William Heath Davis (1822-1909)
William Heath Davis came from a Boston sea-faring, ship-owning family, although he was born in Honolulu in 1822. His father, William Heath Davis, senior, married a daughter of Oliver Holmes, another Boston ship-master and a relative of Doctor Oliver Wendell Holmes. It is interesting to note that the shipping trade to the Coast and to Hawaii was almost exclusively in the hands of Boston firms from its beginnings to the days of the Gold Rush. Davis’ grandmother on his mother’s side was a native of Hawaii, and her husband, Oliver Holmes, in addition to his trading operations, was at one time Governor of Oahu.
Davis first visited California as a small boy in 1831. He came a second time in 1833, and in 1838, arrived aboard the “Don Quixote” to enter the service of his uncle Nathan Spear as a clerk in the latter’s store in Monterey.
For four years Davis followed the fortunes of his uncle, first at Monterey and later at Yerba Buena, the straggling settlement which he was to help build into the City of San Francisco. In 1842 he engaged as supercargo on the “Don Quixote” and made several trips to the Hawaiian Islands.
In San Francisco, Davis entered business on his own account, and in time became one of the town’s prominent merchants and ship-owners. He visited San Diego many times and, in 1847, married into a prominent Old Town San Diego family. His wife was Maria de Jesus, daughter of Don Joaquin Estudillo, a wealthy ranchero who was son of José Maria Estudillo.
Davis was one of the founders of “New Town” San Diego in 1850, though he did not live here for long. He believed that a town closer to the waterfront in San Diego would attract a thriving trade. He later wrote “Messrs. Jose Antonio Aguirre, Miguel Pedrorena, Andrew B. Gray, T.D. Johns and myself were the projectors and original proprietors of what is now known as the city of San Diego.” In March, 1850, he had purchased 160 acres of land and, with his four partners, laid out the city and built a large wharf and warehouse. An economic depression in 1851 put an end to their plans and New Town rapidly declined until the arrival of Alonzo Horton.
San Diego’s William Heath Davis House is the oldest surviving structure in the New Town area. It was one of the first houses built in 1850 in the New Town. The house is a well-preserved example of a pre-framed lumber “salt box” family home from the East Coast. It was shipped to California by boat around Cape Horn. Originally, it was located at State and Market Street. It was never the home of Davis, whose own home at State and F Streets was a duplicate of the surviving one. When Alonzo and Sarah Horton came to the area they resided in the Davis house for one year (1868-1869) while building their own home. By 1853, most of the houses constructed by Davis were moved to Old Town or used for firewood.
William Heath Davis has contributed greatly to our understanding of early California and San Diego through his book “Seventy-five Years in California.” The book was published posthumously from notes and papers Davis had collected for his nearly completed manuscript, lost during the San Francisco fire in 1906. Davis published “Sixty Years in California” in 1889.
Davis ended his days in San Leandro in financial straits. Few men of his time had the opportunity Davis had of seeing all sides of Californian life, and none has left a record as vital and as full. He died at Hayward, California, April 19, 1909.
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