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The Foundation of the City of San Francisco

Sacramento Daily Union, 13 February 1865

The Foundation of the City of San Francisco.

[From the San Francisco Alta.] The Mission and Presidio, or the ecclesiastical and military establishments at San Francisco, were founded by the Spaniards in 1776 ; but the first house in the village of Yerba Buena, which afterward grew into the commercial city of San Francisco, was built by an American, and it was at his solicitation that the order for laying out a town here was grunted. American trade made the demand for a town, an American selected its site, Americans established the first store here, and Americans have chiefly brought it to its present condition of greatness.

In the winter of 1835-36 Jacob P. Leese, who was then residing at Los Angeles, and engaged in mercantile business there, was advised by some American shipmasters trading on the coast to establish a store and commission house at San Francisco. They thought he might thrive, because the annual exports included 20,000 hides and 2.000,000 pounds of tallow ; the ships lost much time for the want of some one to collect these articles and dispose of them ; there was no store or commission house at the place; the business was increasing; and an American could succeed better than a person of any other nationality, because the ships were mostly from Boston and New York.

Mr. Leese determined to follow the advice of his friends. In March he went to Monterey, communicated his plans to his friends, Nathan Spear and Wm. Hinckley, and induced them to join him in a partnership to establish a store here. He returned to Los Angeles, where he closed up his business. He then started for San Francisco, which he had not yet visited.


Shortly before he left Los Angeles, the first instance of lynch law in California occurred there. A young married woman, named Verdugo, deserted her husband for another man whom she loved better. Señor Verdugo applied to an Alcalde for an order that his wife should live with him, and after a deliberate examination the order was granted. Thereupon Verdugo took his wife on his horse, and started for his ranch, which he never reached. He was murdered on the road by the wife and her paramour. The proof was conclusive, the circumstances were revolting, and popular indignation rose to a great height. There was a general demand for prompt punishment, appropriate to the offense. That could only be obtained by Lynch law. The Courts of jurisdiction in capital cases never had done anything. A case entrusted to them never came to a decision. Murders, though frequent, were never punished by law. If this crime should go unpunished, there could be no security. The people, therefore, took the law into their own bands, tried the offenders, convicted them, sentenced them to death, and executed them, everything being done in a very deliberate manner, and with every respect for the moral rights of the accused. A careful record was kept of the proceedings, and after the conviction the accused were kept for two days, waiting for a priest to come from San Gabriel and confess them. The Alcaldes— who happened to be Don Manuel Riquena and Don Abel Stearns — favored the proceeding, or at least did not attempt any serious resistance.


Leese, as he intended to visit the Capital of the Territory, Monterey, where he might be arrested for a violation of the law, took a certified copy of the record of the trial, and of the agreement by which the citizens engaged in it had bound themselves to stand by one another. When he reached Santa Barbara, he was told that a new Governor had just arrived from Mexico, and he was invited to call upon him. Leese went to the house of Don Carlos Carrillo, where he found Governor Chico, who had been appointed by the President of Mexico to succeed Governor Gutierrez, who had become Governor ad interim after the death of Governor Figueroa. Chico requested Leese to spend a day in Santa Barbara, and keep him company to Monterey. The young merchant, to whom a day was not of so much importance as the favor of a Governor might be in a country where little attention was paid to written laws, waited for the new official, and thus had his company for several days. On the way, Chico asked for an account of the affair at Los Angeles, of which Noriega at Santa Barbara, had given him a very unfavorable opinion. Leese told the circumstances, and produced the copy of the record, which entirely satisfied the Governor, who promised that he should not be troubled about it. Leese supposed that a desire to learn the particulars of the execution at Los Angeles was one of Chico's motives for requesting his company, and the conviction in his mind that the people acted properly may have had some influence in inducing him to give a letter that assisted in obtaining the order for laying out the town of Yerba Buena. In answer to questions about his business and intentions, Leese replied that he was going to San Francisco to establish a mercantile house, which was much needed there. Chico said that he desired to encourage commerce, and he would give a letter to the local authorities, requesting them to grant a lot to him. At Monterey, Leese was detained as a party to the Los Angeles Vigilance Committee, by the order of Governor Gutierrez, but was discharged so soon as Chico was inaugurated, and then he came on forthwith to San Francisco.


He arrived here on the 1st of June, and found only one inhabitant on the site of what was afterwards Yerba Buena, and is now the business part of San Francisco. That one was Captain Wm. Richardson, who was living in a tent on the spot now known as No. 811 Dupont street. All the other persons who lived in the vicinity made their homes near the Presidio or the Mission. Richardson, who had a rancho at Sausalito, established himself in the business of collecting hides and tallow from various places on the bay. The Mission of San Francisco, and that of San Jose, had each a little thirty-ton schooner, which had been built by the Russians at Fort Ross. These schooners, after having been in service some time, got leaky and each sank in the creek of its Mission. They had been both abandoned, when Richardson made his appearance, and offered to the priests to raise their schooners, and carry their freight free for the use of the vessels and Indian crews. The offer was accepted, and Richardson had become regularly established in the business before Leese arrived. He had petitioned the Alcalde at the Mission for a lot, but had been informed in reply that the Alcalde had no power to grant a lot in that place. Richardson charged one dollar per bag of tallow and a bit (twelve and a half cents) per hide for bringing those articles from the various landings on the bay to Yerba Buena Cove. The vessels which earned those articles away were owned and manned by Americans, The character of the trade and of those engaged in it are described in "Two Years Before the Mast.'" At least one American trading vessel visited the harbor every year; four or five whalers put into Sausalito, and several vessels came in from Sitka to purchase wheat, corn, tallow and soap. The Russian trade amounted to about $40,000 annually, and the purchases were paid for in drafts drawn by the Russian American Company, payable in St. Petersburg, which drafts were always taken at par by the American trading vessels.


At the Presidio there was no garrison, and only one resident — a gray-haired soldier, named Joaquin Pena. A mile and a half eastward from the Presidio was the residence of widow Señora Briones and family. At the Mission the chief Spanish residents were Jose Sanchez and his sons Francisco and Jose de la Cruz, Candelario Valencia and Francisco de Haro (these two were sons-in-law of Jose Sanchez ), Francisco Guerrero, Miramontes, Gumecindo Flores, Jose Galindo, Jose Antonia Alviso, Tiburcio Vasquez, Jose Cornelio Bernal, Jose de Jesus Noe and Padre Gutierrez. All these, except the Priest, were married, and many of them had large families. There were some others, whose names Leese does not recollect — mostly bachelors. The residents at the Mission lived upon their herds of cattle. Their dwellings were all of adobe, and their furniture, food and clothing, simple. The Mission had about eight hundred Indians, who lived in rancherias, in savage style, at various places on the peninsula, some as far south as San Mateo.


Leese examined the shore from the Mission to the Presidio, and satisfied himself that there was a good place here for business, and that the Cove of Yerba Buena was the best place for a settlement. The anchorage, holding-ground and landing were better than at either the Mission or the Presidio. The cove extended up to Montgomery street, to which point high tide always reached. The landing-place was at Clark's Point (now the Corner of Broadway and Battery streets), the beach being shallow near the middle of the cove. The district now bounded on the south by California and on the west by Dupont street, was bare of bushes, covered with grass, and south of Pacific street it had nearly the same level as at present. All the land outside of this bare tract was made of sand hills, covered with bushes and scrub oaks, like those which flourish out at Lone Mountain. No wagon or cart had ever visited Yerba Buena Cove, and the only road was a narrow horse trail, where the rider had to take constant care to save his person and his clothes from injury by the bushes and trees.

Upon the arrival of Leese, in June, 1836, he applied to the Alcalde, Estudillo, who had his office at the Mission (though his residence was on the bank of San Leandro creek) for a grant of a lot at Yerba Buena. The Alcalde replied that he had no authority to grant a lot there, but he would give him a lot at either the Mission or the Presidio. Leese showed his letter from Chico, but Estudillo said there was no express authority for him to make a grant. The merchant thereupon went back to Monterey, obtained from the Governor a peremptory order for a grant, and returned with a little vessel, carrying enough lumber for a small house. He landed at the cove about the first of July, immediately proceeded to the Mission, showed his order, obtained permission to occupy a place south of Richardson's tent, and, with the help of the sailors and sea captains in the harbor, succeeded in getting up his new home in time to celebrate the Fourth of July, with a hundred guests or more, including the principal rancheros about the northern part of the bay, whose trade and favor he was anxious to secure. The American flag was on this occasion hoisted for the first time on the site of San Francisco. The rancheros were glad to see a commercial house established, for previously they had depended for making their purchases upon foreign vessels, of which the harbor might be destitute for two or three months at a time.


The house built in July, 1836, by Leese, was, after the survey of the town, in Clay street, a. few feet west of Dupont, very near the site of the old St. Francis Hotel. The next year Leese obtained from Señor Martinez, who was then Alcalde, the right to occupy a one hundred vara lot on the west side of Montgomery, between Clay and Sacramento streets, as they were afterwards laid out, with the understanding that the lines must be subject to the subsequent survey. On this lot, near the corner of Commercial and Montgomery streets, the first substantial frame building of the village was erected. It was known in later times as the house of the Hudson Bay Company, to which association Leese sold it. In 1837, Richardson built his adobe house on the Adelphi Theater lot, No. 811 Dupont street; and in the same year Señora Briones built an adobe house on the northeast corner of Powell and Filbert streets, the kitchen of which, still standing, is now the oldest house in the city. Next in age is an adobe house on the northeast comer of Powell and Broadway street, built by Andrews, a carpenter, about 1842. These are, we believe, the only houses that remain as relics of the village of Yerba Buena, and the only adobe houses in San Francisco, except those at the Mission. Richardson's adobe, on the Adelphi Theater lot, remained till 1854 or '55. In '37, John Fuller, who was employed by Leese, built a shanty, and in '38 he built a good frame house. One of the institutions of Yerba Buena was an Indian sweat-house or Temascal, which stood at the southwest corner of Sacramento and Montgomery streets from 1836 till 1842. A ravine ran down the hillside about the line of Sacramento street, and near Montgomery the water soaked out into a little fresh water lagoon, which Richardson's Indians considered a convenient place for bathing; so they built their sweat-house near it, and after taking a good steaming they would rush out and plunge into the lagoon. In April, '38, the first child of Yerba Buena, a daughter of Leese, was born and in November, '39, the village was surveyed by Vioget, the plat extending from California to Pacific and from Montgomery to Dupont streets.


About 1840 the Hudson Bay Company had a dispute with the Russian American Company about the exclusive right to hunt sea otter and trade with the Indians in Queen Charlotte Sound, and as competition in dealing with the warlike savages of the northern coast might have been ruinous to both parties, they made an agreement that the Hudson Bay Company should have the exclusive trade of the Sound, and should deliver in Sitka, at certain fixed prices, all the wheat, tallow, soap and maize needed for that place. This last provision was made with the intention, on the part of the Russians, to abandon their establishment at Fort Ross, to avoid trouble with Mexico. Their occupation of that place had been recognized by Spain, but after the Spanish American revolution the Russian Emperor had made no treaty with the Mexican Government, which considered the Autocrat as an enemy and feared that he intended to lay permanent claim to a portion of the coast. After the establishment of the missions and settlements north of the bay, for the avowed purpose of heading off the Russians, General Vallejo was sent to break up the settlement at Fort Ross, but he soon came to the conclusion that discretion was the better part of valor, and from that time the hostility of the Mexican Government was exhibited only on paper, but the rancheros were friendly with the people at Fort Ross, and went there frequently to trade. At last, however, the sea-otter began to become scarce, the establishment at Fort Ross ceased to be profitable, the Russians had never intended to lay claim to the coast there, and they offered their establishment for sale. Leese proposed to give them $20,000, $5,000 cash and $5,000 annually for three years. General Sutter bid $30,000, to be paid on time, and he obtained the bargain. The Russians abandoned the country, and the Hudson Bay Company came in.


The Hudson Bay Company, when it undertook to supply Sitka with such produce as could be obtained only from California, found it necessary to establish a permanent agency, and they selected Yerba Buena as the place. Dr. McLaughlin, then the head of the company on the Pacific coast, sent his son-in-law, Ray, to take charge of the new agency, and Ray saw that that there was an excellent opportunity to monopolize the trade of the bay. The great capital of the company gave them an advantage over individual competitors, and the profits of the trade would justify the attempt. Leese, not desiring to compete with them, sold out his store and business to them and moved to Sonoma. The American merchants had paid for their hides and tallow on delivery, in merchandise, upon which great profits were made. Ray offered to pay half cash and half merchandise, and to pay the merchandise share in advance. These terms were so much better for the rancheros than those of the Americans, that the latter could get little trade, and the Hudson Bay Company rapidly grew in importance. But, in 1844, Sir George Simpson, the Governor of the company, visited the coast and he disapproved of Ray's payment in advance, and refused to accept the purchase of the house. The rebuff, which brought severe pecuniary loss, as well as social humiliation upon Ray, happened about the same time that his wife raised a great row about his attention to some hija del pais (native Californian lady,) and the poor man went upon a spree which culminated, after three or four days, in suicide, by blowing out his brains with a pistol. The importance of the Hudson Bay Company in Yerba Buena then ceased, though it continued to maintain an agency here till alter the American conquest.


In 1844 the houses of Yerba Buena were these : The Hudson Bay House, the store of Spear & Hinckley, the store of Wm. A. Leidesdorff, the grocery of David Cooper, the grocery of J. J. Vioget, the grocery of Peter Sherreback, the grocery of Victor Prudon, the eating-house of John Fuller, the grog-shop of Gregorio Escalante (a native of Manila), the grog-shop of Jacinto Moreno (a Lascar), the blacksmith shop of Tinker & Thompson, the carpenter shop of Andrews, the carpenter shop of Davis, Reynolds & Rose, and the dwelling of Señora Briones.

The town remained nearly stationary during '44, '45 and the early part of '46. It was understood, however, among the Americans and foreigners in the country that California would soon become a part of the United States, and all looked to Yerba Buena as the probable metropolis. The value of the bay and the superiority of shipping, over hides and tallow, were frequently discussed. After the war broke out, a number of Americans collected here and erected tents, and made it their home, though many of them found active service during the war elsewhere.

Such was the beginning of San Francisco.

Source: Texts retrieved from the California Digital Newspaper Collection
Page created: 18-IX-2016
Last updated: 18-IX-2016