By JAMES E. KIRBY
Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University
Matthew Simpson, Jr., as he called himself during the early years of his life, was one of, if not the most influential, bishops of the Methodist Episcopal Church during the third quarter of the nineteenth century. A native of Ohio, Simpson enjoyed a long and varied career. With little formal education but gifted with a keen mind and the assistance of his uncle, he reports in a handwritten autobiography that he taught himself geometry and trigonometry, and by the age of eight had read the Bible through in German. Before he was fifteen he could also read Greek and Latin, French, Italian and some Spanish. His one brief encounter with college was a disappointment. In the fall of 1828 he entered Madison College only to conclude to Uncle Matthew in a letter:
I have found that a college is only a place where people go to get learning, and that the teachers are but men, and if the United States can parade no smarter young men than what comes to this college, alas for the times.
He need not have been concerned, for financial difficulties at home soon cut short this experience of college and upon his return to Ohio he began the study of medicine with one of his early teachers, Dr. John McBean. By 1833 he had completed the course and was licensed to practice. The same year he was also licensed to preach in the Methodist Episcopal Church. The next spring he closed his medical office forever to enter the ministry.
Simpson served as pastor of local churches for only three years before accepting appointment in April, 1837 as Professor of Natural Sciences at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania. This portion of his career was brief, as well, for in 1839 he accepted election to the presidency of Indiana Asbury University in Greencastle, Indiana. It is now called DePauw University. By any standards it wasn’t much of a college but for the next nine years Simpson gave exceptional leadership to the struggling institution and it grew. During these Indiana years he rose to national prominence in the denomination, and in 1848 was appointed by the General Conference to be editor of one of its influential regional newspapers, The Western Christian Advocate. He remained in that post until his election to the Episcopacy four years later. It was also his work in Indiana that had developed or enhanced friendships with individuals destined to national leadership in other fields, among them
Abraham Lincoln. Simpson, according to popular lore, was the final influence in Lincoln’s decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.(This is not supported by any actual evidence save a brief note in Simpson’s diary which says that he talked to Lincoln about it, but it does illustrate that the knowledge of their friendship was widespread.)
Simpson was elected to the Episcopacy on April 25, 1852, at the General Conference meeting in Boston. At the time it was customary for all bishops of the denomination to itinerate and each year a plan of “Episcopal Visitation” was devised to insure each annual conference would be covered. Because the number of bishops was small, this arrangement required extensive travel. As a result, there were probably few men in the entire country who had better firsthand knowledge of the nation than Methodist bishops. And, as is easy to understand, the most arduous and extensive travel was usually assigned to the younger bishops. So it was that in the 1853 Plan of Visitation Simpson was assigned to preside over the California and Oregon conferences.
His journey was begun December 17, 1853 from his home in Pittsburgh. It is fully and compellingly recounted in Simpson’s almost illegible handwriting in a journal of some two hundred pages from which the following account of his visit to San Diego is taken. Simpson’s trip was by the standards of the time, a comfortable though not uneventful one across the Isthmus of Panama. He was accompanied by a young clergyman, Nelson Reasonner, and two women engaged to clergy already stationed there. They are named in the journal as “Miss Roney and Miss Welch,” but nothing more is said about them or their arrangements to travel with the Bishop’s party, except a later note in the journal which reports:
I was called to solemnize marriages of Bros. Caldwell & Sheldon with girls who came with me.
The clergy named were most likely J. McHenry Caldwell who was assigned to Los Angeles in 1854 and Henry B. Sheldon who moved to Marysville Circuit the same year.
In addition, there were also:
three ladies over whom I was requested to have some care, Mrs. Robb, whose husband is in Oregon, and who starts from near West Newton in Westmoreland County Pennsylvania — Mrs. Kelly and Mrs. Higby whose husbands are in San Francisco. Mrs. Robb is a member of the Presbyterian Church, the other two are Methodists.
Although the spelling is not consistent, this is probably the wife of Alfred Higbie [sic Higby] who was in San Francisco. N. Reasonner was assigned to begin his ministry in Mokelumne Hill at the Conference of 1854.
The bishop was provided free passage, and enjoyed the additional luxury of having only one additional person in his cabin, Mr. Reassoner. They sailed from New York on the 20th of December on the steamer George Law, which on this voyage carried one hundred officers and crew plus 250 passengers in cabin class and 300 in steerage. With his characteristic attention to detail Simpson also reports that he purchased a small spy glass before sailing, and that the ship would burn 800 tons of coal on the trip to the Isthmus and back.
The Bishop’s diary reveals a man of large curiosity who was a keen observer of everything around him. He carefully records the position of the ship each day at sea; he is effusive in his comments about flora and fauna in the places where they dock; and makes even more extensive observations of people and their culture. He asks questions of everyone he encounters. Scientific training joined with natural inclinations and a sharp intellect made it easy for him.
The George Law arrived in Aspinwall on the 29th. Simpson and his party secured passage across the Isthmus, though not without the usual difficulties resulting from broken promises, crowded accommodations and inclement weather. Arriving in Cruces, having been assured advance arrangements had been made for accommodations, he found nothing had been done. On New Year’s Day, 1854, he was finally in Panama City, weak and feverish, but still able to tour the city and comment on the churches which he saw there. And he was able to add:
On the battery near the wall, are six very valuable pieces of ordnance, cast at Barcelona in the days of the glory of the Spanish Empire. They are made of very fine metal, and though exposed to the atmosphere are not in the slightest degree corroded. They are 6 inches in bore, 18 inches in diameter at breech and 11 to 11½ feet long.
Although having to take ship on the Sabbath distressed him, there was no choice, and in mid-afternoon he was taken out to the Golden Gate to embark on the final leg of his voyage to California. In what could be the lament of every traveller he wrote matter of factly, “Our baggage was delivered battered and broken, and though positively contracted for a 12 cts we were compelled to pay 15 cts per lb.” There were 800 persons on board. The captain, a Mr. Isham, was characterized by the Bishop as “a bold, daring, fearless gentleman. A man of great nerve, decisiveness of character.” Simpson remained ill a considerable part of the voyage up the coast of Mexico to California, but on January 19th when they arrived in San Diego harbor he was recovered and in good spirits, ready to explore the town in the short time which was available to him.
The following sections from Simpson’s journal are as he wrote them. Neither spelling nor punctuation has been corrected or altered — the spelling needs little, if any, for he was careful and precise. There are a few places in which the text is simply unintelligible, and these have been left blank rather than to speculate on what he might have said.
The San Diego segment is in all ways characteristic of the entire diary, and it says much about the man who wrote it. The account is all the more impressive since it is based on one day in San Diego and thus provides a frozen frame of time for a Wednesday almost a century and a ihalf ago.
Wednesday, Jany 19th. About two o’clock this morning we came to anchor in harbor of San Diego. A little before 4 I rose and as boats were passing back and forth from shore about ½ mile distant, I took passage and reached the shore where were a few small houses. Not wishing to stop but to pass directly to Old Town, and not hearing of any conveyance I started to walk with some two or three others. The distance was variously stated as from 4 to 6 miles and the road lay along the edge of the bay. Most of the way was very good, but some of it was deep sand, and near San Diego there was some wet ground over which the tide occasionally flowed. On the way two or three galloping horsemen overtook us, and one wagon met us. When we arrived at San Diego it was not yet light, and no people were astir so far as I could see. After wandering about for a time, we found our way to the Commercial Hotel where were already some 40 or 50 who had called for breakfast and one or two tables were engaged. After waiting for clearer daylight I walked a little around the town, but in vain had our company knocked at other public houses, no one would rise. Climbing a high hill overlooking the town and the bay, I walked over around the remains of Fort Stockton. It is situated on the point of the hill which rises into a low conical peak, and consists simply of a ditch some 6 feet deep, and a breast work of the clay which had been excavated. From the quality of hoop iron which remains in the ruins, I presume many barrels must have been used in its construction. I learned from one who professed to have been in the army that the attack began near the present harbor. That the Mexicans retreated to the town, then were routed and our troops took position on the hill, when they were attacked again by the Mexicans to dislodge them. Some 20 or 30 Mexicans, my informant said were killed, and only 2 or 3 Americans. Of this I must make inquiry. Desiring to get a full view of the surrounding scenery, I walked further upon the heights, perhaps near a mile. Picking up a few pebbles here and there, I enjoyed greatly the view around me. The sun was just rising throwing his beams upon the distant mts. tipped with snow and then upon the lower ranges nearer me — Before me spread out the bay at the head of which was the town — and in which was an Island, and beyond which rocky high or small islands with sand beaches stood along its edge and still beyond which rolled the vast Pacific. On the southern side was a village called Newtown where the officers of the army reside — and near the river is a fort some five miles distant occupied by soldiers. At the foot of the hill on the edge of the bay extending up the river or rather the channel where the river ran is San Diego, composed principally of small, low adoba [sic] houses, roofed partly with poles over which sods were laid on which green grass grew — partly with tiles — one I saw covered with oilcloth and one two story frame covered with zinc. Several houses were built of frame, and occupied for store houses or hotels, and in the suburbs of the town were a few tents of linen — and a few tents made of hides in which dwelt a few Indians. A narrow peninsula extended from the town on the north of the bay out in to the ocean some six miles to the north of which is a bay extending up to the town or near it, and termed “False Bay.” It [unintelligible] with the ocean long breakers roll showing the existence of reefs near the surface. Across the narrow neck between the bays at high tide the water flows forming an island of the point. The river flowed until recently into the bay forming the harbor, and skirting the town. But as the water brought clay & sand down and was filling up the harbor, attempts have been made to turn the channel of the river to throw the water into False bay. The work has been finished except a levee to build which they are looking for an appropriation from Congress. As I looked upon the scene with interest, casting my eye down the bay I saw a steamer with smoke & steam, and though the mate had told me that we would not leave before 10, yet I felt uneasy lest the plan might have been changed, and hurried down to the town. As I could get no breakfast immediately I stepped into an eating house where some of the company were eating oyster soup — ordering a plate, I had one well filled with weak soup and bread and good crackers and butter, and plenty of good pure water — the soup was evidently oyster soup because in the plate were two or three oysters so stewed that no flavor remained in them, and I presume a H [ unintelligible] would not on examination have found the soup to be of more than the third dilution. But an excellent appetite served for flavor. Stepping into an American store I inquired if Protestant services were held in the town and learned that there was preaching Sabbath afternoon in the Courthouse, Catholic Service being held in the forenoon in a private house fitted up as a Church. Desiring to see the Courthouse I walked along by the plaza and found a small brick house, very low one story, I should suppose some 15 or 20 feet long, by 12 or 15 feet wide with a porch and small frame addition. It was just being covered with red wood shingles, which look like cedar, but are said to be superior. I learned both from conversation, and a statement in the S. Diego Herald, that about a dozen or so attended services and that it was conducted by Dr. Reynolds chaplain of the army at Newtown who was not popular. The catholics have been trying to build a church but have not succeeded, and the Protestants design building an Episcopal Church this summer — though a gentleman told me that if another minister could be sent he would be kindly received and sustained. San Diego Co. has about 2000 population — San Diego some 7 or 800, with some 50 or 60 Americans. I could not hear of any Protestant minister except D. R. ever having preached in the country.
Having met Capt. Isham who had come for provisions, and who kindly offered me a passage in a wagon, I went with him to breakfast at the Exchange, where we had good butter, bread, milk, & beef steak, the butter I enjoyed as the first since Jamaica. There I had an opportunity of noting the prevailing vices of the place. Every person interlarded his talk with oaths — cards were strewed everywhere around — a monte table had on it Spanish cards, and a billiard table stood in full view.
San Diego like other Spanish towns is built around a plaza or public square. Streets running parallel with its sides. At one side of this plaza stood a private building furnished with a small cupola, and a part of which is fitted up for a Catholic Church, another part being occupied as a Fiesda. It being the Hour of Catholic service, I looked into the rooms. The priest saying mass, a portly looking old padre, who evidently exceedingly enjoyed good living was dressed in his long white gown whose lace in the edging, with his embroidered (surplice) contrasted strangely with a heavy pair of thick [unintelligible] boots — a young man also a priest, pale & sallow, was busy in reciting his prayers — a very small boy kneeled on the platform behind the padre occasionally holding up his skirt — while six or seven other small boys kneeled with a languid appearance of restraint with their hands upon their breasts. One elderly gentleman, and two or three Mexican women composed the congregation. There was a figure of the Crucifixion, large as life (wax I suppose) and several paintings of Scripture scenes, besides images of the Virgin on one of which [unintelligible] was [unintelligible] into a profusion of red or pink ribbons.
Nearly opposite to this was the office of the San Diego Herald where I made several inquiries touching the condition of the county. They are expecting a railroad to be constructed with its terminus at San Diego, but property is very low. Indeed at present there is nothing to create value — No trees, some planted ones as in a garden — except one tree of a peculiar variety of the Palm did I notice, and I was told that there was no timber within 20 miles. The soil is not very fertile but produces varieties of the catcus — of which I noticed prickly pear, the round branching catcus, and which is termed Turk’s Head. The Laurel also grows abundantly, and a species of bitter herb which I thought was wormwood or wild tansey but which others pronounced to be “old man.” It grows in little bushes from one to two feet high. San Diego must yet be a place of no small importance. It will very probably be the point at which the railroad will reach the Pacific, and must with an improved harbor be a place of great trade. The oldest part of the town was on the spur of the hill on which Fort Stockton is situated, but that was battered down, cannon balls making very short work with adoba [sic] buildings. On asking a gentleman whether any of the inhabitants had belonged to any of the Protestant denominations before coming to San Diego, he said he supposed not but that he had never heard such a question asked. One house had pillars in front, though it was a low adoba [sic]. It was the residence of seven, and was one of the few buildings which had a large walled enclosure or yard. Several small fields were fenced — some with two rows of young trees planted some feet apart longitudinally but within a few inches apart in the lines, and chapparal filled from the ground up so as to present a close wall — others had small poles tied to posts resembling in structure our wire fence.
The natives are an indolent race — up to 8 in the morning the men were sitting in their huts, or on benches, or sauntering lazily around — generally long wide cotton pantaloons, and a blanket or shawl around their shoulders, with a straw hat completed their dress — and with unwashed faces, unshaven beards, dirty clothes they look like the vilest — such men are the material of Mexican armies.
The native women were sitting in their hut doors with their mantillas around their heads and shoulders, having little to do more than the men. Two I saw milking one cow, sitting on opposite sides, one milking and one holding the bucket. Little boys had blankets or calico shawls or something thrown around them, and all were shivering in the morning which to us was pleasant and invigorating. Near the center of the plaza was a flagstaff very high surmounted with a brass ball, and in the rear of the Catholic Church were four bells hung some six or seven feet high. I presume designed to ring chimes. On the hill side was an American frame house commanding a beautiful view of the surrounding scenery. The Mormons have purchased some 2 or 300 acres of ground near where the railroad if located will probably terminate. In passing around the town I noticed some wells walled with barrels some five deep, to where the water stood — water very good — at least after having been confined to iron ship water, and that on allowance. Here too I saw a native cart or wagon, which consists of two heavy wooden wheels some two feet in diameter, a heavy axle and tongue drawn by oxen not yoked as ours. It must [unintelligible] either in mud or sand. The commercial tavern was low and un-furnished except with liquors but was kept by a man who I am told has made a fortune of some hundred thousand dollars in three or four years. He carries on a [unintelligible] and he showed me an adoba [sic] house he was building probably twenty five by thirty with a low second story, costing some five thousand dollars.
The Capt. having finished his business, we started from the P. Office kept by Mr. Hoof, who is mail agent also, in a [unintelligible] two horse wagon taken from the East, drawn by two mules, with the aid of good [unintelligible] the Capt. drove Jehu like back to the harbor where his cattle had arrived, and the work of slaughter commenced. Some were shot, and some were lassoed and killed, the skins were not taken off, but being cut open and cut in two across back they were carried into boats to be taken into ship.
The buildings at the harbor are few in number but generally frame and are occupied by Americans or foreigners. A few drinking houses — a warehouse or two — and two or three residences compose this part of the town. Here stand the hide houses spoken of in Dana’s Two Vears before the Mast.
But with me the greatest object of interest was a little cemetery on the hill side — for there is a high hill with reddish soil rising back of the landing, and forming the high ground of the peninsula. Nearly half way up this slope are about 40 graves of those who have died at sea, and have been buried in the last few years. About ½ have no boards to tell whose they are — Others have simple head boards with the name or name & age, and state from whence in-scribed — and three or four in addition are surrounded by little poled in-closures. A few of the names I noted on my memorandum, R. Bradley, on board Congress ’47 — R. Adams ’47 — The next was that of a lady — the only one marked — I copied it “In memory of Mary Jane Sandey, wife of Wm. A Sandey, who was born in the town of Cherryfield, Mass. Anno. 1828, and who departed this life on board the ship Monterey in the harbor of San Diego on the 25th of August 1850 aged 22 years — “Behold my friends as you pass bye, As you are now so once was I. As I am now so you must be, Prepare for death and follow me.” As I stared at her grave, thoughts of her home, her father & mother — the bridal home — golden dreams — sad hours of sickness and the loneliness of death, passed in review before me. There too was the grave of a child of 5 yrs over which was inscribed a simple cross. In one enclosure slept Sautill of Boston and Caniz of N. York — who died in California in 1851, the first as I learned from one who was with him when he died leaving at home a wife & 6 children — possessed once of property he had been unfortunate, and was seeking to repair his fortunes by an adventure in California — but by Panama fever he & his associates in death were smitten down, while 150 others were sick of same fever. Next was the grave of J. A. Sawyer, Master of vessel Newton of New Bedford who died in ’44 aged 34 — Then Neil McCullen of ship Congress who was killed by a fall from the Royal Mast Head aged 18 — There was a row of graves which interested me because of the singular mingling from places so remote — J. Cart from Indiana Feby. 11, 52 aged 28. Tyler — Michigan — Miller — Rhode Island — Howes Maine ’52 — (Miss or Mass) I think the latter, but memorandum book looks like former) Allen, Vermont — I thought how strangely were these young men united in death. I looked upon the bay where lay our proud vessel, and felt grateful that yet were no deaths, but our journey was not over. Wild herbs grew around — the prickly pear cactus — Turks Head — Old Man — and vines & flowers which I knew not — but plucking some stalks from every variety which I saw I returned to the shore — Here were remains of ammunition of war — Some 21 cannons of Iron some 6 inches bore, and 10 or 11 feet long — and one brass piece lay exposed — while a pyramid and a pile of balls one 12 by 13, one 21 by 11 were piled near — and in the edge of the water were rusty balls, which in that wild shore [unintelligible] a mass of seaweed piled up by the tide. I noticed a stray leaf which proved to be an advertisement of Goethe’s autobiography. I waded up and down the shore for an hour waiting for our vessel to get ready, and gathering several varieties of shells, all of a common type, generally small mussels — True to the purpose for which they were visiting California, a number were trying to find gold in the ravines of the hills and one young man carried away what he thought was a sample of golden treasure — About 1, we returned to the vessel, and at 2 we were, or a little after in motion to, leaving the port of San Diego. Great quantities of wild ducks were upon the banks and the water around us, and a number of large Pelicans, the first we had seen, were flying from bank to bank, here and there darting down to seize some fish in their long bills — as they stood on the beaches at a distance they looked not unlike turkeys. (Passengers drank 700 bottles at $1200 — the landlord drank last himself and asked Capt. if any man were to bury.”)
Clark, Robert D., The Life of Matthew Simpson. New York: The MacMillan Co., 1956.
Crooks, George R., The Life of Bishop Matthew Simpson of The Methodist Episcopal Church. New York: Harper and Row, 1890.
Kirby, James E., “Matthew Simpson and the Mission of America,” Church History, September, 1967, pp. 299-307.
Norwood, Frederick A., The Story of American Methodism. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1974.
Simpson, Matthew, Diary and Journal, Drew University Library, Madison, New Jersey.
Simpson, Matthew, Lectures on Preaching—Delivered before the Theological Department of Yale College. New York: Nelson and Phillips, 1879.
Various editorials written for the Western Christian Advocate between the years of 1848-1852, including:
________ “California Mission,” September 6, 1848.
________ “California Mission,” September 13, 1848.
________ “California Mission,” December 27, 1848.
________ “Progress of Freemont,” March 14, 1849.
________ “California — Homme Pauvre,” November 28, 1849.
________ “California,” November 5, 1851.
THE PHOTOGRAPH of Matthew Simpson is courtesy of Drew University Library, Madison, New Jersey. All others are from the San Diego History Center’s Title Insurance and Trust Collection.