Davis spoke Spanish fluently. And unlike his father, he developed close relationships with Spanish-speaking Californios.
How many people wake up one morning and decide to found a city? William Heath Davis (1822-1909) did it three times: Oakland, San Leandro, and San Diego. In each of his ventures, he was as prescient as an oracle. But while some people think years ahead of their time, Davis had a problem: he thought decades ahead.
Born in the Sandwich Islands (i.e., Hawaii), Davis came to California as a cabin boy in 1831. In 1833, when he first saw Yerba Buena — later renamed San Francisco — only one person lived outside the presidio and Mission Dolores. “At low tide this solitary resident tended a potato patch near the mud flats, some distance from the Mission, then in decline” (Rolle).
Among his first impressions of San Diego — a small harbor at La Playa, low adobes and palm trees at Old Town — was its “fair winter season.” And though his Hawaiian friends called California “William’s miserable place” and wondered what he saw in such a “forlorn” landscape, Davis watched California grow from missions to metropolises. He became a trader, gained and lost several fortunes, and lived a life of firsts.
His father, a ship captain also named William Davis, was the first “U.S. citizen” spotted by the Spanish Californios off the coast. Between May and June of 1811, Captain Davis sailed four frigates to Point Ano Nuevo and Point Reyes. He brought Kodiak Island natives and hide canoes, which they used to poach otters, seals, and sea lions — 85,000 by one estimate. Among Californios, Captain Davis became infamous for sailing his frigate Mercurio up and down the coast, “all the while engaged in smuggling under the authority of George Washington” (Osio).
Captain Davis died the year William was born. “He literally killed himself with strong drink,” wrote Elisha Loomis, a missionary. Davis’s son, William Heath, spent much of his life trading up and down the California coast and, like his father, smuggling, though Davis preferred the euphemism “nonpayment of duties.”
As a teenager he worked for his uncle, Nathan Spear. “One of the first merchants at Monterey and Yerba Buena,” Spear sold merchandise to the “native California farmers and stock raisers around the bay. The goods were carried to different points by two little schooners, named the Isabella and Nicholas” (Davis). Davis always captained one of the two.
In July 1839, five years after he left Switzerland to escape debtor’s prison, Johann Augustus Sutter wanted to build a pioneer outpost. He would people “New Helvetia” with “four or five Germans or Swiss, who were mechanics, and three Hawaiians and their wives” (Davis). Sutter got permission to settle in unexplored territory up the Sacramento River. Davis, then 17, led a three-boat flotilla on the flagship Isabella.11 He was one of the few persons in Yerba Buena who had traveled into the interior recently, it was natural he should be asked to convey Sutter into that wilderness” (Rolle).
By then called “Kanaka Bill” for his Hawaiian roots (including grandmother Mahi, a Polynesian princess), Davis explored the Sacramento, American, Feather, and Bear Rivers. The expedition anticipated trouble from the natives, got none, but were under constant attack from clouds of “vicious” mosquitoes “exceeding anything we ever experienced before.”
They chose the site as much from exhaustion as design. After “about eight days” of searching, they anchored at a gravel-bar near the junction of the American and Sacramento Rivers. They pitched tents and unloaded cargo on a tree-covered knoll.
Sutter told Davis “he would immediately build a fort as a means of defense against the Indians, and...the government of California in case any hostility should be manifested in that quarter.” Were gold not discovered, history would remember Sutter’s Fort as the Northern California equivalent of Warner’s Ranch: “a place of respite for scores of American immigrants who crossed the plains and who might have died of starvation were it not for Sutter’s” — and Warner’s — “warm hospitality.” (Rolle).
Prematurely gray, Davis spoke Spanish fluently. And unlike his father, he developed close relationships with Spanish-speaking Californios. He married Maria de Jesus Estudillo of San Leandro in 1847 (and, as part of his vow, converted to Catholicism). He had a reputation for being trustworthy. This included keeping California’s greatest secret.
At least two Spanish friars knew there was gold in the Sacramento Valley long before James Marshall saw shimmering flecks at Sutter’s millrace. After a visit to native territories, Indians from the valley often brought gold dust to show the priests on the coast. “Upon getting all the information the Indian could give, the priest, with a solemn air, would caution the Indian not to impart to anyone else knowledge of the discovery, assuring him if he further divulged such information the wrath of God would be visited upon him.” (Davis).
In “1843 or 1844,” Father Muro told Davis the secret. Later, Father Mercado made him promise never to divulge it. Davis thought they should announce the discovery “to induce Americans and others to come here.” His reasons reveal his mind and naive optimism: “With their enterprise and skill (Americans) would rapidly open and develop the country, build towns and engage in numberless undertakings which would tend to the enrichment and prosperity of the country, increase the value of the lands, enhance the price of cattle, benefit the people.”
Father Mercado disagreed: “He would answer that the immigration would be dangerous; that they would pour in by the thousands and overrun the country; Protestants would swarm here, and the Catholic religion would be endangered.... The Americans would soon obtain supreme control; that they would undoubtedly at some time come in force; but if no inducements were offered, the change might not take place at this time.” (Davis).
From first hearing the secret to the early 1900s, when he wrote 75 Years in California — itself a gold mine of historical detail — Davis “never mentioned it to this day to anyone.” When gold was discovered, Davis was among the first to ship merchandise to the gold fields — at some of history’s most inflated prices. A millionaire by age 28, people said he had so much gold he “had difficulty disposing of it."
Davis also helped institute a new kind of centrally located trading in California. As “traditional methods” proved unreliable, “the new agreement pleased the rancheros, for they were no longer dependent upon the uncertain arrival of trading vessels. They could load and unload their vessels at collecting points, rather than at numerous and sometimes dangerous landfalls scattered along the coast” (Rolle). Davis traded hardware and supplies for tallow and hides. He called the latter “California banknotes” or “leather dollars.” Between 1831 and 1849, Davis watched a metamorphosis in Alta California: from canvas to clapboard to brick. Everywhere he turned, tents grew into clusters of cabins, then houses. He saw sheds expand into warehouses, then two-story buildings (he built the first in San Francisco), and eventually into townships and towns. Davis dreamed of cities and knew, from his earliest days in California that, because most trade relied on ships, before you founded a city, you had to build a wharf.
If it weren’t for wharves — he planned or constructed at least four or five — Davis might have become one of America’s richest men. It’s just that throughout his life, wharves, and the hopes he pinned on them, always led to grief.
In 1846, trading vessels to San Francisco “still had to land their cargoes on open beaches, where they were at the mercy of damaging winds and blow-ing sand” (Rolle).
Rolle: “Here was a man who had lived the history he wrote.”
Davis: “Probably I was the first fisherman who ever threw a line and hook into the clear waters of San Francisco Bay from Yerba Buena.... I caught so many fish...that the men dried them and in all probability this curing gave San Francisco its first shipment of dried fish.”
Davis: “In the month of June 1848, two miners came to my store with gold dust. I bought the dust, over $100 worth. This gold was the first to arrive in San Francisco to be used in trade, and I was the first purchaser of the product of the mines.”
Davis: “The rancheros, in a general way, would hint to the merchants that they ought to smuggle all the goods they could, knowing they would get what they purchased cheaper than if all the duties were paid.”