San Francisco History

Seventy-five Years in San Francisco


There were several ports in the department where the hides were transported to the vessels from the shore through the surf, namely: Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Santa Cruz and Monterey (the latter before the wharf was built by the government). The ship’s longboat was moored just outside the rollers, with two sailors on board to receive the cargo from the surf boats. The latter were hauled up on the beach out of reach of the waves and loaded, say, with ten hides each. The men would watch for the first, second and third rollers to comb and foam, and before the fourth made its appearance the boats were pushed into the water energetically, with a man or two on board each to scull to the launch and unload the hides. This was repeated until the latter was loaded and towed to the ship. Between the third and fourth rollers there is a lull of a minute at the most in the movements of these dangerous billows of the sea. The steersman of a surfboat, in approaching the shore, watched his opportunity for the fourth roller always, and guided her straight for the landing, and went in flying with the breaker, with the stern elevated to an angle with the bow of about thirty degrees, at a velocity of about twelve to fifteen miles an hour, and during this exciting speed for a small boat the oarsmen peaked the ends of their oars to the bottom of the boats, whereby their outer ends were elevated beyond the reach of the roaring sea. All this work in landing and embarking for the vessels had to be done quickly, to avoid being swamped by noncompliance with the movements of the swell of the ocean, and for the salvation of life and property in those early days when wharves had not been built. But the crew, and others of the ships, became experts with years of experience in voyages up and down the coast of California.

There were other seaports on the coast from which the rancheros shipped hides and tallow, namely: El Cojo (Point Conception), La Gaviota, and Refugio before mentioned. The mission of San Juan Capistrano, about sixty miles south of Los Angeles, in the days of her glory in wealth, exported hides and tallow from the beach known by that name and not far distant from the mission. These large estates transported their productions in the same way as I have above described. Occasionally the surf landings were rougher than at other times, from the action of the winds. When the beach was very rough after a heavy wind along the coast, tallow in bags was put in the water and towed to the vessels, and dried thoroughly on deck before being placed in the hold.

Having read in one of the early books [Dana's Two Years Before the Mast—] on California of the commerce and the mode of doing it, I thought I would make a correction, for the truth is always preferable to a statement wholly in contradiction with the facts. The above is my observation of embarking hides through surf ports. But to carry hides on heads of sailors through the surf to the boats was an impossibility.

A native California lady named Señora Doña Josefa Estrada de Abrego, half-sister of Governor Alvarado, resided at Monterey in 1842 at the time Commodore Jones raised the American flag over that city. She was one of the most beautiful and intelligent of her sex. Like all her people, she felt deep chagrin that the fortunes of war should bring about a change which would compel her to submit to the new order of things.

Commodore Jones as a gentleman, aside from his official rank, was an acceptable visitor in the families of the native Californians, where he was treated with courtesy, which he reciprocated in kind as one who fully appreciated the situation and would not permit himself to be outdone in gallantry. One day he called at the Abrego mansion and alluded to the fine appearance of the assembled children, especially extolling the manly bearing of the boys. Acknowledging the compliments with a smile and graceful obeisance, la señora said, good-naturedly, but with ill-concealed warmth: “I am only sorry, Commodore, my sons were not old enough to offer resistance when you captured our city.” To which Commodore Jones replied: “The sentiment does you honor, madame. As lovers of their country, it would certainly have been their duty to do so.”

Señora Abrego, it may be remarked, is at this writing (October, 1888) seventy-four years of age and in a remarkable state of mental and physical preservation.

The writer was interviewed by a reporter of the San Diego Sun, in December, 1887, to whom he imparted the following information:

“In the year 1831, our three vessels were at La Playa, preparatory to one of them loading for Boston. It was at this time that Mr. Jones removed to the presidio above Old Town, taking with him a cook from one of the vessels, two stewards and two servants. He rented a home at the presidio, which was then located at the present ruins, on the eminence just above the palm trees in Old Town. The military headquarters and the soldiers of this department were located there. In fact, all the inhabitants of this section were living at the presidio. It was quite a lively town. At our house, which was a building of six or eight rooms, we entertained many beautiful Spanish women at dinners, and also at dancing parties. We were there about two or three months, and during that time one of the vessels in the bay was loading for Boston.

‘‘The location of the presidio was chosen from a military point of view, to protect the citizens of this miniature city from the ferocious and savage Indians of those days. In the town the inhabitants, soldiers and citizens numbered between 400 and 500. Quite a large place. There was a great deal of gaiety and refinement here. The people were the élite of this portion of the department of California. In the garrison were some Mexican and not a few native Spanish soldiers. What is now called Old Town was at that date laid out, but it was not built for some time thereafter. Whenever a ship came to anchor at La Playa, saddle horses were at once dispatched from the presidio to bring up the supercargo and captain. The voyage of these vessels from Boston usually occupied from 150 to 175 days. Monterey being the seat of the government of California, and the port of entry of the department, all vessels were compelled to enter that port first. After paying the necessary duties they were allowed to trade at any of the towns along the coast, as far south as Lower California.

“I returned to the coast in the Boston bark Don Quixote, Captain John Paty, in 1838, having been absent about two years. Afterwards I became supercargo of the same vessel. During my two years’ absence the town (or presidio) on the hill gradually changed its location to where Old Town now exists. The population was about the same, with possibly a natural increase. The rancheros of the vicinity usually kept their families at the presidio as a protection against the Indians.

“From 1831 to the present time I have been a resident of California.

“Of the new town of San Diego, now the city of San Diego, I can say that I was its founder. In 1850 the American and Mexican commissions appointed to establish the boundary line were at Old Town. Andrew B. Gray, the chief engineer and surveyor for the United States, who was with the commission, introduced himself to me one day at Old Town. In February, 1850, he explained to me the advantages of the locality known as ‘Punta de los Muertos’ (Point of the Dead) from the circumstance that in the year 1787 a Spanish squadron anchored within a stone’s throw of the present site of the city of San Diego and during the stay of the fleet, surveying the bay of San Diego for the first time, several sailors and marines died and were interred on a sand spit—adjacent to where my wharf stood, and named as above. The piles of my structure are still imbedded in the sands, as if there had been premeditation to mark them as the tomb marks of those deceased early explorers of the Pacific Ocean and of the inlet of San Diego during the days of Spain’s greatness. I have seen ‘Punta de los Muertos’ on Pantoja’s chart of his explorations of the waters of the Pacific.

“Messrs. José Antonio Aguirre, Miguel Pedrorena, Andrew B. Gray, T. D. Johns and myself were the projectors and original proprietors of what is now known as the city of San Diego. All my co-proprietors have since died, and I remain alone of the party, and am a witness of the marvellous events and changes that have since transpired in this vicinity during more than a generation.

“The first building in New San Diego was put up by myself as a private residence. The building still stands, being known as the San Diego Hotel. I also put up a number of other houses. The cottage built by Andrew B. Gray is still standing and is called ‘The Hermitage.’ George F. Hooper also built a cottage, which is still standing near my house in New San Diego. Under the conditions of our deed, we were to build a substantial wharf and warehouse. The other proprietors of the town deeded to me their interest in Block 20, where the wharf was to be built. The wharf was completed in six months after getting our title in March, 1850, at a cost of $60,000. The piles of the old wharf are still to be seen on the old wharf site in Block 20. At that time I predicted that San Diego would become a great commercial seaport from its fine geographical position and from the fact that it was the only good harbor south of San Francisco. Had it not been for our civil war, railroads would have reached here years before Stanford’s road was built, for our wharf was ready for business.’’

In the winter of 1861-62 unusually heavy rains fell in San Diego County, being thirty inches, the average fall for that section of the state being nine inches. There were then collected together six or seven hundred soldiers of the U. S. Army at the military depot in San Diego, from Arizona to go East, and from the East and San Francisco to go to Arizona, to guard the territory against the Confederates. During those unparalleled storms the country around the depot became miry and the travel for heavy teaming impossible. The fuel at the soldiers’ quarters gave out, and there was no way to replenish the supply for the troops to keep them alive with warm food. My wharf and warehouse were still in existence near the depot and earning me about $900 per month for wharfage and storage. The commanding officer of the post decided to use my property for firewood, as a military necessity. Being wartime, it was demolished for that purpose, and I lost my income.

A few years after the occurrence, I went to work and collected evidence in connection with the destruction of the wharf and warehouse. I appealed to Congress with the facts I had obtained for compensation for my loss. The Senate passed a bill unanimously, appropriating $60,000 as my pay, but it was defeated in the House. At last, Congress enacted a law creating General Saxton (quartermaster-general of the Pacific Coast) as a commissioner, to take testimony in California. Several sessions were held in San Francisco; also three or four at San Diego, where the property was located. The testimony before the commissioner was overwhelming in my behalf. After these proceedings the claim was before the House, Congress after Congress, asking that body to appropriate a just and equitable amount, under the commissioner’s investigation and report, for my reimbursement. In 1884-85 I was voted $6,000 in full payment for the $60,000 which the Senate had allowed. While I was in Washington attending to the matter, a member of Congress remarked to me one day: “The government has the power to take your property, and you get your pay the best you can, if you ever get it.” This was said by the gentleman in a general way.

The depot block which I have mentioned above was donated to the government by the original proprietors of New San Diego at my suggestion, together with another block of land adjacent to the depot and a wharf privilege for all time. The real estate has become very valuable, as well as the water property, since the rapid growth of the city next to Mexico on the waterfront of California.

Speaking of the old historic building at the military headquarters, which has been the receptacle for government stores since the year 1850: The lamented General Nathaniel Lyon of our Civil War times was quartermaster during the construction of the building. On its completion Captain Lyon said to me one evening: “I am going to give a baile at the building, with the aid of my brother officers. Will you assist me to get up the amusements?” I replied, “Certainly, I will help you with pleasure.” Captain Santiaguito Argüello was selected to invite the fair sex, from the Old Town, from the ranchos, and from the City of the Angels. The assemblage of women constituted the élite of San Diego and Los Angeles, which places were noted in early times for their handsome women. The party dispersed in the early hours of morning, guided by the dim light of a constellation to their homes. Thus terminated an enjoyable reunion more than a generation since.

Some three or four years since, I met General Vallejo in the courtyard of the Palace Hotel conversing with a few intelligent-looking American tourists. I remarked to him on his youthful appearance for a man of his ripe age. He said he was the living patriarch of his countrymen, many of whom have passed away at great ages. “Yes, General,” I said, “I well remember seeing you at the presidio of San Francisco in 1833. You were then the comandante of that military post—a young soldier in the Mexican army.” The General, addressing the strangers, told of his sports of early days. He said right where we all stood he lassoed a large bear with his reata. He was noted for his horsemanship among the rancheros of the department. The listeners from the East looked at the general with a good deal of curiosity. They were astonished that the man who stood before them was an actor in the exciting scenes of the primitive days of the Golden State at Yerba Buena which was then only inhabited by the wild beasts of the forest. Now look back two generations, and see at the site of the incident above named, the magnificent Palace Hotel and its beautiful surroundings.


I have mentioned previously that I was on my way from Santa Cruz when the national standard was hoisted over San Francisco on the 9th of July, 1846. I arrived only a day or two after the occurrence. My name appears on the list of the inhabitants of Yerba Buena on the day the American flag waved over the little village for the first time, this place having been my residence for many years.

Several years anterior to 1838 there was a Chinaman on board the brig Bolivar Liberator, Captain Nye, as a servant in the cabin, and he remained on the coast during the stay of the vessel. Probably this man of the Celestial Empire was the first that visited California until the commencement of 1848.

The American brig Eagle arrived here from Canton, China, on the 2nd of February, 1848, with two Chinamen and a Chinawoman, who were looked upon as curiosities by some of the inhabitants of the growing town of San Francisco, who had never seen people of that nationality before. During the winter of 1848 and 1849 it was observable that Chinamen were multiplying by immigration rapidly. The Mongolians soon availed themselves, in the new field, of their pro rata of the large business that was being done here during the gold excitement. At that particular time there was no expression of alarm from the people of San Francisco that the Chinese would overrun the city of the bay and the state of California.

In the multiplicity of matters upon which I have written, I have unintentionally omitted to narrate the manner in which the merchants generally kept their gold. Among the receptacles for the gold dust were tin pans, tin pots and also a vessel used as a piece of furniture for the sleeping apartments. The bright metal was placed in those after being weighed, and a tag attached on which was marked the number of ounces.

As I am closing my work, it is proper to make a few remarks in reference to the Vigilantes of 1856. The subject has been written upon so often that I deem it would be a repetition to write of the exciting scenes then enacted to save life and property from the ruffians who infested and controlled the city of San Francisco in carrying out their evil designs a generation ago. The men who composed the Vigilance Committee were determined to demonstrate to the whole country that San Francisco was, as it is now, an American town and that the citizens were to perpetuate that title at that critical period of her history for all time to come. They did their work well and restored order and obedience to the law of the land.

The citizens who came forward to the rescue deserve the everlasting gratitude of the people of the Pacific coast.

In calling to mind incidents in which my old associates were connected, the act of doing so has revived many personal circumstances which, though not needed in the book, were pleasing; also many scenes of enjoyment with those who have departed from life and will be seen no more. Such events have awakened, at times, mournful sensations, for

“There is many a lass I’ve loved is dead,
And many a lad grown old;
And when that lesson strikes my head,
My weary heart grows cold.”

Other remembrances have brought back happy associations with friends, and seasons past; between the gladness of some and the sadness of others there arise sentiments which, in the language of Ossian, “Like the swaying of the wind in the pine tops, are pleasing and mournful to the soul.”

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

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