MS 97 Joseph Foster Diary Collection

Summary Information

San Diego History Center Document Collection
Foster, Joseph
Joseph Foster Diary Collection
MS 97
Date [inclusive]
1873 February 19-1882 January 20
0.25 Linear feet (1 box)
This collection contains two diaries written by Joseph Foster during his early adulthood documenting daily activities, sheep herding, and travel to various regions of California to purchase livestock.

Preferred Citation

Joseph Foster Diary Collection, MS 97, San Diego History Center Document Collection, San Diego, CA.

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Biographical / Historical Notes

Joseph Foster reports himself being born on August 15, 1856 in Sacramento, California, although this information is not officially confirmed. Foster arrived in San Diego County in 1868 and boarded with James Johnson. Foster lived with the Johnsons in Sycamore Valley through his mid-twenties.

Foster bought a ranch located three miles north of Lakeside in 1880 and worked as a shepherd, shearing as many as 150 sheep in a day with the assistance of other men. In 1883, he became the road overseer of San Vicente District. In 1888, he established a stage line drawn by four horses that ran from San Diego to Julian and from El Cajon to Stonewall. He started this venture with the former mayor of San Diego, Frank Frary. In 1898, he bought Frary’s interest in the company. In the 1890s, the railroad line of San Diego, Cuyamaca and Eastern was extended 23 miles outside of San Diego, ending at Foster’s ranch. The station was known as Foster’s Station and town was named Foster, as it had been established by Joseph Foster.

In 1906, Foster was elected to serve as supervisor for East County. He was continuously re-elected until his retirement in 1929, serving for 23 years. In addition, he served as chairman of the Board of Supervisors for 14 years. With all of his years of public service, he became known affectionately as “Uncle Joe.” When he retired, he said that it was partially to justify having a retirement party – over 400 people attended.

Foster married his wife, Martha (maiden name Swycaffer), on February 8, 1880. They had a son, Arthur, and daughter, Lula (married name McDonald). “Uncle Joe” Foster died April 9, 1933.

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Scope and Content

The collection contains two journals written by Joseph Foster recording his daily work and personal activities in San Diego county. The first journal (February 19, 1873-March 28, 1877) includes entries that record the weather and sheepherding, as well as travel to various grazing regions of California with the sheep. As the diary progresses, Foster notes hiring workers to assist with sheepherding and ranch activities, taking more of a business role in the ranch. In the second diary (March 29, 1877-January 20, 1892), Foster appears to be herding sheep less frequently. Foster documents interests outside of work, including debates, dances and singing clubs. The first mentions of his future wife, Martha Swycaffer, are also recorded in this diary.

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Diaries arranged in chronological order.

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Administrative Information

Publication Information

San Diego History Center Document Collection December 19, 2011

1649 El Prado, Suite 3
San Diego, CA, 92101

Conditions Governing Access

This collection is open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

The San Diego History Center (SDHC) holds the copyright to any unpublished materials. SDHC Library regulations do apply.

Processing Information

Collection processed by Jody Valente on December 19, 2011.

Collection processed as part of grant project supported by the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) with generous funding from The Andrew Mellon Foundation.

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Controlled Access Headings

Family Name(s)

  • Swycaffer family

Geographic Name(s)

  • Ballena (Calif.)
  • Cuyamaca Mountains (Calif.)
  • El Cajon (Calif.)
  • Encinitas (Calif.)
  • Julian (Calif.)
  • San Diego (Calif.)
  • Santa Ysabel (Calif.)

Personal Name(s)

  • Foster, Joseph
  • Foster, Martha
  • Johnson, James
  • Littlefrage, Louis
  • Swycaffer, Jeff


  • Ranching
  • Sheepherding

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Collection Inventory

Diary, 1873 February 19–1877 March 28

Scope and Content:

This diary records Joseph Foster life during his later teenage years (approximately 16-19). The diary catalogues Foster’s activities which were largely sheepherding and traveling to various ranches and grazing lands. The weather, shearing and doctoring sheep, honey collecting, hauling hay, and periods spent chopping wood are also recorded. Additionally, the various visitors to the ranch, including workers, are recorded. Foster boarded with Mr. James Johnson, who is mentioned frequently in the diary. Foster appears to gain more autonomy and responsibility, sheepherding for periods on his own and hiring men to assist in herding. While traveling to various grazing lands, Foster notes hiring “Indians” to herd for 50 cents a day. Even so, it appears that he looks to Mr. Johnson for guidance and direction, with Mr. Johnson’s travels and activities noted. The diary also refers to prices of commodities and services, including wool. Six pages at the end of the diary include a cash ledger where Foster notes costs of items such as gloves, shirts, knives and fruit.

Entries of Interest:

February 21, 1873: “Bill Anderson went to the sheep camp. Plowing and sowing alfalfa. Plowing on the Maca (presumably this is the Cuyamaca Valley). Ebb herding sheep. 694 lambs and 99 dead ones.”

February 25, 1873: “Mr. Johnson went to the beach a hunting…Mr. Johnson is a white washing the kitchen…Adams is a plowing by the road.”

March 30 – April 6, 1873: Shearers arrive and sheep shearing commences. A whetstone is purchased. Over 1000 sheep are sheared.

May 9, 1873: “One lamb died from being poisoned.” (The diary documents when sheep are poisoned, though Foster does not disclose details)

June 7, 1873: “James Freeman commenced work to herd sheep for $10 a month.”

June 10, 1873: “Counted the sheep. 1823 head.”

July 17, 1873: “There was a Frenchman killed in Julian yesterday. A man by the name of Webb hit him over the head with a rifle barrel.”

August 21, 1873: Sheared 708 sheep within month.

September 5, 1873: “Sold mule to P.G. Adams for $15.00.”

September 8-9, 1873: Went to San Diego and had photographs taken for four dollars.

October 5, 1873: “Counted the sheep. 1800 head.”

December 2, 1873: Water is rising fast in well at Willow Valley.

December 9, 1873: “Raining this morning. The bridge was washed away.” (During the winter of 1873-74, the San Diego River overflowed its banks four times, from December-March. For two months the stages were unable to cross the river and the mail was ferried back and forth in a row boat. In 1875, Congress appropriated $80,000 for a dike to turn the river into Mission Bay.)

March 22-27, 1874: The shearers arrived and over 1700 sheep are shorn. The shearers left for San Dieguito. There were over 16 sacks of wool.

August 1, 1874: Harvested 288 pounds of potatoes for San Diego.

August 11, 1874: Brings 1127 pounds of potatoes into San Diego.

August 26-29, 1874: Commence shearing. Over 440 sheep sheared.

October 4, 1874: “Robbed” bee hives and got 50 pounds of honey.

April 2-6, 1875: Mrs. Johnson travels to San Bernardo to join the Grange. Commence sheep shearing with a total of 1223 shorn. The shearers leave.

June 3-8, 1875: Herds sheep to Cuyamaca Ranch. Travels with Mr. Johnson and several others. Camp on the San Marcos Rancho, Wolfskill Rancho, Santa Maria Rancho and San Isibel where there are 4000 head of sheep grazing. Climbed to the top of a mountain and looked down to the coast and out to the desert.

August 22, 1875: Working with several men, including Mr. Johnson, 2152 ewes and lambs are shorn.

October 11, 1875: “Sold my ranch to Mr. G.S. Borders for the sum of $100 cash down and G.S. signed a bill of sale.”

November 5, 1875: Foster sells 210 head of lamb for $1.25 each, amounting to $262.50.

December 22, 1875: Mr. Johnson rents the San Vincente Ranch through December 15, 1976 for $125.

July 29, 1876: “Gen. George A. Custer the Great Indian Fighter was killed together with 15 officers and 250 enlisted men on the 25th of June by the Sioux in Montanna [sic] on the Little Horn River. There is from three to four thousand warriors in the tribe. It was the most horrible massacre that was ever known to be done by Indians.” (Reference to the Battle of Little Big Horn.)

August 15, 1876: “Today I am nineteen years of age.” (According to another account by Foster of his birthdate, this would have been his twentieth birthday. Exact details of his birth are unknown.)

October 15, 1876: Notes that the lamb’s wool was sold in San Francisco in September for ten cents; 2486 pounds were sold equaling $248.60.

November 7, 1876: “…Went to a Republiston [sic] meeting. It was carried on very well.”

February 3, 1877: “I counted the sheep –1780 which is 700 out since last October. About four hundred died and three hundred lost…Mitchell moved his sheep to the coast.”

February 8-13, 1877: Leaves McIntosh and travels through San Pasqual, San Marcos, and Mount Fairview to Cape Sands. Travels to San Luis Rey for a herder, but doesn’t find one.

March 14, 1877: A man from Los Angeles buys 20,000 head of sheep for 25 cents a head, at $5,000.

March 15, 1877: The trial of Gilney [sic] which involved two Indians was held in the Ballena court. Indians were acquitted.

Diary, 1877 March 29–1882 January 20

Scope and Content:

This diary commences with Joseph Foster’s daily affairs in the Ballena area. Trips to various towns are recorded, along with visits to the post office to collect the mail. Foster appears to be herding sheep less frequently, with others hired to assist with the work. He travels to Santa Ysibal [sic] frequently to hire men to assist with the herding. In this second diary, Foster recounts working more at the ranch. Entries include days spent ploughing the land, hauling hay, binding oats, working with the cattle and horses, and of beekeeping. It appears that he and Mr. Johnson are dividing duties of herding cattle and sheep when others are not available to do the work. Foster was 20 years old at the time and his social life seems to liven up, with more dances attended and the first mentions of his future wife, Martha Swycaffer. Foster maintains daily records through April 7, 1879 and then stops. He resumes the diary from March 20-26, 1880, after he marries Martha Swycaffer (February 8, 1880). The remainder of the diary is primarily dedicated to recording receipts. The final pages include mention of the county and road work done by men.

Entries of Interest:

April 4, 1877: 1719 head of sheep are counted.

April 19, 1877: Travels to Julian to get a shoe for a mare –pays 75 cents for it.

April 24, 1877: “Mr. Wm Foster has been very sick and is not much better.” (This may be in reference to one of the Foster brothers who adopted Joseph when he was a young boy. Foster’s adoption is referenced in a 1972 San Diego Union article.)

June 2, 1877: Foster travels to San Pasqual to purchase cattle and hires an Indian boy to herd for $10 a month. There was a trial being conducted in Ballena over a horse thief.

June 24, 1877: Mr. Johnson, children and Foster go to the Indian feast on Santa Ysibal [sic] where there were a great many people “from around the settlement”.

August 25, 1877: Attends a meeting that seeks to organize a debate society.

September 5, 1877: Election day for county office.

October 23, 1877: An Indian boy begins working for $15 month. Foster settles with Mr. J.J. Sandeman, by paying him with a $50.00 gold coin.

November 29, 1877: “Today is Thanksgiving day. There will be a grand ball at Ms. Swycaffer’s. Tickets $2.50 per couple.” Attends the ball with Sarah Warnock as his partner.

January 11, 1878: “The old lady Mrs. Warnock died this morning from old age. She was over 100 years old.”

February 7, 1878: “I went down to the post office after the mail. Our post master has been on a drunk for 3 to 4 days.”

February 18-28, 1878: Records that a great deal of rain has fallen, with a total of 17 inches for the season.

March 1, 1878: Mr. Green visits and reports that the road is badly washed out by rain and that the San Diego River is very high.

March 29, 1878: “Mr. Etchevez [sic] took away all of our sheep. 606 head at $1.10, $666.60, $200.00 down and balance in 60 days.”

April 6, 1878: Foster goes to singing school and picks up his book.

May 17, 1878: Travels to San Diego to purchase various items, including 580 feet of lumber and 4000 shingles. Foster also buys a new set of harnesses for $40 and a coat for $14.

June 22, 1878: “They hung an Indian in Julian today for stabbing a white woman.”

November 7-8, 1878: Travels to San Diego and conducts business. Sells 100 pounds of oats to Stewart and Co. Leaves town with a load of lumber and spends the night at Mr. Rea’s place.

December 9, 1878: Records a fire on Volcan Mountain.

March 29, 1879: Foster ploughs for corn. The Sheriff passes through in order to give Mr. Johnson a summons for grand jury.

March 20, 1880: “Today I went down as far as Mr. Rea’s Place. Martha, my wife, and Pauline, her sister, went down as far as Mr. Atkinson’s station to see his wife. I went to try to make a bargain with Rea for his ranch. He offers me his place for $1,600 and let the bees pay for the place. There is a house with seven rooms and a barn 20x24 with shed and corral and a large honey house, 150 stands bees, 100 empty hives, a garden, well, fence. I consider the place is very cheap as I can let the bees pay for the ranch. I told him that I would except [sic] his offer.” (This is the first entry of 1880 and the most comprehensive of all Foster’s entries. This is also the first time Martha is mentioned as his wife, married February 8, 1880.)

May 1880-December 1881: Cash ledger begins and continues through end of diary. “El Cajon” is written as each diary page header, with subheader of the May 1880 entry as “Things Sold to people passing by” and opposite page reading “Cash Paid out for goods.” Further pages include headings for “Cash Paid out for goods” and “Cash Received.”


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