San Francisco History

Seventy-five Years in San Francisco


The government of the department of California imposed no tax upon the people of the country and was mainly supported by revenue duties imposed on cargoes of foreign vessels sold in the country, which amounted to eighty to one hundred per cent of the invoice prices. This was considered very exorbitant, and offered a temptation to foreign traders to smuggle which was largely availed of. Occasionally the government of the department would draw on the home government to assist in its financial matters.

In April, 1840, an event transpired which occasioned considerable excitement on this coast. An order was issued by Governor Alvarado, through the prefect Don José Ramón Estrada, for the arrest of all the resident Americans in the department, with some exceptions. General Manuel Castro, who is still (1889) living at Monterey, recently informed me that this movement originated with Governor Alvarado and General José Castro; that they had been informed that the Americans were preparing to rise against the government of the department, take possession of it, assassinate them, and assume control of the department affairs in behalf of the United States; that Alvarado and Castro, becoming alarmed for their personal safety, as well as that of the department, in order to prevent this outbreak, issued the order above mentioned. Don Manuel, in giving me this information, said, with a smile, he did not think the Americans had any such design. He thought Alvarado and General José Castro were unduly alarmed. This is Don Manuel Castroís version of the matter. My own opinion is that Governor Alvarado had been secretly instructed by the home government to be constantly on the alert for any movements or designs of the Americans for getting possession of the country and, becoming alarmed himself, ordered the arrest.

Governor Alvarado issued his orders through the prefect to the different subprefects and alcaldes of the department to arrest all Americans within their several districts. This was accomplished, the arrests being made by the military, under the instructions of the civil officers. About seventy persons were thus arrested, nearly all Americans; a few of other nationalities were also taken under the mistaken impression that they were Americans. While these arrests were being made, General Vallejo, with his staff and about seventy soldiers, came from Sonoma to Yerba Buena and placed the town under martial orders for a few days, when he left with his forces for Monterey. The captives were sent to Monterey, some by water and some by land, under military guard, as soon as possible after the arrest. They were put into the government house under a military guard and were kept there until all were collected, being well treated. They were then transported to San Blas in the Mexican bark Jóven Guipuzcoana, Captain Joseph Snook, an Englishman who had sworn allegiance to the Mexican government. They were accompanied by General José Castro, who was in charge of them. The owner of the vessel was Don José Antonio Aguirre, a native of Spain, an old merchant of this coast, living at Santa Barbara. Prominent among the prisoners was a pioneer to the coast from Kentucky, by the name of Isaac Graham, who lived at Santa Cruz. He was an old hunter and trapper, and at the time of his arrest was engaged in stock raising and getting out lumber, having a water mill there, and owned the Rancho Zayanta.

The news of the arrest was communicated to Washington as speedily as possible by Thomas O. Larkin, afterwards United States consul at Monterey, and orders were sent out through the United States minister at the city of Mexico to Commodore Claxton, in command of the Pacific squadron, to look into the matter, and he dispatched the United States sloop-of-war St. Louis, Captain Forrest, to Monterey. She arrived there shortly after the departure of the Jóven Guipuzcoana with the prisoners. In fact, the two vessels passed each other shortly before the St. Louis arrived, the captain, of course, not being aware that the other vessel contained the prisoners. She remained there a short time and went southward, not visiting the bay of San Francisco at that time. She again visited the upper coast in the summer of 1841, coming direct to the bay of San Francisco and proceeding thence to Monterey.

This movement was one of the manifestations of the old feeling of jealousy which existed on the part of the Mexican government towards the government of the United States. There had for some time existed a suspicion on the part of the Mexican officials of California against the Americans in the department, which was doubtless natural enough, as they desired to retain their positions with all the honors and benefits pertaining thereto. A fear prevailed that the Americans in the department of California, although few in number, might band together and conspire against the legitimate government, overpower and take possession of it. Consequently, in order to be on the safe side and avert this danger, they thought it best to arrest these Americans and get them out of the department.

This feeling of distrust or partial hostility on the part of the officials was well understood among the Americans in the department, who, however, I am convinced, had no design whatever against the government; at least, no such idea was ever discussed or suggested to my knowledge, although for a long time it had been the common talk among the Americans when among themselves or in company with the rancheros that at some future time the United States would hold possession of California and that our government would never permit any other nation to be the possessors of this territory.

But the idea of the few Americans then in California upsetting the government of that department existed only in the minds of the officials, strengthened, doubtless, by advices from the home government of Mexico to be constantly on the alert and avert anything of the kind, if threatened. While the officials were thus jealous and inimical, on the other hand, the rancheros, the owners of the large estates and the immense herds of cattle and horses, of whom I have spoken, were exceedingly friendly to the Americans and the United States government. They often expressed to me and to other Americans in the department the hope that at some time the Stars and Stripes would float over California and she become a part of the United States. In their intercourse with the American traders and others who had visited the coast they could not fail to perceive the American superiority in intelligence, education and business ability. They naturally felt a respect for the government of the country to which such men belonged, and a desire that they might also share in these advantages for themselves and their children; that their children might be better educated, their agricultural methods improved, their lands better cultivated and enhanced in value, their horses and cattle made more valuable by improving the stock, and other desirable things secured, all of which they were sufficiently intelligent to appreciate and desire for themselves, and so, without reserve, they frankly expressed their liking for the Americans and their wish to be united with them.

These Californians frequently expressed to me their dislike of the constant revolutions to which the Mexican people were addicted, and said they would feel better protected under the American government and more secure in life and property than under the Mexican government. In these revolutions their sons were often wrested from them and forced into the army, in the service of the party then dominant and nearest at hand. They were taken from fourteen years old and upwards, much to the dread and distress of the parents, though it may be mentioned that the risks of the service were not very great since it was a rare thing for anybody to be killed in these revolutions.

The women of California, without exception, were wholly loyal to their own government and hated the idea of any change; although they respected the Americans, treated them with great cordiality and politeness, and entertained them hospitably at their homes, they would not countenance the suggestion that the United States or any foreign power should assume control of the country.


Nathan Spear was arrested with the other Americans and taken to Monterey by a guard of soldiers, but was soon released by the governor, who had been a clerk for Spear in former years at Monterey and had a high esteem for him; the governor, therefore, made an exception in his behalf. At that time I was in the employ of Spear, the principal manager of his commercial house at Yerba Buena. I was also arrested and taken to the headquarters of the subprefect, Don Francisco Guerrero, at the Mission Dolores, and was there a prisoner for twenty-four hours. During my incarceration I was very kindly treated by the subprefect and his amiable wife, Doña Josefa, daughter of Don Francisco de Haro, who was alcalde at that time. In the evening I was entertained by this lady with a beautiful little dancing party at her house at which were present six or eight lovely young ladies and about as many young California gentlemen.

We had a delightful time. On that occasion, Doña Josefa, who had been married only a year, and who was a graceful woman, with full, brilliant black eyes, wore her hair unconfined, flowing at full length, rich and luxuriant, reaching nearly to her feet; as she moved in the figures of the dance she presented a fascinating picture of youth and beauty that I could not but admire. The dancing continued till a late hour, and the affair was so very enjoyable that I hardly realized that I was a prisoner of state. The subprefect assumed the responsibility of releasing me in the morning and remarked at the time that he would receive an order to that effect from the seat of government, procured by Spear. This subsequently proved to be correct and I had no further trouble.

There were a few exceptions to this general arrest of Americans, among them Don Abel Stearns at Los Angeles, he being a very early pioneer to this country, a prominent and wealthy merchant at that time, and always very highly respected by the officials. He had been in the country so long that he was rather considered as belonging to it though he was a Bostonian originally. Another was Don Juan B. Cooper at Monterey, who had also been long in the country, having arrived here in 1823 in the American schooner Thaddeus. He had been a shipmaster, and at the time of the arrest was engaged in the business of stock raising. He was married to a sister of General Vallejo; was intimate with the officials, and respected by them.

There were also a few other old residents, who had married into California families, who were excepted, among them William G. Dana, Francis Branch, Daniel Hill, Lewis T. Burton and Isaac Sparks, all of Santa Barbara. None of the agents, supercargoes or captains of vessels on the coast at the time of this arrest were molested; only those who resided here continuously.

When the news of this arrest was communicated to the State department at Washington by Thomas O. Larkin, later the United States consul at Monterey, instructions were sent to the United States minister at the city of Mexico, and through his intercession with the Mexican government these prisoners were released in a month or two after their arrival at San Blas, whence they had been transported to Tepic. While they were at the latter place orders came from the Mexican government for the release of the prisoners and for the imprisonment of General Castro. The Mexican government disclaimed having authorized the arrest of these people, and its prompt action in ordering their release and causing Castro to be imprisoned was probably for the purpose of giving greater effect to this disclaimer and making everything appear as favorable as possible to the American government. At the same time I have no doubt the Mexican government was really at the bottom of the whole movement, directly or indirectly, but, after the event had transpired, thought best for prudential reasons to discountenance it, not desiring to provoke any difficulty with the United States. Further to strengthen the position of the Mexican government in this phase of the matter, it promised the United States minister that these people should be indemnified for the trouble and inconvenience to which they had been subjected by this movement.


The population of the department of California about 1838-39 was probably from ten to twelve thousand, exclusive of Christianized Indians, who numbered about twenty thousand.

In April, 1841, Eugène Duflot de Mofras, a Frenchman, visited this coast in the Ninfa, H. D. Fitch master. He came from Mazatlán, touching first at San Pedro, and arrived at Monterey in May. He was a French official, a kind of traveling ambassador to observe the different countries of the world.

There were but few houses here at the time, and the most prominent was the residence and commercial establishment of Nathan Spear on the spot which is now the northwest corner of Clay and Montgomery streets. He was invited by Spear to become his guest. He was there several months, making that his headquarters, traveling about the bay and to different points in the interior. As I was in Spearís employ I saw a good deal of Mofras, became quite well acquainted with him, and was much pleased with him, as were all those with whom he came in contact. He was an educated gentleman, master of several languages besides his own, among them English, Spanish, and German. He was a close observer of everything, and, like most Frenchmen, excited in his conversation and manner. In my business trips about the bay in the schooner Isabella he frequently accompanied me. On one occasion, in coming up to the town in the schooner from Readís ranch on the opposite side of the bay the captain of the vessel went a little too near the flat off North Beach and the schooner grounded. We were compelled to lie there for an hour or two waiting for the tide to float us off. Monsieur de Mofras soon became impatient and excited, and finally he got so restless and uneasy that he could no longer restrain himself. In spite of my persuasions and remonstrances he leaped overboard with his clothes on, waded and swam ashore, and proceeded dripping wet to the house. On his arrival there, Spear was astonished to see him in that plight and at first thought the schooner had been wrecked. I used to joke with him afterwards about his jumping overboard, and he confessed to me that he would not do it again; that in a deep place between the shoal and the beach it was with great difficulty he kept from drowning, as his long boots had filled with water and the weight of his clothes bore him down.

It was understood that Mofras was on a tour of general observation for the French government. During his visit here he was in correspondence with the officials at home, but it is not known that his visit had any political bearing or significance, and if he had any instructions in this direction from the government he did not disclose them.

During his stay on the coast he visited General Sutter in the Sacramento Valley, stopping there a month or two; also General Vallejo at the military headquarters at Sonoma, sojourning there one or two weeks. He also visited Monterey, the seat of the government, where he was courteously and hospitably received by Governor Alvarado and the other officials. Next, he visited Don Alexander Rotcheff at the Russian American Fur Companyís headquarters at Fort Ross; and he went also to other prominent points. He was very cordially received and entertained by Rotcheff and his wife, both of whom spoke the French language perfectly, and Mofras therefore felt quite at home in their company. Don Alexander when visiting Yerba Buena spoke of Mofras and praised him. The visit to Sutter pleased him greatly. He spoke of Sutter in the highest terms, and thought his establishment and operations in the Sacramento Valley would people and develop that immense country sooner than it could otherwise have been done, as he believed Sutter would induce a large immigration to that point by the numerous letters he had written home to his own country and to the United States.

Mofras was very favorably impressed with California, and he frequently spoke of its future importance, thinking it would some day be a great country, and he freely expressed his opinion that it would belong to the United States. Considering its natural resources and advantages he thought that under the United States government it would become a rich and important section. His admiration and astonishment at the bay of San Francisco were frequently expressed, and I have seen him many times stand in front of Mr. Spearís store, at the corner of Montgomery and Clay streets, which was then quite near the water, and go into raptures on looking at the bay, stretching out his arms with enthusiasm and exclaiming with delight, Frenchman-like, at the broad and beautiful expanse of water before us, predicting that it would be a great field for commerce and saying, again and again, he had never seen anything like it and the more he traveled over it the more he was impressed with its grandeur and importance.

Spear had a very high opinion of Mofras, and I will mention a little incident which occurred one day when Mofras was stopping at Spearís house. We were at dinner, and the servant in passing a plate to Mofras accidently touched his glass with it, which gave out a sharp ring, and instantly Mofras placed one of his fingers on the glass to stop the sound. Spear mentioned it afterward as an illustration of the good breeding of the Frenchman.

A curious tradition was current in regard to the bay of San Francisco, which greatly interested Mofras as well as myself and others who heard it. Captain Richardson, who has been mentioned before in this narrative, had in his employ at that time an Indian by the name of Monico. He was about eighty years of age but still active and vigorous, and was employed by Captain Richardson as boatman on the bay, in launches which were used to run between the shipping and different points to convey goods back and forth. This old Indian told Captain Richardson that the story had been handed down from his remote ancestors that a long way back there was no Golden Gate; that between Fort Point and right across to the north it was all closed by a mountain range, and there was no access to the ocean there, but the natural outlet of the bay was through the Santa Clara Valley, across the Salinas plains, to the bay of Monterey; that in a tremendous convulsion of nature the mountain barrier between the bay and the ocean was thrown down and a passage made where the Golden Gate now is. That became the entrance to the bay. In the course of time the Santa Clara Valley and the other land between the lower end of the bay of San Francisco and the bay of Monterey became drained and elevated.

In this connection, I may mention that I have seen seashells which were brought up from a depth of 108 feet in boring an artesian well at San Leandro, and I learn that shells were found in Alameda at a depth of about 100 feet.

Captain Richardson frequently alluded to this tradition in the presence of Nathan Spear, Monsieur de Mofras and myself. Mofras being a scientific man, he became so impressed with this statement that he rode out to Fort Point two or three times to examine personally the features of that part of the bay, and from his observations there and of the country between here and the bay of Monterey he expressed his opinion that the theory or tradition was probably correct. In frequent conversations at the dinner table he became quite enthusiastic in dilating upon the geological appearance and indications of the country, especially in reference to this story related by the old Indian Monico in regard to the Golden Gate.

Near the presidio, about three-quarters of a mile southeast from the barracks in the grounds of the Miramontes family, was a very remarkable spring called ďPolinĒóan Indian name. The spring was celebrated from a very remote period for its virtues, which were handed down from the Indians for several generations, and afterward through the Californians. It is claimed that it possessed the remarkable power of producing fecundity in women who were childless and who partook of its waters. Many authentic instances could be quoted in support of this assumption. In proof it may be mentioned that the Miramontes family, living on the spot, had twenty children, and other families living in that neighborhood were blessed with a large progeny. Many who came to the place from a distance by the advice of friends, to test the wonderful qualities of the water, were alike rewarded for their faith by a happy increase in their families. The first wife of William D. M. Howard, a well-known early San Franciscan, for several years without children, went hither by the advice of Mrs. Miramontes, and at the proper time was blessed with a lovely little daughter. Other instances might be given in proof of its efficacy in this direction.

The winter of 1839-40 was a severe one in California, an immense quantity of rain falling. It poured down for forty days and nights with but little cessation. Old Domingo Peralta, who had come across the bay to Yerba Buena with his family in a boat to obtain supplies, was caught here and obliged to remain several weeks, stopping at Spearís house with his large family of ten or twelve persons until he could recross the bay to get home.

After Captain Sutter had established himself in the Sacramento Valley he sent a boat to Yerba Buena about once in two weeks for the purpose of obtaining supplies for his station, Spear being his agent. During the prolonged storms of this year the whole country was flooded and communication was consequently interrupted, and we didnít hear from Captain Sutter for more than a month. At last a boat made its appearance, bringing a letter from him in which he described the country as one vast expanse of water. Among the stories he mentioned was one of seeing the deer, elk and other animals crowded together in large numbers on every little prominence which appeared above the waters, to protect themselves from being carried away by the flood. The boat, in endeavoring to return, was unable to stem the current, which was so strong and rapid as to keep her on the passage several weeks before she reached Sutterís place again. The boatís captain was a Swiss, and the boatmen Indians, formerly of the missions, who had returned to their wild Indian life.

Some years before my first arrival here in 1831 there was an exceedingly dry season. The priest at the head of the mission of Santa Clara ordered the destruction of several thousand head of horses and mares belonging to the mission, which was accomplished by drowning them in the Guadalupe River, in order to preserve the feed for the cattle, as there was not enough for all, and the cattle were regarded as of more value than the horses.

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

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