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The Little Village of Yerba Buena (1847)

Daily Alta California, 22 March 1857

Ten Years Ago.

Ten years ago, on just such a bright, beautiful Sabbath morning as this is, we took an early breakfast in one of the dilapidated rooms in the old barracks at the Presidio, and started with a dear friend, for a morning walk, to the then little village of Yerba Buena, the now flourishing city of San Francisco. Then the field along the roadside were green with the springing grass, which the latter rains had freshened and the golden-headed California poppy and the modest little strawberry flower, dotted then with yellow and with white. From out the thickets which skirted the roadside, a scared rabbit now and then ran across the pathway and timidly hid in the bushes on the other side. For the whole distance from the Presidio to where now is about the corner of Union and Powell streets, there was not a single house, the first one we reached on our journey to the village, being the little adobe establishment of Doña Juana Briones, which still stands as relic of the early days of Yerba Buena. The laguna lay lonely and still by the pathway, and on its surface ducks were paddling, fearless of gun or pistol. No "squatters" had fenced in the hills — no gardens were planted in the valleys, and but few of the signs of "civilization" greeted our eyes and ears during the delightful, refreshing, invigorating walk of three miles on that beautiful, sunny Sabbath morning.

When we reached the summit of "Russian Hill," where three crosses marked the grave of the buried Russians, who gave the hill its name, the broad and placid bay broke upon our view. Riding at anchor in it, were only three large vessels — one a sloop-of-war, and the others, two of the transport ships which brought a portion of the regiment of New York Volunteers to California. No long piers stretched out into the water — no steamers were puffing their way across it. On the opposite side, rose the green Contra Costa hills, but no smiling, pretty towns were grown up on that side of the bay. In looking down upon Yerba Buena, the most prominent buildings were the old adobe Custom House standing on the plaza, before which on a lofty pole, the flag of our country was waving in the breeze of morning. A little collection of some twenty houses was before us and no lofty church spires rose into the air—no Sabbath bells were ringing, and down the hillside, as far as where Dupont street now runs, a thick growth of the brilliantly green-leaved scrub oak grew, through which we made our way to the village. Arrived there, the only place of gathering was the old City Hotel which then stood where now is the corner of Clay and Kearny streets, and where a rickety billiard table and a bar, at which liquors of not the choicest description were dealt out, formed the principal attraction. Around its doorway stood a dozen California steeds, with their clumsy saddle trappings, and mochillas and wooden estribos, and mounted on each one a native, with his shoulders covered with a serape, with spurs on his heels half a foot in length, and a paper cigar in his mouth. Inside were a dozen or so officers of the army and navy, drinking whiskey and playing billiards, or indulging in the more exciting games of poker or monte. Where the City Hall now stands was an enclosed lot, extending to Montgomery street, with but two houses upon it — one on Washington street, a little below the corner of Kearny, and the other at the junction of Montgomery and Clay. The waters of the bay came up to lave the lower side of Montgomery street, and the tide ebbed and flowed there.

Ten years ago ! And life has been weaving its web since then, and what changes time has wrought. The dear friend who was our companion on that morning's walk, lies beneath the green grass in the cemetery of Yerba Buena. His eager, earnest manly eyes, through which the fires of genius were flashing, were dimmed in death ere he was permitted to witness the realization of those golden dreams, in which we indulged as we rested on the brow of Russian Hill. Peace be with his spirit. God never made a nobler, better, manlier man.

And through the experience of these long ten years, we have been blessed with life and with health. By the bivouac fire, and in the camp ; on the weary, dreary marches through the sands and cactus clumps of Lower California, and amid the rattling and the clattering of musket balls ; and then, through the cold snowy winter of 1848, among the golden hills, by the side of the frozen streams, searching for the new-found gold ; through all the trials and the adventures of this wild California life, we have been preserved by the blessing of Providence, by the kind and parental care of Him whose broad hand of protection is stretched over us all, "from the rising of the sun to the going down of the same"— to this lovely Sabbath morning, ten years later than the time when Yerba Buena and its vicinity presented such a picture as we have imperfectly drawn.

We need not tell of the changes which have taken place on the ground where we now stand. The lofty substantial buildings, the broad streets, the church spires, the lengthened piers, the noble ships — all tell the tale better than we can do it ; all stand here as signs and symbols of what enterprise, energy and perseverance will accomplish. We will not rehearse the tale, but to-day we shall climb again to the summit of Russian Hill, and then, from as near the spot as we can find, where we sat down to rest on that Sabbath morning, ten years ago, shall take a look at San Francisco as she is, and endeavor to call up in our mind's eye a view of her as she was when we rested there then, conversing with that dear friend, who sleeps within the sacred precincts of "God's acre."

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