In 1828, young Alfred Robinson left Boston as a clerk on the Brookline, outfitted by the shipping firm of Bryant and Sturgis, destined for California in a hide-trading venture. After a three-month trip around Cape Horn, Robinson and William Gale anchored in the deep water north of Ballast Point on Point Loma, within reach of the sandy shore of La Playa, which was to become known as “Hide Park”. They called upon Governor Echeandia at the San Diego Presidio and received permission to establish trading from the ship at La Playa, displaying goods for sale and products of New England factories. Robinson wrote:
“On the lawn beneath the hill on which the Presidio is built stood about 30 houses of rude appearance, mostly occupied by retired veterans, not so well constructed in respect either to beauty of stability as the houses at Monterey, with the exception of that belonging to our ‘Administrator,’ Don Juan Bandini, whose mansion, then in an unfinished state, bade fair, when completed, to surpass any other in the country.”
The area of La Playa soon developed hide houses for curing the hides, and business in the hide-trade was booming by the time Richard Henry Dana arrived on the Pilgrim in 1835.
In time Robinson moved in with the Estudillo family, which he said “consisted of the old lady Dominguez, Don Jose Antonio, his wife, Dona Victoria, with two children, and three servants, and it was nearly time for the religious festival of “la Noche Buena.”
Don Jose Antonio called for the customary exhibition of the “pastores.” There were rehearsals night and day and at last Christmas arrived. Robinson gives us the first written description of a Christmas scene in the Presidio of Old San Diego:
“At an early hour illuminations commenced, fireworks were set off, and all was rejoicing. The church bells rang merrily, and long before the time of Mass the pathways leading to the Presidio were enlivened by crowds hurrying to devotion. I accompanied Don Jose Antonio, who procured for me a stand where I could see distinctly everything that took place. The Mass commenced, Padre Vicente de Oliva officiated, and at the conclusion of the mysterious ‘sacrificio’ he produced a small image representing the infant Saviour, which he held in his hands for all who chose to approach and kiss. After this, the tinkling of the guitar was heard without, the body of the church was cleared, and immediately commenced the harmonious sounds of a choir of voices. The characters entered in procession, adorned with appropriate costume, and bearing banners. There were six females representing shepherdesses, three men and a boy. One of the men personated Lucifer, one a hermit, and the other Bartolo, a lazy vagabond, whilst the boy represented the archangel Gabriel. The story of their performance is partially drawn from the Bible, and commences with the angel’s appearance to the shepherds, his account of the birth of our Saviour, and exhortation to them to repair to the scene of the manger. Lucifer appears among them, and endeavors to prevent the prosecution of their journey, His influence and temptations are about to succeed, when Gabriel again appears and frustrates their effect. A dialogue is then carried on of considerable length relative to the attributes of the Deity, which ends in the submission of Satan. The whole is interspersed with songs and incidents that seem better adapted to the stage than the church. For several days this theatrical representation is exhibited at the principal houses, and the performers at the conclusion of the play are entertained with refreshments.”
[excerpted from Pourade, Richard F. Time of the Bells. San Diego: Union-Tribune Pub. Co., 1961.]
San Diego’s lack of growth was reflected in the observations recorded by Alfred Robinson on a later visit in 1840: “Here everything was prostrated — the presidio ruined, the mission depopulated, the town almost deserted and its few inhabitants miserably poor. It had changed. From being once the life of and the most important place in California, it was now become the gloomiest and the most desolate.”
Robinson wrote Life in California, published in 1846.
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