San Diego: Where California Began
PART 4: YANKEES MOVE IN
Ten days after the Stars and Stripes fluttered up the pole in the Plaza, Fremont rode north at the head of his battalion, on a beautiful sorrel horse given to him by Juan Bandini. His volunteers advanced against Los Angeles, to rendezvous with Navy units which had debarked at San Pedro; in short order Los Angeles was in American hands, although only temporarily.
San Diego, left almost unprotected, invited attack by Californians loyal to Mexico, who began to concentrate within striking distance. The few Americans holding the town fled to the safety of the Yankee whaler Stonington lying in the bay, and again the Mexican flag floated over the town.
The refugees on the whale ship were disturbed by the existence of two ancient Spanish cannon on Presidio Hill. The possibility that the Mexicans might bring them down to the water’s edge to bombard the Stonington drove the Americans to take preventive measures, and Albert B. Smith; a sailmaker, was put shore at La Playa. He reached Presidio Hill undetected, crept up to its summit, and hammered spikes into the touch-holes of the guns.
Encouraged by Smith’s success, the men on the Stonington rowed ashore, formed in battle array, and moved toward the town. The Mexican defenders retired without offering resistance and occupied Presidio Hill. One of the daughters of the Machado family, who lived in the adobe which still stands on the southwest side of the Plaza, cut the halyards on the flagpole to get the Mexican flag down quickly and save it from disgrace. When the time came to raise the American flag, Smith shinnied up the pole to nail it fast. His action proved symbolic; Old Glory would wave over San Diego henceforth.
In November Commodore Robert Stockton; supreme commander of operations on the coast, arrived in the sixty-gun ship Congress to relieve the town of harassment. A Mexican cannon emplaced on the hill dominated the town; their plan was to starve the Americans out by keeping them from roaming in search of food. Santiago Arguello and Miguel de Pedrorena, San Diegans sympathetic to the idea of American domination, led the attack on the Mexican positions and drove their enemy off the hill and up Mission Valley. Stockton strengthened the hilltop earthworks, posted a garrison of a hundred men there, and assigned the site the name of Fort Stockton.
In the meanwhile, the residents of Los Angeles had overthrown their new American masters. While Stockton planned their resubjugation, he received a letter from Warner’s Ranch, written by Colonel (later General) Stephen Watts Kearny, who announced his arrival there with the United States Army troops sent overland to conquer the Far West. A force of 120-odd dragoons, it had been officially designated the Army of the West. On the way to California it had taken New Mexico.
Although Kit Carson (who had ridden East to carry dispatches) was guiding Kearny, Stockton sent a detachment of men to meet the Army of the West, to help bring it in. In the Ballena Valley, the two forces met. On hearing that there was at San Pasqual an encampment of California ranchers who had armed and organized themselves as lancers to oppose the invasion, Kearny decided to come to San Diego via San Pasqual. He intended to take the enemy by surprise there, rather than to approach San Diego unopposed over another route. In the light of his ignorance of the strength of the Californians and the lay of the land, his decision was of questionable wisdom.
Disaster at San Pasqual
As he approached San Pasqual over the hills from the east, Kearny sent scouts ahead to determine the numbers and position of the Californians. The scouts were spotted by a Californian sentry; he gave the alarm to the lancers’ commander, Andres Pico. The younger brother of Governor Pio Pico was, like him, a part time San Diegan.
Kearny, although the advantage of surprise was lost to him, followed through with his plans for an attack. His men, after the long, weary ride across the western deserts, were as haggard as the mules that had carried them. The coastal hills had been as hard on them as the deserts; they had slogged through a chill rain for the last few days. To oppose the lances they had carbines and sabers. The ragged troopers looked anything but warlike as they began their charge down into the valley, while still in column of march. As the Californians were drawn up to meet them a mile and a half away, it was a straggling charge. The Americans’ carbines had been wet by the rains, but no orders had been given to draw and replace the charges in them, so when the attempt to discharge them was made, the dragoons found the weapons would not fire; the Army of the West was reduced to short sabers against long lances. Trailing into battle in a column, the Americans were dealt with group by group until enough had been killed to warrant a Californian withdrawal, in order to repeat the pattern; the lancers galloped away, leaving Kearny in possession of a field scattered with his dead. He lost a fifth of his command, Pico lost none, in California’s bloodiest battle.
The day after the battle the Army of the West set out for San Diego. Only a few miles along the road the Californians appeared again, driving the Americans to occupy the top of a rocky hill, where they remained surrounded, in desperate plight. With their supplies gone, the soldiers began to kill and eat their tired, faithful mounts; the place has been known ever since as Mule Hill. Kit Carson, Lieutenant Edward Beale of the Navy, and an Indian crept through the Mexican lines to take word of the disaster to Commodore Stockton. Four days after the battle 250 marines and bluejackets arrived at Mule Hill from San Diego, and Pico withdrew.
The Army of the West was escorted into San Diego on December 12. Two weeks and three days later they marched away again, with their rescuers and other naval reinforcements, to retake Los Angeles. After a victory at San Gabriel over a large force that included Pico and his lancers, they entered the City of Angels. General Flores, the leader of the defeated forces, left Andres Pico in command and departed for Sonora. Pico’s troops camped on ranches near the pueblo, to prepare for further resistance, but Fremont moved into the San Fernando Valley after a successful campaign in the north. Realizing that his army would be hopelessly crushed by the superior forces, Pico responded to Fremont’s invitation to meet at Cahuenga Pass-the scene of many a skirmish in past years-to discuss terms of surrender. On January 23, 1847, Andres Pico capitulated, ending the war in California. The following year, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo confirmed the United States’ hold on the West.
The Mormon Battalion
San Diego was little changed by the conquest. The town remained a Mexican village, holding occasional fiestas and bullfights to break the increasing monotony. The American soldiers’ chief influence was on the appearance of the town. Men of the Mormon Battalion, which, after the longest infantry march in history, arrived too late to join in the fighting, whitewashed the town, and built the first brick house in San Diego, on the southwest side of the Plaza. Seventy-eight of the Mormons remained at Fort Stockton when the others were sent to the North, while Company I of Stephenson’s New York Volunteers made the old mission their barracks and headquarters. These men conducted the first American census of the county and found there were 248 white residents, 483 converted Indians, 1,550 wild Indians, 3 Negroes, and 3 Sandwich Islanders.
Sparked by the Gold Rush, Northern California expanded explosively. Newcomers entered an area where the laws were a confusion of Mexican, American, and improvised codes, administered by officers and courts of the same description, drawing their powers from all manner of odd sources.
There had been no time to replace military rule with territorial government by 1849, and the Gold Rush had brought enough population and problems to require statehood, so General Bennett Riley called together a constitutional convention in August. Miguel de Pedrorena and Henry Hill were chosen to represent San Diego and to have a part in assisting such great figures as John Sutter, Abel Stearns, Mariano Vallejo, Robert Semple, and William Gwin in writing the constitution and setting the boundaries of the state. The constitution was accepted by the people of California in the first election under the American flag, and the state’s first governor, Peter H. Burnett, was chosen. Only after considerable political activity and maneuvering in Washington, D.C., which resulted in the Compromise of 1850, was California admitted. President Fillmore signed the bill on September 9, 1850.
San Diego County originally included all of Imperial County, most of Riverside and San Bernardino Counties, and the eastern half of Inyo County. The eastern boundary of California was the eastern boundary of San Diego County to beyond the latitude of Monterey. The area was greater than that of twelve states of the Union. In 1851 the San Bernardino and Inyo sections were cut off because they were too far from the county seat, and the county’s area came down to twice that of Massachusetts or New Jersey. Further reductions came in 1893, when Riverside County was created and in 1907, when Imperial County broke away. The county’s area has since been slightly less than that of the State of Connecticut. Property in the county was valued at $500,000 in 1850; three quarters of the value was in the little county seat.
The Last Alcalde
In 1850 Joshua Bean, the last alcalde under the old system, was elected mayor. When the new city council voted themselves and the mayor $6,800 a year in salaries, Mayor Bean vetoed the measure. A subsequent $2,400 annually for the lot of them he accepted as a more appropriate figure, but even this rate of spending bankrupted the city government in two years. The charter was revoked, and government was vested in a board of trustees.
Another event of the admission year was the recognition by Lieutenant Andrew B. Gray that the best site for a seaport town was on the bay, where the downtown district now lies. The men who joined him in trying to develop the area were Miguel de Pedrorena, Jose Antonio Aguirre, William C. Ferrell, and William Heath Davis of San Francisco — the famous “Kanaka Davis” — a man of great vision and resources. He was the chief investor in the townsite, which was officially named New Town. For $2,304 the promoters bought 160 acres bordered by the harbor’s edge and lines now followed by Front Street and Broadway. They laid out the streets in that quarter and dedicated the first park in San Diego, now called Pantoja Plaza, at the center of town.
In San Francisco Davis bought a cargo of lumber, bricks, and prefabricated houses that had just arrived from the Atlantic Coast via Cape Horn. He chartered the ship, which was not as yet unloaded, and sent it to San Diego. A wharf and a warehouse were constructed from the lumber, at a cost of $60,000.
Tradition dies hard, and movement to New Town from the settlement below the Presidio failed to develop. Houses became vacant, were torn down or were moved away, and Old Town residents gleefully labelled the tiny new community “Davis’ Folly.” Old Town, meanwhile, was gaining through the arrival of such solid American merchants as Thomas Whaley and Ephraim W. Morse, who enlivened the scene with their expanding mercantile operations.
Count Haraszthy’s Jail
In any up-and-coming western town, a good jail was a necessity. There was an adobe den on the Plaza which would not hold anyone who really wanted to get out of it, so the Common Council opened bids for a stone jail. The low bidders were the Israel brothers, Ao offered to erect it for $3,000. However, the county’s first sheriff, Hungarian Count Agoston Haraszthy, was the son of Councilman Charles Haraszthy, and a bid of $5,000 which he submitted was accepted. The Council explained to the public that the members wanted a good job, not a cheap one. Haraszthy built the jail of cobblestones in mortar containing no cement. Rain so damaged it before completion that the Count appealed for $2,000 more to cover the costs of finishing the building. He got it. One of the first prisoners was the nephew of Mayor Bean, a wild youth named Roy, who later became famous as “the law west of the Pecos.” Roy had a jackknife in his pocket. That was all he needed to escape, and to ruin the jail in the process, by cutting a hole in the side of it.
Haraszthy attempted, as sheriff, to collect taxes from San Diego’s native population. In November of 1851 Antonio Garra, a chief of the Cupenos (a tribe near the Warner’s Ranch area), incited his people to fight to gain their independence. An educated man, he apparently had his own, ideas about taxation without representation.
Whites recuperating from various ills at the Hot Springs were tortured and massacred. Other scattered attacks were made, but few tribes showed any interest in cooperating with Garra’s stalwarts. Some assisted U.S. Army units and San Diego volunteers in putting down the uprising. On January 10, 1852, Garra was executed by a firing squad at the edge of his grave in the Old Town cemetery.
Journalism – and the Army
In 1851, John Judson Ames brought a printing press to New Town and started publication of the weekly San Diego Herald, the town’s first newspaper. As New Town slowly died on the vine, he moved his press and his type into quarters fronting on the Plaza in Old Town. There he met, for better or worse, that delightful prankster Lieutenant George Horatio Derby, of the Army’s Topographical Engineers.
Derby came here in 1853 to direct construction of a dike to turn the San Diego River from San Diego Bay into False Bay (later re-named Mission Bay) to halt the silting-up of the harbor. It was his writing rather than his engineering, however, which won him a secure place in San Diego’s history; already, he was famous as a humorist, writing under the name of “John Phoenix.” Ames asked him to take over the Herald during its editor’s absence on a political visit to San Francisco. Hardly had Ames left when Derby reversed the policy of the staunchly Democratic Ames and carried the county for the Whig ticket. His article and the accompanying illustrations have been printed and reprinted in book form ever since, and placed him in the first rank of American humorous writers.
The decade brought the first hope of a transcontinental railroad reaching the Pacific here. The San Diego & Gila, Southern Pacific & Atlantic Railroad Company was organized by Old Town people to build a road from San Diego to Yuma to meet one of the roads competing for the right to build on the southern route.
By Stage and Steamer
As precursors to the railways, the first southern overland mail routes were opened. In 1857 the San Antonio and San Diego line began operations. This was the famous “Jackass Mail,” derisively so called by Northern California newspapers because it employed mules to pull vehicles of various descriptions from Texas to the Colorado River, where mail sacks and passengers were packed onto mule-back for the desert and mountain journey to the Old Town Plaza. The great Butterfield stage line from Missouri to San Francisco followed the San Antonio – San Diego route from Texas into San Diego County, where the two lines diverged at Warner’s Ranch. Carrizo, Vallecito, and San Felipe were busy stopovers for the mail stages and for immigrant trains until the Civil War broke out. From 1861 to 1865 the southern routes were closed.
After the war John G. Capron of San Diego established stage and mail lines to Los Angeles and Tucson, but sidewheel steamers, which had begun to ply the coastal waters between Panama and San Francisco in Gold Rush days, remained the important link with the outside world. People preferred this more luxurious way to travel, and there was no other way to ship out the grain, fruit, and beef the county produced.
San Diego was enough of a port to warrant the establishment of U.S. Lighthouse Number 355, erroneously publicized as “The Old Spanish Lighthouse,” on Point Loma in 1855. Below the light, on the beach of Ballast Point, whalers set up a depot to render the oil from the blubber of the Calilfornia gray whales. The business developed from the time of its inception in the 1850s as a shore station-ships had come to hunt whales before that – until the whalers were forced to move across the channel to North Island, when the government took possession of Point Loma in 1871. After that year the activity declined for two decades into oblivion.
Re-birth of New Town
On April 15, 1867, a shrewd Yankee named Alonzo Erastus Horton stepped off the steamer onto a wharf at New Town. He saw what Gray and Davis had seen, before their time, about where the town should be. Horton was not before his time when he said “The town should be down by the wharf.” Because the terms of the Board of Trustees had lapsed and no one could authorize the sale of city lands, and because there was no money to pay for the election, the newcomer put down money to pay the county clerk for the election. Then he bought one thousand acres of what is now downtown San Diego for 27 1/2 cents an acre.
Horton, obviously, was a first-class promoter. As soon as the townsite was platted he advertised his property widely, gave lots to people whose friendly interest would help his town, erected buildings and a new wharf, and in short order began to sell lots so fast he complained that he grew weary of handling all the money that rolled in; the first real estate boom was under way, and a town faced with false fronts and hitching posts filled bayfront land previously the home of the jackrabbit and horned toad.
San Diego began to think expansively. The trustees set aside 1,400 acres as a city park, and had their act ratified by the State Legislature to frustrate land sharks.
In 1868 the town got another newspaper, the Herald having moved with its editor to San Bernardino in 1860. The San Diego Union‘s first issue, that of October 10, 1868, was hailed with rejoicing – by Old Town – for the first publisher cast his fortunes with those of the old adobe county seat. But in 1870 the Union moved, as many businesses were doing, to the scene of greater activity, Horton’s Addition. In 1871, after much litigation and inter-community feuding, a new county clerk, Chalmers Scott of New Town, quietly moved the county records from the Whaley House in Old Town, which had been the court house and hall of records, to Horton Hall on Sixth Street. That settled the question of which town would be the center of things. The following year a fire destroyed Old Town’s largest hotel, the three-story Franklin House, and other buildings on the southwest side of the Plaza. The little place at the foot of Presidio Hall was left without any hope of competing with the dynamic Yankee town by the bay.
The new county seat by now was well fixed for hotels, of which the leading one was the Horton House, an attractive two story brick structure which faced a plaza, where the U.S. Grant Hotel now stands. Built by Alonzo Horton, popularly nicknamed “Father” Horton, it cost a fortune – $150,000 – and had nearly a hundred rooms.