Tuesday, July 16, 2013


The sale price of choice individual houses in Coronado can take your breath away. But think about the days when you could buy the entire island for far less than the cost of the cheapest condo in town. The sale of Coronado to Elisha Babcock and Hampton Story is legendary, but ownership had changed multiple times before that. It all started with the last Mexican Governor of Alta California, Pio Pico, who owned the San Diego island as part of a land grant. He set off a chain reaction of sales and purchases after he gave the "Peninsula of San Diego" as it was then called, to Pedro Carillo as a wedding present. Carillo sold it after only a few months of ownership. The record of those various sales and buyers is traced in the very rare and original draft documents currently loaned to the Coronado Public Library. The loan of this archive is made possible through Ralph Bowman, a long established dealer in rare paper documents and historical memorabilia.

The list of owners of Coronado may seem like a list of characters from a Dickens novel; Bezer Simmons; Archibald Peachy; Henry Chauncey, et al, a seeming random list of names without local historical resonance. Yet their back-story is as colorful as any fictional character, and in reality, their stories are intertwined with the birth of the state of California.

Coronado didn't have a name back in 1849. It was just called The Island or The Peninsula of San Diego. Before the big dreamers came, there wasn't much commercial value in Coronado. There were rancheros that were much bigger, and its waters were too shallow for shipping. Carillo sold the island in 1846  to Bezer Simmons, a whaling ship captain living in Maine, for 1000 dollars in silver. Simmons had visited Coronado, or The Peninsula, as did many whalers, when they used the shallow "Whaler's Bight" to careen their ships in order to repair and clean the ship's hulls during low tide.The Bay, as attested to by Richard Henry Dana in Two Years Before the Mast, was also navigated by trading ships coming to get cow hides from the Mission de Alcala, in what was to become San Diego.

The Mexican-American War was being fought then, and Mexico ceded Alta California to the U.S. in the Treaty of Guadaloupe Hidalgo in 1848, just before gold was discovered at Sutter's Creek.

During the gold rush in 1849 there were expectations that California would become a state. While  Coronado (still called "The Peninsula") didn't seem to have many prospects, its location at the entry to the Bay of San Diego made it of potential interest to the U.S Army as a fort, guarding the bay entry along with the old Spanish fort in Point Loma.  In these early documents, Coronado was denoted as consisting of "two square leagues" of land, "more or less."

Frederick Billings and Archibald Peachy, named on the 1850 deed, were the principal law partners in HBP in San Francisco, along with Henry Halleck. Billings also happened to be Bezer Simmons' brother-in-law. Simmons, his younger wife Laura, and her brother Frederick Billings had made the arduous trek from New England to San Francisco during the Gold Rush, travelling by ship down the eastern coast and across land at Panama. Laura died soon after reaching San Francisco, from a fever caught in Panama, probably the first woman casualty of the California Gold Rush. Billings met Archibald Peachy in San Francisco, a fellow lawyer. In the wild days of San Francisco they had both been deputized to guard a jail against the local Vigilantes, by no less than future Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman, then in command of the California State Militia. Frederick Billings and Archibald Peachy had become principal law partners in San Francisco, along with Henry Halleck. Halleck had been a fellow lieutenant with Sherman during the Mexican-American War. Their law firm specialized in the tricky but booming business of establishing legal land ownership claims during the transition from Mexican to American laws. Their other specialty was settling suits in mining claims, an even more booming specialty. Indeed, both Billings and Peachy had represented John Sutter (of Sutter's Creek) in different mining claim suits. The partners also made money from having bought the biggest commercial building in San Francisco, the Montgomery Block, where they hired George Granniss to manage the rentals.

Despite his nerdy name, Archibald Peachy was a tall, good-looking Southern aristocrat. He was fond of dueling whenever his name was impugned, a habit he started in college. He dueled with his friend James Blain in 1852, where he prevailed. Much later in 1879 when he had become nearly blind, he challenged California Supreme Court Justice David Terry to a duel, but Terry declined.

Bezer Simmons never prospered in San Francisco. He got deeper in debt and died in 1850, just after transferring full ownership of Coronado to Billings and Peachy to settle his debts.

The land title abstract shows various transactions of sales of portions of Coronado from Billings, and Peachy to various partners. The transaction that Coronado history sources mentions the most is the 1885 sale, where Elisha Babcock, Hampton Story, and Jacob Greundike (soon to leave the partnership) buy all of Coronado ("The Peninsula") for $110,000.

By then, Archibald Peachy had served in the California Assembly and in the California Senate, Frederick Billings eventually returned to his native Vermont, where he became active in the University of Vermont and in the conservation movement. His interest in the academic world is reflected in having indirectly suggested the name of Berkeley be given to the University of California.

Of course Babcock and Story had big plans to build a resort hotel, the Hotel del Coronado, and to develop most of the rest of Coronado into housing and business lots. The name of Coronado itself was decided upon by Babcock and Story. Although they had several names that came in through a naming contest, they ended up giving the Peninsula the name Coronado, after the Coronado Islands (Los Cuatro Coronados) off the coast of northern Baja California. The name was modified in various promotional documents as Coronado Beach, considered a more picturesque name in helping sell lots.

One of the documents in this collection is the folded map shown below. This street map was used for a sales prospectus in 1886-1887. The map shows the original Spanish Bight dividing North Island from the village. This same street map was used with minor modifications through the 1930s.  The Spanish Bight was filled in as the North Island Naval Air Base expanded in the late 1930s.

Included in this Coronado archive are various drafts that notaries (historically notaries served as title lawyers) used in preparing the legal documents to transfer ownership of Coronado. in parts or as a whole. These documents could be considered like the manuscript that an author prepared before typing and sending the completed book manuscript to the publisher.

The later drafts specifically mention the Coronado Beach Company, the corporate name of the partnership that developed the Hotel del Coronado and sold lots in Coronado. 

Such documents as are part of this archive provide a larger window in which to see the beginning of Coronado in the 19th century. Much has changed in the world, and especially in Coronado, since they were written. It is amazing that these fragile founding documents survive at all. It would be a blessing to have this loaned archive return to Coronado on a permanent basis.

Written by Christian Esquevin


Karen Bowman said...

These are a fantastic glimpse into the past, a history that shouldn't be lost to private collectors, but shared with the whole community! Proves that fantastically wild dreams for the future can come true.

Christian Esquevin said...

Thanks for your comment Karen. How right you are!

Anonymous said...

I have purchased Coronado items from Ralph Bowman many years ago. Unfortunately they werern't these historical items.

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