Edited by Ronald J. Quinn
Throughout most of the decade of the 1860s San Diego readers went without a local newspaper. At the start of the decade San Diego Herald editor John Judson Ames turned off the presses. The loss of a newspaper symbolized the difficult times facing San Diegans in the 1860s. However, San Diego was not without some news coverage. The Alta California included its “Letter From San Diego” on a regular basis, and the Los Angeles Star faithfully covered the quiet goings on of the San Diego population. But by the time this information made its way to local readers, it was more likely old gossip than news. Historians must search out other sources on San Diego life during the Civil War era.
One of the most revealing sources of San Diego’s beleaguered existence in the early years of the decade is found in the letters of Augustus S. Ensworth, which are preserved today in the collections of the Whaley House Museum in San Diego. Ensworth came to San Diego in the early 1850s. After serving a stint as Justice of the Peace, he taught himself the law. Over the course of a decade he acquired an extensive law library, which, as shown in the following correspondence, he kept up-to-date.
In August 1860, Ensworth moved into the home of storekeeper Thomas Whaley, whose formidable brick residence had already become a local landmark. As did many other San Diego residents, Whaley and his family had abandoned San Diego at the beginning of the decade in search of economic opportunity in San Francisco. But Whaley retained financial interests in the San Diego area. Ensworth, on the other hand, appeared to have no regular source of income.
The extant correspondence between the two men began on September 2, 1859.1 At this point in the relationship, Ensworth acted primarily as Whaley’s business agent. Prior to Ensworth’s decision to occupy the home, Whaley has rented it out to Robert and Sarah Doyle.2 By the spring of 1860, the couple had fallen behind in the rent. On August 16, 1860 Doyle left the Whaley house and a few days later Ensworth moved in. He found the house rat infested, so he proceeded to spread poison throughout the structure and opened all the doors to make it easier for the vermin to reach the bait.3 In September 1860, with supplies sent to him from San Francisco, Ensworth made repairs on the roof, which Doyle had warned him leaked during the winter.
In the first letter presented here, Ensworth describes the earthquake that occurred in San Diego on May 27, 1862. Although Ensworth seemed rather nonchalant about the disaster, the Los Angeles Star referred to the event as San Diego’s “Day of Terror.”4 Besides damage to Whaley’s house, the earthquake cracked the tower of the Point Loma Lighthouse, and caused severe flooding in Old Town.5 Fortunately for the terrified residents, no one died in the quake.
The second letter is indicative of the kind of economic relationship that existed between Whaley and Ensworth. Ensworth handled all of Whaley’s business activity in San Diego, as well as serving as an accountant who tended to taxes, and made sure that repairs on the building were made. Since San Diego was without a bank, most financial transactions were handled through the local Wells Fargo agent. The letter demonstrates clearly that Ensworth made every attempt to keep current with the law, although by his own admission he had but few clients.
The third letter finds Ensworth no longer a resident in the Whaley House, but a patient in the Sisters of Charity Hospital in Los Angeles. Ensworth had broken his leg the previous year, and the injury had rendered him increasingly immobile. The leg was not properly set, and the injury became infected. Although Ensworth claims in the letter that he is improving, the injury would prove fatal. Ensworth accepted his fate with a joyful resignation. To the end he remained devoted to Whaley’s business interests in San Diego, and maintained correspondence with his friends there. Ensworth died at the Sisters of Charity Hospital on September 13, 1865.
A.S. Ensworth to Thomas Whaley, January 25, 1862
Yours of the 18th instant was received by the Senator, which arrived quite late today.6 I began to think we were to have no more communication with the outer world, for as you say, at the commencement of your letter “Rain! Rain, nothing but rain!” Blocked up the road between this and Los Angeles so that for the last three weeks we have been without an overland mail. Therefore that “long letter overland” has not arrived. I also wrote you a letter overland, which I presume you did not receive, as you say nothing about it and continue to ship. But first, as to the weather. So much rain was never known here-at least by the Americans. In the small gulches, which are nearly always dry, large trees have been washed out by the roots, and the river came down so that it covered the whole flat between here and the highland where the wind mill formerly stood. The body of the stream shifted and cut away just one half of Lyons Garden.7 The banks, where the roads led out of town to the Playa, are about ten feet perpendicular. A large part of Smith’s garden washed off.8 Mrs. Conroy’s house is entirely destroyed and the house of Andrew Kriss was swept off entirely in a body.9 Frank Stone, who built quite a good house on the Cajon Ranch, had it swept away altogether with his corral.10 The rain commenced falling on the 24th of last month and continued unceasingly until two or three days ago. The Senator landed her goods at the Playa on that day and in the evening the rain fell, altho covered by caves, some of the flour (many sacks) was damaged. The roads are in bad condition. Nearly all the little gulches between here and Solidad are cut out and left with banks from 3 to 4 feet per pendicular. We have not had two days of dry weather and warm sunshine, which I have improved in drying and putting things to rights for another rain, as during the whole day it has looked like a “weather breeder.” Some of the goods got wet in the house, although looked after night and day, for it was nearly impossible to remove them into the other building in the face of the storm. The house leaked awfully and the whole wall, against which the south-east storm beat, became so thorouly saturated and wetted that the water stood in large drops on the inside of it, and trickled down in little rills. I would have never believed, had I not seen it, that it was possible to so wet through a lime and morter wall. Today I am retaring the roof (I wish I had feathers, but instead will use sand.) Most of the goods were in the small building at commencement. It has been death on the old adobe buildings about town. About 120 feet of your outer corral wall fell down – that which was nearest to the hill & therefore, as I thought, the most secure. On yesterday I went to work, got some plank, and have made a tight board fence as high as the wall. Of course it fell down hill and into the pen. Otherwise the wall is standing, but much warn away by abrasion with the water. There is not a door in the whole house that will close or come anywhere near it. I barricade at night and trust to a return of dry weather to play the carpenter with them. But this weather, while injuring some, will help others. The rancheroes are much pleased at the grass. The weeds in the Plaza are two feet and anywhere about in the neighborhood of your house, it is good grazing.
Now as to business: you will recollect that I told you that I should be under the necessity of borrowing from Jack Hinton’s bag to pay for the last freight bill to Senator.11 I have replaced that money & do not believe that at this moment I have $20.00. So you see how fast I am selling goods. Nobody has money down here. On yesterday I gave Witherby $1000 of Hinton’s money and took a mortgage on his ranch.12 Couts has been to me to get $1000 of the same money, on mortgage, but I do not like the security.13 These have been supposed to be the most money men in the county. I think some of starting a new currency down here – cowries, using abalone shells for the shells they use in the east for that purpose. The fact is, if a man gets money enough to buy a bag of flour, he dare not come to me for fear some of the Jews will find it out and sue him. Many is the time they have come for it after dark, for fear of being seen by some men whom they were owing.14 As I said to you in my letter, you seem not to have read, you had better hold on to the goods a little until we see what is that. If I don’t mistake, some of these Jews will burst up. Enclosed I send you tax receipts, I think you will find the lots all right this year. I hope you will make up your mind to roof this house during summer coming. It annoys me to see so good a building as this decaying for the want of a cover. If the weather should dry off so that the people can get in town, I hope to sell something during the next two weeks. They tell me that the Express is going & I’ve no time to read over what is written. Where is Lyons staying up there? He was only defaulter for 6 or 8 thousand. Great Country This!
A.S. Ensworth to Thomas Whaley, June 17, 1862
Quite unexpectedly, the steamer is now rounding Point Loma, as I may have several letters to answer, and have some other writing to do before she leaves, I will say a word or two now.
In your last letter I found inclosed to me what looks like an invoice of com stores sent pr. St. Senator to A.C.S. at Camp Latham. Knowing nothing about it and not being able to understand what I have to do with those stores, I herewith return it to you for explanation, if one is necessary.
I’ve not much of any news, with the exception, that on the 27th ultimo, at few moments past twelve o’clock we had two shocks of an earthquake, within 2 or 3 minutes of one another, the second the most severe. Many houses in town became cracked, altho no serious damage was done. I inclose you a picture of your house, showing the cracks, but it looks worse on paper than it is. In fact the cracks are only discovered on inspection. But in order to crack solid brick, I think, in many places where there are cracks, the walls must have opened considerable for the moment. I was in the yard at the time and the noise of the vibration of the windows and doors could have heard at the graveyard.15 It was awful! For days afterward it could be seen in the bed of the river where the earth had opened and closed, leaving the marks of long rents. It cracked the tower of the light house so as to injure it considerable. – It rained nearly all of the 12th and 13th inst. & the sun having cracked the roof, it leaked considerable in 2,3, or 4 places, but on yesterday I had it fixed up again, using up the ball of the tar and you had better send me another small barrel to fix it just before the rains set in – but speaking of earthquakes – from the 27th ultimo the earth has not been at rest, nearly every 24 hrs. bring forth little young earthquakes – on yesterday 2 sometimes 3 or 4 in 24 hours. As for myself, for more than 10 days I slept in the corral, others imitated me in town.
Jack Hinton wants to try a project so please send me 10 pounds, or such a matter, if not over per pound of sandwich island grass called Mariania. 1 pair brass didivers, about 6 inches long, with a screw to set them, and a small ivory or bone scale, say a foot or so long. I’ve felt the want of them a long time. 1 ivory or bone paper folder – Indians have stolen the one I had – 6 of them small boxes of water close paper. That paper is a great institution. It is not all imagination, as you suppose – The weighing this year is not as lively as formerly, still I have done some little at it, but charge only 75 cents, yet as I give you credit this year, the same as last, for the whole amt. recd. I hope you will be satisfied. As I live here, it is not much trouble and if it was it would be not much matter, as I am not pushed with business – when I am out, Tom Fox is always at home.
Your letter per Morse, of June 4th is just recd. containing invoice.16 M got on the steamer at San Pedro and says the schooner will be here in a day or two – relative to the $14 worth of goods sold Mrs. Robinson, it stands in this way. I let her have goods to the amt of $14, which she did not pay for, but was to settle with you for them, but I entered in my book of cash received, and as you will charge Mrs. R that amt.17 I suppose you should give me credit for the $14 the same as tho I had sent you the money. The $14 formed no part of the $530. Is this a correct way of doing it? I have said I rec’d your letter by Morse, but I now learn that I got it through Capt. Bogert – have also recd some Bulletins, for which I am obliged nearly to death.18 As to the merchandise shipped on the Perry, I suppose it is all right – anyway. I will do my best to make sales, but as yet the excitement relative to the Colorado gold mines has not effect us in the least. But you had better not send vinegar – They manufacture it here. Hold up on the syrup, pickles and pilot bread, & champaigne wine – I now have a large stock of these articles on hand – never mind about Yoakum’s (This is the way it is spelled – not Yoaldham) History of Texas. I have seen it as also Kendall’s Travels in Texas. As to Picketing in the lot, the whole expense shall be acct of equally divided between Mr. Ames’s estate, you and myself. – I have on hand on merchandise account about $265 which I intended to send you this steamer, as well as about $50 to keep up my private account, but from the heavy invoice I have rec’d to arrive on the Perry, I shall hold on, and as the mail, with Express, heaves here for Los Angeles, if I should have money to remit before next steamer, I can do so pr. Express – I’ve been at this business now sometime & as money never comes out even when I handle it, I would like to have the thing fixed up, some way, & see how it stands – while I have been writing this letter quite a smart shock of an earthquake took place Frank Stone, writing at the other table, jumps up and says My stars alive! There is another!’ I’ve been selling champaigne at $13 – It is a dull sale. Meier goes up on this boat – also Pendleton and wife,19 I hear also a greaser to San Quentin for acting bad. I am obliged for the reports – not much use, but must have them as long as I pretend to attend to this miserable little law business. Don’t forget the statutes, as soon as bound – with respect to your family, I remain.
A.S. Ensworth to Thomas Whaley, February 21, 1865
Sisters of Charity Hospital, Los Angeles
Your kind letter of the 9th inst. was received by last steamer and I should have sent you in reply by her when she returned, but she went some day before she advertised to start – leaving me an object of mistaken confidence in a newspaper advertisement. Think I can say with confidence that I am slowly improving and hope soon to be around, altho I shall be entirely ruined for running races or herding sheep. Hereafter my locomotion will have to be accomplished with a crutch. When walking the toes of my left foot only reach the ground. It may be from use, the limb will be elongated somewhat. But better in that situation than in strict confinement, and it is better perhaps, to receive the affliction towards the latter end of life than to have received it in my younger days. It is a divine blessing that, no matter how heavy the blows of affliction, our minds are so constituted that we are ever ready to draw consolation by contrasting our present misery with that which might have befallen us. I think daily of the story made more familiar to my boyhood by the best of schoolbooks, the “English Readers” much in use in my young days, of the Christian resignation of the old gentlemen under an attack of the gout and gravel at the same time, who thanked God they were not accompanied by any other disease. Let us praise God for the blessings we enjoy! Like everything we never sufficiently appreciate his blessings until we have lost them. You kindly say: Please tell me if you are in need of anything? Yes, my dear sir, I am in most grievous want, but I am fearful you cannot assist me, altho I do not doubt your desire to do so. If only you could send me a sound and strong leg, (including the knee and ankle, fat and plump, to correspond in appearance and usefulness with my right leg), you would give me a great favor; but one of bone, flesh, and blood – none of your wooden or elastic fixings. Otherwise than this, at present I am not particularly in need of anything, but give to Mrs. Whaley and yourself many thanks for your thoughtful attention of me in my afflictions—in my last letter I wrote you that I had sued Lassator and attached his property for the debt he was owing us.20 It now turns out, that before the suit was commenced, Lassator, on his way home from the mines, was murdered for what little money he had with him, altho’ this way not known at the time suit was commenced, as you cannot attach the property of, or sue a dead man, and his estate going into administration the probability is we would have received next to nothing had not McCoy got the debt secured.21 Hays has recd a letter from McCoy who says that under instructions from Mr. Morse to settle the demands without attaching if possible he took Kimball’s note (son in law of Lassator) secured by some collateral (accounts against Jaeger the payment of which is guaranteed in writing by Hinton.)22 So think we are in luck. Cave J. Couts, in the Plaza of San Diego, the other day, killed a man by the name of Mendoza with a double barrel shot gun Couts is out on $15,000 bail. From what Morse and others write me, Mendoza, formerly, had been Major Domo for Couts.23
Editors note: The Ensworth letters are reproduced here through the courtesy of June Reading, Curator, Whaley House Museum.
1. A.S. Ensworth to Thomas Whaley, 2 September 1859, Thomas Whaley Papers, Whaley House, San Diego, California.
2. Doyle was a mail agent from New York.
3. A.S. Ensworth to Thomas Whaley, 22 August 1860, Thomas Whaley Papers, Whaley House, San Diego, California.
4. Los Angeles Star, 21 June 1862, 2.
6. Along with Cornelia and New World, the Senator was one of the better known Sacramento steamboats of the period. As well as traveling up and down the coast of California, the steamers also offered service to the interior ports of Stockton, Marysville, and Sacramento.
7. George Lyons emigrated to the United States from County Donegal, Ireland. He served two terms as Sheriff of San Diego County, and promoted railroad development for the area as a director of the San Diego and Gila Railroad.
8. Albert B. Smith was a veteran of the Mexican War. He married Guadalupe Machado, thewidow of Peter Wilder. His garden was considered the best in Old Town.
9. Anna Conroy was another Irish immigrant who lived in San Diego with her five children. Almost two years after the famous flood, Andrew Kriss, a thirty-five-year-old German-born butcher, was murdered. A coroner’s jury in San Diego ruled that the crime had been committed by Andronica Sepulveda. However, the decision was not unanimous. Jose Estudillo formally dissented.
10. The census of 1860 estimated the worth of Stone’s property, including cattle, at $8500.
11. Jack Hinton came to San Diego in 1858. For a number of years he owned and operated the Black Hawk Livery in Old Town, but he eventually sold his business to another Old Towner, Albert Seeley in the early 1870s.
12. Oliver Witherby was one of the better educated American arrivals in San Diego. He graduated from Miami University of Ohio in 1836, and came to San Diego as a Boundary Commission member in 1849. He served in a variety of legal capacities throughout the County, but the highlight of his local career came in 1880, when, at age 65, he assumed the presidency of the Consolidated National Bank of the United States. He accumulated a tidy fortune in the 1880s, but lost almost all of it in the 1893 Depression.
13. Cave Johnson Couts, a West Point graduate in 1843, settled permanently in San Diego after the Mexican War. His marriage to Ysidora Bandini in 1851 turned the former armyofficer into a local cattle baron.
14. Unlike other merchants in Old Town, Whaley and Ensworth refused to sell on credit. Therefore any purchase from them was an open admission that the consumer had money.
15. This is probably not a figure of speech. El Campo Santo Cemetery was only a short from the Whaley House on San Diego avenue.
16. Ephraim W. Morse left his native Massachusetts for the Gold Rush in 1848. He was a friend and business associate of Whaley. Morse pursued eclectic business opportunities throughout San Diego County.
17. Sara Robinson was the widow of James W. Robinson, another strong early supporter of the San Diego and Gila Railroad. After Robinson’s death in 1857, Sara became something of a town character. She loved the Whaleys intensely, and was crushed when the family moved to San Francisco during the Civil War years. Some of her letters to the family can be found in the Whaley House Collection. They are filled with gossip, and strong opinions about her neighbors.
18. Capt. J. C. Bogart first visited San Diego in 1834 aboard the Black Warrior. Besides serving as an agent for the Pacific Mail Steamship Company at La Playa, he also represented the county in the State Senate in 1862 and 1863.
19. Meier was a local merchant from Dormstadt, Bavaria. George Pendleton was a classmate of Cave Couts at West Point. He served as County Clerk from 1857 to 1871.
20. The census of 1860 estimated Lassitor’s net worth at $7000.
21. James A. McCoy was sheriff at the time of the incident. Both he and Ensworth had been active in local Democratic politics.
22. Judge Benjamin Hayes was a close friend of Ensworth. In fact, it was Hayes who wouldinform Whaley of Ensworth’s death.
23. George Tebbetts, who operated a butcher shop in Old Town, was an eyewitness to the murder, and testified about it to the Coroner’s jury. According to his version, Couts shot the victim twice; the second shot was fired while Mendoza was attempting to flee from Couts. Although indicted and tried, Couts was found innocent of the crime. Couts argued that his former employee had threatened his life. There is more information on the incident in the San Diego County Archives Collection at Heritage Park in Old Town San Diego. See also Richard W. Crawford, Stranger Than Fiction: Vignettes of San Diego History (San Diego History Center, 1995), 5-6.
Ronald J. Quinn is a lecturer in the Department of History at San Diego State University, where he offers courses in California History and the American West. Since 1985, Professor Quinn has contributed articles and reviews for The Journal of San Diego History dealing with San Diego in the mid nineteenth century.