exemplified by Captain Robert D. Israel and the spunky Mary Chase Walker. Still, questions related to this incident, and to others like it, await historians digging into the difficult but significant field of racial history: Was anti-black sentiment in San Diego and California the product of imaginative fear or of a realistic conflict of interests? Was it caused by the exacerbating effect of the Civil War? What were the attitudes of various strata of California society toward blacks in 1866?


1. Mary C. Morse, “Recollections of Early Times in San Diego,” manuscript, Pioneer Collection, San Diego History Center, Serra Museum and Library, San Diego.

2. Steamer and stewardess unknown. However, the Orizaba had a black stewardess named Margaret Ogden; listed in Articles and Crew List, November 27, 1861, Archives Branch, Federal Record Center, San Francisco.

3. Morse, “Recollection of Early Times in San Diego.”

4. Data Sheet, Mason Street School, Old Town, San Diego.

5. Morse, “Recollection of Early Times in San Diego.” In the manuscript she crossed out Irish and substituted “English.”

6. Mary C. Walker, “Teacher’s Report,” Pioneer Collection, San Diego History Center, Serra Museum and Library, San Diego.

7. Morse, “Recollection of Early Times in San Diego.”

8. Walker, “Teacher’s Report.” A statistical analysis of the report places the incident as toward the end of May 1866.

9. William E. Smythe, History of San Diego, 1542-1907 (San Diego, 1907), p. 237.

10. Rufus K. Porter, San Francisco Bulletin, June 14, 1866. Newspaper clipping, Pioneer Collection, San Diego History Center, Serra Museum and Library, San Diego.

11. Ibid.

12. Walker, “Teacher’s Report.”

13. Smythe, History of San Diego, p. 237. Both Andrew Cassady and Dr. David B. Hoffman were Trustees at different times in 1866. Because of incomplete school records, it is difficult to determine who was Trustee at the time of the Mary Walker incident.

14. Ibid.

15. Telephone interview with Robert Israel, grandson of Captain Robert D. Israel, June 22, 1872.

16. Smythe, History of San Diego, p. 237.

17. E. W. Morse, Merchandise File, April 8, 1866, Pioneer Collection, San Diego History Center, Serra Museum and Library, San Diego.

18. Porter, San Francisco Bulletin, June 14, 1866.

19. Smythe, History of San Diego, p. 237.

20. Ben F. Dixon, Old School Days (San Diego, 1955), p. 27.

21. Smythe, History of San Diego, p. 237.

22. Porter, San Francisco Bulletin, June 14, 1866.

23. Rufina Porter Crosby, “Memoirs,” p. 15, Pioneer Collection, San Diego History Center, Serra Museum and Library, San Diego.

24. Dixon, Old School Days, p. 27.

25. Smythe, History of San Diego, p. 255. The 1850 Census listed five black adults, one child.

26. Census, 1860, San Diego. Pioneer Collection, San Diego History Center, Serra Museum and Library, San Diego.

27. Eugene M. Berwanger, The Frontier Against Slavery (Urbana, 1967), pp. 74, 77.

28. Ibid., pp. 65, 67.

29. Ibid., pp. 66-67.

30. Ibid., 71-72, 76.

31. William Loren Katz, The Black West (New York, 1971), pp. 135-136.

32. Ibid., p. 139.

33. Berwanger, Frontier Against Slavery, p. 77.

34. Ibid., p. 60.

35. Ibid., p. 77.

36. San Diego Census, 1860.

37. Smythe, History of San Diego, p. 237.

38. Katz, Black West, p. 134.

39. Leland G. Stanford, “Education: Some Legal Aspects,” manuscript, p. 12, Pioneer Collection, San Diego History Center, Serra Museum and Library, San Diego.

40. Katz, Black West, pp. 130, 132.

41. Morse, “Recollection of Early Times in San Diego.” Samuel Black, History of San Diego County (San Diego, 1913), I, 125.

42. School files, Pioneer Collection, San Diego History Center, Serra Museum and Library, San Diego.

43. Census, 1860. San Diego.

44. Stanford, “Education: Some Legal Aspects.”

45. Katz, Black West, p. 135.

46. Census, 1860, San Diego. Edward Ward, a twenty-four-year-old vaquero (cowboy) of Temecula was one of the earliest black cowboys.

47. Katz, Black West, pp. 129-130, 138-139.

48. Berwanger, Frontier Against Slavery, p. 63.

49. Orion M. Zink, “Places and People in Old Town,” Journal of San Diego History, Vol. XV, No. 1. (Winter, 1969), p. 14.

Henry Schwartz attended California State University, San Diego and the University of California, Berkeley. He has engaged in several pioneer businesses in San Diego in the fields of printing and real estate. He is a native San Diegan, now retired and pursuing free lance and historical writing. His article published here was an award-winning paper presented at the San Diego History Center’s 1972 Institute of History.