LIBERTY: SCENES FROM SAN DIEGO’S SHORE-LEAVE HISTORY
DANA TOURS SAN DIEGO “A sailor’s liberty is for a day,” writes Richard Henry Dana in Two Years Before the Mast, “yet while it lasts it is perfect,” because, for 24 hours at least, he’s free. When Dana’s brig, the Pilgrim, rounded Point Loma in 1835, the 19-year-old experienced for the first time “the sweets of liberty.”
After swabbing the decks and other Sunday chores, Dana’s larboard watch got the word: they could go ashore. Eight men scattered. They took baths with soap (a rarity at sea) and donned their white duck trousers, blue jackets, and straw hats.
As Dana and his friend Stimson found their land legs on the rocky La Playa trail to Old Town, their spirits rose. They weren’t completely free, however. Even liberty had rules: They couldn’t slight their shipmates, whom they looked down on in private as uneducated and socially inferior. Dana and Stimson wanted to leave the others and see the sights. But they didn’t dare just yet because “as long as you belong to the same vessel, you must be a shipmate to him on shore, or he will not be a shipmate to you on board.”
That’s why they left their higher-toned “long togs” back in Boston, dressed as jack-tars, and joined the group making a triple-time beeline for the nearest pub.
On the outskirts of town, they entered a weathered adobe building owned by a one-eyed Yankee from Fall River. He’d jumped ship in the Sandwich Islands and come to California to beach-comb and run a grog shop. He charged a real, about 12 cents, for a glass of aguardiente — the generic name for alcohol in those days, also known as “firewater.”
Sailors from several ships clogged the one-room pub. And Dana encountered rule number two of liberty. According to an unwritten custom, each seaman must buy the house a round — and down every glass because “if you drink with one and not another, it is always taken as an insult.”
Plus, rounds went according to seniority, elders first, which meant Dana and Stimson had to imbibe often before their turn. They feared they’d get “corned” and would be too late to rent horses for their excursion.
In time their worries (abated most likely by aguardiente) vanished. They bought their freedom and saw the sights, such as they were: the town was “forty dark brown looking huts”; the presidio, “old and ruinous”; and the white-plastered, crumbling mission was so quiet the “stillness of death reigned.”
HOUNDED In 1850, to raise the county’s revenues, newly elected sheriff Agoston Haraszthy taxed native tribes. A year later, when some villages refused, he threatened to take their cattle and land by military force. Several tribes, led by Cupeño chief Antonio Garra, revolted. They attacked Warner’s Ranch on November 27, 1851. Garra vowed to wage war “for a whole life.”
Ranchers and backcountry homesteaders fled to town for protection. But since a volunteer company had left for the mountains, San Diego was vulnerable. “Only 35 of us to protect the town,” wrote Thomas Whaley. And they must remain “on the defensive till reinforcements arrive from the north.”
The governor of California ordered the Hounds to rescue San Diego. Though officially called Rangers, the Hounds were a posse of thugs named after vigilantes who had plagued San Francisco. The original Hounds offered protection to the Spanish-speaking community during the early years of the Gold Rush. Anyone refusing aid, the Hounds swore, was unpatriotic — and was beaten or stabbed, their tents and shanties burned.
By the time the governor’s Hounds got the call, a firing squad had executed Garra, and the revolt ceased. But since they’d already paid for a ship, 50 Hounds sailed anyway from Benicia. They camped by the river in Mission Valley. Instead of defending San Diego, they terrorized it for two weeks.
They began by stealing horses. Then, corned up, they plowed through Old Town night after night, firing pistols into the darkness and assaulting anyone who looked un-American to them — i.e., Spanish-speakers.
Philip Crosthwaite, a third sergeant who fought against the Garra insurrection, rounded up some men to arrest horse thieves. In no time they nabbed a Hound with Juan Bandini’s mule. The Hound swore he was collecting animals in the name of the United States for an expedition into Mexico. Crosthwaite took the thief and another Hound, Sergeant Thomas, into custody.
The next morning the captain of the Hounds gave Crosthwaite an ultimatum: free the prisoners or his men would torch San Diego.
Word reached Lieutenant Thomas Sweeney at the military barracks at La Playa. Sweeney, who brought 18 soldiers to town, later wrote that he feared “if my men had not been present that day, the streets of San Diego would have been drenched in blood.”
Shortly before Sweeney’s contingent arrived, Lieutenant Watkins of the Hounds approached Crosthwaite.
“Did you order the arrest of my men?”
“Yes, I did.”
“Liar!” shouted Watkins, who threw a punch, missed, and drew a pistol. He aimed at Crosthwaite and pulled the trigger. Nothing. Jammed gun or wet cap.
Crosthwaite yanked a pistol from inside his long coat and shot Watkins in the right thigh.
Hounds around the plaza opened fire. A bullet lodged in Crosthwaite’s pelvis. He tried to crawl to safety. A Dr. Ogden ran, hunched down, into the street. He dragged Crosthwaite to a nearby store, chased by gunfire and rising puffs of dust.
As the Hounds prepared to charge the door, Sweeney’s men rode into the plaza. The Hounds disappeared. They chartered a ship and went back to San Francisco. Before they sailed, Dr. Ogden had to amputate Watkins’s leg.
By January 24, 1852, the San Diego Herald assured its readers that Crosthwaite was out of danger. His fellow citizens, writes Richard Pourade, gave him Watkins’s leg “as a trophy of war.”
THE USS HARTFORD’S LEGENDARY LIBERTY PARTY When they came into port after months at sea, some sailors never left the ship, some went ashore only to sightsee, and others tried to stuff months of adventure into a 24-hour pass.