San Francisco History

The Beginnings of San Francisco

The Golden Age

In 1834 the California of the Spaniards had as yet undergone no great change. Figueroa, then administering the affairs of the country, found himself in the midst of an era of innovations—at the end of the spiritual dominion of the missionary fathers and the beginning of the attempt to introduce a new civilization. "From 1769," says Edmond Randolph, [1] "when Father Junípero Serra and the body of missionary priests who followed him first reached the spot where they founded San Diego, sixty-five years had elapsed of a tranquillity seldom witnessed on this earth." The cattle upon the rich pasture multiplied and the missions grew in wealth and importance. Shrewd traders too were the good padres, and the Boston ships trading on the coast soon learned to respect the business ability of the priests. To the Indians they were, as a rule, kind and gentle, teaching them the Christian religion, accustoming them to a regular life, and inuring them to labor. They were well qualified for their work and many of them were highly cultivated men—soldiers, engineers, artists, lawyers, and physicians before they became Franciscans. Up to the year 1833 they were all from the College of San Fernando in the City of Mexico, but in that year the seven missions north of San Cárlos de Monterey were given in charge of the priests of the college of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe de Zacatecas. The Zacatecans were, as a rule, inferior to the Fernandinos and less successful in their administration.

The Franciscan monks generally treated the neophyte Indians with paternal kindness and did not scorn to labor with them in the field, the brickyard, the forge, and the mill. "When we view the vast constructions of the mission buildings, including the churches, the refectories, the dormitories, and the granaries, sometimes constructed with huge timbers brought many miles on the shoulders of the Indians, it cannot be denied that the missionary fathers had the wisdom, sagacity, and patience to bring their neophyte pupils far forward on the road from barbarism to civilization and that these Indians were not destitute of taste and capacity." [2] A complete chain of missions had been established from San Diego to San Francisco, and thence across the straits to San Rafael and Sonoma; the scheme being to plant the missions throughout the whole length of the coast, says Father Palou, so that the Indians might fall within the reach, if not of one, then of another of these establishments, and thus all be drawn into the apostolic net.

The Indians received no pay but were fed and clothed: each Indian receiving one blanket a year, and if he wore it out, another; each received also a loin cloth (taparrabo) and a serge blouse. Every woman got serge for a petticoat. They were flogged for failure to do the work assigned to them, for non-attendance at mass, and for other causes, and at times the discipline was so severe that the neophytes ran away and soldiers had to be sent to capture and bring them back. But on the whole, they were fairly well treated and were attached to the priests. The Spaniards, having a wholesome dread of mounted Indians born of encounters with the Apaches, permitted no Indians to ride except those employed as vaqueros.

Notwithstanding the claims of the missionaries to all the land from one mission to another, there were, in 1830, about fifty ranchos in possession of private individuals. There were a number of ranchos in the south and along the coast, while around the bay of San Francisco the Vallejos, Argüellos, Castros, Peraltas, Estudillos, and other historic families of California occupied ranchos which, according to Davis, [3] supported some two hundred thousand cattle, fifty thousand horses, and many thousand sheep. These lands had been granted to the soldiers of Portolá, Rivera, and Anza, and their descendants, and California was being slowly populated by the natural increase from the families of the garrisons. The families of the soldiers were so large as to excite the wonder of visitors. General Vallejo had sixteen children; Argüello had thirteen; Carrillo, twelve; José de la Guerra, ten; José Antonio Castro, twenty-two, and so on. Governor Borica, on taking command in 1794, expressed to the engineer Córdero his satisfaction with the society at the capital (Monterey), the fine climate, the abundance of wine of the Rhine, of Madeira, and of Oporto, of the good bread, beef, fish, and other good eatables, and says: "But what astonishes one is the general fecundity both of rationals and irrationals" (pero lo que espanta es la fecundidad general en racionales é irracionales). [4] Within the presidio reservation of San Francisco is a spring called El Polin to whose marvelous virtues were attributed the large families of the garrisons. [5]  Its existence and peculiar qualities were known to the Indians from a remote period and its fame was spread throughout California.

Among the followers of Portolá in the first expedition were Mariano de la Luz Verdugo and his brother José María and both served for many years in the companies of San Diego and Monterey. Mariano brought from Loreto in Lower California cuttings from the grape vine planted there by the Jesuit fathers. These he planted at the San Diego mission and in a few years the Franciscan fathers were able to make from the fruit of these vines the wine used in the mass. Cuttings were sent to other missions and all the mission vineyards were planted from these vines of San Diego. This is the origin in California of the famous Mission grape. [6]

Reference has been made in the previous chapter to the convicts sent to California by the home government. This was a cause of hatred towards Mexico; but neither the convicts nor the few settlers she sent appear to have made much impression on the country; the descendants of the soldiers were the ruling class.

It has sometimes been held and believed that the founders of the great California families were men of rank and birth (sangre azul). This is not the case. With but few exceptions they were men of humble origin and station. The founders of the Alvarado, Argüello, Arellanes, Castro, Carrillo, Estudillo, Ortega, Pico, Peralta, Vallejo, and Yorba families, and many others hardly less known, were private soldiers, and only four of the eleven named reached the commission grade. But these families were among the most prominent in California and furnished six governors to the province.

The Californians were a fine handsome race. The men were tall, robust, and well made; the women were beautiful. "Particularly is the hijo del pais  [7] well-formed, graceful in his movements, and athletic. Spending his life in manly pursuits, roaming his native hills, breathing the pure air of the Pacific, the horse his companion, the lasso his weapon, he carries about him and into all life's commonplaces the chivalrous bearing of the cavaliers of old Spain. His courage no one will question who has seen him face a herd of wild cattle, or lasso a grizzly, or mount an unbroken horse, or fix his unflinching gaze upon the muzzle of a pistol pointed at his breast. He is by nature kind and frank. The treatment he received at the hand of hard featured, ill-mannered, grasping, and unprincipled strangers taught him to be suspicious; but his confidence once gained, he is yours, wholly and forever. " [8] Costansó, an officer of the regular army, said of the presidial soldiers of California, "It is not too much to say that they are the best horsemen in the world and among the best soldiers who eat the bread of the king. " [9] The defeat of the veterans of the "Army of the West," under General Kearny, by the caballeros of Andrés Pico on the field of San Pascual, and that of Mervine by Carrillo, at San Pedro, proves that the descendants of the soldiers of Portolá and Anza were not lacking in either skill or courage. Davis says: "The Vallejos; the Bernals; the Berreyesas, of whom Don José Santos was particularly noble looking and intelligent; the Estradas, half-brothers of Alvarado, were all fine looking; also the Santa Cruz Castros, three or four brothers; the De la Guerras; Don Antonio María Lugo; Don Teodoro Arrellanes; Don Tomás Yorba and his brothers; splendid looking, proud and dignified in address and manners, the cream of the country. The Sepúlvedas of Los Angeles were also fine specimens. The Argüellos, sons of the prefect (Santiago) were finely formed men; Doña Modesta Castro, wife of General Castro, was beautiful and queenly in her appearance and bearing. The wife of David Spence, sister of Prefect Estrada, was of medium size, with fine figure and beautiful, transparent complexion. The sisters of General Vallejo: Mrs. Cooper and Mrs. Leese, were strikingly beautiful.” [10]

Bartlett, [11] writing from Monterey in 1852, says:"Many officers of the United States army have married in California and from what I have heard here and at other places, others intend to follow their example. The young señoritas certainly possess many attractions; and although shut up in this secluded part of the world, without the advantages of good education or of intercourse with refined society, they need not fear a comparison with our own ladies. In deportment they are exceedingly gentle and ladylike with all the natural grace and dignity which belong to the Castillian nation. Their complexion is generally as fair as the Anglo-Saxon, particularly along the seacoast, with large black eyes and hair, * * * and they are as slender and delicate in form as those of our Atlantic states. I was struck, too, with the elegance and purity of their language, which presented a marked contrast with the corrupt dialect spoken in Mexico." Even Sir George Simpson, who could see little to commend either in California or in the Californians was finally overcome and surrendered a captive to grace and beauty: "Of the women, with their witchery of manner," he writes, "it is not easy, or rather it is not possible for a stranger to speak with impartiality * * * of those who, in every look, tone, and gesture, have apparently no other end in view than the pleasure of pleasing us. With regard, however, to their physical charms, as distinguished from the adventitious accomplishments of education, it is difficult, even for a willing pen, to exaggerate. Independently of feeling or motion, their sparkling eyes and glossy hair are in themselves sufficient to negative the idea of tameness or insipidity; while their sylph-like forms evolve fresh graces at every step, and their eloquent features eclipse their own inherent comeliness by the higher beauty of expression. Though doubtless fully conscious of their attractions, yet the women of California, to their credit be it spoken, do not 'before their mirrors count the time,' being, on the contrary by far the most industrious half of the population. In California, such a thing as a white servant is absolutely unknown, inasmuch as neither man nor woman will barter freedom in a country where provisions are actually a drug and clothes almost a superfluity." [12] The men he describes as tall and handsome, most showily and elaborately dressed and mounted.

The daughters of José Bandini were famous for their beauty. Bandini was the son of a trader who came from Lima in 1819 and settled in San Diego. He had six lovely daughters, four of whom married Americans. The heroine of Bret Harte's beautiful poem, "Concepcion Argüello," was the daughter of José Darío Argüello, comandante of San Francisco. How Doña Concepcion's black eyes won the heart of the chamberlain of the tsar has often been told; it is the most famous romance of California. [Note 27]

The daughters of José de la Guerra were very beautiful. Teresa married W. E. P. Hartnell, an English merchant at Monterey; Angustias married Jimeno, secretary of state, and after his death, Dr. J. L. Ord, United States army; and Ana María married Alfred Robinson. Dana, who attended Robinson's marriage in Santa Barbara in 1836, gives a most delightful picture of the handsome and sprightly Doña Angustias, and in his "Twenty-four years after" says: "'Doña Angustias' he (Captain Wilson) said, 'I had made famous by my praises of her beauty and dancing and I should have from her a royal reception.' She had been a widow and had remarried since and had a daughter as handsome as herself. * * * In due time I paid my respects to Doña Angustias, and notwithstanding what Wilson had told me I could scarcely believe that after twenty-four years there would still be so much of the enchanting woman about her. She thanked me for the kind, and as she called them, greatly exaggerated compliments I have paid her; and her daughter told me that all travelers who came to Santa Barbara called to see her mother, and that she, herself, never expected to live long enough to be a belle." [13] Bayard Taylor, writing from Monterey in 1849, says of this same lady: "The most favorite resort of the Americans is that (house) of Doña Angustias Ximeno, the sister of Don Pablo de la Guerra. [14] This lady whose active charity in aiding the sick and distressed has won her the enduring gratitude of many and the esteem of all, has made her house the home of every American officer who visits Monterey. With a rare liberality she has given up a great part of it to their use, when it is impossible for them to procure quarters, and they have always been welcome guests at her table. She is a woman whose nobility of character, native vigor, and activity of intellect, and above all, whose instinctive refinement and winning grace of manner would have given her a complete supremacy in society, had her lot been cast in Europe, or in the United States. During the session of the convention [15] her house was the favorite resort of all the leading members, both American and Californian. She was thoroughly versed in Spanish literature, as well as the works of Scott and Cooper, through translations, and I have frequently been surprised at the justness and elegance of her remarks on various authors. She possessed, moreover, all those bold and daring qualities which are so fascinating in a woman when softened and made graceful by true feminine delicacy. She was a splendid horsewoman, and had even considerable skill in throwing the lariat. " [16]

In the little company of soldados de cuera that followed Portolá to Monterey, were two brothers, Guillermo and Mariano Carrillo, and their nephew, José Raimundo Carrillo. Guillermo died, a sergeant, in 1782, and Mariano, an ensign, the same year. Neither left any children. José Raimundo was twenty-three years old when he joined the expedition. For twenty-six years he served as private and non-commissioned officer in the presidios of San Francisco, Monterey, Santa Barbara, and San Diego, and in 1795, received his commission as ensign. He served until his death in 1809, as ensign, lieutenant, and captain, becoming, in turn comandante of Monterey, Santa Barbara, and San Diego. His wife was a daughter of the patriarch de Lugo, [17] to whom he was married at San Cárlos by Junípero Serra. He was the founder of what may perhaps, by reason of the number and prominence of its members, be considered the leading family of California. His son Cárlos Antonio became governor of California. Don Cárlos had a number of handsome daughters one of whom married William G. Dana; one married Thomas W. Robbins; one Alpheus B. Thompson; one John Coffin Jones; one Lewis T. Burton, and one Thomas W. Doak, all Americans. Don Raimundo's sons were men of prominence who took an active part in the affairs of the province and married into the best families. They were distinguished for their courtly manners and dignified and magnificent presence. Each was over six feet tall and over two hundred pounds in weight. Joaquin Carrillo had five beautiful daughters one of whom married Henry D. Fitch and was the heroine of another California romance; one married General Vallejo, who named the town of Benicia for her, one married his brother, Salvador, one married Ramuldo Pacheco, and after his death Captain John Wilson and was the Ramona of R. H. Dana's enthusiasm, and one married Victor Castro. Of Ramona, Sir George Simpson writes: "Then returning to Captain Wilson's house (at Santa Barbara) we had the pleasure of being introduced to Mrs. Wilson whom we already knew by name as a sister of Señora Vallejo and whom we now found to be one of the prettiest and most agreeable women that we have ever met with either here or elsewhere." [18] Lieutenant Martinez, comandante of San Francisco, had nine lovely daughters, one of whom married Captain W. A. Richardson, for whom Richardson's bay was named, one married William S. Hinckley, alcalde of San Francisco, and one, Dr. Samuel Tennant.

These personal descriptions of contemporary writers will enable the reader to realize more fully than he could otherwise do the character of the people of California.

Alfred Robinson [19] gives a description of a passing visit at the Rancho Santiago de Santa Ana in 1830. "The proprietor, Don Tomás Yorba, a tall, lean, personage, dressed in all the extravagance of his country's costume, received us at the door of his house. He came towards us, embraced Gale and his compadre, [20] Don Manuel, took me cordially by the hand, and invited us to enter. Arrangements were soon made for dinner, which, notwithstanding the haste with which it was served, did much credit to the provider, as did our appetites to its excellent qualities.

"Don Tomás and friend Gale then commencing a business conversation, I got up from the table and retreated to the corridor, where I could study, unobserved, the character and appearance of our host. Upon his head he wore a black silk handkerchief, the four corners of which hung down his neck behind. An embroidered shirt, a cravat of white jaconet tastefully tied, a blue damask vest, short clothes of crimson velvet, a bright green cloth jacket, with large silver buttons, and shoes of embroidered deer skin, comprised his dress. I was afterwards informed by Don Manuel, that on some occasions such as some particular feast day or festival his entire display often exceeded in value a thousand dollars."

Davis [21] describes the California costume: Short breeches extending to the knee, ornamented with gold or silver lace at the bottom, with botas (leggins) below made of fine soft deer skin, well tanned and finished, richly colored and stamped with beautiful devices and tied at the knee with a silk cord wound two or three times around the leg with gold or silver tassels hanging below the knee; long vest with filagree buttons of gold or silver, although men of ordinary means had them of brass; a jacket, generally of dark blue cloth, also adorned with filagree buttons. Over that was the serape or poncho, made in Mexico and costing from twenty to one hundred dollars, according to the quality of the cloth and the richness of the ornamentation. The serape and poncho were made in the same way as to size and cut, the former of coarser texture than the latter and of a variety of colors and patterns, while the poncho was of dark blue or black cloth of finer quality, generally of broadcloth. The serape was always plain while the poncho was heavily trimmed with gold or silver fringe around the edges and a little below the collar around the shoulders. Hat from Mexico or Peru, generally stiff, the finer quality, soft, of vicuna—a kind of beaver skin—and cost forty dollars. Saddle, silver mounted; bridle, heavily mounted with silver; reins of select hair of horses' mane with links of silver at a distance of every foot; spurs inlaid with gold or silver. The whole outfit sometimes costing several thousand dollars. Simpson, in 1842, describes the men as wearing the pantaloons, split on the outside from the hip to the foot, with a row of buttons on either edge of the opening which is laced together nearly down to the knee; underneath a full pair of linen drawers and a boot of untanned deerskin, and a silk scarf around the waist. The women wore gowns of silk, crape, calico, etc., short sleeves and loose waist without corset; shoes of kid or satin, sashes, or belts of bright colors, and almost always a necklace and earings. They wore no bonnets, the hair hanging loose or in long braids. Married women did the hair up on a high comb. Over the head a mantilla was thrown, drawn close around the face when out of doors. In the house they wore a small scarf or neckerchief and on top of the head a band with a star or other ornament in front.

All travelers unite in the statement that the Californians were vastly superior to the Mexicans. Bayard Taylor says they had larger frames, stronger muscles, and a fresh ruddy complexion, entirely different from the sallow skins of the tierra caliente, or the swarthy features of those Bedouins of the West, the Sonorians. One reason for this difference was the fact that the Californians were of purer blood. Father Lasuen, president of the missions, testifies that from the beginning, in 1769, to the end of the century, but twenty-nine Spaniards had married native women. While there was more or less mixture among the soldiers who came with the first expeditions, the race improved in California. The sons of soldiers married soldiers' daughters. The cool moist air of the coast gave them fresh complexions; the habit of life in the open air with its accompanying exercise gave them vigorous frames and elastic muscles. As all things grow and improve in California; so it is with the people. The men become larger and stronger, the women more beautiful. The soldiers who established the presidios and missions were not, as a rule, large men, yet they developed in California a race that in proportions and symmetry was fair to look upon. They were also a happy and contented people. Incivility was unknown. They were always ready to reply to a question and answered in the politest manner. The poorest vaquero would salute the traveler politely, and a favor was always granted with an air of courtesy and grace that was very pleasing. Implicit obedience and profound respect were shown parents by children, even after they were grown up. A son, though himself the head of a family, never presumed to sit, smoke, or remain covered in the presence of his father; nor did the daughter, whether married or unmarried, enter into great familiarity with the mother. With these exceptions, the Californians gave little regard to the restraints of etiquette, and, generally speaking, all classes mingled together on a footing of equality. Honest and kindly, the Californian's word was as good as his bond. Indeed bonds and notes of hand were entirely unknown among them. The trading ships would sell goods along the coast and returning in twelve or eighteen months would receive in hides and tallow payment for goods sold the previous year. Don Antonio Aguirre was a prominent merchant of Los Angeles, and owner of the brig Leonidas. His supercargo, a new man, sold a bill of goods and asked for payment or a note of hand. The purchaser, Agustin Machado, was well to do, but could neither read nor write. He looked at the supercargo in astonishment, but finally realizing he was distrusted, plucked one hair from his beard and handing it to the young man, said: "Here! deliver this to Señor Aguirre and tell him it is a hair from the beard of Agustin Machado. It will cover your responsibility. It is a sufficient guaranty." Aguirre was chagrined on hearing that the supercargo had demanded a document from Machado, a man whose word was as good as the best bond even for the entire ship's cargo. [22] The old inhabitants maintain that California was a perfect paradise before the foreign immigration set in to corrupt patriarchal customs; then robbery and assassination were unheard of, blasphemy rare, and fraudulent creditors unknown. In 1839 José Antonio Galindo of San Francisco, who in his expediente of 1835 for the Rancho Laguna de la Merced is described by Justice de Haro as an "honest man," appears now to have lapsed into the position of a criminal, [23] and the same Justice de Haro reports to the govenor that the population having become rancheros, there are few remaining in San Francisco to guard him, and as there is no jail the justice asks that Galindo be sent to San José for security. This document illustrates the primitive simplicity of the Golden Age in California in which the cause came always before the effect, and no necessity was found for jails until criminals existed to be restrained of their liberty. [24] "Happy was San Francisco," says Dwinelle, "to whom the 'fact' criminal had not yet suggested the word 'jail'; less happy, but more wise San José, whose experience had already advanced to the word and fact 'prison.'''

Among the light-hearted and easy-tempered Californians the virtue of hospitality knew no bounds. "They literally vie with each other in devoting their time, their homes, and their means, to the entertainment of strangers." [25] On arriving at a rancho the traveler was received with joy and the best things were prepared for him. He was pressed to remain as long as he would and when he went on his way horses and servants were furnished to take him to his next stopping place. It was the same with the missions. The padres gladly received and entertained all travelers, setting before them the best of meats, fruits, and native wines, providing them with good beds and on their departure furnishing them with fresh horses and guides, caring for the tired animals of the travelers until the owners came or sent for them. No pay was expected and none was given.

Such was the hospitality and such were the men and women of the Golden Age of California.

1. Argument: Hart vs. Burnett et al. Sup. Court of California, 1859. [back]
2. Dwinelle: Colonial Hist. p. 84. [back]
3. Davis: Sixty Years in California, 29-32. [back]
4. Borica á Córdero: Prov. State Papers, M. S. XXI, 208-9, Academy of Pacific Coast History. [back]
5. "It gave very good water, and experience afterwards demonstrated that it was excellent and of miraculous qualities. In proof of my assertion I appeal to the families of Miramontes, Martinez, Sanchez, Soto, Briones, and others; all of whom several times had twins; and public opinion, not without reason, attributed these salutary effects to the virtues of the water of El Polin, which still exists." Vallejo: Discurso Historico, San Francisco Centenary, Oct. 8, 1876, MS. Academy of Pacific Coast History (Bancroft Collection). [back]
6. Taylor: Fragments and Scraps, MS. p. 87, Statement of Don Anastacio Carrillo (Bancroft Collection). Hayes, in Emigrant Notes, MS. p.150, says: "The grape cultivated at the missions of California is the same as that of the Island of Madeira—according to Maj. George H. Ringold, an accomplished officer of the U. S. Army who is stationed here" (San Diego). (Bancroft Collection.) [back]
7. Native of the country. [back]
8. Bancroft: California Pastoral, p. 276. [back]
9. Diario Historico. MS. original in Sutro library. [back]
10. Davis: Sixty Years in California, 176, 201. [back]
11. Bartlett: Narrative, p. 73, 74. [back]
12. Simpson: Narrative, p. 280-1. [back]
13. Dana: Two Years Before the Mast. Reprint, 1895. He revisited California in 1859. [back]
14. She was then a widow, and about thirty-five years old. [back]
15. The Constitutional Convention, 1849. [back]
16. Bayard Taylor: El Dorado, p. 141-2. [back]
17. Another daughter married Ignacio Vallejo and was mother of General Vallejo. [back]
18. Simpson: Narrative, p. 376. [back]
19. Robinson: Life in California, p. 42-3. [back]
20. The term compadre implies more than the relationship of friend or benefactor. It denotes a closer association, a somewhat sacred relationship, as that of godfather and godmother, not only in its relationship to the child, but to each other. [back]
21. Davis: Sixty Years in California, p. 84. [back]
22. Bancroft: California Pastoral, p. 472. [back]
23. He had killed his relative, José Peralta, in a quarrel. [back]
24. Dwinelle: Colonial History of the City of San Francisco, p. 65. [back]
25. Simpson: Narrative, p. 387. [back]
Source: Eldredge, Zoeth Skinner. The Beginnings of San Francisco. 1912: San Francisco.


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