The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1984, Volume 30, Number 1
Thomas L. Scharf, Managing Editor

by Emily L. Wilt
Copley Award, San Diego History Center 1983 Institute of History

Images from this article

In the crisp November morning, activity at the cemetery began. Adjacent to the once proud Mission San Diego de Alcalá, now army post, preparations were underway for the final farewell to Sergeant Richard Kerren. On the previous Wednesday, November 5, 1856, while returning to the Mission late in the evening, the Sergeant had been thrown from his horse. His death at forty-two1 had ended a distinguished career with the army.2

His widow, Matilda, approached the grave with their nine children gathered around her, the eldest a young man of nineteen and the youngest a daughter barely five months old. In addition to the soldiers of the Mission who assembled, many friends had made the six-mile trip from San Diego to pay their last respects. In his few years stationed at the Mission, he had acquired many friends and associates.

Judge Kurtz read the grave-side service commenting on the Sergeant’s great circle of friends and acquaintances who regarded him with deep affection and respect. The struggle through years of poverty had ended as a result of perseverance and hard work to place his family in great comfort, stated the Judge.3

The Sergeant certainly had been able to place his family in great comfort while living in San Diego. When his estate went to probate, the value of his holdings was appraised at $8,289. Hardly an accumulation resulting from frugal savings on a sergeant’s pay. In addition to household goods, buggies and wagons, 325 head of horses and mules, valued at almost $5,000, were itemized. Seven city lots were assessed to be worth $650 and an eighty acre half lot located in Mission Valley was appraised at $150. Listed at the bottom of the document were found the names of well known San Diegans and the amount of money each owed Richard Kerren. These debts totaled $1,648.4 How could a soldier amass an estate of this magnitude on a sergeant’s pay in a six-year period?

The army career of Sergeant Richard Kerren had begun with his first enlistment in 1831.5 He had served in Florida during the Seminole War and had been assigned to posts in New York, Virginia and Maryland. 6 The family had arrived in San Diego on August 27, 1850, for Richard Kerren’s tour of duty as First Sergeant of John Bankhead Magruder’s Company I, First Artillery. The steamer Monterey, which brought the Kerrens to San Diego, had first docked in San Francisco; and a son, William, had been born to Matilda on August 16, 1850, in San Francisco harbor aboard ship.7

The family’s first home was situated at La Playa,8 near where the army had been headquartered. The summer of 1850, the soldiers were relocated to the Mission and the officers remained behind in La Playa.9 The following year the officers, too, were transferred to the Mission and Kerren moved his family to the post.10 Family records indicate a daughter, Mary Jane, was born at the Mission on July 11,1852, as were Virginia, on June 3,1854, and their last child, Kate Louisa, on June 1, 1856.11 Apparently the family resided at the Mission, while becoming property owners in San Diego.

On Richard Kerren’s tax statement for 1854, his real property consisted of lot 4 block 9 in La Playa. The value of this land combined with 75 cows, 5 mules and 8 horses and one wagon was tabulated at $2,620. No deed transaction was found for this lot. A tax statement dated May 8, 1856, only six months before his death, listed three properties owned by the Sergeant on that date. Four lots in Old Town, two lots in La Playa and one lot in Middle-town were recorded in addition to livestock and wagons. The total value was not calculated.12 When this document is compared with the probate inventory, Sergeant Kerren’s lack of truthfulness in reporting his holdings becomes obvious; otherwise he was able to purchase a vast amount of livestock in the intervening six months.

Richard Kerren had attempted to purchase property immediately upon his arrival in San Diego. A letter dated October 7, 1850, from John B. Magruder to William Heath Davis introduced Kerren and expressed Magruder’s wish that Davis help Kerren acquire property in New San Diego. The Sergeant was desirous of permanently locating his family in San Diego, and wished to purchase a lot on which a house would later be built. The letter mentioned the fact that Kerren could not pay for this hoped for property immediately, but would have to “pay for the house gradually.”13 Perhaps the La Playa lot was purchased after this encounter. In any case, this would indicate that the comfortable life he provided for his family upon his death was secured for them during the six years he resided in Southern California.

No deed was filed under Richard Kerren’s name in 1850. Perhaps, instead, he and Davis struck a deal whereby the Sergeant would purchase property as the agent of an anonymous buyer. The earliest deed transaction upon which Richard Kerren’s name can be found, dated September 25, 1854, substantiates the agent theory. Richard Kerren became the highest bidder at a Sheriff’s sale in which Penasquitos was auctioned to recover damages against the owners: Kerren bid $420.14 Histories of the Rancho Los Penasquitos do not include the name of Richard Kerren as an owner. Accounts do state that Pío Pico took possession of the Rancho through a sheriff’s auction for $420, an unpaid debt. Pico returned the property promptly to Don Francisco because they were related.15

Young Victoria Jacobs kept a diary in 1856 which mentioned Richard Kerren, his family and activities the year of his death. Victoria was engaged to Maurice A. Franklin who had part interest in the store, “Tienda California.”16 He had purchased the Exchange Hotel which he was expanding into San Diego’s tallest building, the three-story Franklin House.17

Two business transactions between Kerren and Franklin are recorded in Victoria’s diary. Maurice Franklin made the six-mile trip to the Mission to see the Sergeant and Kerren sent word to Franklin in Old Town that he had business to transact.18

The Kerrens and Franklin and his fiancee saw each other socially in addition to being business associates. Victoria relates that they picnicked together at False Bay and listened to the Kerren children, Richard and Frank, perform some music.19

Maurice and Victoria also attended the theater, started at the Mission by Col. Henry Burton and his wife,20 in which Frank Kerren often performed.21

Instead of returning to Old Town in the evening, Victoria stayed at the Kerrens’ and Maurice stayed with Lt. Winder.22 After Sergeant Kerren’s fatal accident, Maurice Franklin and Victoria’s mother paid a condolence call on Mrs. Kerren at the Mission.23 These incidents hint that more than a casual association existed between the two men.

Richard Kerren’s duty consisted of ordnance sergeant and, perhaps, “issuing of rations to Indians and other kindred work.”24 Although he may not have been in charge of Indian rations, the fact remains that the ordnance sergeant was doing business with a store owner in Old Town. What kind of business could a supply sergeant and a local store keeper be conducting? In 1851 after discovery of irregularities in commissary disbursements at the Mission, Lt. Thomas Denton Johns fled San Diego in disgrace.25 Johns had arrived for duty in San Diego in January of 1850, nine months prior to Kerren’s arrival, and the two men had worked together in Company I.26

Of the property listed on the 1856 tax statement of Richard Kerren, the first recorded was filed on February 6, 1855. Kerren purchased at public auction, four lots in Block 90 in Old Town for $85.27 The livestock also taxed in 1856 could have been pastured on this property. These four lots constituted an entire block which was located between Congress and Stockton, now Jefferson, Streets.28 The northwestern and southeastern streets are named Ampudia and Old Town Avenue. Across the street to the northwest a block was designated Plaza San Diego, on which an elementary school stands today. Kerren’s property is bisected now by San Diego Avenue leaving the largest portion of the property, which is almost totally vacant, on the western side of the thoroughfare.

A month and a half after the purchase of the Old Town lots, on March 26, 1855, Kerren acquired two lots from T. D. Johns for $28.29 Thomas D. Johns, living in San Francisco by 1855, had platted New San Diego in 1850 with A. B. Gray, a member of the Boundary Commission.30 Johns, now in financial difficulty, was forced to sell all his San Diego holdings at this time for a fraction of their value.31

The first of the two lots, lot 1, block 9, was situated directly to the west of the La Playa lot listed on Kerren’s 1854 tax statement.32 Since the blocks in La Playa also contained only four lots, Kerren now owned half of block 9. The northwestern one-fourth of that block, added to portions of three other blocks, had been designated Custom House Square. San Antonio Avenue,the only remaining street name, bisected the square and bordered Kerren’s property on the west. During Kerren’s time, the eastern street was named Beach and the southern thoroughfare, 1st Street, began a numerical sequence.33

The other lot listed on the deed transaction of March 26, 1855, was located in the New Town area previously surveyed by Johns and Gray. Lot K of Block 4 faced Water Street, an appropriate designation since this property was submerged at high tide.34 The streets immediately north and south of Block 4 were named Fourth and Commercial and today are known as “G” and Market. Water Street has become Belt, which is located between Pacific Highway and Harbor Drive. This lot did not appear on Kerren’s 1856 tax statement and was not listed in his holdings at probate. No records could be found to indicate when or how he disposed of this property. Since this deed was not registered in the deed books with the other property Johns disposed of that day, Kerren could have purchased this lot for another party. Possibly one of the partners in the New Town venture wished to acquire this supposedly undesirable parcel for future development, such as a wharf. The “D” Street pier lies directly to the west of this property today. And the pier that William Heath Davis built on his property in 1850 was situated directly south of the lot.35

No deed transactions for the Middletown lot have surfaced. Kerren’s tax statement of 1856 listed the property as Lot 6, Block 18, but by the time of his death, six months later, the Block number was recorded as 573. If the numbering system of the Old Town blocks was continued southward, the Middletown lot would have been a short distance from Kerren’s Old Town block.36 Situated on California Avenue and adjacent to Jackson Square, the originally designated Block and Lot numbers appear on the 1869 map37 drawn for the settlement of the Middletown Partition case of 1869 to 1873.38 This area today bears no resemblance to the original survey due to later plats and the addition of San Diego Avenue, the Santa Fe Railroad and Interstate 5. Kerren’s property probably lay to the east of these intrusions.

On October 7, 1856, less than a month before his death, Sergeant Kerren purchased one-half of lot 239, an eighty acre parcel, in Mission Valley, from George P. Tebbetts of San Luis Rey40 for $300. 41 In 1851 the Common Council, the governing body of the city of San Diego,42 had elected Tebbetts president, the equivalent of mayor. The Common Council had conveyed the eighty-acre tract to Tebbetts on April 28, 1853, at the same time Kerren’s commanding officer, J. B. Magruder had acquired the northern half of the tract.43 Kerren undoubtedly purchased this extensive piece of real estate to accommodate the livestock he had by then accumulated. Apparently today this property, which extended from bluff to bluff, lies under the eastern portion of the Mission Valley Shopping Center.44 This acreage would have proved more convenient for Richard Kerren than the property in Old Town and La Playa.

Property was purchased also in Matilda Kerren’s name. On September 28, 1855, the deed was filed which transferred a portion of lot 1, block 44 from Juan Machado and his wife to Eugene B. Pendleton and Matilda Kerren.45 In 1852, Eugene Pendleton became the agent of William Heath Davis, who spent considerable time in San Francisco.46 The parcel of land they purchased measured approximately 44 by 79 feet and was situated on the main plaza in Old Town.47 The purchase price, $2,200, would indicate that a substantial building was located on the lot. Matilda Kerren’s tax statement of October 1857, lists the property value at $150 for the land and $1,500 for the improvements.48 In August of 1857, nine months after the Sergeant’s death, Matilda purchased Pendleton’s share in the property for $1,250.49 A year later a fire destroyed the building which housed the grocery store of Thomas Whaley.50 The family had apparently remained at the Mission after Sergeant Kerren’s death and was prepared to move into this building at the time of the fire.51 Bazaar del Mundo probably stands where this building once stood.52

From February 6, 1855, until his death on November 6, 1856, exactly eighteen months, Richard Kerren paid over $400 for San Diego real estate and acquired livestock valued at almost $5,000. $1,648 had been loaned to various citizens of San Diego, which had not been repaid at the time of Kerren’s death. One borrower, Joseph Reiner, was sued by Kerren’s widow for payment of the $500 debt.53 If the $3,450 Matilda Kerren paid for the property in Old Town had not been derived from an inheritance, then Richard Kerren also funded this venture.

This amount of money could never have been saved by a Sergeant with nine children to support. Some supplementary income was required to finance the extensive estate Kerren amassed.

Several possibilities exist for earning the necessary money. Having been the agent for Pío Pico’s acquisition of Rancho Penasquitos, Kerren could have been involved in many similar transactions, all for a fee. Openly doing business with an Old Town merchant, could have involved selling government supplies which exceeded army needs.54 Kerren must have found a profitable outlet for the livestock he raised. His earlier small holdings consisted mainly of cattle, but by the time of his death he had converted his interests to raising horses. And the army would have been the prime customer. A combination of these activities no doubt could have financed Kerren’s accumulation of wealth.

Charming, well liked,55 well acquainted with all the important people of San Diego,56 and appearing to be able to cross the officer-enlisted man’s barrier,57 Richard Kerren became a rich, if not totally honest, San Diego pioneer.



1. The San Diego Herald, November 8, 1856, p. 2, col. 5, stated his age as 41, but his tombstone records his date of birth as January 17, 1814, which would put his age at 42.

2. A complete obituary and eulogy appeared in the San Diego Herald on November 15, 1856, p. 2, col. 1, 2, & 3.

3. Ibid.

4. The appraisement of the Estate of Richard Kerren was signed by H. S. Burton, E. B. Pendleton, and J. W. Connors and filed with clerk W. B. Couts on December 28, 1856. This document may be found in the probate records of Richard Kerren, Box #15331, #250 at the County Records Center, San Diego.

5. San Diego Herald, November 15, 1856.

6. The General Services Administration located military service files of re-enlistment dated 1832, 1837, 1840, 1845, 1849, and 1854. His death was entered on the final form.

7. Notes by A. H. Wright, dated September 13, 1910, the year of William’s death, are located in the San Diego History Center Research Archives. The validity of this account can be questioned due to slight inaccuracies evident in the remembrances. If this is Atkins H. Wright, 1850 mayor of San Diego, he lived a long time.

8. Ibid.

9. Col. Heitzelman’s diary entry of July 11, 1850, stated that upon his return from a trip to Oregon, he discovered the troops had been moved to the Mission, but the officers had remained at La Playa. This diary entry may be found on page 71, in a thesis, Founder of Fort Yuma, by John L. White, at University of San Diego Library.

10. Wright, Notes.

11. Family records and 1860 census reports can be found in the San Diego Historical Society Research Archives.

12. These documents can be found in the San Diego History Center Research Archives.

13. This correspondence is located in Letters-San Diego Pioneers, 1850-1855 found in the California Room, San Diego Public Library.

14. The Sheriff’s sale of August 1, 1854, is recorded in Deed Book E, p. 62, in the San Diego County Recorders Office, San Diego.

15. Richard F. Pourade, in Historic Ranchos of San Diego, p.3, col. 1, stated that Pío Pico took possession of this property through a sheriff’s sale for $420.

16. The introduction to Diary of a San Diego Girl-1856, edited by Sylvia Arden contains biographies of Victoria Jacobs and Maurice Franklin, pp. 9-10.

17. Diary, p. 17, footnote 5.

18. Diary, pp. 47 and 59.

19. Diary, p. 37.

20. Diary, p. 26.

21. The San Diego Herald advertised the theater presentations at the Mission. One such advertisement listed Richard Kerren, Jr. as a member of the cast and orchestra on April 24, 1858, p. 1, col. 6.

22. Diary, p. 26.

23. Diary, p. 64.

24. Wright, Notes.

25. Thomas Denton Johns A Portrait in White and Black, an unpublished paper by Mary Lou W. Murphy, probes the life of the lieutenant and his flight from San Diego is chronicled on pp. 5-7.

26. Ibid., p. 1.

27. This transaction is recorded in Deed Book 1, p. 98. The Minutes of the Common Council, located in the San Diego History Center Research Archives, also recorded the purchase.

28. Miscellaneous map 38 is located in the County Recorders Office, San Diego.

29. Deed Book 1, p. 99 records the transfer of this property.

30. Andrew B. Gray, chief surveyor of the American Boundary Commission, came to San Diego in June 1849 and first surveyed the bay according to Richard F. Pourade in The Silver Dons, p. 151 and Ed Scott’s San Diego County Soldier Pioneers 1846-1866, pp. 21-22. On March 16, 1850, Johns and Gray joined with Davis, Aguirre, Pedrorena and Ferrell to buy and develop what they called New San Diego. Details can be found in Miscellaneous Book 2, p. 86, Deed Book, B, pp. 69, 77, 125 in the County Recorders Office, San Diego.

31. Johns sold 21 lots for a total of $239.25 as stated by Murphy, p. 9, footnote 82.

32. Deed Book 1, p. 99. In Pourade’s The Silver Dons an undated La Playa map on page 159 shows an improved lot.

33. Couts’ map of La Playa can be found in Deed Book E, p. 24A in the County Recorders Office, San Diego.

34. Subdivision map 456, County Recorders Office contains the 1850 map of New San Diego as platted by Johns and Gray and shows high tide ines.

35. Block 20 in New Town had gone to Davis in the 1850 partition of New Town by the partnership and he built a wharf there later that year according to his autobiography, Seventy Five Years in California by William Heath Davis, pp. 259-260.

36. Kerren’s Old Town block number was changed to 344 according to the probate appraisement.

37. Subdivision map number 627 was found in the County Recorders Office, San Diego.

38. The Middletown Partition Case was covered in The San Diego Union, March 28, 1869, p. 2, November 25, 1869, p. 2, and March 8, 1873, pp. 3-4.

39. No lot number was given, but the probate appraisement tabulated the lot number as 1188.

40. This transaction is recorded in Deed Book 1, p. 102 and 103 in the San Diego County Recorders Office.

41. On the probate appraisement of Kerren’s property, filed on December 28, 1856, the value of this parcel of land was assessed at $150.

42. The Minutes of the Common Council named Dr. Atkins S. Wright president of the Common Council in 1852. The document is located in the San Diego Historical Society Research Archives.

43. On page 244 of The Minutes of the Common Council was recorded the transfer of the western half of Lot 2 to Tebbetts and “The Northern half of this lot of 80 acres was conveyed by the Board to J. B. Magruder . . . .”

44. Comparing the Clayton and Hesse map of Mission Valley with a recent Department of the Interior Geological Survey map, the Sergeant’s property was located slightly more than two and one-half miles from Old Town.

45. This deed transaction is found in Deed Book E, pp. 381-383, County Recorders Office.

46. Letters-San Diego Pioneers, 1850-1855, contained several letters from Pendleton to Davis about business matters. The first such letter, dated June 9, 1852, spelled out the agreement whereby Pendleton became the agent of Davis in San Diego.

47. On Couts’ survey map of Old Town, a long, narrow block on the plaza was numbered 42 with another long, narrow block to the northeast designated as 44. This disagrees with the detailed description of the location of this property given in the deed.

48. Matilda Kerren’s 1857 tax statement listed her only property as Part of Lot 1, Block 426 (not 44), and can be found in the San Diego History Center Research Archives.

49. Deed Book 1, page 160, recorded the sale of the parcel to Matilda Kerren from E. B. Pendleton.

50. The August 21, 1858, issue of the San Diego Herald covered the previous Tuesday’s fire on page 2, col. 2. Believed to be incendiary in nature, the fire’s loss was assessed at $3,000 for Mr. Whaley and $2,500 for Mrs. Kerren’s wooden building.

51. Wright, Notes. Other evidence points to the fact that the family remained at the Mission. The San Diego Herald of March 13, 1858, p. 2, col. 5, lists Frank Kerren of the Mission as new arrival at the Colorado House. At the Mission on January 19, 1857, Matilda Kerren loaned $500 to Col. Burton and Lt. Winder for which she filed suit to collect in 1859, Case #24, Box 15025 located at the San Diego History Center Research Archives. Public notice of this case appeared in the San Diego Herald, August 6, 1859, p. 3, col. 2.

52. Since Miscellaneous Map 38 and the legal description in the deed do not agree, pinpointing the exact location of this property becomes difficult.

53. Kerren’s probate appraisement listed the debt at $680. Perhaps he paid a portion of what he owed and Matilda sued to collect the remainder. Joseph Reiner was county treasurer in 1854-1855 and was sheriff in 1856, according to San Diego Land Records, Leaves and Saplings, San Diego Genealogical Society.

54. T. D. Johns was apparently purchasing more foodstuffs than the soldiers could consume, as Lt. Eddy auctioned rice and coffee according to the San Diego Herald, June 12, 1851, p. 2, col. 4.

55. Kerren’s obituary in the San Diego Herald of November 15, 1856, p. 2, col. 1-2, emphasized his popularity and seems unduly elaborate for a Mission soldier.

56. Names appearing as witnesses on deeds and other documents read like a who’s who of San Diego; E. B. Pendleton, O. S. Witherby, E. M. Morse, John Booker, Joseph Reiner, for example.

57. Land transactions with officers such as T. D. Johns, and Matilda’s loans to officers indicate an association between this Sergeant and the officers of the Mission which was considered unacceptable at the time.

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