Ships and Sherds: Ceramics at the San Diego Presidio

By Jean Krase
Award Winner, San Diego History Center 1979 Institute of History

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From 1965 until 1976 -- over eleven years -- students and volunteers working under the direction of Dr. Ray Brandes, Dr. Paul Ezell, and Michael Axford excavated over ninety-five percent of the chapel area at the San Diego Presidio. The excavated site is only a portion of the total area on top of Presidio Hill which was inhabited from 1769 until 1835 and used for burials, occasional homesteads and for dumping until the early 1900s.

During the excavation, over 4200 sherds of Chinese and English ceramics were found. The following article deals with the countries from which ceramics were shipped to California, the vessels on which they came, and includes glimpses into the personalities of the people involved in this transoceanic network.

From the moment the Spanish packet-boat San Antonio tacked into San Diego Bay in April of 1769, half of the crew dying of scurvy, the rest suffering from lack of fresh food,1 San Diego's future was tied to the sea.

For over 100 years many of San Diego's products of civilization came by ship. Not until 1848 when the Mormon Battalion arrived2 did any appreciable amount of goods begin to come overland. It was 1852 before the Butterfield Stage made runs from Yuma to San Diego,3 and not until 1885 did the first transcontinental railroad service begin .4

Long before San Diego's beginning, this complex transoceanic pattern had started. By 1200 Chinese junks were crossing 700 miles of sea to the Philippines to barter silk and metalwork for gold and pearls.5 In 1522 the Spanish conquest of the Philippines was complete, and in 1573, two Spanish galleons carried 712 pieces of Chinese silk and 22,300 pieces of "fine gilt china and other porcelain ware" to Acapulco.6

The last leg of the San Diego to China route was completed by 1785 for in that year a charter was signed by King Charles III of Spain and given to the Real Compañia de Filipinas. This agreement extended permission for a monopoly of trade between Spain and the Philippines,7 and thus by 1770 Spanish supply ships from San Blas, Mexico, laden with merchandise transported from the Philippine Islands were arriving at San Diego.

At first, skins of indigenous seals and sea otters were plentiful and served as a means of exchange for the people who lived on Presidio Hill. Skins were purchased from the natives by the missionaries, the commandants, and the soldiers at three to four reales apiece (approximately 50 cents) for delivery to Vicente Bassadre y Vega, commissioner of California. Through Bassadre y Vega, the Spanish Government paid $2.50 to $10.00 (U.S.) per skin and it was the sole purchaser.8

Lieutenant Zuñiga, commandante at San Diego's Presidio, sent $2,000.00 (U.S.) worth of skins to José Maria Arce in October 1786.9 By 1790, 9,729 otter skins had been sent to Manila at a cost of $87,669.00, including Bassadre's salary.

Each year, from two to four Spanish transports were sent north to Alta California. They carried necessities as well as luxuries from San Blas to the presidios and missions of Northern New Spain and usually they stopped at San Diego. The frigate Favorita made five trips between 1783 and 1790, and the Princesa and the packet-boat San Carlos made four apiece. The Aranzazu, San Antonio, Concepción, and Activo all brought supplies.10

An inventory of goods at the San Diego Presidio for the years 1777 and 177811 listed three dozen plates (probably of Galera or Maiolica ware) from Puebla, a state in Mexico. The inventory also mentioned that one dozen and a half of platas de peltre, pewter plates, and four cubiertas de cobre, copper covers, had been overlooked in the previous inventory. Four metates with their manos (grinding slabs and hand-held grinding stones) and two iron frying pans were also listed. Other items included were: a still, a case with 88 bottles and 4 crystal vases. One final entry for 1777 noted 10 pozuelos (vessels sunk into the ground for catching oil), four of which were made in China and six in Puebla, Mexico.

Two significant observations may be made from this inventory. The first is that mundane articles as well as fine quality pieces were being used at the Presidio in 1777.A second observation of different origins as well as contrasting quality concerns the kinds of pozuelos in use, four of either tin or lead glazed earthenware from Puebla, Mexico, and four of Chinese ware. Whether the Chinese pozuelos were of porcelain or of utilitarian Temmoku stoneware will never be known. What is noteworthy is the existence of Chinese ceramics at the Presidio at this early date, proving that the transPacific trading network was already functioning as early as 1777.

In 1795 the memoria of supplies sent from San Blas to San Diego reveals at least one recipient of the luxury items which had been arriving regularly since 1777. 12 For El Teniente, the commandante at the Presidio, were listed: a bottle rack of crystal with 24 bottles, 12 large and 12 small, all filled with fine Spanish liquor, with its case of crystal glasses. Also destined for the lieutenant were two pieces of Canton crepe and four pieces of fine, red Chinese silk. At least the commandante and his family at San Diego's Presidio had access to fine crystal, luxurious fabrics, and imported spirits. In addition there is, for the first time, evidence of shipment of ceramics in any quantity aboard this supply ship of 1795. For at the very beginning of the manifest is listed: an assortment of plates, cups, and pozuelos, 25 to the case.

Articles for another kind of citizen but still of the officer corps at the Royal Presidio, were requested by Lieutenant Manuel Rodriguez in 1805.13 Twenty swords with iron guards, 24 cartridges and 24 guns, 12 extra wide buttons of yellow metal (brass?), fine gold braid, trouser straps "like those worn by the Dragoons of Mexico with very little gold" and one final item, two complete works of military justice for the colonel.

As a result of threatening overtures by English, American, and Russian ships in the Eastern Pacific Ocean, the Royal Order of 1805 closed ports under Spanish dominion to all vessels but those of Spain with reprisals against English ships.14 The years between 1811 and 1820 were a period of scarcity for Alta California when the colonies were attempting to throw off the Spanish yoke. Spain, in turn, could or would not supply this remote province with money or provisions. Spanish ships came irregularly, if at all, the soldiers were not paid, and supplies ran short.15

Either through neglect or necessity, ports in Alta California were opened to contraband ships from other countries, primarily America. Officials and padres from the colonies, which had been proscribed from having contact with foreign vessels, were now writing letters to captains of American ships and pleading for articles "for the lack of which they were in distress because the articles could not be obtained from the continent."16 The Americans traded with the connivance of the customs guards or, if they were incorruptible, in spite of them."17 If unsuccessful in trafficking at one of California's natural harbors, captains would maneuver their vessels around to the nearest open roadstead. Longboats, loaded to the gunwales, would be sent to the beach, and people came from miles away, eager for the merchandise spread out on the sand for their inspection.18

In a triangular trading pattern American ships left New England with ginseng from the local woods for trade with China, in addition to utilitarian articles for the Indians of the northwest coast of America.19 China, however, desired money, furs, and beches-de-mer, sea slugs, also.20

During 1801 there were fifteen American vessels on the western seaboard procuring as many as 18,000 sea otter skins valued at $275,000.00. Shaler of the Lelia Bird on the coast during this period states that each American ship left $25,000.00 in exchange for furs in spite of the Spanish Government and "to the advantage of the people."21

After amassing full cargoes of seal and sea otter skins from the West Coast, New England ships proceeded to the South Pacific and filled up their holds with dried sea slugs and Hawaiian sandalwood.22

The last leg of this western crossing was to Canton, China where the cargo was exchanged for teas, silks, nankeens, crepe, bombazine, silk handkerchiefs and thread, canvas, rose-colored mother of pearl, blankets, shawls, rice, pepper, and porcelain.23 At Canton, Chinese porcelain packed in crates and baskets was loaded carefully into the bottom of a ship's hold where it served as a platform on which the remainder of the cargo would stay dry. In addition, the extra weight served as ballast for the sail- and topheavy trading vessels.24

At first, China trade ships from New England made the long tortuous voyage around Cape Horn back to their original ports of embarcation in New England. However, when Yankee skippers discovered a market for Chinese luxury items as well as utilitarian goods from Boston in California, they quickly seized the opportunity of this shorter, less hazardous voyage and began to ply the California coast.

Although there were 43 American ships in the China trade from 1805-181425 most slipped in and out of California's ports and roadsteads like specters. Since their "merchantile business" was contraband and therefore clandestine, few records or ships' logs, manifests, or invoices were kept and fewer still can be located today.

Captain George Washington Eayrs of the Mercury, out of Boston, was one of the most daring and enterprising men among the American otter traders. During 1806-1807, he had bartered for otter skins along the west coast and at Santa Barbara alone had obtained 197 large skins from Padre "Lewis." He had supplied the mission fathers with blue cloth, chintz, cotton stockings, knives, and handsaws,26 together with one dozen dishes and one chafing dish.27 These dishes probably originated on the East Coast of the United States. The Mercury did not visit China until 180928 but whether the ceramics were English or American is not known.

In January 1809, the Mercury was at Canton, her holds full of 2,117 otter skins."29Eayrs had obtained these in the area between the Farallon Islands and Catalina Island, with the help of Aleut hunters, and 25 baidarkas (kayaks).30 Captain Eayrs evidently left Canton with a cargo of Chinese merchandise for during the years 1809-1810, he sold silk handkerchiefs, sewing silk, pitchers, and a punch bowl.31 Captain Eayrs traded illegally up and down the California coast. He visited quiet coves and roadsteads as well as trading with the padres. The Mercury sailed into San Diego Bay sometime during the early part of 1809.32 Again in 1811, the Mercury was at Canton, China. In February 1812, the mission fathers at San Luis Obispo purchased $1,385 (U.S.) worth of merchandise and sent aboard 58 otter skins, grain, and meat.33

On June 2, 1813, while lying at anchor south of Point Conception, the Mercury was captured by 15 armed men from the Spanish vessel Flora who boarded and took possession of her. Captain Nicholas Noé, commander of the Flora, later testified that he had been seeking contrabandists; he had been unable to sell his goods at Monterey since the inhabitants of the town told him Anglo-American merchandise was cheaper.34

When an inventory of the Mercury was taken for the court trial which later ensued, the following articles were listed: 6 dozen cups for bouillon, 6 dozen plates painted with flowers, 12 flowered platters, dishes of various kinds, 4 large, finely decorated earthen water jars, coffee pots, tureens and cups.35 This historical data concerning the Mercury suggests that Chinese ceramics arrived at San Diego's Presidio during the vessel's visit in 1809.

The possibility exists that Chinese porcelain arrived at San Diego as late as 1824. In a letter, dated September 23 of that year, from Luis Antonio Arguëllo, Mexican governor of California, to Captain José Romero at San Diego, a desperate and diabolical plan was proposed. Arguëllo reaffirmed the impoverishment of some of the inhabitants at the Presidio:


It is impossible for me to give you any aid to relieve the misery of your troops. It has come to my attention that an American frigate, Mentor, cast anchor at the port of San Diego. I say you should move to Mazatlan immediately. I suggest you speak with her captain after seizing her shipment ... It would be more convenient to undertake the seizure/embargo if you could obtain the frigate Mentor in San Diego in order to move to Mazatlan, undertaking the march with provisions from this impoverished country cannot be done now. (Author's translation)36

This plan obviously did not come to fruition as Romero and his men, ragged and without food, were forced to travel across the desert and a mountain range to Mission Santa Catalina for relief.37

However, impoverished soldiers did not constitute the total population at San Diego's Presidio. There were 520 white people, 150 Indians, and two or three foreigners living at San Diego by 1830.38 It is possible that there were some inhabitants with means to barter for the Chinese goods aboard the Mentor in 1824: silk at $16.00, Chinese white cloth at $3.20, Canton blue cloth at $2.40, and "china" plates at $3.40.39 No note was made of whether these prices were per yard or per dozen.

It takes no stretch of the imagination to conclude that the Chinese ware which arrived on both the Spanish and American vessels was the same ware which had been used, broken, and discarded at the Presidio.

The first evidence that ceramics from New England arrived in San Diego on December 20, 1821, is found in a memorandum of goods received by Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, a resident of San Diego and a substitute diputado to the Mexican Congress in 1834.40 This merchandise was in the cargo of the schooner Eagle sailing out of Boston under the United States flag. The itemized cargo list included crates of crockery, blue printed dishes, blue jugs, cups, and saucers. The Eagle had not visited China between her departure from Boston and her arrival in San Diego. In addition, since all Chinese ware was painted, not printed, it must be assumed that the ceramics aboard the Eagle were English in origin. They could not have been American for no American ceramics of this period have been found at the Presidio.

On the Courier, also sailing under the United States flag, a list of supplies for San Francisco troops on September 26, 1826,41 enumerated 7 dozen large plates. This ship lay moored in San Diego Bay from November 24, 1826 until January 2, 1827, returned in May, September, and November of 1827, and again in 1828.42 Since she did not cross the Pacific, one may conclude that her cargo of ceramics was not Chinese in origin, but rather English.

From the Courier's log, written by Master William Cunningham in 1826-1829 is the entry:


Friday, November 24, 1826. At noon, Punta de Loma at 9 P.M. with the assistance of boats anchored in the harbor of San Diego, 11 1/2 fathoms of water. From Sunday, November 26, 1826 to January 5, 1827. During this time have been doing considerable business in merchantile line, besides putting in a new bowsprit. I travelled (overland) from San Diego to San Gabriel, visiting the missions on the road. I found the padres willing to trade but they would not send their effects to San Diego as St. John's is much nearer from where I am not allowed to proceed. Was refused a license to anchor at Point Conception.

Wednesday, September 11, 1827. Got under way for San Diego, September 13, 1827. 3 P.M. came to 9 fathoms, Big Coronado .... Pt. Loma Presidio. During these fifteen days we have got a new suit of yards on the mainmast, have traded to the amount of several thousands dollars and have disposed of tallow in exchange for hides.

Although no invoice or memorandum of ceramics having been sold at San Diego has been discovered, it may be assumed that such trade took place since the Sachem carried ceramics and sold a considerable amount of merchandise at San Diego.

People at San Diego had begun to move down the hill and to settle in Old Town by 1824. Nevertheless, the Presidio was not deserted until the last troops left in 1837.43 Therefore, ceramics from ships unloading in the harbor after 1825 might have been discarded with the trash on Presidio Hill.

Two other vessels from the East Coast of the United States should be mentioned, not only because they brought ceramics to San Diego, but also because the recipient in both cases was Henry Delano Fitch. Fitch was a trader and shopkeeper and a highly respected citizen of the town.44 Listed on the manifest of the Loriot in 1835 was "one dinner set for Henry Delano Fitch," in account with Dr. Thompson, March 18, 1835.45 Attesting to Fitch's increasing affluence was a second memorandum regarding ceramics which arrived in San Diego aboard the bark Don Quixote on August 11, 1836. This notice listed "a large quantity of splendid crockery,"46 purchased by Fitch.47

England and her transoceanic trade routes must also be discussed with reference to ceramics excavated at the Presidio at San Diego, for evidence that earthenware came directly from England to California has been uncovered.

Tea, silk, and porcelain trade between England and China was increasing and it was difficult for the English to find some product which the Chinese would take in exchange. California provided this, as she had for New England traders, with the fur of the sea otter. In addition, she provided ports for reprovisioning and refurbishing after the long hazardous voyage from England around Cape Horn.48

After Mexico's independence, San Diego and Monterey had been opened to foreign trade, and the Hartnell and McCulloch Company of England began a lucrative hide and tallow business along California's coast. William Hartnell and Hugh McCulloch, clerks at Begg and Company, developed a successful scheme to establish a new firm for trading in California since Spanish power was faltering in this area.49

Padres were still in desperate need of furnishings for religious services and mission buildings. Also, merchandise was desired by the upper classes-stylish clothes, stockings, stays, trousers, ribbon and hats. Copper and iron pots and utensils, dishes, glassware, tableware, as well as farming equipment were, as always, in short supply.50

On May 21, 1823, Don Luis Arguëllo, Governor of California, permitted "Macala y Arnell" the right to trade in all California ports as well as in all roadsteads and bays nearest the missions. In addition, they were granted permission to build warehouses, stores, and residences in Monterey and in San Diego.51

Hartnell and McCulloch chartered the John Begg for a trading voyage from Callao, Peru to California and back for $1,200 (U.S.) per month. It arrived in San Diego in June of 1822, having left Callao late in March and only four months after the new junta had decided to open Monterey and San Diego to foreign trade." When the John Begg arrived in San Diego bay, excitement was high. People poured into town from ranchos and missions to compete for the exotic and luxurious goods spread upon deck.

In an invoice of goods shipped on board the brig John Begg in 1822, bound for the Coast of California under the care of William Hugh McCulloch, were listed:


36 doz chocolate cups and saucers, blue printed
12 doz handled cups and saucers
252 doz bowls
6 coffee pots
6 tea pots
84 jugs
36 doz blue and green-edged plates
12 cream soup tureens
18 soup dishes
22 broad bakers
12 sauce boats
35 doz cream colored plates
16 doz cream tumblers
10 doz cream muffins
1 doz cream colored soup tureens and ladies
14 cream covered dishes
2 basins, 2 bakers, 6 jugs, 2 ewers
4 chambers, 12 bowls

McCulloch had selected his merchandise well for, as was discovered during excavation of the Presidio, many of the ceramic wares he chose were purchased by the inhabitants on the hill, were used, broken, and discarded in the trash heaps there.

There can be little doubt that some of the blue printed ware, the blue and green-edged plates, and the cream colored wares listed in McCulloch's invoice were the same as the fragments excavated at the San Diego Presidio. Many of the English bowls, cups, and saucers, tea pots, soup dishes, basins, and chamber pots found broken in the trash on Presidio Hill were doubtless brought to San Diego aboard the John Begg.

On October 28, 1826, a second Hartnell and McCulloch vessel, the frigate Thomas Nowland, arrived in the bay. She carried four crates of white chinaware (loza)." It may be assumed that this white ware was also popular at San Diego since 4.8 kilograms of it were excavated at the Presidio. A third Hartnell and McCulloch ship, the coastal schooner Young Tartar ran aground at San Diego in 1825.

It is hoped that his preliminary review of ceramics found at the San Diego Presidio will lay the groundwork for future research into the domain of old world ceramics which were imported into Alta California during the formative period of California's history.



1.Hubert Howe Bancroft, History of California, Vol. I (San Francisco: The History Company, 1884), pp. 129-130.

2.Carl Heilbron, The History of San Diego County (San Diego: San Diego Press Club, 1936), p. 74.

3.Richard F. Pourade, The Silver Dons (San Diego: Union-Tribune Publishing Company, 1963), p. 72.

4.Richard F. Pourade, The Glory Years (San Diego: Union-Tribune Publishing Company, 1964), p. 166.

5.William Lytle Schurz, The Manila Galleon (New York; Dutton, 1939), p. 19.

6.Ibid., p. 27.

7.Ibid., pp. 412-414.

8.Bancroft, History of California, Vol. II, pp. 439-444.

9.Provincial State Papers, 1786 MS VI 38, October 7. José Zuñiga to Governor Fages.

10.Bancroft, History of California, Vol. 11, pp. 443-444.

11.Archivo de San Diego Presidio, 1777-1778. An Inventory of Goods at San Diego Presidio, Fr. Fermin Francisco de Lasuén. Bancroft Library, University of California.

12.Archivo General y P&uacte;blico de la Nación, Mexico, Californias, Ramo de Californias, Tomo 74: ff. 37-44. Transcripts in the Bancroft Library, University of California.

13.Ibid., Tomo 59: n.f.

14.Bancroft, History of California, Vol 11, p. 31.

15.Ibid., pp. 194-196.

16.Mercury Case Documents, 1813-1817, pp. 54-60. Los Angeles Public Library.

17.Foster Rhea Dulles, The Old China Trade (Boston: Mifflin, 1930), p. 72.

18.Robert Kingery Buell and Charlotte Northcost Skladal, Sea Otters and the China Trade (New York: McKay, 1968), p. 183.

19.Frederic William Howay (edited by Richard A. Pierce), A List of Trading Vessels in the Maritime Fur Trade, 1785-1825 (Kingston, Ontario, Canada: 1973), p. 62.

20.Carl L. Crossman, The China Trade (Princeton: Pyne, 1972), p. 1.

21.Bancroft, History of California, Vol. II, p. 23.

22.Crossman, China Trade, p. 1.

23.Adele Ogden, The California Sea Otter Trade (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1941), pp. 67.

24.Alfred Tamarin and Shirley Glubok, Voyaging to Cathay (New York: Viking, 1976), p. 71.

25.Howay, Trading Vessels, p. 60

26.Ogden, Sea Otter Trade, p. 52.

27.De la Guerra y Noriega, Collection of Manuscripts 1806 Ship Mercury. Account of goods sold for cash. Padre of Santa Barbara, December 12, 1806. Santa Barbara Mission Archive Library.

28.Ogden, Sea Otter Trade, p. 161.


30.Ibid., p. 53.

31.Mercury Case Documents, Cuad II, pp. 19-24.

32.Ogden, Sea Otter Trade, p. 161.

33.Ibid., p. 67.

34.Ibid., p. 68.

35.Mercury Case Documents, Cuad 11, ff. 2-3.

36.Archives of California, Departmental Records, 1822-1825, Vols. 1-111, pp. 87-89. Bancroft Library, University of California.

37.Richard F. Pourade, The Time of the Bells (San Diego: Union-Tribune Publishing Company, 1961), p. 174.

38.Ibid., p. 172.

39.Kiril Khlebnikoff, 1824 Materials for the History of the Russian Settlements on the Shores of the Eastern Ocean. Russian American Vol. III, Part 3.

40.Documentos Para la Historia de California, 1821 Vallejo, Mariano Guadalupe, Memoria of goods received from Mr. Jones and Mr. Ebbets, December-31, 1821. Vol. XXVIII, p. 148.

41.Ibid., 1826 Vallejo, Mariano Guadalupe, Vol. 1, p. 94.

42.William Cunningham (Master), Log of the Courier, 1825-1829. Peabody Museum Library, Salem, Massachusetts.

43.Mary Marston, George White Marston (San Diego: Ritchie, 1956), Vol. II, p. 147.

44.Pourade, Time of the Bells, pp. 194-195.

45.Documentos, California, 1835 Fitch, Henry Delano in account with Dr. Thompson, Vol. VX. No. 15.

46.Nathan Spear, 1836 Correspondence, Hinkley to Nathan Spear, Honolulu, April 24. Bancroft Library, University of California.

47.Documentos, California, 1836 Fitch, Henry Delano purchased from Hinkley, August 11, Vol. VX, No. 23.

48.James A Williamson, A Short History of British Expansion (New York: MacMillan, 1931), p. 30.

49.Susanna Bryant Dakin, The Lives of William Hartnell (Stanford: University of California Press, 1949), p. 30.

50.Ibid., p. 31.

51.Ibid., p. 44.

52.Ibid., p. 33.

53.Documentos, California, 1826 Vallejo, Mariano Guadalupe, August 10, List of goods sold by the Thomas Nowland, San Francisco, August 19, Vol. I, 92a.