San Francisco History

Seventy-five Years in San Francisco


The Don Quixote arrived in Santa Barbara from Boston via Honolulu in May, 1838, and I was a passenger on her, this being my third trip to California. We found Governor Alvarado there, and the department in a revolutionary state. He was opposed by Don Carlos Carrillo and his brother Don José Antonio Carrillo, who were at Los Angeles.

At the above date Governor Alvarado was at his headquarters at Santa Barbara provisionally, and the brothers Carrillo were at Los Angeles. They met on the plains of Los Angeles, where a battle ensued, and four or five horses on each side were shot; but none of the soldiers lost their lives—not even one was wounded—though the conflict lasted for a day or two, as they took the precaution to keep at a safe distance from each other. Alvarado's force was commanded by General José Castro, and the revolutionary party by José Antonio Carrillo. Alvarado sustained his authority as governor of the department of California, and the revolutionists were considered as subdued after this bloodless conflict. Some of the leaders were taken prisoner, but shortly after released, and the remainder dispersed.

Previous to this affair our vessel was ordered by Alvarado to go from Santa Barbara to Monterey to enter, that being the only port of entry in the department. At Monterey I stopped with Major William Warren, then keeping a store there for Nathan Spear, who had also a commercial establishment at Yerba Buena in company with Jacob P. Leese and William S. Hinckley. During my stay there of two or three weeks, the severe earthquake of June, 1838, took place.

At Monterey at that time were David Spence; Thomas O. Larkin, later United States consul from 1844 to 1846; John B. R. Cooper; Major William Warren; James Watson, a grocer; George Kinlock; James Stokes, English merchant; Edward T. Bale, physician, a native of England; William E. P. Hartnell, the Mexican government instructor and interpreter. These were the prominent foreigners there. Among the Mexicans and Californians were José Abrego; Manuel Díaz; Don Antonio María Osio, collector of the port; Juan Malarín; Estevan Munrás; Don Pablo de la Guerra, Rafael González, Raphael Pinto (the last three connected with the customhouse); also, Jacinto Rodríguez, José Amesti, Don Manuel Castro, Francisco Pacheco, who were engaged in stock raising; Mariano Soberanes; José Antonio Vallejo, also engaged in stock raising, a brother of General Vallejo; Manuel Jimeno and Doña Angustias his charming wife; Governor Juan B. Alvarado, General José Castro, Francisco Rico, Francisco Arce, and others.

At that time the following vessels were trading on the coast: the English brig Ayacucho; the Ecuadorian brig Delmira, Captain John Vioget, supercargo and owner Don Miguel Pedrorena; the ship Alert; ship California; the Mexican brig Catalina, Captain Jo. Snook, supercargo Don Eulogio de Célis; the Mexican bark Clarita, Captain Wolter, same supercargo as the Catalina; the Mexican government schooner California, Captain Cooper; and the Boston bark Don Quixote, Captain John Paty.

I sailed from Monterey to Yerba Buena in the ship Alert, well known as the vessel on which Dana served for two years, which experience gave rise to his book, Two Years Before the Mast. She was commanded by Captain D. P. Penhallow, supercargo Thomas B. Park. The ship was owned in Boston by Bryant & Sturgis, and was on this coast trading for hides, tallow and furs.

It was at this time, while I was staying with Major William Warren, that Captain Penhallow of the Alert, who was very jocular and mischievous at times at the expense of his intimate friends, played a severe trick upon "mine host." Six or seven friends of the major were seated at table at dinner in the evening, among the number Penhallow, who had brought in a live, harmless snake, wrapped up in a paper, which he quietly placed under the host's plate before he had come to the table.

Imagine the horror and indignation the noble and hospitable William Warren experienced upon turning his plate over preparatory to serving his guests. Warren was a portly man of over two hundred pounds in weight, his eyebrows and eyelids were decidedly blonde, and his complexion florid. When he saw the reptile he was startled, screamed and almost fainted, turning pale as a ghost. But it was all over in a few moments. The major retired from the table disgusted, with a remark to Penhallow that young Davis might serve the guests with Penhallow's snake dinner.

At first the guests suppressed their laughter, but it was impossible to conceal the mirth long, as the ludicrous features of the scene, although repulsive, were such as to cause both amazement and merriment, especially the appearance of our host, who looked so scared and demoralized. Major Warren was a good, kindly man, and a favorite with supercargoes and captains, they making his store their headquarters, and his table was always ready for their entertainment in the best manner. He was a great cook, an epicurean of the first order, and had kept hotels at other places with success on account of the fine table he furnished.

On arriving at Yerba Buena I went into the employ of Nathan Spear, and soon became his managing active business man. He was a native of Boston, Massachusetts, brother of Paul Spear, a prominent apothecary in Boston, and visited Monterey, California, as early as 1823 in the American schooner Rover, together with Captain J. B. R. Cooper.

Mr. Nathan Spear was one of the first merchants at Monterey and Yerba Buena, and kept a stock of general merchandise, which was sold to the native California farmers and stock raisers around the bay. The goods were carried to different points by two little schooners owned by Spear, named the Isabella and Nicolás.

Mr. Spear informed me that during the earthquake of June, 1838, before mentioned, a large sand hill standing in the vicinity of what is now Frémont Street, between Howard and Folsom, and between which and the bay at high tide there was a space of about twenty feet, permitting a free passage along the shore to Rincon Point (the coves of which were then much resorted to for picnics and mussel parties), was moved bodily close to the water, so as to obstruct the passage along the shore. After that no one could pass there at high tide, and we were compelled to go around back of the sand hill and wade through the loose sand to reach that point, a much more laborious walk.

He further remarked that Loma Alta (Telegraph Hill) swayed from east to west and from west to east as if the big mountain would tumble over. At the Mission Dolores there was no injury to church buildings or to dwellings, but at the presidio the walls of some of the old dwellings were cracked.

The earthquake had occurred just before my arrival at Monterey. Major Warren told me that it was the severest one he had ever experienced, and it seemed to him as if the town would be destroyed during the vibration. The inhabitants were frightened out of their wits. Crockery and glassware were broken, and some of the walls of the adobe dwellings were cracked. It was a shake of no ordinary severity and the town of Monterey was pretty well shaken up.

Early in the spring of ‘39, the American ship Monsoon of Boston, Captain George Vincent, Thomas Shaw supercargo, arrived at Yerba Buena from Monterey with an assorted cargo. My brother, Robert G. Davis, from Boston was a clerk on board.

In the month of June the brigantine Clementine, Captain Blinn, arrived from Honolulu by way of Sitka. Captain John A. Sutter, with four or five Germans or Swiss, who were mechanics, and three Hawaiians and their wives, were passengers. He had gone from one of the Eastern states to Honolulu, thence to Sitka, thence to California. Sutter stayed with Nathan Spear, with all his men and his outfit, and intended to go to the Sacramento Valley. When he was ready to proceed, our expedition, composed of the two schooners, Isabella and Nicolás, and a four-oared boat which Sutter brought with him, started with Sutter and his followers. Sutter had two pieces of artillery which he brought with him, and other arms and ammunition for defense against the Indians, if necessary. The fleet was placed under my command.

We left Yerba Buena on the 9th of August, 1839, from alongside the ship Monsoon (the only vessel in the bay) for the Sacramento Valley, concerning which there was but little known at that time. It had no inhabitants but Indians, many of whom were mission Indians who had left as the missions became impoverished and located there. They returned to their former uncivilized life making occasional visits to the different ranchos to steal horses.

The fleet was about eight days going up the river; every night we would stop at the bank, and Captain Sutter would make excursions from the river to examine the country, looking for a suitable place to establish himself. His idea was to settle, and obtain grants from the Mexican government. I think he had an understanding with that government before he went there, probably with the Mexican minister in the United States. When stopping along the bank of the river at night we could not obtain any rest on account of the immense multitude of mosquitoes which prevailed, exceeding anything we ever experienced before.

The last afternoon, we anchored in front of what is now Sacramento City, and saw on the banks of the river some seven or eight hundred Indians, men, women and children. We prepared ourselves for an attack, but our fears proved groundless. They came off to our anchorage in large numbers in canoes made of tules. That afternoon we weighed anchor and went into the American River, landed, pitched tents, and made preparations to occupy the country. Captain Sutter immediately mounted his brass cannons; all his small arms were made ready for defense against the Indians in case of necessity, and camp established.

On the way up the Sacramento River, Captain Sutter, being on board my schooner, which was considered the flagship of the fleet, communicated to me his plans. He said, as soon as he found a suitable site he would immediately build a fort as a means of defense against the Indians, and also against the government of the department of California in case any hostility should be manifested in that quarter. He also mentioned his intention to form a large colony of his own countrymen to come to this coast, with a view of developing the immense Sacramento Valley.

Captain Sutter was a native of Switzerland, an educated and accomplished gentleman, and a very agreeable and entertaining companion.

Having accomplished my purpose of landing Captain Sutter at the junction of the American and Sacramento rivers with his men and his freight, the following morning we left him there and headed the two vessels for Yerba Buena. As we moved away Captain Sutter gave us a parting salute of nine guns—the first ever fired at that place—which produced a most remarkable effect. As the heavy report of the guns and the echoes died away, the camp of the little party was surrounded by hundreds of Indians, who were excited and astonished at the unusual sound. A large number of deer, elk and other animals on the plains were startled, running to and fro, stopping to listen, their heads raised, full of curiosity and wonder, seemingly attracted and fascinated to the spot, while from the interior of the adjacent wood the howls of wolves and coyotes filled the air, and immense flocks of waterfowl flew wildly over the camp.

Standing on the deck of the Isabella, I witnessed this remarkable sight, which filled me with astonishment and admiration and made an indelible impression on my mind. This salute was the first echo of civilization in the primitive wilderness so soon to become populated and developed into a great agricultural and commercial center. We returned the salute with nine cheers from the schooners, the vessels flying the American colors. The cheers were heartily responded to by the little garrison, and thus we parted company.

The voyage down the river occupied eight days. As we approached its termination we were nearly starved. We were reduced to living on brown sugar, that being all that remained of our provisions.

The day before we reached Yerba Buena we anchored where the town of Martinez now is, the place being then known as Cañada del Hambre (Valley of Hunger) from the fact that on one occasion a company of soldiers who were out campaigning against the Indians found themselves very hungry. While at this place we were without the means of obtaining food. Our own situation coincided with that of the soldiers, and we landed with a view to kill some game or capture a steer. We adopted the latter course. Jack Rainsford, who commanded the Isabella, killed a fine steer belonging to Don Ygnacio Martinez, our necessity compelling this step, and we were thus supplied with plenty of good beef.

On meeting Don Ygnacio Martinez subsequently and informing him of the circumstance, he said it was entirely satisfactory, and regretted that he was not there at the time to supply us with bread, butter and cheese to eat with the beef. This was certainly a fine instance of gentlemanly courtesy and generosity.


On my arrival in 1838 the Russian American Fur Company had a post at Bodega and also one at Fort Ross, with headquarters at the latter place. Pedro Kostromitinoff was the governor of the establishment, under lease from the Mexican government, which covered the privilege of hunting the sea otter and collecting forces at that point for that purpose, which lease expired a few years afterward. Before the expiration of the lease Kostromitinoff was succeeded by Don Alexander Rotcheff, who sold the entire establishment, the improvements and everything, in 1841, to Captain John A. Sutter, of New Helvetia, which was the name of his fort on the Sacramento.

The force engaged in hunting the sea otter numbered several hundred of Russians and Esquimaux, brought from Alaska with all their outfits—boats, skin canoes (made from the intestines of the whale) and their native instruments. They were expert shooters with their Russian rifles, made for the purpose of killing otters, showing great skill in the business, which they carried on here the same as in Sitka. Going out in their boats, the moment an otter appeared above the water a gun was raised and fired, instantly killing the animal, so expert were these hunters. Bodega was the port of outfit and delivery for the hunt.

These otters were captured in large quantities in the bay of San Francisco and along the coast south and north of the bay; but the hunting was continued so persistently that they became scarce after a while and finally were killed out entirely. The skins varied from three and one-half to five and one-half feet in length, with a width of about three to four feet, and were dried at Bodega, and sent to Sitka in vessels that came, two or three yearly, for this freight, for wheat raised about the bay of San Francisco and soap made by the California farmers. The wheat and soap were for the supply of Sitka and other northern Russian posts in Alaska Territory. From Sitka these skins were sent to St. Petersburg.

Some of the men had their families with them. Don Pedro Kostromitinoff was unmarried; Don Alexander Rotcheff was a married man, and his wife was a beautiful Russian lady, of accomplishments. They lived at Fort Ross.

Sutter bought whatever the Russian Company had, the buildings and all the fixtures of the places, both at Bodega and Fort Ross, for $50,000, payable in wheat, soap and furs, in yearly installments for five years, the purchase including several thousand cattle, horses and sheep. It was all paid for in the course of time as agreed by the articles named. The wheat was raised in the Sacramento Valley in and around his establishment.

At the first celebration of the Fourth of July, in 1836, at Yerba Buena, the families of the prominent residents were invited to the festivity, which was managed by the Americans attached to the three or four American vessels in port and those living on shore, and assisted by other nationalities, who took as much interest in the anniversary of our independence as the former. The celebration was at the residence of Jacob P. Leese, situated at a point which is now (1889) Dupont Street near Clay Street.

The invitations extended to the persons living about the bay were quite generally accepted. Among the most notable of them were: Don Joaquín Estudillo, with his beautiful wife and lovely daughter Doña Concepción; Don Ygnacio Martínez, with his handsome daughters, Doña Susana, Doña Francisca, Doña Rafaela and Doña Dolores; Captain William A. Richardson, with his wife and pretty daughter, Señorita Mariana, who was one of the belles of the country; Don Victor Castro and his amiable wife, Doña Luisa, daughter of Don Ygnacio Martínez; also the subprefect, Don Francisco Guerrero, and his pretty wife, Doña Josefa; and Alcalde Don Francisco de Haro, with his charming daughters, Rosalía and Natividad, who were sisters of Mrs. Guerrero and were viewed among the beauties of the soil of California, especially the former, so full of vivacity, wit and fascination, which made her an entertaining person to her visitors and admirers.

Salutes were fired from the vessels at meridian of the Fourth, a grand dinner took place during the evening, and there was music as well as dancing after the banquet, kept up till the dawn of the next day.

On the 5th, picnics took place, as a continuation of the festival, generally at Rincon Point; the dance was resumed in the evening, and continued until the morning of the 6th, when the ladies had become so exhausted that the festivities ceased. This celebration was kept up year after year on the Fourth, for a long time, until the change of the government from Mexico to the United States, being attended by the native ladies of California, many of whom were noted for their beauty, and such American gentlemen as were here at the time.

Richardson was the captain of the port or bay of San Francisco for many years, an office of the department, under appointment from the Mexican governor of California, this position being equivalent to that of harbor master under our present law. Upon vessels coming into the bay it was his duty to order them to Monterey, then the port of entry, for the purpose of entry at the customhouse.

The vessels which arrived in 1839 at Monterey, entered there and traded at coast ports, as near as I can remember, were the ship California, Captain Arther, from Boston, William D. M. Howard cabin boy; the vessel was consigned to Alfred Robinson and Henry Mellus, agents for Bryant & Sturgis, of Boston; the Baltimore brig Corsair, Captain Wm. S. Hinckley, who was also owner and supercargo, from Callao; the ship Fama, Captain Hoyer, A. B. Thompson owner and supercargo; the American schooner Nymph, Captain Henry Paty, who was also supercargo, from Honolulu.


Jacob Primer Leese, an old California argonaut, was born in Belmont County, Ohio, in or about 1809. He left home in 1821 and joined a company of hunters and trappers with whom he started from New Orleans bound for the Rocky Mountains. The company, which had been fitted out by Caldwell, Coffee and Rogers, was known as the Independent Company. At Bent's Fort, Leese became a partner of a company which had been organized there. He went to New Mexico in 1831 and was engaged in business there until 1833, when he started and traveled through the wild country to reach California.

In December, 1833, while on this journey to California, and on reaching the mesa of San Bernardino, Leese and his party found themselves short of provisions. A heavy snowstorm came on, two feet of snow falling which covered everything. One day they went entirely without food, and as a last resort Leese had to kill either his hunting dog, which he valued highly, or a mule. To kill a mule under these circumstances was a very serious matter, and so the dog was sacrificed. The dog might have been spared could the owner of the faithful animal have foreseen the early change in the weather for the better.

Only six or eight hours after killing the dog, the weather became warm, the snow melted quickly, and the bellowing of a bull was heard. He was followed and slaughtered, but proved to be a very old bull, most of the meat being so tough that even the strong teeth of the young travelers could hardly masticate it. They managed, however, to appease their hunger. A few hours later the party reached the spot where the calves were feeding and experienced no further hardships regarding food. After resting and recruiting for about three days, they pursued their journey and reached the San Gabriel mission where they were very hospitably received by the authorities and the missionaries of the church.

The winter of 1833-34 was a very rainy one, and Leese had to sojourn in Los Angeles for about three months. He was engaged in trading with Isaac Williams, an old mountaineer friend, who was born about fifty miles from Leese's birthplace.

After remaining in the south for some time, Leese in 1836 came to Monterey, where he formed a co-partnership with Nathan Spear and William S. Hinckley to transact business at Yerba Buena. This co-partnership was dissolved in 1838, when the three partners stood well in the community, but Spear had taken a dislike to Leese, due to a disagreement in the settlement of some business of the concern.

In all my intercourse with Leese, I must say that I found him genial and companionable, as well as correct in business transactions. In the early history of Yerba Buena, Leese resided on the hill with his family, and adjoining his house was the store. This structure, erected of redwood boards, one story high, with a floor extending at least one hundred feet in front with a width of about thirty feet, were it standing today (1889) would face Dupont Street looking east, being on the southwest corner of Clay Street.

At this place for about two years Leese did a large business in supplying the ranchos bordering the bay of San Francisco with goods. The business was done in the name of Jacob P. Leese, Spear and Hinckley appearing as silent partners of the firm. The supply of goods came from Spear's large store at Monterey and was conveyed to Yerba Buena by vessels trading on the coast.

It was at his home, adjoining the store, that the first celebration in Yerba Buena of September 16th, the Mexican national holiday, occurred, and there likewise was subsequently observed with due honor the anniversary of the independence of the United States. All the families round the bay attended these celebrations, to each of which three days of festivities were devoted.

In the same structure Leese entertained supercargoes and captains of vessels trading on the coast, besides governors, generals, prefects and alcaldes; likewise admirals, commodores and other officers of the foreign ships of war that visited the bay of San Francisco.

At the celebration of American Independence in 1837, several vessels were in Yerba Buena Cove: ship Lagoda, Bradshaw master, Thomas Shaw supercargo, from Boston; ship California, Arther master, supercargo William A. Gale, whose assistant was Alfred Robinson; British brig Ayacucho, John Wilson master, James Scott supercargo. All these vessels were handsomely decorated for the occasion and their officers took part in the festival. Each of the American ships fired salutes at sunrise, noon and sunset. José Joaquín Estudillo and family were Leese's guests on this occasion.

About 1850 Jacob P. Leese conveyed to Thomas O. Larkin the property on Dupont and Clay streets in consideration of which the latter deeded his own real estate at Monterey to Leese, the same being later occupied by the Leese family. This was a barter trade. Larkin was number one, and Leese number two as to the relative value of the realty, due to the deterioration of real estate in one instance and the rise in value in the other.

In the latter part of 1838 Leese obtained from Governor Alvarado and the departmental assembly permission to erect a building in Yerba Buena near the beach. He moved to the new quarters in the early part of the following year, continuing there until he sold the premises to the Hudson's Bay Company in 1841, when William G. Rae took possession as agent.

Leese then departed for Sonoma, where he resided and owned two fine ranchos, one bordering San Pablo Bay and the other situated at Clear Lake. Both ranchos were well stocked with cattle and fine horses, for he, as well as his brothers-in-law, Mariano G. Vallejo and Salvador Vallejo, took pains to breed properly; in other words, the stallion of each manada was not permitted to roam with its own progeny. The object of this was to avoid breeding from animals of the same blood, thus averting deterioration of the stock.

The rancho at Sonoma, called the "Huichica," was only of five leagues in extent, but had very fine rich land, yielding abundance of grass for stock, which consisted of about fourteen hundred head of cattle and three thousand horses and mares. The number of caponeras owned by Leese averaged eight or ten. It was a part of his business at that time to send horses to Oregon for sale to the Hudson's Bay Company, receiving in payment merchandise which he sold in Sonoma in exchange for hides, tallow, furs, coin, cattle and horses.

Another piece of property which Leese owned was Clark's Point, known in former times as the Punta de Ia Loma Alta, now Telegraph Hill. It was granted to Leese and Salvador Vallejo in 1839 by Governor Alvarado and approved by the departmental assembly. The Mexican law regulating land grants forbade the granting of land bordering on the waters of Yerba Buena Cove, but the authorities assumed the responsibility of making an exception in the case of Vallejo and Leese.

The land was two hundred by one hundred varas and was bounded by Vallejo, Front, Pacific and Davis streets. In 1848, William S. Clark and a party of Mormons came to Yerba Buena and the former squatted on the land referred to, refusing to recognize Leese’s title. Prior to this, Salvador Vallejo had transferred his interest to Leese. Clark’s trespassing was during the war between the United States and Mexico, and as Leese was then a Mexican citizen he was helpless to defend his rights.

After California became a state, Leese commenced a civil action, in 1851 or 1852, to eject the squatter from the premises, Gregory Yale, F. J. Lippitt and others representing him at Judge Norton’s court. The case was before the court a long time, during which Clark was receiving and enjoying an income from the property and with the proceeds fought Leese in the courts. After some ten years’ litigation, numerous persons applied to Leese to convey to them his right, title and interest in the land in controversy in severalty. He accepted their offers, this being the only way to recover something in money from his property. He was induced to give up the litigation by an apprehension that his chances in the supreme court of the state were very slim, as he had understood that one of the justices of that court had, away from the bench, expressed himself adversely to Leese’s interests. The property became immensely valuable because it borders on the deepest water fronting the city of San Francisco. There deep-sea vessels can discharge. It is now covered with very extensive warehouses, where the bulk of merchandise discharged from ships is deposited on storage.

Samuel Norris was interested with Leese in mining operations shortly after the gold discovery. To convey Indian laborers and supplies, Leese had horse teams which he kept plying between Sonoma and the Feather River, then the point of interest of the mining excitement due to the great discovery. Such teams were extremely scarce and difficult to procure for a time, until the heavy overland immigration set in.

Captain, afterwards General, Henry W. Halleck, Thomas O. Larkin and Jacob P. Leese went to the mines to see for themselves. The last named of this party drove there eleven hundred head of cattle and sold the greater part of them to Marshall, who at that time was buying all the cattle to supply the miners with beef. The sale averaged about twenty-five dollars a head. Leese and his traveling companions were not allowed the privilege of seeing much of the gold at the time, the persons interested in the mines making it a point to keep their operations secret.

Leese made one voyage to China via Honolulu in a vessel called the Eveline. There he bought goods, and brought them to San Francisco in the ship Diamond. These goods were transferred to and sold at Sonoma. The invoice cost was $20,000, and from the sales of the merchandise Leese derived a handsome profit.

Jacob Primer Leese, a fine-looking man, married at Sonoma in 1837 Señorita Rosalía Vallejo, sister of General Mariano G. Vallejo. Mrs. Leese was a tall, handsome, beautifully formed woman, full of vivacity and remarkably intelligent. She was noted for a proneness to sarcasm, which was a trait in the Vallejo family. Leese was a good marksman and he taught his wife the use of the rifle. She became quite expert with the weapon, and I have seen her make some extraordinary shots. Captain John Paty, Leese and others once had a shooting match at Rincon Point on Mission Bay, on which occasion Mrs. Leese exhibited her remarkable skill.

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

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