The current archaeological restoration being done in San Diego’s Old Town has yielded numerous artifacts which more often than not leave their finder wondering to whom they belonged, from where they came, and how they got to San Diego. Only on rare occasions does an adobe building yield an artifact which “speaks”—a written document. One of these unusual moments occurred in Old Town in April 1948, when two documents were found hidden in the wall of the Casa de Machado.l
The papers were found in the lower left-hand corner of a window well, in a space created deliberately by using half-size adobe blocks. The hiding place, which had been secure for perhaps one hundred years, was discovered accidentally when a heater was being installed in the Machado Chapel and the window was being reworked to convert it into a vent. After their discovery, the documents became the property of the Old San Diego Memorial Church, which occupied the Machado house from 1941 to 1969. In the latter year, when the Machado Chapel was turned over to Old Town State Park, the papers were nearly lost forever. They had been stored in a box and were scheduled to be thrown away with other scrap, as too often happens with papers of historical value. The papers were “rescued,” however by Mrs. Lillian S. Hummer and Mrs. Jean Watson who had decided to sort through the boxes and be certain they contained nothing of value. On April 20, 1972, Mrs. Hummer donated the documents to the San Diego Historical Society.2
The story of the finding and refinding of these papers is an interesting one, but of equal interest is the story of their owner, Allen B. Light. In January 1835, thirty-year-old Allen Light stepped ashore at Santa Barbara, in the Mexican territory of Alta California. Light had reportedly sailed around the horn on the Pilgrim, the same ship that brought Richard Henry Dana to California.3 Among Light’s possessions was a piece of paper which said he was five-feet-eight-inches tall, a mariner, born in Philadelphia about 1805, “a coloured man,” and “a Freeman and Citizen of the United States of America.” That document, issued at New York, November 27, 1827, was one of the papers which showed up in the wall of the Casa de Machado in 1948. A facsimile of the document is printed herein.
The paper Allen Light carried was popularly known as “a sailor’s protection.” The great black abolitionist, Frederick Douglas, described these papers as being of considerable importance because they could substitute for the “free papers” which most states required blacks to carry. In his autobiography. Frederick Douglas described how he himself made his escape to freedom with the help of a paper such as Light possessed. In 1838 Douglas fled from the slave state of Maryland, carrying the seaman’s paper of a friend. Douglas took the train out of Baltimore and when the conductor asked to see his “free papers,” he replied that he did not have them. But, he said:
‘I have a paper with the American eagle on it, that will carry me round the world.’ With this I drew from my deep sailor’s pocket my seaman’s protection, as before described. The merest glance at the paper satisfied him, and he took my fare and went on about his business.4
Allen Light’s “sailor’s protection,” which also bore the American eagle on the top, must have been a treasured document and it is easy to understand. why he would keep it in a safe place, hidden in an adobe wall. The other document which Light left in the Machado house was also of importance and was related to Light’s career as a sea otter hunter.
Upon his arrival in California in 1835, Light reportedly deserted his ship and took up sea otter hunting with George Nidever, whose memoirs provide most of the information available about Light. Since the name Light did not seem to Nidever and his companions an appropriate name for a man with dark skin, they commonly called Light “Black Steward.”5
From 1835 to 1839 George Nidever and “Black Steward” hunted together. At first, since hunting was illegal for foreigners in California, the two hunted under a license granted to Captain William Goodwin Dana, formerly of Boston, who had settled in Santa Barbara and become a Mexican citizen. Dana furnished Light and Nidever with provisions and they paid him forty percent of their catch. While working for Dana the men visited the Channel Islands, and hunted along the coast at such places as San Luis Obispo and Point Concepción.6
In the autumn of 1836, Light and Nidever made their last hunt under Captain Dana’s license. They then joined with other Americans in support of Juan Bautista Alvarado’s revolt against a new centralist constitution and the governor who had been sent to California to enforce it, Mariano Chico. Light participated in Alvarado’s successful march on Los Angeles, in which the enemy fled without resisting. For his part in this “victory,” Light received “$30 to $40” pay from Alvarado, who now assumed the role of governor.7 Following this episode, Light continued to hunt otter with George Nidever on the Channel Islands and along the coast until they parted ways in late 1838.8
On their hunts, “Black Steward” seems to have earned the respect of Nidever who described him as liquate intelligent, well behaved and mannerly, and a good bunter.”9 In January, 1836, for example, a rival hunting party composed of Northwest Coast Indians suddenly attacked Nidever and his group on a foggy morning near Santa Rosa Island. According to Nidever, Allen Light was the first to sound the alarm at the surprise attack, and the first to reach the shore: “Jumping out as soon as his boat grounded, he turned and fired on the foremost canoe.” The Americans, Nidever remembered, routed the Indians and “Black Steward” played a conspicuous role in the fight.10 This group of Northwest Coast Indians had been hunting sea otter with the Convoy, a ship captained by an American, John Bancroft.11 Three years later, Captain Bancroft’s activities involved Allen Light again.
In January 1839, Governor Juan Bautista Alvardo (on whose side Light had fought in 1836) became disturbed over reports of “an unknown brigantine, scouting the coasts and adjacent islands and hunting numerous sea otters without the necessary license.” Alvarado ordered the alcalde of Santa Barbara, Antonio Rodriguez, to investigate the matter. Accordingly, on January 25 and 26 the alcalde took sworn statements from a few men to see what he might learn about the “unknown brigantine.” Those who testified were Allen B. Light and Isaac J. Sparks, both naturalized citizens, and George Hewitt and Steven Simmons, foreigners. Light, who spoke first, said that two years earlier he had seen a ship in the area of Santa Barbara whose crew was hunting sea otter. Light knew the captain of this ship whose name, he said, was Bancroft. Some of the other men testified that they had actually been aboard Captain Bancroft’s ship, and that it was called the Lima12 (the ship’s actual name was the Llama).
On January 27, the day after the men finished testifying, Governor Alvarado ordered further evidence to be gathered because he had learned that groups of armed men from Bancroft’s ship had landed on the coast and were shooting cattle.13 Also on January 27 the governor penned a letter to Allen Light, informing him of the illegal activities of Bancroft and his crew, and commissioning Light as “principle representative of that national armada, assigned to the branch of sea otter hunting, in order that you might adopt measures to obstruct what is being done without the specific license of the government.”
Alvarado’s January 27 letter to Light was the second document that emerged from the adobe wall of the Casa de Machado in 1948. The text of the document in both Spanish and English follows this brief introduction.
Light probably never had the opportunity to exercise his commission. Unbeknown to either Governor Alvarado or Allen Light, the Llama had already left the area under tragic circumstances. On December 23, 1838, while cruising near Santa Rosa Island, Bancroft’s Indian hunters from the Pacific Northwest mutinied, murdered Bancroft and pillaged the ship. The Llama then sailed west and by January 13, 1839, it had reached Hawaii.14
There is no record of Allen Light using his commission to enforce the law against other foreign ships subsequent to 1839. The apparently remarkable thing, however, is that Light received the commission at all. Four years earlier, in 1835, he had arrived on the California coast as a foreigner. Within four years this black man had at some point become a Mexican citizen and a trusted agent of Governor Alvarado’s. Yet, Allen Light’s acceptance in Mexican California is not as remarkable as it might seem. Although discrimination on the basis of skin color existed in California, it was less pronounced than in the United States at the same time. Indeed, perhaps twenty percent if the so-called “Spanish” pioneers of California were part negro in 1790. Despite considerable racial mixture, negro characteristics still remained evident in the 1830s among some of California’s most prominent citizens. Pío Pico is, perhaps, the best known example.15
More puzzling than how Allen Light rose to a position of trust in Mexican California is the question of how his two documents came to be in the wall of the Casa de Machado. Unfortunately, Allen Light’s activities following his commission by Governor Alvarado remain obscure.
In 1839 Light was again hunting sea otter in the Santa Barbara area. This season, however, he hunted without his usual companion, George Nidever, who had gone to the increasingly popular hunting grounds of Baja California.l6 The next year found Light in Baja California, too, hunting in a rival party to Nidever’s.
Although Light was reported to be shooting sea otter near San Juan Capistrano in 1841, he seems to have shifted his operations increasingly to Baja California by the early 1840s. In 1842 Light hunted again along the coast of Baja with two former companions, Nidever and Isaac Sparks. That fall, Light and his party showed up in San Diego with furs worth $4,000.17
Also by the early 1840s Light, alias “Black Steward,” seems to have become an employer of otter hunters, rather than an employee. An 1843 letter from Robert Robertson in San Diego to Henry D. Fitch mentions that “John Bean Capt of Stewards party has been here.” Robertson, who was one of Fitch’s agents, goes on to complain about the high price that Fitch had agreed to pay Allen Light’s men for otter skins.l8 In 1844, a curious phrase in another letter written to Henry Fitch suggests that Allen Light had become a rival to Fitch. Edward Stokes wrote to Fitch: “You say you wish the otter Hunters to have another trial, you had better push them before the black Steward comes, for after they arrive the San Diego Hunters may go to sleep.” Unfortunately, Henry Fitch’s papers have yielded no further information on Allen Light’s activities.19
Those who hunted in Baja California frequently purchased supplies in San Diego and sold skins there.20 Perhaps for that reason Allen Light made San Diego his home sometime in the 1840s. According to the recollection of Phillip Crosthwaite, who first came to San Diego in 1845, “two negroes named Allen B. Dight [Light] and Richard Freeman” lived in San Diego in that year.21 In 1847, if not before, Freeman and Light moved into a four-room, single-story adobe on the west side of Old Town Plaza, between the Casa de Machado and today’s Wallace Street. Freeman purchased this house from Henry Fitch on February 10, 1847, for $96. The house, which no longer stands, came to be known as the Freeman-Light House, or the San Diego House.22
It might have been while Light lived next door to the Casa de Machado that he hid his two treasured documents in the adobe wall of that structure. Or perhaps Light had participated in the construction of the house in 1843, and had hidden his papers at that time. Whatever the case, we will probably never know when or why Light chose the Casa de Machado to conceal his documents, or what his relationship was with José Antonio Nicasio Silvas and Maria Antonia Juliana Machado, who built the house and lived in it in the 1840’s.23
Allen B. Light lived in San Diego only briefly. By 1851 Richard Freeman had died24 and Light seems to have left the area. His name does not appear on the county rolls for the 1850 federal census (which was taken in San Diego between February 29 and March 3, 1851).25 Light probably had moved north to the more prosperous mining region by the early 1850s, and was living in Yuba County in 1852. Precise evidence as to his whereabouts, however, remains inconclusive.26 In hiding two of his personal papers in the Casa de Machado during his brief stay in San Diego, this black American has inadvertently told historians more than we would otherwise know about him. Unfortunately, more questions remain than the present state of research allows us to answer.
ALLEN LIGHT’S COMMISSION
FROM GOVERNOR JUAN BAUTISTA ALVARADO27
Este Gob.no Departmentál está informado (y asi consta el esped.te que se ha mandado instruir) de que un bergantin estrangero, de nombre Llama, capitaneado p.r Bancrof, igualm.te estrangero, hace en los puntos de estas costas é islas adyacentes una escandalosa pesca de nutrias y lobos marinos, sin el permiso necesario, destruyendo aun las crias de una y otra especie: Que, asi mismo, vienen en tierra del espresado bergantin, varios marineros armados y causan, con las reces que matan en la costa, sin el conocim.to de los propietarios, males que no quedan indemnisados, como que tales ecseso se cometen en parages poco frecuentados.
En esta virtúd, y p. a corregir este genero de abusos, há creydo el Gob. no comisionar a V. como compromisario pral. de la armada nacional destinada al ramo de pezca de nutrias, p.a que procure impedir la que se hace, sin la licencia express del Gob. no , procurando toman las medidas que le dicte la prudencia, y pudiendo, en caso de resistencia, hacen uso de la fuerza, hasta poner al espresado buque, y su tripulacion, ala disposicion del Gob. no Departamentál.
S. ta Barb.a
Dios y Lib.d En.o 27 de 1839
Sor. D.n Allen Light
English Translation by David J. Weber
This departmental government is informed (and so it appears from the papers which were sent for our instruction) of a foreign brigantine called the Llama, captained by the foreigner Bancrof[t], which is scandalously hunting sea otters and seals without the necessary permission, at points along this coast and adjacent islands, destroying even the young of some species. At the same time some armed sailors come on land from the aforementioned brigantine and kill cattle along the coast without the knowledge of the owners. The damage the sailors cause is not indemnified because they commit these crimes in places which are seldom frequented.
Because of this, and in order to correct this kind of abuse, the government has decided to commission you as principle representative of the national armada, assigned to the branch of sea otter hunting, in order that you might adopt measures to obstruct what is being done without the specific license of the government. You may take those measures which prudence dictates, and are able in case of resistance to employ force, even to put the aforementioned ship and its crew at the disposition of the departmental government.
God and Liberty January 27, 1839
[Juan Bautista] Alvarado
Señor Don Allen Light
1. San Diego Union, April 18, 1948. Although it is popularly known as the Casa de Machado, the more correct name for the building is the Casa de Machado y Silvas.
2. Interview with Mrs. Hummer, June 13, 1972. Mrs. Hummer indicated that the documents were found in the large window facing the patio on the northwest side of the building. That room was probably the sala. The results of converting that window into an air vent could still be seen in the house in 1973.
3. William Henry Ellison, ed., The Life and Adventures of George Nidever, 1802-1883 (Berkeley, 1937), p. 39. Adele Ogden, The California Sea Otter Trade, 1784-1848 (Berkeley, 1941), p. 113. The date of Light’s arrival is based on Nidever’s word. Dana does not mention Light, nor does he appear on the crew list of the Pilgrim, which Dana prepared in 1911 and which may be incomplete. Two Years Before the Mast, ed. by John Haskell Kemble (2 vols.; Los Angeles, 1964, II, 49. Letter from Kemble to Weber, October 12, 1973.
4. Life and Times of Frederick Douglas, Written by Himself Introduction by Rayford W. Logan (New York, 1962), pp. 198-200. Reference courtesy of my colleague, William F. Cheek.
5. Ellison, ed., Nidever, pp. 62, 39. Hubert Howe Bancroft, in his “Pioneer Register and Index, 1542- 1848,” History of California (San Francisco, 1886), IV, p. 713, provides a brief sketch of Allen B. Light which is based largely on Nidever’s information.
6. Ellison, ed., Nidever, p. 40.
7. Ellison, ed., Nidever, pp. 46-47.
8. Ibid.,. pp. 47-48; 54-55.
9. Ellison, ed., Nidever. p. 39
10. Ibid., pp. 40-43.
11. Ogden, California Sea Otter Trade. p. 128.
12. Testimonies, Santa Barbara, January 25-29, 1839.Departmental State Papers, XVIII, pp. 58-59. Bancrooft Library, Berkeley, California. See also Ogden, California Sea Otter Trade, p. 212, n. 36.
13. Ibid., pp.59-60.
14. Doyce B. Nunis, Jr., ed., The California Diary of Faxon Dean Atherton, 1836-1839 (San Francisco, 1964), pp. 123; 209, n. 41.
15. Jack D. Forbes, “The Black Pioneers: the Spanish-speaking Afroamericans of the Southwest,” in Minorities in California History, ed. by George E. Frakes and Curtis B. Solberg (New York, 1971), pp. 29-32. See, too, A. Odell Thurman, “T’he Negro in California Before 1890” (M.A. Thesis, Stockton: University of the Pacific, 1945).
16. A notation in the Bancroft transcripts, San Diego Archive, p. 218, Bancroft Library, Berkeley, California, says: “August 5th, 1839. David Spence, Juez de Paz de Monterey, certifies that Allen B. Light has paid the duties on 41 otters, at the rate of four reales each, considering their different sizes.
17. Ogden, California Sea Otter Trade, pp. 133; 134. Ellison, ed., Nidever, p. 57.
18. Robert Robertson to Fitch, San Diego, August 10, 1843, in Documentos para la historic de California, Archivo particular de la Sra. Doña Josefa Carrillo de Fitch, Viuda del Capitan Don Enrique D. Fitch, 1827-1856. Part 2, pp. 441-43. Bancroft Library. Photocopy in the Serra Museum Library, San Diego.
19. Edward Stokes to Fitch, Rancho Santa María, April 24, 1844. Fitch Papers, pt. II, pp. 492-93. Letter from Ronald Miller, who has made a careful study of the Fitch Papers, to Weber, Huntington Beach, July 11, 1972. See also Ogden, California Sea Otter Trade, p. 136.
20. Ogden, California Sea Otter Trade, p. 134.
21. Quoted in William E. Smythe, History of San Diego, 1542-1908 (2 vols.; San Diego, 1908), I, 139.
22. The Light-Freeman house was probably in ruins by 1865, when Patrick O’Neill bought the property upon which the house stood and built the American Hotel. See John Edward Fahey, “Casa de Light and Freeman,” a paper written for Dr. Ray Brandes, University of San Diego, April, 1973, pp. 12, 15. For citations to various legal documents concerning the ownership of this house, see A. P. Nasatir and Lionel U. Ridout, “Report to the Mayor and City Council of San Diego and Historical Site Board on ‘Historical Survey of Old Town Plaza,”‘ (unpublished manuscript, n.p., ca. 1967), pp. 35-38. For a good map of Old Town as it looked about 1850, see Richard Pourade, The SilverDons (San Diego, 1963), pp. 129-30.
23. Ray Brandes, “The Casa Machado y Silvas,” unpublished report prepared for the State of California Department of Parks and Recreation (June, 1973).
24. Nasatir and Ridout, “Report,” pp. 35-38.
25. I was unable to locate positively Allen Light in the 1850 census any county. See Alan P. Bowman, ed., Index to the 1850 Census of the State of California (Baltimore, 1972). One possibility is an “A. C. Light,” age 44, born in Pennsylvania, who is listed as living in Butte County. That would be the correct age for Light, and the correct place of his birth if the information on his seaman’s protection paper is reliable. On the census, however, the middle initial is in error and the census does not indicate that “A. C. Light” was a negro or a mulatto, as was the practice.
26. According to a reference kindly furnished me by James Abajian of San Francisco, a Negro named “A. B. Lite,” age 47, a native of Washington D.C. and former resident of New York is listed on p. 214 of the 1852 state census for Yuba County.
27. A copy of this letter was kept by Governor Alvarado. Although Alvarado’s original copy has been lost, a transcript of it is in the Bancroft Library of the University of California, Berkeley. San Diego Archives, p. 218. This transcript varies only slightly from Light’s copy of the original document.
David J. Weber is Professor of History at San Diego State University. and author of numerous articles and books on the Southwest, among them The Taos Trappers: The Fur Trade in the Far Southwest (1971) and Foreigners in Their Native Land: Historical Roots of the Mexican Americans. Dr. Weber received his B.S. degree from the State University of New York at Fredonia, and his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees at the University of New Mexico. He has taught at San Diego State University since 1967, with one year away in 1970 when he was a Fulbright-Hays Lecturer at the Universidad de Costa Rica in Central America. Dr. Weber was one of four professors from San Diego State University named to Outstanding Educators of America in 1973. He has been named a Danforth Associate in recognition of bringing humane values to teaching. Dr. Weber is a member of the Board of Directors of the San Diego History Center. serves as Chairman of the Historical Society’s Institute of History. and is Chairman of Editorial Consultants and Book Review Editor for the Journal of San Diego History.