San Pedro Stories: 1830s Embarcadero
The following “stories” paint a picture of the earliest days of San Pedro as the embarcadero for Mission San Gabriel and Pueblo de los Angeles. The article by Guinn covers the development of the San Pedro and Wilmington harbors from the discovery of the bay to the end of the 19th century. The article by Polly tells the story of the first ship built in Los Angeles. The other stories focus on the decade of 1829 to 1839 from the perspective of British and American seamen.
Historic Seaports of Los Angeles by J.M. Guinn
(from Publications of the Historical Society of Southern California, Vol. 5, Pt. 1, 1900, pgs 60-69)
Description by Alfred Robinson
(circa 1829/1830, from Life in California, 1846, pg 37-39)
“The harbor of St. Pedro is an extensive bay, and, although not considered a safe anchorage during the winter months, when the southeast wind prevails, yet vessels frequently embark and discharge their cargoes here at all seasons of the year. The best anchorage is close under the northwest point of the bay, about three quarters of a mile outside of a small and rocky island; and the same distance from the beach. There is a house at the landing-place which generally serves as a land-mark, in connection with the preceding locations, and vessels usually, in the mild season of the year, bring this to bear W.N.W., whilst the point lies S.W. by S., and the island N.E. From the month of October, till the beginning of May, vessels anchor at least a mile outside of these bearings, and ships are necessarily prepared for slipping their cables, and getting under way, should the wind, as is often the case, chop in suddenly from the S.E. The holding ground is good; of stiff mud, in four and a half to nine fathoms.
As we anticipated, our friends came in the morning, flocking on board from all quarters; and soon a busy scene commenced, afloat and ashore. Boats were plying to and fro—launches laden with the variety of our cargo passing to the beach, and men, women, and children crowding upon our decks, partaking in the general excitement. On shore all was confusion. Cattle and carts laden with hides and tallow, "gente de razon" and Indians, busily employed in the delivery of their produce, and receiving in return its value in goods; groups of individuals seated around little bonfires upon the ground, and horsemen racing over the plain in every direction. Thus the day passed; some departing, some arriving; till long after sunset the low white road leading across the plain to the town, appeared a living panorama.
Due north from the place of anchorage is a narrow creek, communicating with a shallow basin, operated upon by the tides, where at this time thousands of hair-seal might be seen at low water, basking on the sand-banks. The channel here when at full flood has ten feet of water over the bar; so that, in moderate weather, vessels drawing nine feet can easily pass over, and anchor sufficiently near the shore to discharge their cargoes without the aid of launches. With very little expense it might be made a place of anchorage for large ships, either by digging out and deepening the present channel, or by closing up another outlet to the north of the island, which would bring the whole strength of the current through one passage, and thus wash away its sandy bottom.”
Banning’s dream, over ten years later, of a New San Pedro may have been inspired by the above passage.
In addition to hides and tallow, the trade in sea otter furs was very lucrative by 1830. The furs were highly valued in China and Yankee traders on their way to the orient would buy all they could get. The trade decimated the sea otter population. In those days, a decline in a commercially valued population resulted in their increased exploitation—everybody wanted to get in on the profits before they were gone. The result was Russian poaching at San Pedro and Catalina and the construction of the first 3 ships built in southern California (the Santa Barbara in 1828 by Michael White at Santa Barbara with timber salvaged from the first recorded shipwreck at San Pedro, the Guadalupe in 1830 by Joseph Chapman, et.al.—built at the Mission San Gabriel and launched in San Pedro, and the schooner El Rufugio built by—or for—William Wolfskill at San Pedro circa 1831-32)
Shipbuilding at the San Gabriel Mission by Frank J. Polly
(1831, from Publications of the Historical Society of Southern California, Vol. 3, Pt. 3, 1895, pgs 34-39)
Descriptions and Stories by Richard Henry Dana
(circa 1835, from Two Tears before the Mast, 1911 Edition, E. Boyd Smith, illus.)
The most famous descriptions and stories of San Pedro in the 1830s are from Dana’s picturesque narrative of life on a Yankee trader.
First Impressions and Hard Labors (pg 115-120)
“The land was of a clayey quality, and, as far as the eye could reach, entirely bare of trees and even shrubs; and there was no sign of a town, — not even a house to be seen. What brought us into such a place, we could not conceive. No sooner had we come to anchor, than the slip-rope, and the other preparations for southeasters, were got ready; and there was reason enough for it, for we lay exposed to every wind that could blow, except the northerly winds, and they came over a flat country with a rake of more than a league of water.
As soon as everything was snug on board, the boat was lowered, and we pulled ashore, our new officer, who had been several times in the port before, taking the place of steersman. As we drew in, we found the tide low, and the rocks and stones, covered with kelp and seaweed, lying bare for the distance of nearly an eighth of a mile. Leaving the boat, and picking our way barefooted over these, we came to what is called the landing-place, at high-water mark. The soil was, as it appeared at first, loose and clayey, and, except the stalks of the mustard plant, there was no vegetation. Just in front of the landing, and immediately over it, was a small hill, which, from its being not more than thirty or forty feet high, we had not perceived from our anchorage. Over this hill we saw three men coming down, dressed partly like sailors and partly like Californians; one of them having on a pair of untanned leather trousers and a red baize shirt.
When they reached us, we found that they were Englishmen. They told us that they had belonged to a small Mexican brig which had been driven ashore here in a southeaster, and now lived in a small house just over the hill. Going up this hill with them, we saw, close behind it, a small, low building, with one room, containing a fireplace, cooking apparatus, &c., and the rest of it unfinished, and used as a place to store hides and goods. This, they told us, was built by some traders in the Pueblo (a town about thirty miles in the interior, to which this was the port), and used by them as a storehouse, and also as a lodging place when they came down to trade with the vessels. These three men were employed by them to keep the house in order, and to look out for the things stored in it.
They said that they had been there nearly a year; had nothing to do most of the time, living upon beef, hard bread, and frijoles, a peculiar kind of bean, very abundant in California. The nearest house, they told us, was a Rancho, or cattle-farm, about three miles off; and one of them went there, at the request of our officer, to order a horse to be sent down, with which the agent, who was on board, might go up to the Pueblo. From one of them, who was an intelligent English sailor, I learned a good deal, in a few minutes' conversation, about the place, its trade, and the news from the southern ports...
I also learned, to my surprise, that the desolate-looking place we were in furnished more hides than any port on the coast. It was the only port for a distance of eighty miles, and about thirty miles in the interior was a fine plane country, filled with herds of cattle, in the centre of which was the Pueblo de los Angeles, — the largest town in California, — and several of the wealthiest missions; to all of which San Pedro was the seaport.
Having made arrangements for a horse to take the agent to the Pueblo the next day, we picked our way again over the green, slippery rocks, and pulled toward the brig, which was so far off that we could hardly see her, in the increasing darkness; and when we got on board the boats were hoisted up, and the crew at supper. Going down into the forecastle, eating our supper, and lighting our cigars and pipes, we had, as usual, to tell what we had seen or heard ashore. We all agreed that it was the worst place we had seen yet, especially for getting off hides, and our lying off at so great a distance looked as though it was bad for southeasters. After a few disputes as to whether we should have to carry our goods up the hill, or not, we talked of San Diego, the probability of seeing the Lagoda before she sailed, &c., &c.
The next day we pulled the agent ashore, and he went up to visit the Pueblo and the neighboring missions; and in a few days, as the result of his labors, large ox-carts, and droves of mules, loaded with hides, were seen corning over the flat country. We loaded our long-boat with goods of all kinds, light and heavy, and pulled ashore. After landing and rolling them over the stones upon the beach, we stopped, waiting for the carts to come down the hill and take them; but the captain soon settled the matter by ordering us to carry them all up to the top, saying that that was "California fashion." So, what the oxen would not do, we were obliged to do.
The hill was low, but steep, and the earth, being clayey and wet with the recent rains, was but bad holding ground for our feet. The heavy barrels and casks we rolled up with some difficulty, getting behind and putting our shoulders to them; now and then our feet, slipping, added to the danger of the casks rolling back upon us. But the greatest trouble was with the large boxes of sugar. These we had to place upon oars, and, lifting them up, rest the oars upon our shoulders, and creep slowly up the hill with the gait of a funeral procession. After an hour or two of hard work, we got them all up, and found the carts standing full of hides, which we had to unload, and to load the carts again with our own goods; the lazy Indians, who came down with them, squatting on their hams, looking on, doing nothing, and when we asked them to help us, only shaking their heads, or drawling out "no quiero."
Having loaded the carts, we started up the Indians, who went off, one on each side of the oxen, with long sticks, sharpened at the end, to punch them with. This is one of the means of saving labor in California, — two Indians to two oxen. Now, the hides were to be got down; and for this purpose we brought the boat round to a place where the hill was steeper, and threw them off, letting them slide over the slope. Many of them lodged, and we had to let ourselves down and set them a-going again, and in this way became covered with dust, and our clothes torn.
After we had the hides all down, we were obliged to take them on our heads, and walk over the stones, and through the water, to the boat. The water and the stones together would wear out a pair of shoes a day, and as shoes were very scarce and very dear, we were compelled to go barefooted. At night we went on board, having had the hardest and most disagreeable day's work that we had yet experienced.
For several days we were employed in this manner, until we had landed forty or fifty tons of goods, and brought on board about two thousand hides, when the trade began to slacken, and we were kept at work on board during the latter part of the week, either in the hold or upon the rigging.”
Dead Man’s Island, Wildlife and Southeasters (pg 128-131)
“The next day was Sunday. We worked, as usual, washing decks, &c., until breakfast-time. After breakfast we pulled the captain ashore, and, finding some hides there which had been brought down the night before, he ordered me to stay ashore and... I spent a quiet day on the hill, eating dinner with the three men at the little house. Unfortunately they had no books; and, after talking with them, and walking about, I began to grow tired of doing nothing. The little brig, the home of so much hardship and suffering, lay in the offing, almost as far as one could see; and the only other thing which broke the surface of the great bay was a small, dreary-looking island, steep and conical, of a clayey soil, and without the sign of vegetable life upon it, yet which had a peculiar and melancholy interest, for on the top of it were buried the remains of an Englishman, the commander of a small merchant brig, who died while lying in this port.
It was always a solemn and affecting spot to me. There it stood, desolate, and in the midst of desolation; and there were the remains of one who died and was buried alone and friendless. Had it been a common burying place, it would have been nothing. The single body corresponded well with the solitary character of everything around. It was the only spot in California that impressed me with anything like poetic interest. Then, too, the man died far from home, without a friend near him, — by poison, it was suspected, and no one to inquire into it, — and without proper funeral rites; the mate (as I was told), glad to have him out of the way, hurrying him up the hill and into the ground, without a word or a prayer...
I went up to the house to supper. We had frijoles (the perpetual food of the Californians, but which, when well cooked, are the best bean in the world), coffee made of burnt wheat, and hard bread. After our meal, the three men sat down by the light of a tallow candle, with a pack of greasy Spanish cards, to the favorite game of "treinte uno," a sort of Spanish "everlasting." I left them and went out to take up my bivouac among the hides. It was now dark; the vessel was hidden from sight, and except the three men in the house there was not a living soul within a league. The coyotes (a wild animal of a nature and appearance between that of the fox and the wolf) set up their sharp, quick bark, and two owls, at the end of two distant points running out into the bay, on different sides of the hill where I lay, kept up their alternate dismal notes. I had heard the sound before at night, but did not know what it was, until one of the men, who came down to look at my quarters, told me it was the owl. Mellowed by the distance, and heard alone, at night, it was a most melancholy and boding sound. Through nearly all the night they kept it up, answering one another slowly at regular intervals. This was relieved by the noisy coyotes, some of which came quite near to my quarters, and were not very pleasant neighbors. The next morning, before sunrise, the long-boat came ashore, and the hides were taken off.
We lay at San Pedro about a week, engaged in taking off hides and in other labors, which had now become our regular duties. I spent one more day on the hill, watching a quantity of hides and goods, and this time succeeded in finding a part of a volume of Scott's Pirate in a corner of the house; but it failed me at a most interesting moment, and I betook myself to my acquaintances on shore, and from them learned a good deal about the customs of the country, the harbors, &c. This, they told me, was a worse harbor than Santa Barbara for southeasters, the bearing of the headland being a point and a half more to windward, and it being so shallow that the sea broke often as far out as where we lay at anchor. The gale for which we slipped at Santa Barbara had been so bad a one here, that the whole bay, for a league out, was filled with the foam of the breakers, and seas actually broke over the Dead Man's Island. The Lagoda was lying there, and slipped at the first alarm, and in such haste that she was obliged to leave her launch behind her at anchor. The little boat rode it out for several hours, pitching at her anchor, and standing with her stern up almost perpendicularly. The men told me that they watched her till towards night, when she snapped her cable and drove up over the breakers high and dry upon the beach.”
Encounter with a Whale (pg 168-169)
This being the spring season, San Pedro, as well as all the other open ports. upon the coast, was filled with whales, that had come in to make their annual visit upon soundings. For the first few days that we were here and at Santa Barbara, we watched them with great interest, calling out "There she blows!" every time we saw the spout of one breaking the surface of the water; but they soon became so common that we took little notice of them. They often "broke" very near us, and one thick, foggy night, during a dead calm, while I was standing anchor-watch, one of them rose so near that he struck our cable, and made all surge again. He did not seem to like the encounter much himself, for he sheered off, and spouted at a good distance. We once came very near running one down in the gig, and should probably have been knocked to pieces or thrown skyhigh.
We had been on board the little Spanish brig, and were returning, stretching out well at our oars, the little boat going like a swallow; our faces were turned aft (as is always the case in pulling), and the captain, who was steering, was not looking out when, all at once, we heard the spout of a whale directly ahead. "Back water! back water, for your lives!" shouted the captain; and we backed our blades in the water, and brought the boat to in a smother of foam. Turning our heads, we saw a great, rough, hump-backed whale slowly crossing our fore foot, within three or four yards of the boat's stem. Had we not backed water just as we did, we should inevitably have gone smash upon him, striking him with our stem just about amidships. He took no notice of us, but passed slowly on, and dived a few yards beyond us, throwing his tail high in the air. He was so near that we had a perfect view of him, and, as may be supposed, had no desire to see him nearer.
The Hide House Tailor (pgs 311-313)
“There was but one man in the only house here, and him I shall always remember as a good specimen of a California ranger. He had been a tailor in Philadelphia, and, getting intemperate and in debt, joined a trapping party, and went to the Columbia River, and thence down to Monterey, where he spent everything, left his party, and came to the Pueblo de los Angeles to work at his trade. Here he went dead to leeward among the pulperias, gambling-rooms, &c., and came down to San Pedro to be moral by being out of temptation. He had been in the house several weeks, working hard at his trade, upon orders which he had brought with him, and talked much of his resolution, and opened his heart to us about his past life. After we had been here some time, he started off one morning, in fine spirits, well dressed, to carry the clothes which he had been making to the pueblo, and saying that he would bring back his money and some fresh orders the next day.
The next day came, and a week passed, and nearly a fortnight, when one day, going ashore, we saw a tall man, who looked like our friend the tailor, getting out of the back of an Indian's cart, which had just come down from the pueblo. He stood for the house, but we bore up after him; when, finding that we were overhauling him, he hove-to and spoke us. Such a sight! Barefooted, with an old pair of trousers tied round his waist by a piece of green hide, a soiled cotton shirt, and a torn Indian hat; "cleaned out" to the last real, and completely "used up." He confessed the whole matter; acknowledged that he was on his back; and now he had a prospect of a fit of the horrors for a week, and of being worse than useless for months. This is a specimen of the life of half of the Americans and English who are adrift along the coasts of the Pacific and its islands, — commonly called "beach-combers."
Last Farewell (pgs 322-323)
“Two days brought us to San Pedro, and two days more (to our no small joy) gave us our last view of that place, which was universally called the hell of California, and seemed designed in every way for the wear and tear of sailors.
Not even the last view could bring out one feeling of regret. No thanks, thought I, as we left the hated shores in the distance, for the hours I have walked over your stones barefooted, with hides on my head, — for the burdens I have carried up your steep, muddy hill, — for the duckings in your surf; and for the long days and longer nights passed on your desolate hill, watching piles of hides, hearing the sharp bark of your eternal coyotes, and the dismal hooting of your owls.”
Description by Sir Edward Belcher
(1839, from Narrative of a Voyage Round the World, 1843, pgs 322-323)
“On the evening of the 11th of October, on opening the bay of San Pedro, we noticed several lights, which, by the aid of the night glasses, were discovered to belong to vessels at anchor. This relieved us much; for having suddenly shoaled from fifteen to five fathoms rocky, we had tacked off shore. In a short time, we anchored amongst the vessels in seven fathoms, when the masters of two American ships immediately came on board to offer their services, and the following morning those also of two brigs.
The bay of San Pedro, which is situated in latitude 33° 43' N., longitude 118° 14' W., is open to the south-west, but tolerably sheltered from the north-west. Inside of the small island in the bay is a very snug creek, but only accessible to small craft, by reason of a rocky bar, having only at low-water springs five feet.
The only house near the bay is supplied with water from some miles inland; and I am informed that at times the inhabitants are in great distress. It is only maintained for the convenience of trading with the vessels which touch here for the purchase of hides and tallow. Two of these vessels, under American colours, we visited, and found them fitted up transversely abaft the mainmast as shops, containing mostly hardware and linen drapery, which are much sought after by the farmers, who take them in part payment of their hides and tallow. We found some of their goods very useful to us, after so long an absence from cutlery shops.
The cliffs of the western sides of the bay, which form the beach line, are very steep, about fifty feet perpendicular, descending from an elevated range, about five hundred feet above the sea. They are composed of a loose mud, mixed with lumps of a chalky substance, enclosing organic remains, sometimes running into chert or chalcedony.”
Abel Stearns, John Temple and David Alexander added additional facilities to the hide house location, established freighting services, and opened stores in Los Angeles to handle the increased commerce from the growing population and Pacific trade but the rate of change didn't take off until after the Gold Rush, California statehood, and the Yankee "invasion" in the 1850s.