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“To A Distant And Perilous Service”
Westward with the course of empire Colonel Jonathan Drake Stevenson took his way in 1846. With him went the denizens of New York’s Tammany wards, oyster cellars, and gin mills—the future leaders of California.
June/July 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 4
Upon entering the straits, the colonel thought at first that the great expanse of the bay was as empty as the moon. Flocks of seabirds floated on the water, and the island of Alcatraz was white with gulls. He issued a call to arms and buckled on his sword. Then they sighted two American men-of-war and a little hide drogher from Boston, taking on water at the port of Sausalito. As they lowered the topgallant sail and came around to Yerba Buena Cove, the colonel could see the flag of the United States flying over the adobe buildings of the Mexican cuartel . He was too late to conquer California. It had been conquered months before, and Colonel Jonathan Drake Stevenson would never be the Ruler of the New Colony.
Gazing up at the scattering of wretched sheds and shacks above the cove, the colonel tasted the gall of disappointment. There were no golden Jesuses here for him. San Francisco was only an isolated army post on the outer limits of a fallen empire, a minor harbor in the hide-and-tallow trade: three or four frame buildings, put up by renegade Americans, a billiard room, a bar or two, a blacksmith’s shop, a trading post, a few corrals, a couple of adobe warehouses for storing salted rawhides. Some dark-haired women were washing underwear in a stream that trickled down among the windblown hills.
But a Spanish-speaking Californian named Mariano Vallejo and a Frenchman named Victor Prudhom rowed out to the ship to deliver a formal little speech of welcome; and the colonel, drawn up stiff and pigeon-chested, responded on behalf of the regiment, the President, and the state of New York. Afterward, feeling somewhat bouncier, he sent a courier to General Stephen Watts Kearny, down at the provincial capital in Monterey, announcing that the army of occupation had arrived. Excepting a few men with colds, all were healthy and “able to perform any duty you may require of them.”
Next day, the colonel landed his troops by boat at Clark’s Point, a spit at the foot of Telegraph Hill, and on the following day marched them out to the Presidio, a deserted Spanish barracks on a slope above the straits. Blackbirds were so thick underfoot they had to be kicked aside as the troops walked. The boys swept out the buildings, posted a guard, and began the occupation of California.
On March 12 the Susan Drew came in; ten days after that, the Loo Choo ; and at the end of April the transport Brutus with the stragglers and the late recruits. By then San Francisco Bay was cluttered with Yankee vessels—sloops of war, transports, storeships, and frigates. General Kearny’s dragoons had come in, overland, and soldiers and sailors outnumbered all the previous American settlers in California by more than two-to-one. They ran the territory as a military camp, with a governor-general in Monterey and a magistrate in San Francisco to keep track of five or six hundred whites and a couple of hundred Indians, mestizos, blacks, and Polynesians.
The volunteers spread up and down the coast. The colonel took three companies to Monterey, where they dug redoubts and sulked. Three under Burton went to Santa Barbara, occupied a homey Spanish barracks, and amused themselves for a year or so shooting doves and putting on minstrel shows with banjos made of sheepskin stretched on flour sieves. Three under Major Hardie stayed at the Presidio of San Francisco; and a single company went up to Sonoma, the northern edge of European influence.
Ultimately, Colonel Stevenson wound up with the command of the Pueblo of Los Angeles, a quiet village in the center of a dusty plain. The Spanish-speaking Californians received him gently: they were accustomed to blue-eyed gringos from Boston and figured he was another of the same. It was a decorous, benign regime. The colonel kept the articles of war and the army regulations constantly at hand. On holidays he read the Declaration of Independence in English and Spanish and ate courtly’suppers in the company of Abel Stearns, a storekeeper from New England, and his Spanish wife.
A single incident aggrieved the colonel’s pastoral reign. A young lieutenant, after nipping aguardiente in the duty shack, tried to storm Abel Stearns’s liquor store and was heard to call the respected proprietor, his wife, and her sister “a bunch of pimps.” Stevenson sent apologies and cashiered the lieutenant.
On the eve of the New Year, 1848, the colonel and his boys were hosts to the gentry of Los Angeles at a grand ball and supper. Stevenson raised a dozen toasts—to the President, to the Nation, to the ladies, to old friends in the States (“God grant that we may spend our next New Year among them”), and bashfully accepted a toast to himself. If anyone toasted the future, the sentiment was not recorded. The future was beyond belief, beyond imagination.