Reading Between the Lines (Of A Business Ledger)
July 1, 1989
by Beatrice Knott
Graduate Student University of San Diego
“The Historian as Detective” (the title of a book by Professor Robin W. Winks) is a phrase used in academic circles, with much emphasis placed on the similarities in skills and abilities each profession requires. A shopkeeper’s ledger book labeled “Unidentified,” dated 1863-1864, in the possession of the San Diego History Center, offered a chance to play the role of detective and attempt to determine where the ledger originated. Other questions also begged for an answer. Would a business ledger serve as a record of social history and furnish information on the people and their lifestyle? What stories concealed themselves behind dollar and cent entries? Would it be possible to bring these stories to light? Could a researcher “read between the lines” and extrapolate interesting facts from and arid book of accounts? This article is the result of the methodology used to answer some of these questions.
To organize, demarcate, count or assimilate the immense amount of data contained in the ledger, the use of a computer was a necessity. First a data base had to be constructed with various fields. Every entry in the ledger was then input to these fields. Once the data base was complete, the computer was capable of printing out many types of information. Slight changes in the commands to the computer produced printouts of all the customers in alpha order, counted how many times each customer made a purchase at the store, identified the types of merchandise purchased, and noted the variations in the spellings of the same name. Once a data base was established, all kinds of information became available with little effort. In addition to the original data base listing customers, separate data bases were set up to determine both specific purchases and broad categories (such as food, clothing, liquor, or building materials).
The search for the location of the store that might have kept the ledger was begun with San Diego. The San Diego History Center collects information on San Diego City and County and it seemed logical that the ledger had its origin in San Diego. In 1863-1864 two possible sites for the store existed, La Playa and Old Town. The preliminary research eliminated the town of La Playa, (a settlement five miles west of Old Town), as a plausible site for the location of the store. Even before 1863, La Playa was deteriorating. A description of La Playa said: “4 dilapidated hide houses, 4 stores, 1 customhouse ‘ramshackle,’ 1 hotel (of sorts), and a few scattered dwellings.”1 The names of the customers in the ledger belonged to well-known pioneers in San Diego history. Although four stores existed in La Playa in 1863, the majority of the customers listed called Old Town home. The dream of Alonzo Horton to establish New Town was not realized until 1867. According to the goods sold, the store qualified as a general merchandise establishment. These facts pointed to Old Town as the location for the store. Concentration on stores in Old Town offered the best chance of success.
The census records of 1860 listed the occupations of the people enumerated. Only seven men identified themselves as “merchants” in 1860. The list included James Donohue, Francis Hinton, Jose Moreno, Ephraim Morse, Reuben Raimond, Lorenzo Soto, and Thomas Whaley. In 1863 there was no newspaper in San Diego. The old Herald had discontinued publication in 1859 and the San Diego Union would not begin publication until 1868. Only the Los Angeles Star furnished news to San Diegans. With no newspaper being published locally, there was no opportunity to check for advertisements or references to store owners which might have expanded the above list.
In the computer printout of customers the name “Breed & Chase,” appeared with frequency in the ledger. While most of the entries identified the head of household, this sounded more like a business name. The archivist at the San Diego Historical Society furnished a clue when he said that he thought that Breed & Chase operated out of San Francisco as wholesalers of general merchandise.
The manuscript collections in the Research Archives of the San Diego Historical Society contain one called ‘The E. W. Morse Collection.” The name of Ephraim Morse appeared on the list of possible merchants and this collection offered the most information about a merchant. The very first folder contained vast riches – letters from Breed & Chase in San Francisco to Ephraim Morse in San Diego concerning business affairs. Two levels of relationship were revealed in the communications. One relationship proved purely business; referring to orders, shipments, or merchandise being sought; polite requests for money owing on the account; of financial information as to the value of greenbacks, treasury notes, and the like. These letters have the signature “Breed & Chase” with no identification of the writer. The second relationship was more personal. Letters dealt not only with business matters, but also inquired into personal matters. These letters bore the signature of “A. J. Chase.”
One of letters began “San Francisco, Jan[uar]y 15/64.” In the body of the letter appears the following:
Yours of the 10th per Stmr “Senator” is at hand with enclosures. We also recd by express certificate of deposit on Wells Fargo & Co. for $150 in coin and $1066.85/100 in greenbacks which we have sold at 67¢ and passed to your credit on a/c.2
Here was specific information of the kind that might be recorded in a business ledger. A feeling of excitement grew as the ledger pages were turned to January 10, 1864. Would there be an entry in the ledger that could have generated this acknowledgment? If found, the entry would tie together a known customer and wholesaler with the unknown merchant. Eureka! On January 10, 18643 the merchant made an entry which recorded a financial transaction; sending to Breed & Chase certificates of deposit on Wells Fargo & Co. for $150 and $1066.85 in greenbacks. At last, this was confirmation that the ledger came from the commercial enterprises of Ephraim W. Morse,4 one of the merchants on the list of “possibles.
Although the ledger contained entries made by more than one person, a comparison of the script in the ledger and in the diaries of E. W. Morse tended to support the argument that the ledger belonged to his enterprises. The diaries dated from a later period but the handwriting showed remarkable similarities. The “Y’s” and “J’s” of Mr. Morse were similar, at times presenting difficulties in attempts to decipher the name or the word.
Now that the first puzzle had been solved, other questions arose. Would further analysis of the ledger reveal the answers to questions such as services offered, what people ate and wore, and tell something about the people themselves and their lifestyle over one hundred years ago?
The center of the commercial life of the community rested in the store. The ledger showed that this establishment handled a variety of financial matters. Charge accounts became customary, payment made when funds were available. During 1863-1864, at the height of the American Civil War, the elusiveness of money was shown by the slow payments at the store and the dunning letters from the wholesaler in San Francisco.5 Coin, greenbacks, scrip, gold dust, gold nuggets, labor, barter, use of vehicles — all became legal tender to pay for goods. The merchant kept close watch on the real value of the variety of payments. Greenbacks, for instance, sold for as high as 80¢ and as low as 55¢ the rate depended in large part on whether the North or the South had the latest victory in the Civil War in the east. (When the North won, greenbacks went up.) Shipment of ore to San Francisco for assay took time, with no guarantee given as to its worth. Wholesale prices changed with rapidity as surplus and scarcity fluctuated in accordance with the cargoes that reached port.
The exchange of labor or goods for store merchandise, the barter process, involved nearly all families at some time, whatever their place on the social ladder. William Cant loaned his wagon one day6 and at another time got $5 credit for sacking wool for shipment.7 A. S. Ensworth, an attorney at law, received 10 sacks of flour in return for 40 cakes of soap.8 Julian Sandoval received 100 lbs. of flour “to be paid with 200 corn.”9
In a few cases some customers received cash for goods sold to the merchant. The chance that greenbacks would decline in value made them a favorite for the payment of debts. One paid a bill at high value but, if the exchange rate dropped, the greenbacks would buy much less when the recipient used them. Greenbacks showed more volitility than coin, gold, treasury notes or certificates of deposit. Louis Rose got $30 in greenbacks for his castile soap.10 Francisco Lopes (Lopez) purchased tobacco, paper and thread from the store, rolled cigaritos and cigars and sold the end product back to the store. The merchant recorded the cost of the raw materials, the price he paid for the bunches of cigars and cigaritos, and even figured the profit made by Lopes.11
Ephraim Morse really served the community in many ways. He collected debts owed to customers by other customers.12 In addition to “loans” by the use of charge accounts, he made cash loans and paid express and freight charges. He added these loans to the customer’s store account.13 He collected tames and paid them to the correct governmental entity.14
The ledger spoke loud and clear on several personality traits of the man involved. Morse meticulously recorded every sale or purchase. A generous nature showed in the number of families he carried on the books with medium to large balances on their account. The ledger became a business diary with extraneous statements and comments such as:
It commenced raining Wednesday morning the 10th (February, 1864) at about 2 o’clock and has rained hard and steady and is still raining 11 o’clock Friday — quit raining about midnight Friday night.15
Sensitivity is apparent in his description of one of his mules:
Kriss branded a mule for me with my brand a/c of what Jesus Marron owes me at $40. He is 2-½ or 3 years old, a little gentle, purado or brown color vented with. . . Kriss is to take care of him.16
Penmanship and the innovative spelling of words and names catch the eye in the inspection of the ledger. The author used pen with a flexible nib, which produced the nineteenth century florid style with many curls and various widths in lines. Beautiful to look at, a reader must become thoroughly familiar with the penmanship in order to decipher the entries. For instance, whenever a double “s” appeared, the first “s” looked the same as one now makes a lower case “f.” One entry translated as “M-E-F-S,” as in the name of a householder. The #1 which followed this “name” confused the reader. Enlightment came with the first printout — the “name” was M-E-S-S #1 of the U.S. Army or U.S. Navy posts. Spelling and punctuation were not strong points or important to this merchant. The same name appeared spelled in several different forms.17 Checking each transaction by the account number helped in identification for individual accounts. The use of the word “B-Y” by the merchant when he meant ‘B-U-Y” also tended to lead to confusion.
With the Civil Rights movement and discrimination against minorities very newsworthy in 1988, the question arose as to whether this old ledger could furnish any information in regard to discrimination in 1864. The answer can be “Yes, No, or Maybe!” The ledger identified customers as “Mex Shoemaker” or “Jim Chinaman: or “John Williams, nigger.” This may show either racial prejudice or be a means of identification. The census of 1860 identified John Williams as a mulatto. His occupation was listed as cook, and his wife identified as an Indian. Other black males are reputed to have lived in San Diego during this period but the only reference to the color of the person appeared with the John Williams name. Indian never attained the dignity of a last name, either in the ledger or in the census records. The merchant’s intention was more than likely identification (of the customer) rather than “put-downs” or derogation.
Feelings about Indians in the nineteenth century differed greatly from the feelings of the twentieth century. Letters from A. J. Chase to Morse asked Morse to secure and Indian girl to work for the Chase’s in San Francisco. One letter inquired, “When do you think the Indian girl will be ready for shipment?”18 The phrasing indicates a lack of sensitivity to another human being. In another letter Chase says:
We want the Indian girl until she is of age. We wish to treat her well and give her a good English education. We should not consent to any dictation from her father as to the mode of her education either domestic or religious.19
The letter indicates that Chase felt he and his ways were far superior to Indian ways. Evidently the Indian girl was “shipped,” as Chase said in a third letter:
The Indian girl is getting along finely [sic] improving very fast in Yankee frases [sic]. Wife has never had any more trouble since that time.20
Separate data bases containing information on the kinds of food purchases were very revealing. The ledger showed a dearth of sales of fresh vegetables and fruits. This astonished the twentieth century researcher who expected a large produce department as currently found in supermarket. Raisins and dried apples, not grapes or fresh apples, comprised the stock. Corn and barley sold in large quantities, possibly used for animal fodder rather than human consumption, Once one accepts the differences between the nineteenth century and the twentieth century, assumptions that people had their own gardens, a farmer’s market existed, farmers made periodic trips around the town to sell fresh produce, or perhaps all three, became viable. A sketch in Pourade’s The Silver Dons showed a large area labeled “Josefa Fitch’s Fine Garden.” The owner of a pear garden was Lorenzo Soto. Each family presumably had a truck garden for its own use.
Whiskey outstripped all other items in popularity. Customers purchased it by the drink, bottle, demijohn, keg, and cask. Tobacco ran a close second. Most of the men, and some of the women, smoked; almost every account showed sales of tobacco in some form. Staples such as flour, onions, rice, beans, and sugar produced steady sales. Spices ranked high on the popularity list.
Meat was not purchased at the store in any great quantities. Some sales of meat are recorded but not in the quantity one would expect. Evidently fish and meat were bought directly form the fishermen and the butchers. The Californians of the mid-nineteenth century ate a great deal of meat. Beef was broiled or roasted and served with onions. Sometimes mutton, chicken or eggs appear on the menu. The women usually served bread in the form of tortillas, sometimes made with yeast.21 Beans served as another source of protein. The Californios made a delicious chili con carne (meat cooked with chili peppers). Many of the people followed the Catholic faith; fish, therefore, was a staple for Fridays.22 An Indian style of cooking prevailed. Indian cooks prepared most of the meals in the larger homes, rancheros and hotels. Spices of all kinds flavored the food. Not obligated to deal with the “lowest responsible bidder” the U.S. Army Messes bartered flour and rice in exchange for spices, dried apples and raisins.23
No computer printout was needed to discern that men purchased their clothes “off the rack.” Entries showed sales of hats, caps, shirts of all materials (wool, line, cotton), manta,24 pants, shoes, boots, socks, hand-kerchiefs, coats — wearing apparel for men did not require the services of a seamstress or a tailor. Women did not fair so well. Women had to purchase yard goods and sew their own garments or have them made up, even mourning dress. The items purchased by one of the customers (Lucy Fisher) indicate she must have earned her living as a seamstress. Her purchases in cluded more thread, ribbons and lace than normally would be expected.
In December of 1863, Mrs. J. C. Stuart’s daughter paid $3.00 on her mother’s account, Morse noted this was the balance owing on some calico he identified as (mourning) in the entry.25What death occasioned the mourning? John C. Stuart, the husband, gave fifty years as his age at the time of the 1860 census. He listed his mother-in-law, who lived with him, as sixty years old. Either could have died in 1863. Based on ledger entries, the most plausible assumption would suggest than J. C. Stuart, the husband, was the deceased. Possibly both husband and mother died and occasioned dual mourning. If the mother died and the husband remained alive, the account should have continued to appear in the ledger. A careful check of the dates in a computer printout showed no other entries in the ledger for either Mr. or Mrs. Stuart. One surmises that Mrs. Stuart became widowed and returned to her family or remarried after a very short mourning period.
Andrew Kriss resided in Old Town. The 1860 census showed his age as thrity-one years, that he worked as a butcher, had a wife and a new baby. By 1864, the school census records showed that he had one girl between four and eighteen years of age and one child under four years. He traded regularly at the store and his name appeared often in the ledger. The assessment records for the early 1860’s showed his net worth increased steadily each year. He must have been industrious, was helpful to his neighbor and ready to tackle any kind of work to support his family. A note in the ledger recorded that Kriss branded a mule for Morse at one time and was to take care of it for Morse.
A mystery developed when two entries in the ledger indicated that Andrew Kriss had died between Monday and Thursday of one week. On May 23, 1864 a charge of $2.50 for flour was entered in the ledger.26 On Thursday, May 26, 1864 an entry charged “To the Estate of A. Kriss” these items:
39 ft. lumber @ 2.34
2 lbs. nails @ .25
2 paper tacks @ .2527
These items evidently would be used to build his coffin. Just what happened to Mr. Kriss? A check of the inquest transcripts for 1864 disclosed that Kriss was murdered.
The story emerged from the inquest testimony. Kriss accompanied a deputy sheriff on a mission to attach 178 mares, colts, and horses from the Rancho de las Viejas. The deputies encountered no problem in repossession and Kriss began to drive the horses back toward San Diego. That night, Californios ran off most of the horses. Kriss enlisted some help and galloped off in pursuit of the horse thieves. He caught up with two members of the horse thieves who had dropped behind. Both of these men said they were not armed when Kriss called upon them to surrender their guns. He and his companion pressed on and finally caught up with the main body of the herd. One of the thieves refused to surrender and a shootout occured. Kriss was killed. The Coroner’s jury found “…he came to his death on the twenty-fifth day of May 1864, but whether in this county or Lower California is unknown to us, by a pistol ball would in the head.”28
The more one examined the ledger, the more interesting it became. The utilization of primary documents almost exclusively, rather than books or articles written by others made the interpretation of these documents the responsibility of the researcher. The subjective interpretations of previous researchers thus did not color or contaminate the conclusions. The use of the computer to present information in an organized manner was indispensable. New areas of information now became available to the researcher in an orderly and coherent format. Without such sophisticated help, much information would remain hidden. While the computer is an invaluable tool, the eagle eye and questioning mind of the historian is still required to analyze the data to get answers to questions postulated. The historian and the detective do have much in common. The challenge to follow obscure clues to a conclusion gave a most enjoyable experience.
1. Pourade, Richard F., The History of San Diego, Vol. 3: The Silver Dons; San Diego, California; Union Tribune Publishing Company; 1963; p.171.
2. Letter from A. J. Chase to E. W. Morse; San Diego History Center (SDHC) E. W. Morse Manuscript Collection 341 (Mss 341); Box 1, Jan-June, Ltr. #3.
3. San Diego History Center Unidentified Ledger, p.109. As a result of this paper, this ledger is now included with the E. W. Morse Collection, Mss 341, Box 5.
4. Ephraim Morse, one of the pioneers of San Diego, came into the world in Amesbury, Massachusetts. He farmed and taught school until the discovery of gold in California. He caught “gold fever” and assisted in the formation of a select company of investors who bought a ship, loaded it with merchandise they thought would sell, and sailed to California. Upon arrival in San Francisco the sales enabled the investors to “engage in such trading and mining operations as shall be deemed most advisable.” (Smythe, William E., History of San Diego 1542-1907; San Diego; The History Company; 1907; p. 280). Morse tried to mine on the Yuba River but his health declined and he returned to San Francisco. Richard Henry Dana’s book “Two Years Before the Mast” extolled the climate of San Diego and Morse decided to try his luck there. He and his partner, Levi Slack, first arrived in San Diego in April 1850 and set up a shop in Davistown. Davistown’s slide to obscurity gained momentum and, in 1853, Morse moved to Old Town and went into partnership with Thomas Whaley. The partnership dissolved in 1856 and More kept the store alone for three years. He then disposed of the store and went to Palomar to farm and raise stock. In 1861 he returned to Old Town and opened a new store in the old Rose House, beneath the Herald newspaper office. He served as agent for Wells Fargo & Co.’s express. (Smythe, History of San Diego, p.282).
5. A letter dated June 1, 1864 reads in part:
Enclosed please find bill & B/L per Senator for a part of your orders. We have three more orders from you for goods which would amount to about $1600.
We wrote you a month since in regard to our a/c, expressing our wish to supply you with all the goods you needed, but stated that the amount was larger than we felt we could afford to lay on account. We hoped that the remittances during the month would reduce the amount of the a/c, instead, they have been lighter than usual, and should we filled (sic) the whole of the orders on hand, it would swell the a/c to 6000$ and more, which we have felt we could not do in justice to ourselves. We are sorry we could not filled the orders in full, but think you will appreciate our reasons for doing as we have.
Allow us to suggest to you not to give too large credits to your customers. We have sent you an assortment from your orders, of such goods as we supposed you would need. Hope it will not be much inconvenience to you not receiving the whole orders, it can be made all right next time, only causing a little delay.”
The letter constains information that gold is still on the rise, [worth] 194 in N. Y. Green-backs in San francisco were selling for 56¢. The war at that time favored the Union forces as the writer says, “Hope Grant will give the Rebs a good thrashing.” He concludes the letter with “Send all the funds you can by return of steamer and oblige very truly yours, Breed & Chase. (E. W. Morse Collection Manuscript (Mss) 341, Box 1, Jan – June Ltr #16.)
6. Ledger, October 2, 1863, p.3.
7. Ibid., January 2, 1864, p.100.
8. Ibid., October 9, 1863, p.11.
9. Ibid., October 7, 1863, p.9
10. Castile soap is a hard, white odorless soap made with olive oil and soda. It’s name comes from the kingdom of Castile in Central Spain, where it originated.
Received 120 bunches equal to $15.00 Cost of tobacco (6 lbs.) 6.00 Paper (60 sheets) .75 Thread (1 spool) .125 Makin (sic) 3.6525 __________ 10.62 Ledger, p. 121.
12. Louis Rose bought a steer for $60. The Lucy Estate received the credit. (Ledger, p.9.). Captain Johnson paid $3.50 cash for Uncle Billy. (Ledger, pg.15). Louis Rose paid $5 on the Bandini a/c. (Ledger, p.23). Capt. Wilcox, cash $10.50 – “He says it for Swycaffer bill.” (Ledger, p.62). Andres paid $4.50 on Billy Cant’s a/c. (Ledger, p.297).
13. Hoffman – “To express charge on COD to Pendleton fm. Shore, Los Angeles – $2.65” (Ledger, p.38). Paid Capt. J. H. Bruce freight bill $142.50. (Ledger, p.40). Paid C. J. Couts freight bill – coin 20.40. Paid E. W. Morse freight bill – coin 150.70. Paid express charges on money sent – coin 2.50. Paid A. H. Wilcox freight bill – coin 24.70. (Ledger, p. 50).
14. Collected taxes:
Au Hat 44.28. (Ledger, p.38). E. W. Morse, scrip $10, coin 34.73 = 44.73
Ah Hat 44.28 (Ledger, p.28). E. W. Morse, scrip $10, coin 34.73 = 44.73 Jos. Smith, scrip $16, coin 55.08 = 71.08 P. J. Neal, 5.36 A. J. Chase, 10.56 Julian Ames, 43.68 (Ledger, p.88)
15. Ledger, p.157.
16. On the same page the account of Jesus Marron received credit for $40. Marron paid his bill with a mule. This illustrates one of the many unusual financial transactions recorded in a business ledger. (Ledger, p.27).
17. As examples, the name of George P. Tebbertts in spelled Tebetts, Tebbets, Tibbitts, Tebets. The Ossuna family name appears as Osuno, Osuna, Ossunna, Ossuna, Lopes is spelled both with an “s” and a “z”.
18. E. W. Morse Collection, Mss 341, Box 1, October 16, 1863, Ltr. #13.
19. Ibid., May 17, 1864, Ltr. #14.
20. Ibid., May 17, 1864, Ltr. #18.
21. Smythe, History of San Diego, p.157.
22. The Catholic Church forbid its people to eat meat on Fridays. It was not untill the Second Vatican Council in 1962 that this rule was changed.
23. Ledger, p.114.
24. Opinions differ on the definition(s) of manta. The Registrar of the San Diego Historical Society defines manta as a coarsely woven cotton cloth used in a room primarily to catch dirt and bugs that might drop from an adobe mud or woven ceiling. Tacked to the walls in each room so that it hung a few inches below the roof; dirt. bugs, and debris would fall into the manta instead of onto the floor. Removed periodically and taken outside to empty and shake clean; the manta could be reused when tacked again in position.
The Readers Digest Great Encyclopedia; Pleasantsville, New York; The Reader’s Digest Association, 1966; says: (1) a coarse and cheap cotton cloth used for garments in Spanish America, especially a woman’s shawl made of this fabric. (2) In sothwest United States, a canvas covering for the load of pack animals.
Random House Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged Edition, Stein, Jess, edit.; Random House, New York, 1983-defines manta as: (1) In Spain or Spanish America, a cloak or wrap. (2) The type of blanket or cloth used on a horse or mule. (3) A movable shelter formerly used to protect besiegers.
25. Ledger, p.85.
26. Ibid., p.298.
27. Ibid., p.302.
State of California
County of San Diego
Before John Compton Justice of the Peace
In the matter of the inquisition upon the body of Andrew Kriss, deceased,
We the undersigned, the jurors summoned to appear before John Comptom, Justice of the Peace in and form San Diego Township and County on the 26th day of May 1864, to enquire into the cause of the death of Andrew Kriss, having been duly sworn according to law and having made such inquisition after inspecting the body, and hearing the testimony adduced, upon our oaths, each and all do say that we find the deceased was named Andrew Kriss, was a native of Germany, aged about forty-two years, that he came to his death on the twenty fifth day of May 1864, but whether in this County or in Lower California is unknown to us, by a pistol ball would in the head. We further find that we believe Andronica Sepulveda to be the person by whose act the death of the said Andrew Kriss is occasioned.
All of which we duly certify by this inquisition in writing by us signed, this 1st day of June 1864.
San Diego, Cal.(Geo. A. Pendleton, Foreman
(J. S. Mannasses
(E. W. Morse
I dissent from the above so far as the same attaches to Andronica Sepulveda, the killing of Andrew Kriss, the deceased. Jose G. Esterlillo*
*This might also be “Estudillo.”
According to the census of 1860 Andrew Kriss would now be 35 or 36 years old, not the 42 years given in the inquest report.
The photographs are courtesy of The San Diego History Center’s Library and Title Insurance and Trust photograph collection.