by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Forefathers’ Day was, before Thanksgiving, a holiday during which many Americans celebrated the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock. Though the landfall was made on 21 December 1620, the holiday was held on the 22nd and was widely honored until, in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln officially declared a day of Thanksgiving for the fourth Thursday of the month. Even as Forefathers’ Day dwindled to insignificance as the Pilgrim story, mythological as it became and denigrating to the indigenous Americans as it continues to be, was coopted for Thanksgiving. There is still a small group, however, who gather at Plymouth on 21 December to commemorate the arrival of the Pilgrims so that, in a way, Forefathers’ Day is still recognized by at least those few people.
On 22 December 1849, however, a writer known only as “T.F.” penned a lengthy letter and sent it to New York to be published by the New York Herald in its edition of the following 11 March. The paper was founded fifteen years earlier by James Gordon Bennett (1795-1872), whose $500 investment resulted in great success as Bennett proved to be one of the most influential figures in American journalism, though he made many enemies with his aggressive reporting and writing and his insufferable ego.
In mid-August 1848, the Herald was the first major American newspaper to report the astounding news that gold was discovered in far-flung California, seized by the United States during the recently concluded Mexican-American War. During the ensuing years, the paper, along with its major competitors like the Tribune and the Times, frequently published correspondence sent to New York by those in California with news of interest to report.
Tonight’s featured artifact from the Homestead’s collection is just such an example, being the 11 March 1850 edition of the Tribune and its remarkable letter from “T.F.” noted above. He began his missive by observing that it was Forefathers’ Day and noted that “if the Pilgrims of New England had made their ingress upon this continent upon a day as glorious, and having an atmosphere as exhilarating as the one upon which I write—and if their lot has be cast upon a soil as benignant as that of the beautiful valley from which I date, their history, and possibly that of the American people, might have been quite different.”
After this somewhat strange introduction, the writer professed that he wished he could convey to those back home “a view of this region at this ‘inclement season'” and he proceeded to describe the area around “Chino, Near Los Angelos [sic]” where he was staying. Specifically, “T.F.” was sojourning at the Rancho Santa Ana del Chino headquarters of its owner, Isaac “Don Julian” Williams, a native of western Pennsylvania who settled in Los Angeles in the 1830s and married a daughter of the ranch’s grantee, the well-known Californio, Don Antonio María Lugo.
Lugo received that Chino grant in 1841 and transferred it to Williams a few years later with the adobe house situated on the west bank of Chino Creek among some low rolling hills at what is now the Boys Republic institution in Chino Hills. The house was the site of the so-called “Battle of Chino” in late September 1846, during which Americans and Europeans, including Rancho La Puente co-owner John Rowland and Benjamin D. Wilson, then proprietor of the Rancho Jurupa near modern Riverside, were besieged in the adobe by Californios, including two Lugo brothers-in-law of the owner.
On 24 January 1848, just nine days before the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, formally ending the Mexican-American War, was ratified by the Congress of México, James Marshall made his momentous discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill at Coloma in the Sierra Nevada Mountains that ushered in the Gold Rush. A major entry point into California was a southern route through Texas, New Mexico and Arizona and then into El Dorado through the “Colorado Road” which moved through Warner’s Ranch northwest of San Diego, Temecula, Rincon (near Corona) and to Chino, which was one of the last stops before weary miners and migrants reached Los Angeles.
Consequently, Williams was kept very busy hosting these immigrants on his ranch and a register he kept during those years is now in the collection of the Huntington Library. Among those gratefully accepting the hospitality of Don Julian was “T.F.,” who wrote of the local mountains and hills and the 60,000 acres of land near Chino that “is as green as the wheat field of a New York farmer is in May, and the air is even more mild and balmy than the days of that month of a more northern clime.”
The writer then went into a good deal of detail about “the large quantity of wild fowl which abound, seemingly so tame that a stranger would suppose they were raised upon the place.” Given that it was late in the year, what “T.F.” was experiencing is the great migration of what we now know as the Pacific Flyway with birds heading south for the winter and he spoke about the fact that “I could sit at my desk, not unfrequently, and get a good shot at large flocks of wild geese, and also of ducks.”
Also of note was “a view of the immense droves of horned cattle, and the flocks of horses and mules that dot over the surface of the country, in every direction to which they eye can extend.” To add to the masses of four-legged creatures, however, “a view of a different character now presents itself” because:
From the south can be seen approching, on their slow and toilsome way, a long train of emigrant wagons, their white tops glittering in the sun. These have started, whether from Fort Smith [Arkansas] of from some point in Texas, and, after a six or eight months’ journey, over desert wastes, and through hostile tribes of Indians, are nowemerging into the habitions of civilization. Entering the valley from the north east, appears yet another train who, leaving the frontiers of Missouri many months since, and after reaching the Salt Lake, finding the season too far advanced to cross the Sierra Nevada, were compellled to turn south, out of their way, a distance of about 800 miles, through an unpeopled and trackless desert, and are now emerging from the Great Basin, through the Cahone [Cajon] Pass, into this valley . . .
Part of the route used by the group he described comprised the Old Spanish Trail, used from 1829 to 1848 mainly by trading caravans, but also plied by the Rowland and Workman Expedition eight years prior to this correspondence.
The letter continued that “some of these wagons may be seen, after passing this ranch, proceeding westwardly into a gorge in the hills, with a view of stopping there to rest their wearied teams; and others again, on their way northwardly, to the City of the Angels.” The wording here is a bit confusing as the Colorado Road proceeded north from the Williams place and then curved west around the north end of the Chino Hills and headed into the San Gabriel Valley where Rowland and Workman lived on the massive Rancho La Puente, totaling nearly 49,000 acres.
Returning to write about Chino, “T.F.” added that “to complete the coup d’oeil [glance] of this lovely valley, let us not forget the picturesque appearance of some dozens of Indian wigwams [kizh], most of whose inhabitants have been for a long time its denizens, and are now living in a state in which the habits of civilization and barbarism are strangely mixed.” He then went into a diversion about the weather, noting that rain came in early November and was present about once a week and a bit of frost on occasional evenings, while somedays were “oppressively warm.”
Still, though, the climate was mild and temperate enough that,
The farmers are now, and have been for several weeks, engaged in getting in their crops; and surely never since Adam ploughed in Eden, had farmers such a prospect before them. With a soil most prolific, and easily prepared, they have a demand almost at their own doors for everything they can raise, at prices that I hardly venture to name.
Indeed, the enormous amount of gold taken from the mines of the north meant that prices fr almost any article were wildly inflated (read: price gouging) and this seems to be what “T.F.” was stating. He then made reference to a letter written in November to large groups of migrants with 200 wagons coming from Utah who requested assistance, which Williams immediately sent at prices a quarter lower than could be obtained in Los Angeles. It was said that, when the relief arrived, the immigrants were out of food and were eating their cattle.
In one instance, a man left his train of three families with 30 children at Salt Lake City “in consequence, it is said, of threats against his life by the Mormons” and crossed the Sierras to Sutter’s Fort and went south along the coast before heading inland (likely from San Pedro) to Chino and up to the Mojave River to reunite with his family. The account contnued that, while many wagons arrived, “the great proportion are yet behind,” with about 100 turning west to go through Walker’s Pass near modern Bakersfield. Sixty wagons, however, wandered for weeks and had to return, while others, it was stated, were in such a situation that “by many it is confidently believed they never can getout.” It seems that “T.F.” was referring to the immigrants who became known as the “Death Valley ’49ers” and who arrived in tatters in Los Angeles early in 1850.
Finally, the letter ended with the commentary that a good many mirants who made it to Chino were “wholly destitute of means, and dozens of them entirely barefooted.” Williams was lionized for providing for them “in the most liberal manner, with provisions and shoes, and to not a few has advanced them sufficient money to get them on to San Francisco.” It is a remarkable piece of correspondence and the identity of the writer would likely have proved highly elusive if not for the wonders of the Internet.
It turns out that the special collections library at the University of California, San Diego has the collection of John B. Goodman, a long-time art director in the film industry who was also fascinated with the history of the American West. Among his holdings were two boxes containing “Letters from the Rancho Santa Ana del Chino” from 1849-1850 and other missives from the Gila River in southern Arizona and Los Angeles from 1850-1851—these written by Theodore Foster.
In the 5 November 1850 edition of the Herald, correspondent Jonathan Trumbull (Juan José) Warner, a Connecticut native and another 1830s immigrant to Mexican California, wrote from San Diego of news from southern California and reported that:
Theodore Foster, Esq., formerly from your State, but for the last year a resident of Los Angeles, is now on a visit here. He contemplates publishing a newspaper in Los Angeles. His press, &c., is now on the way round the Horn [by ship]. He seems an intelligent gentleman, and will doubtless meet with success, as a press in the southern part of California is much needed.
On 16 October 1850, Foster petitioned the Los Angeles Common [City] Council for a lot in town next to the jail on which he could establish his business and that body granted his request. He built a two-story frame structure on the corner of Aliso and Los Angeles streets about where U.S. 101 runs through downtown today.
In the New Year’s Day 1851 edition of the New York Tribune, a letter dated November 1850, with no specific date, and from “Los Angelos” with the writer only identified as “T” provided news from the region. Items included a plan to buld a new town at San Pedro, which did not happen that early, though “New San Pedro,” or Wilmington, was later established by Phineas Banning, an immigrant of 1851.
Another noteworthy item was a proposal to provide water for Los Angeles through the construction of an aqueduct, replacing the zanjas, or rough ditches, used by residents since the town was founded some 70 years prior. This project, too, failed to come to fruition, though a water delivery system using a waterwheel and flume was built in the 1860s and the great Los Angeles Aqueduct was still some 60 years away.
“T,” who was undoubtedly Foster, then added:
Last but not least of the new enterprises of the day, may be mentioned the establishment of a weekly paper in this city. Mr. Theodore Foster will leave here for San Francisco next week, to obtain an establishment with which he intends to issue a weekly journal at this place, and for which he has already received ample encouragement.
The account ended with the statement that “you will thus see that we in this region are going ahead. Rents are very high, and a large number of new buildings are going up. The emigration from the South is already great, and must continue to increase rapidly after the rainy season commences.”
It is unclear what transpired after that. When the 1850 federal census was conducted in greater Los Angeles early the next year (this was due to California’s admission to the Union the previous September and the obvious delays in getting the enumeration organized), the census taker, John R. Evertsen went to the adobe house of John Rowland and his wife Encarnación Martinez at Rancho La Puente, a mile or so east of the Workman family residence.
On 13 February 1851, he tallied the residents of the household and included was Theodore Foster, a 39-year old native of Maine whose occupation was given as a laborer. While it may be possible that there were two men by that name in the county, the population of which was given by Evertsen to be just over 3,500 (though this was a severe undercount, a problem so manifest that the state commissioned its only census in 1852, which yielded a count of about 8,000—a dramatic difference even accounting for new arrivals.)
In any case, when the Los Angeles Star, the first newspaper in Los Angeles, issued its inaugural number on 17 May 1851, Foster was not among the proprietors, one of the earliest of wihch was William H. Rand, later founder of the famous Rand-MacNally map-publishing empire. Instead, according to historian James M. Guinn, writing in the early 1900s, Foster wound up leaving the Angel City and in September 1853, for reasons unknown, committed suicide by hurling hmself into the Fresno River. If he was the Foster counted at the Rowand house and if the age given was correct, he was just 41 or 42 years old.
Foster’s missive to the Herald just before Christmas in 1849 is a very interesting and significant account of the Chino Valley specifically and greater Los Angeles and southern California broadly, including his description of the landscape and stories of immigrants pouring in from the south and northeast as the Gold Rush was in full swing.