California underwent an astoundingly rapid transformation in the mid-19th century – from the Catholic missions, cattle ranches, and hide-and-tallow trade of Mexican California to the farms, towns, and cities of an American state.
witnessed these changes first hand and from a unique perspective – that of an American married to the daughter of an elite Spanish land grant family – the Californio culture of Mexican California. He experienced the United States War with Mexico, the Gold Rush, and the rapid growth of San Francisco. He gained and lost fortunes in his years as a merchant and trader, failed in founding New Town San Diego, but then was instrumental in founding San Leandro (Davis Street in San Leandro is named for him).
His memoirs "Seventy-Five Years in California," published after his death, are a personal account of an ordinary man living through extraordinary times.
The early days
William Heath Davis was born in Hawaii in 1822, the second son of an American ship captain and a Hawaiian-American woman (whose mother, a Hawaiian princess, had also married an American ship captain).
At age 16, Davis left school and the islands and sailed to California, where he would live for the rest of his life.
Davis went to work for his uncle, Nathan Spear, who was a merchant and trader in Monterey and had also opened a store and mill in Yerba Buena (San Francisco today).
As his uncle gained confidence in him, Davis went far afield on horseback and by boat to find customers, carrying grain from distant ranchos to his uncle’s mill and returning cargoes of flour, as well as arranging to trade merchandise from the store for hides and tallow.
The Sutter connection
When Johann Sutter (yes, that Sutter who would build the mill of gold nugget fame) arrived in Yerba Buena seeking a guide to take him up the Sacramento River, Spear recommended his nephew William Heath Davis, then only 17 years old. Davis proved a capable guide and leader.
When they arrived at the future site of Sacramento, seven or eight hundred Indians greeted them. Sutter and his men prepared for attack, but it was hordes of hungry mosquitoes, not the curious Indians, who turned out to be the enemy. When Davis left Sutter to return to Yerba Buena, Sutter gave the departing expedition a nine-gun salute with the light artillery he had brought with him. Here is how Davis described the incident:
As the heavy report of the guns and the echoes died away, the camp of the little party was surrounded by hundreds of Indians, who were excited and astonished at the unusual sound. A large number of deer, elk and other animals on the plains were startled, running to and fro, stopping to listen, their heads raised, full of curiosity and wonder, seemingly attracted and fascinated to the spot, while from the interior of the adjacent wood the howls of wolves and coyotes filled the air, and immense flocks of water fowl flew wildly about over the camp.
Davis on his own
After a few years, Davis left his uncle’s employ to start his own businesses as a trader and merchant, sailing along the coast and trading goods for the hide and tallow of the Californio ranchers.
Davis’s memoir, Seventy-Five Years in California, has many stories of Californio culture. He described the entertainments offered when he stayed with ranchero families, whose hospitality was legendary. He joined the rancheros in meriendas (picnics) and strawberry hunts in the countryside. Celebrations for saint’s days, rodeos, or any large gathering almost always included a horse race, bull fight, or bull and bear fight.
Here is Davis’s description of how the rancheros captured a grizzly bear for their bull-and-bear fights:
When cattle were slaughtered, bears came to the place at night to feast on the meat that was left after the hides and tallow were taken. The bears coming, the rancheros, with vaqueros, would go there for the purpose of lassoing them. This was one of their greatest sports; highly exciting and dangerous, but the bear always got the worst of it. One would lasso a bear by the neck, and another lasso the same beast by the hindfoot, and then pulling in different directions the poor bear was soon strained and strangled to death.
He then describes a frightful encounter with grizzlies while camped out in the area of today’s Oakland:
One night I sent my man up to Don Vicente Peralta's house, on an errand, and remained in my tent alone all night, to my great peril, as I soon discovered.
The matanza (slaughter) ground was about a mile from my tent, and Peralta and his vaqueros came down in the night to lasso the bears for sport. Some of them got away from their enemies and made for my tent, probably being attracted to it as a strange object looming up white in the darkness. With the curiosity which such animals are known to possess, they proceeded to investigate it. I sat in the tent and heard these animals circling round and round outside for several hours, going off at times and returning. I was in constant fear that they might push their noses under the canvas, work themselves into the tent and devour me…
As I sat there quietly and listened to their deep breathing and movements outside, I was filled with fear and anxiety, and it may easily be imagined how much I was relieved when finally the beasts went off for good and left me alone. I attribute my prematurely gray hairs to the alarm I felt on that occasion.
Don Peralta laughed when Davis told him about the encounter, but thereafter would always invite Davis to be a guest in his home.
Alta California's "good old boy"
Davis seemed to become one of the “good old boys” network of Alta California – friendly with his competitor merchants and traders, respected and liked by the elite ranchero families he got to know. He knew when and how to pull a trick to hide goods from custom’s agents. He knew how to drink and schmooze, compliment the ladies, grease the wheels of commerce with gifts and courtesies.
On one of his trading voyages, Davis sailed into Monterey Bay only a couple of days after Thomas Ap Catesby Jones’s premature capture of Monterey in 1842. You may know the story of Admiral Jones who sailed quickly from Peru to Monterey, thinking the United States had declared war on Mexico. He intended to beat the British there to take control of the Alta California capital, and succeeded in raising the American flag after a bloodless takeover. When it was realized that war had not been declared, the American flag was brought down, the Mexican colors raised again, and Monterey was returned to Mexican authority. The American consul, Thomas Larkin, smoothed over this comic opera by throwing a grand ball, to which Davis was invited.
In 1846, the United States declared war on Mexico, and American military forces occupied California. Davis entered the Monterey Bay in 1846 to see the United States flag once again flying over the customs house, and this time it would stay. Thereafter, Davis never ceased to boast that his brig was the first commercial vessel to enter Monterey after American possession. The war and his new contacts in Monterey gave him the opportunity to become a significant military supplier.
Davis woos Estudillo
One of the ranchero families Davis knew was that of Joaquin and Juana These wealthy landowners lived on Rancho San Leandro, 7,010 acres between San Leandro and San Lorenzo creeks. After meeting their daughter Maria, Davis began courting the beautiful young lady.
Here’s how Davis described the difficulty of his courtship:
During my wooing . . . I do not remember having spoken a hundred words to the young lady when we were alone, but I was permitted to converse with her in the presence of her parents, especially her mother . . . Their sense of propriety demanded that during courtship the young people should talk and see each other only in the presence of relatives of the prospective wife. When this rule was invaded the young lady would expect or was prepared for a reprimand from her mother or father, who demanded that there should be no repetition of the indiscretion, hence it was a rare occurrence.
It took Davis a long time to convince the Estudillos that he would be a proper husband for the daughter of an elite and wealthy ranchero family. He claims Maria’s jealous older sister was against the marriage. His problems were made worse because no one told Maria he had asked for her hand in marriage, and as he showered her older sister with presents, hoping to disarm her jealousy, Maria assumed his affections were elsewhere. Finally an aunt took pity on the couple and invited them both to her home in Sausalito. At that meeting, all obstacles were cleared, and Maria and William married in November of 1847.
A Californio wedding
Here is Davis’s description of his wedding:
About a week before the wedding, Don Joaquin sent about twenty milch cows from his rancho around the bay to San Francisco to be used in the preparation of the marriage feast…. He also sent a caponera of his fine horses for use during the festival... Miss Maria Estudillo and I were married at the Mission of San Francisco de Asis, sometimes called Mission Dolores, in November 1847. The bride was carried by her uncle, Don José Martinez, to the church on a spirited jet black horse from Pinole…. The animal was superbly caparisoned with gold and silver mounted saddle and bridle, and Don José was dressed in the costly festal habiliments of olden times.
At the ball in the evening Don José was a prominent actor. He danced the Jarabe, an ancient dance of the country, which is performed by a gentleman and lady facing each other. At a certain stage of the amusement both would stop, when one would deliver several verses in rhyme, at the end of which the dancing was resumed, the lady approaching in a circle, round and round her partner and back to her place, bowing gracefully to her companion, her dainty feet in full view. This was repeated by the Don in a similar manner; and both would then dance with the rapidity of lightning in a circle of small diameter, going round and round artistically and with grace. …. At intervals during the night a cold luncheon of poultry, ham, cakes, coffee, champagne and other wines was served.
William and Maria moved into a new home in San Francisco.
California becomes a U.S. territory
The War with Mexico ended in 1848, and California became an American territory. The transition from Mexican province to American state brought many changes. The hide and tallow trade was disappearing, as the higher cost of beef supplied to the military and new Americans meant the meat was more valuable than the hides. Davis seemingly enjoyed the change in his status from “foreigner” in Alta California to legal resident of a United States territory. The conquest period had tripled his profits because of his sales to the military. And Yerba Buena was supplanting Monterey as California’s most important commercial center, so Davis made a fortune from his Yerba Buena enterprises, including parcels of land he bought before the rush for town lots in the rapidly growing Yerba Buena, now San Francisco.
Ironically, nine days before the end of the war between Mexico and the U.S., gold was discovered at Sutter’s mill. Davis claimed to be the first person to buy gold from a miner in June 1848 when two miners stomped into his store with their gold tied in a doeskin bag.
The year 1849 saw as many as twenty ships a day anchoring almost in front of Davis’s Yerba Buena store. They were filled with Yankees, Chilenos, Chinese, Frenchmen, people from all over the world, seeking gold – and they all needed equipment and supplies. Davis was there to sell it to them.
Riches to rags
The successful merchant/trader now became involved in some grand speculative ventures, some of which were disastrous. His fortune also took a hit when six great fires swept through San Francisco in a period of eighteen months. The last of these in 1851 destroyed the four-story brick building that Davis had built and was leasing to the federal government as a customs house.
Davis developed an ambitious plan to build a new city outside the old pueblo of San Diego. The pueblo, near the presidio, was far from the water’s edge, and Davis felt that a new town nearer the shoreline would prosper as a seaport.
He threw himself into the project, neglecting his San Francisco ventures and ignoring problems such as the lack of water, wood, or arable land near the San Diego shoreline. Huge sums were spent on materials, machinery, and men, including his own new home, the first wood frame building in San Diego. For Maria, the founding of American San Diego meant forsaking their fine San Francisco home and moving far from her family in San Leandro. After moving to San Diego, Davis resigned from many remaining northern financial interests, cutting ties with the expanding maritime prosperity of San Francisco.
New Town San Diego simply did not attract the population Davis and his partners expected. By late 1851, having lost a fortune, the Davises left San Diego to live with Maria’s parents in San Leandro.
Next month’s column: Davis in San Leandro and his final years.
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