J. P Munro-Fraser.

History of Solano County...and histories of its cities, towns...etc. .. online

. (page 17 of 57)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

the land and perhaps found a city upon the Straits, whereby to make him-
self great, and perhaps perpetuate his name. At a subsequent visit, about
this time, late in 1847, or early in 1848, to carry his design into effect, he
found he was too late, the chivalrous son of Kentucky having anticipated
him and gained the prize. In full faith, however, of the future greatness
of the place, he obtained a number of its vacant lots, determined to share in
the development then so confidently looked for, but died ere he saw any
likelihood of his dreams being realized. On Cemetery Hill his resting-
place is marked by a plain, white marble monumental shaft, bearing this

inscription: —

The Mountaineer's Grave,

Here he sleeps, near the Western Ocean's wave !

Miles M. Goodyear,

Born in New Haven, Conn., February 24, 1818.

Died in California, November 12, 1849.

Selected as his future home, Benicia, where he wished to live, and to be
buried at his death.

Dr. Semple was one of the remarkable men of his day and generation.
When standing erect he was about seven feet in height, and being rather
spare in figure did not impress one as being well proportioned. His hands
and feet were large, as well as his mouth, which was seldom untenanted by
a chew of his favorite tobacco. He was so long limbed that when astride
of a mustang or mule, his feet nearly reached to the ground (within six
inches), rendering it necessary for him to attach his spurs to the calves of
his boots instead of to his heels. From having to stoop so much when
entering or leaving doors of ordinary dimensions, his form was somewhat
bent, and it seemed necessary for him not to stand upright, in order the
more conveniently to carry on conversation with his fellow-men. In tem-
perament he was sanguine and impulsive, in disposition kind and con-
siderate, but quite determined to have his own way, in judgment rather
erratic, and disinclined to accept the counsel or advice of others, feeling
convinced that he knew better than they. Some illustrations of these char-
acteristics may possibly appear in the course of this narrative.

It is related of him that a few weeks after his marriage, business called


him to Monterey. Crossing the Straits with his horse on the open scow
ferry-boat, he left directions with the ferrryman to be on the lookout for
his return. After wending his way through San Ramon Valley, San Jose
and Salinas, to his destination, in the course of two or three weeks he was
back again to where Martinez now stands, but the boat was on the Benicia
side, and all the signals he could make failed to induce Captain Davis to
venture out against the strong head wind that was blowing, and the Doc-
tor had to sleep on the ground in his blankets. This state of things con-
tinued for two days, and on the third the patience and endurance of the
Doctor having been tried to the utmost, he considered that something must
be done to enable him to reach home. He could not swim, and even if he
could, a swim of two or three miles was a hazardous undertaking, so he
finally managed to secure two or three pieces of scantling and a plank,
with which by the aid of his riata he improvised a raft, on which with a
fair wind and tide he set out astride, pushing himself along as best he
could. An hour or two later he was discovered by some of the friends on
shore, who did not know what to make of the singular looking object ar-
rayed in a bright colored serapa, and holding aloft a signal violently wav-
ving. A boat was immediately manned and sent to his relief, and great was
the surprise and joy of the men when they found they had rescued the fore-
most man of the village. His objurgations on account of the apparent neglect
to which he had been subjected were rather more emphatic and vehement than
classic or polite, but good humor was soon restored, congratulations ex-
tended, jokes cracked, and the Doctor's health drank in something stronger
than water. In fact the Doctor had water enough in getting across. They
got up a yarn that he was wading across, which made him mad.

A year or two later, the doctor had his scow ferry boat worked by horse-
power, having fortunately come into possession of two such machines, for
which there was no other use.

Four years latter, when Capt. 0. C. Coffin put on the steam ferry boat
" Ion," which could go against wind and tide, the Dr. was heard to apostro-
phise steam, and sing in praise of Fulton, who had first succeeded in
harnessing it to such use.

Hitherto the immigration into California has been attracted by the fact
that it was a new country, just coming under the jurisdiction of the United
States and likely soon to become a part of its territory. It was known to
have some characteristics of climate peculiarly its own, on the whole rather
pleasant, and it apparently offered the opportunity for that free and easy
out-door life so fascinating to frontiersmen. To the vivid imagination, the
land of the getting sun was some degrees nearer paradise than any in the
same latitude on the continent, and doubtless it would gradually have
developed into an ordinarily prosperous and inviting country. But what
might have been is not in order to discuss. The turning point in its destiny
had now been reached.


Simultaneously with the signing of the treaty at Guadalupe Hildalgo, in
February, 1848, occurred that wonderful discovery near Sutter's Mill at
Coloma, which soon afterward electrified the nation, set the whole world in
motion, and has since been the means of adding a thousand millions to the
gold and silver treasures of the earth. It was a month or two before the
incredulity of Californians could be overcome, and their belief in the reality
of the discovery assured.

Early in April, the men of Benicia who usually congregated at Von
Pfister's rendezvous, were sitting there discussing the future prospects of
the country under its new ownership, and the conversation turned upon
coal mines, and the great advantage that would result from their discovery,
which was much hoped for. They little dreamed that within 25 miles of
them, among the foot-hills near Mt. Diablo, the " Black Diamond " mines
were awaiting the prying eyes of the prospector. During the conversation,
a man named Bennett, who had been engaged with John W. Marshall, at
Coloma, in building a mill for Gen'l Sutter, and who was on his way to
Monterey, listened quietly for some time, and finally said that something
better than a coal mine had been discovered where he had been at work,
something which was believed to be gold, and General Sutter had paid his
expenses to Monterey to see Gen'l Mason, and have some specimens that he
had with him tested, no acid being obtainable at Sutter's Fort. He then
displayed about four ounces in small pieces such as had been discovered
when the water was first applied to turn the mill. Of course this display
produced a profound impression, and much difference of opinion was ex-
pressed, Dr. Semple declaring that he would give more for a good coal mine
than all the gold mines that were likely to be discovered.

Bennett went on his journey, and had not been gone more than 5 or 6
days when a number of Mormons came along with quantities of the shining
dust, fully convinced it was gold. Sam Brannan, who had been up to
Sutter's Mill to learn the truth of the gold discovery, stopped at Benicia on
his return to the Bay, said to Von Pfister : " Come, Von, break up here and
go in copartnership with me, and we will establish a business near this new
gold mine." Von Pfister did so, put all his goods on Dr. Semple's ferry boat,
hoisted a sail, made the trip to Sacramento (then known as the " embarca-
dero "), and in due time arrived at Coloma. On the return of the ferry
boat to Martinez after an absence of two weeks, there were 40 or 50 wagons
waiting to cross the straits on their way to the new El Dorado.

Von Pfister continued in business with Brannan until October, when he
sold out to another partner of Brannan's at Sutter's Fort, named Stout
being moved thereto by grief at the loss of his brother who had. just arrived
from Honolulu, and who was inhumanly murdered by an entire stranger on
the night of his arrival, before Von Pfister, who was temporarily absent
had the opportunity of seeing him. The murderer fled, and Von Pfister


pursued, but after an unavailing search of nearly a year he finally gave up
the chase and returned to Benicia, where for the last quarter of a century
he has constantly resided ; sometimes filling offices of honor if not of profit.

On the night of Sam Brannan's arrival at Benecia a high tide had drifted
Dr. Semple's ferry boat some 200 or 300 yards upon the tule, and leaving
her high and not exactly dry, and disappointing our friend Tustin, who
being engaged getting out lumber for Thos. 0. Larkin, was anxious to get
back to the redwoods, which he had temporarily left for a day or two to
look after his family at Benicia. So he built him a raft of tule reeds some
6 or 8 feet long, making it about 2 feet wide, and a foot thick, on which he
proposed to make the crossing. His friends remonstrated with him and tried
to dissuade him from going, but to no purpose. Go he would, and so with
an old shirt for a sail, and a high wind blowing, he set out. The tide took
him down about two miles to Dillon's point, then it turned, drifting him the
other way, and by the aid of the wind, notwithstanding his frail bark after
getting saturated, bent double under his weight, he finally got across and
landed in a mud flat, where he met a man who wanted to cross over to
Benicia, and who asked him if he might have his raft. He told him yes,
but doubted if it would be of much use to him. However the gift was
accepted and the man had a very hard time getting over, for the tide took
him some distance up Suisun bay, and it was a day or two before he was
rescued, in a forlorn and nearly starved condition. Friend Tustin (now a
successful windmill builder in San Francisco) has since attained to alder-
manic proportions, quite unsuited to the repetition of his rash experiment.

The natural effect upon Benicia, of this gold discovery and excitement,
was to draw away from it its male population, leaving some twelve or
fifteen families of women and children only. In common with all other
settlements near the bay and the sea, it was neglected for the superior
attractions offered by the gold placers. Towards the end of the year, Dr.
Semple realizing that the fame of the gold discovery had now gone abroad
over the whole earth ani foreseeing that there would be a great immigration
into the State, mostly of course by sea, and that sooner than he had antici-
pated his opportunity to found and establish an important commercial city
would be presented, began to cast about for the means and appliances to
aid him in realizing his dream. During the winter of 1848-9 he became
acquainted with Bethuel Phelps, with whom he made a bargain for the
erection of the needed improvements.

As a further step in the way of progress, he formed a copartnership with
Wm. Robinson, John S. Bradford, and L. B. Mizner, under the firm name of
Semple, Robinson & Co., for the transaction of general business. This firm
purchased the Chilian bark " Conf ederacion," with an assorted cargo of East
India goods, and about the 1st of March, 1849, she sailed up to Benicia and
was moored along side the bank to be used as a landing place in lieu of a


wharf. She was dismantled and afterwards known as the " jld hulk," and
most of her cargo was transferred to the mines. To facilitate access to and
from the upland, the firm laid down, across the tule, a large number of
boxes of tobacco, the market already being so glutted with the article as to
render it comparatively valueless. The firm were so well pleased with
their business that within the year they built a substantial two-story ware-
house for its accommodation, a short distance from the landing. Subse-
quently, however, as the town began to grow and competition became
active, the members found attractions in other vocations. Dr. Semple was
elected delegate from Benicia to the Convention which framed the State
Constitution, and was President of the Convention, the labors of which
were completed on the 13th of October. Bradford was elected to the
Senate, and served Solano county in the first session of the Legislature at
San Jose in 1850. He subsequently returned to Illinois and became Mayor
of Springfield. Robinson went to Shasta county and was elected County
Judge. He afterwards joined the fortunes of Gen. Flores in South America.
In September, '49, Mizner and S. K. Nurse started a 4-mule stage or mud-
wagon, making tri-weekly trips from Benicia to Sacramento, connecting
with San Francisco by sloop. This continued a month or two until the
arrival of steamers from the East to be put on the Sacramento river, when
they hauled off their stage " in double quick," as Nurse expresses it, and
sold their mules. Nurse has lived in Denverton since 1854, and has been
Postmaster most of the time. Mizner became a lawyer and removed to
San Francisco, but some ten years since returned to Benicia, where he now
resides. He was State Senator for Solano county in the session of 1871.

Bethuel Phelps was active in the performance of his contract, and during
1849-50 a large number of dwellings and stores were erected, being
occupied before finished and ready. In fact the demand for houses was
greater than the supply. With lumber ranging from $300 to $G00 per thous-
and, sometimes more, and carpenters' wages at $16 to $20 per day, it is not
very surprising that complaint should have been made of slow progress in
building. So the firm of Henry D. Cooke and Wm, M. Stewart, who were
somehow concerned in the sale of the bark " Confederacion " and her cargo
to Dr. Semple, became interested in Benicia, and contributed largely to its
development. Of their agency something may be said after mentioning
others, whose influence was brought to bear in advance of them.

Among the passengers on the bark " Confederacion," from Saucelito to
Benicia, were Gen. Persifer F. Smith, U. S. A., with some of his staff, and
Mr. C. E. Wetmore and wife, who had been in San Francisco since July,
1848. Mr. Wetmore had purchased the house heretofore mentioned as the
first frame built for Dr. Semple, and had come with his family to settle.
Gen. Smith was so convinced of the importance of the point that he imme-
diately entered into negotiation with Semple, the result of which was that


the portion of the town site bordering on Suisun bay was secured for the
Government as a Military Reservation, on which have since been erected
Benicia Arsenal, Benicia Barracks, magazines, hospital, Quartermaster's
store houses, etc., and many troops have from time to time been stationed

Com. Thomas Ap. Catesby Jones, U. S. N., had preceded Gen. Smith a
few weeks, having taken up to Benicia the first Government vessel that
ever entered the straits, the U. S. store ship " Southampton." In honor of
her the shoal water space on the north side of the straits and just west of
Benicia was called Southampton bay, and is known as such to this day.
Special reasons, varying very much from one another, have been given for
conferring this name. Com. Jones was enthusiastic in his admiration of
the site — the harbor and surroundings — and predicted that the commercial
emporium of the coast would here be established. Being in command of
the fleet, he had the vessels severally brought up and anchored in the
harbor for the benefit of the fresh water. The 74-gun ship " Ohio," then
the largest ship in the navy, the frigate " Savannah," the " Congress," the
" Preble," the " Falmouth," the " Vandalia," and the transport " Fredonia,"
were among them. The propeller " Massachusetts " was kept moving on
frequent trips between Benicia and San Francisco.

After the establishment of the military post, the French ship "Julie" was
sent up with stores and moored along side the bank near where Benicia
Arsenal now stands. Col. Silas Casey, TJ. S. A., the first commander of the
post, was quartered on board this old hulk from the 1st of May for some
five months with his family, until quarters were erected for them on shore.
The ribs of this vessel may be seen to this day at low tide, where she finally
sunk at her moorings. Col. Casey had arrived on the ship " Iowa," com-
manded by Capt. John Deming, and having on board Gen. Riley and staff,
two companies of the 2d Infantry, and other troops from Monterey. Gen.
Riley located the Arsenal.

The very favorable opinion expressed, followed by really substantial
movements on the part of such men as Com. Jones, Gen. Smith, Gen. Riley,
and other Government officers, naturally had the effect of inducing a portion
of the immigration then coming into the State to locate at Benicia. Among
the earliest was the Rev. S. Woodbridge, by whose instrumentality a Presby-
terian Church was organized on the 10th of April, which is claimed to have
been the first Protestant church ever founded in California. Among its
original members were Prof. Shepherd, Col. S. Casey, Mr. C. E. Wetmore,
and Mr. 0. P. Evans. Mr. Woodbridge also opened and kept a day school,
and kept the records of the township. In August a school house was built
which was used on Sundays for divine service, under his ministration, for
some two years thereafter. This modest little building, little used of late
years, having been superseded by more pretentious edifices, is still standing,


a monument of the foresight displayed by the founders of the town regard-
ing the educational needs of the hoped-for rising generation. The church
edifice, which took its place in 1851, stood for about 20 years, when it was
taken down and put to other use, the society having disbanded and its
members scattered. Dr. Woodbridge is now pastor of a church lately built
for and named after him in this city near the Mission Dolores.

In April W. S. Ricker and O. P. Evans started a bakery and country
store in the adobe that had been occupied first by Von Pfister. Ricker was
the jovial and Evans the serious man of the firm. Profits were large, but
their small establishment was six months afterwards overshadowed by the
large stocks introduced by the adventurous immigrants that then began to
flock in by way of the sea. Evans was gathered to his fathers more than 20
years ago. Whether Ricker still survives is unknown.

In May the large adobe building known as the California Hotel was
erected. Capt. Von Pfister rented it at $500 per month, and kept it a year,
when he sold out to Capt. Winn. Subsequently it was kept by Major
Cooper, father-in-law of Dr. Semple. During a part of this time, owing to
the great drought of 1850-51, there was a scarcity of such food as is usually
provided at hotel tables. Col. Casey one day asked Mr. Woodbridge about
the fare, and his reply was that they had beef and molasses for breakfast
and molasses and beef for dinner. In those days onions were $2 per pound.
Major Cooper is still living at Colusa, a well preserved man, who will com-
plete his 80th year in March next. For the last 20 years this establishment
has been owned and occupied by Mr. John Rueger and family, and known
as the Benicia Brewery.

Before Col. Casey got his family into quarters on shore in the summer of
1849, he was ordered in command of an expedition for the first exploration
ever made for a railroad route across the Sierra Nevada. The surveying
party, when about 70 miles from the valley of the Sacramento, in the
mountains, were attacked by the Pitt River Indians, and the Engineer
officer in charge, Capt. Warner, was killed. This fact, connected with the
ravages of fever and scurvy, forced a return of the party without fully
accomplishing its object. Col. Casey lay twenty-five days in the mountains
sick with a fever, and all but two, in a party of thirty-five, were taken
sick. Gen. Casey is still living at a ripe old age in Brooklyn, New York, on
the retired list. His son, Commander Casey, U. S. N., is stationed in San

In May F. W. Pettygrove and A. E. Wilson formed a co-partnership for
the transaction of a general business. They built a frame hotel, which
they called the Benicia H ouse. They brought with them from Oregon nine
frame buildings, which were erected in different parts of the town, and
some stand to this day.

On the 7th of June the writer of this sketch, with his young wife, came


upon the scene. The women who ventured to come to California in those
days were few in number, but courageous in spirit. We had left Baltimore
on the last of January ; New York the 15th of March ; crossed the Isthmus
about the 29th; and after a detention of seven weeks in Panama, em-
barked on board the good steamship Panama, Captain Bailey, on the
17th of May, on her first trip to San Francisco, which was accomplished
in seventeen days, calling only at San Diego on the 1st of June. Among
our fellow passengers were Mrs. Fremont and her daughter Lilly, Mrs.
Alfred De Witt, Mrs. Robert Allen (now living in San Francisco,
Hon. Wm. M. Gwinn, John B. Weller, Col. Joseph Hooker, Lieut. Derby
(afterwards known as Squibob and John Phenix), John Bensley, Hall
McAllister, F. F. Low, afterwards Governor of this State, S. W. Holladay,
Dr. S. P. Harris, and other well known citizens that have since attained

Having come to California at the suggestion of my brother-in-law, Mr.
C. E. Wetmore, and on arrival finding him located at Benicia, I was in-
duced to join him there. We formed a co-partnership for the transaction
of a general business, and soon after commenced the erection of a frame
building, 30x60 feet, for a store and warehouse none too large for the exten-
sive stock of goods afloat for us on several vessels then on their way around
Cape Horn, and bound for the land of gold.

With little or no previous experience as business manager (I had thus far
been principally a thorough accountant), and with others to provide for, we
could not see the way clear to locate in San Francisco ; and as it really
seemed an open question which place should take the precedence and
become the commercial center, it was comparatively easy to make up our
minds to settle in the one that apparently possessed the most attractions or
prospective merits, and so our lots were cast in Benicia.

For ten or fifteen years I was satisfied of the correctness of this choice,
and on every return from a temporary visit to San Francisco, or elsewhere,
regarded Benicia as a charming and blessed place, little short of Paradise.
Since then, however, the thought has sometimes occurred that our location
there was a mistake ; but as that is a problem that may not be solved in
this life, the attempt will not be made. It is useless to speculate on ' what
might have been ;' and therefore as our living there has had its influence in
various ways and upon others, probably the wisest conclusion is that ' it
was all for the best.'

Sometime in the summer of 1849, Dr. W. F. Peabody established a hos-
pital, and soon secured a large and paying patronage from returning miners.
After a residence of fifteen years Dr. Peabody located elsewhere, and has
since established himself in San Francisco. [I am happy to say he is a
member of the C. U., &c] His former associate in the hospital, Mr. J. W.
Jones, has remained in Benicia to this day, a well known business man, and


prominent citizen. In July and August ships began to arrive in numbers,
bringing adventurers, some of whom, with their stocks of goods, thought
best to locate in Benicia. Among these were Webb, Beveridge, and Miller,
and McConkey & Hall, with goods from Baltimore (per " Greyhound," and
" Jane Parker "), brought upon brig " Josephine," and bark " Hebe," and J.
Hatch & Co., who had come from Boston on the " Edward Everett."

The ship " Leonore," which arrived in Benicia on the 8th July, brought
the first side-wheel steamer ever built in California. It was framed at the
East, put together at Benicia, and finished about the middle of August.
They called her the " New England," but her machinery proved to be so
powerfully weak as to render her practically useless for a steamboat.
During the summer three other small steamboats were built here, called re-