By CANICE G. CIRUZZI
A graduate student in History at The University of San Diego
In 1853, while dining in a San Francisco hotel, a young army officer watched the landlord carve a roast of veal into smaller and smaller pieces. When the soldier asked the reason for such tiny slices of meat, the host replied, “There’s but little of it and I want to make it go as far as possible.”
“In that case,” said Lieutenant George Horatio Derby, “I’ll take a large slice. I think I can make it go as far as anybody; I am going to San Diego.”1
And to San Diego Derby came, no doubt well fortified with veal. While his wit and comic writings made the lieutenant a favorite throughout the California of the early 1850s, San Diego in particular remembers Derby’s humor with affection. Derby, however, was more than just a funny young man. John Phoenix, cartoonist, wag, and prankster, has obscured Lieutenant George Derby of the U.S. Topographical Engineers, whose professional contributions to the opening of the West can stand alone — without his alter-egos, Phoenix and Squibob. That Derby stands as a humorist of merit is beyond dispute; he was also a respected engineer and explorer whose real pride lay in his profession. Far more than just a happy clown, Derby’s dual personality was complex, and his life, in the end, became tragic.
The serio-comic nature of Derby was evident in his boyhood. Born and reared in Massachusetts,2 he had by the age of seven read an enormous number of books and already had written stories. As a balance to these scholarly accomplishments, the boy Derby could cause frequent laughter in the classroom, and classmates repeated his witty expressions until Derby himself became sick of them.3 When Derby entered the U.S. Military Academy in 1842,4 he quickly earned a reputation for humor and practical jokes. At the same time, he maintained excellent grades. Derby’s West Point classmates nicknamed him “Squibob,” the meaning of which remains obscure, but the intent seems obviously comic.5 In 1847, Derby graduated, a respectable seventh in a class of fifty-nine.6
During the Mexican War, the young lieutenant suffered a serious wound at the Battle of Cerro Gordo; his bravery in combat earned him a citation for gallant and meritorious conduct. In 1849, the army assigned Derby to the Department of the Pacific,7 where for the next six years, he carried out his greatest work.
Derby arrived in California at the height of the Gold Rush and soon received orders for his first command, a survey for a new military post on Bear Creek, a tributary of the Feather River, and the exploration of a section of the Sacramento Valley. In September, 1849, Derby set out with his party of seven civilians and had returned by December 2. Although his official report appears proper in every respect, the personality of the author gleams through the formality and technical details. The soil of a plain “greedily absorbs” water; the party killed “three veritable racoons,” and later encountered “about one hundred wretched Indians, playfully termed Christian.” When a servant stole Derby’s horse, Derby dispatched one of the civilians on another of the horses to track down the culprit. “I have never seen either of them since,” he mourned. Derby described everything on the trip, including recalcitrant mules, with enthusiasm, but the hordes of Forty-Niners who surged through the area distressed the young officer. He saw “many emigrant-wagons filled with dirty and unhappy looking women and unwholesome children.”8 Derby’s report remains a colorful, if little read, description of the Sacramento Valley during the Gold Rush; his ease with words displayed a “touch of the Phoenix.”
In contrast to this exuberance was Derby’s account of his next major assignment, the exploration of the mouth of the Colorado River. Derby had no way of knowing that this work would be the greatest of his career, but the report is serious, as if he were aware that whimsy would be out of place. One historian, at least, believes that this exploration had more importance, more historical significance, than all Derby’s humorous writings.9
The army viewed the Gulf of California and the mouth of the Colorado as a possible supply route to the post, later called Fort Yuma, at the junction of the Gila and Colorado Rivers. At this time, provisions to the new post had to be hauled laboriously across the desert from San Diego. The army assigned Derby to explore the mouth of the river in search of the alternate route. Derby sailed from San Francisco on the Invincible on November 1, 1850. As the journey progressed, Derby made drawings of the islands and rocky points in the Gulf of California; the drawings are beautiful.10
When the Invincible reached the mouth of the Colorado, the party sailed up the river as far as possible, then Derby took the longboat for further extensive explorations. Tales of the hostility of the Yuma Indians kept the party alert, although Indians they did encounter proved harmless. The tidal bore became a greater danger, to the Invincible as well as the smaller craft.
Strong currents in the river also made the journey difficult. On January 13, 1851, Derby met Major Samuel P. Heintzelman,11 commander of the post, who had traveled about eighty miles by land down the Colorado to rendezvous with Derby. Heintzelmen sent soldiers to the Invincible to collect the provisions, concluding the successful experiment. The ship began her homeward journey on January 29.12
In his report on the exploration, Derby stated that the Colorado was navigable for vessels of shallow draft and recommended that the army leave provisions by ship at Charles Point, where the supplies could be picked up by a small steamboat and taken to Fort Yuma.13
Because of Derby’s exploration, steamboating on the Colorado later became a flourishing business, as well as an immense aid to Arizona Territory, whose people, mining, and agricultural products relied on transportation by this method. Arizona could well consider George Derby a Founding Father.14
In January, 1853, after a short assignment in Texas, Derby returned to California,15 this time to the little town of San Diego, which had great need for the talents of an Army engineer. The San Diego River, a capricious monster which had changed course from a natural outlet in False Bay16 to San Diego Bay, had begun to fill the harbor with silt. To turn the channel back into False Bay became Derby’s job, and nemesis. Derby said that he had come to dam the San Diego River, and had done so many times since his arrival.17 The words, spoken in jest, achieved an unpleasant reality.
Proceeding with the work, Derby spent several weeks on a survey of the area and, in March, 1853, wrote his recommendations to Colonel J.J. Abert, Chief of the Topographical Engineers in Washington, D.C.18 The army rejected the recommendations, ordering Derby to follow another, less costly plan. Derby complied, carrying out the work with some slight modifications he felt necessary. When he attempted to draw funds for the project, the engineer had a disagreeable surprise: the army would not honor his drafts.
In January, 1854, Derby wrote a stiff request to Abert to allow the funds to be released. He regretted, Derby wrote, that his small modifications had not met with Abert’s approval:
I had no other object . . . than to do the work in the best . . . manner possible . . . You allowed my draft to be dishonored . . . I believe I am the only officer on this coast whose official drafts have ever been dishonored.19
The funds became available and Derby completed the dam, planning to build a levee the following summer. A levee, Derby held, was instrumental to the permanent success of the project. Derby never had the chance to finish the work; President Franklin Pierce vetoed the River and Harbor Bill, thereby eliminating the San Diego appropriation.
In September, 1854, a discouraged Derby wrote Abert to ask for a transfer from San Diego to the East Coast. “I can assure you that an exile to this dreary and desolate little place …is about the most disagreeable duty that I could have possibly performed.”20
A couple of months later, Derby, now on the staff of General John E. Wool, Commander of the Department of the Pacific,21 had second thoughts. The engineer could not ignore the challenge of an unfinished job. Writing to Abert, Derby asked to be assigned once again to the San Diego dam project if the funds should become available. The funds were not forthcoming; San Diego had seen the last of Derby.22
While San Diego, the “desolate little place,” may have been a stumbling block for the engineer, the town proved to be the birthplace of the best works of the humorist. Derby had contributed several comic articles to the San Francisco Herald under his old West Point nickname “Squibob” before his arrival in San Diego.23 Squibob, in fact had aroused so many imitators in other San Francisco newspapers, all using his name, that Derby “killed him off”24 and described the funeral in the pages of the newspaper. From the ashes of the expired Squibob, then, arose the inimitable John Phoenix, editor extraordinaire of the San Diego Herald.25
Derby’s short-lived and outrageous editorship came about as a favor to Judson Ames, publisher of the little newspaper, whose absence from San Diego necessitated a stand-in. Gubernatorial elections were imminent; during the next six weeks, Derby, as John Phoenix, proceeded to change the politics of the paper from Democrat to Whig and, what is more, observe the local triumph of his candidate.” The jokes, puns, and drolleries amused the townspeople; his final issue, “Phoenix’s Pictorial,”27 delighted early San Diegans, and can still delight us. The Phoenix Herald editions remain, in a word, funny.
Because of the highjinks, one can overlook the fact that Derby’s candidate won in San Diego County. The joke proved to be an effective one.
The serious work for Derby was the dam, however, not his humorous writings. Mary Coons Derby, whom he married while assigned to the San Diego project,28 later said of her husband’s attitude toward his works of humor that “he never appreciated his great gift.”29 Derby’s San Diego friend, E. W. Morse, agreed that the humorist treated his talent lightly.30 In 1854, when Judson Ames suggested that they publish some of Derby’s writings in a book, Derby refused. Since much of the work had appeared in Ames’ Herald, and none lay under copyright, Ames could publish without Derby’s consent, and threatened to do so. At last, Derby agreed. Ames went to New York, where he sold the collection, entitled Phoenixiana, to Appleton and Company for $45031 — and it seems likely that Derby never collected a penny.32
Phoenixiana, brought out in 1855, became an instant success; by the end of the year, the book had gone through seven editions and had sold thousands of copies. Total editions, up to the present day, stand close to forty.33 If it is true that Derby realized no profit, or very little profit, from the sale of his own book, and made no complaint, started no lawsuit, felt no resentment toward Ames for his poor business acumen, one can only wonder why Derby’s works of humor meant so little to him. George Derby as John Phoenix perhaps just did not care.34 Derby’s nonchalance toward Phoenixiana shows an interesting contrast to his reproach of “dishonor” toward Colonel Abert.
While Derby worked on the dam and played at being John Phoenix, he tried his hand at business and land speculation in San Diego. One parcel of land Derby bought from Agoston Haraszthy, and paid for, in part, with private surveying.35 His most interesting business transaction occurred after Derby had transferred from San Diego: on March 22, 1855, Derby bought the San Diego Herald from Judson Ames for $3,000.36 While he may have been in partnership with others, Derby’s name alone appears in the deed book.37 Since the Herald went out of business in 1860,38 and there seems to be no record of Derby’s selling the newspaper, it appears likely he stood the financial loss.39 His wife said that “he was no businessman;”40 at least with the purchase of the Herald and the sale of Phoenixiana, one can only agree.
In 1855, Derby began his last assignment in the West when the army placed him in charge of building military roads in Oregon and Washington,41 where, he reported, there was no such thing as “dry humor.”42 There did exist, as he found,, such a thing as civilian self-interest and obstruction. Settlers near the proposed routes broke into factions, each demanding that the roads go in a course that would be to their own benefit. The army engineer insisted on the shortest and least expensive route. When a clamor arose, Governor Isaac Stevens of Washington territory complained to Secretary of War Jefferson Davis; the army removed Derby, despite the fact that his superior wrote a letter of defense to Abert, endorsing Derby’s plans. Perhaps Derby gained some consolation, after his transfer to the East, from the fact that the army built the roads, after all, where he had proposed.43
Derby left the West early in 1856 to carry out his last military assignment as head of the Coastal Survey in Mobile, Alabama.44 Eye trouble, which had plagued him for some time, became a serious problem. In 1858, Derby suffered a sunstroke; in 1859, ill-health forced him to take a leave of absence. Derby died in New York in 1861 at the age of thirty-eight.45
The career of the soldier lasted thirteen years, years which witnessed both success and failure. The humorist gained far more recognition than the soldier, but what everyone else valued most, Derby held in least esteem. Other events in his life reveal that Derby had many sides to his character.
For example, in 1851, Derby faced a court-martial. Although noble intentions had caused his involvement in the affair, the long imprisonment while he waited trial brought Derby to a state of suicidal depression. Drinking heavily, growing ever more despondent, Derby at last tried to kill himself with poison. His friends managed to secure an acquittal, but not without difficulty since Derby’s playful character had made him enemies in the army.46
While his written humor remained gentle and without vindictiveness, Derby’s pranks could display the mild cruelty of the practical joker. At West Point his jokes at the expense of others could be, at times, venomous.47 One minor instance of this trait occurred in San Diego when Anna Whaley came to visit Mary Derby. In a frivolous moment, Mrs. Whaley accepted a dare to climb into a cask. With a mysterious suddenness, the cask tumbled down the hill, Mrs. Whaley within, ripping her dress and presumably her skin, on the nails inside the barrel. The look of innocence which adorned the face of Lieutenant Derby did not keep Anna Whaley from suspecting that his hand had given the cask a shove.48 One wonders how funny Mrs. Whaley really found this little joke.
Drinking may have been a problem for Derby.49 But the overriding tragedy for him and his family was his failing eyesight and gradual personality deterioration. Derby’s last years, his biographer says, should be left to surgeons and psychiatrists.50 One medical doctor holds that Derby may have suffered from an undiagnosed brain tumor, the physical and psychological symptoms making a good case for that illness.51 In any event, the once witty soldier whose book of humor was still bringing so much laughter to the nation, spent his own last years in a condition of pain, blindness, and disorientation.
Tragedy stalked Derby’s family as well. His widow, Mary, lived for many years in straitened circumstances, a sad and ironical situation considering all those editions of Phoenixiana. Of Derby’s three children, Daisy, a noted beauty, married William H. Black, became a Washington socialite — and committed suicide when her little son Roger was four years old.52 Mary Townsend, or Mamie, as her family called her, died, unmarried, at the age of thirty-five.53 Derby’s only son, George McClelland, graduated first in his class at West Point and had a distinguished military career.54
One cannot, of course, separate the many facets of the complicated character of George Horatio Derby, a Yankee who became one of the first “western” humorists, a soldier who made significant contributions to the opening of the West, an intelligent man who stands as far more than a mere “Phunster Phoenix.”55 The contributions to western history were many and varied, and they all came from the same man.
But such a eulogy might have made Derby shudder, as one who took such delight in lampooning the solemn. To end on a note of lightness, then, seems appropriate. The writer will yield to Phoenix, bow to his superior facility with the pen, and let him have the last word:
If I have given offense to any by the tone of my remarks, I assure them that it has been quite unintentional, and to prove that I bear no malice, I hereby accept their apologies.56
1. George R. Stewart, John Phoenix, Esq.: The Veritable Squibob (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1932). p. 117.
2. George Horatio Derby was born April 3, 1823, in Dedham, Massachusetts, son of John B. Derby and Mary Townsend Derby. Don Gleason Hill (ed.), The Records of Births, Marriages, Deaths, and Intensions of Marriage in the Town of Dedham, 1637-1845 (The Dedham Transcript, Publishers, 1886), p. 147.
3. “Letter from Mary Coons Derby of New York City to John Vance Cheney, Chicago,” December 14, 1896. San Diego Public Library. Cheney was editor of the 1897 Caxton Club edition of Phoenixiana. His correspondence with Mrs. Derby and Ephraim W. Morse concerned information about Derby which Cheney wished to include in his introduction to the book.
4. George Washington Cullum, Biographical Register of the Officers and Graduates of the U.S. Military Academy, 1841-1867, Vol. II (New York: D. Van Norstrand, 1868), p. 145.
5. Stewart, Phoenix, p. 27. Stewart claims the nickname rhymed with “fly-bob.” The Derby marker in Squibob Square, Old Town, San Diego, states that the proper pronunciation was “Skwee-bob.”
6. Francis B. Heitman, Historical Register and Dictionary of the United States Army, Vol. I (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1903), p. 368.
7. Cullum, Officers and Graduates, p. 145.
8. Lieutenant George H. Derby, “Report of the Survey of a Portion of the Sacramento Valley,” in “Report of the Secretary of War Communicating Information in Relation to the Geology and Topography of California,” Senate Executive Document, No. 47, 31st Congress, 1st session, Part II, 1850, pp. 3-16.
9. This is the contention of Odie B. Faulk. George H. Derby, Derby’s Report on the Opening of the Colorado, 1850-1851, Introduction by Odie B. Faulk (University of New Mexico Press, 1969), p. 15.
10. Ibid., p. 50.
11. Samuel P. Heintzelman graduated from the Military Academy in 1826, served in San Diego in 1849-1850, established Fort Yuma in 1850-1853, and became a brigadier general during the Civil War. Cullum, Officers and Graduates, pp. 295-296.
12. Derby, Colorado, pp. 42-48.
13. Ibid., p. 50.
14. Ibid., Faulk, pp. 15, 16.
15. Cullum, Officers and Graduates, p. 145. The Derby Marker in Squibob Square states a popular belief as to the reason Derby came to San Diego. This conception holds that the engineer’s comic drawings and suggestions for the new army uniform so outraged Jefferson Davis that the Secretary of War “exiled” Derby to the West Coast dam project. The idea seems to have been prevalent in Derby’s own time. In a letter from “Mrs. Derby to Cheney,” February 2, 1897, Mary Derby wrote, “It is true that my husband made two distinct series of illustrations … for the uniforms and they were very funny …but they gave no offence (yet I have heard say that Secy [sic] Davis did object).” Stewart claims the story is apocryphal; Derby sought the job and asked for the transfer. See Stewart, Phoenix, p. 99, also pp. 180-181 for a friendly meeting between Derby and Davis in 1856.
16. Mission Bay.
17. George H. Derby (John Phoenix), Phoenixiana (New York: Appleton and Company, 1869 ed. ), p. 206.
18. “Appendix E.” House Executive Document, No. 1, Part III, 33rd Congress, 1st Session, 1853-1854, pp. 109-115.
19. Francis P. Farquhar, “The Topographical Reports of Lt. George H. Derby,” California Historical Society Quarterly, XI, June, 1932, 69.
20. Ibid., 70.
21. Cullum, Officers and Graduates, p. 145. 22. Farquhar, Reports, p. 71.
23. Stewart, Phoenix, p. 106.
24. “Mrs. Derby to Cheney,” December 14, 1896.
25. Stewart, Phoenix, p. 106.
26. San Diego Herald, August 24, 1853 and September 17, 1853.
27. Herald, October 1, 1853.
28. Ibid., January 28, 1854.
29. “Mrs. Derby to Cheney,” December 14, 1896.
30. “Letter from E.W. Morse, San Diego, to John Vance Cheney, Chicago,” December 27, 1896. San Diego Public Library. Ephraim Morse, one of San Diego’s leading citizens and first bankers, remembered Derby with affection as a “born humorist.” Derby, he wrote, did not collect his writings himself “because he did not appreciate them as others did.”
31. “Mrs. Derby to Cheney,” December 14, 1896.
32. Stewart, Phoenix, p. 169.
33. George Derby (John Phoenix), Phoenixiana, Introduction by John Vance Cheney (Chicago: Caxton Club, 1897), p. xxvii. Cheney numbered the Appleton editions at thirty-six. Also published were a 1906 edition from Appleton and a 1937 edition by the Grabhorn Press of San Francisco.
34. Mrs. Derby wrote that “he never made an effort to right the matter. I have heard him say that if the public was amused, he had his compensation.” “Mrs. Derby to Cheney,” December 14, 1896.
35. Deed Book D, pp. 155-156, San Diego County Recorder. Other real property transactions of Derby may be found in Deed Book D, pp. 258-259; 260, 261. Deed Book E, pp. 221-223; 402, 403.
36. Deed Book E, pp. 229-231.
37. “Letter from William H. Noyes, San Diego, to Mrs. Judson Ames,” March 17, 1862, typescript copy, San Diego History Center, Library and Manuscripts Collection. Hereinafter cited as SDHC Library. Noyes stated that he had a contract for the Herald with George Derby in 1855-1856, by which Noyes would publish and edit the newspaper for two-thirds of the profits while Derby would receive one-third. Ames, it seems, had no control over the paper at this time.
38. Alfred Smythe, History of San Diego, Vol. I (San Diego: The History Company, 1908), p. 303.
39. Deed Book One, which covers the years 1856-1860, shows no sale of the Herald.
40. “Mrs. Derby to Cheney,” December 14, 1896.
41. Cullum, Officers and Graduates, p. 145.
42. George Derby (John Phoenix), The Squibob Papers (New York: Carleton, 1865), p. 66. Mrs. Derby published this volume of humorous sketches posthumously. While the book contains some of Derby’s best drawings, the written material is inferior to Phoenixiana; the work never attained the popularity of its predecessor.
43. W. Turrentine Jackson, Wagon Roads West (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1952), pp. 75-79, 96-101.
44. Cullum, Officers and Graduates, p. 145.
45. Stewart, Phoenix, pp. 186-191.
46. Ibid., pp. 85-92.
47. Ibid., p. 27.
48. Lillian Whaley, Old Times in Old Town, Typed Manuscript, SDHC Library, pp. 4, 5. Smythe also related this story without revealing the identity of the victim. Smythe, San Diego, p. 314.
49. Personal interview with Mrs. Helen B. Gray, October 20, 1973. Mrs. Gray, the great-grandaughter of George Derby, said the family tradition, and family skeleton, is that Derby drank himself to death. There exists some evidence to the contrary, at least for Derby’s years of active service. T.A. Barry and B.A. Patten, jovial proprietors of a popular San Francisco saloon of the 1850s, were impressed with Derby’s sobriety. They wrote that they had been with Derby under all circumstances, and had never seen him take spirits, despite the fact that Derby’s reputation was that of a “very dissipated man.” T.A. Barry and B.A. Patten, Men and Memories of San Francisco in the Spring of ’50 (San Francisco: A.L. Bancroft and Company, 1873), p. 148. Stewart also holds that Derby, after his court-martial, led an abstemious life. Stewart, Phoenix, pp. 91, 92, 146.
50. Stewart, Phoenix, p. 192.
51. Personal interview with George Zorn, M.D., February 20, 1976. Understandably, Derby’s erratic behavior in his last years caused his family anguish. Mary Derby referred to his condition as a “softening of the brain” brought on by sunstroke. She implored Cheney to omit from his introduction those parts of Derby’s life that would be “painful to the family.” Mrs. Derby wrote that “if the public is informed that his death was caused by sunstroke, I think that is as much as need be told.” “Mary Derby to Cheney,” February 2, 1897.
52. Interview with Helen Gray. Mrs. Gray is the daughter of Roger Derby Black.
53. Probate Index, Vol. 1, Old Probate Cases, Case No. 2656, Case of Mary T. Derby, Deceased, Office of the San Diego County Clerk. Mamie Derby died intestate on August 7, 1893, in New York. It seems she had inherited a few of the lots in San Diego that her father had bought in the 1850s. Assessed value of the property: $250.
54. Heitman, Register, p. 368
55. Winifred Davidson, Phunster Phoenix, Typed Manuscript, SDHC Library.
56. Herald, October 1, 1854.