The Journal of San Diego History
Summer 1982, Volume 28, Number 3

by Teri Thorpe
Gifted High School Program Award
San Diego Historical Society 1981 Institute of History

Images from the article

THE WAR between Mexico and the United States had ended several years earlier in 1848, and now the state of California and the county of San Diego, both established in 1850, were beginning to grow. San Diego was primarily composed of a number of homes and businesses situated around Presidio Hill, but other homes and buildings could be seen further away, newly constructed, independent, yet still a large part of the settlement at San Diego.

The population was about six hundred, consisting of Mexicans, military, and many easterners, most of whom were looking for business opportunities and new lives in the West. There were also many public officials coming and going.

One of these new arrivals to San Diego was a handsome, six foot six and a half inch giant named John Judson Ames. The son of a Calais, Maine, ship builder and owner, he had arrived in San Francisco a year earlier by steamer. His dreams to find contentment in San Francisco apparently had not been realized, and he probably hoped to fulfill them in the newly emerging city of San Diego.

Ames’ past had been eventful, to say the least. When he was about twenty, he had made a voyage to Liverpool as a second mate of one of his father’s vessels. Ames became involved in a fight with a group of rough sailors, and during the fight, three hundred pound Ames struck what he must have thought to be a light blow. To his surprise, the man fell down dead at his feet.1 Ames was arrested for manslaughter, and convicted and sentenced. He was pardoned by President Tyler, but Ames’ sailing days were over forever.

He engaged in newspaper work in Boston for awhile and in 1848 he traveled to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and started a Whig paper during Zachary Taylor’s campaign for the Presidency.

Two years later Ames moved to San Francisco where he formed many political and influential contacts and became successful. It was not known why he decided to leave San Francisco and settle in a town of barely six hundred residents. But it was later discovered that he wished to establish The San Diego Herald as a “mouthpiece” for Senator William H. Gwin, a close friend in San Francisco.2 Ames supported Senator Gwin’s plans to divide the state, and annex lower California and the Sandwich Islands with San Diego as the capital of the territory. Also, he planned to promote the construction of the southern transcontinental railroad terminating at San Diego.

So was born the idea for a newspaper for the rapidly expanding young San Diego. Getting it published, however, ran into a series of difficulties.

Ames published his prospectus for The San Diego Herald in December of 1850 and solicited advertisements and subscriptions from the eager towns-people. However, due to “surmounting difficulties, and suffering anxieties that would have disheartened any but the ‘live yankee’ . . . ,”3 it was six months before the people could read their newspaper.

J.J. Ames had to go to New Orleans to purchase printing materials. But to get the heavy press and materials across the Isthmus of Panama, it had to be transported by native “bungo,” a large canoe or barge. One afternoon on the trip, the bungo on which most of the equipment was loaded struck a snag in the shallow Chagres River and everything fell into the water. The native crew labored for hours trying to recover the four hundred pound standard for the press. When it proved to be too much for them, a disgusted Ames reportedly leaped into the water, lifted the standard and set it on the boat.4

Still, the troubles were not over. From Gorgona to Panama the entire printing outfit was ploddingly moved by mules. Ames contracted Panama fever and was further detained, missing the boat to San Diego. Weeks later he was able to board a boat headed for San Francisco. This boat sprang a leak off the Gulf of Tehuantepec and nearly sank, miraculously making it to San Francisco. Once there, unbelievably, he lost more material in a fire. If plans had gone smoothly, The San Diego Herald would have been the first newspaper in Southern California. Instead The Los Angeles Star was the first, having been published May 17, 1851.

The first location of The Herald was above the store of Hooper & Co. at Fourth and A Streets in San Diego’s “New Town,” known as Graytown or Davis’ Folly.5 Two years later, when New Town became a temporary failure, Ames moved The Herald to Old Town below Presidio Hill where it was published for several years at the northwest corner of the Plaza.

On Thursday, May 29, 1851, the first issue of The San Diego Herald was distributed. It was four pages long, with four columns to the page. Each column was two and a half inches wide and seventeen and a half inches long. There were one hundred and twelve advertisements, ninety one from San Francisco and twenty one from San Diego establishments. By looking at the front page one would assume it was a San Francisco newspaper. This is probably because of Ames’ connections in San Francisco.

In among the first page of advertisements was a sentimental little poem followed by several paragraphs on Sacramento potato trade. On the second page, Ames told the story of his difficulties in transporting the press and materials, and of the aims and policies of the newspaper. It was to be “independent and not neutral; an impartial advocate, and the organ and engine of the party.”6 Although the paper did not say so openly, Ames later admitted that The Herald was published solely to further the interests of Senator Gwin.7

In the early days of The Herald, John Judson Ames was what made the paper what it was. As an editor he was good, but not exceptional, and The San Diego Herald was a good, but not exceptional newspaper. It was Ames’ colorful character, not editing talents, that made him memorable in San Diego history.

John Judson Ames was three hundred pounds of proportioned bone and muscle. His obvious strength helped him maintain his editorial dignity on more than one occasion. Often he was responsible for keeping order in the town, along with the sheriff.8

One day the following article appeared on the editorial page of an early issue:

INSOLENCE: There is a man in this town, holding public position, who has got pretty freely of late, and, but that we esteem him beneath the notice of respectable citizens, we have been half inclined on several occasions, to knock him down and give him a good thrashing.9

This subtle hint was undoubtedly heeded by the “man . . . holding public position,” not wishing to become involved with the bulk of J.J.Ames.

Not all of the articles were so colorful, and neither was the paper. Most of the time Ames went up to San Francisco to meet with his secret political backer, Senator Gwin. He would leave the paper in the hands of less than adequate temporary editors, and often the paper would simply miss several issues.

While away on trips Ames would write letters back to the paper signed “Boston,” and soon he became locally known as “Boston.”10 But these letters were poor substitutes for his presence.

During one extended absence Ames left The Herald in the hands of Lt. George H. Derby, USA. This period became a very bright spot in the history of The Herald.11 Derby was a US Army engineer detailed to turn the San Diego river back into Mission Bay and stop it from silting up San Diego’s harbor. As temporary editor, he used a strong and humorous editorial policy, and changed the political view of The Herald from Democratic to rabidly Whig.12

Under the pen name of John Phoenix, he wrote a series of comical articles called Phoenixiana. These articles brought fame to both himself and The San Diego Herald. In his last edition, on October 31, 1853, Derby wrote of an imaginary beating supposedly given to him by a furious Ames.

Ames commented in the first issue after his return, saying, “Well, here we are again. Phoenix played the ‘devil’ during our absence but he has done it in such a good-humored manner that we have not one word to say so we might as well ‘dry up’ and ‘let it slide.'”13

In 1860 gold was discovered in Holcomb Valley, near San Bernardino. Ames hired Havery C. Ladd, a Mormon and former San Diegan to help him move his press and equipment from San Diego to San Bernardino, leaving San Diego without a newspaper. Ames published The San Bernardino Herald for several months, but his health was failing and he had many personal problems, so he failed to make a success of the newspaper. He sold his materials to Major Edwin Sherman, who did succeed with the paper, and renamed it The San Bernardino Patriot.14

San Diego was without a newspaper or any other form of periodical for the next eight years. The growing community’s hopes for national prominence were dashed when plans to make San Diego the termination point of a southern railway were discarded during the Civil War.

By the end of the 1860s, San Diego citizens had a definite need for a newspaper. They wanted to attract people to their beautiful town, to be in touch with important events, and to tell the world of the opportunities to be found there.15

In the spring of 1868, a San Diego pioneer named Philip Crosthwaite went to visit his sister, Mrs. Gatewood, in San Andreas, where her husband, Col. William Jeff Gatewood, published The Register. Crosthwaite told Gatewood of the potential of San Diego, its future as a port and of the rich agricultural lands and comfortable climate. Crosthwaite knew that a newspaper was exactly what the town needed to revive itself.16

Crosthwaite interested Gatewood into coming San Diego, and upon arriving, he was impressed. He realized the truth in all that Crosthwaite had told him. When he returned to San Andreas, Gatewood suspended The Register and formed a partnership with his foreman Edward W. Bushyhead. They hired J.N. Briseno as their printer, and several other employees of The Register.

Gatewood went back to San Diego, and issued a prospectus for a new newspaper to be called The San Diego Union. The first issue was promised for October 10, 1868. He began soliciting subscriptions and advertisements from merchants and citizens, who were anxiously awaiting the first edition. The subscription price for the weekly newspaper was five dollars a year, three dollars for three months, fifty cents a month, and twelve and a half cents for one copy. The advertising rate was two dollars per square, and the advertisement had to be ten lines or less in length. The ads of this time were usually only small business cards, and the same would be used by each business for long periods of time.

Gatewood then sent word to Bushyhead that it was time to bring himself and the printing outfit to San Diego. Bushyhead freighted his equipment to San Francisco, loaded it onto the steamer Orizaba, and arrived in San Diego on September 19, 1868. He was not impressed with the town and was not optimistic about the success of a newspaper. As a result, his name did not appear in the first issue, when in fact he was part owner of the paper. The names that appeared as publishers were William Gatewood and J.N. Briseno, the latter being actually only an office boy.17

The equipment was installed in a frame building owned by Jose A. Altamirano in Old Town at what is now 2602 San Diego Avenue. They were settled by October 3rd, and the first issue was printed as promised on October 10, 1868.

The first edition of The San Diego Union was printed on rag paper. There were four, six-column pages, the front page being mostly advertisements, with one short fiction story.

The first issue of The Union also stated:

“Many thanks – Captain Johnson especially and the officers generally of the steamship Orizaba will accept the thanks of The Union office . . . The Captain’s generosity would not allow the proprietor to pay any freight for transportation from San Francisco to this place the press and material for the office . . . 18

Gatewood displayed his enthusiasm and the aims of The Union in his Salutatory on page two:

“… But it is not the mission of The Union to deal in fiction . . . The Union will be a faithful mirror, reflecting on its pages times of distress as well as of prosperity, hopes and fears, gloom and gayety and smiles and tears. A faithful chronicler of today and a future reliable historian of the past . . . “19

Gatewood also wrote that The Union would “spread doctrines of Christianity and inculcate pure morals” and promised “a watchful care over country affairs.” Also, he would promote earnest cooperation in efforts promoting the welfare of the city. “In the columns of The Union there would appear no vulgarity, obscenity, vindictiveness or personal abuse, and no expression of the editor’s own political sentiments.”20

The significance of the name of The Union should be mentioned. Three years before publication, the Civil War had ended, thus preserving the union of the states. The name San Diego Union was chosen to respect this.21

In its early years, The Union commented on local issues, but basically stayed neutral politically. It was generally successful but there were money problems and frequent management changes.

Gatewood sold his part of The Union in early 1869, but Bushyhead was able to keep the paper going. He had several co-editor partnerships during this period, such as Charles P. Taggart, Frederick Taylor, and William T. Dodge. In 1870, however, he was joined by Douglas Gunn, who was to stay for sixteen years.

Bushyhead retired from The Union in June of 1873, destined to become the sheriff of San Diego, and also an early chief of police. He died in 1907. Gatewood, who had become an attorney, died in 1888.22

In addition to many management changes, there were also many ownership changes in the early days of The Union. In 1890 a man named Berry was the owner, and soon after it was bought by John D. Spreckels for himself and his brother, Adolph B. Spreckels.

On December 21, 1895 The Evening Tribune was established. It was bought in 1901 by a San Francisco editor named James MacMullen.

Then finally in February 1938 both The Union and The Tribune were purchased by Col. Ira C. Copley, already the owner of several papers in Illinois.

In the early 1870s there was more and more resentment growing between Old Town, where The Union was, and New Town. New Town had begun progressing rapidly with the arrival of Alonzo E. Horton in 1867. He had acquired one thousand acres in the New Town area, what is now called downtown San Diego, for twenty six cents an acre. It soon overshadowed Old Town, thus beginning the strife between the two.23

A newspaper called The Bulletin was born in New Town on August 21, 1869, taking many Union subscribers. As a result, The Union and The Bulletin became feuding rivals. The Union said editorially Monday, January 27, 1870:

“From the date of its first appearance, it has been a special organ of Mr. A.E. Horton, and has been noteworthy only for publication of some two columns per week of the most remarkable ungrammatical sentences under which typers have ever writhed . . . Its circulation is trifling at home, and, fortunately for the reputation of the place, but few copies have ever gone abroad . . . “24

The Bulletin was not published for very long, but it was not the only other newspaper trying to succeed in San Diego. There were many others appearing, but only a few had lasting success. The Daily Bee, established in 1887, was bought by The Union in December of 1888. The next month it was consolidated with The Union. The San Diego Union and The Daily Bee stated on the day they were consolidated:

“It is the purpose of the publishers to make The San Diego Union and The Daily Bee one of the very best papers on the Pacific Coast.”25

The San Diego Sun was established on Sunday, July 19, 1881. It was owned by Mrs. C.P. Taggart, and the office was located in a small frame building on the east side of the plaza. In 1886 it was bought by Warren Wilson of San Bernardino. Then in November of 1892 The Sun was purchased by The San Diegan and the two papers merged into The San Diegan-Sun.26

Another emerging newspaper was called The San Diego Vidette, established on August 6, 1892 by D.O. MacCarthy. Its motto was, “Thrice armed is he whose cause is just.”27 This paper was suspended March 8, 1900, and the plant was bought by The Union.

The San Diego Union reported on the progress of the United States as well as its own town. The first telegraphic dispatches were printed in an extra on August 19, 1870. After a telegraph line was completed between Los Angeles and San Diego, brief dispatches began to occur more and more frequently, despite the large expense.

On December 8, 1870, The Union made newspaper history when it printed in full President Grant’s message to the Congress. This was the introductory statement:

“We give to the readers of The Union today the message of President Grant, delivered to Congress Monday, which has been especially telegraphed in full to this paper, the last page having been received yesterday morning.”

“This is a piece of newspaper enterprise which has never before been attempted by any ‘country paper’ in the United States. We trust that it will be appreciated.”28

Although getting this message was a very large expense, the story was only put on page two. Page one was headed “Now Beet Sugar is Made at Alvarado.”29

The San Diego Union was always full of railroad news. It strongly sup-ported the plans for the construction of a southern transcontinental railroad with San Diego as the terminating point. However, these plans never materialized. In 1885 the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe was built down from San Bernardino, but it was not even a main line.30

By 1870, the population of San Diego was about 2,300. Bushyhead and Gunn were optimistic about the growth of the paper, and of the city. On March 13, 1870, The Union became The San Diego Daily Union, and from that day on was printed every morning except Monday. This was so that the employees would not have to work on Sundays.31

The San Diego Union was extremely successful as a daily newspaper, and since this was the time of San Diego’s first big boom, it resulted in The Union being enlarged to eight pages of twelve columns each, twice its former size.

The Union and its evening counterpart, The Tribune, have initiated many programs over the years, beginning with early programs of civic improvement, cultural and religious interests, school concerns, an adequate water supply, and good government.32Both The San Diego Herald and its successors, The Union and Tribune are an important part of local history, having set the pace over the years for the city’s success and growth.


1. Vertical File, The San Diego Herald, San Diego History Center, Library and Manuscripts Collection. (Hereinafter SDHC) n.d.

2. Ibid.

3. Vertical File, The San Diego Herald, SDHC 1851.

4. Ben F. Dixon, “A Yankee Journalist at the Southwest Corner of the United States. The History of The San Diego Herald, 1851-1860, Pioneer Newspaper of Southern California” (Unfinished thesis, 1963), SDHC, p. 73.

5. Vertical File, The San Diego Herald, SDHC, n.d.

6. Ibid.

7. Irene Phillips, The San Diego Story, Where California Began (South Bay Press, 1963), p. 50.

8. Vertical File, The San Diego Herald, SDHC, April 1943

9. Ibid.

10. Phillips, San Diego 5tory, p. 49.

11. Vertical File, The San Diego Herald, SDHC, April 1943.

12. Ibid.

13. Phillips, San Diego Story, p. 49.

14. Vertical File, The San Diego Herald, SDHC, n.d.

15. Copley Press, Inc., The History of the Copley Press (Illinois, 1953), p. 169.

16. Richard B. Yale, “The Birthplace of The San Diego Union,” The Journal of San Diego History, XIV (October, 1968), p. 34.

17. William E. Smythe, The History of San Diego 1542-1908 (The History Co., 1908), p. 483.

18. Ibid., p. 485

19. History of Copley Press, p. 172.

20. History of Copley Press, p. 160.

21. Ibid., p. 163.

22. Ibid., p.162.

23. History of Copley Press, p. 178.

24. Ibid., p. 178.

25. History of Copley Press, p. 194.

26. Smythe, History of San Diego, p. 491.

27. Ibid., p.492.

28. History of Copley Press, p.185.

29. Ibid.

30. Ibid., p. 189.

31. Ibid., p.186.

32. History of Copley Press, p. 186.

THE PHOTOGRAPHS are all from the San Diego History Center’s Title Insurance and Trust Collection.