by Harriet Kimbro
San Diego History Center 1984 Institute of History
Florence Merriam was almost a spinster in 1889. After all, she was twenty-five years old and still unmarried. She had resigned herself to that fate, but did not want to burden her family, and so she resolutely determined to make a career of writing. She had the talent, and her studies at Smith College had given her a sense of womanly independence and purpose that set her feet even more firmly on that path. She had spent most of her life in rural Locust Grove, New York, founded and named by her grandfather. But in 1889 she traveled West for the first time to Twin Oaks, California, homesteaded and named by her uncle Gustavus fifteen years before.
Here her talent was put to good use, for her descriptions of her “bird friends” charmed an audience eager for information on nature and especially nature in the West, and Florence filled both needs. Her Twin Oaks experiences were compiled into a book entitled A-Birding on a Bronco.1 “Bronco” was a slight exaggeration, for the patient Mountain Billy whom she pictures in the book looks and sounds like anything but a bronco.
“A-birding” was an accurate term, however, for birds had always interested Florence. She had turned that interest into a subtle crusade among her college friends to change their fashion away from wearing feathers on their hats.2 Recognizing that interest in live birds was the key, she determined to learn all she could about the little known subject and use it to teach others. Formal ornithology had focused on shooting birds first and then studying their stuffed remains, but that held little interest for the budding naturalist nor for her goal to unfeather women’s hats.
It was considered unseemly for ladies to follow birds into the woods in her day, but Florence grew up in the country where family walks in the forest took place year-round — on snowshoes in winter and on foot or on horseback when weather permitted. She was encouraged especially by her father, Clinton Merriam, who was so interested in natural history that he had traveled to California to meet John Muir, with whom he discussed the glacial origins of Yosemite Valley.3 So Florence happily followed her older brother Hart through the countryside, studying the birds.
C. Hart Merriam was an ornithologist who published his first bird book while still in his early twenties, at the same time that he received his medical degree.4 He later became the first Chief of the U.S. Biological Survey,5 which was the government’s first entry into the field of natural science. Hart recognized his sister’s potential and urged her to attend college. Afterwards he also saw that the rigors of cold winters had affected her health and insisted that she go West to repair her lungs. As part of his plan, he recommended that she spend the important birding season — spring migration and nesting — in southern California. Her parents went with her, for Clinton was eager for a reunion with his brother Gustavus.
Major Gustavus F. Merriam had been the first American homesteader in the valley of northern San Diego County that he named Twin Oaks.6 He too sought the life-giving air of that climate, for his wife. They had lived in Kansas since the end of the Civil War. Who can blame her for looking forward to southern California after eight winters of Kansas winds! In addition to his brother’s trip to California, the Major had no doubt heard tales from miners who stopped at his Topeka store for supplies before they headed West. So Major Merriam boarded a Union Pacific train with his son Edwin, then ten, and traveled to San Francisco, while his wife and their younger children waited at home.
There were only two choices for traveling south from San Francisco in 1874: a hundred miles by railroad and the rest by stagecoach for a week, or to go by steamship.7 Most chose the two-day steamship ride, although that was difficult enough in the rough offshore waters. It seemed like a week to young Edwin. Fired with wood or coal, these little coastal steamers were the most efficient way to cover that route until the train tracks were completed later.
Once in San Diego, the southern terminus, a two-day horseback trip still remained before they found a dry inland area that the Major thought would most benefit his wife’s health. With a little surveying experience behind him, he marked off a homestead and moved in a small shanty to hold it. The two then returned to Kansas to make preparations for the move.
By the time the family left Topeka the following August, steamships were running every few days to San Diego to transport more passengers and freight to the northern gold country. Soon the railroad would replace much of that traffic, although the Ancon on which they traveled hung on as the last of the sidewheelers for another twenty years. “Wooden vessels, creaking in every joint to the action of the sea, and laying down a broad ribbon of froth from their paddle-wheels, were the thing for a long time . . . Staterooms were small and stuffy, and it was not unknown to find your bunk occupied not only by yourself, but by entomological specimens of one kind or another. And it was a good idea to get aboard soon enough to at least try to line up a seat for something better than the third sitting in the too small dining-saloon.”8
Once the family reached San Diego, they still had the two-day land journey to face. The only local transportation available was the Spanish carreta, or oxcart, made entirely of wood including solid wooden wheels.9 When a Los Angeles man had imported the first modern carriage from Boston a few years before, “it was looked upon by his neighbors as a vain innovation, rather to be deplored than otherwise, and certainly not to be trusted.”10 Change came slowly to southern California then.
By the 1870s, Juan Bandini, a long-time San Diego resident, owned a “buggy,” and the Major was able to rent it to bring his family to the homestead at Twin Oaks. “It was the only vehicle of the sort in this country,” the Major’s son Harry reminisced years later. The oxcarts were “a source of surprise and interest to the children of the family from Kansas,11” but the Major wanted his family to arrive at their new home in comfort, such as it might have been after two days in the buggy.
Once at Twin Oaks, Major Merriam first had to secure his right to be there. For this, his background in surveying and his military training gave him the necessary strength to persevere. Before he had arrived the year before, this area had been entirely governed by Spanish, then Mexican, law. The rights of the land grant went back centuries, and he was the first American to test U.S. law in the area. Those whose families had inherited from fathers and grandfathers were not quick to accept the changes happening around them, especially when those changes dealt with the all-important concept of land.
The Major also faced the perennial problems of dry farming. He had grown up in the wilderness of northern New York state, where the frontier farmers of the 1830s wrestled with tree stumps and mud holes and corduroy roads.12 But he soon found that the methods used on the family farm in New York didn’t work in Twin Oaks, where there was no dependable year-round water supply.
He tried raising cattle, but didn’t have enough land for grazing with such sparse vegetation. Since there was no refrigeration, the few cattle that survived were slaughtered only as meat was needed at home, and for the hides and tallow and horns, the only parts that could be preserved.13 Young Harry remembered the neighbor’s longhorn cattle vividly. “Four or five young bulls would tree a person and would stand there half a day to watch. There was one tree we called the “bull tree” because it seemed to be their favorite place to run us into; principally, we thought, because it was such a hard one to climb.”14
Crops were started, but it took care to choose ones that would survive, especially in the dry years when oats and barley would only grow five or six inches in the whole season. They raised their own food crops, including potatoes, beans, and fruit, and dried much of it to last through the year. They kept hogs and butchered them to put up hams and bacon. But anything that they needed from the outside world, including mail, had to be hauled with team and wagon from San Diego, a four-day round trip.15
Other settlers began to move into the valley, and they faced these problems together, turning to nature for help in the lean years. The hills were covered with wild flowers, and the bees produced large quantities of honey.16 The art of beekeeping had come to San Diego just before Major Merriam arrived, and the number of stands had already doubled in five years to 20,000 in 1880. Wallace Elliott, a publisher extolling the virtues of life in San Diego County, commented that as dry as the region is, “very little of it , . . is desert in the eyes of a bee.” But he saw a different side to beekeeping from the one the poor homesteader faced, and he described their attempts as “the rudest pioneer kind imaginable. A man, unsuccessful in everything else, hears . . . of the profits and comforts of bee-keeping, and concludes to try it, buys a few colonies, . . . takes them back to the foot of some canon where the pasturage is fresh, squats on the land, with or without the permission of the owner, sets up his hives, makes a box cabin for himself scarcely bigger than a bee-hive, and awaits his fortune.”17
Hardly a fortune at eight cents a case, honey was nevertheless their salvation in some years. They lined wooden barrels with beeswax and filled them with twenty-five gallons of honey. The barrels were loaded on wagons and hauled to San Diego, where they were often shipped to Australia, an easier destination than sailing around the Horn to the East coast.18 Some pf the honey went north up the West coast as well. A letter from San Francisco to a honey supplier in San Diego confirmed, “the case honey (if white and in good order) he can sell for 9 which will net us about 8. My impression is that that price is better than to ship East.”19
Soon grapes took hold as a good crop, needing little water, and the valley was on its way agriculturally. Before long the country, and the county, became as civilized — well, almost — as the Kansas the Merriams had left behind. They were justly proud of the development of their homestead and their valley. The Major no doubt wrote to his brother Clinton about the virtues of the land, so that by 1889 Clinton was ready to go there to see it for himself, bringing his wife and daughter Florence in the hope that the climate would improve their health.
They traveled in relative comfort compared to Gustavus’ earlier journeys, for the train took them all the way across the country from New York to Pasadena, where another brother had settled. From there they journeyed south, again by train. As Mr. Elliott described it, in his effort to attract settlers, “Heretofore, to reach San Diego involved a long and tedious stage ride, or, to many, a worse sea voyage. This is now obviated, and in comfortable cushioned coaches the traveler in search of health, pleasure, or profit is soon landed in the metropolis of Southern California.”20
Florence always made the best of every situation, but her arrival in the wilds of Twin Oaks must have taxed even her gentle nature. It’s a wonder that she stayed for three months after the Major’s children told her how wild it really was — and with more than a little truth to their stories about stinging ants, tarantulas, and coyotes, as well as the “bull tree.” Her cousin Helen had made the pages of the San Diego Union when she was fourteen. “Miss Helen Merriam killed a wildcat on Mr. Bandini’s ranch one day last week. Good for Miss Helen! It won’t do for any timid youth to give that young lady any sass!”21 About the same time, a neighbor boy crossing through the Merriam vineyard on his way to school recalled that “a mountain lion disputed the right of way, but we routed him with rocks and continued on our way.”22
When warned about rattlesnakes, Florence asked Helen if it wouldn’t be more pleasant to ride horseback than to walk. Helen just shrugged and replied, “I don’t like to go on horseback because I have to get off whenever I see a rattlesnake.”23 Florence made careful notes of these comments, with some foreboding, in her field journals, along with details about the birds she watched. Her enthusiasm for the new bird friends she was discovering overcame any unexpected encounters with the other aspects of western nature.
Soon Florence was feeling stronger and was even persuaded to ride “astride,” which was already common for women in Pasadena, she had discovered. In New York it had not been considered proper for women. A contemporary found that “the divided skirt, for all its modesty, is so hideous and uncomfortable I feel as if I were in a bag.”24 There were no shops in which to purchase such a skirt in Twin Oaks, nor even a dressmaker to fashion one. Perhaps Florence accepted an offer like the one made to another contemporary, whose hostess insisted that she ride astride in the wilderness by wearing her teenage son’s overalls.25
However she solved the clothing problem, Florence did adopt the western riding habit. Her health regime included riding until dinner time. “After dinner I would take my camp-stool and stroll through the oaks at the head of the valley, for a quiet study of the nearer nests. Then once more my horse would be brought up for me to take a run before sunset; and at night I would identify my new birds and write up the notes of the day. What more could observer crave?”26
Her notes were detailed and precise, and they form one of the earliest records of live western birds. It was at Twin Oaks that Florence decided to specialize in writing about birds. Her books and articles served to stimulate interest in live birds, and they had the desired side benefit of discouraging women from wearing feathers on their hats.27
Florence’s descriptions of birds also helped to open the fields and meadows for women and young people to enjoy the outdoors and nature themselves. Once that was accomplished, her books went out of vogue as ornithology became more scientific and technical. Now there seems to be a place once again for an interest in the details that she found so fascinating and that our pace of life has so neglected. For example, she writes of the hummingbird:
The nest was saddled on a twig and glued to a glossy dark green oak leaf . . . it was made of a spongy yellow substance, probably down from the underside of sycamore leaves; and . . . the outside was coated with lichen and wound with cobweb . . . Once I saw the cobweb hanging from her needle-like bill, and thought she probably had been tearing down the beautiful suspension bridges the spiders hang from tree to tree.
It was very interesting to see her work. She would light on the rim of the nest, or else drop directly into the bottom of the tiny cup, and place her material with the end of her long bill. It looked like trying to sew at arm’s length . . . The peculiar feature of her work was her quivering motion in moulding. When her material was placed she moulded her nest like a potter, twirling around against the sides, sometimes pressing so hard she ruffled up the feathers of her breast . . . To round the outside, she would sit on the rim and lean over, smoothing the sides with her bill, often with the same peculiar tremulous motion . . .
When she found a bit of her green lichen about to fall, she took the loose end in her bill and drew it over the edge of the nest, fastening it securely inside . . . After building rapidly she would take a short rest on the twig in the sun, while she plumed her feathers. She made nest-making seem very pleasant work.28
The patience it took to make such observations was one of Florence’s most admirable traits. It also showed that she took her own advice. In her “hints to observers” in an earlier book, she had suggested that those interested “select a good place and sit there quietly for several hours.”29 What she saw by doing so at Twin Oaks is reminiscent of Ramona, the novel so popular then. Once, while waiting for a woodpecker to accept her presence, she noted:
Patient waiting is no loss, observers must remember if they would be consoled for their lost hours. In this case I waited till I felt like a lotus-eater who could have stayed on forever. A dove brooded her eggs on a branch of the spreading sycamore whose arms were outstretched protectively above me; the sun rested full on its broad leaves, and bees droned around the fragrant mustard, whose exquisite golden flowers waved gently against a background of soft blue California sky.30
In fact, Florence was probably thinking of Ramona as she wrote, for the novel had been published only five years before her visit, and Florence saw signs of Ramona all around her. The book’s setting was close to Twin Oaks, which added to its mystique, for while preparing to write her novel, Helen Hunt Jackson had stayed with Major Merriam’s nearest neighbors.31
It is interesting that the book Ramona transcended mere popularity, and the young heroine became real for generations of readers and visitors to southern California. Florence noted in her journal that she had visited the Bandini House in San Diego’s Old Town “where Ramona was wed,” and had called on a Spanish woman who told her that she had lived there all her life and that Ramona could not have been wed there. Florence commented that all over the south of the state “people quarrel over Ramona and Alessandro and make them real folks.”32 One senses that Florence was also intrigued by the possibility that the story was real after all.
With time and the dry western air, Florence regained her health. Later she married a fellow naturalist, Vernon Bailey, who worked for the U.S. Biological Survey. Together they traveled throughout the West for thirty years, he studying the mammals and she observing and writing about the birds. The romance of their love — for each other and together for all of nature — intertwined the fictional birds and bees of her girlhood reading with the factual insect and bird life she discovered as a naturalist at Twin Oaks.
1. Florence A. Merriam, A-Birding on a Bronco (Boston: Houghton Mifflin and Company, 1896). Her book contained the first commercial drawings by Louis Agassiz Fuertes, whose reputation as a bird artist later rivaled that of John James Audubon. Fuertes was the first to paint wild birds instead of study specimens, an approach that appealed to Florence for reasons that become apparent in the text that follows.
2. Florence A. Merriam, “Our Smith College Audubon Society,” Audubon Magazine, September 1887, pp. 175-178.
3. Paul Brooks, Speaking for Nature (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1980), p. 171.
4. Keir B. Sterling, Last of the Naturlists: The Career of C. Hart Merriam (New York: Arno Press, 1977). The book was A Review of the Birds of Connecticut, with Remarks on Their Habits (Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1877), the first of its kind published in more than thirty years. He earned his M.D. degree from the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York in 1879.
5. The Survey later became the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
6. William Carroll, San Marcos, A Brief History (San Marcos, California: Coda Publications, 1975), p. 42; Frances Merriam, “Twin Oaks Valley — Then and Now,” (mimeograph) 1972. Her husband is Sheldon Merriam, grandson of Gustavus F. Merriam.
7. Helen Elliott Bandini, History of California (New York: American Book Company, 1908), p. 213.
8. Jerry Mac Mullen, They Came by Sea (San Diego: Ward Ritchie Press and The Maritime Museum Association of San Diego, 1969), p. 67.
9. “Early Perils and Romance of San Diego County Bared,” The Sun, August 7, 1926.
10. Wallace W. Elliott and Company (publishers), History of San Diego County (San Francisco, 1883), p. 42.
11. “Early Perils,” The Sun, August 7, 1926.
12. Charles Henry Pope (compiler), Merriam Genealogy in England and America (Boston: Charles H. Pope, 1906), p. 187.
13. “Smith College Audubon Society,” September, 1887, pp. 175-178.
14. “Early Perils,” The Sun, August 7, 1926.
17. History of California, p. 71.
18. “Early Perils,” The Sun, August 7, 1926.
19. Letter (unsigned) to C.W. Morse, October 18, 1878 (The San Diego Historical Society Research Archives).
20. History of California, p. 71.
21. “Miss Helen Merriam . . .” (notice), San Diego Union, October 3, 1881.
22. R.N. Goodwin, letter in California Rancher, February 1957.
23. Florence A. Merriam, Field Notes (unpublished), 1889.
24. Ellen Maury Slayden, Washington Wife (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), p. 7.
25. Elliott S. Barker, personal letter, June 22, 1983. Dr. Barker is 96 years old and has just published his twelfth book of remembrances about the Southwest. The hostess was Mrs. Fred Harvey, of later hotel fame, who was a pioneer in riding astride for women.
26. Florence A. Merriam, A-Birding on a Bronco, p. 26.
27. She published a total of ten books and about a hundred magazine articles during her lifetime.
28. A-Birding on a Bronco, pp. 151-152.
29. Florence A. Merriam, Birds Through an Opera Glass (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1890), p. x.
30. A-Birding on a Bronco, p. 67.
31. “Helen Hunt Jackson” (notice), San Diego Union, June 5, 1936.
32. Florence A. Merriam, Field Notes.
THE PHOTOGRAPH of Florence Merriam is from the collection of Mrs. Florence Merriam Young berg. All other photographs are from the San Diego Historical Society’s Title Insurance and Trust Collection.