San Diego boundary commissioner Robert Effinger writes home to Ohio

San Diego resembled nothing more or less than an Indian Village

"Other visitors at that time called it 'a miserable seaport town.’"
  • "Other visitors at that time called it 'a miserable seaport town.’"
  • Image by San Diego Historical Society




SDSU, 1986

The San Diego Historical Society has all 11 of Effinger’s letters. Schille’s thesis is at the SDSU library.

Two events that changed the West happened almost simultaneously. On January 24.1849, gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill. Nine days later, Mexico signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. This ceded Alta California to the United States. Article V of the treaty stipulated that commissioners from Mexico and the U.S. meet in San Diego and mark the boundary line between the two countries.

In 1849 an estimated 100,000 people, mostly males, came to California in search of gold. They sailed around Cape Horn, or came overland through Mexico and the Southwest, or across the malaria-infested Isthmus of Panama.

Early in 1849, 23-year-old Robert Patterson Effinger left Ohio with several friends. They headed for San Francisco and the gold fields. At a stop in New Orleans, Effinger met Colonel John B. Weller, head of the U.S. Boundary Commission. Even though he “disliked” Weller, Effinger signed on “as part of his retinue —at the expense of Uncle Sam.”

He became officer in charge of stores.

Effinger spent six months — from June 10 to November 28, 1849 — in and around San Diego, marking the U.S.-Mexican border. He wrote 11 letters to his family in Lancaster, Ohio.

Effinger never described his work. He wrote quickly, in “snatches,” and always with a sense that negative comments might come back to haunt him. “People (in San Diegoj live to a remarkable age — I know women here who are great-grandmothers and yet look younger than Mrs. Daugherty — yet by this I would not wish to intimate that Mrs. D. is getting old or that she could become a great-grandmother by emigrating to California.”

Effinger’s letters paint a stark picture of California. He sees a raw country, ravaged by greed and illusion: “No place under God’s heaven has been more misrepresented — the only reason why one half of the emigrants don’t turn back is because they are out of funds & the other half keep moving out of false pride.”

To Effinger, Schille writes, “San Diego resembled 'nothing more or less than an Indian Village’.... There were none of the amenities of the established eastern communities...no hotels, no boarding houses. The once-flourishing Mission of San Diego was now old and deserted.... Other visitors at that time called it 'a miserable seaport town.’"

Effinger considered himself superior to nonwhites. Traveling west was part of his “manifest destiny.” As Schille writes: “Effinger encountered people different from himself, and his comments revealed his racial prejudice, his anti-Catholic sentiment, and his strong ethnocentrism. In this he was not unlike many who came to San Diego at [that] time.”*


  1. "It would be utterly impossible for one to write an interesting letter from this section of the country — that word forming no part of the character of the country — San Diego is a little mud town composed of about 40 adobe houses not one of which will compare either in comfort or size with that little rickety-old-shanty ...at the foot of the hill leading from the Methodist church [in Lancaster]."
  2. "The hardships which the gold seeker in California has to endure are much greater than that of a soldier in time of war — the latter has a government to feed & clothe him — Independant of his own exertions he need never fear dying by starvation — the Campaigner in California has to battle against all the elements of God and all the passions of man."
  3. "You can form no idea of what a desparate Country we live in — without law, order, or the gospel.... There are now about 400 Americans at San Diego...having nothing to engage their attention and plenty of whiskey to drink — having neither the fear of man or God before their eyes — the wonder is that crime is not more frequent."
  4. "The only food a Californian cares for is beef & milk — with the exception of the short space devoted to this repast, and sleep, the rest of his time is spent on horseback."
  5. "In California there are no seasons — the climate & temperature are the same the whole year round with the exception that during the months of November, December, January & February it rains occasionally — One becomes about as tired of the monotony of the climate as he does the sameness of the country."
  6. "The greatest sport in this country is dancing. All the California women waltz beautifully. Our balls chiefly consist in Spanish dances and polkas — a few quadrilles & country dances are generally introduced for the benefit of those who cannot waltz — they commence dancing here about 10 o' clock in the evening and keep it up until broad daylight in the morning."
  7. "By a regular mathematical computation I have arrived at the result that a dollar & fifty cents goes about as far here as two bits will at home."

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