The story of Mary Chase Walker is recounted often at the Mason Street Schoolhouse in Old Town. Groups of fourth-graders shuffle into the little wooden classroom several times each weekday to hear about San Diego’s first teacher, as Walker is often described. They also learn something about school life in 1865. And invariably, they’re told that Walker finally got married and for that reason had to quit her job. The teachers undoubtedly believe this; they probably were taught the same story. But it isn’t true. Now, some historical fudging is understandable, and the Mary-as-first-schoolmarm notion probably falls into that category. As early as 1795 (26 years after Father Serra’s arrival), classes were being conducted in the Presidio, and over the next several decades “civil governors of both Spain and Mexico...made feeble attempts to establish rudimentary school systems," according to one historian.
All vestiges of those attempts had disappeared by the time California achieved statehood in 1850. San Diego’s early American inhabitants eventually turned their attention to education, and the first city-supported school opened (in a rented room in the local sheriffs house) in January of 1851, taught by a Mexican-American war hero named William Toler. He only held the job for five months, and by 1854 San Diego’s “ragged little urchins...the offspring of the rich as well as the poor” were still roaming the streets “in a state of [unschooled] semi-barbarism,” according to the San Diego Herald. That year, the city finally organized a school district, and a series of different teachers conducted classes from 1854 on. But it wasn’t until 1865 that the first public school building was constructed, and the first educator to preside there was Mary Chase Walker.
The town had to import her. By the mid-1860s, San Diego County (a vast entity including today’s Imperial and Riverside counties) counted only between 4000 and 5000 inhabitants, most of them Indians. Shortages of all kinds of skilled labor were common. San Diego school trustees applied for help from the state superintendent of education in San Francisco. Mary had arrived in Northern California late in the spring of 1865. She would have been about 37, a confirmed spinster by the standards of the day. The one existing photo of her, taken sometime in the 1870s, shows her glossy dark hair pulled back from her face to fall in fat coils down the back of her neck. Her face is unlined, her eyes deep-set. There’s no stiffness in her pose. Rather, the camera seems to have caught her gazing calmly and attentively at some unseen object.
Virtually the only information about her pre-California history comes from a San Diego Union article published in the 1890s. It reported she was born in Methuen, Massachusetts, in 1828, and began to teach when she was just 15, earning $4 a month and board. By 1861 her monthly wages had risen to almost $34. Around then, she decided to further her own education and in 1864 received a public school teaching certificate from the State Normal School in Framingham, Massachusetts. But by that time, the Civil War had caused Massachusetts teachers’ salaries to be cut in half, and Mary set off to improve her fortunes in the West. She paid $375 for tickets on steamers that traveled to the West Coast via Panama. (Most travelers crossed the Isthmus by railroad.) In the course of the four-week voyage, she and other passengers learned of Lincoln’s assassination.
In San Francisco, she found that 60 other people already were applying for teaching jobs there. San Diego, on the other hand, needed help immediately and was willing to pay a teacher $65 per month. So Mary embarked on the three-day sea voyage down the coast, traveling in a side-paddled steamer whose motion made her seasick. A teenaged stewardess befriended her, but Mary’s spirits sank when the boat entered the mouth of San Diego Bay on the looming of July 5, 1865. “Oh the strangely foreign look as I stepped from my state room and stood on deck, as the steamer came to anchor,” she would recall in a reminiscence written 33 years later. “The hills were brown and barren, not a tree or green thing to be seen. A most desolate-looking landscape. The Government Barracks and two or three houses greeted my sight. Simply this and nothing more.
“I said to the Capt. in dismay, ’Is this San Diego.' He replied ‘No, the town is four miles away.’ I saw a merry twinkle in his eye, which I afterwards interpreted as meaning, ‘Won’t this Yankee school ma’am be surprised when she sees the town.’ Wild-looking horsemen flourishing their riatas (lariats] were coming from different directions toward the landing. The very gait of the horses seemed different from anything I had seen before."
The steamer’s mooring point was just off where F Street now meets the waterfront. Fifteen years before Mary’s arrival, a small group of visionaries had tried to develop this area (today’s downtown San Diego), but Old Town had stubbornly remained the center of wealth and population. In fact, the downtown wharf had even been burned for fuel during the Civil War. In her memoir, Mary recorded that most of the steamer’s passengers were loaded into little boats and rowed to shallow water, then were carried on the backs of sailors to shore. “Fortunately for me," Mary added, “a little skiff was over from the lighthouse, which saved me the humiliating experience meted out to others."
“Once on shore I was placed with my trunk in the wagon awaiting me, and we started for Old Town.” Some historians have Mary being greeted at the steamer by the three school trustees who had sent for her, certainly she would have met them shortly after her arrival. But her own account omits that encounter, even though one of the trustees, Efraim Morse, would become one of the most central figures in her life.
In the summer of 1865, Morse was just short of his 45th birthday, and he must have cut a handsome figure. Later photos reveal aristocratic features, a thick head of hair, a luxuriant beard, eyes both kindly and penetrating. He too was a Massachusetts native and a former schoolteacher, one who had journeyed to San Francisco with the great wave of ’49ers. But he got sick in the gold fields and decided to make his fortune in San Diego. Here he arrived in 1850, just in time to join William Davis and the other men trying to develop a city center by the bay. Morse and a partner started a general store in “Davistown,” but bad luck dogged them. Indians killed the partner in the 1851 uprising at the Warner Ranch. New Town foundered, and in 1853 Morse instead launched into the fluid society at Old Town. For a while he ran a store with Thomas Whaley, then he opened his own modest emporium, but it took him to the brink of bankruptcy. Morse then tried raising sheep and cattle on Mt. Palomar. By 1861, he again returned to Old Town and opened another general store; he also became an agent for Wells Fargo. Throughout all these ventures, he was neck-deep in civic activism. In 1852, when he was just 32 (and had only been in town for two years), he was elected associate justice of the San Diego County Court of Sessions. (He wasn’t even a lawyer, though he did eventually become one in 1856.) He served as a city trustee, as county treasurer, as deputy sheriff, and postmaster. And he was one of the first members of the school board.