On the Fringe of Fame, by Elizabeth Fleming Rhodes, Chapter 9

On the Fringe of Fame


More California, Oregon, and Washington

THE END OF THE MEXICAN WAR in February 1848 had left the Californians seething with discontent. Fremont had incurred numerous debts, and, although available naval funds had been used for some of the expenses, the property of many natives and foreigners had been seized.

On March 3, 1848, Lewis Cass introduced a bill appropriating $700,000 for the settlement of these claims and providing for a board of commissioners which included Fremont. The bill safely passed the Senate, but the House gagged over having Fremont a member of the commission, and Mason’s charges against Fremont were aired. The bill was subsequently tabled and remained dormant for four years, a state of affairs which certainly did not soothe the ruffled California feathers.

In 1852, $16,800 was designated for another board of commissioners, and non-controversial officers were appointed this time: Brevet Colonel Charles F. Smith of the Second Artillery, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Thomas of the Department of the Quartermaster General, and Major Richard B. Lee. Their task was to “examine and report to Congress upon all such claims as may be presented for funds advanced and supplies furnished or taken for the use of the volunteers serving under the command of Captain John C. Fremont in California during the year 1846.”1

Although the erratic Fremont had been excluded, the board suffered from a certain amount of friction. Richard was slightly disgruntled because of the decision of the Secretary of War regarding the question of rank and precedence. (The same old brevet quandary.) Brevet Colonel Smith was dissatisfied in his position of chairman and wrote a long letter inquiring about his powers and duties. He and Thomas were not seeing eye to eye: Thomas apparently had been playing truant, and, what was worse, had not been wearing his uniform. Smith felt that Thomas needed to be reprimanded, but was not sure whether it was his job to do it, as chairman. There was also the question of remuneration: both Lee and Smith were dissatisfied with their share of the $2000 appropriated for the expenses of the Board of Officers, and requested commutation for fuel and quarters, which was granted.2

The Board met regularly in an office at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 17th Street in Washington. Notices were run twice a week for four weeks in leading newspapers throughout the country: The St. Louis Republican, New Orleans Bulletin, San Francisco Evening Pecayune, the Boston Courier, Washington National Intelligence and Republican, the New York Express and the Philadelphia Pennsylvania Inquirer. Now was the time to present all claims, or forever hold one’s peace. If claims were not in English, an accurate translation had to be included. There was no maximum or minimum limit, and the claims coming in ranged from Mariano G, Vallejo’s $143,000 to Nathan Barbour’s $2.50 for a pair of shoes.3

The adjudication of those claims was no simple matter, and probably Richard wondered how these claims compared with those settled by his father after the war of 1812. In addition to the property seized to support Fremont’s Battalion during the Bear Flag regime, money had been loaned on Fremont’s drafts and advances at very high rates of interest. This matter was further complicated by the fact that government funds would have been available for some of these debts, had there not been political wrangling.

Finally, on April 19, 1855, the Board made its third and final report. Three hundred and sixty-three claims had been filed, amounting to $989,185. The Board had pared this down to $157,365, ruling out many claims because of lack of sufficient evidence, or late registration, and invalidating all claims for destruction of property. Most of the claims were reduced radically; for example, Captain Phelp’s charge of $10,000, for providing Fremont with a boat to cross the bay in order to spike the San Francisco guns, was reduced to $50.00. (John A. Sutter, however, received $6800 of his $7200 claim.)4

While Richard and his brother officers ruthlessly whittled down the California claims, ode of Fremont’s debts caused a tempest on both sides of the Atlantic. On March 18, 1847, Fremont had received $15,000 from F. Hullman for drafts on the government, with a premium of $4,500. When Secretary Buchanan refused to accept these drafts, Fremont was sued in London, arrested, jailed and released on bail. A judgment was obtained for the original $19,500, but the interest and court costs had skyrocketed it to $48,814. The American public was aroused by Fremont’s predicament, and a bill was introduced in Congress for his relief. The act of March 3, 1854, agreed to pay the $48,814, but to charge the original $15,000 to Fremont unless he should be able to prove that the money had been used for public service (which proof he had failed to furnish by 1856).

A few years later, when Richard tried to collect for a debt resulting from an emergency in his department, he marveled at this governmental bounty, at this appropriation to pay the exorbitant interest on Fremont’s debt which, apparently, had not been incurred for public use.

Although no chamber of commerce had been wooing him, Richard yearned for California, and soon his request for duty there was granted.5 On April 9, 1855, he received orders to report to the Headquarters of the Department at Benicia. Richard did not depart alone; thanks to nepotism, his twenty-year-old son, Dick, went along, employed as his clerk at $200 a month.

In his pocket Richard carried a small white envelope marked, “Not to be opened in Washington.” It was a last farewell from his eighty-seven-year-old mother, written on May 18,1855:

We part this day my Beloved Son—and may never meet again. My age forbids such a calculation—You are in the prime of Manhood—you go with flattering prospects and in the confidence of your commanders—But oh! My Son—of whome [sic] can you ask for a “safe conduct” to protect you on your way, and through dangers and perils in your journey Who but God? can give you this?6

Benicia, 1851, from collection of California Historical Society.

Richard reported to Headquarters in Benicia’ somewhat reluctantly, because he knew, from past experience, how difficult it would be to transact the buying and shipping of subsistence from Benicia. He had attempted to explain these problems to the Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, in several personal interviews before his departure. Benicia had been laid out in 1847 on the Carquinez Strait at the head of ocean navigation, its optimistic promoters hoping that it would become the metropolis of the West. Because of the proximity of river navigation, it had indeed rivaled San Francisco in 1850, with a population of 1000, drydocks and coaling facilities for shipping. However, the narrow straits with their humped brown mountains gave the town a cramped feeling and this feeling of claustrophobia soon resulted in unpopularity. The large ocean-going ships preferred to dock nearer to the Golden Gate, and soon San Francisco had become the mercantile and shipping center, in spite of the fact that it was isolated on a peninsula, remote from the important river highways. Soon most of the local paddle wheelers would refuse to unload cargo at Benicia, and Richard would have to rely more on slow sailing ships to carry his subsistence shipments up the bay to the depot.

Since most of the purchasing and all the ocean shipping had to be done in San Francisco, Richard found that it was imperative to have a warehouse or storeroom there to store the goods temporarily for inspection and to avoid the long haul across the bay and back again in instances when the merchandise was being purchased for immediate shipment to Oregon or Southern California. Although his interviews with Jefferson Davis had borne no fruit, and his commanding officer was afraid to authorize the use of a San Francisco storeroom, Richard was so confident of his position that he moved with temerity into a storeroom.7 This was an emergency; it was a time of war, and surely the approval would be forthcoming after he had dashed off a few additional written requests and explanations.

War had flamed up in the great forests of Oregon. The Indians were on a rampage, and with that same old cause, “manifest destiny.” A stream of white settlers had followed the missionaries into Oregon and up the Willamette, the Columbia and other valleys. A massacre of some one hundred immigrants at Bloody Point in 1851 had resulted in a punitive expedition by Ben Wright of Yreka. Not satisfied with killing thirty Indians in battle, Wright had lured a large number of Indians into camp with a peace offer and efficaciously massacred some forty of them. (Some said that the Indians had initiated the peace talk and were plotting an ambush, so that Wright’s action was in self-protection.) Whatever the cause, the results were anything but peaceful, and another one hundred immigrants were killed during the following year.

Although Governor Isaac Stevens had been hopeful of a peace resulting from treaties, the 1855 discovery of gold near Fort Colville on the Columbia brought a deluge of prospectors into the Indian lands, and the inevitable massacres, ambushes and burnings of white settlements ensued. The U.S. Army was needed to bring order, and General John Ellis Wool, a seventy-one-year-old veteran of the Wars of 1812 and Mexico, was ordered to move his headquarters to Fort Vancouver. It was a time of rumors and uncertainties, as Lee reported:

We have many rumors as to the extent of the outbreak amongst the Indians, but as yet no authentic information except as to the defeat of Major Haller and probably massacres in different parts of the country. . . . General Wool, his staff and all of this dispensible troops embark on the 6th. inst. for the Columbia river.

It is said that the Volunteers called out by the Governor of Oregon and otherwise organized in different parts of the country will probably decline to be mustered into the service. . . .8

On November first, Richard received orders to purchase provisions for 1000 men for 30 days and to ship these rations to Humboldt Bay on the vessel on which General Wool was sailing. Richard seized upon this assignment with alacrity: this was his test case to prove the necessity for the San Francisco storeroom. It would be utterly impossible to purchase the rations in San Francisco, pack the 95 tons into 866 packages in Benicia and return them to San Francisco within the scheduled four days.

The hectic provisioning job accomplished, Richard and his clerk were glad to board the California with General Wool and his troops.9 This 200-foot long, 1000-ton side-wheeler had been the first steamer to bring gold seekers around the horn in ’49. The heroic efforts of her ailing first skipper, Captain Forbes, to keep her plying up and down the coast in spite of wholesale desertions by the crew and officers, had become a well-known legend. The California was now under new owners, on a regular schedule to Fort Vancouver and the settlements on Puget Sound.

Richard remembered from his former trip to Oregon with General Persifer Smith that the crossing of the bar of the Columbia River was fraught with danger and excitement. This seething barrier had rebuffed many explorers and had taken its toll of ships and lives in the past; this November was no exception. As the California buffeted the wild seas, a boiler burst, and the ship caught on fire, alarming everyone because of the large quantities of gunpowder on board. Fortunately, a huge wave thrust the panic-stricken ship over the bar into the calm waters of the river in the nick of time, and the soldiers were able to extinguish the flames before they came in contact with the ammunition.

General Wool, soldiers, and supplies were unloaded at Fort Vancouver. The California was patched up temporarily, and on November 17 Richard and his son reboarded this indestructible steamer. The bar of the Columbia was safely recrossed, and there were no further adventures up the coast to the Strait of Juan de Fuca and down Puget Sound to Fort Steilacoom (southwest of today’s Tacoma). This was a pleasant voyage along the densely forested coast, past lovely wooded islands, with occasional glimpses, when the rains and fog lifted, of the snowy perfection of the Cascade and Olympic mountains.

Steilacoom was no longer the sleepy little fort of ’49; the stockade was bristling with military activity, and the surrounding meadows and farmland showed evidence of the steady impact of white settlers. The Northwest had found a great demand for its wheat and lumber in the gargantuan growth of San Francisco, and all along the coast piles of lumber and wheat waited for transportation.

His business in Steilacoom quickly transacted, the two Richards embarked on the same doughty steamer for the return voyage to San Francisco, a voyage full of peril.

Steamer California
Dec. 7th, 1855
At Sea 50 Miles S.W. Columbia

My dear Wife

For the last twelve days we have been almost drifting about between San Juan del Fugo and this place—only (if that) 5 tons of coal, the engine disabled and some old unreliable sails made of scraps awnings etc. These sails are old generally and likely to be blown away at any time. The ship under sail is very unmanageable and cannot probably out live a severe gale. Several times we have been in eminent danger.

The present object appears to be to get in to Port Orford or Humbolt of which with Southerly and Westerly winds I think impracticable.

Plenty of provision and water on board.

A sail is now in sight which if practicable I shall board with my son Richard.

It may be possible that the Captain may consider it unsafe to attempt to put us on board the sail in sight but will send off a boat which will take this letter.

My private affairs are in the Hands of T. I. Haynes of San Francisco. He holds notes and securities amounting to about fifteen thousand dollars, including his own notes to me for one thousand dollars cash at 2 p.c. intrust, payable on the 1 of each month. . . .

Should Dick embark on the sail in sight and I remain an board, he will take this letter and attend to our affairs at San Francisco, in the event of this ship being cast away with me on board.

[More about finances]

Come what may my dear Wife Children Mother and family, I leave with you my love and my blessing.

R. B. Lee

Dick joins me in his love and prayers for the prosperity of his mother sisters and brothers.

P.S. Should both of us board the vessel in sight, this letter will be left on board the ship. 10

Fortunately the weather held and disaster was averted. The California limped into San Francisco on December 16. (The California would remain undaunted for another forty years; remodelled in 1875 into a brigantine for the coal and lumber trade to Australia, she plodded the Pacific until wrecked on the rocks near Pacasmayo, Peru.)

The Monday, December 17, 1855, issue of the Daily Alta California was well worth its ten cents’ cost. The largest headline on the front page announced: “Arrival of the Culifornia in a disabled condition.” The exciting subheading, “Twenty-one Days at Sea—Severe Gale of Wind—Loss of Third Officer,” was followed by a dull log of departure hours, layovers and distances, but became more interesting when it described the storm:

Left the Straits of Juan del Fuca on the 26th at 5 A.M. On the 27th encountered a terrific gale from the southeast, which lasted with unabated fury for 70 hours. At the commencement of the gale, the engine becoming disabled, we were obliged to put the ship under sail. On the night of the 27th at about 11 o’clock, when the wind seemed to be at its height, Mr. Dennis, third officer of the ship, in attempting to rescue the port quarter boat, fell overboard and was lost.


This newspaper was an epitome of life in California during the Gold Rush. In the next column of the Alta was a provocative story: “GUNPOWDER PLOT—Atternpt to blow up a dwelling.”

The residents of the upper portion of this city were startled last evening about six o’clock by a tremendous shock, which shook the ground and buildings for several squares around the spot, from whence proceeded a frightful gunpowder explosion. This occurrence happened at a small cottage in Pike street, between Clay and Sacramento streets. On repairing to the spot, we learned that a sack of powder containing several pounds had been placed upon the porch or stoop in front of the house and fired off. The windows of the house were blown in and much of the furniture inside was destroyed by the force of the explosion. The house was occupied by a French woman, named Fanny Perrier. . . . Madame Perrier charged the crime upon Judge McGowan, and immediately came down to the Marshall’s office and procured a warrant for his arrest—upon a charge of assault, with intent to commit murder. . . .

Beneath the gunpowder plot story was information about a new “mode of washing” gold, and further on a paragraph that would have made Richard feel his fifty-eight years. “Found Dead—An old miner, by the name of Wm. Meredith, who had been working about Lower Springs for three or four years. . . . He was from Missouri about 27 years of age.”

Amusements were listed: Metropolitan Theatre—“Rural Felicity,” Bachelor Miner in Search of a Wife. Union Theatre—Othello and the Cockney Outwitted. San Francisco Hall—Ethiopian Minstrelsy Negro Burlesques, etc. There were shipping and consignee notices; steamers, barques, clippers with names like Flying Dragon and Ocean Telegraph, sailing to all the ports of the world, and the steamer Senator back in port after striking a sunken rock in a thick fog off Monterey. Next to the shipping came a long account of the filibusterer William Walker’s plans for the conquest of Nicaragua.11

Lee’s life was full of peril: a letter received in 1856 from his mother mentions another brush with death:

But as God has thus mercifully protected you in every danger from the Battle field where no earthly aid was near you—and from the pistol presented to your breast in your own country—and at home in San Francisco.12

Because Elizabeth’s letter is the only reference to this episode, there is no way to determine whether Richard faced the pistol while being robbed or during a duel.

At this time, Elizabeth also wrote about the excitement in Washington resulting from the wedding of Matilda’s daughter, Euphan (Fanny), to Major Pierson Barton Reading. Richard was not surprised by the marriage as he had given Reading a letter of introduction to Fanny’s widowed mother.

Forty-year-old Reading was a man after Richard’s fur-trapping, adventure-seeking heart. Reading had immigrated to California in the Childs-Walker party in 1843, acquiring his 26,632-acre ranch in the Sacramento Valley the next year. He served as clerk and chief trapper at Sutter’s Fort, exploring extensively in Northern California and Oregon during 1844–45, naming the Trinity River and Mountains. Resenting the rule of the Mexican government he joined with other Americans to spearhead the Bear Flag Revolt. During 1846–47 he served as Fremont’s paymaster in the California Battalion and signed the Treaty of Cahuenga. He made the second major gold discovery in California on Clear Creek near his ranch. In 1851 he ran for governor of the new state and had come within a few votes of being elected.

Sixteen-year-old Julian had traveled to California with the bride and groom, Richard’s mother writing, “May he give you as little trouble as dear Dick.” After Major Reading and Fanny had settled in California, Elizabeth urged Richard to take his sons to visit Reading’s 26,000-acre Rancho Buena Ventura in the Sacramento Valley near the volcano, Lassen Peak. (The present town of Redding is situated on the original Reading grant, with a change of spelling.) Elizabeth wrote that Dick and Julian should visit their new cousin frequently because “such a man of such habits of industry and fine character are worthy of their attention.”13

Happily, this could be done at little cost. An Army fort established northeast of the ranch made such a visit a legitimate business expense, and Dick was reimbursed $52.50 for the round trip from San Francisco to Red Bluff by paddle steamer and from Red Bluff to Fort Reading by horse.

In the meantime, the Indian uprisings kept Richard hopping. Orders on January 3, 1856, stated: “9th Regiment of Infantry, about 800 men, was ordered to sail from New York not later than December 14th (ultimo) for Fort Vancouver. . . . See to its being fully provisioned, keeping in view the possibility of its being delayed on the route by ice in the Columbia River.” The supplies had to be divided into rations, weighed, inspected, and repacked for transport by pack animal at the end of the voyage, for there were few wagon roads in Oregon except along the Willamette. Richard supplied the regiment in record time. “On two steamers, having but two lay days on their arrival,”—thanks again to the controversial storerooms which, he figured, saved about “eight thousand dollars demurage,” in this instance.14

On another date he was ordered to provide 20,000 rations for Fort Orford and 10,000 for Crescent City on the no[r]thern coast of California. Although his headquarters were in Benicia, he was commanded to “always be on hand when the steamer returns from the north”15 to San Francisco.

While Richard’s old assistant, William T. Sherman, now in command of state troops at San Francisco, was struggling to curb the power of the Vigilante Committee, Richard was fussing and fuming over his request for the storeroom. His numerous letters had been ignored and denied, one reason for the refusal being that the San Francisco storeroom was considered to be hazardous, because of the proximity of the adjacent buildings and frequent disastrous fires. Richard, confident of his case, had nonetheless used the storeroom for ten months, promising the owner his rent as soon as the department authorized it. Now, he suddenly found himself with a $2,000 debt which the War Department refused to honor. Since all his requests had bounced from a stoney wall, he decided that the only way to make his voice heard would be by requesting a Court of Inquiry and a General Court Martial to “free himself from all imputations as to his conduct.”

Richard’s dander was up; and he let himself go in a verbal barrage to the Commissary General, “This is my only official act (as far as I how) which has not received the sanction and approbation of the Commanding General of Subsistence and the War Department during my long service. The unmerited rebuke, if I may be permitted to use the expression, with due respect to high authority from which it eminates, is not the less poignant from the delicate manner in which it has been administered, especially as the act has imposed upon my department the necessity of repudiating a just and honest debt necessarily incurred. I have no alternative but to ask that a “Court of Inquiry” be instituted to investigate this, as well as all other transactions connected with my duties in this department of the Army.”16

On February 9, 1857, the Court Martial took place in San Francisco, with Major General Wool, who had been opposed to the Court Martial in the first place, awry reluctant witness. Richard, on the other hand, was having a wonderful time. This was his second Court Martial, this one self-induced, and designed to force the War Department to give him his storehouse./p>

Charge number 1. Disobedience of Orders, On November 4, 1855, Lee had occupied a storehouse in San Francisco after his three applications for the same had been turned down by Major General Wool.

Charge number 2. “Conduct the Prejudice of Good Order and Military Discipline, He had occupied the storehouse after the refusal.” (The apparent repetition of Charge number 1 can only be understood by the Army.)

Lee’s letters requesting a storeroom and the refusals were produced. The scene was laid and then the fun began.

General Wool was interrogated about his visits to the storeroom. Hadn’t he noticed all the packages marked with the Army label? Hadn’t he asked Mr. Haynes, playfully, why he didn’t charge rent? Had, he thought it possible to supply the troops within the limited five days, using the Benicia storehouse for the inspection of supplies purchased in San Francisco?

General Wool was squirming on the witness stand, uttering embarrassed, “I am not prepared to answer that question,” and “I can’t say,” some nine times. When he did speak up, Lee’s counsel jumped on him for volunteering testimony not asked for. Yet, in spite of this rough treatment, General Wool stood up for Lee, testifying during the trial, “Lee’s honesty and his integrity as an officer was not, in my opinion, impugned by anything which has been said by the Secretary of War,” and that, with the exception of the incident of the storeroom “he has always manifested proper respect to my orders, and has always obeyed them with promptness and efficiency.”

What a delightful Court Martial! Richard limbered up his tongue and enveloped with his best sarcasm Colonel Thomas, who had served with him on the California Claims Commission.

With all due respects for that distinguished officer, I am forced to conclude that in his extra-official report, he has departed slightly from his usual courtesy: and has evinced less than his usual caution in condemning my conduct upon very slender testimony, and with very limited means of knowledge, touching the localities on the coast, and the best means of supplying them.17

Now the field was ready for action, and Richard wheeled in his artillery. The Inspector of Provisions explained his problems: Caveat Emptor. He had to take the head out of every barrel of pork and if found good, it had to be recoopered and fresh brine put in; flour and beans often had to be resacked. Every package had to be weighed and often repacked to prepare them for transportation on pack animals. He assured the court that supplies delivered directly to Benicia had “fallen short in every instance and the deficiencies could not have been detected without the facilities afforded by a storehouse.”

Next the merchants came to Richard’s defense, stating that their stores did not have the necessary conveniences for a general inspection of Army provisions, and that no merchant could sell goods subject to inspection and rejection at Benicia, without charging an additional 15 or 20 percent. This additional charge resulted from many things: the cost of shipping across the bay (steamers $5.00 a ton, sailing vessels $3.00 to $3.50), the wharf charge to two and a half percent, the cost of taking coopers over and back, the cost of returning rejected provisions and the subsequent loss in value of the rejected articles, as it would have to be sold at a very low rate, since everyone would know that it had been rejected by the Government Inspector.

Everyone agreed that Benicia was extremely inconvenient. There was little shelter at the wharf, and when the weather was bad, the hauling became extremely difficult. The wharf was not accessible to heavy wagons and teams, except at great risk to the animals and supplies as the approach was on a muddy mile-and-a-half levee and a “Very narrow plank road through a marsh, threatened by the danger of running off in the Tulares.”

The merchants explained patiently that it was the custom in San Francisco to deliver the merchandise in the store or on the sidewalk in front. As the merchandise could not remain on the sidewalk for more than a few hours before the street inspector would order it removed, it was obvious that the 37,000 rations in question had to be housed in a storeroom.

Having made his point about the one day’s rent in question, Lee went on to prove that the ten months’ rent, aggregating to a mere $2,000, had saved the government $44,432.07. His four “prominent first class merchants,—18 however, estimated the saving to be closer to $60,000. Lee felt triumphant when he was acquitted and handed back his sword.

Alas, his elation was only momentary. The Commanding General decided that there had been a failure on the part of the court to state that the documents admitted as evidence had been submitted at Lee’s request, and therefore considered this sufficient cause for a nonapproval of the proceedings. Richard was beside himself, and immediately sent all the documents to General Gibson, requesting payment of the rental and urging Gibson that this should be paid for the “credit of your Department and the reputation of myself—if there is no other alternative the loss must fall upon me, for although a claim not receivable by law, it is founded in honor, good faith, economy and the unavoidable necessities of the service.”19

Apparently Richard’s persistence finally wore down the opposition, and peace reigned in the Subsistence Department. In May, the headquarters for that department were moved to San Francisco17 and Richard finally had a legitimate storeroom, paying a pro-rata charge for watering the street in front during the dry season, and sharing with the adjacent merchants the expenses of a watchman to guard against “depredation and fire.”21

General Wool faded from the Western scene, suffering more discomfort from the screams of Congress than he had endured at the Court Martial. Unpopular because of his strong conviction that Army methods were best, that volunteer militias were illegal, and that uprisings in Oregon were caused by the white settlers, he brought about his replacement by General N. S. Clarke when he closed off the land east of the Cascades to settlers.

Richard was settled happily in his office at 37 California Street, and had grown used to the metamorphosis of San Francisco. After an epidemic of fires had cleaned out the shanty areas, substantial three- and four-story granite and brick business buildings had been erected on Montgomery and California streets. Palatial mansions of brick and of the more earthquake-proof frame construction were perched on the steep hillsides, with new mansions springing up daily. The city was pushing its way into the harbor, building over the mudflats and water on pilings which occasionally became a little tipsy in a storm, sometimes settling and causing part of a building to collapse. The streets were lighted by gas lights, and omnibuses ran every half hour from North Beach to South Park. Although San Francisco was still shaggy and unkempt in places, with bald spots, scaley eyesores and shanty areas, it had the aura of a metropolis, a mecca with an ebullient population of about 60,000 who mad thirteen daily newspapers in six different languages.

The Lees did not grow moss in a dull office routine, but were often on the road, commuting the thirty miles between Benicia and San Francisco three or four times a month until 1858. This was done by paddle wheeler, most of the ships leaving San Francisco at 4 P.M. and arriving at Benicia three hours later. The steamships were very modern and as elaborate as those on the Mississippi, with fine inlaid woods, stained-glass windows, red plush furniture, and gourmet meals. Added to the feeling of luxury was a spice of excitement: often rival ships would race each other, the passengers shouting and betting like maniacs, while the threat of an explosion hovered over them. (In January 1855, fifty-six people were killed when the Pearl blew up racing the Enterprise; in November of that year the Georgiana followed suit; and in February 1856 the Belle exploded near Sacramento.)

These paddle wheelers faithfully plied the bays and rivers, penetrating up the Sacramento River to Reading’s Landing and up the San Joaquin some 272 miles. The fare had increased because the happy days of the price wars between rival steamships were over. The paddle wheelers had joined the California Steam Navigation Company, and a ticket to Sacramento no longer dropped unexpectedly to 50 cents or one dollar.

Inspection tours to distant forts were a welcome change. In the spring of 1856, Richard revisited the growing towns of San Diego, the old Spanish town at the head of the bay which nestled around the old Mission, and the bawdy American port, grog shops, wharves, warehouses, and scattered shanties sprawled nine miles away on the shore. His travel appetite whetted, he wrote in May:

Captain Wright, the owner of the steamer Sea Bird, proposes to make an experimental voyage to Mazatlan, the ports on the gulf of California and the Colorado river, which he expects to ascend forty miles certainly, and possibly to Fort Yuma, as the steamer will meet the annual rise of the river.

The purpose of this trip was to “ascertain the practicability of establishing a line of steamers between the Colorado, the posts on the Gulf of California, Mazatlan and San Francisco,” and the experiment was to be financed by a cargo of freight, some of which included Richard’s subsistence supplies. Richard asked for permission to accompany his supplies on this voyage so that he would be able “to ascertain to what extent that region is available for furnishing military supplies to Yuma and other forts.”22

In spite of the fact that it flowed through desert and wasteland, the Colorado already had a steamship line to haul troops, supplies, miners and prospectors up the 200 miles to Fort Yuma and beyond. The Colorado Steam Navigation Company founded in 1853 had assembled and built several steamships and barges at the Port Isabel shipyards on the delta, where 12-foot tides made dry-docking an easy task. Navigating the ever-changing channel was great sport, especially at the time of the full and new moon when the tidal bore roared upstream. Captain Wright’s ocean-going Sea Bird would find stiff competition with the flat-bottomed river boats which drew from 22 to 30 inches.

The fall of 1857 found Lee off on two trips to Northern California and Washington Territory.23 A paddle wheeler took him up the Sacramento River to Red Bluff. From there he rode horseback past the Reading ranch to Fort Crook which was on Fall River, a tributary of the Pit River (near today’s Glenburn). This was a volcanic land with waterfalls gushing out of porous lava tubes and old burnt-out flows. The beautiful cone of Mt. Shasta rose at the northwest, Mt. Lassen to the south, and everywhere the streams and lakes were abounding with huge trout and the forests with game.

The next fort he visited was also in good hunting country. Fort Jones was north of Mt. Shasta in wooded country surrounded by mountains, about fifteen miles southwest of Yreka. This was mining country and the fort served to protect the Indians and miners from each other. This fort was named for Richard’s old friend and cousin by marriage, the Adjutant General, Roger Jones. (Richard’s new nephew, Major Reading, had been responsible for the discovery of gold in the nearby Trinity Mountains.)


Richard’s trip to the interior of the Washington Territory was full of variety. Following an ocean voyage, with its nerve-wracking crossing of the Columbia’s bar, came a peaceful respite up the Columbia to where the river became unnavigable, because of rapids. Around the Cascade’s violent rapids, Richard traveled on a wooden tramway pulled by mules. A river steamer then carried him up the next stretch of placid water to The Dalles, the “long narrows.” Disembarking from the paddle wheeler at the small town of The Dalles, Richard visited the fort, which was the depot for the Columbia River district.

Proceeding east, he took a 15-mile-long wagon road, built the previous year by Orlando Humasen, an Army freighter. This road avoided the narrow canyon through which the river raged, returning to the Columbia at Celilo Falls, where for centuries Indians had perched on precipitous rocks to net and spear the salmon leaping through the spray.

Richard left the Columbia’s black lava banks and followed a wagon road north to Fort Simcoe. This road seemed fairly good in the dry September weather, but when he returned for his second visit to Fort Simcoe in November, Richard found it transformed into a veritable quagmire, accessible only to pack trains.

As the road wound up the brown slopes studded with dark green oak trees, the splendid cone of Mt. Adams dominated the scene, but was finally lost from view as the road dipped into the southwest end of the flat Yakima Valley. Fort Simcoe24 stood at the head of Toppenish Creek (thirty-eight miles southwest of Yakima), as a rampart to protect the Indians from the white settlers. Although four dour, wooden block houses stood at the corners, the fort looked peaceful and indefensible. Officers’ quarters and barracks lined the large parade ground, no vestige of a stockade to be seen. The Commandant’s two-story house was a steeply gabled, white, board-and-batten mansion with diamond panes in the French windows; the interior was furnished with the best mahogany and crystal.

Simcoe was the pride and joy of Major Robert Shelden Garnett who had lovingly planned and supervised its construction under the command of General Wool. His happiness had seemed boundless when he had returned in May from a hurried trip east to marry and then to escort his lovely bride to the Washington Territory.

Marianna Garnett had been keeping house here for four months. The sea voyage from New York had cured her neuralgia, and now she was anticipating the birth of her first child in February. The days were often lonely for her when her husband was away: there were only two other women here and a handful of officers. Pangs of homesickness for her wealthy family and friends made her doubly appreciate visitors, and Richard found himself welcomed like a long-lost relative by this lovely young woman and her Virginian husband. (The following September she and her infant son died of “billious fever” while die Major was away on an expedition.)

One of Richard’s duties at Fort Simcoe was to inspect some rather dubious pork, which had reached this post after several years of travel. Cured in Jeffersonville, Iowa, repacked in New York and sent to Vancouver Depot before Richard’s arrival in California in 1855, it seemed a bit old and musty by the time he inspected it in December of 1857. One of the explanations for its taste was that it had been exposed to sun and weather before the completion of a storehouse. The solution to this problem was simple. The best pieces of meat were allocated to the troops, the next best were sold at auction in three different lots, priced according to their condition, and the worst of the condemned meat was issued to the Indians. The Indians, wintering on the Toppenish, were so desperate that the spoiled meat was welcome. The salmon fishing had failed that summer and the Indian Department had not made a deposit of food for the starving tribes, although the previous year, when the fishing had been good, it had provided 16,000 pounds of flour.25

These visits to remote forts only whetted Richard’s appetite for additional travel. The following year he visited Forts Humboldt and Umpqua on the northern California Coast and requested to be allowed to make a tour of inspection of “Forts Yuma, San Bernadeno [sic] and Tejon and such places as are likely to be occupied as military stations in Southern California for the purposes of examining the resources with regard to future military supplies.” Southern California had begun to attract the first of its avalanche of emigrants, as Lee predicted.

The proximity of the Mexican border and numerous tribes of Indians, the growing tendency to emigrate to that quarter, the necessary protection to the overland trail route and the aggressive and domineering spirit of our frontier pioneers will doubtless require a considerable augmentation of troops in that quarter. 26

The overland mail was an exciting innovation which made California seem less remote. September 1858 had brought the first mail on a nonstop trip from St. Louis to San Francisco, in only 23 days and 23 hours. With the mail had come a passenger, exhausted and bruised from the rough road, but proud of the record-breaking pace. A regular semiweekly service had been instituted; starting from St. Louis and Memphis the mail traveled west via Fort Smith, Arkansas, Texas, near El Paso, Fort Yuma, Warner’s Ranch, Los Angeles, the San Joaquin Valley, and Pacheco Pass to San Francisco. Lee’s reports now reached Washington in five weeks: travel in California was expedited.

Contrasted to this whirlwind stagecoach speed was the lumbering passage of Richard’s subsistence, brought around the horn in ancient ships. In September of 1858 he complained about the condition of the meat brought by “the dull ship” Jack Frost; the voyage had taken 160 days from New York and 198 days from Baltimore where the hams had been packed. The annual supply of pork and ham had arrived barely in time for distribution “before the setting in of the rainy season—after sweltering a long time under the tropics in the badly ventilated hull of the ship.”27

Lee was extremely annoyed to hear that the Jack Frost had obtained
the contract by underbidding “Coleman’s splendid line of clippers fifty
cents on the barrel,” especially as the dipper had arrived two months
earlier, and the delay of the Jack Frost had resulted “in the loss of about
one third of the ham—and the distribution at double cost of freight
by steam.28

The great American dipper ships, the fleetest and the most beautiful sailing ships ever built by man, were winging their way around the horn and sailing into San Francisco without Richard’s needed supplies. No wonder he felt exasperated at the wasteful “economy” of his department in the East and urged that the next year’s shipment be “in a clipper vessel.”

In spite of his anger, Richard was fair and considerate. In this case, he was afraid that the packers might be blamed erroneously, and so he was careful to add, “It is due to Colonel Taylor and the Baltimore packers to state that I have never seen pork and ham more carefully or skillfully prepared and packed.”29

Because so many supplies arrived in poor condition, more Boards of Survey were called to inspect the various shipments, sampling a percentage of the cargo at random. One such Board of Survey, upon which Richard served, sampled fifty half-barrels of salt beef taken from a lot of three hundred, brought from New York on the ship Golden Fleece. Forty-six barrels passed inspection, but in the remaining four they found “the brine to be offensive in smell.” Although a Benicia butcher had declared the beef to be “bad,” the officers felt “some hesitation in pronouncing it absolutely unfit for issue.” After cooking and tasting samples themselves, the Board submitted it to a further criterion. “One of the worst pieces which was found so offensive was cooked and issued to Company ‘B,’ 3rd Artillery with good pieces and both were found good and acceptable to the men.’30 Thus encouraged (and the men of Company B still alive) the beef was repacked, the worst pieces sold and the rest sent to Oregon. Alas, after all this effort, the beef was pronounced to be tainted and unfit when it arrived at The Dalles, twenty days later.

Ten thousand pounds of pink-eyed potatoes, grown in Bodega, and 5,000 pounds of onions were shipped from San Francisco in the U.S. brig General Patterson, and arrived at Fort Yuma with a great loss in weight and damage. As this loss was said to be greater than that suffered by similar, “civilian owned” potatoes and onions on the same ship, the Board of Survey suggested that some government agent had bought inferior vegetables at a higher price and shortchanged the weight. Richard immediately denied that any agent had been involved, stating that he had selected the potatoes himself, and also that he was sure that the captain of the brig had taken due care, even inspecting the cargo at the mouth of the Colorado River before proceeding upstream.31

Shipments were not only delayed by slow ships and adverse weather; at times they went down to Davy Jones’ locker. In 1858, some subsistence funds were lost in the wreck of the S.S. San Francisco, and one of Richard’s junior officers wrote that he would be unable to close his accounts until Congress passed a relief bill to replace the money that had gone down with the steamer. The year before, supplies were lost on the steamer Central America.32

With the exception of the annual shipment of hams and pork from the Commissary on the East Coast, Richard purchased most of his supplies in California. As there was no shortage of cattle in this ranching country, fresh beef was supplied to the troops by contracts made a year in advance. Contracts in 1858 stipulated that the beef for the troops would cost 12 cents and five mills per pound and that the choice cuts reserved for the officers and their families would be 17 cents a pound. All such contracts were invalid unless they contained the proviso, “No member of Congress shall in any way be interested in or derive any benefit from this contract.”33

Other rations were bought from the merchants in San Francisco. Notices of the needs of the Department were advertised: California white or bayos beans, Rio coffee, Carolina rice, cider or wine vinegar, flour, “anti-scorbitic” pickled onions and pickles, sperm candles, chili, peaches, Hill’s or Colgate’s best soap, etc. Sometimes there was a postscript “If New Orleans or Coffee-Crushed Sugar cannot be had, refined Sandwich islands sugar may be substituted at a proportionate price.34 (Hawaiian sugar was unpopular in spite of the closer proximity.) Occasionally luxury items or articles for the medical department were bought, such as two barrels of Monongahela whiskey at 70 cents a gallon or black tea at 16 cents a pound.35 The merchants were invited to submit sealed bids to Richard at the Post Office or at his office, 37 California Street, the lowest bid to be accepted contingent upon inspection.36

Richard was not happy and wrote a number of complaints, stating that the high cost of the rations was due to “speculations, combinations and monopolies by the merchants, who under the recent derangement of the money market (1858) control and regulate prices at will—Another cause—is the present system of purchase by writing bids which throws out of competition all the importing merchants. It being against mercantile rule of importers to compete with jobbers. The consequence is, that jobbers and provision brokers purchase at wholesale prices, and sell the identical article as lowest bidders, at large profit.”37

Scurvy still haunted the remote forts even as late as 1857. Richard hoped that vinegar would solve the problem. “The tendency and predisposition to scorbitic diseases at many of the Posts and the scarcity of vegetables and other anti-scorbitics renders it necessary that the best pure vegetable vinegar should be furnished the troops.”38

Richard was often busy with figures, budgeting, making estimates and keeping accounts. For the fiscal year July 1, 1858–July 1, 1859, he estimated that the 36 companies of 84 men in the Department of the Pacific (3,024 men) would need 1,103,760 rations. At 20 cents each, Richard would require $220,752, plus an extra $100,000 to cover rations for Indians, employees and contingencies. (The employees included 200 laundresses and 30 hospital matrons.)

Towards the end of 1858, Richard’s pride felt further strain, as shown in a letter to General Gibson, “Several officers have received letters intimating an intention to supersede me before the termination of my four years term of duty in this station, and seem to regard that measure as a mark of censure, or an expression of dissatisfaction as to my official duties. I entertain no such belief.”

Richard was right; he was not superseded before the termination of his duty in 1859. Apparently not in a rush to reach Washington, he requested a four months’ furlough to visit the interior, for “health and recreation.”



1. Special Orders 136, September 7, 1852, Office of the Adjutant Genera1. Records of the War Department, National Archives.

2. Lee, R. B. Letter to Jones, January 12, 1852, National Archives.

Lee, R. B. Letter to Adjutant General Cooper, September 8, 1852, National Archives.

Smith, Charles F. Letter to Adjutant General, February 10, 1854, War Department Records, National Archives.

3. Although Bancroft states the Vallejo’s claim was $117,875, documents in the National Archives show the higher figure.

4. Again, the figures shown in documents in the National Archives vary from Bancroft’s. Other reductions mentioned by Bancroft are: Arguella received $6,800 out of $21,688, and Mariano G. Vallejo’s $143,300 was reduced to $48,700.

5. Lee, R. B. Letter to Major General Gibson, May 13, 1853, National Archives. Knowing that Major Eaton, who had replaced him in California, was anxious to be stationed in New York and that Captain Sherman would prefer to remain in St. Louis, Richard had placed an unofficial request in October of 1852. He had confidently sold his house in St. Louis and put his children in Washington schools only to discover in May that Major Eaton had changed his mind, thus leaving Richard temporarily out on a limb.

6. Lee, Elizabeth C. Letter to R. B. Lee, May 18, 1855 (R.B.L.F. Collection).

7. This storeroom, which belonged to Thomas Haynes, was 35 x 80 feet. Lee used the whole cellar, a large portion of the first floor and a second floor, from June 15, 1855 to April 15, 1856, Court Martial Papers, National Archives.

8. Lee, R. B. Letter to Major General George Gibson, November 4, 1855, National Archives.

9. R. B. Letter to Major General George Gibson, November 6, 1855, National Archives. “Unexpectedly I have been called upon to accompany the Commanding General to the Dalles of the Columbia and I shall embark with him today on board the steamer California via Fort Vancouver, accompanied by my clerk.” Lee added that he would probably return with the boat.

10. Lee, R B. Letter to Julia Lee, December 7, 1855 (R.B.L.F. Collection).

11. William Walker had “liberated” La Paz, Baja California, in 1853 and served as its president until forced by the Mexicans to return to the U.S. His subsequent trial in San Francisco for violating U.S. neutrality laws resulted in acquit[t]al. Undaunted, he conquered Nicaragua and made himself president of that country in 1856, but he was overthrown a year later. Another attempt to make Nicaragua a slave state and to set himself up as its ruler resulted in his execution in Honduras at the age of thirty-six in 1860.

12. Lee, Elizabeth C. Letter to Richard B. Lee, September 22, 1856 (R.B.L.P. Collection).

13. Lee, Elizabeth C. Letters to R. B. Lee, March 17, 1856, July 30, 1856 (R.B.L.F. Collection).

14. Lee, R. B. Letter to Major General George Gibson, January 3, 1857. Orders January 3, 1856, National Archives.

15. Wool, General John Ellis to Lee, R. B., April 11, 1856, National Archives.

16. Lee, R. B. Letter to Major General George Gibson, January 4, 1857, National Archives.

17. Court Martial Papers, National Archives, pp. 45—46.

18. Asa T. Lauton, E. M. Earle, Thomas J. Haynes, Jabez D. Hawks, John Bosworth.

19. Lee, R. B. Letter to Major General George Gibson, February 19, 1857, National Archives.

20. Order No, 8, May 1, 1857.

21. Lee, R. B. Letter to Major General George Gibson, May 1858, National Archives.

22. Lee, R. B. Letter to Colonel Swords, May 24, 1857, National Archives.

23. Lee, R. B. Letter to Adjutant General, November 19, 1857, September 30, 1857, National Archives. Lee visited these forts September 9–30; October 20–November 16. He describes Fort Crook as being located on Fall River. This name for the Deschutes appears on Fremont’s map of 1842, see Goetzmann, William H., Army Exploration in the American West, 1803–1863, New Haven, 1959.

24. Fort Simcoe has been restored as a Historical State Park and is worth visiting. See Historical Handbook Number One, published by the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission. Culverwell, Albert, Stronghold in the Yakima Country, The Story of Fort Simcoe, 1956.

25. Lee, R. B. to Major General George Gibson, December 29, 1857, enclosing letter from Major R. S, Garnett to Assistant Adjutant General W. W. Marshall, September 30, 1857. Letter says the Indians were quiet and friendly.

26. Lee, R. B. Letter to Major General George Gibson, November 19, 1858, National Archives.

27. Lee, R. B. Letter to Major General George Gibson, November 8, 1858, received December 13, 1858, National Archives.

28. Lee, R. B. Letter to Commissary General, September 20, 1858, National Archives.

29. Ibid.

30. Report of the Board of Survey, August 11, 1857, Lee, R. B. Letter to Major General George Gibson, September 4, 1857, National Archives.

31. Board of Survey Report. Orders No. 144, October 4, 1857, National Archives

32. Loeser, Lucian, Letter to Lee, R. B., October 16, 1858, National Archives; Lee, R. B. Letter November 2, 1857, National Archives.

33. Contract between Torrey and Agnew and Fort Benicia, July 1, 1858, National Archives.

34. Notice, June 3, 1857, National Archives.

35. Voucher, May 7, 1857, National Archives.

36. Proposals for December 11, 1857.

All the above-named articles will undergo a thorough and rigid inspection, upon delivery, by the Inspector of Provisions—The articles to be delivered at the expense of the seller, and the Inspector’s fees are to be paid by him according to the established rates. He is able to pay the expense of cooperage, etc., attending the inspection.

Some of the merchants whose bids were accepted by Lee were:

C. NaumanJ. D. HawksR. G. Brewster & Co.
F. NewfelderT. C. SanbornW. H. Davenport
J. D. P. TillerM. A. BralyCharles Charlman
Alton Welch & Co. A. D. Baker &338; Co. BerryN. H. Wyse & Co.
G. G. Fenney & Co. J. ChadbourneGison Winter & Co.
James Vantine & Co. Toggard & ScotchlerJ. R. Garriss
Geo. ChaseBober & CuttingBradshaw & Co.
CUS GibbsJ. L. CamblinC. P. Lolar (Solar?)
Goodwin & Co. John W. HaynesJ. H. Goghill & Co.
H. R. ReedE. T. VeaseJohn A. Laumcesten
E. McbeanThomas HaynesScales Clayton & Co.
John RicketsonSaml. YoungR. B. Hapton
French Walrath & Co.Bosworth Masten & Co.Jas. Riddle
Veysland & McMullenGeorge H. MunroeG. G. Bradt
R. S. Brewster & Co.J. S. ChamblinP. C. Hyman & Co.
Wm. Horr & Co.Gray Winegar

37. Lee, R. B. Letter to Major General George Gibson, May 3, 1858, National Archives.

38. Ibid, December 19, 1857.

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