In 1803, Coronado’s North Island was a brown hump across the channel from the tip of Ballast Point. Ships entering the bay had to navigate through acres of kelp offshore, then a bottle-neck between the island and the point. The passage was much narrower than today: “not a cable’s length wide,” said Captain William Shaler, of the Lelia Byrd, referring to woven hemp anchor ropes that averaged 200 yards. Speaking from the safety of hindsight, since he had to run a gauntlet past the cannons, Shaler also recalled “a sorry battery of eight pounders at the entrance.”
The battery was Fort Guijarros, a massive, earthen structure at the base of Ballast Point. A man-made ramp rose like a pyramid to 40 feet. Twenty feet above the ramp, cannons faced the channel from gunports. The merlons, battlement walls between the ports, stood eight feet high. Cannons were rated by the weight of the ball. At least one of them, called “El Jupiter,” was a nine pounder.
A nine-pound ball could put a good-sized hole in a ship. Cannonieres had other tactics. They’d link two balls to a short chain, or flat metal bar. Fired from the same tube, whirling “chain shots” and “bar shots” could bring down a sail. Soldiers would also grill a cannonball over hot coals. The heated ball could hit the hull, or just a sail, and set a ship on fire.
“If they didn’t have the proper ammunition,” says Ron May, board chairman of the Fort Guijarros Museum Foundation, “they’d ram something down the barrel and aim for the ships rigging. At Fort Guijarros, they’d try to disable the ship — slow it down so it could be boarded — but not sink it. The last thing they’d want is a sunken ship in such a narrow channel.”
Although some could range up to half a mile, most cannons weren’t accurate beyond a “half-pistol shot,” about 100 yards. To improve distance and accuracy, especially for artillery at or near sea level, connoniers would skip a cannonball across the waves. It might have been a “raking shot,” fired “between wind and water,” that struck the Lelia Byrd during the Battle of San Diego Bay.
For years after, Spanish officials referred to the 175-ton vessel as papagayo, which means “parrot,” but also a red fish “full of venomous prickles.”
The Lelia Byrd sailed into the bay March 17, 1803. As it passed the “hooked promontory” of Ballast Point, Captain Shaler was surprised that no one greeted him from Guijarros. An hour later, around dusk, the ship dropped anchor about a mile from the fort — near the foot of Kellogg Street, some say — within “hailing distance” of the shore.
The next morning, thirteen soldiers on horseback stood in a formal row on the beach. Their leader, a solemn man in a silver-spangled uniform, shouted into a megaphone. “Send your launch,” he said in Spanish, referring to a large utility rowboat. "We are coming aboard.”
As they climbed onto the ship, the cavalrymen formed two lines facing each other. They drew their swords and doffed their hats. Then the leader came on deck. Shoulders back, chest forward, he pranced down the companionway between his escorts’ rigid salutes.
“Another minor Spanish official,” thought Richard Cleveland, Shaler’s business partner. “Such a ridiculous display of a little ‘brief authority,’” Cleveland added, quoting Measure for Measure, “I never before witnessed.”
“More Boston traders..Bostones!” Don Manuel Rodriguez, Commandant of the San Diego Presidio, must have though, as he and his soldiers tried to establish authority on the Yankee brig, “and more lies.”
Spain permitted no foreign trade on Pacific shores. But since 1800, three New England vessels had come to San Diego to deal, on the sly, for sea otter furs. They’d exchange trinkets, household goods, and blue ribbons with natives and the friars for a pelt worth up to $80 -- $1000 in today’s currency – in China.
Each vessel had an excuse for anchoring. On August 25, 1800, the Betsy, the first American ship to enter San Diego Bay, needed wood and water. In June, 1801, the Enterprise asked for “bread and other foodstuffs” before sailing to China. Both vessels left on friendly terms. If they smuggled furs, no one knew.
The Alexander arrived February 26, 1803, with an urgent excuse. Nine of the 19 crewmen had scurvy — or so their captain claimed. They must convalesce on land. Rodriguez gave them eight days, but they couldn’t go near the Presidio, three miles inland. On the fifth day, suspecting trouble, Rodriguez and an armed party boarded the frigate. They found 491 furs in a storeroom near the mast.
“Contrabando!" Rodriguez declared. He ordered the Alexander to leave at once, and locked the pelts in the Presidio warehouse. That was March 3. Two weeks later, the Lelia Byrd hove to off Point Loma.
As his soldiers stood at attention, Rodriguez inspected Shaler’s passport and took the Captain’s request for 24 hens, flour, salt, and four butchered cattle. Rodriguez said the crew could come ashore, but not go inland. And once they had their supplies, the must not “delay moment in leaving the port.”
To prevent another Alexander affair, Rodriguez ordered Sergeant Joaquin Arce and five soldiers to remain on the brig: Let no San Diegan on board. Inspect the launch and rowboats after every trip ashore. If Arce found any furs, “I should be advised.”
After the Commandant left “with great ceremony,” Cleveland and a small party rowed to the beach. They “rambled” south, on a narrow, cobblestone path toward the fort. When no one met them, they went inside and “availed ourselves of the opportunity to ascertain its strength.”
They found “eight brass nine-pounders” mounted on wooden carriages. (Cleveland tends to inflate numbers in his account; later he says there were only three, most likely a more accurate number.) The cannons were in good shape, “but there was no appearance of their having been used for a long time.” Not wanting to get caught snooping around the battery, the party returned to the ship at sunset, “having had an agreeable excursion.”
Back on board, Sergeant Arce, “an intelligent young man,” told bout the 491 furs in the warehouse.
The next time he saw the Commandant, Cleveland suggested a trade. Rodriguez wouldn’t listen. Cleveland became convinced that, “without it being known to the public,” Rodriguez would have made the sale. But since San Diegans “were all spies on each other,” he couldn’t.
Richard Batman: “That Rodriguez was an honest man who believed in enforcing the rules didn’t occur to Cleveland.”
Rodriguez never sold the furs. They rotted in the warehouse. The putrid stench that seeped through the walls and permeated the entire compound – prompting grumbles from all 200 inhabitants – became a symbol of the Commandant’s fortitude.
He finally ordered all 491 dumped in the bay.
On March 21, the Lelia Byrd had its supplies. Rodriguez came on board to receive payment. “The ship sails in the morning,” he said. Then, in a grand flourish, he wished everyone well.
When he came ashore, rather than ride north to the Presidio, Rodriguez went to inspect the fort. In the trunk of Jose Velazquez, the Corporal in charge of the battery, he found “19 rolls of counterfeit Bretana cloth, and about six yards of flannel.” Foreign Goods?
He also detected the scent of otter skins. A quick search uncovered a stack of 40: the New Englanders’ share. “Suspicious” that more smuggling would happen after dark, Rodriguez, a cadet, andefour soldiers began patrolling the beach on horseback.
Around 9:00 p.m., Cleveland feigned panic: a crewman was missing, he told Sergeant Arce. They couldn’t leave without him! So Cleveland, the two cabin boys, and the ship’s caulker lowered the launch and a small jollyboat and rowed to prearranged locations in silence.
Cleveland came back with several “mission furs.” The launch never returned.
As the cabin boys guarded the launch in darkness, the caulker traded with Carlos Rosa, a soldier, for seven otter pelts. Then came the clack of hooves on cobblestones. Rodriguez!
Rosa grabbed the furws and vanished into thick shrubs. Six horsemen surrounded the caulker and cabin boys. Furious, Rodriguez ordered the smugglers bound hand and foot – and to remain that way all night, guarded by three soldiers. In the morning, the Commandant would return and “reprimand the Captain for his procedure.”
At sunrise, Shaler and Cleveland saw the empty launch beached abreast of their vessel. Cleveland snuck ashore. He spotted the soldiers and their prisoners. Since he had no weapon, and a rescue would have been “imprudent,” he returned to the ship and told Shaler. They immediately disarmed the on-board guards and locked them belowdecks. Cleveland and four crewmen, “each with a brace of pistols” rowed ashore. Antonio Guillen, one of the guards, went with them, possibly as a Spanish-speaking eye-witness.
The New Englanders surprised the soldiers, shoved pistols at their chests, and demanded the prisoners released. “To prevent mischief,: Cleveland dipped Spanish firearms into salty baywater and tossed them on the beach.
As the Yankee party boarded the launch, Gullien broke free. He raced to Fort Guijarros. “The Bostones are sailing — with our men!” he shouted to Velazquez. “What should we do!”
The question was unique. Up to 1803, few ships visited San Deigo Bay, and none had tried to escape. Though they hadn’t done much lately, cannoniers practiced at small targets — out of range objects at North Island, chunks of kelp in the channel — but never an actual vessel. Plus, shooting at an American brig could constitute an act of war.
But the Lelia Byrd was kidnapping five fellow soldiers. To what purpose? A shanghaied crew? Slit their throats at sea? And then again: could Velazquez open fire on his comrades?
Shaler and Cleveland had no options. “Arriving safely on board,” writes Cleveland, “our men [were] so indignant at the treatment of their shipmates, as to be ready for the fight.” They had, however, a “hazardous” task ahead, “a failure in which would be attended by ruin.”
The Lelia Byrd was anchored a mile north of Fort Guijarros. To escape, it would have to sail through the narrow strait between the point and North Island, within close range of the battery. “With a strong wind,” writes Cleveland, “the quick passage of the vessel would render the danger trifling, but unfortunately we had not but the last expiring breath of the land breeze.” This would only give them “steerage way,” only enough movement to keep the ship on course.
It would take almost 45 minutes to weigh anchor, come about, and sail past the fort against the incoming tide. The Battle of San Diego Bay, in other words, took place in slow motion.
The Lelia Byrd had six three-pound, portable swivel-guns. These made more noise than damage, even to nearby targets. Shaler ordered them armed and mounted along the ship’s starboard side, facing the fort.
Corporal Velazquez, whose smuggling escapes helped trigger it, had an idea: prevent the confrontation without violence. When the Lelia Byrd crew climbed to the upper yardarm and unfurled the topsails, Velazquez mustered troops at the battery and raised the Spanish flag. Then he loaded a blank cartridge into “El Jupiter” and lit the fuse.
Shaler and Cleveland saw the flash and heard the report rumble up the hillside. Smoke hung like a low cloud over the battery, and flocks of seagulls took flight. But the Lelia Byrd continued toward the neck of the bay.
Velazquez reloaded, this time with a nine-pound ball. He fired the universal warning: a blast across the ship’s bow. The “solid shot” cracked the sky. But the Lelia Byrd nudged forward.
During the next 30 minutes Velazquez fired several times. Though most shots missed, one snared some rigging, slowing the ship even more. The Lelia Byrd didn’t return fire. When it almost reached the fort, a missile struck the hull toward the stern, possibly a low, raking-shot, skimming across the waves.
Shaler and Cleveland quickly crammed the hole with oakum — tarred, old rope fibers. They also made a move to stop the bombardment. Cleveland: “We caused the guard in their uniforms to stand along in the most exposed and conspicuous station.”
Cleveland neglects to say that he and Shaler turned the soldiers into human targets. They lashed four to the ship’s starboard railing, facing the fort, and tied Sergeant Arce to the mainmast. The prisoners contorted, trying to undo knots. Some mimicked being shot. All begged Velazquez to cease firing.
Cleveland says the cannonade continued. Velazquez, who had shot eight rounds up to that point, says he stopped when Sergeant Arce promised the soldiers would be given their swords and set free.
A small crowd gathered near the fort – “came to see the fun,” says Cleveland. When the Lelia Byrd pulled even with the battery, the prisoners were still bound to the railing. Their screams and frantic twisting showed no hint of freedom.
Suddenly, Lelia Byrd blasted a six-cannon broadside. Stones sparked and three-pound balls ricocheted up the ramp. But the volley did no harm.
Soldiers began to flee the fort. The Lelia Byrd reloaded. The swivel guns roared again, this time with cannonballs and “grapeshot” — small, cast-iron pellets that erupt like shrapnel. Cleveland: the second salvo “caused the complete abandonment of their guns, as none were fired afterwards; nor could we see any person in the fort, excepting a soldier who stood upon the ramparts, waving his hat, as if to desire us to desist.”
It was Velazquez. Soon after, Rodriguez, who had ridden around the bay from the Presidio, reached the battery. The Lelia Byrd was well past the breakwater at Ballast Point. Rodriguez rebuked Velazquez for opening fire and, after it shot back, for not trying to “dismast” the vessel.
Velazquez said he couldn’t; he had no “bar shots” referring to cannonballs linked by a metal bar.
“Can your guns reach the frigate from here?”
“No sir… out of range.”
Battle over. Aware that different versions of what happened were bound to occur, Velazquez hinted that if Rodriguez wanted to get their story straight, just let him know.
The Lelia Byrd moved on. Cleveland: “Having passed out of reach of their cannon, the poor guards saw themselves completely in our power, without the chance of rescue.” As the brig rounded Point Loma, crewmen lowered the launch to row the guards ashore and tied their weapons in bundles. Even these signs of liberty couldn’t keep the soldiers from “imploring for mercy… nor could they be made to believe, until they were actually on shore, that we intended them no harm.”
On safe ground at last, the soldiers embraced each other, crossed themselves, and fell to their knees in prayer. Cleveland, who later boasted about his and Shaler’s “humanity and generosity to the guards,” says he heard them shout, Vivan los Americanos.”
The Lelia Byrd sailed south to San Quintin, for repairs, and eventually to Hawaii.
Five days after the incident – though Velazquez swears that it was just a “friendly exchange of gifts” — Rodriguez jailed the Corporal for dealing contraband with the Yankees.
The Commandant sold the confiscated good at an auction for the equivalent of $212. He gave the money to four Spanish soldiers. One would like to believe it was the four trapped “between wind and water,” during the Battle of San Diego Bay.
- William Shaler, “The Journal of a Voyage between China and the Northwest Coast of America,” The American Register III (1808)
- Ron May, board chairman, director of archeology, Fort Guijarros Museum Foundation, interview.
- Richard J. Cleveland, A Narrative of Voyages and Commercial Enterprises (Cambridge, 1843)
- Cited letters from the Provincial State Papers (Spanish transcripts at the Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley) vols XII and XVIII; also from Provincias Internas, vol XVIII, no 1.
- Richard Batman, The Outer Coast (San Diego, 1985)
- Magdalen Coughlin, C.S.J., “Boston Smugglers on the Coast” (1797-1821): An Insight into the American Acquisition of California, California Historical Society Quarterly 46, (June ,1967)
- Barry Allen Joyce, A Harbor Worth Defending (Cabrillo Historical Association, 1995)
- Magdalen Coughlin: “This is what makes early contact of American traders with the California coast so illusive. Smugglers do not register as such… they must be followed where they have tried to leave no trace.”
- Barry Alan Joyce: “While the immediate outcome of this ‘battle’ may have been indecisive, its message to potential smugglers was clear. A quarter-century passed before anyone dared to attempt a similar episode.”
- Richard J. Cleveland: “The Lelia Byrd was repaired by the King [Kanehameha of Hawaii, who bought it] and made two or three voyages to China with sandalwood. At length, worn out, and after being for a time a receiving ship for opium, she was broken up or sunk at Whampoa.”