The Journal of San Diego History
Winter/Spring 2001, Volume 47, Number 1
Gregg Hennessey, Editor

By Richard W. Crawford
June 1987

“Of all the sources used by American historians,
local records are the most neglected.”1

Images from this issue

The lament of historian Hugh T. Lefter in 1965 is a useful reminder to historians today. While interest in local history has grown markedly in the last twenty years, local public records remain a major, under utilized resource. The neglect of historical records in San Diego is reflected in its written history. Largely the product of antiquarians and popular writers, San Diego history has been characterized by anecdotal narrative and boosterism to the exclusion of interpretation. Too often, research into primary sources has been ignored in favor of more easily accessible, secondary materials.2

The value of local records would seem especially pertinent in San Diego, America’s seventh most populous city and center of one of the fastest growing regions of the Southwest. Founded in 1769 by Spanish colonists and missionaries, it is also the oldest settled community on the West Coast. The preservation of historical records in this region has seldom been consistent. The scarcity of Spanish and Mexican documents, for example, confounds historians studying the years prior to American statehood.3 From 1850 to the present day, however, local government records offer a richly detailed, unexploited resource of San Diego history.

This essay will briefly survey the public records collection of the San Diego Historical Society; describe its scope, content, and significant characteristics and explain its potential value to researchers. The archives house a diverse array of historical documents such as court case files, minutes of the city council and board of supervisors, local ordinances, coroner’s inquest reports, probate records, tax lists, school reports, and account books. These and many other primary sources present opportunities for serious scholarship.

The most basic public record series of any local government is the minutes of proceedings by the chief governing agency. For the City of San Diego, the minutes of the City Council constitute a virtual diary of local history — a consistent chronicle of contemporary concerns, events, and actions. Through several structural changes in organization — the minutes of the Common Council (1850-1853), Board of Trustees (1853-1869), boards of Alderman and Delegates (1889-1905), and Council (1905-59) — also provide a valuable abstract of the evolution of San Diego’s municipal government. Accompanying the council minutes are the official Ordinances (1886-1948), documenting the growing complexity of local laws, and Resolutions (1889-1948), reflecting the formal opinion of city officials on various topics of contemporary concern.

Several record series document the frenetic pace of San Diego’s growth since the turn of the century. Minutes of the Board of Public Works (1889-1909) discuss city projects that range from salt water street sprinkling for the control of dust to the first operations of an ocean-going garbage scow. Deeds (1850-1947) record the transfer of property rights or easements to the City. Most of these deeds concern the continuing construction of streets and sewers; other entries include a grant of land from Cave J. Couts and Joshua Bean for construction of San Diego’s first courthouse in 1856; and a grant from Alonzo E. Horton in 1874 concerns land for a “City Park Reservation,” known since 1910 as Balboa Park.4 Another important record series, Record of Bonds (1903-1941) shows city bond issues for the development of water, piers, parks, sewers and other projects.

Most useful of all for studying the building of the physical infrastructure are the Leases and Contracts (1909-1947) which record all legal agreements formed by the city for construction projects that include street paving and illumination, harbor development and shipbuilding yards. These records also contain blueprints and specification booklets for certain projects. Water development — a critical theme of San Diego history — is well documented here. Interesting also are contracts with the military in World War II such as the lease of an old city jail for use as a “central venereal prophylactic station” and a detailed property inventory of Camp Callan, an Army base constructed on Torrey Pines Mesa in 1941.5

A far more diverse array of documents is found in the Society’s county records starting with materials from the Board of Supervisors. As the chief administrative and executive authority for the county, the Supervisors are responsible for a broad range of activities. Minutes of the Board of Supervisors (1875-1954) provide an effective, abstract history of the county and cover many topics in detail such as elections, county boundaries, road construction, water development, schools, and taxes.

Often overlooked by researchers are supervisorial records such as the Petitions to the Board of Supervisors (1870-1893), and Bids and Contracts (1870-1893). While the Petitions are largely composed of items of prosaic interest — nomination of individuals for civil office, for example — outstanding documents include a petition requesting the transfer of county offices from Old Town to Horton’s Addition (New Town); a racially charged protest decrying the use of public funds to investigate the death of an Indian chief; and a plea from an obscure desert town named Palm Springs asking for a telephone and telegraph line to the nearest railroad station.6

The Bids and Contracts collection illustrates the tendency of local government to allow private contractors to perform many essential services now provided by modern government bureaucracy. This record series documents the many projects put out to bid in the late 1800’s: bridge construction, providing official stationary, supplying coal to the county courthouse, or feeding prisoners at the county jail. Interesting proposals include a bid for a new county jail with two, eight by seven foot cells for $2,500 (1858), the writing of a promotional book on San Diego by local booster T. S. Van Dyke for $500 (1889), and the burial of indigent dead in “black stayned and White Lined Coffens” for $8.85 per body (1878).7

The office of County Clerk has always performed a critical role as a repository of public documents. One record series that reveals the functions of the office itself is the Clerk’s Letterbooks (1882-1885, 1891-1895). Chronologically arranged, the books contain copies of incoming and outgoing correspondence which detail the many responsibilities of the Clerk. A function worth noting is the Clerk’s role as registrar of voters from 1850 to 1933. The Great Register of Voters (1877-1898) is a useful record series that has survived this era. These records detail information on San Diego voters: name, age, nativity, and occupation; and even, height, complexion, and visible scars. The Clerk has always been responsible for the filing of various legal papers including articles of incorporation. The Historical Society’s collection of over forty linear feet of articles (1869-1940) offer an unrivaled source of local business history. Here, one can trace the genesis of economic cycles — booms and busts, and the histories of over 7,000 San Diego companies, churches, and associations.

Comparable in value to the articles of incorporation are the financial records of individual taxpayers and property owners, found in documents from the offices of Assessor, Auditor-Controller, or Treasurer-Tax Collector. Two notable series are Assessment Lists (1853-1873)and Assessment Rolls (c.1850-1876), which indicate land ownership and taxable possessions of San Diego taxpayers. Indexed by name and arranged chronologically, the Assessment Lists record names and the assessed values of ranches, city lots, and items of personal property ranging from currency and gold dust to firearms and liquor. The Assessment Rolls provide annual summaries of this information. These records are invaluable for determining changing standards of living, the value of goods and commodities, the growth of towns, and changing tax rates.

Several record series describe the financial health of San Diego County as a whole. Treasurer’s Papers (1853-1915) contain a variety of documents including quarterly tax reports to the Board of Supervisors and statements of tax monies sent to the State Controller; Treasurer’s Cash Books (1876-1947) provide a monthly accounting of all county financial transactions for an extensive period of time; and Statements of Banking Capital and Assets(1876-1894) record the condition of San Diego banks in a period of tumultuous business activity. Records such as these make it possible to reconstruct the level of economic activity in the county over the course of many decades.

While a comprehensive history of San Diego education remains unwritten, public records in the Historical Society collection provide a wealth of information. Letterbooks of the County Superintendent of Schools (1892-1900) include transcripts of all official, outgoing correspondence which document the role of this important office in local education. Teacher’s Public School Registers (1882-1916) record the names of pupils, parents, and school visitors; teacher lesson plans; the ages and grades of students; school supplies and textbooks; and other detailed notes.

The heart of the school documents series is the School District Record (1854-1920), over twelve linear feet of materials describing the activities of 280 different school districts. Here, we learn that San Diego’s first permanent school met in a rented room in 1854, where its thirty students were taught by Mrs. Fanny Stevens for a monthly wage of forty dollars. Six years later, sixty-three pupils studied in a thirty by twenty foot adobe schoolhouse, taught by twenty-four year old Ada Tebbits for the rather munificent sum of seventy-five dollars per month. The school collection also describes controversies such as the battle waged by parents to establish a school district in Hedges, a gold mining town in the Colorado Desert. A one company town, officers of the Golden Cross Mining and Milling Company protested the parent’s petition to the Board of Supervisors, arguing that “none of these people are taxpayers…the Company has no children to educate and is not disposed to pay for a school for the benefit of a floating and changing population such as is peculiar to a mining camp.” The Board of Supervisors disagreed and ordered the opening of a schoolhouse.8

Records from the Recorder’s office are often recognized by researchers as important sources of social and genealogical data. The Historical Society’s collections of Recorder’s documents include records of births, marriages, and deaths; and property records such as deeds and patents. Deeds are probably the most useful records available for documenting the history of local land ownership, property values, and settlement patterns. Index to Deeds (1850-1886), listing the names of both grantors and grantees, provides an entry to these important records.9 A unique collection from the Recorder’s office is Marks and Brands (1875-1909). Until 1920, state law required that livestock brands be burned on leather and kept as the official record of the owner’s unique mark. Today, these preserved brands are an important source for the history of ranching in San Diego.

Broad in both scope and content, the judicial records housed by the Historical Society are perhaps the most important public records available for the study of San Diego history. Composed of 940 court volumes and over 800 cubic feet of case files, the records include court dockets, judgment books, minutes, registers of action, and case files, covering, in varying detail, the years from 1850 to the 1960’s. All of San Diego’s trial courts are represented: justice and municipal courts, Court of Sessions, and County, District, and Superior courts.

Civil actions in the court files reveal a highly litigious society in early San Diego. In the 1850’s and 1860’s, local business was conducted without the benefit of any formal banking institutions. With the supply of currency poor and erratic debt payments common, “San Diegans sued one another with enthusiasm.”10Thus, in 1858, Dr. David B. Hoffman brought suit against William C. Farrell for $416.50 owed for medical fees. Dr. Hoffman complained that his “work and labor, care, diligence,services and attendance” had not been repaid after four years. District Court Judge Benjamin Hayes decreed that Farrell’s property be sold at auction to satisfy the debt.11 In 1865, butcher Louis Rose sued shore whalemen Prince and Alpheus Packard, for non-payment of a $743 meat bill. Judge Pablo de la Guerra ordered the attachment of the Packard’s assets and the deputy sheriff dutifully collected forty-three casks of whale oil.12 Some San Diegans were avid patrons of the District Court; storekeepers Ephraim W. Morse and Joseph Mannasse brought suit more than a dozen times each.

Court case files frequently contain social data unavailable elsewhere: prices of goods, wages for common labor, even typical room furnishings of a contemporary house. The file for “Patrick vs. Horton” (1877) includes a complete room by room inventory of the furnishings of the Horton House Hotel, once the leading hostelry of San Diego. “Welcome vs. Picacho Mining and Milling Company” (1876) lists the complete outfit of a small mining camp showing everything from mules and wagons to gold pans and quicksilver. In the case file of “James G. Copley, Insolvent Debtor” (1889), receipts from several businesses show the retail prices of a variety of store goods.13

Criminal case files reveal a dark side of San Diego society. In the 1870’s, in particular, San Diego County suffered from a high rate of violent crime. A study of San Diego court records, coroner’s inquests, and newspaper accounts, shows that between 1870 and 1875, homicides occurred at a rate exceeding 100 per 100,000. (In comparison, the rate for the county in 1985 was only 10 per 100,000).14 The level of violence in San Diego even exceeded that of Bodie, the notorious mining camp in northeastern California.15 Statistics alone, however, cannot explain the nature of crime. To fully understand the significance of violence in frontier San Diego, court records are an essential tool.16

Among the many precipitating factors of interpersonal violence in San Diego, property disputes in rural areas appear to have been common. In the absence of effective civil authority, individuals frequently mediated their own disputes — sometimes with tragic consequences. In 1876, an El Cajon farmer, Royal M. Barton, was convicted and sentenced to ten years in San Quentin for the murder of his neighbor, John Tannahill. Examination of Justice Court dockets and District Court case files, reveals that the two men had quarreled for years over their property boundaries.17 A similar incident occurred in 1882, when a bee keeper named T. L. Craig was found dead outside his home near Lakeside. A coroner’s jury ruled that Craig had been shot to death “by some party unknown to this jury.”18 Shortly thereafter, a neighbor, Robert Campbell, was indicted for the murder. Testimony in Superior Court shows that the men had fought for months over control of adjoining tracts of land.19 San Diego’s most violent land feud came in 1888, when an armed posse attempted to eject squatters from a rancher’s property east of Oceanside. A bitter gun battle ensued that left four people dead. Three years later, a Superior Court jury acquitted posse leader Archibald Freeman of a murder charge.20

The social and legal status of San Diego’s ethnic population is covered well by court records. Indians, Hispanics, and Chinese all appear frequently as both victims and perpetrators in judicial proceedings. The plight of Indians is apparent in the 1883 justice court case of “People vs. Temple.” Juan Diego, a Cahuilla Indian, had been shot by Sam Temple for allegedly stealing a horse. The only witnesses to the action were Indians, whose testimony was considered inadmissable in court. A jury of twelve white men listened to Temple’s plea of self-defense and ruled the shooting a “justifiable homicide.”21 Helen Hunt Jackson fictionalized the tragedy of Juan Diego in her novel Ramona. “Downey vs. Barker” is a significant court case that eventually led to the expulsion of Indians from their homes. In 1892, former California governor John G. Downey filed suit in Superior Court to seek the eviction of Cupeño Indians living on land he owned at Warner Springs. After a decade of appeals, the United States Supreme Court ordered the dispossession and removal of the Cupeños.22

In the absence of police records, judicial materials are invaluable for determining the nature and frequency of crime. The Jail Register and Record of Arrests (1912-1927) and Register of Actions (1928-1937), kept by the justice courts of the city of San Diego, contain a detailed accounting of all arrests made within the city limits. These volumes reveal that city courts dealt largely with “moral” offenses after the turn of the century: drug possession, vagrancy, prostitution, drunkenness, indecent exposure, and disturbing the peace. The most frequently cited crime is gambling. To combat this evil city police would periodically conduct raids in the Stingaree district of San Diego. One typical raid, on the evening of February 24, 1916, netted fifty Chinese men, all accused of “visiting a lottery.” The defendants were released after each forfeited ten dollars bail.23

Offenses prosecuted by the County District Attorney are listed in the Felony Record (1913-1951), which records defendants charged with crimes such as burglary, rape, murder, grand theft, or forgery. Recorded sentences tend to be harsh: fifteen years for burglary (1914), eight years for rape (1915), and twelve years for arson (1916). Even probation could be costly; in the early 1940’s, probation was frequently granted in cases of sex perversion or lewd and lascivious conduct, on the condition of “immediate double castration.”24

Coroner’s Inquests (1853-1904) are a valuable addition to court records for the study of crime, causes of death, genealogy, and contemporary medical knowledge. Besides listing factual information on the decedent — name, age, occupation, residence, and cause of death — the inquest files usually contain extensive testimony from witnesses. Eyewitness accounts of violent death are recounted in much of the inquest testimony. Of the 834 case files in the collection, 212 concern death by gunshot (25.4 percent). Drownings occur in 82 cases (9.8 percent), and death by poison in 57 cases (6.8 percent).

The variety in causes of death is also remarkable. John Warren died from “wounds inflicted by the jawbone of an ox”; Thomas Hess was killed by “softening of the brain”; and James Satta was struck down in a “natural way by the visitation of God.” The death of Charles Paradice, from a “rupture of the aorta complicated by use of cocaine and morphine,” suggests that drug abuse was common in the early twentieth century. Lynchings are the subject of six homicide cases; all the victims were either Hispanic or Indian, killed by “persons unknown.” Suicides appear frequently in the records, invariably committed “while temporarily insane.”25

For genealogical research, probate court records provide an important, often overlooked source. Record of Wills (1880-1927) and Probate Orders and Decrees (1886-1940) document the disposition of property and other assets — frequently offering valuable social data. The will of sugar magnate and town builder John D. Spreckels reveals a gift of $300,000 in gold coin to build a new wing for Mercy Hospital.26 The probate file of newspaper heiress and philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps records the endowment of many prominent San Diego institutions: $150,000 for Scripps Institute of Biological Research, $100,000 to Bishop’s School, $100,000 to the San Diego Museum of Natural History for “the erection and equipment of a fireproof Museum building,” and $50,000 for rendering safe the children’s “Pool” on the beach of La Jolla.27 The contested probate case of sporting goods manufacturer, A. G. Spalding, contains extensive testimony regarding the Theosophical Society, the mystical, religious cult headquartered in Point Loma.28 Recorded wills and probate cases provide clues to lifestyle, status, and even personal character. Collectively, they describe the economic and social conditions in San Diego County for nearly half a century.

In the last several years the writing of local history in this country has undergone a renaissance in popularity. Several factors have stimulated the new productivity including: awareness of history spurred by the American bicentennial, the popularity of genealogy (the “Roots” phenomenon), and growing interest in the preservation of historic homes and districts. Among professional historians, local studies are a natural outgrowth of continuing interest in social and urban history.

For decades, historians have spoken of the need to interpret our culture from the perspective of the common individual — history from “the bottom up.” Public records provide that opportunity. Local history is the story of people and communities, and public records constitute vital documentation of this heritage.

The public records collection of the San Diego History Center is a resource to be used.




1. Quoted in Walter Rundell, Jr. In Pursuit of American History: Research and Training in the United States (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970), p. 129.

2. Historians of San Diego should heed the warning of Constance McLaughlin Green who criticized local history “so exclusively localized as to appear to have no meaning for any community but one.” San Diego history must be studied and interpreted in the broader context of state and national history. See Constance McLaughlin Green, “The Value of Local History,” in Caroline F. Ware, ed., The Cultural Approach to History (New York, Columbia University Press, 1940), p.279.

3. The problem is largely logistical. Besides small collections held by the San Diego History Center, the San Diego Public Library, and Mission San Diego de Alcala, a researcher would wish to visit archives elsewhere. The Archivo General de la Nacion in Mexico City holds a wealth of local material. In Spain, several archives are useful including the Archivo General de Indias in Seville, the Archivo General in Simancas, and the Archivo Historico Nacional in Madrid. See Henry Putney Beers, Spanish & Mexican Records of the American Southwest (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1979).

4. City Clerk, Deeds (Deed Record), (R1.10), 1:5-6.

5. City Clerk, Leases and Contracts (R1.12), 12:125, 16:449-508.

6. Board of Supervisors, Petitions to the Board of Supervisors (R2.93), nos. 70-18, 00-14, 87-14.

7. Board of Supervisors, Bids and Contracts (R2.85), 1:1; 2:8; 1:9.

8. County Clerk, School District Records (R2.68), 21:1, 7:12.

9. The Union-Title collection of the Historical Society contains 238 facsimile deed books dating from 1850 to 1892. These records were transcribed from the official books held by the County Recorder. They show the complete title information found in the original deed books and follow the indexing of the Indexes to Deeds.

10. Ronald Quinn, “James W. Robinson and the Development of Old Town San Diego,” Journal of San Diego History 31 (Summer 1985): 159.

11. District Court, Case Files — Civil and Criminal (R3.38), no. 21.

12. Ibid. nos. 108, 158.

13. Ibid. no. 324A; Superior Court, Case Files — Civil and Criminal (R3.39), nos. 2217, 3829.

14. Susan Pennell and Christine Curtis, Crime in the San Diego Region: Second Quarterly Report. 1986 (San Diego: San Diego Association of Governments), p. 9.

15. Roger D. McGrath, Gunfighters, Highwaymen & Vigilantes: Violence on the Frontier (Berkeley: University of California, 1984).

16. Richard W. Crawford and Clare V. McKanna, Jr., “Crime in California: Using State and Local Archives for Crime Research,” Pacific Historical Review 55 (May 1986): 284-295.

17. District Court, Case Files — Civil and Criminal (R3.38), nos. 497A, 621A; Justice Court, Case Files–Civil and Criminal (R3.37), 4:2; Justice Court, Dockets (R3.26).

18. County Clerk, Coroner’s Inquests (R2.69), no. 14-3.

19. Superior Court, Case Files — Civil and Criminal (R3.39), no. 349.

20. Ibid. no. 5586.

21. Justice Court, Case Files — Civil and Criminal (R3.37), 8:1. According to the California Statutes (1850), Chap. 133, sec. 6: “in no case shall a white man be convicted of any offense upon the testimony of an Indian, or Indians.”

22. Superior Court, Case Files — Civil and Criminal (R3.39), no. 6898.

23. Justice Court, Jail Register and Record of Arrests (R3.45), 1916:19-20.

24. District Attorney, Felony Record (R2.94), 1:12, 13, 32; 5.

25. County Clerk, Coroner’s Inquests (2.69), nos. 1-01, 4-11, 16-02, 149-17. Also note records held by the County Coroner, County Operations Center, Coroner’s Record Book, (21 vols.), 1891-1931.

26. Superior Court, Record of Wills (R3.5), 15:468-71.

27. Superior Court, Probate Orders and Decrees (R3.4), 113:132-170.

28. Superior Court, Probate Case Files (R3.53), boxes 8-10.

Richard W. Crawford is Librarian in charge of the Wangenheim Room at the central San Diego Public Library. He was editor of the Journal of San Diego History and Archives Director of the San Diego History Center from 1990 to 1999. His book Stranger Than Fiction – Vignettes of San Diego History is a collection of 24 factual accounts of San Diego history originally published in the Historical Society History News and in the north county edition of the Los Angeles Times. Contact him at [email protected]