The Journal of San Diego History
Summer 1985, Volume 31, Number 3
Thomas Scharf, Managing Editor

By Ronald Quinn

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James W. Robinson One of the little known historical sources on early San Diego is the vast store of legal records, which provide data on personal wealth, building location, and business alliances. Mid-nineteenth century San Diegans sued one another with enthusiasm. Local residents flooded the court with a variety of economic complaints. Californios had to defend their property rights in American courts, although this was not as significant a problem locally as it was in other parts of the state. San Diego, however, did have a peculiar breed of problems that found their way into the dockets of the district court. As was the case in many frontier communities, it was without the services of a reliable banking system for almost two decades. Businessmen and consumers suffered from an irregular supply of currency that resulted in erratic payment of debts. Thus San Diegans brought suit against one another frequently.

District court cases in the 1850s dealt primarily with financial issues, and as such, reveal prices for food, clothing, housing and property values. The district log is often a better indicator of real property values than the tax rolls themselves. Frequently witness depositions, as well as the nature of the litigation itself, demonstrated strengths and weaknesses in the local economy. Probate cases not only outline in detail the property holdings of the deceased, but also include information kept hidden during the person’s life. This was certainly true of James W. Robinson, one of San Diego’s early American movers.

When Judge James W. Robinson died in October, 1857, the local newspaper heralded him as “the most prominent man during the last six years, in every enterprise which relate to our prosperity and advancement.”1 Despite Robinson’s importance in the growth of San Diego in the early American period, the noted attorney remained an obscure figure. Although some San Diego residents knew of Robinson’s participation in the Texas independence movement, few were aware of his Ohio roots.

Robinson was born in Ohio in 1800, but the circumstances surrounding his early years were shrouded in obscurity.2 He abandoned his first wife and three children in his early adult years, and never returned to Ohio for any extended period of time.3 He seldom acknowledged the existence of his first family, and he omitted any mention of them in his final will and testament.4 If it were not for a series of unforeseen events that occurred almost thirty-five years after his death, Robinson’s early years might have remained a complete mystery.

Sometime after the death of her son William, Sarah Robinson, the second wife of James Robinson, returned East. When Sarah cashed $10,000 in government bonds at the Fourth National Bank of Cincinnati in 1888, one of the employees alerted the heirs of Robinson’s first marriage.5 They contested the Robinson estate in probate court. The depositions given at the hearings made the events of Robinson’s early life a matter of record.

Some of the most important information about Robinson’s early life was revealed in the deposition of Alfred N. Robinson, the nephew of James Robinson. In the course of his testimony Alfred acknowledged that his father (William) and James Robinson corresponded with one another once a year between 1840 and 1857. In his deposition Alfred testified that his father had received fif teen letters f rorn James. Two of the letters can be found in the probate case records. When queried about the whereabouts of the other thirteen letters, Alfred admitted that his mother had destroyed them after the death of his father because she felt their contents might damage the family’s reputation.6

Alfred Robinson’s deposition provided a good historical record for James Robinson’s early life. Alfred acknowledged that he had read all fifteen letters written by his uncle to his father. Alfred was deeply moved by the warmth of feeling expressed by the brothers in their communication.7

According to testimony, James Robinson left Ohio in 1828 with Sarah Synder and moved to Kentucky where they remained for nearly two years. James was still married at the time, and Sarah was seventeen or eighteen. In 1830 she returned to Ohio for approximately six months. Robinson came back again late in the year; and the two eloped again, this time permanently.8 He never returned to Ohio, and his second wife did so some fifty years later.

When Robinson left Ohio in 1830, he was legally married to Mary Isdell, and the father of three children, Albinal Martha, and Robert. Apparently James kept his whereabouts a secret for the next decade. His behavior was not unusual in the nineteenth century. Men who found themselves in unhappy marriages often abandoned their families. In the early part of the century, it was virtually impossible to trace a runaway husband. Robinson’s case seems typical. No family member knew of his whereabouts, until he wrote his brother William in 1840. Husbands seldom pursued divorce because the courts generally awarded them custody of the children. In his wake Robinson left an abandoned family and a heavily mortgaged 221 acre farm that was sold under foreclosure.

Probate hearing depositions corroborated the testimony of Alfred Robinson, but with less detail. Most of the information came from elderly neighbors who had not seen James in fifty years. Typical of such testimony was that of Harett Bonnell, a childhood neighbor of Robinson. He noted that Mary Isdell eventually married John Pollock and moved to Loveland, Ohio. John Elliott, another nephew, testified that Robinson’s life had been fairly uneventful until he eloped with Sarah Synder. Neighbors remembered an incident rather than a man. The clandestine departure of James Robinson and Sarah Synder became part of the oral folklore of Hamilton County. Few witnesses were able to shed any knowledge on the personal characteristics of either person. Eighty-two year old Marcus Bodine, a schoolmate of Sarah Synder’s; believed that the couple met at a prayer meeting. Bodine remembered Robinson because “I recollect that on that night I thought he made the best prayer made there.”9

In the early 1830s James Robinson and Sarah Synder moved to and were married in Arkansas. The couple lived in Pope County where he practiced law. There is no indication that he practiced law in Ohio, and where Robinson acquired his legal skills is unclear. Robinson became close friends with Andrew Scott, a man with strong ties with Stephen F. Austin, the Texas pioneer. When Robinson decided to emigrate to Texas, Scott graciously agreed to write a letter of introduction. In the letter Scott referred to Robinson as Colonel, and implied that he was simply too good an attorney to remain within the provincial borders of Arkansas.10

In January, 1833, Robinson moved to Texas, leaving his wife and their young son William in Arkansas. Robinson settled in Nacogdoches County in east Texas near the Louisiana border. The village of Nacogdoches had become virtually depopulated during the Mexican period. Because of its proximity to the United States, Nacogdoches was a particularly attractive location for American settlers. Borderlands historian David Weber calls it the most Americanized community “in the Mexican Far North.”11 During the next seventeen years, Robinson became involved in Texas politics and played an important role in early statehood.

Exactly why he chose to leave Texas for California is not clear. He arrived in San Diego with his wife and son in the Spring of 1850. In the ensuing seven years, he was involved in almost every aspect of San Diego’s development. No one in the area was as thoroughly familiar with Mexican land law as Robinson.12 In fact it may have been that particular expertise, as well as his desire to establish a railroad terminus at San Diego, that attracted the lawyer to Southern California. United. States acquisition of California opened up the whole arena of land litigation, and a man with Robinson’s experience and background was much in demand.

When he arrived in San Diego he began practicing law. In the early 1850s he was one of the few functioning attorneys in San Diego. The index of county court house records reveals Robinson’s name attached to almost every case. Given the myriad responsibilities, both business and public that he assumed, the sheer volume of his legal practice was astounding. Beginning in March, 1852, Robinson wrote a series of articles in the San Diego Herald on the question of California land titles. He contrasted the differences between Anglo Saxon customs and the intricacies of Spanish and Mexican legal codes. He voiced irritation at the Whig policies of the Filmore administration, singling out Secretary of Interior Alex H.H. Stuart for particular condemnation. Robinson accused the administration of interfering in the judicial activities of the U.S. Land Commissioners. The courts buckled under the heavy pressure of legal litigation, and by 1854 San Diego lawyers advertised their services in the classified section of the San Diego Herald, a practice Robinson had initiated when he first arrived in San Diego.

In September, 1851, voters elected Robinson San Diego county attorney. In its January 1, 1852 issue, the San Diego Herald listed Robinson as a candidate for city attorney. He combined careers in both the private and public sectors, the usual case for lawyers during this period. In small communities like San Diego, it was common for a person to hold more than one public service position. In February Robinson formed a law partnership with William Carey Jones, P.W. Tompkins, and C.B. Strode, three San Francisco attorneys involved in California land claims.13 This partnership gave Robinson flexibility in his practice, enabling him to take cases throughout the state.

Despite the varied nature of Robinson’s legal career, he was always considered the local expert on land claims and land law. The San Diego Herald praised the recently elected district attorney for the consistently wise advice he had given to San Diego land claimants.14 In 1854 the city board of trustees hired Robinson to handle the case of city land titles before the board of land commissioners in Los Angeles.

Robinson helped establish the Democratic Party in San Diego. Although born in the North, he spent most of his adult life in the South, and was representative of those southern Californians who looked upon the region as a southern area. In July, 1853, Judge Robinson presided over the meeting of the Democratic county convention. He impressed the local delegates enough to be selected as one of two San Diego delegates to attend the 1853 senatorial convention in Los Angeles.15 J.J. Ames, the other delegate, edited the San Diego Herald. In August, Robinson became a member of the San Diego County Democratic Central Committee and received an appointment to the committee of correspondence for San Diego. In June, 1855, Robinson served as a local delegate to the state Democratic convention.16

Besides his activities in the Democratic Party, Robinson held a number of political offices on the local level. His election to an abundance of public non-partisan positions was indicative of his formidable influence in San Diego during the 1850s. Shortly after his arrival in San Diego, the common council of the city asked him to serve on the local school committee. In a letter written to the council on January 28, 1851, Robinson suggested that a board of trustees be created to take care of local educational needs. He also stipulated, in a letter, that board members should be. willing to serve without pay.17 Mayor Joshua H. Bean and the council accepted his suggestion, and appointed him, along with Richard Rust and Thomas W. Sutherland to membership on the first village school board. One of the major challenges facing the board was the selection of a classroom, along with a facility in which to house the teacher. Lack of money prohibited the immediate construction of a school building in Old Town. In the early 1850s the board rented space in various buildings for the brief school year. Until late 1854 classes were held in Henry Fitch’s store on Calhoun street, but in December; 1854, the board decided to move the school to the recently constructed Robinson adobe.18 Apparently the board found no conflict of interest in paying rent to one of its own. Robinson remained on the school board until his death.

In addition to his responsibilities on the school board, Robinson on January 10, 1852, became both city attorney, an elective position, and land commissioner. In February, Robinson served as inspector of elections and city treasurer. Shortly thereafter, amidst allegations of financial irregularity, the trustees of Old Town resigned. In a special election voters elected Robinson president of the new San Diego trustees.19

Robinson was active in promoting a wide variety of business ventures in San Diego. Soon after his arrival he and Colonel Agoston Haraszthy made a trip to Baja California to explore possible mining opportunities. They returned with ore samples which they displayed at Robinson’s office and the Davis and Dillon store. The San Diego Herald praised the findings of the two men, and expressed the hope that a mining industry would loom bright in San Diego’s future. Apparently Robinson did not follow up on the Baja mining project.20

He realized that the key to Old Town’s development was transportation, and he devoted much of his energy to this end. He was a member of the committee for the Pacific and Atlantic Railroad, organized to explore potential transcontinental routes. In May, 1853, the committee issued its somewhat grandiose report claiming that the selection of a transcontinental route would have a profound impact on the world’s econorny.21 The report outlined three possible routes. The first option, the northern route, commenced in independence, Missouri; and ended in the Sacramento Valley, via the “South Pass.” The second possibility, the middle route, began in Fulton, Arkansas, and terminated in San Francisco, following a route through Albuquerque and Walker’s Pass. The third option, the southern route, began in Shreveport, Louisiana and ended in San Diego. Not surprisingly, the local committee found the third option the most attractive. The southern route closely followed the path that Robinson had used in traveling from Texas to San Diego — through El Paso, Santa Cruz, Sonora, and then along the Gila River. In the selection of this option the committee relied on the testimony of Robinson because of his first-hand knowledge of the terrain.22

Of all his transportation ventures, Robinson’s name was most closely associated with the development of the San Diego and Gila Railroad. Some of the most prominent figures in San Diego were involved in the company. In October, 1855, the board of directors of the San Diego and Gila Railroad elected Robinson president.23 Like his business associates, he invested heavily in local real estate out of a belief that San Diego would be linked to the rest of the United States by railroad. In a letter to his brother, William, dated October 9, 1855, he described the risks: “We are very sanguine that this place will be the Terminus of the Great Road. If this takes place, my property will be valuable. If not — then it will not.”24

Judge Robinson also maintained high visibility in San Diego’s social life and became one of the founders of the Masons. In 1852 he served as secretary of the San Diego Masonic Lodge, and was chosen to serve as the marshall for the annual Masonic procession held on June 24th, the feast of John the Baptist.25 Two months previous, he had organized a “celebration of the anniversary of the Battle of San Jacinto on the shores of the Pacific.”26 Even in ill health Robinson participated in the Masonic procession.27

By 1855, Robinson’s political career was coming to a close. Elected district attorney in 1852, he held that position until J.R. Gitchell, an attorney, soundly defeated him 166 votes to 69 in September, 1855.28 Gitchell, one of the most successful lawyers in San Diego, rented an office in the Robinson building, and served with the Judge on the board of directors of the San Diego and Gila Railroad. The district attorney originally received a salary of $590 per year, but that amount had been reduced to $250 during Robinson’s last year in office. Gitchell had the original salary restored, and demanded that it be paid in advance.29 Even the wily Robinson was no match for this ambitious attorney.

Possibly because of his active legal, political, and business calendar, Robinson experienced serious health problems by the end of 1855. Age and illness may have contributed to his political defeat by Gitchell. Less than six months after the election Robinson was reported to be too ill for questioning in a legal conflict.30 Two letters to his brother indicate an aura of strain and anxiety.31 Money was a consideration in both letters-the elder Robinson may have been aware that it was imperative for him to settle family financial affairs.

In an October 1855 letter, Robinson requested a sum of money owed Sarah Robinson be sent immediately. The money in question probably came from the estate of Sarah’s father and was to be used for William’s education. Robinson complained that his son was growing up in ignorance in San Diego. Without the money, he argued, it would be impossible to send the young man away to school.32 Given Robinson’s extensive real estate holdings, it is hard to believe he lacked the financial resources to provide an education to his son. Robinson requested that a draft for the money be sent in three separate bills of exchange in the hope that at least one would find its way to San Diego.33

The letter indicates that Robinson remained enthusiastic about the financial future of San Diego. Of course, the basis for his optimism was the railroad terminus. The Judge boasted to his brother of the area’s remarkable agricultural productivity. He maintained that there were no food shortages of any kind and that indeed local farmers were exporting their goods as far as New York. He also felt that the prospects for mining in the county were good, particularly if the railroad became a reality. He was bullish on the economic possibilities of Old Town.34

It is also clear that financial considerations were really the main factors that drew the Robinson family to San Diego. The Judge thought that both the cultural and moral climate of the area left much to be desired. He told his brother that the only way to survive in such an atmosphere was to procure a few good books and cultivate some close friendships.35

In correspondence dated October, 1855, Robinson indulged in a bit of wishful thinking, when he expressed the desire to send his son William back to attend school and become acquainted with his numerous relatives in Ohio. But because of his past family history, Judge Robinson realized that such a musing was pure fantasy. There is a clear feeling of impending doom in this letter. He complained to his brother that he was suffering from old age, mental stress, and unnamed injuries he received while a prisoner in Mexico. “I must lay my bones on the shore of this mighty ocean”, he wrote.36

In another revealing letter written to his brother February 19, 1856, Robinson claimed that he was near death. Since the primary motive was financial, he may have exaggerated the seriousness of his condition. Sarah still had not received her money, but the couple had found the means to send William away to school. Robinson argued that unless they received the money owed to Sarah, the couple would be compelled to bring young William home from school. The letter had a farewell tone as if the judge’s death was imminent.37

Robinson maintained a law office until the end of June, 1857, but in the following month the San Diego Herald noted that Robinson would not be a candidate for the office of county judge as previously announced.38 When Judge Benjamin Hayes visited Robinson August 27, 1857, he found him bedridden. Hayes described Robinson as suffering from dropsy, the same diagnosis Robinson had offered to his brother.39

When judge Robinson died in October 1857 his hopes for San Diego went unrealized despite the immediate success of his plaza building. His real estate holdings, like those of his business colleagues, were obtained in the belief that San Diego would soon be linked to the rest of the country by rail. The judge’s vision of the future economic possibilities of San Diego was accurate, but his timing premature.

During the 1850s the Robinson Adobe, a two-story structure situated on the west end of the Plaza, served as the hub of activity in Old Town. It was not only the Robinsons’ family residence, but also a professional office building. It was so closely associated with the San Diego Gila Railroad, that the San Diego Herald referred to it as the “Railroad Building.” J. Judson Ames, a close friend, moved the San Diego Herald into the second floor of the building becoming one of the judge’s first tenants.

Perhaps no other building in Old Town served a wider variety of functions than the Robinson adobe. In February 1855 Moses Mannasse opened a store on the ground floor.40 Records of the San Diego School District show that the building served sporadically as the schoolroom for the district. As a member of the County School Commission Robinson regularly signed vouchers for rental space in his own building.41 In the summer of 1856 he built porches around the first and second floors which prompted the local newspaper to call the adobe “the most pleasant in the City.”42 As part of its general development plan for Old Town San Diego, the California Department of Parks and Recreation will reconstruct the Robinson adobe. It would be difficult to find a more fitting tribute to judge James W. Robinson, one of the moving spirits of San Diego.



I wish to acknowledge the special assistance of Bud McKanna, Department of History, San Diego State University, and Alexandra Luberski and Peter Schulz, my colleagues at the California Department of Parks and Recreation.

1. San Diego Herald, October 31, 1857, p. 2.

2. United States Department of Commerce, Bureau of Census. Manuscript schedules for San Diego and Santa Barbara Counties, Seventh Census, 1850. “San Diego County” transcribed by members of the San Diego Genealogical Society.

3. San Diego County Probate Case No. 670, Box 6, San Diego County Law Library.

4. Mss, James W. Robinson Documents File, Research Archives, San Diego Historical Society.

5. San Diego Union, November 15, 1889, p. 2.

6. Probate Case No. 670.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. James W. Robinson File, Stanford Collection, San Diego County Law Library.

11. David J. Weber, The Mexican Frontier. 1821-1846: The American Southwest Under Mexico. (Albuquerque, 1982), p. 207.

12. San Diego Herald, March 6, 1852, p. 2.

13. Ibid, February 21, 1852, p. 2.

14. Ibid, June 5, 1852, p. 2.

15. Ibid, July 30, 1853, p. 2.

16. Ibid, June 23, 1855, p. 2.

17. Mss, James W. Robinson Documents File, Research Archives, San Diego Historical Society.

18. Ben F. Dixon, “San Diego’s Old School Days,” Mss, Research Archives, San Diego Historical Society.

19. Minutes of the Common Council of San Diego 1, p. 227.

20. San Diego Herald August 21, 1851, p. 3.

21. Ibid, May 21, 1853, p. 2.

22. Ibid, p. 1.

23. Ibid, October 6, 1855, p. 2.

24. Probate Case No. 670.

25. San Diego Herald, June 28, 1852, p. 2.

26. Ibid, April 24, 1852, p. 2.

27. Ibid, July 5, 1856, p. 2.

28. Ibid. September 15. 18-55 p. 2.

29. Leland G. Stanford, San Diego’s L L B (San Diego, 1968), p. 98.

30. District Court Case No. 545, Maurice Franklin vs. Joseph Reiner, Research Archives, San Diego History Center

31. Probate Case No. 670.

32. Ibid.

33. The Panic of 1855 placed great strains on an already weakened United States banking system. Robinson’s concern over the ability to transfer money from one area of the country to another was typical of the times. In his letter Robinson mentioned that most of the private banks in San Francisco had extremely limited resources.

34. Probate Case No. 670.

35. Ibid.

36. Ibid.

37. Ibid.

38. San Diego Herald, July 18, 1857, p. 2.

39. Pioneer Notes From the Diaries of Judge Benjamin Hayes (Los Angeles, 1929), p. 159.

40. San Diego Herald, February 6, 1855, p. 2.

41. Mss, James W. Robinson Documents File, Research Archives, San Diego Historical Society.

42. San Diego Herald, July 12, 1856, p. 2.