San Francisco History

Seventy-five Years in San Francisco


Seventy-five Years in California would have been published by its author William Heath Davis before his death in 1909 but for the great San Francisco Fire in 1906. His manuscript was ready for the printer. All the new material which he contemplated adding to his book Sixty Years in California—San Francisco 1889—in order to bring out a new and enlarged edition under the title which this work bears, was contained in two dispatch boxes upon his desk in his office in the Montgomery Block. Mr. Davis endeavored to enter and save the matter upon which he labored for years, but was prevented from doing so by United States Marines, and although the building escaped destruction, when he returned after the conflagration, the two boxes containing his papers had disappeared.

At his home, however, he had preserved fragments and notes from which his finished manuscript had been prepared. At eighty-four one does not possess the vigor to attack a task of doing over again what has taken years to accomplish. Upon his death three years later, his papers passed from his heirs into other hands, eventually coming into possession of the Huntington Library. Due to the hearty co-operation of this institution, the publication of Mr. Davis’ book under the title he had chosen has been made possible.

William Heath Davis lived through California’s Pastoral Period, when the Missions were disintegrating and their lands were passing into the hands of the great rancheros; he welcomed the American Invasion which resulted in the Conquest under Sloat, Stockton and Frémont; he took a prominent part in the up-building of San Francisco after the Discovery of Gold; and more than all, his intimates were those foremost men, natives of California and Americans alike, whose lives of heroic pattern are woven into the historical background of the Golden State.

Seventy-five Years in California is not a simple narrative. It is rather encyclopedia of episodes and personal portraits. No book written by a contemporary dealing with California has been so widely quoted as the volume of which the present work is the outgrowth. It is the acknowledged source book for the period which it covers.

William Heath Davis came from a Boston sea-faring, ship-owning family, although born in Honolulu in 1822. His father, Wm. Heath Davis, senior, married a daughter of Oliver Holmes, another Boston ship-master and a relative of Doctor Oliver Wendell Holmes. It is interesting to note that the shipping trade to the Coast and to Hawaii was almost exclusively in the hands of Boston firms from its beginnings to the days of the Gold Rush. Davis’ grandmother on his mother’s side was a native of Hawaii, and her husband, Oliver Holmes, in addition to his trading operations, was at one time Governor of Oahu.

Another of Oliver Holmes’ daughters married Nathan Spear, one of that trio of first merchants to settle in San Francisco; William Sturgis Hinckley and Jacob Primer Leese being the other partners.

Davis first visited California as a small boy in 1831. He came a second time in 1833, and at length, in 1838, he arrived aboard the Don Quixote to enter the service of his uncle Nathan Spear as a clerk in the latter’s store in Monterey.

For four years Davis followed the fortunes of Nathan Spear, first at Monterey and later at Yerba Buena, the straggling settlement which he was to help build into the City of San Francisco. In 1842 he engaged as supercargo on the Don Quixote and made several trips to the Hawaiian Islands.

From 1845 onward Davis was a San Franciscan. He entered business on his own account, and in time became one of the town’s prominent merchants and ship-owners.

His intimacy with native Californians has been mentioned. In 1847 he married Maria de Jesus, daughter of Don Joaquin Estudillo, a wealthy ranchero. Few men of his time had the opportunity Davis had of seeing all sides of Californian life, and none has left a record as vital and as full. He died at Hayward, California, April 19, 1909.

As boy, man, and patriarch, he saw the city he loved grow from a mere hamlet under the Mexican flag; in middle life his hand helped shape San Francisco’s future; he served upon the town’s ayuntamiento, or Town Council, and he was honored by its citizens who named one of its streets after him.

Many have written of the early days of California and of San Francisco, but none has caught the spirit and personality of both State and City and has passed it on to posterity as has William Heath Davis in this book which bears the title, Seventy-five Years in California, a name chosen by him before his passing.

Much of the hitherto unpublished material now appears for the first time thanks to the courtesy of the Huntington Library and to Mr. Templeton Crocker. Gratitude is due Mr. Robert E. Cowan for his important suggestions for the betterment of this volume, notably in the accuracy of the spelling of the names of both people and ships. His meticulous care in the correction of Davis’ somewhat erratic spelling is especially appreciated. The publisher wishes also to acknowledge the help he has received from Miss Dorothy Huggins of the California Historical Society, and Fred De Witt, Judge J. F. Davis, Thomas P. Burns and George Barron, of the deYoung Museum, while preparing the present volume for the press. Particular thanks are due to my friend and co-worker, Douglas S. Watson, who has been untiring in his research and in the careful editing of the Davis manuscript. Without his diligent and painstaking efforts a proper publication of the book at this time would not have been possible.

San Francisco,
December 15, 1928.

Source: Davis, William Heath. Seventy-five Years in San Francisco. 1929: San Francisco.

Return to San Francisco Genealogy
Public Commons License