San Francisco History

The Beginnings of San Francisco


Jacob Primer Leese was born in Ohio in 1809 and engaged in the Santa Fé trade in 1830. He first came to California from New Mexico in 1833 and did not remain but returned in July 1834, and settled in Los Angeles. He realized that a large and profitable business could be done in collecting hides and tallow for the American ships and in supplying the Californians with the goods brought by them. In looking over the field he decided that the bay of San Francisco offered the greatest facilities for a commercial city and in 1836 he formed a partnership with William S. Hinckley and Nathan Spear and, obtaining a hundred vara lot in Yerba Buena cove, built the first solid structure there, finished it before July 4, 1836, and celebrated Independence Day by giving a feast, dance, etc., to the people of the mission, presidio, and vicinity. The lot was on what was later the west side of Dupont street, from Sacramento to Clay, and the house stood on the southwest corner of Dupont and Clay streets—now the heart of Chinatown. This was the second grant made in Yerba Buena, the first being to William A. Richardson six days earlier. It was difficult for Leese to conduct his business so far from the water front and he obtained two fifty vara lots on Montgomery street, extending from Sacramento to Clay streets, and built a larger building, part wood and part adobe, which served him for store and dwelling. In 1838 the partnership with Hinckley and Spear was dissolved and Leese continued the business alone until 1841, when he sold out to the Hudson's Bay company and transferred his business and residence to Sonoma. He was thrown into prison by Frémont during the Bear Flag revolt without apparent reason save that he was married to a sister of General Vallejo. Leese was naturalized in 1836 and was granted other lots in Yerba Buena in 1840. In 1841 he was granted the Cañada de Guadalupe y Rodeo Viejo y Visitacion, on the San Francisco peninsula, comprising eight thousand eight hundred and eighty acres in San Francisco and San Mateo counties, and also Huichica rancho of two square leagues, at Sonoma. The Visitacion rancho Leese exchanged for Ridley's Calloyomi rancho of three leagues, at Sonoma. In 1837 Leese married María Rosalia, daughter of Ignacio Vallejo and sister of General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo. Of this marriage there was born April 15, 1838, Rosalia Leese, the first child born in Yerba Buena. She died in 1851.

Dana, in the last edition of his book containing his revisitation of San Francisco in 1859, says: "In one of the parlors of the hotel, I saw a man of about sixty years of age, with his feet bandaged and resting on a chair, whom somebody addressed by the name of Lies (Leese). Lies! thought I, that must be the man who came across the country to Monterey while we lay there in the Pilgrim in 1835, and made a passage in the Alert, when he used to shoot with his rifle bottles hung from the top-gallant studding-sail-boom ends. He married the beautiful Doña Rosalia Vallejo, sister of Don Guadalupe. There were the old high features and sandy hair. I put my chair beside him and began conversation, as one may do in California. Yes, he was Mr. Lies: and when I gave him my name he professed at once to remember me and spoke of my book."

A son of Leese, Jacob R. Leese, born in Monterey April 15, 1839, married to a daughter of José Joaquin Estrada, is living in San Francisco.



PROCLAMATION ISSUED JULY 23d, 1846 {Stockton's Life, 116-18.}

"Californians: The Mexican government and their military leaders have, without cause, for a year passed been threatening the United States with hostilities.

"They have recently, in pursuance of these threats, commenced hostilities by attacking, with 7,000 men, a small detachment of 2,000 United States troops, by whom they were signally defeated.

"General Castro, the commander-in-chief of the military forces of California, has violated every principle of international law and national hospitality, by hunting and pursuing with several hundred soldiers, and with wicked intent, Captain Frémont of the United States army who came here to refresh his men, about forty in number, after a perilous journey across the mountains, on a scientific survey.

"For these repeated hostilities and outrages, military possession was ordered to be taken of Monterey and San Francisco until redress could be obtained from the government of Mexico.

"No let or hindrance was given or intended to be given to the civil authorities of the territory, or to the exercise of its accustomed functions. The officers were invited to remain, and promised protection in the performance of their duties as magistrates. They refused to do so, and departed, leaving the people in a state of anarchy and confusion.

"On assuming the command, of the forces of the United States on the coast of California both by land and sea, I find myself in possession of the ports of Monterey and San Francisco, with daily reports from the interior of scenes of rapine, blood, and murder. Three inoffensive American residents of the country have, within a few days been murdered in the most brutal manner; and there are no California officers who will arrest and bring the murderers to justice, although it is well known who they are and where they are.

"I must therefore, and will as soon as I can, adopt such measures as may seem best calculated to bring these criminals to justice, and to bestow peace and good order on the country.

"In the first place, however, I am constrained by every principal of national honor, as well as a due regard for the safety and best interests of the people of California, to put an end at once and by force to the lawless depredations daily committed by General Castro's men upon the persons and property of peaceful and unoffending inhabitants.

"I cannot, therefore, confine my operations to the quiet and undisturbed possession of the defenceless ports of Monterey and San Francisco, whilst the people elsewhere are suffering from lawless violence; but will immediately march against those boasting and abusive chiefs who have not only violated every principle of national hospitality and good faith towards Captain Frémont and his surveying party, but who, unless driven out, will, with the aid of hostile Indians, keep this beautiful country in a constant state of revolution and blood; as well as against all others who may be found in arms, aiding or abetting General Castro.

"The present general of the forces of California is a usurper; has been guilty of great offenses; has impoverished and drained the country of almost its last dollar; and has deserted his post now when most needed.

"He has deluded and deceived the inhabitants of California, and they wish his expulsion from the country. He came into power by rebellion and force, and by force he must be expelled. Mexico appears to have been compelled from time to time to abandon California to the mercies of any wicked man who could muster one hundred men in arms. The distances from the capital are so great that she cannot, even in times of great distress, send timely aid to the inhabitants; and the lawless depredations upon their persons and property go invariably unpunished. She cannot or will not punish or control the chieftains who, one after the other, have defied her power, and kept California in a constant scene of revolt and misery.

"The inhabitants are tired and disgusted with this constant succession of military usurpers, and this insecurity of life and property. They invoke my protection. Therefore upon them I will not make war. I require, however, all officers, civil and military, and all other persons to remain quiet at their respective homes and stations, and to obey the orders they may receive from me or by my authority; and if they do no injury or violence to my authority none will be done to them.

"But notice is hereby given, that if any of the inhabitants of the country either abandon their dwellings, or do any injury to the arms of the United States, or to any person within this territory, they will be treated as enemies, and suffer accordingly.

"No person whatever is to be troubled in consequence of any part he may heretofore have taken in the politics of the country, or for having been a subject of General Castro. And all persons who may have belonged to the government of Mexico, but who from this day acknowledge the authority of the existing laws, are to be treated in the same manner as other citizens of the United States, provided they are obedient to the law and to the orders they shall receive from me or by my authority.

"The commander-in-chief does not desire to possess himself of one foot of California for any other reason than as the only means to save from destruction the lives and property of the foreign residents, and citizens of the territory who have invoked his protection.

"As soon, therefore, as the officers of the civil law return to their proper duties, under a regularly organized government, and give security for life, liberty, and property alike to all, the forces under my command will be withdrawn, and the people left to manage their own affairs in their own way.


According to this warlike lord the military possession of Monterey and San Francisco was ordered because of the hunting and pursuing by General Castro with several hundred soldiers, and with wicked intent, of a peaceable young engineer who, in the prosecution of a scientific survey, had come into California to refresh his men after a perilous journey across the mountains, and these possessions were to be retained until redress could be obtained from the government of Mexico. Commodore Sloat who had been furnished with a copy of the proclamation as he was about to sail, notified the secretary of the treasury that the proclamation did not contain his reasons for taking possession of or his views or intentions towards California, and consequently it did not meet his approbation. The whole proclamation with its recital of daily reports of scenes of rapine, blood, and murder; of the lawless depredations daily committed by General Castro's men upon peaceful and unoffending inhabitants; with its denunciation of the usurper, General Castro, who, unless driven out, would, with the aid of hostile Indians, keep the country in a state of revolution and blood; with its tales of revolt and misery, is absurd, false in its premises, bombastic in its utterances, offensive, and undignified.

Stockton reported that the position he was about to occupy was an important and critical one calling for prompt and decisive action, in the face of difficulties almost insuperable. According to Stockton the sanguinary feeling of resentment everywhere breathed against foreigners, threatened them with total extermination. That the local legislature was in session and that Governor Pio Pico had assembled a force of about seven hundred or one thousand men, supplied with seven pieces of artillery, and was breathing vengeance against the perpetrators of the insult and injury which they supposed had been inflicted. The situation had assumed a critical and alarming appearance. Every citizen and friend of the United States was in imminent jeopardy. Numerous emigrants from the United States, marching in small, detached parties, encumbered with their wives and children and baggage, unprepared for attack, were exposed to certain destruction. The public lands were being disposed of and the necessity of prompt action became an imperative duty.

The energetic commodore lost no time in proceeding against his powerful and exasperated foe. Sending Frémont with his battalion to San Diego, he sailed for San Pedro, landed three hundred and fifty men and marched against the combined armies of Pico and Castro at Los Angeles, now reduced, as Castro says, to less than one hundred men. Completing a bloodless conquest he announced the end of the war and returned to the north. The account of the revolt with its accompanying bloodshed has been told in the notes on Kearny and Frémont.

Relieved in January 1847 by Commodore Shubrick, Stockton went east by the overland route in July. In 1849 he resigned his commission and in 1851-2 represented New Jersey in the United States Senate. He was a brave man, resolute and energetic, but his vanity and eagerness for applause led him, at times, far astray. In his thirst for glory he magnified the difficulties of his position in California and in ignoring the pacific policy of Sloat and Larkin, and espousing the cause of Frémont and Gillespie and supporting their filibustering plans, he pursued a course towards the authorities and people of California, which, combined with the acts of the volunteers, caused the only serious resistance in California to the American occupation. As General Kearny said, in referring to this matter, "Had they (the Californians) not resisted they would have been unworthy the name of men.” {31st Cong. 1st. Ses. House Ex. Doc. 1. Stockton's report, 34-5.}



Selim E. Woodworth was a son of the poet, Samuel Woodworth, author of "The Old Oaken Bucket." He was born in the city of New York November 15, 1815. In 1834 he sailed from New York with Captain Benjamin Morrell, whose visit to California in 1825 has been noted, on a three years' cruise to the South Pacific. The ship was lost on the coast of Madagascar and all on board perished except Selim and one sailor. Selim was protected by a native woman and after some time got away on a whaler, reaching home after having been given up for dead. In 1838 he was appointed midshipman in the navy and April 1, 1846, he obtained leave of absence and took the Oregon trail for the settlements on the Columbia river. From Oregon he came to San Francisco in the winter of 1846-7, and after his service on the Donner relief he was ordered to the sloop-of-war Warren and later to the command of the transport Anita. In 1849 he was elected to the state senate from Monterey and resigned his commission in the navy. On the breaking out of the war of secession he offered his services to the government and served throughout the war, reaching the rank of commodore. He resigned in 1867 and returned to San Francisco where he died in 1871. Selim Woodworth built the first house in San Francisco on a water lot. It was on the north side of Clay street at the water's edge, on the spot later occupied by the Clay street market; here Selim and his brother Fred lived and carried on a commission business. All through his life in California Selim Woodworth was foremost in acts of charity, and in protection of life and property. He was small in stature but had the courage of a lion. He was president of the vigilance committee of 1851, and in 1854 had a shooting box on Red Rock, a tiny islet midway between San Francisco and San Pablo bays. Selim and his brother Fred owned the lot on the corner of Market and Second streets and during the squatter troubles were obliged to camp on the ground, which was a sandhill, and defend their property with shot guns. This lot formed a part of the site covered by the Grand hotel.

Selim Woodworth's son, Selim II, graduated at Annapolis and served in the navy. He married his cousin, a daughter of James S. Wethered, and died a few years ago on a Kosmos steamer en route to South America. A widow and three children survive him, one being Selim III.



Samuel Brannan, Mormon elder and chief of the ship Brooklyn colony, was born in Saco, Maine, March 2, 1819. In 1833 he removed to Ohio, where he learned the trade of printer, and for five years from 1837 visited most of the states of the Union as a journeyman printer. In 1842 he joined the Mormons, and for several years published the New York Messenger and later the Prophet, organs of the Mormon church. Of the Mormon scheme to colonize California Brannan was an integral part and had charge of the New York end of it. In pursuance of the plan Brannan chartered the ship Brooklyn, three hundred and seventy tons, and sailed from New York February 4, 1846, for San Francisco, with two hundred and thirty-eight men, women, and children, the first installment of the Mormon colony. He brought his printing press, types, and a stock of paper; flour mill machinery, plows and other agricultural implements, and a great variety of articles such as would be useful in a new country. At Honolulu where the ship arrived in July, Brannan purchased one hundred and fifty stands of arms to provide for the probable chances of war between the United States and Mexico. On the 31st of July 1846, the Brooklyn arrived at San Francisco and the passengers immediately landed and squatted among the sand-hills of the beach. They were anxious to work and were ready to accept any that was offered; glad to make themselves useful—the women as well as the men—and a party of twenty was sent into the San Joaquin valley to prepare for the great body of the saints that were coming overland.

On January 7, 1847, Brannan brought out the first number of the California Star, edited by Dr. E. P. Jones, the second newspaper published in California, the first being the Californian, published by Walter Colton and Dr. Robert Semple, in Monterey.

Sam Brannan preached on Sundays and during the week engaged in all sorts of business and political activities, and was from the first, a leading man in San Francisco. As a preacher he was fluent, terse, and vigorous, and he conducted the first Protestant service held in San Francisco August 16, 1846, in Richardson's casa grande on Dupont street.

In the spring of 1847, Brannan went east to meet Brigham Young and the main body of the Mormon migration. He met them in the Green river valley and came on with them to Salt Lake. He was much displeased with their decision to remain and found a city in the Salt Lake valley and he returned to California.

In 1847 Brannan established a store at Sutter's fort, or New Helvetia, and furnished on Sutter's account the supplies for Marshall, Weimer, and Bennett, the men who were putting up the mill for Sutter on the South fork, and after the discovery of gold he put up a store at the mill which he named Coloma after the Indians who lived there, and also one at Mormon island which he named Natoma, after the name of the tribe there. A large number of Mormons were engaged in mining on the American river and Brannan insisted on their paying over to him, as head of the Mormon church in California, the ten per cent claimed by the church. W. S. Clark of Clark's Point, San Francisco, a Mormon elder, said to Governor Mason, "Governor, what business has Sam Brannan to collect tithes of us?" The governor replied: "Brannan has a perfect right to collect the tax if you Mormons are fools enough to pay it.” “Then," said Clark, "I, for one, won't pay it any longer.” {Sherman: Memoirs, 53. Clark denied he ever was a Mormon.}

Through his mining operations at Mormon island, the enormous profits of his stores at Sacramento, Natoma, and Coloma, and the increase in value of his real estate in San Francisco, Brannan became the richest man in California. There was scarcely an enterprise of moment in which he did not figure and he was as famous for his charity and open-handed liberality as for his enterprise. He was straightforward in his dealing and had the respect and confidence of the business community. Mingling in California with men of affairs, of education and refinement, he abandoned his Mormon religion. In ridding San Francisco of the thieves, gamblers, and desperadoes that infested it none was more active, outspoken, and fearless than Brannan, and he lashed the malefactors and their official supporters with a vigor of vituperation that has rarely been equaled.

In company with Peter F. Burnett and Joseph W. Winans he established in 1863 the first chartered commercial bank in California, the Pacific Accumulation and Loan Society, the name being afterwards changed to Pacific Bank. His later years were marred by the habit of drink to which he gave himself up and which greatly affected his excellent business faculty. Unlucky speculations made inroads upon his fortune and his vast wealth melted away. He was divorced from his wife whom he had married in 1844 and who came with him on the Brooklyn. About 1880 he obtained a grant of land in Sonora, in return for help rendered the Mexican government during the French invasion, and thither he removed and embarked on a large colonization scheme; but his old time energy was gone. He died in Escondido, Mexico, May 5, 1889.



The bill of Captain Phelps for this service is as follows:

"The United States

"To WM. D. PHELPS, Dr.

"For services of himself, crew and boats of the barque Moscow, of Boston, of which he was part owner and in command, and being agent for all other owners, and for the risk and hazard incident to such service, in transporting Captain J. C. Frémont and a detachment of men under his command to a fort on the opposite side of the bay and entrance to the port of San Francisco in Upper California in July, 1846, and aiding him in capturing and dismantling the said fort, and spiking the guns thereof, consisting of three brass and seven iron cannon, of heavy calibre, and part of which were afterwards taken on board the United States ship Portsmouth, by order of Captain J. B. Montgomery, U. S. Navy.


Sworn to by the claimant.

To this bill Captain Frémont gives the following approval:

"I certify that Captain William D. Phelps did transport a party of men under my command to the fort near the Presidio, at the entrance to the bay at San Francisco, under the circumstances narrated in the above deposition; that he aided in dismantling the fort, and that I have always considered his services on that occasion to have been very valuable to the United States.
"Washington City, August 5, 1853."

In 1852 Congress passed a bill directing the secretary of war to appoint a board of three commissioners to settle the California claims, and in addition to Frémont' s certificate, as above, the board examined Major Gillespie who expressed the following opinion of the service rendered and the value thereof:

"I hereby certify that in July 1846, Captain W. D. Phelps did transport a party of men under the command of John C. Frémont from Sausalito across the bay of San Francisco (seven miles) to the fort at Yerba Buena, commanding the entrance to the harbor, for the purpose of spiking the guns of the fort, which was in a very dismantled condition and could not have been occupied without having been almost entirely rebuilt. There was no enemy present, and the sole object Captain Frémont had in view was to prevent the Californians from using the guns at any future time. There was no risk or personal danger incurred, and the service would be well paid for at fifty dollars.
"Bvt. Major U. S. M. Corps.
"Washington, September 19, 1853."

This estimate was corroborated by other testimony and the board unanimously voted to allow fifty dollars for the service, and that sum was accordingly paid.


Source: Eldredge, Zoeth Skinner. The Beginnings of San Francisco. 1912: San Francisco.

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