The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1975, Volume 21, Number 1
James E. Moss, Editor

San Diego’s Attempt at Modernization, 1850-1860

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The conquest of the Southwest by the United States during the Mexican War (1846-1848) represented more than just a transfer of territory. It stands as the replacement of a colonial—almost feudal—society by an aggressive capitalistic one. In 1846 Mexico was independent, but her political, social, and economic structure remained the same as during the period of Spanish colonialism. The United States, on the other hand, already stood as a leader in the commercial and industrial revolution characteristic of Western capitalism in the nineteenth century. In this article the effects of this transformation on San Diego’s economy during the first full decade of Anglo-American control, the 1850s, are considered in seven areas of economic activity: (1) commercial life, principally the role of merchants; (2) the status of agriculture; (3) the impact of mining; (4) whaling and fishing enterprises; (5) the economic decline of the Californios; (6) the attempt to create an “inland empire” by establishing trade relations with Mormon settlements in Utah; and (7) the energetic but abortive attempt to make San Diego the western terminus of the transcontinental railroad.



Before examining San Diego’s economic history from 1850 to 1860, the background of the economy under both Spain and Mexico must be considered. At the close of Spanish rule in 1821 San Diego consisted of a small military “presidio;” a mission, which owned a vast amount of land, yet existed in an impoverished state due to enforced support of the military establishment; and a small number of settlers; totaling about 450 inhabitants.1

Agriculture predominated as the principal means of livelihood following the initial settlement in 1769. Members of the first expedition brought seed from Mexico, but their attempt at agriculture failed. According to historian William E. Smythe, a flood destroyed the grain which had been planted on low ground, and the early colonists harvested only a small quantity of maize and beans during the first years. By 1790, the mission friars developed a crude method of irrigation and had a limited success in agriculture, as they and the other settlers harvested 1,500 bushels of grain that year. The Spanish soldiers also were involved in agriculture during these early years. They grew peas, olives and pomegranates, and developed the first “truck gardens” in San Diego. This small production continued up to the period of Mexican independence, and by 1821 small patches of cultivated lands, called rancherias, could be found not only along the base of Presidio Hill, but out across Mission Valley. Two vineyards also had been established in the valley. Unfortunately, a severe flood that year washed away or damaged most of these rancherias. However, when he visited San Diego in 1836, Richard Henry Dana reported purchasing a variety of vegetables including onions, peas, beans, watermelons, and other fruits. Nevertheless, agriculture during both the Spanish and Mexican periods never became of great importance, although enough grain was grown some years to provide a surplus for export. Apparently the Spaniards did not consider this export trade significant and did not expand it.2

The chief economic resource in San Diego during the Spanish-Mexican period was livestock. Cattle flourished in the dry, warm climate of the area, and abundant pasturage existed. No data survive to give an idea as to the production of cattle, but soon after the independence of Mexico this activity was greatly accelerated by the start of the “hide and tallow” trade with New England. Beginning in 1822 “Yankee” ships put into San Diego and in exchange for manufactured products received large quantities of hides and tallow. Conceivably, the Mexicans might have increased their profits had they included horses in this trade, but according to historian Max Miller even though large numbers of range horses could be found, the rancheros slaughtered them to save the pasturage for cattle, and no “horse-trading” developed.3

The landing place for the American vessels was at La Playa just inside the bay on the shore of Point Loma, where certain Boston firms erected four hide-curing and store houses. La Playa became a center of activity as hide ships went from port to port and returned with hides to be stored until the voyage back to New England. On their return trip, the “Yankee” traders sold tallow to candlemakers in the South American ports of Lima and Callao.4

By the time of the Mexican War, cheaper hides could be secured in other areas and this profitable trade for the Californios ended, although without dire effects as their attention then turned to the meat-hungry gold miners of California. The “hide and tallow” trade left its influence in San Diego. It helped to establish an extensive cattle industry in Southern California, and led to the rise of the wealthy, land-owning Mexican families, who constituted the ruling class of San Diego up to the time of the United States conquest.

The Spanish colonial government until 1813 provided land grants to the presidio, the mission, and the pueblo. Private individuals could obtain grants only on certain conditions, which stipulated: (1) a maximum of three leagues for each individual which could not over-lap or conflict in any way with those of the pueblo; and (2) a minimum of two thousand head of livestock required for each rancho. In 1813 the Spanish government passed a decree which increased the permissible amount of private land ownership in order to improve agricultural conditions in California and to reward veterans and retired soldiers in the area. Smythe points out that by the first decade of independence at least five land grants had been made to private individuals in San Diego: the Peñasquitos Rancho, which contained nearly 9,000 acres, and belonged to the veterans Ruiz and Alvarado; the Rancho del Rey (250 cattle and 25 horses); the San Antonio Abad rancho (300 cattle, 80 horses, 25 mules, and some grain); El Rosario or Barracas rancho (25 head of livestock and some grain), and the San Isidro Stock Range (no data available).5

In 1832 government and mission lands not in use could be obtained by settlers. This liberalization of the land policy reached its peak in 1833-34 when the mission lands were secularized, and the period of large private landholdings evolved as the Californios divided the mission estates among themselves. Even after the mission lands passed into private hands, the mission itself continued to be an important trade center, becoming the principal customer of the “Yankee” ships. In exchange for cash and hides, the mission acquired cargoes of sugar, tea, coffee, and clothing, which were sold to the rancheros. The mission friars thus became the first established merchants of San Diego, an activity that by 1850 would pass into Anglo-American control.

A final economic activity of some importance during this period was fishing. Off the kelp beds of Point Loma and what is now La Jolla large numbers of sea otters could be found. Valued for their furs, they were hunted by the “mission Indians,” who turned over the furs to the friars. In their role as merchants, the priests exchanged the pelts for New England manufactured goods. This trade ended in the 1850s when the supply of sea otters was depleted. The hunt for the sea elephant (seals) took its place for a short while until the “Yankee” whalers exterminated them.



As the first decade of United States rule in San Diego opened, the geographic characteristics of the town did not undergo any fundamental change except for the enterprising attempt by William H. Davis to establish New Town. However the economic characteristics of the town did change. The major aspect of this change was the growth of Anglo-American commerce. The “Yankees” quickly built general stores, hotels, and related businesses. This significant modification in the economy, no longer dominated by the hide and tallow trade, is reflected in the 1850 census. The population stood at 650, not including Indians. Of this number, the great majority consisted of Mexicans (the exact figures are impossible to ascertain given the limited ethnic data of the census of 1850).6 Compared to the Anglo population the economic resources of the colonized Mexicans, specifically the “gente de razón” or upper class, were much greater. The Taxpayers Roll of 1850 clearly reveals this. José Antonio Aguirre’s property, for example, was assessed at $23,955. Other “ricos” were Juan Bandini ($23,301); José Antonio Estudillo ($21,686); José Maria Estudillo ($30,385); Juan Marrón ($24,349); Maria Pedrorena ($26,505); Rosario Aguirre ($14,457); Santiago E. Argüello ($13,742); and Juan Maria Osuna ($10,443). The Anglo colonizers came nowhere close to the Californios in wealth. William H. Davis came closest at $23,000. Other examples of Anglo property holders were: Cave J. Couts ($14,740); George F. Hooper ($8,900); Louis Rose ($2,580); Ames & Pendleton ($3,150), and Julian Ames ($1,692). The total valuation of Spanish-surname property (county figures only are available) was $413,471.25, while that of the English-surname was $142,428.25. The per capita valuation reveals the disparity even more between the two ethnic groups: Spanish-surname, $8,269.42; English-surname $2,848.56.7

A breakdown of the census of 1850, which must be done for the county, since this census did not separate the township in the survey, reveals these additional facts. First of all, the number of so-called graziers or rancheros was reported as six, all of them Mexicans. However, the high valuation found in the tax rolls suggests the figure is too low. The number of “farmers” (some of these, without doubt, rancheros also) is listed at 21: 10 Mexicans, 10 Anglos, and one Indian. There were 14 “traders” in San Diego in 1850: 12 Anglos and 2 Mexicans. The number of listed merchants is 18, with the great majority being Anglos (13) as opposed to Mexicans (5). Of those who can be classified as professionals or artisans (the census lists these occupations: lawyers, dentists, physicians, millers, bookkeepers, cabinet makers, carpenters, blacksmiths, saddler, agent, butchers, tanners, and engineers) there are 36, all of them Anglos. This figure combined with those of traders and merchants reveals the increase in commercial activity in San Diego, primarily among the Anglo population. Finally, 126 people worked as laborers: 56 Mexicans, 54 Anglos, and 16 Indians. Lacking additional data for this study, one can only presume that most of this labor concentrated in military-related work, on the ranchos of the Californios, in the building of New Town, or in the construction of business houses in Old Town and La Playa. A report of 1851, for example, reveals that the army employed civilians as laborers and teamsters at the supply depot in New San Diego.8



One of the significant developments in the economic life of San Diego was the rise of commerce during the 1850s. Perhaps the most ambitious business project undertaken came at the start of the decade when a group of investors headed by William H. Davis began the development of New Town. Davis, a San Francisco merchant and investor, had married into a prominent Californio family in San Diego, the Estudillos. It was the head of the family, José Antonio, who in 1849 aroused Davis’ interest in establishing a business enterprise in San Diego. Estudillo concluded that in order for the town to prosper it had to become a seaport. This, however, entailed the re-location of San Diego, or the establishment of a new settlement, closer to the bay. Andrew B. Gray, chief surveyor for the U.S. Boundary Commission, enlarged on Estudillo’s suggestion a year later. Gray explained to Davis the economic advantages of the location of a town at the foot of what is now Market Street. Davis concurred and both he and Gray agreed to call the undertaking New Town.9

In his autobiography, Seventy-Five Years in California, 1831-1906, Davis commented very little about this enterprise. This is not strange, for New Town did not prove to be one of the brightest stages in the life of this California capitalist. Davis did write in 1850 he expected that if and when San Diego became a port of entry, the town, and no doubt he too would prosper. San Diego, Davis foresaw, would be the chief supplier for the northern Mexican state of Sonora and for Baja California, as well as possessing a lucrative commercial tie with San Francisco.10

A look at a map of San Diego reveals that the physical site represents a good one, for it “juts” out into the middle of the bay.11 Here, Davis and Gray in partnership with prominent rancheros, José Antonio Aguirre and Miguel de Pedrorena, and Anglo merchant, William C. Ferrell, obtained from the municipality of San Diego a tract of 160 acres for which they paid $2,304. Davis, according to historian Andrew F. Rolle, purchased from his partner Pedrorena an additional thirty-two quarter blocks of land (102 lots) at the New Town site for $13,000 or $14,000.12

At the same time Davis and his associates began their project, the other two populated areas of San Diego, Old Town and La Playa, had visions of expansion and profit. The settlers at both places agreed with Estudillo that the future of the town rested upon its development as a seaport, and consequently a rivalry began between Old Town and La Playa for leadership in this development. County Assessment Rolls, the earliest dated 1854, show that many property owners in Old Town also purchased lots in La Playa. No doubt the aim was to be in a position to profit from either development.13

One object in this rivalry, which came to include New Town, involved the construction of a U.S. Army depot that would supply southern California and western Arizona. Before Old Towners or La Playans could persuade the army that their locations would be the best for the depot, Davis persuaded the quartermaster at San Diego, Second Lieutenant Thomas D. Johns, to build an army camp at New Town. In return for his cooperation, Johns received shares in Davis’ enterprise. Johns later resigned his army position to assist Davis in the construction of a wharf. He also obtained a contract, apparently in conjunction with Davis, from the army to supply the troops with coal. When his coal concern failed in 1851 due, undoubtedly, to the collapse of New Town, Johns sold most of his coal and left for San Francisco.14

In addition to the army depot, Davis and his partners gave land to the federal government on which the army built a corral and what became known as the “San Diego Barracks,” which served as the supply depot. Davis, moreover, constructed a wharf and a warehouse at the new site, besides financing the erection of other buildings. The wharf itself was a major undertaking. Its uniqueness lay in its immense cost, especially for the small size of San Diego. Almost twenty years later Davis stated that he paid $60,000 to build it, which made it equal in cost to wharves constructed on the Great Lakes.15 Davis did not anticipate it would be that expensive however, since Charles H. Hill, who agreed to construct the wharf, told him the expense would be $13,000.16 The possible explanation for the higher cost might involve the fact that Davis had to pay for transporting lumber and other construction materials from San Francisco. He also agreed with Hill to pay a fee of $50 for “each day’s delay for want of materials.” No records are available to indicate the cost of labor. Thomas D. Johns mentions the use of Indian labor at New Town which conceivably might have been used for the wharf.17 If this was the case, labor costs would not have been too high, although the actual wage scale for Indian labor is unknown. White labor was more expensive. In 1853 Lieutenant George H. Derby of the topographical engineers in San Diego reported that he had to pay civilian workers $60 per month, which, according to Derby, represented higher wages than in the Atlantic states.18

The actual construction of the wharf began in September, 1850, and ended in August of the next year. Rolle describes the pier as being “eleven hundred feet long and twelve feet longitudinally and a bulkhead or T at the end thereof one hundred feet long by fifty feet wide.” When completed, this lengthy and expensive wharf stood as a monument to Davis’ ambitious project at New Town. Unfortunately, his wharf proved to be as weak as his project.19

Besides the army depot and the wharf, other establishments soon located themselves at New Town. J. Judson Ames’ San Diego Herald was situated over George F. Hooper’s wholesale and retail store. Other businesses included: Ames and Pendleton, lumber and merchandise; Slack and Morse, general merchandise; the Boston House Hotel; and the Pantoja House owned by Davis. Davis also attempted to have the federal government establish a post office and a customs house at New Town. To persuade officials in Washington to do this, Gray returned to the East, only to meet disappointment as the post office and customs house were established at Old Town and La Playa.20 The reasons for this decision remain unclear, however, it may be that the property holders at both places proved to be more convincing to federal officials than Davis and Gray. In 1852 even after little remained of New Town, Davis still unsuccessfully attempted to convince both the postal and treasury departments to move these facilities to New Town.21 Despite these setbacks, Gray continued to encourage Davis. “You will have the satisfaction of knowing and feeling,” he wrote Davis from the East, “that you have been the founder of a lovely . . . flourishing and beautiful town. Ten years—and they will soon pass away and you will still be young—and will be surrounded by a delightful society—and heavy business population.”22

Regrettably for Davis and his associates, Gray’s vision did not materialize, and by 1851 business in New Town lay in a state of deterioration. Perhaps the best example of this condition is Davis’ wharf. Even though it was the only wharf, few ships utilized it after its completion. Ames and Pendleton reported in 1852 that it provided no income, and “no sailing vessels ever enter.” If this was not bad enough, in 1853 Davis, who had returned to San Francisco, received word that the steamer Los Angeles had crashed into the wharf. The extent of the damage proved great as the ship tore away thirty feet of the structure, which constituted the “most valuable part of it, it being the only berth where vessels of deep draft could lay.” Pendleton believed the cost of repairs would amount to at least $750, but the damage was never repaired. Apparently it had been so poorly constructed that “the wharfs piles were . . . so brittle that they were ‘snapping like pipe stems.”‘ Indeed by 1855, ships had to anchor a short distance from the wharf and transport their goods there by the use of winches. Eventually the only revenue Davis received were wharfage fees from the government and the few private ships that used his facilities. For this, Davis later claimed, he received $150 per month between 1851 and 1861. One other source of income from the wharf was the fees charged the “cartmen” who transported goods from the wharf to Old Town. Despite the fact that the government and the merchants used the wharf to some extent during the decade, it remained a “financial millstone” for Davis. His attempts to sell it, moreover, proved fruitless. Finally, in 1862 the U.S. Army destroyed the wharf, using the timbers for firewood. Davis’ complaint about this action did not receive attention from the U.S. Congress until 1885, and then his only compensation was $6,000.23

The failure of the wharf had its impact on the merchants at New Town, and an examination of the correspondence sent by Davis’ agents to him in San Francisco reveals dull business conditions. Few people moved to New Town, and by 1852 most of the inhabitants were either soldiers or connected with the boundary survey. That same year the frames of some of the houses were torn down and shipped to San Francisco. Some of the merchants drifted back to Old Town, while others packed up and left for Baja California. As for Davis, he sold most of his New Town real estate during the next few years. What remained of New Town later formed the nucleus of a second, but more permanent enterprise headed by A. E. Horton. Thus, in a short period, Davis’ ambitious project collapsed and New Town became ”Davis’ Folly.”24

This failure, according to Rolle, can be ascribed to several difficulties. The most pressing was the lack of water. Another item in short supply was wood, which had to be transported from San Francisco. Foodstuffs, also, were in short supply due to the lack of good soil in the area. John Russell Bartlett, the U.S. Boundary Commissioner, recognized these problems and commented in 1852:

A large and fine wharf was built here [New Town] at great expense; but there is no business here to bring vessels here, except an occasional one with government stores. There is no water nearer than the San Diego River, three miles distant…wood has to be brought some eight or ten miles [apparently this wood was not considered adequate for the wharf]; nor is there any arable land within four miles. Without wood, water, or arable land this place can never rise to importance.25

The rivalry between New Town, Old Town, and La Playa played a part in the New Town failure as “Old Towners” and “La Playans” effectively discouraged settlement at Davis’ site. “We meet with much opposition from the inhabitants of the old town and beach,” Davis wrote in 1850, “they make every effort in the world to crush us. . . .” Finally, Rolle maintains that the repeal of the city charter in 1852 (for an unknown reason) and the serious Indian rebellion, the Garra revolt, during the same time influenced settlers not to move to New Town.26

Despite this failure, Rolle believes Davis and New Town merit more attention than has been given. “In some respect,” he notes,

Davis deserved more credit than he received. In recent celebrations of California’s centennial years much attention was paid to her Gold Rush, to American acquisition, and to the province’s evolution into statehood. Forgotten, however, were the sacrifices made by the many town builders like Davis who, too early for their own benefit, tried to create order out of confusion. By attempting to provide stopovers for dusty travelers such men anticipated the growth in population of rude shacks. In a remote corner of the United States his experiment, though patently unsuccessful, forms a part of the largely unwritten urban history of the American West.27

The local historian Smythe recognized that the business cycle of San Diego during the 1850s consisted of prosperity in the early years, a less prosperous period in the middle of the decade, and by 1859 a definite economic downturn. Despite this fluctuation, the establishment of new businesses represents an important addition to the predominantly ranching economy of San Diego.28

The expectation of economic growth led the common council of the town in one of its initial meetings in 1850 to draw up an ordinance regulating the licensing of commercial activities. Those persons, according to the ordinances, responsible for petitioning for a license included:

. . . merchants, auctioneer, grocer, butcher, hotel or tavern keeper, or keeping a restaurant; or of vending, bartering, selling, exchanging, or otherwise disposing of liquors of any kind . . . ; or of keeping a Monte Bank, Fan Bank, Roulette Table, or other Table, Billiard . . . or of giving an exhibition of Theatrical or circus performances or of any other public amusement; or of driving a . . . cart, waggon . . .29

The license fee was computed on the amount of business transacted by each firm. As such, five categories for taxation became established. Class one included those whose monthly sales amounted to $2,000; class two—$1,500; class three—$1,000; class four—$500; and class five, under $500. Failure to purchase a license, furthermore, would result in a fine of $50. Still another licensing ordinance stipulated that anyone selling retail from any vessel lying or being within the port of San Diego had to pay a license fee or a percentage on all goods sold. The actual number of licenses issued during the 1850s cannot be determined. Neither the minutes of the Common Council nor the county tax records contain such information. What remains significant, however, is the detailed commercial ordinances adopted in 1850 and 1851. Undoubtedly, the “city fathers” expected increased commercial activity as the decade began. It may be that the ambitious plans of Davis, plus the “gold rush fever” heightened these expectations. 30

As a protection for residents of San Diego who desired to establish a business, the Common Council in 1850 passed an ordinance that “our city inhabitants [are] to get choice lots for themselves in preference of strangers, the latter will in future be allowed to compete with them for any lot not yet disposed of.” In addition, lower prices for city lots would apply to residents. Most of these lots throughout the first part of the decade were purchased by merchants such as Louis Rose, D.B. Kurtz, G.P. Tebbetts, Joseph Rheiner, and E.W. Morse. As Secretary to the Board of Trustees of San Diego in 1853, Morse advertised that “the above real estate being situated upon one of the best harbours on the Pacific Coast and in a delightful climate, offers a rare opportunity for investment.”31

Morse’s invitation was accepted by a number of businessmen during the decade. A survey of advertisements in the San Diego Herald reveals the preponderance of general merchandise stores such as Hooper & Co.; Ames & Pendleton; the “Tienda Barata” of Marks & Fletcher; Harp & Noell; Hoeff & Tebbetts; Goldman & Strauss; Strauss & Kohn; G. Lyons & Co.; Katz and Co.; Louis Rose’s Commercial House; the general store of Juan Bandini and Joseph Reiner of which the Herald commented that ladies in preparation for balls and parties could find an assortment of fancy dry goods there. “Mr. Reiner,” the Herald noted, “is [an] acknowledged ‘ladies man,’ and we are sure will spare no pains to please you and will take pleasure in showing you the fine things even though you do not purchase.” The Whaley House was still another general goods store; and the influential merchant E.W. Morse had his “New Store” built in 1855. Some of these companies did not last the decade, and dissolved for either financial or personal reasons. An example is Marks & Fletcher, who sold off their stock in 1852 and returned to the East.32

These general stores received some of their business from the U.S. Army which had troops stationed at both New Town and the mission. The army accepted sealed proposals from merchants who desired to supply the troops. A good portion of this activity declined by the middle of the decade when the army no longer used the San Diego depot to supply by overland route the forts at Yuma and Jurupa. However, W.C. Ferrell, collector of customs, reported in the middle of 1851 that the army no longer occupied the depot.33 Instead, goods were shipped to these places via the Gulf of California and the Colorado River.34 The Californios with their large ranches formed a second market for the San Diego merchants, and, thirdly, the merchants sold to customers from ships stopping in San Diego for supplies.

Another form of business catering to the coastwise shipping consisted of hotels and saloons, such as the Exchange Hotel and Billiard Saloon which advertised itself as “fitted up for the accommodation of the resident or travelling community.” Moreover, “the Bar is abundantly supplied with the Choicest wines, liquors, segars [sic], preserved meats, fruits, etc.; and every attention paid the convenience and accommodation of guests.” Similar establishments to be found in San Diego included the Pantoja House operated by Charles J. Laning; the Colorado House of Cave J. Couts which boasted “an elegant Billiard table,” which, “has just been put up and the Bar stocked with the best Wines, Liquors and Cigars to be had in San Francisco;”35 the Boston House of Slack & Morse; the Ocean House; the New Orleans Hotel at La Playa; the Playa Hotel situated near the entrance to the Bay; the American Hotel, and Bandini’s Gila House which he later sold to Anglo proprietors, and of which Ames stated:

There is not on the shores of the Pacific so pleasant and agreeable a place to spend the summer months as San Diego; and we are surprised that some enterprising Yankee does not rent that beautiful and spacious Hotel of Mr. Bandini’s—the Gila House—and fit it up for the reception of company. If that house was opened and advertised in the San Francisco papers, hundreds on hundreds of invalids and persons of leisure, would flock to this delightful southern clime, who are now deterred from coming for the wont [sic] of proper accommodations.36

Many of these hotels, like the general stores, did not survive the entire decade, and those that did apparently did not make much profit, since the visitors and tourists to San Diego dwindled in the middle and late years. This trend can be seen by an examination of the advertisements in theHerald throughout the period. The years when the tourist trade would play a key role in the economy of San Diego still lay ahead.

A variety of additional firms in San Diego could be found during this decade. Charles R. Johnson, for example, sold lumber to ships which entered the harbor; Leany & Sexton operated a butcher shop and claimed that “our prices being about one half less than the San Francisco market will be an inducement to Panama steamers to touch in here for supplies.” James H. Smith advertised himself as a “house, sign, and ornamental” painter, although he had competition from C.H. Pond & Co. Louis Rose, before opening his general store, owned a butcher house in Old Town, and supplied meat to both residents of San Diego and to the vessels that put in. Two years later, Philip Crosthwaite also went into the meat business with his establishment on the Plaza at Old Town.37

All of these businesses underwent financial fluctuations because of the tenuous state of the economy during the 1850s and the dependence on both ranching and the coastal trade. Despite shortcomings, the business firms of San Diego provided material comforts and even luxuries to a near-isolated and small town. “Dull times we may have,” the Herald stated, “but [we] shall always be content if attended with the means of personal comfort we now enjoy, and if any are less fortunate in their feeling, we are confident in the hope that for them ‘a better time is coming.'”38

While business in the form of general stores and other services achieved some success, manufacturing in San Diego during this period barely existed. An examination of the Manufacturing Census of 1860 discloses that only four manufacturing concerns could be found. Two of these were fisheries (no information is given to indicate exactly where in the county they were located) with an annual value of products of $18,000, and 16 employees. Another consisted of a saddlery and harness establishment with an annual value of $2,000 and only one employee. Finally, one individual constructed wagons and carts with an annual value of $1,750. In total, the annual value of manufactures in San Diego County in 1860 came to $21,750.39

One final addition to the commercial life of San Diego in the 1850s was the coastwise trade. A number of ships utilized the harbor of San Diego at the start of the decade. The Panama steamship line, for example, established in 1849, sent its vessels to San Diego on a regular basis. During 1851 the notice of arrivals in the Herald lists a number of steamers arriving from Panama en route to San Francisco. On their return trip to Panama and to the Atlantic coast these steamers, plus some schooners and brigs, put into San Diego. Here they acquired coal, lumber, provisions, and their passengers rested at the town hotels and acquired fresh supplies. On June 5, 1851, the Herald observed that four ships had arrived. San Diego historian Carl H. Heilbron notes that for the year that ended June 30, 1852, 29 foreign ships (19,016 tons) arrived in San Diego. Clearance for foreign ports during the same period went to 13 ships (5,169 tons), 12 of which flew the U.S. flag.40

Regular steamship service began in 1851 when the steamer Goliah inaugurated a schedule between San Francisco and San Diego carrying freight and passengers with stops at Monterey, Santa Barbara, and San Pedro. In 1853 another steamer, the Southerner, augmented this schedule. Early in the period the Pacific Mail Steamship Company began regular mail service, and even contemplated the purchase of Davis’ wharf. This possibility elicited from Ames a most hopeful expectation:

This will undoubtedly prove a fruitful source of material benefit to the town and the Company, for while the town enjoys the benefits to be derived from increase of trade, which must necessarily occur on the arrival of each steamer, the boats will have the advantage of lying alongside a good wharf, with a much greater facility of communication with Old Town, and of taking in such stores of beef and water as they may be in need of.41

The “good wharf,” of course, proved to be otherwise, and Ames’ hopes never were fulfilled as the Company decided not to purchase the structure. Moreover, by the middle and late years of the decade the coastwise trade declined due to depressed economic conditions throughout the state. Unfortunately, it is difficult to document the rise and fall of shipping activity in San Diego (number of ships and tonnage) since the customs records are limited and provide only sparse information.42

A facet of this decline concerns the status of the U.S. customs house in San Diego. Under Mexico the town had served from time to time as a port of entry, with the customs house at Ballast Point on Point Loma. After the United States conquest, San Francisco became the only customs district in California, with the San Diego customs collector designated as a deputy collector. This arrangement reduced San Diego from a port of entry to a port of delivery along with Monterey, while San Francisco became the sole port of entry, which meant that vessels arriving from foreign ports were required to pay duties on cargo at San Francisco, before proceeding to the ports of delivery. San Diego’s status under this arrangement lasted only a short time and then reverted to a port of entry.43

W.C. Ferrell, who had been one of Davis’ partners in New Town, served as the first collector for the district of San Diego with headquarters at Point Loma. In Ferrell’s acknowledgment of his appointment, he informed the Acting Secretary of the Treasury that more employees and new facilities would be needed. Ferrell expected an active movement of cattle and sheep from Sonora into the United States through San Diego. He also reported that steamers in the area chose to ignore customs regulations. Finally, Ferrell suggested it might be best to move the customs house to New Town, but provided no justification for this suggestion.44

Two weeks later Ferrell reported to Washington that he occupied a small house at La Playa, which now served as the customs house. Apparently the old Mexican structure had become so dilapidated it could no longer be used. Ferrell later noted that the new customs house was “advantageously located,” being five miles from Old Town and eight or nine miles from New Town by land, but only five by water. This facility did not have a storehouse, but Ferrell believed he could get along without one. He did suggest, however, that the government depot at New Town might be used for a storehouse since the army no longer needed it. Ferrell further suggested the transfer of the customs house to this abandoned site.

In 1852, John G. Brown, who acted as an agent for Davis in Washington, proposed to the Secretary of the Treasury, Thomas Corwin, that the customs house be moved from La Playa to New Town. He informed the Secretary that La Playa was isolated and that New Town possessed a “new” wharf that extended 1300 feet into the channel, cost $40,000,45 and served any class of naval ship. In addition, Davis would build the customs house and charge no rent for one year. Corwin made no decision on this proposal, and, instead, sent it to Ferrell authorizing the collector to “use his judgment on the matter.” Ferrell’s connection with Davis in 1852 cannot be determined, but he did not make the selection in favor of his former associate. He notified the Secretary that it would be best to remain at La Playa and that majority of businessmen in the area favored the decision. The site of the customs house at La Playa did not radically influence the location of business in San Diego. The majority of establishments remained in Old Town with some at La Playa.46

Regardless of the distribution of business, poor conditions at the customs house mirrored the over-all economic problems of San Diego. Ferrell and the other collectors during this period found it difficult to meet expenses, especially since some vessels refused to pay any duties, and there was much smuggling. One source of revenue, Mexican cattle, disappeared when livestock was declared free of duty. The full extent of these activities, however, cannot be ascertained due to a minimum of customs house records available. J. Ross Browne, a federal inspector of customs, visited San Diego in 1853 and commented on the poor conditions:

. . . the collector is left destitute of occupation and is compelled to seek business and society in various parts of the state. Now and then, however, he is supposed to take a look at his pay account, and see that the public light on the Point keeps burning on nights, notwithstanding the roof has been blown off.47

Browne, further, observed that the Department of the Treasury would not even allow the San Diego collector a deputy or clerk at public expense. “I look upon this,” Browne wrote in his notes, “as a very severe course to impose upon any gentleman whose services are presumed to be worth three thousand dollars per annum, and would recommend that he should at least be allowed a bottle of whisky.” While Browne may have exaggerated, it remains clear that San Diego failed to achieve any considerable status as a port or commercial center in the early 1850s.



Agriculture during the Spanish-Mexican period had never achieved prominence in San Diego, nor did it throughout the fifties. The importance of agriculture was perceived by some, but, despite efforts to encourage more San Diegans to pursue this occupation, it (not including ranching) remained a minor activity.

The farming that did exist was restricted to family gardens. John Hay, at his ranch about a mile from town, grew oats and barley, which the editor of the Herald reported in 1854 were “three feet [in] height, and from appearance, promise to yield an extraordinary crop.” That same year, a report called attention to the extensive arrangements made in San Diego County to cut a large quantity of oats, likely to be quite profitable. Ames related in March, 1854, that he had been shown stalks of barley from nearby Rancho de Jamacha “32 inches high and full headed.” This brought from Ames the response: “Can the ‘cold and barren region of the North’ equal this?” Indeed, barley represented the most important crop by the end of the decade (16,850 bushels in the county in 1860), but Irish and sweet potatoes, corn, peas, beans, and hay, were also grown in limited quantities. Ames reported in 1855 that an enormous yield of sweet potatoes had been raised on the ranch of Judge Ladd, which could be worth over $2,000. “Now in view of these facts and figures,” Ames castigated some of his fellow-citizens, “is it not astonishing that there are so many idlers loafing about this town, when they can find a ready market for any quantity of produce that they can raise.”48

Wheat also was produced, and stood as the second largest crop next to barley. A yield of 1,056 bushels in 1852 was expanded to 8,695 bushels in 1860 (county figures).49 The construction of a flour mill in the middle of the decade encouraged the increased production, but San Diego still had to import grain from San Francisco at great cost, a fact which disturbed Ames and others:

People cry out hard times, when there are idlers enough about this town, who have no visible means of support, whose labor would ten times more than produce enough to supply the deficiency in the article of food.50

Although Ames noted with delight in 1853 the increased growth in wheat and other crops, a study of the 1860 Agricultural Census for the county shows that very little agricultural production took place, with the exception of beef and wool. Nevertheless, for a man like Ames the development of agriculture represented a challenge that had to be met:

When we reflect that the town and country with a population not over two thousand, fails to supply its own wants, but sends away forty or fifty thousand dollars yearly to pay for flour alone, we begin to believe that there is a lack of something like wholesome enterprise or industry on the part of the inhabitants. Nothing is exported here but money. That goes off in quantities, to pay for supplies that we have the means of raising at home.

We know that men among us are accustomed to derive great satisfaction from sneering at the attempt to introduce agricultural industry, and amuse themselves and their friends by predicting the failure of every instance of trial. We rather envy the ease with which these gentlemen are entertained, but believe their satisfaction would be more enduring if the country could show, by well directed enterprise, its ability to prosper by its inherent resources.

Ames’ appeal remained constant throughout the decade. In 1851 the Herald in an extensive editorial pointed out that gold mining could be only a temporary phenomenon. The newspaper discounted the idea that California would revert to a wasteland when the depletion of this mineral occurred, but advised that to avoid this possibility, advantage had to be taken of the state’s climate and natural resources in order to establish a profitable agricultural society.52

Others shared a similar opinion. In a letter to the editor, lawyer J.W. Robinson wrote that “few things are of more importance to us than the development of the agricultural resources of this State.” Robinson encouraged, though unsuccessfully, the formation of a county agricultural society to promote, in conjunction with state and county agricultural and horticultural fairs, a diversity of crops grown in San Diego. His proposal met with little enthusiasm, for like other settlers in the state, San Diegans had come to California for more “lucrative” ventures.53

Another writer to the Herald in 1853 complained that most people in San Diego remained unaware of the value of vineyards. Others were more aware. In 1857 the biggest winery in Los Angeles produced 60,000 gallons of wine. San Diego, on the other hand, in 1860 produced only 70 gallons.54

In 1853 “Cincinnatus,” reported in the Herald that among the numerous fruits that could be cultivated in Southern California, none had greater possibilities than peaches. “Every person,” he insisted, “owning a farm or garden or lot of ground, ought to grow peaches, whether he consults profits or pleasure. The growth and maturity is rapid—the fruit sells high—and who can deny the luxury of a fine ripe, luscious juicy peach?—no one.”55

To encourage agriculture, the Herald stressed the value of saline land between Old Town and “False Bay” (Mission Bay) and between Mission Valley and the bay, an area which had always been considered useless for agriculture. According to a state geological survey, the Herald reported, saline land could be profitably cultivated. Corn seemed to flourish better in this type of soil, as well as barley and wheat. As evidence, the newspaper pointed out that at his ranch located on saline land by the bay, Judge Hays had raised two crops from one sowing of barley, and “his potatoes and other vegetables are superior to any we have ever seen in the southern part of the State.”56

Not only could such crops be grown, but for a nice profit. Ames reported in 1855 that potatoes in the area sold for from four to ten cents per pound throughout the entire season and that onions sold for eighteen cents per pound. Despite these high figures, there continued to be little interest in agriculture on the part of Anglo-Americans in San Diego, and it irritated Ames to see his town dependent on other areas for foodstuffs, the only exception being fresh beef. In this respect, it is of interest to note Ames’ neglect of the contribution of the Californios, for without their production of beef, wool, butter and cheese the economy of San Diego, not to mention local palates, would have suffered even more. Apparently, Ames did not consider the Spanish-speaking inhabitants as participants in the growth of California.

Besides the need to diversify the economy and gain profits, Ames believed there existed a higher motive for the development of agriculture. “Among the variety of pursuits of men,” he wrote in true Jeffersonian style,

. . . few are found to leave more lasting evidence . . . than the agriculturist—that first and most useful employment of man. And certainly no man contributes so largely to the permanent wealth of the State, as the cultivators of the soil. The millions dug from our golden mountains, and teeming gulches are carried by every steamer from us, never to return. But the products of the soil remain, and make us independent, indeed.57

Even such pious exhortations by Ames had no effect on the populace, and agriculture failed to develop in San Diego during this period. According to the Agricultural Census of 1860 San Diego County contained 4,143 acres of improved farm land and 499,863 acres of unimproved farm land. These statistics include, apparently, not only farms, but the ranches of Californios and Anglos, where land was used for cattle and sheep raising. The cash value of farms in the county in 1860 totaled $269,800, including farms and ranches.58

These figures clearly reveal the retarded conditions of agriculture which existed in San Diego. An important factor in this retardation involved the land policy of the state government, even though as early as 1849 a state committee on agriculture urged farming as the state’s most important industry. State authorities believed the mid-western pattern of small family farms could be repeated in California. To assist in this development, the state in the 1850s provided direct grants to farmers as well as tax exemptions. Governor Bigler proclaimed in 1853:

. . . the interests of both state and nation will unquestioningly [sic] be best subserved by thus donating the public domain in small tracts. It will induce emigration to the State; greatly increase the amount of taxable property; and above all, secure to us an abundance of the necessaries of life produced at home.59

There were obstacles, however, because of the diversity of California’s topography which lends itself more to large landholdings, the existence of large Spanish-Mexican grants, and the weakness of land policies adopted by the state. These policies dealt with (1) the adjudication of the Spanish-Mexican grants; (2) the transfer of federal lands to the state; and (3) the establishment of a system to administer and distribute the state lands.

The Spanish-Mexican claims, discussed later in more detail, were dealt with by the Land Law of 1851 which provided for a Land Commission to determine the validity of the grants. The commission validated some of the grants, but many others were not, and the land reverted to the state for public sale. The transfer of federal land to the state involved a cumbersome and complicated procedure which led to much confusion over land titles. The state legislature also demonstrated a “distressing ineptitude” in its system for the disposal of state land. “No conscious planning, no weighing of policies, no careful deliberation marked this important action,” historian Gerald Nash emphasizes. “Instead state policy resulted from a conglomeration of scattered, hastily enacted laws.”

While the state legislature passed several laws for the sale of land, most of them led to fraud and speculation. One law enacted in 1852 called for land to be sold at $2.00 an acre for lots of 160 to 320 acres, with each purchase limited to 640 acres. By 1855, 232,000 acres had been sold. Three years later the legislature amended the law to lower the price to $1.25 an acre, and allowed purchasers to buy land on credit. They were required to put down only 20 percent of the price and given five years to pay the balance with an interest rate of 10 percent. This led to speculators “grabbing” most of the land. “Since an application for a certificate of purchase was not mandatory,” Nash explains, “many simply paid the first year’s interest without applying for such a certificate. Speculators were able to hold these lands after paying only ten cents an acre, while the state could not place them on the market.”

Besides the problem of land speculators, a weak administrative system hampered the state in its attempts to dispose of land to actual settlers. The administration of land laws involved so much ‘red tape’ that small farmers had difficulty ‘cutting through it’ to acquire property. “The failure of the state as middleman,” Nash concludes, “gave rise to the land speculator as an agent in the complex process of land distribution.” Moreover, no central body existed for the distribution of lands. The result was a perplexed bevy of local bodies attempting to administer land sales. Not until 1858 did the legislature create a centralized administration which was restricted, however, by its smallness and lack of funds. The outcome of this speculation, corruption, and maladministration was that the ideal of a California society characterized by small family farms did not materialize. In fact, a small number of farmers possessed a large share of the total agricultural area. Large-scale distribution of state land did occur in succeeding decades, but the pattern of large landholdings continued.



The idea held by Ames and others that San Diego needed a more diversified economy came from their belief that California’s gold mining furor would eventually end, and San Diego would be forced to adjust since its economy was so dependent on cattle production for the mines. Many San Diegans, however, proved to be as susceptible to the ‘mining fever’ of the fifties as almost everyone else, and throughout the decade mining activities engaged various citizens of the town.

No organized mining existed during the first half of the decade, although individuals carried out their own explorations. In July, 1851, the Heraldreported that two miners had recently arrived from Santo Tomás, 300 miles to the south in Baja California, with notice that gold in abundance could be found there. Baja California also became the scene of an unsuccessful trip made by two prominent San Diegans, Judge Robinson and Colonel Haraszthy, in search of silver. The Colonel also, in conjunction with another resident of the town, Charles R. Johnson, explored for silver in Southern California, and reported there existed a good possibility that silver mines in the area could rival those of Mexico, although this never happened.60

The successful exploitation of these mines required enterprising individuals. This sentiment, coupled with a touch of “Manifest Destiny,” found expression in the Herald after its announcement of the discovery of rich deposits of gold, silver, and copper near the ranch of Juan Bandini, south of the border. “It will not be longer,” Ames contended,

. . . ere some of our enterprising spirits, thirsting for novelty, and love of adventure, so truly characteristic of California, will be winding their way to the Silver diggings. The country is now, and has been ever since the resignation of Don Castro as Governor, in a state of anarchy and confusion, which we think will not terminate till they come under the protection of the Stars and Stripes, which we are credibly informed is the will and wish of a very large majority of the people of lower California. Will the people who are the source of all power, rise in their majesty and declare their wishes? Is this beautiful peninsula, rich in nature’s choicest gifts for ever to be desecrated, and stained with human blood in this enlightened and progressive age?61

Perhaps the most excitement came in May, 1852, when the Herald reported the discovery of gold under the headlines:


Gold Mine In San Diego!!
San Francisco Rivalled!!!
Southern Port Triumphant!!

This excitement resulted from the arrival of two Indians who brought with them some specimens of gold bearing quartz, “full of the ‘real stuff.'” The Indians explained they had discovered the gold in one of the gulches between Old Town and the mission. “Should this report prove true,” an inspired Ames pronounced, “that there does exist such a mine in our immediate vicinity, we may expect to see San Diego, with its superior natural advantages, soon rivalling our famed sister, San Francisco.” Unfortunately, for Ames and San Diego, this report proved to be false.

On the other hand, coal was one mineral discovered and exploited. Reports existed as early as 1849 of possible coal deposits in the cliffs of Point Loma. Davis wrote a year later that a few explorations for coal had been made in the area, but that no extensive coal beds had been found.63 In 1855 what came to be considered substantial coal deposits were found on Point Loma. The extraction of this deposit began after city trustees, on November 22, 1855, leased a tract of 40 acres on the ocean side of Point Loma for fifteen years to four San Diegans who formed the San Diego Coal Company: H.C. Ladd, Ephraim Green, G.W. Servine, and Seth B. Gainer. One month after its formation the Company advertised in the Herald that shares of its stock could be purchased for $100 per share. This discovery and exploitation of the coal deposits led Ames to exclaim that “there is no doubt as to the quality of the coal, and should the vein prove abundant it will become a great source of wealth.”

This hope never came true, although the Company did work the mine for two years, employing several miners from San Diego and other areas. The Company purchased mining equipment from San Francisco including a steam engine and force pumps which they operated day and night. Misfortune struck the Company several times when operations had to be halted because of flooding and defects in the engine and machinery. These delays prompted from the Herald a criticism of the San Francisco suppliers. “We sincerely wish,” Ames wrote, “that the parties in San Francisco, who palmed off the defective machinery on this Company, were sunk to the bottom of the shaft and obliged to remain there till the engine they sent down here could pump off the water and ‘dry them up.'”64

Discoveries of other coal deposits near San Diego soon followed, and one other company, the Pacific Coal Company, was formed, but quickly failed. By 1858, the San Diego Coal Company apparently ceased operations. The total output of these coal operations cannot be determined. It probably was not very large, and by 1860 only ten miners remained in San Diego County.65

In 1857, copper deposits in Baja California attracted the attention of San Diegans. At the Jesús María mines about eighty miles south of San Diego, copper specimens were uncovered which contained 50 to 60 percent pure copper. At the same time, reports arrived that other copper deposits had been located.66

These discoveries led to the demand for miners, and many San Diegans crossed the border to work in the mines. Others viewed the discoveries as an opportunity for investment. San Diego merchant Louis Rose invested in the Buena Vista mine. T.R. Darnall wrote to his parents explaining he had entered into copper mining speculation in Lower California, “and have invested every cent that I can call my own and a little more.” Ephraim Morse used his resources as a merchant to engage in mining activities south of the border. In late October, 1857, he returned from the Jesús María mines to report that vigorous work characterized the mines, and that new ones had been opened.67

That same year news arrived that investors from San Francisco had made arrangements for a line of steamers to operate from San Diego to the mouth of the Colorado River, touching the Mexican ports of Santo Tomás, Ensenada, La Paz, San Blas, Mazatlán, and Guaymas and return, to connect with coast steamers to San Francisco. The Herald was moved to comment that “the mineral riches of the region south of San Diego are being constantly developed and should be a strong inducement on the part of our Government for its purchase from Mexico, independent of the growing necessity of controling [sic] the navigation of the Gulf of California.”68

The idea of annexing Baja California increased in intensity following some conflicts between Anglo miners and Mexican officials in September, 1857. To protect the miners, some citizens proposed that a large group be sent to their assistance, and sent word to Los Angeles to have more men available in case they were needed. That some of these people contemplated more than just a rescue of the miners is evident in the Herald’s boast that “if our people ever cross that boundary line, Mexico may as well say farewell to Lower California, for the rich silver and copper mines there are too valuable a prize for the Yankee, ever to relinquish their grasp upon.”69

Excitement increased when word came that T.R. Darnall, who had gone to Santo Tomás to assist in the trial of the miners, also became a captive. “Everybody who had horses volunteered them to mount a party for the rescue of our citizens who are held in the custody of those outlaws, and the whole town was ready to march on the Frontier, as soon as arms could be procured.” Things calmed down, however, and no “invasion” became necessary when the Mexicans released Darnall and the miners. Nevertheless, these “harassments” by Mexican officials gave support to the argument that the United States should take this additional Mexican territory. No better expression of “Manifest Destiny” can be seen than these words by Justin Ames:

The signs of the times seem to intimate that ere long the stars and stripes will float over this territory, and for the sake of those interested herein God grant that it may be so. Even the people themselves [the Mexicans], although they say it is hard to be sold with their country like so many cattle or sheep, yet they admit that their condition would be infinitely better under the administration of our laws—at any rate their condition cannot be worse. But still the evil is in themselves—ignorant and lazy, they are content with existing. . .70

Although Baja California never came into the physical possession of the United States, investment in the copper mines by some San Diegans continued to the end of the decade. San Diego gained not only from this investment (although total production records are not available to determine profits and/or losses), but in the sales that the town merchants made to the mining companies and to individual miners. The records and letters of E.W. Morse show that a sizable percentage of his store’s sales were to mining concerns in the south during 1857-1859. On October 8, 1857, the San Ysidro Mining Company purchased goods in the amount of $251.11 That same month the Jesús María Mine bought $350.35 worth of goods, plus an additional purchase of $1,000 over the next two months. Individual miners received their pay in scrip and exchanged it for either goods or cash at Morse’s store.71

Besides supplying miners, Morse had a direct investment in the Jesús María mines to the tune of $3,213.38, and in several letters he wrote to the managers of the mines he exhibited deep concern for their operations. These letters show that the operation suffered from weak management and incompetent miners, both of which reduced output and profits. In a letter probably written in 1857, Morse reprimanded the managers for being too lax with the workers, both Anglos and Mexicans:

You are too easy with the men, you don’t boss them but let them do as they please, while I was there they were pleased to do as little as possible.

. . . let them know that they are at work for you and not as companions for you. It is not exactly necessary that you should wear kid gloves but there is a proper medium between the kid gloves system and that in vogue at the Jesús María mines in my opinion.

In another letter, Morse wrote to the management along the same lines:

If you hadn’t had such a d–d set of rascals about you it would never have happened [?] and you will remember my advise was not to have them about.

I am running all the risk, what risk do you run even if it is but 3 or 6,000 it is all I am worth.72

Morse specifically complained to his foreman that the employees at the mines worked only five hours a day. “Damn well for you,” he protested, “to do it off of me you have nothing to lose . . . after my writing to you again and again you would go directly contrary to my wishes—in not getting out metal as fast as possible—putting men on other mines, and particularly not bossing them. What have you been doing!”

With these problems, Morse, by 1858, began to remove himself from his involvement in the Jesús María mines and sold his interest to investors in San Francisco. Mining in Baja California continued into the next decade, but it never reached the “boom” proportions expected by Ames.



Fishing in the form of capture of sea otters represented an important activity in San Diego during the period before the Mexican War. Historian Samuel F. Black points out that, next to the cattle industry and the trade in hides and tallow, fishing was the most important aspect of the early commerce of San Diego. By the time of Anglo invasion in 1850, however, the otter had been severely depleted, and San Diegans engaged in fishing only sporadically. However, the Herald attempted to convince citizens that fishing was a profitable enterprise. It reported as early as August, 1851, that good fishing existed in San Diego Bay, especially the abundance of crawfish, “not a whit inferior to the lobster and scarcely less in size.” When the schooner Emeline, which had been in the bay for two weeks taking fish for the San Francisco market, disclosed a catch of twenty tons during one day’s haul, Ames wrote: “Fishing is by no means an insignificant item in this bay, and if carried on extensively we could more than amply supply the demand for the up country market.”73

As with agriculture, most of the residents of San Diego could not be convinced of the profitability of the fishing trade, and therefore avoided it. One firm, the San Diego Fishing Company, did organize in 1853 to haul fish from the bay and sell them in the store of George Lyons and Company, but apparently it made little profit and disbanded in a short time. By 1858 only two fisheries could be found in the county.74

Whaling, however, did interest people in San Diego, and by 1860 it had become a growing activity. This did not represent a new trend, for the whaling trade had been carried on long before the Mexican War when Anglo whalers came along the San Diego coast. They carried out this hunt between December and February when the whales passed south, and from March to April when they returned north.75

Whaling activity, from all indications, declined in the early 1850s only to be revived by 1855. The Herald that year revealed movements on the part of whaling vessels in the area. A letter from the commander of the whaler R. Adams praised San Diego as the best port on the Pacific for the refitting of whaling ships. Ames, of course, agreed, and expressed the hope that in the future more whalers would stop in the town, as this would allow “the opening to us of a new and important brand of business, which we believe will center at this port.” As Ames put it, “the easy access to our harbor, its perfect security, and the trifling expense at which repairs can be made, make this the most desirable port upon the Pacific coast for the recruiting and refitting of whalers.”76

The San Francisco Chronicle disagreed and derided the idea of San Diego as a whaling port. An aroused Ames attacked the editor of the Chronicle for never visiting San Diego to judge for himself the value of its bay. He deplored the chauvinism of San Francisco. “Now it so happens that San Francisco,” he wrote, “though claimed to be the entire Pacific coast, cannot be claimed as the whole world, and the rest of mankind.”77

From 1855 to 1860, many small whalers visited San Diego for the purpose of capturing the grey-back whales found in the area. Heilbron in his history comments that “the lists of Yankee trading vessels calling at San Diego in the middle years of the last century include many a dirty old money making whaler.” Nevertheless, whaling never became a predominant activity. It remained a limited one, although it continued to expand up to the 1880s when whaling rapidly declined due to new sources of oil.78



In the 1850s the wealthiest class of San Diegans were the Mexican rancheros. Although they had no political power, held only a minimal number of political offices, and played no role in the decision-making process, they possessed considerable economic resources. The Californios enjoyed a great deal of social prominence, but were quite willing to accept Anglo political dominance if it meant that their properties would remain intact. Unfortunately, they did not take into consideration the impersonal force of a market economy which brought depression to the Californios during the last half of the decade.

Depression had been far from the minds of the “ricos” in the early 1850s when they received high prices for their cattle from the hungry gold miners of the north. Regrettably for the Californios, this “boom” did not last long, and as historian Leonard Pitt points out, their spendthrift practices, encouraged by high profits, eventually put the rancheros in financial trouble. With the demand for cattle high in the early years, the Californios sold their herds as fast as possible and in great quantities without a care for the future. When a downturn in mining activities occurred during the middle and closing years of the decade and diminished the demand for beef, the rancheros found themselves overextended (15,452 head of cattle in 1860, as compared to 3,718 head in 1852)79 and forced to give up some of their lands in payment of taxes and bills. The “Sheriff’s Notice” of those with delinquent taxes listed in the Herald in December, 1854, included many of the prominent Californios, who, through public auction, lost parts of their property to Anglo ranchers and businessmen. By 1860 the economic downturn of the “ricos” became evident. The total value of real estate in San Diego that year was $206,400, and of this figure, the total value of land belonging to Mexicans had fallen to $82,700, while the value of Anglo lands rose to $128,900.80 These are impressive figures, since in 1850 the Mexican had held the overwhelming amount of property.

This steady loss of land confronted the entire “rico” population in California, although there existed different circumstances between the north and the south. In the north the failure of a large number of Anglos in the mining regions, plus the insecurity of land titles, led many miners to engage in farming. In so doing, they encroached upon the large cattle ranches of the northern Californios. This produced what Pitt describes as a condition of “backyard guerrilla warfare with settlers bent on outright confiscation.”81

As historian Paul W. Gates in his studies of land policy in California points out, Anglo-American settlers held to a tradition of pre-emption (the right of squatters who settled on unclaimed vacant and unimproved land to buy that land for a minimal price before it was publicly auctioned). They also believed in the right of occupants to their improvements. This attitude ran into opposition from many Mexican landowners who refused to allow squatters on their land. Those who did allow squatters refused to sell them land, only to lease it. Leasing, however, was unacceptable to the settlers. As Gates puts it: “Tenancy was barely a satisfactory position for an American brought up on the assumption that land in the United States was cheap and that everyone should have a piece of it and a share in the prosperity the future was sure to bring.” Settlers, therefore, simply took over lands that belonged to Mexicans on the assumption they were opened to pre-emption.82

The squatter problem was intensified by the fact that contrary to policy in the territories, the federal government did not allow settlers in California homesteads of 400 to 600 acres. Not only did Congress fail to follow previous land policies in California, but it did not survey land there before settlers arrived. As a result, numerous disputes arose between squatters and Mexican landowners.83

This irritation deepened when settlers began to question the validity of land grants held by Californios. To settle these disputes, Congress passed the Land Law of 1851. The law provided for a three man Board of Land Commissioners authorized to determine the validity of land grants. Appeals could be made to the federal district courts and to the Supreme Court. If the Commission rejected claims or if land went unclaimed, the land became part of the public domain and settlers could purchase it. Senator William Gwin of California, who wrote the bill, later admitted he envisioned the law would force Mexicans off their lands by the encouragement it would provide squatters. The law, indeed, did lead to an increase in squatters and to a subsequent rise in violence. By 1853 every rancho around San Francisco had its squatters.

This was not the case in the southern part of the state as the so-called “Southern Cow Counties” remained undisturbed by the land law, and very few squatters appeared. “San Diego,” it was reported, “also had a squatter by 1853, reportedly ‘a good fellow and industrious and God-fearing.'” Northern ranches were not so fortunate as the Board of Land Commissioners took away, according to Pitt, one-fourth to two-fifths of the Californios’ land.84 It delayed the confirmation of land titles so that settlers continued to encroach on this land. From 1851 to 1856, the Land Commission considered over 800 cases involving close to twelve million acres. Of these, it approved 520 claims and rejected 273. The rest were either dismissed or withdrawn by the claimants.

In complying with the Board, the Californios, even though their lands were protected by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848), faced great difficulties and heavy expenses to adjudicate their claims. They were at a disadvantage not knowing the laws of the United States or Anglo-Saxon legal procedures. The language difference also proved to be a problem, as well as the fact that many title documents had been lost or destroyed. Historian Robert Cleland points out that the validation of these claims, ironically, led to the loss of land, for to meet court costs and lawyers’ fees the Californios paid in their major source of wealth—land.

The conditions of the Mexican landowners became so desperate by 1855 that some of them made a direct appeal to Washington:

In view of the doleful litigation proposed by the general Government against all the land owners in California in violation of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the law of nations, which year by year become more costly and intolerable, in view of the repeated falsehoods and calumnies circulated by the public press against the validation of our titles and the justice which supports us in this interminable litigation and which equally influences the tribunals of justice and prejudices our character and our dearest rights; in view of the injustices which have accumulated against us to carry out a general confiscation of our properties; and especially to adopt the most efficient means to assure the abrogation of the existing law which holds all titles acquired from the former government to be fraudulent and which were guaranteed us by treaty.85

This appeal proved useless and throughout the fifties Mexicans continued to lose their land through invalidation, to squatters, or forced sale to pay legal fees. In northern California this was especially true since this area bore the brunt of the early Anglo onslaught. Although such a critical situation did not exist in the south, what litigation and squatters failed to do in this area, mortgages, taxes, and personal expenses did. As a result of all this, plus the downturn in the market for beef, most Californios by 1860 retained only portions of their original land holdings.86

In 1860, José María Estudillo owned $10,000 worth of real estate, a far cry from the $30,385 worth of property he had possessed in 1850. The Arguello family during this time lost $24,000 worth of property. The most notable example of the Californios’ depression was Juan Bandini who saw his vast lands which stretched from the Mexican border to present-day Riverside, pass into the hands of his Anglo sons-in-law. When he died in 1859, the Herald could only observe that “Don Juan was a prominent citizen of San Diego, and leaves a large circle of friends, who sincerely mourn his demise.” The Herald could not have described any better the downfall of Bandini’s realm; a downfall the prominent Californio sensed earlier than most of his “compadres.” Commenting in 1855 on adverse decisions against Californios by the Land Commission, Don Juan had bitterly stated:

Of the lands mentioned some have been in the quiet possession of the proprietors and their families for forty or fifty years. On them they have reared themselves homes—they have enclosed and cultivated fields—there they and their children were born—and there they lived in peace and comparative plenty. But now—our inheritance is turned to strangers—our houses to aliens. We have drunken our water for money—our wood is sold unto us. Our necks are under persecution—we labor and have no rest. 87

Bandini’s words were prophetic, although in 1855 the Californios still shared the naive expectation they could be accepted as partners by the Anglos in the exploitation of San Diego’s wealth. This hope could only be justified to the extent that the Californios’ numbers and landholdings allowed them some leverage with the Anglo-Americans. These assets, however, by 1860, had been dissipated. The census of that year shows a near parity between the Anglo and Mexican populations (217 to 220). With this changed condition, the symbiotic relationship of the “ricos” with the “Gringo” came to an end, and in the next thirty years the decline of the Californios became complete. 88

Their decline resulted from the intense competition for land from Anglo miners, Anglo settlers, and Anglo speculators. It did not originate, as Pitt claims, from a clash of divergent cultures. Undoubtedly, differences in culture and race played a part, just as racial and cultural discrimination plays a part in economic exploitation today, but the essence of the decline was economic in nature. “If the history of Mexican grants of California is ever written,” Henry George wrote in 1871, “it will be a history of greed, of perjury, of corruption, of spoliation and high-handed robbery, for which it will be difficult to find a parallel.”89



By the mid-1850s, it became apparent to a number of San Diegans, principally the merchants, that the economy of the town needed stimulation. One solution was to develop San Diego’s “Inland Empire” by establishing trade ties with the Mormon settlement at San Bernardino, but more importantly in the Great Salt Lake Valley. To establish this trade it was necessary to construct a road through the San Bernardino mountains.

As early as March, 1852, a party of San Diegans explored a new route to the San Bernardino Valley by way of San Luis Rey. “It is highly commendable,” the Herald noted, “that our citizens are taking steps to make a good road to the valley as we know from reliable authority that there are several thousand immigrants who will arrive at San Diego this season in transit to the settlement at San Bernardino and the Great Salt Lake.”90

This route, however, did not prove feasible, and for the next two years the matter lay dormant. In 1854, the matter again attracted consideration. At a public meeting at the courthouse on March 18, 1854, Colonel W.C. Ferrell delivered an address in which he pointed out how distressing it was that San Diego with all her natural advantages of climate and harbor still remained economically retarded. This could be alleviated, Ferrell concluded, by opening a road to the San Bernardino Valley by way of Temecula. The Colonel grandly attempted to prove that millions of dollars of trade would result if the Mormon settlers to the east could be induced to trade in San Diego. “Those enterprising and numerous settlers,” Ferrell explained, “are seeking some outlet on the Pacific, and offer to us all the advantages, if we will make our own roads possible.”91

Convinced by Ferrell’s arguments, the public assembly organized a committee of seven to cooperate with the Colonel in exploring the possibility of building a road to Temecula. The committee included attorney Robinson, merchants Witherby, Rose, Morse, Jacobs, Franklin, Pendleton, and ranchero Bandini, and in about two weeks raised over $800 to fund the work of surveying and constructing the road. Pendleton attempted unsuccessfully to convince Davis to turn over to the Mormons some of his lots at New Town in the hope the Mormons would build a depot there. 92

A short time later it became known that some influential Mormon settlers were coming to San Diego to transport a shipment of goods back to San Bernardino and the Salt Lake, and the committee expected to confer with them about the prospects of the new route. Of this development, Ames wrote:

We are well convinced in our minds, that by the promptness of action which the call of Col. Ferrell has induced, there are better times in store for us, and the Mormons will meet with us with the liberality for which they are so eminently celebrated, till a regular, safe, and easy means of transportation will be completed from the port of San Diego to San Bernardino and Salt Lake.93

A week later the Herald reported that the Mormon merchants left San Diego pleased with the idea of a permanent arrangement whereby goods for the Mormon settlements would be shipped to San Diego and then transported inland to their several stores in the Utah territory. The road used in this trip passed through San Bernardino and then to Coal Creek in Iron County, Utah, and, finally, by wagon road to Salt Lake. Reliable information existed, however, according to the Herald, that an excellent road could be built from San Diego to mineral-rich Coal Creek that would reduce the distance considerably. These bright expectations led Ames to declare:

The prospect for the rapid increase of business in San Diego is very flattering indeed. We find ourselves now only 400 miles from an immense mineral region now fairly tested, and on the eve of securing, permanently, an addition to our trade, with a community of seventy-five thousand people, and increasing 20,000 annually. The natural advantage of our city is great, and will soon be developed. At no other point can this trade arrive at the Pacific, or at San Diego.94

Despite these predictions the Committee organized to build the road ran into financial trouble. The matter became more urgent when a report arrived that the Mormons already were trading with Los Angeles; thus, San Diego faced the danger of losing the entire trade unless it moved quickly. Even though the Committee raised $2,000 to defray the cost of improving the San Bernardino road, no action occurred to carry out the improvements. “It seems to us,” wrote a disturbed Ames, “that the merchants of this place, who will be the ones to reap the most immediate benefits . . . do not stir in this matter.” Ames not only directed his criticisms toward the lackadaisical merchants, he also criticized the ranchers of the area for not contributing some of their money for the road. According to Ames, they would benefit by the road to the Mormon settlements as well:

One thing is to our minds painfully evident, San Diego is going down hill as fast as possible, and will decrease in importance as a place of trade, unless men who have accumulated wealth in our midst employ their means in some manner tending to the development of the agricultural resource of the country, instead of quietly sitting down and loaning their money out on mortgages at 4 and 8 percent a month. The consequences of this is that the borrowers—who are mostly native Californians, who never having earned a dollar, have no idea of its value—spread their means in all sorts of extravagance without the slightest idea that pay day will ever come. They never lift a mortgage and do not seem to consider that in a few years all their fine ranches with their thousand head of cattle roaming over the plains, will be in the possession of strangers, and they and their children will be ejected from the fertile lands and happy homes which they inherited from their fathers.95

Ames’ sharp criticisms failed to stimulate construction on the road, and by 1855 the San Diego merchants had their hopes on another form of inland transportation: the construction of a transcontinental railroad which would have its Pacific terminus at San Diego.



San Diegans, specifically the merchant class, understood that without such a railroad connection, San Diego had little hope of prospering and even less chance of becoming a great commercial center.96 Ames wrote in early 1852, “we do not despair of seeing the day when the iron hands of a railroad shall link our young State with the Atlantic. Golden Years must pass away before that happy era in American history will be accomplished. Meanwhile, it is not for us idly to fold our hands and dream, thinking to wake, like Van Winkle, and find our visions realized.”97

The first tangible steps toward accomplishing such a goal came on May 9, 1853, when the Anglo citizens of the town assembled at the courthouse and organized a Committee to investigate and report upon the best and most practicable route for a railroad to connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. On the Committee sat the more prominent members of San Diego’s Anglo “establishment”: Colonel J. Bankhead Magruder, President; Vice Presidents: John Hays, William H. Moon, and Frank Ames; and secretary, J. Judson Ames. Other members included James W. Robinson, William C. Ferrell, J.J. Warner, Charles H. Poole, Cave J. Couts, and O. S. Witherby. A Committee of Correspondence also included the same people with the exception of Poole and the addition of E.B. Pendleton. After the organization of the factfinding group, the meeting adjourned until May 20 when the committee would report its findings.98

The Magruder report, as it was labeled, contained reasons why the southern route with San Diego as the Western terminus should be selected for the railroad: (1) from a physical standpoint, the southern route stood far superior to any other; it never would be snowbound, for example; (2) from a military perspective, the entire Mexican border would be protected; and (3) there would exist no obstacles to a cheap and fast construction of a railroad from El Paso to San Diego. (As early as 1848, John C. Calhoun had suggested the El Paso to San Diego route.)99 The report, further, noted that the Mormons in Utah sought a railroad outlet, and favored San Diego as a Pacific terminus. The Committee recommended that the western line connecting the railroad with San Diego should be as follows: from El Paso to the Gila River, to Fort Yuma and across the Colorado desert to Vallecitos on its western rim, and from this point over the mountains to San Diego. It was also argued that San Diego would form a better outlet for the Pacific and Orient trade than San Francisco, for ships could reach China much faster from San Diego than from any other port on the Pacific.

In addition to these arguments, the Committee presented four resolutions. One of these called upon the President of the United States to authorize a survey from El Paso to the junction of the Gila and Colorado Rivers and from there to San Diego. The second key resolution stated:

That an agent to represent the interests of the ‘Southern location’ and to make known to the public its real merits, be appointed, whose duty it should be to urge upon Congress and the Executive, a careful examination of the El Paso and San Diego routes, and to communicate with capitalists both in the United States, England, and on the continent of Europe, in relation to the same.100

To facilitate and promote San Diego’s chances of becoming the western terminus, a number of citizens in November, 1854, organized the San Diego and Gila, Southern Pacific and Atlantic Railroad Company. “We the Undersigned,” the Charter of the Company read,

hereby agree to form ourselves into a Corporation under the Laws of the State of California for the purpose of constructing a Railroad from a point on the Bay of San Diego running then Eastwardly through the County of San Diego, by the most direct practicable Route to the Colorado River at or near the mouth of the River Gila and for that purpose have found and agreed to the following Article of Association, and have signed the same and added to our Signature the amount of our subscription in the stock of said Company.101

The articles of association stipulated that the duration of the Company be fifty years; that the capital stock be $4 million, to be divided into 40,000 shares of $100 each; that the Company go into operation upon the signing of the articles by holders of not less than $150,000; that at all elections of stockholders and at all meetings of stockholders, each share be entitled to one vote; that the office of the Company be in San Diego, and that business be conducted by a Board of Directors composed of thirteen individuals which included prominent merchants such as Rose, Lyons, and Strauss. Not one Californio, incidentally, sat on the Board. According to the 1854 Treasurer’s Report of the San Diego and Gila, the initial subscribers to the Company consisted of thirty Anglos, mostly merchants. Among them were E.B. Pendleton, who bought $500 worth of stock; George Lyons, $500; Louis Rose and J.W. Robinson each purchased $3,000 worth; Joseph Reiner $300; E.W. Morse $200; L.A. Franklin $500; William E. Terrill $2,000; and H.S. Burton $1,000. The total initial subscription came to $15,200.102

Later in November the state legislature authorized a charter of incorporation, and the Company elected a set of permanent officers: J. W. Robinson, President, O.S. Witherby, Vice President, Louis Rose, Treasurer, and George P. Tebetts, Secretary. This attempt by the Anglo citizens of San Diego to take the initiative in constructing a line to the Gila River brought forth this comment from the Herald:

Thus it will be seen that the Southern Pacific Railroad is no chimera—that it is deemed by rational, practical and cautious men, not only feasible, but easiest of accomplishment of all the routes proposed. The rancheros [not the Californios] and other property holders in the line between San Diego and the Colorado have declared their willingness to hypothecate half their lands and possessions to secure the payment of the loans necessary to complete the road.103

Part of this “hypothecation” came in the form of an election ordered by the Board of Trustees of San Diego on September 11, 1855 “to authorise (sic) the Trustees to convey to the San Diego & Gila Southern Pacific and Atlantic Railroad Co., two leagues of the Pueblo Lands to aid in the construction thereof.” The returns of this election showed unanimous approval of granting the land, about 8,850 acres, to the Company which, according to Smythe, constituted “a gift which would have become of princely value had the railroad been built.” The exact location of the pueblo lands turned over to the Company is difficult to determine. County tax records do not mention the specific lots, the 1856 “Map of the Pueblo Lands of San Diego” is not clear on this subject, nor do the Minutes of the Common Council and the Minutes of the Board of Directors of the San Diego and Gila provide any information. Nevertheless, as Smythe points out, this represented a significant amount of property.104

Another form of financing which the Company sought, with no success, included the attempt to persuade Congress to grant alternate sections of land for twenty miles upon either side of the road. In general, however, most of the funds available to the Company came from subscribers to its stock, who saw in this investment a chance at large returns. T.R. Darnall wrote in 1855 that he owned twenty shares of the San Diego & Gila, yet “besides the twenty shares in the Rail Road, I have invested every cent I have made, in city property, so I will sink or swim with old S. Diego on the issue of the railroad.” Moreover, Darnall purchased five acres at La Playa for $1,000 “which will be worth fifty thousand dollars the day that it is ascertained that San Diego will be the terminus of the road.”105

Besides obtaining additional stockholders, the Company between 1855 and 1859 engaged in surveying the projected route, and attempting to convince Congress of the value of San Diego as a western terminus. A survey conducted by Colonel A.B. Gray reported the practicability of the southern route, and in 1856 news arrived of a report made by Secretary of War Jefferson Davis stating that the southern route stood as the best for military purposes. The Herald could not help but comment upon hearing of Davis’ report that the Magruder Committee three years before had come to a similar conclusion:

In alluding to these facts we would not presume to say that the Secretary has adopted the opinion of our Committee or of our Company, but it clearly shows the correctness and truthfulness of the views advanced by the leading advocates of this great Road in this city for the three years past. Truth is might and must sooner or later prevail where enlightened and important men investigate and decide.

The Herald, during the remainder of 1856 and the early part of 1857, ran a series of articles pointing out the advantage of San Diego as a western terminus. Additional support came in 1857 with the arrival of the first overland mail by the Butterfield Stage from San Antonio to San Diego in thirty-four days, which, according to the Herald, demonstrated the superiority of the southern route. In all of these arguments, the most consistent came to be the natural advantages of San Diego: its climate and location. “Let it once be enacted,” Ames wrote on November 13, 1858,

that a national railroad will terminate at the Colorado, and the various branches will take care of themselves—and if one of them don’t find itself rapidly running into San Diego, then we will come to the conclusion, for the first time in our lives, that the Great Architect designs and contrives to no purpose, and that our beautiful bay was intended for a silina or fish-pond, and not for the magnificent ship harbor of a great and growing commerce.

However as in the case of other expectations during this decade, Ames and the rest of San Diego were disappointed in March, 1859, when the U.S. Senate voted down the Pacific Railroad Bill which authorized construction of the transcontinental railroad along a southern route. The defeat of the bill brought forth from the Herald this sad and bitter statement on March 12:

The defeat of the Pacific Railroad Bill…has cast a melancholy gloom over our devoted little city. Everything is dreary, gloomy, and surrounded with the habiliments of woe. A nation’s hopes have been signally blasted. Our expectations were great, and our disappointment may be measured in a corresponding ratio. We asked for bread and we have received a stone…

…Who is to blame? A great responsibility rests somewhere, and the people will not be slow to find it out. Let them scan the notes, search the records, and mark those who have trifled with the public weal—who have treated the Pacific side of the continent as if we were an alien people, and not deserving the fostering care of the Government.

Having received this “blow,” the Board of Directors of the San Diego & Gila assembled on May 8, 1859, to decide the future course of the Company. The Board reiterated that the southern route with San Diego as its Pacific outlet was still the most feasible, and agreed with a Pacific Railroad convention held in Memphis in February, 1859, which adopted a report that the most practicable route to connect East and West by railway would be one from Memphis via Little Rock and Fulton to El Paso and on to San Diego.106

Nothing further could be expected of Congress concerning the Atlantic-Pacific route, and attention in September turned to a western railroad convention to convene in San Francisco on September 20. Delegates from California, as well as from Oregon, Utah, and Arizona would be present to discuss the construction of a transcontinental railroad and its western terminus. To participate in the conference, San Diego elected delegates, but, because boat passage could not be obtained in time, only Ames, who had moved to San Francisco, represented San Diego, along with another San Franciscan, George H. Ringgold. Again San Diego faced disappointment. The convention passed a resolution which called for the western terminus to be at San Francisco. Angered, the two-man San Diego delegation walked out of the Convention: “Has it thus really come to this?” Ames wrote back to the citizens of San Diego,

…a Convention called by the Governor of a State; endorsed by the Legislature of the same; supported by the people at a general election; looked up to by the million inhabitants of a great and growing empire, meets and announces, not that it will have a road; not that the people who have poured into the lap of the Union $600,000,000, and twice saved the nation from bankruptcy, will no longer suffer their rights to be disregarded; but that the terminus of a road, the first sod of which has not yet been turned and to the completion of which not one cent has been subscribed, shall be located in the city of San Francisco!!!!l07

The defeat of San Diego’s efforts to acquire the western terminus of the transcontinental railroad marked the climax of a decade-long attempt not only to diversify the economy of San Diego, but to make the town rival if not exceed Los Angeles and San Francisco as the great commercial center of the Pacific.



San Diego’s population had fallen from 650 in 1850 to 539 in 1860. Some of this loss, probably, came as a result of the demoralization that set in after the failure to acquire the rail terminus. The general economic downturn by 1860 must also be considered a factor in this loss of population. Further evidence of this condition can be seen in the 1860 census for the township of San Diego which shows that only eleven merchants remained; that only five farmers (as defined by the Census) could be found in San Diego, and only nine Anglo rancheros as compared to 25 Mexican rancheros. Twenty-four people were listed as “professionals,” and 66 as skilled laborers (miners, teamsters, seamen, vaqueros) of which 43 were Anglos and 23 Mexicans. Finally, 30 persons fell in the category of unskilled labor (19 Mexicans and 11 Anglos).

These figures reflect the failures that characterized San Diego during the l850s. The attempts by people like Davis, Morse, and Ames to transform San Diego as quickly as possible from the pastoral economy of the Mexican period to a more urban and commercial one proved to be too limited for such an undertaking. It would be two more decades before this transformation began. Nevertheless, the 1850s are representative of the modernization introduced into California by Anglo-American expansionism.




1. William F. Smythe, History of San Diego, 1542-1907 (San Diego, 1907), 96.

2. Ibid., 98-100.

3. Max Miller, Harbor of the Sun: The Story of the Port of San Diego (New York, 1940), 133.

4. Ibid., 98-104; also see Lesley Burt Lesley, “The Struggle of San Diego for a Southern Transcontinental Railroad Connection, 1854-1891,” (University of California at Berkeley Doctoral Dissertation, 1934), 5.

5. Smythe, San Diego, 105-106.

6. See U.S. Department of Treasury, Manuscript Census, 1850, San Diego (photostat copy), 1-19.

7. See Taxpayers Roll, San Diego, 1850, San Diego History Center Collections, Serra Museum, San Diego.

8. Ibid.; also see Manuscript Census, San Diego, 1850 and Nathaniel Lyon MSS., Bancroft Library. Lyon was the Army quartermaster at New San Diego.

9. Andrew F. Rolle, “William Heath Davis and the Founding of American San Diego,” California Historical Society Quarterly, Vol. 31(1952), 33-34.

10. See Chapt. LXV in William H. Davis, Seventy-Five Years in California 1831-1906 (San Francisco, 1929), 332-337; and W.H. Davis to Charles W. Lawton, New San Diego, July 10, 1850 and J.W. Raymond to Davis, New San Diego, Oct. 24, 1850, in W.H. Davis MSS., (1840-1891), Cowan Collection, University of California, Los Angeles, Research Library.

11. No evidence exists that a study was made during the 1850s of the water depth of San Diego Bay. See Senate Executive Documents, Doc. 79, 33 Cong., 2d Sess. and Checklist of United States Public Documents 1789-1909, I (Washington, 1962). John S. Hittell, however, in his 1874 study of California reported the entrance of San Diego harbor as being only 25 feet deep at high water, “and calms off the coast frequently render it difficult for sailing vessels to enter or leave the harbor for days at a time…” See John S. Hittell, The Resources of California (San Francisco, 1874), 78. Lesley writes of the New Town location that “This particular spot was considered of great value by the interested parties, due to the fact that, next to La Playa, the channel comes very close to the shore there, making an ideal location for a wharf.” See Lesley, “The Struggle of San Diego,” 98.

12. Rolle, “Davis,” 34-35.

13. Andrew F. Rolle, An American In California: The Biography of William Heath Davis, 1882-1909 (San Marino, California, 1956), 91; and San Diego County Tax Assessor, Assessment Rolls, 1854-1860 (microfilm), San Diego County Building.

14. Rolle, An American, 98 and Thomas O. Johns to Davis, New San Diego, May 25, and 29, June 17, 1851 and George F. Hooper to Davis, August 6, 1851, in Letters: San Diego Pioneers, 1850-1855, California Room, San Diego Public Library. Hereinafter cited as Letters.

15. See “W. H. Davis Complainant (1881),” 2, California Historical Society, San Francisco; Rolle, “Davis,” 35. Thomas R. Darnall in a letter to his brother in 1855 noted that the wharf cost $70,000. See Darnall to James Darnall, San Diego, Oct. 18, 1855 in Thomas R. Darnall MSS., California Historical Society, San Francisco.

16. Charles H. Hill to Davis, San Francisco, Aug. 29, 1850, Letters.

17. Johns to Davis, San Diego, March 31, 1850, Letters.

18. G.H. Derby, Lt.Top. Engineers, to Col. J.J. Albert. Chief Top. Engineers, San Diego, Jan. 11, 1853, G.H. Derby MSS. (1849-1860), Bancroft Library.

19. Rolle, “Davis,” 35. Gray, according to Rolle, advised Davis to add an additional structure to the wharf: “Davis, attach to your wharf—where it passes over the sand spit—a bathing house for ladies and gentlemen…this would be a great attraction and profitable also.” See Rolle, An American, 96.

20. Rolle, “Davis,” 37-38. No postal records concerning San Diego during this period are available. See Preliminary Inventories No. 168: Records of the Post Office Department, Federal Records Center, Los Angeles.

21. John G. Brown to Thomas Corwin, Sec. of Treasury, Wash., D. C., Feb. 10, 1852, Davis MSS., UCLA. Brown served as an agent for Davis. Also see George F. Hooper to Davis, New San Diego, Oct. 8, 1852 in Ibid.

22. Rolle, “Davis,” 38.

23. Other agents for Davis at New Town were George F. Hooper and William P. Toler, see Letters. Frank Ames to Davis, New San Diego, May 18, 1850, Letters. Ames and Pendleton to Davis, New San Diego, Nov. 22, 1852, Letters. Pendleton to Davis, New San Diego, April 19, June 9 and September 27, 1853, Letters. According to Pendleton, this was not the first time a ship had crashed into the wharf. Also see Rolle, “Davis,” 41-42. Rolle states that further damage to the wharf occurred when two other steamers crashed into it. Rolle, An American, 101.

24. Hooper to Davis, New San Diego, Jan. 22, 1852, Davis MSS., UCLA. “Tax Form of List of Property—Real and Personal of W.H. Davis, Subject to Taxation in the County of San Diego, State of California,” in W.H. Davis MSS., San Diego History Center Collections.

25. Rolle, An American, 93.

26. Rolle, An American, 97, 100.

27. Ibid.

28. Smythe, San Diego, 256-257.

29. City of San Diego, Minutes of the Common Council of the City of San Diego, 1850-1868, July 30, 1850, 36. Hereinafter, cited as Minutes.

30. Ibid., Aug. 17, 1850, 55, Sept. 15, 1851, 176-179.

31. Ibid., Nov. 8, 1850, 101, Nov. 19, 1853, 253; also see Jan. 6, 1853, 237-241; Feb. 1, 1854, 258-262; and Dec. 23, 1856, 297-299.

32. See the San Diego Herald from 1851 to 1860. Hereinafter, cited as Herald, especially March 13, 1852; Dec. 2, 1854, 2; June 2, 1855, 3; and June 19, 1855, 2.

33. See W.C. Ferrell to William L. Hodge, Acting Sec. of Treasury, San Diego, June 16, 1851, in Letters Received by the Secretary of Treasury from Collectors of Customs 1833-1869 (M-174), Federal Records Center, San Francisco. Hereinafter cited as Customs.

34. See Thomas R. Darnall to James Darnall, San Diego, Oct. 18, 1855 in Darnall MSS., California Historical Society.

35. Herald, May 29, 1851, 3.

36. Ibid., June 28, 1852, 3.

37. Ibid., June 5, 1851, 2. July 10, 1851, 3. Jan. 17, 1852, 3; May 15, 1852, 3. Aug. 7, 1852, 1. Aug. 26, 1854, 2.

38. Ibid., July 3l, 1851, 2.

39. Eighth Census of the United States, 1860, Manufactures (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1865), 23-26.

40. See “Departures of American Vessels for American Ports from the District of Monterey, Cal., Port of Monterey during Quarter ending March 31, 1851” in Customs. Carl H. Heilbron, A History of San Diego County (San Diego, 1936), 80.

41. Herald, Sept. 4, 1851, 2. Oct. 22, 1851, 2. April 17, 1852, 2.

42. See Customs and Letters Sent by the Secretary of the Treasury to Collectors of Customs at all Ports (1789-1847) and at Small Ports (1847-1878) (M-175), Federal Records Center, San Francisco.

43. Mrs. Edwin T. Coman, “Customs House Survey,” (San Diego [n.d.]), unpublished manuscript and William Meredith, Secretary of Treasury, to James Collier, Collector of Customs for port of San Francisco, Washington, April 3, 1849 in manuscript entitled “Customs—U.S. Service Custom House 111.1,” San Diego Historical Society Collections.

44. W.C. Ferrell to William R. Hodge, Acting Sec. of Treasury, San Diego, May 30,1851, Customs.

45. This estimate, of course, was $20,000 below Davis!

46. John G. Brown to Thomas Carwin, Sec. of Treasury, Wash., Feb. 10, 1852, Davis MSS., UCLA. Thomas Carwin to Ferrell, Wash., Feb. 20, 1852,Ibid. Ferrell to Carwin, San Diego, June 10, 1852, Customs.

47. San Diego, Oct. 30, 1852, Ibid.; also, see O.S. Witherby, collector, to James Guthrie, Sec. of Treasury, San Diego, Oct. 3,1853, Ibid. David Michael Goodman, A Western Panorama, 1849-1875 (Glendale, Calif., 1966), 29.

48. Herald, March 11, 1854, 2; March 25, 1854, 2; April 15, 1854, 2; May 12, 1855, 2. Eighth Census of the United States, 1860, Agriculture(Washington, D. C.: Government Printing Office, 1864), 10-13.

49. Eighth Census, Agriculture, 10-13. Ibid., Seventh Census of the United States, 1850, and An Appendix, “Population and Industry of California By the State Census for the Year, 1852” (Washington, D.C.: Robert Armstrong, public printer, 1853), 982-985.

50. Herald, May 31, 1856, 2.

51. Herald, Dec. 17, 1853, 2.

52. Ibid., July 31. 1851, 2.

53. Ibid., Sept. 17, 1853, 2, and Aug. 13, 1853, 2.

54. Elene C. Kendall, “Southern Vineyards: The Economic Significance of the Wine Industry in the Development of Los Angeles, 1831-1870.”Historical Society of Southern California Quarterly, Vol. 37 (1959), 32-33; also see Vincent P. Carosso, The California Wine Industry: A Study of the Formative Years, 1830-1895 (Berkeley, 1951); and Iris Ann Wilson, “Early Southern California Vine Culture, 1830-1865,” Historical Society of Southern California Quarterly, Vol. 39 (1957), 242-250.

55. Herald, Aug. 13, 1853, 3.

56. Ibid., Jan. 13, 1855, 2.

57. Herald, April 8, 1854, 2.

58. Eighth Census, Agriculture, 10-13.

59. Gerald D. Nash, State Government and Economic Development (Berkeley, 1964), 63, 69 and 124.

60. Herald, July 17. 1851, 2; Aug. 21, 1851, 3; Oct. 2, 1851, 2. also see William L. Taler to Davis, New San Diego, Aug. 14, 1851, Letters.

61. Herald, Dec. 4, 1852, 2.

62. Ibid., May 15, 1852, 2.

63. Samuel P. Heintzelman, Quartermaster, to Thomas L. Jessup, San Diego, May 1, 1849 in U.S. Quartermaster Dept. Correspondence, 1848-1857. MSS. Bancroft Library. Davis to John Panott, New San Diego, June 17, 1850, Davis MSS, UCLA.

64. Herald, April 4, 1857, 2.

65. See U.S. Department of Treasury, Manuscript Census, 1860, Vol. V, San Diego (microfilm), Roll 64, 1-20.

66. A.B. Pendleton to Davis, San Diego, April 10, 1855, Letters. Herald, May 16, 1857, 2; July 25, 1857, 2; Sept. 19, 1857,2.

67. Herald, July 25, 1857, 2; Aug. 1, 1857, 2; Aug. 22, 1857, 2; Sept. 12, 1857, 2; Dec. 5, 1857, 2. Rose already had spent a small fortune in unsuccessfully prospecting and working copper and silver mines in San Diego County. See also Thomas R. Darnall, “San Diego in 1855 and 1856,”Historical Society of Southern California Quarterly, Vol. 116 (1934), 64; Darnall to his father and mother, San Diego, Sept. 13, 1857, Darnall MSS. E.W. Morse, Correspondence, Merchandise File (1857-1879) San Diego Historical Society Collections.

68. Herald, Oct. 24, 1857, 2.

69. Ibid., Sept. 12, 1857, 2.

70. Ibid., Jan. 2. 1858, 2.

71. E.W. Morse, listing of Oct. 8, 1857 in Day Book (1857-1858), 1; also Oct. 20, 1857, 17; Nov. 9, 1857, 42; and Dec. 28, 1857, 104; See “Jesus Maria Mines Letters” in Morse, Correspondence. The dates for this correspondence are difficult to determine since no dates appear on some of them; however, those that do have dates are all for 1857, and presumably the undated ones are, also, for this year. All in San Diego History Center Collections.

72. Morse to Jesus Maria Mine, San Diego, Nov. 6, 1857 (?) Sept. 25 and Oct. 7, 1857(?) in Ibid. These dates appear, but it is not certain they are correct letter dates.

73. Samuel F. Black, San Diego County, California: A Record of Settlement, Organization, Progress and Achievement Chicago, 1913), 1, 113-114.Herald, Aug. 21, 1851, 3; and Dec. 4, 1852, 2.

74. Herald, Nov. 12, 1853, 2; Nov. 19. 1853, 3.

75. Black, San Diego, 116. For a brief description of whale hunting along the California Coast see Part III, Chap. 5 in Charles M. Scammon, The Marine Mammals of the North-Western Coast of North America (San Francisco, 1874), 247-251.

76. Herald, Aug. 18, 1855, 2.

77. Ibid., Oct. 20, 1855, 2.

78. Heilbron, San Diego, 9.

79. Seventh Census, San Diego, 1850; Eighth Census, Agriculture, 10-13.

80. Manuscript Census, San Diego, 1860, 1-20.

81. Leonard Pitt, The Decline of the Californios (Berkeley, 1966), 108.

82. Paul W. Gates, “California’s Embattled Settlers,” California Historical Society Quarterly, Vol. XLI (June, 1962), 101.

83. Paul W. Gates, “Adjudication of Spanish-Mexican Land Claims in California,” The Huntington Library Quarterly, Vol. XXI (May, 1958), 213.

84. Pitt, Californios, 86-106.

85. Robert Class Cleland, The Cattle on a Thousand Hills (San Marino, Calif., 1951), 38-42.

86. Manuscript Census, San Diego, 1860, 1-20.

87. Southern Californian, April 11, 1855.

88. Manuscript Census, San Diego, 1860, 1-22.

89. Cleland, Thousand Hills, 50.

90. Herald, March 19, 1852, 2.

91. Ibid., April 1, 1854, 2.

92. Pendleton to Davis, New San Diego, March 20, 1854, Davis MSS., UCLA.

93. Herald, April 8, 1854, 2.

94. Ibid., April 22, 1854, 2.

95. Ibid., May 12, 1855, 2.

96. See Lesley, “The Struggle of San Diego,” and Lesley, “San Diego and the Struggle for a Southern Transcontinental Railroad Terminus” in Greater America: Essays in Honor of Herbert Eugene Bolton (Berkeley, 1945), 499-518.

97. Herald, Feb. 7, 1852, 2.

98. Ibid., May 21, 1853, 1.

99. See Robert R. Russel, Improvement of Communication with the Pacific Coast as an Issue in American Politics, 1783-1864 (Cedar Rapids, 1948), 14.

100. Herald, May 21, 1853, 1.

101. See San Diego & Gila Southern Pacific and Atlantic Railroad Company, Subscription Blank and Stock Journal, 1, San Diego History Center Collections.

102. See the “Treasurer’s Report of the San Diego and Gila Southern Pacific and Atlantic Railroad Co.,” (1854), 3-6 in Serra Museum.

103. Herald, Nov. 18, 1854, 2.

104. Minutes, Sept. 11, 1855, 286; Oct. 30, 1855, 289. Smythe, San Diego, 353.

105. Darnall, “San Diego,” 61.

106. Herald, April 16, 1859, 5.

107. Herald, Oct. 8, 1859, 2.


Mario T. Garcia has been a lecturer of Chicano Studies and History at San Diego State University from 1970 to 1974. He has also taught at the Third College at the University of California. San Diego. He received his B.A. and M.A. from the University of Texas, El Paso and will shortly complete his Ph.D. in History at UCSD. His doctoral thesis is entitled “Modernization and Labor in the Southwest: a Case Study of the Mexican Population of El Paso, Texas, 1880-1920.” Professor Garcia’s publications include “Jose Vasconcelos and La Raza,” El Grito (1969) and “A Chicano Perspective on San Diego History,” Journal of San Diego History (1972).

In January, 1975, Professor Garcia will begin an appointment as Acting Assistant Professor of Chicano Studies and History at the University of California, Santa Barbara.