Saturday, June 21, 2008

Mysterious Death of the Saginaw's Skipper

Two earlier posts (May 24 & 28, 2008) related stories about the sidewheeler USS Saginaw, the first ship built at the Mare Island Navy Yard. During 1868-69 the Saginaw cruised in Alaskan waters, returning briefly to Mare Island for reprovisioning in the fall of 1868. During the first part of that Alaska cruise, the Saginaw was under the command of Commander John G. Mitchell. Unfortunately, during her return visit to Mare Island, Saginaw’s skipper met with an untimely end. The Vallejo Weekly Chronicle of Saturday, October 24, 1868, provided an account of the incident.

Mysterious Affair – Death of Commander John Mitchell

“Commander John Mitchell of the United States Steamer Saginaw was murdered in San Francisco, at the corner of Sutter and Stockton streets, at half past seven o’clock last Wednesday evening. The only witness to the deed was a young lady. She was passing down Sutter street near to the place, when she noticed three men standing at the place before mentioned; loud talk was going on when one of the men struck the man standing in the middle a heavy blow on the head knocking him down. The third man instantly took to his heels. The assailant stopped to strike his victim several blows as he lay on the ground, and then ran off in the opposite direction from that taken by his accomplice. As soon as possible the lady gave the alarm. When assistance came the man was found lying across the railroad track in a dying condition. He was removed to a grocery store near by, where he soon expired. Upon examination, strange to say, no marks of violence were found on his person (contradicting the first report). A gold watch and $29.50 in coin was found in his clothes, showing that no robbery was intended. He left the Navy yard on the morning boat to attend some business in the City. Two men were seen in the company of the deceased, a short time previous to the occurrence. Mitchell had apparently been drinking; he expressed his dislike to the company which was seemingly forced upon him. The whole affair is a complete mystery. A Coroner’s inquest was held on the body Thursday. The two men have been arrested, who gave their names as savage and Elias, which are thought to be fictitious names. Commander Mitchell has been a long time on the coast. He was the executive officer of the Active, under Commodore Alden, on the Coast Survey. On the breaking out of the war he was ordered East, where he took an active part in naval operations, and after the close of the war he came back to this coast as chief officer of the Pensacola. From this ship he was transferred to the command of the Saginaw something over a year ago; and was expecting to be relieved from the latter named vessel in a few days. He was a gentleman and an officer in every sense of the word, not only here, but everywhere his position called him. We are told he was a native of Massachusetts, and he leaves a wife and family in the East.”

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Vallejo in 1852

In March 1852 Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion reported on the vast influx of people into the new state of California following the discovery of gold a few years before: “How many poor people have become enriched, and how many have lost their lives in their mad zeal to obtain a hoard of the glittering dust. No modern event has ever been the cause of so much romance in real life...."

The article also described the new capital city of Vallejo: “Our artist presents a very fine view of Vallejo, the new capital of California. It is pronounced by persons who have visited and are familiar with the spot, as singularly accurate and faithful. The members of the California legislature when they first met were compelled to sit on nail kegs, with a board placed across the open head, or upon temporary benches, which now and then broke under the weight of legislative dignity, and let down a row of honorable gentlemen flat upon the floor, to the great hazard of the gravity of the house. This was in consequence of the unfinished state of the capitol. The boarding-houses were not much better prepared for the reception of the public dignitaries, and in many instances members had to take turns in occupying chairs during the night. However, as soon as it was decided that the government would remain at Vallejo those inconveniences were removed…. The State House, on the summit of the hill, the public offices, hotels, and every tenement in the place is presented, together with much of the surrounding scenery, constituting as it does one of the most beautiful points in the entire state of California.”

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Old Times

The Vallejo Evening Chronicle of May 22, 1877 published the following column under the heading of “Old Times”

Events of Early Days in Vallejo

"Several days since a number of questions were propounded to the Chronicle relating to early events in the history of Vallejo. We herewith give the desired information in the order of request."

Mare Island

"The tract of land embodying what is known as Mare Island was sold by Victor Castro in the year 1850 to John B. Frisbie and a man named B. Simonds, for the sum of $7,000. About one year thereafter these parties sold the property to Messrs. Aspinall & Birrell, of New York for $17,500 and the latter named sold the Island to the Government for $80,000. The property was taken possession of by the late Admiral Farragut for Navy Yard purposes in 1854."

"The largest number of workmen ever employed on the Yard was in 1869 when there were about 1,750 men on the rolls."

"The Saginaw was built of Pacific Coast timber in the year 1859."


"The first newspaper published in Vallejo was a weekly called the Bulletin No. 1, Vol. 1, of which appeared November 22d, 1855 and was published by Messrs, Eaton & Cox. The latter is resident of Napa."

"There was an amateur journal printed on the Navy Yard about three years subsequent to the Bulletin, by a lad, M. L. Hanscom."


"Before the settlement of this section by the whites, this immediate section was inhabited by a tribe of Indians called the Soscols. From the best information it is believed there is no remnant of them left."

Political Incident

"James Buchanan was hung in effigy immediately after his election, it was supposed by some members of the Filmore club. The stuffed figure was run up on the flagpole that now stands at Connolly’s corner, and the halyards were cut away. The Democrats had great trouble in getting the effigy down. It remained there for nearly forty-eight hours; several sailors form off one of Uncle Sam’s ships essayed to climb the pole and cut the offending figure down, but all failed. Finally, a young man was found who accomplished the much desired object, and was paid $20 for his work."

Public Schools

"J. G. Lawton was the first Superintendent of Public Schools in Vallejo and the first Board of Education was composed of the following: J. G. Lawton, Chairman; I. S. Halsey, B. S. Osborn, E. M. Benjamin and M. J. Wright, Secretary. Their first meeting was held June 23d, 1870. Prior to this Board the schools were managed under the general State law by three Trustees. The first Principal was G. W. Simonton, both under the Board of Education and under the Trustee management."

Burning of The Old State House

"The old State House was situated on the very summit of the hill back of the Eureka Hall. It was a tall, two story structure, with from forty to fifty feet in up to its eaves, and forty by fifty feet in other dimensions. It was a frame building and had a zinc roof. The Senate used to meet in the upper story and the Assembly in the lower; below the latter was a half-basement, devoted to what purpose we cannot say. The building had belonged to General Vallejo, who gave the use of it to the State. After the removal of the Capitol it reverted to Vallejo, who owned it when burned. At the time of the conflagration, J.B. Frisbie and Burcham had a considerable quantity of hay stowed in the basement. The day before an incendiary attempt on Georgia street had aroused apprehensions among the citizens, and Mr. Topley and some others who had examined the State House with the possibility of a fire there in view, found evidence of the occupation at night of the place where the hay was stored. They nailed up everything securely so that no access was offered to the hay, and left. It was on the next day after-the morning of August 20, 1859, that the building burned. The flames first broke out on the water-side and were seen first by a man in a sloop on the bay. The alarm was given and the people rushed to the spot. But there was no fire apparatus in that day and the building burned to the ground before their eyes. There was a report at the time that those who first reached the burning house found a hatchet lying on the outside and evidences that a way had been forced into the basement nailed up the day before. But this is apocryphal. Anyhow, an incendiary attempted followed the night after, and then the people met and formed a police organization, which saved them from further fires for some considerable time."

Vallejo Rifles

"The Vallejo Rifles were organized in 1861 with J. B. Frisbie as Captain and John King, First Lieutenant."