Scurvy slays sixty

Spanish ships buried their dead at foot of Market Street

The idea for a site for New San Diego came from Andrew B. Gray, chief surveyor of the U.S./Mexican Boundary Commission.

The idea for a site for New San Diego came from Andrew B. Gray, chief surveyor of the U.S./Mexican Boundary Commission.

The first time he sailed to San Diego, William Heath Davis was nine. He stayed in a large building at the Presidio, which he called a “miniature: city: “What is now called Old Town was at that date laid out,” he writes, “but it was not built for some time thereafter. Whenever a ship came to anchor at La Playa, saddle horses were at once dispatched from the presidio to bring up the supercargo [officer in charge of cargo] and captain.” After a three month visit, Davis returned home to Hawaii, on the Louisa, with a load of hides and horses.

When he returned in 1833, most of the people at the Presidio had moved down the hill to Old Town, their small wood or adobe residences fronting a central plaza. The population remained the same (his estimate of 400 to 500 people might be high), and “rancheros of the vicinity usually kept their families at the Presidio as a protection against the Indians.”

Relocation in Old Town brought residents closer to fresh water. At La Playa, where ships could dock, drinking water was scarce. Every explorer who sounded it, from Vizcaino to Juan Pantoja y Arriaga, remarked that San Diego Bay was a natural, protected harbor. And every trader who lugged cargo from beaches inland to California’s growing towns knew that San Diego needed to combine its port and city.

In the late 1840s, growth in San Diego was either/or: either it would continue in Old Town, or the real city would sprout around La Playa’s harbor. Davis, who had made a fortune by age 28, bet on the harbor. He bought 31 lots of bayfront land in La Playa around February 1850. He planned to build a wharf and a coaling station. Cave Couts, a similar believer, laid out Custom House Square at La Playa in 1849.

Though from San Leandro, Davis’s wife Maria de Jesus Estudillo lived in Old Town with her aunt Guadalupe and uncle Don Jose Estudillo, prefect of the area. During Davis’s frequent visits, Don Jose insisted that “the town needed to move closer to the bay” (Rolle). Davis assumed that meant La Playa.

People credit Davis for the original “founding” of New San Diego in 1850. But the need existed long before, and the idea for a site came from Andrew B. Gray, chief surveyor of the U.S./Mexican Boundary Commission. On June 1, 1849, surveying parties from the two countries met at Punta de los Muertos, a spit of sandy land that juts southwest into San Diego Bay (at the foot of Market Street).

The place got its name in 1769, when the Portola expedition founded new religious establishments in Alta California. Portola and Junipero Serra came by land. The San Carlos sailed north from La Paz January 9, 1769, followed a month later by the San Antonio. Both ships missed San Diego Bay. By the time they found it, scurvy had decimated their crews. They sailed to the inner bay and anchored at a steep shelf. They buried their dead and built a makeshift hospital out of tents. Almost 60 men died. The spot came to be known as Punta de los Muertos, “Point of the Dead,” or just Punta.

Before the survey commenced, Gray camped at Punta and saw the obvious: protected, accessible to ships, deep anchorage (“The channel lay close to the shore”), flatland to the east: here was “the logical location for a port city.” Even more vital to Gray’s dream, this was the perfect end point for a transcontinental railroad.

In February 1850, Gray told Davis about the punta. Davis, most of whose interests, including a lucrative “emporium,” were in San Francisco, relished the idea. “In the tradition of generations of frontier town founders Davis took an unpremeditated plunge into a new world of financial uncertainty, a leap from which he never recovered his equilibrium” (Rolle).

On March 16, 1850, Davis and his partners – Jose Antonio Aguirre, Michael Pedorena, Gray, William C. Ferrell, and Lieutenant Thomas D. Johns – acquired the land south of today’s C Street and west of Front, extending to the shoreline, even though about a third of the 160 acres they purchased stood under water at high tide. They paid $2304, with the promise that Davis (who was “flush and had a large income”) would build a wharf and warehouse within 18 months.

Davis and Gray called the site New Town, in part because during this time Old Town got its name. To the inhabitants of Old Town, however, most of whom wanted the enterprise to fail, the place was “Gray’s town,” because it was his idea and he laid it out.

Gray platted the site — survey-mapped the area into 56 blocks — between March and July 1850. The blocks were generally 300 x 200 feet. Lots ranged from 50 x 140 to 65 x 100. Most streets were 75 feet wide. Later that same year, another consortium bought and mapped “Middletown,” the land between New and Old Towns. (When he “founded” San Diego in 1867, Alonzo Horton conformed to the original plattings of New and Middletown.)

How do you build a city from scratch? What are its primary needs? Long-term? Davis and his backers knew their desolate brush and chaparral acreage was an ideal site. But where to start?

Davis built the wharf. He had Dr. John L. Le Conte, a scientist, survey the terrain. Davis shipped spruce and yellow pine planks and redwood piles from San Francisco. Mule teams met the ships at La Playa and hauled the lumber – and machinery and construction workers — to the punta. Within six months, the pilings were up, their “front legs” standing in deep water. The L-shaped, 600-foot wharf and a 50-foot warehouse were completed in August 1851. The cost: $60,000. “At that time,” Davis writes, “I predicted that San Diego would become a great commercial seaport from its fine geographical position and that it was the only good harbor south of San Francisco.”

Although the military wanted a post at either La Playa or Ballast Point, in a major coup, Davis and Gray convinced the Army it should relocate at the punta. A vessel full of lumber for a new post lay anchored at La Playa. Davis and Gray offered Lieutenant Thomas D. Johns, in charge of the vessel, land, and stock in New Town and gave the government space for a corral and the San Diego Barracks. Johns sailed the vessel across the bay, re-anchoring off the New Town site, and used the military to help construct buildings. “From 1852 to 1920… [the Barracks, a two-and-a-half story structure at what is now Market and Kettner] served as the army-supply depot of Southern California, from which freight, unloaded at Davis’s wharf, went by wagon as far north as Fort Tejon and as far east as Yuma” (Rolle).

Davis ordered prefabricated houses, nails included from Portland, Maine. These ranged from shacks to two-story buildings close to the waterfront, one of which, called the “William Heath Davis House,” still stands, on the northeast corner of Fourth and Island. It’s a typical four-bedroom, “salt box”-style frame structure. Originally constructed for officers (its “military room” reflects authentic 1850-’60), the building’s been moved four times. Davis never lived in Davis House. His home, the first built and almost identical, stood at the northeast corner of State and F.

Even before workers cleared the ground, stores and a lumberyard took shape. Judson Ames began publishing the San Diego Herald, every Thursday, on a printing press he lugged from New Orleans. Subscription: $10 per year. Ships docking at New Town were few, but Davis made sure that each crew got a good “blow out.” There was enough rowdiness (“adventurers and drifters who ran hog wild,” said one report) to warrant a jail.

Buildings rose with amazing speed — the jail quickest of all. After a “brief downpour of rain,” however, one of its prisoners appeared at a local bar, celebrating. He had “dug his way out of this jail with a penknife” (Rolle). Easily done, it turns out, because the contractor put no cement in the mortar, and the rain softened allegedly sturdy walls.

Davis’s original home became the San Diego Hotel. Gray’s “Hermitage” also became a hotel. For another magnet to attract people Davis built Pantoja House. It stood on the eastern boundary of Pantoja Plaza (a public square — undeveloped, save for a flagpole, between F and G, Columbia and India Streets – to remain “forever free” to all citizens). “A resort for gentlemen,” Pantoja House boasted a “Billiard Saloon, furnished with the celebrated Winants table” and gaslit every evening until midnight. The saloon also promised “sparkling champagne cider, Byass’s London Ale and porter,” and several brands of Havana cigars. “Water was scarce,” Rolle observes, “but there was no reason for anyone to be thirsty.”

As the town began to grow, Gray went to New York to promote New Town. He wrote Davis, “You will have the satisfaction of knowing that you have been the founder and patron of a lovely … flourishing and beautiful town. Ten years – and they will soon pass away – and you will still be young and will be surrounded by a delightful society – and heavy business population.”

A port city of the 1850s needed a protected harbor, wharf, warehouse, hotels, saloons, stores, jail and – almost forgotten in Davis’s plans — water. “Davis underestimated the weakness of the city and overestimated its strength. He did not seem to understand what he had to do to insure the success of his project” (Rolle).

In his Personal Narrative of Explorations, U.S. Boundary Commissioner John Russell Bartlett reported on the “New San Diego” of 1852: “Without wood, water, or arable land, this place can never rise to importance… San Diego and its position on the coast will always make it an important stopping place for shipping; but whether the Playa or beach near the entrance [Ballast Point], the old town of San Diego, or ‘Gray Town,’ as New Town is called by the people of the old town, will have the ascendancy remains to be seen.”

Next week: Part three – a year in the death of a doomed enterprise.


Davis, William Heath, Seventy-Five Years in California (John Howell Books, 1967; first published in 1889, with additions in 1929)

Harlow, Neal, Maps of the Pueblo Lands of San Diego: 1602-1874 (Los Angeles, 1987)

Rolle, Andrew F., An American in California: The Biography of William Heath Davis (Huntington Library, 1956)

Rolle, “William Heath Davis and the Founding of American San Diego,” California Historical Society Quarterly, XXXI (1952), pp. 33-48

Smythe, William E., History of San Diego (San Diego, 1908)


  1. Davis: “Of the new town of San Diego, now the city of San Diego, I can say I was its founder.”
  2. Rolle: At New Town’s first Fourth of July celebration (1851) a male “eyewitness” bemoaned that “There were so many ‘nice young men’ present as to render our chance of flirtation rather dubious, so we vamoosed.’:
  3. Smythe: “The water question appears early in the annals of San Diego and stays late.”

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