A Bishop's First Glimpse of a Frontier Town
By Lionel U. Ridout
An interesting footnote to San Diego's history lies in the fact that California's first Episcopalian Bishop first observed his new jurisdiction and celebrated his first service in the small mission town founded by Junipero Serra eighty-five years before. And it was in San Diego that the Bishop was to gain his first warnings of the myriad problems to be faced by a priest in a frontier area.
In October, 1853, the General Convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America met, and during the course of its business elected William Ingraham Kip of New York the Church's first missionary bishop of California. Kip was not sure that he wanted to go to the far west, but duty prevailed, and after his consecration he left for the land of gold.
Sailing from New York on December 20, 1853, Kip and his family were passengers on the steamship George Law, bound for Aspinwall in Panama and carrying about 700 travellers, more than twice the number which should have been aboard. This arduous trip completed, the uncomfortable journey across the Isthmus by rail and mule was made.
After a tiresome wait at Panama city the Kips boarded the Golden Gate, January 1, 1854, for the last leg of the journey to California. The old side-wheel steamer made a stop at Acapulco where it took on provisions and coal, and then continued up the coast. On January 10 the shaft broke, and for four days the vessel drifted, shunted about by wind and waves. The delay necessitated rationing of food and water, but finally the engineer was able to repair the damage enough that the steamer could work on a single wheel and continue to San Diego.1
San Diego was not much of a city when the Kips arrived, but by adding the ship passengers to the town population, something over 1000 people could be totaled. Actually there had been no intention of disembarking the passengers at San Diego; a supply of beef was to be taken on and the water replenished, after which the ship was to proceed to San Francisco. But as the vessel rounded Point Loma, a terrific storm blew up, the Golden Gate became unmanageable and drifted down the coast rather than steaming north. A few miles below the harbor it was driven onto a sandbar, Zuninga Shoals, about a mile from shore.2
Signals of distress were sent up, and the Pacific Mail Company's steamer, Goliah, came to give help. A hawser, passed between the two ships to be used as a tow-line, snapped, so the Captain of the Goliah promised to return in the evening at high-tide. The second attempt to float the Golden Gate was no more successful than the first, so the Goliah left the helpless ship and weary passengers to face an entire night of storm and tornado. The steamer was banged back and forth, seemed to be lifted bodily, hurled sideways and crashed down more firmly into sand nearer the shore. No one expected to see daylight again.3
Dawn brought with it a picture of desperation with waves breaking over the ship and flooding the salon, furniture washed about, and the ship "hogged" or strained so that it seemed ready to break in two. About noon the Goliah re-appeared, but the seas were still too high and nothing could be done. In the afternoon a second ship, the Southerner, came, but it was unable to offer any more help than the Goliah. A second night of terror had to be endured by the passengers of the Golden Gate, and it was not until the following day that the unfortunate victims of the storm were finally rescued.4 Some of the passengers decided to continue to San Francisco immediately on a different shin; others, the Kip family included, preferred to remain at least overnight in San Diego.
Bishop Kip noticed on landing that there was an amazing amount of sagebrush in the area and a great lack of trees. He did not realize that where the ships anchored was not, at that time San Diego. Old Town was four miles north and east of the ship landing. New San Diego was not to be laid out for some years.
Those passengers of the Golden Gate who had decided to remain in San Diego stayed near the ship landing rather than travel the four miles to the town. They suffered from cold and hunger and tried to gain some comfort by building fires, using the old hide houses on the shore and anything else they could find to feed the flames. The next morning many of the travellers were glad to board the Goliah and the Southerner for San Francisco. The Kips determined to wait for the Columbia, a San Francisco ship which had been sent to search for new machinery for the Golden Gate.5
The Kips received an invitation from Don Juan Bandini, a leading citizen of San Diego, to stay with him. The Bishop was impressed by Bandini's hospitality, wealth and standing. He felt, apparently, from talking with Bandini and from study, that America had robbed and seized the ranchos of California and driven the owners to the wall. His theories were somewhat substantiated when, shortly after Kip's arrival at the Bandini home, old Juan's son rushed in to report that Walker's filibusters had killed many cattle, driven off the horses and completely stripped one of the Bandini ranches ninety miles away.6
Bishop Kip gave a good description of San Diego in 1854. It was a little Spanish town built in a straggling style and with a foreign air. Most of the houses were adobe, but some were built of white painted clapboards. Most of the buildings centered around a plaza where Spainiards and Indians, wrapped in colorful mantles, sunned themselves. During the week the plaza remained fairly quiet, but on Sundays it was the center of amusements. The climate of San Diego intrigued Bishop Kip who described it as "delicious" and said he had heard it was the healthiest on the coast. The area reminded him of Naples.7
Across from the Bandini house was a long, low Spanish dwelling which was the residence of the Roman Catholic padre and also the chapel for the town.8 Four miles south and west of the villagel near the harbor shore, was a settlement where several army officers were stationed. Six miles east of the town was the old mission where about a hundred soldiers were quartered and where the Rev. John Reynolds, an Episcopalian priest, was U.S. Army Chaplain.9
On January 22, 1854, at the request of some of the residents of San Diego, Bishop Kip performed his first religious service in California. A room in the court house was used, and despite the fact that the service was unscheduled and no opportunity occurred for giving notice of it, some fifty people were present, including several army officers and their families.10
Lt. George H. Derby, known later as the popular humorist John Phoenix, in San Diego to superintend the turning of the San Diego River from San Diego Bay to Mission Bay, led the responses and started the hymns.11 Some time later in speaking of this service, Bishop Kip said, "If I had known that the famous wit, John Phoenix, was the name of the stout little man sitting under the desk, and acting as clerk, I should have been afraid he was making fun of me as his back was towards me."12
Bishop Kip learned some interesting facts about the southern portions of his new jurisdiction from John Reynolds, the army chaplain. Reynolds had been in Holy Orders since 1820 and had served-in a number of churches in the East. In 1850 he was appointed chaplain to the army post in San Diego. When he reached California is not clear, but from February to June, 1853, he officiated at St. John's Church, Stockton, attended the Second Triennial Convention of the California Church in San Francisco in May, 1853, and on July 10 of the same year held the first Episcopal and non-Roman service in SanDiego.13
Kip learned that Reynolds had been working hard to establish the Episcopal Church in San Diego, and that a building was being planned for which subscriptions were already being asked. The building, had it been erected, could have been used by any Protestant preacher in San Diego, if and when Reynolds left town.14" Reynold's popularity was proved not only by the desire to build a church for him, but also by the fact that a carriage was sent from town each Sunday to pick him up at the mission and bring him to San Diego to preach.15 Another indication was that the Protestant business men of the town, disliking the Roman services and so keeping their places of business open on Sunday, agreed to close their doors on that day and sell no goods16 if Reynolds asked it. Despite this, Reynolds, as did the few other Episcopal priests in California, complained that too few people attended Sunday services.17 In September the chaplain went for a second time to San Francisco to try to raise more money to supplement the $1500 subscribed in San Diego for its church.18 Sadly enough the small attendance at Sunday services, and the failure of business men to observe their own closing rules, made the goal of a church building unattainable.19
Reynolds entered into a verbal conflict, via the San Diego Herald, with George H. Derby (John Phoenix) who, appointed to pinch-hit for the editor and publisher while the latter was on vacation in San Francisco, edited the paper for several weeks. Derby, writing as Borax,20 allowed his high-pitched humor to run away with him, and in the course of events made several supposedly humorous attacks on Reynolds and on church-going. Reynolds, writing as "Senex," or "R," replied indignantly to the jibes of Derby.21 The conflict itself was unimportant, but Reynold's statements and defense, which he must also have delivered orally, throw some light on what was a typical situation facing the churches of California when Kip arrived as Bishop. Kip was to find similar problems wherever he went -- disinterest, lack of attendance, and immorality which kept people from attending divine services.
Reynolds, stating that Derby was known as an "unmitigated humorist" and the Rabelais of California, and that he unscrupulously used his friends to fabricate his jokes, denied that he, Reynolds, ever used liquor or visited saloons, as implied by the pro-tem editor. He resented also aspersions cast upon the smallness of his congregation. But he admitted that ministers of the gospel in southern California had great difficulties with which to contend, especially in places where there was no suitable church building. Apparently accused of overstaying leave granted him by the Army, Reynolds denied that story by stating that he had been granted an extension.22 Blasted by Derby on the grounds that the army post at the mission was drab and dull, Reynolds replied that the place was being drastically changed and enumerated the improvements that were being made.23
In December, 1853, Derby as "Borax" lampooned the laxity of morals in San Diego as well as the flexibility of Sabbath observance. He mentioned that most of the worshippers he saw were "aborigines" and that the majority of them were drunk; he also commented upon soldiers from the mission who had been imbibing too freely, and listed the number of public servants who were lifting the bottle too eagerly.24 Reynold's answers to these charges and observations admitted by indirection the truth of the statements but deplored bringing the situation so brutally to the fore. He felt the town was being done an injustice by dwelling upon the eccentricities of some of its inhabitants, and that such publicity would give a different impression of the moral and religious aspects of the village than some citizens would care to see published abroad. Derby replied in turn that the best way he could think of to guide people in the paths of righteousness was by showing up evils.25
Later on Reynolds was forced into a tacit admission that Derby's attack on morals was justified. Having prepared a sermon to be delivered February 5, 1854, Reynolds was unable to preach it because other attractions kept a congregation away from the church. Instead, he printed it in the Herald. In it he admitted that the population was Godless and more attracted to billiard rooms, gambling and saloons than to church, that attendance was falling off, that money to proceed was not forthcoming, and that San Diego should heed the warning of Sodom and Gomorrah.26 With this admission the ecclesiasical teapot tempest subsided. A short time later John Reynolds was to leave San Diego.
This was a foretaste of the situations Bishop Kip had to face in his frontier diocese. San Diego was neither worse nor better than other areas in the state. Disinterest of a similar nature was to dog him throughout his career; in sermons, addresses and reports he and other priests lamented the worldliness, greed and immorality of the Californians, although there were hints that once a settled population developed things might be different. But for the forty years of his episcopate he found that, as in Reynolds' case, there would be spurts of interest at first and great plans would be made; then the interest would lag and the plans cast aside. It was sheer and stubborn perseverance on the part of priests and Bishop and faithful laymen that finally overcame indifference, heartbreak and struggle as exemplified in this picture of early San Diego and places like it throughout the state.
1. William Heath Davis, Life, Labors and Death of William Ingraham Kip, Ms. This typescript is owned by the Huntington Library. Hereafter cited as Davis, Kip Ms. Edward Lamb Parsons, "William Ingraham Kip First Bishop of California," in Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church, XI (June, 1942), 104. Hereafter cited as Parsons, HMPEC, XI. In the San Francisco, Morning Call, July 27, 1887, Kip related that scant food was not bothersome, but that water became a problem. if passengers did not drink their rations at the table, but tried to carry it to their rooms, the waiters would force it to be returned to the common supply.
2. C. Rankin Barnes, "St. Paul's Church, San Diego, California, 1869-1944," in Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church, XIII (December, 1944), 323. Davis, Kip Ms. Morning Call, July 27, 1887.
3. Morning Call, July 27, 1887.
4. Morning Call, July 27, 1887. It is interesting to note that the first newspaper Extra ever published in San Diego, that of the San Diego Herald, announced and stemmed from the disabling of the Golden Gate. See the San Diego Union, March 31, 1938.
5. William Ingraham Kip, The Early Days of My Episcopate. (New York, 1892), 57. Hereafter cited as Kip, Early Days. Davis, Kip Ms. Kip says that for a few days those passengers who remained in San Diego developed a kind of class society, the cabin passengers lodging where they could while the 300 steerage passengers were quartered in a deserted hotel just beyond the town. The group had to be divided into separate messes for feeding.
6. Kip, Early Days, 58-59.
7. Kip, Early Days, 59-60. The Bandini house still stands, as do several other important buildings of the time. The plaza remains much as it was when Kip visited San Diego.
8. Almost certainly the Estudillo House.
9. Kip, Early Days, 60-61.
10. Kip, Early Days, 62. Barnes, HMPEC, XII, 323-324. San Diego Union, March 31, 1938.
11. Barnes, HMPEC, XIII, 324. San Diego Union, March 31, 1933.
12. Kip, Early Days, 62. San Diego Union, March 31, 1938.
13. The San Diego Herald, July 23, 1853, carries Reynolds' report of the convention. Barnes, HMPEC, XIII, 321-322. San Diego Herald, July 9, 1853. The San Diego Herald, October 8, 1853 mentions Reynolds' work in Stockton, lauds it, and indicates that he had successfully tried to raise some money in San Francisco to start a church in San Diego.
14. San Diego Herald, August 6, 1853.
15. Ibid., August 13, 1853.
17. San Diego Herald, September 10, 1853.
18. Ibid., September 17, 1853. The amount raised is dubious. The Herald for October 8, 1853, says $1200 was raised in San Diego while Reynolds collected $900 in San Francisco.
19. Barnes, HMPEC, XIII, 322-323.
20. San Diego Herald, December 3, 1853, indicated that "Borax" was pro-tem editor of the Herald, and it is known that Derby was acting editor at that time.
21. San Diego Herald, September 17, 1853, identified Reynolds as "Senex". In the San Diego Herald, October 22, 1853, a letter to the editor pro-tem (here indicated as Phoenix) says the editor's remarks about Reynolds were intended perhaps as jokes, but the results were harmful.
22 San Diego Herald, October 22, 1853. It was during this leave that Reynolds had organized a church in Stockton; Derby apparently attacked humorously one or two incidents which happened at that time and were reported by the San Joaquin Republican. These incidents were not checked, as they were not considered pertinent to the present story.
23. San Diego Herald, November 12, 1853.
24. Ibid., December 3, 1853.
25. Ibid., December 10, 1853.
26. Ibid., February 11, 1854.