San Francisco History

The Beginnings of San Francisco

Education, Trade, Land Grants

In the matter of education California was backward. The military rosters of 1782 show that only about one-third of the soldiers could read and write. The officers taught their children and occasionally a soldier of the escolta was taught by a priest to read and write. The padres confined their attentions to the spiritual welfare of the people and took little interest in their education. Borica endeavored during his administration—1794 to 1800—to establish schools, and the first was started in 1794 at the pueblo of San José by the retired sergeant Manuel de Vargas. He was succeeded a year later by the retired ensign Ramon Lasso de la Vega, and Vargas was sent to San Diego to open a school there. In San Francisco the corporal Manuel Boronda taught the children, in Monterey the soldier José Rodrigues, and in Santa Barbara they were taught by José Manuel Toca, a ship's boy from one of the transports. The children were taught the doctrina cristiana and to read and write. They learned very little, books were rare, and in the simple life led by the people extensive book-learning was not considered necessary. In 1818 Corporal Miguel Archuleta had a school at Monterey which was attended by Vallejo, Alvarado, Castro, Estrada, Pico, and other well known Californians. Outside of the "three R's" but little was taught and the line of reading was confined mostly to the lives of the saints and martyrs. The bigger boys, however, managed to secure from the foreign ships many prohibited books which they contrived to prevent falling into the hands of the watchful friars. In 1834 William E. P. Hartnell, an educated man, and Father Patrick Short established on the Hartnell rancho of Patrocino, a seminario which for two or three years was attended by the sons of a few prominent families, but the attempt was soon given up.

Governor Sola, during his term, 1815-1822, interested himself in the cause of education and contributed from his private funds for the support of the schools, but the most he could do was to maintain a primary school at each of the four presidios and the two pueblos. Governor Echeandía recommended an appropriation for the employment of teachers, but nothing was done. There was no money to pay teachers and teachers themselves were scarce; the lack of education however, was partly due to apathy on the part of the people themselves. They had but little intellectual ambition, though some of the more noteworthy families contained men of intellect and scholarly attainments. There was no necessity for the soldier to read and write unless he wished to be a corporal, then, if the desire was sufficiently strong, he learned.

California in the eighteenth century had no trade. The garrisons bought from the missions and rancheros such supplies as they required, paying for them by drafts on the royal treasury, and each year sent requisitions to Mexico for articles California could not supply. Twice a year the government transports brought the supplies and the people had to be content with the goods so furnished. No foreign ships were permitted to trade but the settlers could buy from the transports such articles as they had, paying for them by their products. This cutting off of all outlet for the products of their farms and labor could only result in stagnation. With a fertile soil, a sea filled with fish, and a coast swarming with fur-seals and sea-otter, the California settler could only sell a few skins, a few hides, a little tallow, and a few fanegas of grain.

About the beginning of the nineteenth century American ships began to visit the Pacific coast of North America for skins of sea-otter and other fur-bearing animals. These vessels carried goods for trade and landed their wares whenever opportunity offered. With the assistance of Aleuts furnished by the Russian-American company, they took great numbers of fur-seals and sea-otter. The Farallon islands, off San Francisco, and the islands of the Santa Barbara channel furnished quantities of these animals. The bay of San Francisco was full of sea-otter and the Russians entered in their canoes and hunted them under the very guns of the Spanish fort. The Russians maintained a station on the Farallones, whence in 1810-11, the ship Albatross took 73,402 fur-seals according to the log of the captain's clerk, W. A. Gale. Robinson tells of landing on the largest Farallon with him in 1833, when Gale attempted to show Robinson how he bagged the seals and taking a club started to descend the rocks to head off a couple of big fellows they discovered asleep; but Gale had lost his youthful vigor and activity and, his courage failing him, the seals escaped. Down to the year 1830 the Russians took a large number of otter on the California coast, variously estimated from five to ten thousand per year, the best skins selling in China at sixty dollars each. It seems strange that the Spanish and Mexican authorities should permit their coasts to be stripped of this great wealth by foreigners who returned no revenue. Later otter hunting was licensed on condition that two-thirds of the crews should be Californians and that the foreigners paid duties on their share of skins. Free licenses were also granted to Californians. The sea-otter which in 1812 were so plentiful that, according to Vallejo they were killed by the boatmen with their oars in passing through the seaweed, [1] were now growing scarce.

Before the end of the second decade the prohibition of foreign trade had become a dead letter. California, left to herself, had to get on as best she could. The needs of the government were such that the governor was glad to purchase any supplies that could be paid for in produce and for revenue he levied import and export duties. In 1821 Monterey and San Diego were formally opened to foreign trade, and in 1822 the Lima firm of John Begg & Co. entered into a contract with the missions to take all the hides offered, and at least twenty-five thousand arrobas [2] of tallow per year. The contract was for three years from January 1, 1823, and the price was one dollar each for hides and two dollars per arroba for tallow. The Lima firm was represented by Hugh McCulloch and William Edward Paty Hartnell who formed the firm of McCulloch, Hartnell & Co. Hartnell remained as the resident partner of the firm and became a citizen of California. He was baptized into the Roman Catholic faith; married María Teresa, daughter of José de la Guerra y Noriega, and thus became allied with one of the most prominent families of California.

In 1822 came Henry Gyzelaar and William A. Gale for hides and tallow, in the American ship Sachem from Boston, the first ship to engage in the profitable trade so long continued between California and Boston. Gyzelaar was master and Gale supercargo of the Sachem and both were part owners. Both had been in the fur trade in California before, and Gale had, as we have seen, taken large quantities of seal-skins on the Farallon rocks at San Francisco. Some difficulty was encountered by Gale in getting a cargo by reason of the contract the missions had entered into with the Lima house, but by offering one dollar and fifty cents per hide and one dollar and seventy-five cents per arroba for tallow, he disposed of his cargo of notions and secured a load of hides, tallow, and other produce. These prices were later advanced to two dollars for hides and five dollars per arroba for tallow, while two dollars and fifty cents per pound was paid for beaver skins, and thirty to forty dollars apiece for sea-otter. The opening of the ports to foreign trade was a great stimulus to California development and the secularization of the missions opened the lands to settlement. Cattle raising became a great industry and each year more ships came to the coast for hides and tallow. The trade was largely in the hands of Americans, Boston houses predominating. The ships came loaded with cloths, silks, hardware, utensils, wines, liquors, and all the miscellaneous articles needed by the Californians, and after entering the cargo at Monterey and paying the duties, the ship would trade up and down the coast until all the goods were disposed of. A trade room was fitted up on the ship with shelves, counters, etc., like a country store, and the goods displayed to the best advantage. The arrival of a Boston ship always excited the greatest interest, lining the roads with people coming to inspect the goods and to make purchases, and with cattle and carts laden with hides and tallow for the ship. Smuggling was extensively carried on. Most of the merchants engaged in it and, it is said, some of the padres were wont to indulge in the practice of evading the customs dues. The method pursued by the customs officials made smuggling easy. Monterey was made sole port of entry. If a vessel on any pretext entered any other port, a guard was placed on board and she was ordered to depart with the shortest possible delay for Monterey. On arrival at that port she was visited by the collector who was received on board with all due ceremony. The event was usually made one of social entertainment and the merchants and prominent residents of the town were invited to accompany the customs officials. In the cabin would be laid out refreshments, solid and liquid, in the greatest variety and abundance, and after feasting and the drinking of numerous healths and toasts, the collector would proceed to inspect the cargo and fix the amount of duty to be paid. A favorite method of smuggling was for a vessel to land the more valuable portion of her cargo on some lonely part of the coast or island and re-load after passing the Monterey custom house inspection. So openly was smuggling conducted during the latter part of the Mexican administration that the officials could hardly be ignorant of its extent. The duties were about one hundred per cent, and, it was argued, if the traders were obliged to pay the whole tax, instead of about one-quarter of it the goods would have to be sold at so high a price the people would be unable to buy them, thus the trade would be destroyed, the people suffer, and the government receive no benefit. Davis tells of the arrival at San Francisco of the American bark Don Quixote, of which he was supercargo, from Honolulu with a full cargo valued at twenty thousand dollars. The sub-prefect ordered the ship to Monterey and placed a guard on board. The obliging guard was put in a state room, furnished with a bottle of madeira, one of aguardiente, a box of cigars, was promised twenty dollars in the morning and locked up for the night. All night the crew worked landing the cargo on the beach in front of Spear's store, whence it was taken inside. Davis says they landed half the cargo, but it would seem nearer the whole, for the subsequent appraisal at Monterey was but one thousand one hundred and eight dollars. After paying dues at Monterey and getting her permit, the Don Quixote returned to San Francisco, openly reloaded her cargo and proceeded south on her trading expedition, maintaining a fiction that Spear was shipping some of his goods south. [3] Another practice was to exhibit a fictitious invoice and pay, say ten thousand dollars on a cargo worth forty thousand dollars. The trader considered that there was nothing particularly wrong about this, as the invoice did not have to be sworn to. Davis says that the merchants and owners engaged in smuggling were just as much respected as any one else in the community. Sometimes whole cargoes would be transferred at sea to vessels having the custom's permit. It is said that the Sandwich islands traders were the particular offenders in these transactions. Occasionally a smuggler would be caught up and ship and cargo condemned and sold. The whalers coming into San Francisco bay for supplies and anchoring at Sausalito were allowed to trade goods in limited amounts in payment of supplies and they took. advantage of their privilege to engage in extensive smuggling operations.

Having attended to the formalities of the customhouse at Monterey the ship became a floating store and traded up and down the coast until her cargo was disposed of and a return load secured. As the hides were collected they were taken to La Playa at San Diego where great hide houses were erected for their curing and storing and where the ship loaded for her homeward voyage. The Boston houses found the trade very lucrative. They sold their goods at a large profit and bought their return cargoes at a low price. A voyage generally took between two and three years, and a house engaged in the trade contrived to have one or two ships on the coast all the time. Richard Henry Dana's Two Years Before the Mast gives a most interesting account of these "hide droghing" days and second only to this is William H. Thomes' On Land and Sea. The customs duties that in 1826 were thirteen thousand dollars, rose in 1835, the year of Dana's arrival, to fifty thousand dollars and in 1840 to seventy thousand dollars. These sums may be safely estimated at about one-half of what they should have been, while the annual exports of California were valued at that time at two hundred and forty-one thousand dollars, of which San Francisco furnished eighty-three thousand dollars. The Boston ships paid the greater part of these duties, but so extensive became the operations of the smugglers that the trade ceased to be profitable to houses that paid duties and the Boston ships retired.

The first private land grant in California was made November 22, 1775, to Manuel Butron, a soldier of the Monterey presidio, by virtue of his military services and also in recognition of the claims of his wife, Margarita, a daughter of the mission of the Cármelo. The grant was for a piece of land one hundred and forty varas square and was made by Don Fernando de Rivera y Moncada, comandante of California, and attested by Corporal Hermenegildo Sal, who acted as a sort of secretary of state.

This grant was made pursuant to a reglamento of Bucaréli, viceroy of New Spain, dated August 17, 1773. This reglamento authorized the comandante of California to distribute lands in private to such Indians as would devote themselves to agriculture and the breeding of cattle; it also gave the comandante authority to distribute lands to settlers according to their merit and means of labor. The reglamento of Felipe de Neve, governor of California, approved by the king October 24, 1781, provided that the colonist (poblador) should receive one hundred and sixteen dollars and forty-four cents per year for two years and sixty dollars per year for the next three years, in lieu of rations; each was to receive a house lot (solar), and a planting lot (suerte) two hundred varas square, together with cattle, sheep, pigs, fowls, and implements, and was to be exempt from all taxes for five years. Each poblador was to hold himself equipped with two horses, a saddle complete, musket and other arms, for defense at the call of the governor. In the decree of August 18, 1824, the Mexican nation "promises to those foreigners who may come to establish themselves in its territory, security in their persons and property, provided they subject themselves to the laws of the country." It provided for distribution of lands to Mexican citizens, without distinction except only such as is due to private merit and services rendered. No one person could obtain ownership of more than one league square of five thousand varas of irrigable land (tierra de regadio), four superficial ones of land dependent on the seasons (de temporal), and six superficial ones for the purpose of rearing cattle (de abrevadero). Land within twenty leagues of the boundaries of any foreign nation, or within ten leagues of the coast could not be colonized without the previous approval of the general government. The general rules and regulations of November 21, 1828, authorized the governors of the territories, in compliance with the law of August 18, 1824, to grant vacant lands to such contractors (empresarios), families, or private persons, whether Mexicans or foreigners, who might ask for them for the purpose of cultivating and inhabiting them. These were the laws under which lands were granted down to the time of the American occupation in 1846. The law made provision for the method to be followed in the granting of lands and no private grant was valid without the consent of the territorial diputacion, though an appeal to the supreme government could be taken by the governor should the diputacion reject a grant. The petitioner filed with his application a plan or sketch (diseño) of the desired tract. The request was then referred to the proper authorities for information concerning the applicant and the land desired, and if all was favorable, the grant was made, the papers (expediente) transmitted to the diputacion where they were copied into the record, and were then delivered to the applicant for his protection and constituted his title. But few grants were made prior to the establishment of the republic, but after the opening of the ports to foreign trade the applications for ranchos became more numerous and with the secularization of the missions, the advent of the foreigners, and the general expectation of American domination, the scramble for land became very great. The foreigners were very well treated and by becoming naturalized obtained grants of land. Many of the Americans who came during the last days of Mexican control imagined that they were entitled to land, and refused to comply with the requirements of law, expecting to obtain it without doing so. Some even claimed that land had been promised them to induce them to emigrate to California. Perhaps it had, but not by those who owned it. With the conquest and the subsequent discovery of gold, the land question became acute. Americans with guns in their hands asserted their right to "preëmpt" such land as they chose to consider vacant, and in the opinion of the "squatters" the Californians had no rights the conquerors were bound to respect. The matter was further complicated by the appearance of a number of alleged grants, whose timely production was, to say the least, suspicious.

In 1851 Congress passed an act creating a commission to examine all California land claims. Within a stated period all claims must be presented before the board by the claimants and those not so presented were to be no longer regarded, but the lands in question were then to be considered part of the public domain. All claimants were to appear before the board as suitors against the United States which as represented by its attorneys was to resist their claims. Either party could appeal from the decision of the board to the United States district court and thence to the United States supreme court.

The treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo had guaranteed to Californians the protection of their property rights and the land bill of 1851 was an act of injustice and a violation of the spirit of the treaty. Instead of the protection guaranteed, the land owner was obliged to defend his title to land which had perhaps been in his family for many years and to which his right was well known and had never been disputed. He was placed in the position of holding a fraudulent title which he had to defend at his own expense against a powerful opponent. The lawyers took immense fees in land and cattle, while the United States through its able attorneys contested the claims. By questioning the title, the law rendered the land hard to sell and the owner in order to raise money for taxes, support, and defense was obliged to part with a good portion at a fraction of its value and thus vast tracts fell into the hands of lawyers and speculating land sharpers. The resulting concentration in a few hands of a great part of the agricultural lands worked to the detriment of the development of the state, while to the individual Californian the result was disastrous. If the land commission decided in his favor the case could be, and usually was, appealed to the district court and thence to the supreme court at Washington; the struggle for "protection" lasting anywhere from five to twenty-five years, and long before a final decision was reached the once ranchero prince had perhaps parted with his last acre and was a vagabond and a wanderer.

1. Vallejo: Hist. Cal. MS. 1, 105-6. Bancroft Coll. [back]
2. Arroba—twenty-five pounds. [back]
3. Davis: Sixty Years in California. [back]
Source: Eldredge, Zoeth Skinner. The Beginnings of San Francisco. 1912: San Francisco.


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