How People Lived in Old Town

Ephraim Morse general store ledgers tell a lot

Old Town from Presidio Hill, c. 1867
  • Old Town from Presidio Hill, c. 1867
  • San Diego Historical Society photo

Knott takes a shopkeeper’s ledger, dated 1863-64, reads between the lines, and reveals insights about the everyday lives of San Diegans in that period.

Finding which store the ledger came from involved detective work. In 1864, there were only two general merchandise stores, one in Old Town, the other in La Playa — “four hide houses, four stores, one custom house ‘ramshackle,’ one ‘hotel of sorts,’ and a few scattered dwellings” — west of Old Town. Since a majority of the customers on the ledger listed Old Town as their home, that must have been the location.

San Diego had no newspaper in 1863 — the Herald folded in 1859 and the Union began in 1868 —- so Knott couldn’t check newspaper ads to determine ownership. A letter from San Francisco, dated “Jan’y 15/64” and regarding the sale of greenbacks, confirmed that Ephraim W. Morse, who noted the sale in the ledger, owned the store in question.

Bom in Amesbury, Massachusetts, Morse came to California with “gold fever,” on a ship loaded with merchandise. He tried mining along the Yuba River, but his health declined. Many believe that Morse read Richard Henry Dana’s book, Two Years Before the Mast, about his voyage to California from 1834-36, and decided to try his luck here.

Dana’s description of the harbor could have convinced Morse. “San Diego," Dana writes, “was a small, snug place, having very little trade, but decidedly the best harbor on the coast, being completely land-locked, and the water as smooth as a duck-pond. This was the depot for all the vessels engaged in.. .trade; each one having a large house there.”

Morse and his partner, Levi Slack, arrived in 1850 and opened a shop in Davistown, which later became Alonzo Horton’s “New San Diego” and is now the downtown area. In 1853, Morse moved to Old Town with a new partner, Thomas Whaley, and in 1861 he opened a new general store in the Old Rose House, beneath the Herald office.

Morse sold most goods with a barter process that “involved nearly all families at some time, whatever their place on the social ladder. William Cant loaned his wagon one day and at another time got $5 credit on his account by cleaning a well and another $5 credit for sacking wool for a shipment. A.S. Ensworth, an attorney at law, received 10 sacks of flour in return for 40 cakes of soap. Julian Sandoval received 100 lbs. of flour ‘to be paid with 200 corn.’ ”

Jesus Marron sold a mule for $40 in credit.

Morse also functioned like a banker, collecting debts owed to customers by other customers. “In addition to loans by the use of charge accounts, Morse made cash loans and paid express and freight charges. He added these loans to the customer’s store account.” Morse wrote the ledger with a meticulous yet florid hand. His flexible nib pen sculpted his words with “many curls and various widths in lines." He also used the ledger as a kind of diary, recording the weather (February, 1864: “it has rained hard and steady and is still raining”) and personal matters: “Kriss branded a mule for me with my brand a/c of what Jesus Matron owes me at $40. He is 2 or 3 years old, a little, gentle purado of brown color.... Kriss is to take care of him.”

Let’s go inside the store. We don’t see any fresh vegetables or fruits. “In a land of good soil, there was little if any selling of produce.” Knott makes three assumptions:

(1) people had their own gardens;

(2) a farmer’s market existed;

(3) farmers made periodic trips around town to sell fresh produce.

We do see raisins and dried apples — but not fresh apples. The store also has large quantities of corn and barley, but for animal not human consumption.

Flour, onions, rice, beans, and sugar are in bountiful supply but aren’t the bestselling items. “The sale of whiskey outstripped all other items in popularity. Customers purchased it by the drink, bottle, demijohn, keg, and cask.” In second place, tobacco: “Most of the men, and some of the women, smoked; almost every account showed sales of tobacco in some form.” Spices also rank high. “In an age of no refrigeration, spices were a necessity to preserve foodstuffs and make them palatable. It is not a coincidence that many Mexican and/or Indians’ dishes we enjoy today are highly spiced. Recipes have come down to us still containing the spices required to disguise the taste of tainted meat.” The store sold meat but not as much as you’d expect, given that mid-century Californians ate so much of it. Meat was tough to preserve and had to be sold quickly or salted down. “Evidently meat and fish were more commonly bought directly from the butchers and the fishermen.” Usual dining fare in the 1860s included beef — broiled or roasted — served with onions. Sometimes the menu also included mutton, chicken, eggs, or beans. And tortillas, sometimes made with yeast, served as bread.

Men bought their clothes “off the rack,” requiring no seamstress or tailor - hats, caps, shirts (wool, cotton, linen), pants, shoes, boots, socks, handkerchiefs. Women, by contrast, had to purchase yard goods and sew their own garments or have them made up, even mourning dresses. “Items purchased by |Lucy Fisher) — thread, ribbons, lace — indicate she may have made her living as a seamstress."


  1. Davistown: "Settlement named after William Heath Davis, who was the first to feel that the site of the city should be near the harbor. The settlement failed and Old Town remained 'San Diego' until 1868, when Alonzo Horton founded New San Diego near the harbor.*
  2. Morse collected debts owed to customers by other customers: "Louis Rose bought a steer for $60. The Lucy Estate received the credit. Captain Johnson paid $3.50 cash for Uncle Billy. Louis Rose paid $5 on the Bandini account. Captain Wilcox paid $10.50 cash — He says it's for Swycaffer bill. Andres paid $4.50 on Billy Cant's account.*
  3. During the Mexican period, settlers not only had to pledge loyalty to Mexico but also had to adopt the Catholic faith. In addition, many men married into the Mexican families and adopted the religion of their wives.
  4. Greenbacks: The rate depended in large part on whether the North or the South had the latest victory in the Civil War. When the North won, greenbacks went up.
  5. Though there were no lynchings or organized white opposition to harass blacks, they were almost uniformly treated as outcasts. Indians never attained the dignity of a last name, either in the ledger or in the census records.

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