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The Real Story
by Dr. Robert F. Heilbron
San Diego History Center 1986 Institute of History
OF all San Diego lore the most frequently repeated is the story of Horton's Purchase.
Alonzo E. Horton, a San Francisco dealer in used furniture heard a lecturer who extolled in glowing terms the merits of the harbor and climate of San Diego. Within a few days Horton sold a substantial part of the stock in his store and bought passage to San Diego. On April 15,1867 he landed near where the foot of Market Street is now and, while waiting for a wagon to take him to Old Town, walked up to about the present location of the Courthouse. He liked what he saw and made up his mind to buy land there and try to build a city.
In Old Town he learned that no land had been sold for several years, the terms of the Trustees had expired and no new ones had been elected. Horton paid for an election and posted the required notices with his own hands. Ten days later, on April 27th, the election was held and the three candidates chosen by Horton with the advice and support of Father Antonio Ubach were unanimously elected.
The new Trustees first met on April 30th and agreed to auction some land near New San Diego, the dismal remnant of the failed effort of William Heath Davis and his associates fifteen years before. On May 10th, E.W. Morse, one of the newly elected trustees, and now a friend of Horton, was deputized by Sheriff James McCoy, the ex-officio auctioneer, to conduct the auction.
The original Bill of Sale, signed by Morse, is now in the files of the San Diego Historical Society. It shows clearly that Horton bought Pueblo Lots 1146, 1147, 1156, 1145, 1134 and 1133 for a total of $265.
The Bill of Sale is of particular interest because upon it is a pencilled notation by an unknown hand at some unknown later date-
"Purchased by A.E. Horton 960 acres
Price - $265.50
Average about 27½ cents per acre."
The $265.50 is an obvious error, it should have been $265. It may be presumed that the unknown writer, knowing that full Pueblo Lots each contained 160 acres and that six lots were involved, decided that Horton had bought 960 acres in all.
A number of local historians accepted this story without question and the statement that Horton bought 960 acres appears again and again. Some of the writers explain that six Pueblo Lots, each of 160 acres, were purchased. A quick glance at the map shows that only one of the lots was a full Pueblo Lot, the rest were irregular. One contained more than 160 acres and the four others were smaller. The total area was slightly less than 800 acres.
But there is another story.
In 1905, then in his early nineties, but still alert with memory essentially unimpaired, Horton dictated for William E. Smythe his recollection of the long ago purchase. He said, "I bought in all about a thousand acres at an average of $.26 an acre."
Smythe included this statement in his "History of San Diego," published in 1907, and many historians accepted this version and repeated it.
But these two slightly different stories have one thing in common - they are both erroneous.
To clarify the perspective it is necessary to make a distinction between Horton's "purchase" of May 10, 1867 and "Horton's Addition," first recorded in October of 1868 and delineated in Lockling's maps of 1870 and 1871. The "purchase" did not include P.L. 1132 which was clearly part of the "addition." The purchase would have made a very poor subdivision because the common boundary between lots 1133 and 1134 was probably less than 300 feet in length. Horton needed P.L. 1132 and must surely have thought he had purchased it in May of 1867.
Where was P.L. 1132? It was bounded approximately on the north by Upas Street, on the west by Curlew, on the south by Nutmeg and on the east by Sixth Avenue and Balboa Park. Although cut by several deep canyons it then and now encompassed some of the most desirable residential property in the city.
The strange circumstances surrounding Horton's acquisition of P.L. 1132 are central to this paper. The facts have apparently not before been made public, which is very surprising because so many historians have been interested in the Horton purchase. If any researcher had taken the trouble to compare the Pueblo Lots listed in Horton's purchase with those included in Horton's Addition the discrepancy would have been immediately apparent. The only researcher who surely spotted the discrepancy was the late Ed Scott who was known for the pleasure he enjoyed in calling public attention to errors in the writings of other researchers. But in this case Ed Scott solved the discrepancy in a surprisingly simplistic way -- he just added P.L. 1132 to the lots listed in Morse's Bill of Sale. So sure was Scott that he had solved the little problem of the discrepancy that he altered the script to say that Horton has purchased seven lots when every bit of evidence said there were but six.
How then did Horton acquire P.L. 1132?
A small digression is here in order to describe their procedure for purchases of city lands. The "auctions" which took place when Horton made his first purchase were no longer in vogue. Interested buyers "petitioned" the Trustees to sell them land. The petitions were usually routinely approved and the petitioners were usually allowed a reasonable time during which to secure Certificates of such purchase. They were customarily required to pay the "going price" of $.25 per acre and sometimes to perform certain improvements.
After the sale to Horton in May of 1867 there were very few sales over the next year. At a meeting of the Trustees on June 8, 1868, however, a substantial number of petitions were approved, among them, one to Francisco Estudillo, the younger brother of José G. Estudillo, President of the Trustees, for 80 acres of P.L. 1132, and another to Francisco's friend, Oliver P. Searl, for the remaining 80 acres of P.L. 1132. Although the approval of these petitions was a matter of public record it triggered no response from A.E. Horton or his associates. It must be assumed that Horton was secure in his conviction that his planned Addition was complete. At this point he was not paying too much attention to Pueblo Lot numbers.
During the following months it became evident that many petitioners were neglecting to pay the money or to perform the improvements required to secure Certificates and complete their purchases. The Trustees became frustrated and as their concerns mounted they determined to do something positive about the problem. At a meeting of the Trustees on December 13, 1868 the following resolutions were adopted:
"Resolved, that ten days Notice be given by publication in the San Diego Union to all persons who have filed before the Board, petitions for the purchase of Pueblo Lands, and have neglected to have their Certificates of such Applications issued, to appear and obtain the same, or, in the case of neglect to do so, the Board will declare each and every such petition forfeited and relinquished, and the Board will proceed to receive petitions for any such land as though no such petition had been filed herein.
"Resolved, that the Secretary cause such Notice to be given forthwith in conformity to the foregoing Resolution. Notice is hereby given to all who have petitioned for the purchase of Pueblo Lands and failed to obtain Certificates, that unless application be made for such Certificate on or before Wednesday, December 30th, 1868, each and every such petition will be declared forfeited, and such land be again offered for sale.
J.C. Sloane, Secretary"
A copy of these Resolutions, headed:
To Petitioners for Public Lands Office of the Board of City Trustees City of San Diego Dec. 15, 1868"
appeared in the San Diego Union on page 4 of the issue dated December 26, 1868.
It is demonstrable that the period between December 13th and December 30th was quite brief for forfeiture, and because the Notice was not published until the 26th the time allowed was surely too brief.
Some petitioners, however, did act to receive their Certificates. At a meeting of the Trustees on December 31, 1868 the minutes record, for instance, that -
"The Petition of John Murray for Block No. 304 Granted upon his paying $10.00 for said Block, and placing improvements thereon of the value of $250.00."
President José G. Estudillo then informed his fellow Trustees that he had received $20.00 in gold from Francisco Estudillo and a like amount from Oliver P. Searl for their petitions approved on June 8, 1868. The minutes then say -
"Ordered that Certificates be granted to Francisco Estudillo for S.W. half of Lot 1132, also to Oliver P. Searl for N.E. half of Lot 1132."
Just what then took place the record does not show but we must conjecture that one of his fellow Trustees or an officer of the Board must have pointed out to the President that, in accordance with their published Resolution of December 13, 1868, such Certificates must have been obtained on or before December 30, 1868 or be declared forfeited. That José G. Estudillo was not easily disconcerted is demonstrated by the Board action which immediately followed, as recited in the minutes.
It was further ordered, that the Resolution dated Dec. 13th, 1868, requiring all parties who have petitioned for land to obtain their Certificates on or before the 30th of Dec. 1868, is hereby declared to be null and void, as no such action was taken by the Board."
This order was entered in the Minutes in spite of the fact that the Minutes of December 13th were allowed to stand as recorded and the published notice which had appeared in the San Diego Union on December 26th was never rescinded.
In any event Francisco Estudillo and Oliver Searl now had clear title to P.L. 1132 which Alonzo Horton probably thought he owned and which he most sorely needed for his Addition.
Almost three months went by and then the pace quickened. Although title to P.L. 1132 presumably passed on December 31, 1868 the deeds were dated February 23, 1869 and were not recorded until March 15 and March 26. On April 20, 1869 Oliver Searl sold his one half to his elder brother, Homer W. Searl, for $400 and on the same day Francisco Estudillo sold his one half to Homer Searl for $2000.
It must be presumed that Alonzo Horton soon learned of the legal ownership of P.L. 1132. Who made the contact cannot now be determined but Homer Searl owned the land and Horton needed it. The minimum price, $25 per acre had been established by Searl's purchase from Francisco Estudillo, and this was the price which Horton agreed to pay, surely not very happily, $4,000 for the full 160 acres of lot 1132.
Although the deed is dated May 28,1869 it was not recorded until June 29, 1869 at Page 57 of Book 6 of the Book of Deeds of the County of San Diego.
Oliver Searl made $380 on his small investment, Francisco Estudillo made $1,980, having sold for $2,000 the land he bought for $20 a few months earlier and Homer Searl gained $1,600 in the transactions. Alonzo Horton paid $25 an acre for land he apparently thought he had acquired for 25 cents an acre only two years earlier.
Although the price of land had increased substantially in the two years following Horton's original purchase in May of 1867, the one hundred fold increase in the price of P.L.1132 from $40 to $4,000 in the brief period of five months can be explained chiefly by the fact that Horton needed it to complete his Addition.
How did all this escape public knowledge? Several factors conspired. The actual area of the six Pueblo Lots purchased by Horton in May of 1867 was slightly less than 800 acres. The addition of the 160 acres of P.L. 1132 brought the total to almost 960 acres, the figure pencilled on the Bill of Sale. This coincidence probably quieted concerns which researchers might otherwise have had. Furthermore, Alonzo Horton was a shrewd operator and a number of people felt that he had "taken" them in their dealings. Here is one case in which the Estudillos and Searls seem to have "taken" Horton and he may have had reason to want to forget the whole matter.
The two stories cited in the opening of this paper concerning Horton's purchase should be revised. The note on the Bill of Sale should have read --
"Purchased by A.E. Horton approximately 800 acres
Price -- $265
Average about 33 cents per acre."
And Horton, having paid $265 and $4,000 or a total of $4,265, should have amended his statement to Smythe to say --
"I bought in all about one thousand acres at an average price of $4.26 an acre."
Black, Samuel F., San Diego County, California. Vol. I. The S.J. Clark Publishing Company, Chicago, 1913.
Book of Deeds, County Recorder. County of San Diego, 1867-1869.
Davidson, Ed and Orcutt, Eddy. The Country of Joyous Aspect-San Diego. The San Diego Trust & Savings Bank, 1929.
Engstrand, Iris. San Diego: California's Cornerstone. Continental Heritage Press Tulsa, Oklahoma, 1980.
Hopkins, H.C. History of San Diego, Its Pueblo Lands and Water. City Printing Company, San Diego, 1929.
MacPhail, Elizabeth C. The Story of New San Diego. Pioneer Printers, San Diego, 1969.
McGrew, Clarence Alan. City of San Diego & San Diego County. The American Historical Society, 1922.
Mills, James R. San Diego Where California Began. San Diego Historical Society, 1960.
Minutes of Meetings of the Board of Trustees of the City of San Diego, 1867-1869.
Pourade, Richard C. The Glory Years. Union-Tribune Publishing Company, San Diego, 1964.
Scott, Ed. San Diego County Soldier-Pioneers, 1846-1866. County of San Diego Bicentennial Project, 1976.
Smythe, William E. History of San Diego, 1542-1907. San Diego History Company, 1907
PHOTOGRAPHS are courtesy of the San Diego History Center's Title Insurance and Trust Collection. Manuscripts are from the Society's Library.