Port O' Gold
by Louis John Stellman
February 4, 2007
THE GRINGO SHIPS
Government was but a name in Yerba Buena. A gringo engineer named
Fremont with a rabble of adventurers had overthrown the valiant Vallejo
at Sonora and declared a California Republic. He had spiked the cannon
at the Presidio. And now a gringo sloop-of-war was in the bay, some said
with orders to reduce the port. Almost simultaneously an English frigate
came and there were rumors of a war between the Anglo-Saxon nations.
The prefect, Don Rafael Pinto, had already joined the fleeing Governor
Castro. Commandante Francisco Sanchez, having sent his soldiers to
augment the Castro forces in the south, was without a garrison and had
retired to his rancho.
Nevertheless, had the Senora Windham, with her son and daughter, called
upon Sub-prefect Guerrero in hope of justice. Her rancho was being taken
from her. Already McTurpin had pre-empted a portion of the grant and
only the armed opposition of the Windham vaqueros prevented an entire
Though Guerrero listened, courteous and punctilious, he had obviously no
power to afford relief. He was a curiously nervous man of polished
manners whose eyelids twitched at intervals with a sort of slow St.
"What can I do, Senora?" with a blend of whimsicality and desperation.
"I am an official without a staff. And Sanchez a commander stripped of
his soldados." He stepped to the door with them and looked down upon the
dancing, rippling waters of the bay, where two ships rode.
"Let these gringos fight it out together. This McTurpin is an Inglese,
I am told, from their far colony across the sea. If the Americanos
triumph take your claim to them. If not, God save you, my senora.
Don Guillermo Richardson, the former harbormaster, came up the hill asDona Anita emerged from the Alcalde's office. He was a friend of her
husband--a gringo--but trusted by the Spanish Californians, many of whom
he had befriended. To him Mrs. Windham turned half desperately,
confessing in a rush of words her family's plight. "What is to become of
us?" she questioned passionately. "Ah, that my Roberto were here! He
would know how to deal with these desperadoes." She gestured angrily
toward the sloop-of-war which rode at anchor in the Bay.
"You have nothing to fear, my friend," returned Richardson with a trace
of asperity. "Commodore Sloat is a gentleman. He is, I understand, to
seize Monterey and raise the the American flag there tomorrow. Yet his
instructions are that Californians are to be shown every courtesy."
"And our rancho?" cried the boy. "Will the Americano Capitan restore it
to us, think you, Don Guillermo?"
"I know not," said the other sadly. "You should have thought of that
before you gambled it away, my son."
Benito hung his head. Richardson passed on and the trio made their way
toward the beach. There they found Nathan Spear in excited converse with
John Cooper and William Leidesdorff.
They were discussing the probability of an occupation by the American
marines. "If they come ashore," said Leidesdorff, "I'll invite them to
my new house. There's plenty of rum for all, and we'll drink a toast to
Fremont and the California Republic as well."
"Hurrah! Hurrah!" came a cheer from several bystanders.
"I invite you all," cried Leidesdorff, waving his hands and almost
dancing in his eagerness. "Every man-jack of you in all Yerba Buena."
"How about the ladies, Leidesdorff?" called out a sailor.
"Ah, forgive me, Senora, Senorita!" cried the Dane remorsefully. He
swept off his wide-brimmed hat with an effort, for he had a fashion of
jamming it very tightly upon his head. He laid a hand enthusiastically
upon the shoulders of both Spear and Cooper. "It grows better and
better. Tomorrow, if the Captain is willing," he jerked his head toward
the Portsmouth, "tomorrow evening we shall have a grand ball. It shall
celebrate the day of independence."
"But tomorrow is the eighth of July," said Cooper.
"What matter?" Leidesdorff exclaimed, now thoroughly enthusiastic. "It's
the spirit of the thing that counts, my friends."
A crowd was assembling. Mrs. Windham and her daughter drew instinctively
aside. Benito stood between them and the growing throng as if to shield
them from a battery of curious glances.
"Will the ladies accept?" asked Leidesdorff with another exaggerated
Senora Windham, haughty and aloof, had framed a stiff refusal, but her
daughter caught her hand. "Do not antagonize them, mother," she said in
an undertone. "Let us meet this Gringo Commandante of the ship.
Perhaps," she smiled archly, "it is not beyond the possibilities I may
persuade him into giving aid."
The elder woman hesitated, glanced inquiringly at Nathan Spear who stood
beside them. He nodded. "The ladies will be pleased," he answered in
their stead. Another cheer met this announcement.
Yerba Buena awoke to the sunrise of July 8, 1846, with a spirit of
festive anticipation and a certain relief.
Today the American sloop-of-war would land its sailors and marines to
take possession of the port. Today the last remaining vestige of the
Latin's dominance would end. A strange flag, curiously gay with stripes
and stars, would fly above the customs house; strange men in uniforms of
blue, and golden braid, would occupy the seats of power. Even the name
of Yerba Buena would be altered, it was said. New Boston probably would
be its title.
Early morning brought ox-carts laden with gay, curious Spanish ladies
from surrounding ranches, piquant eager senoritas with vivacious
gestures of small hands and fluttering fans; senoras plump and placid,
slower in their movements and with brooding eyes. They wore their
laciest mantillas, silkiest gowns and daintiest footwear to impress the
alien invader. And, beside their equipages, like outriders in the
cortege of a queen, caballeros and vaqueros sat their caracoling steeds.
Sailors from the trade and whaling ships, trappers, hunters and the
motley populace of Yerba Buena made a colorful and strangely varied
picture, as they gathered with the rancheros about the Plaza.
At 8 o'clock four boats descended simultaneously from the Portsmouth's
sides. They were greeted by loud cheers from the Americans on shore and
watched with excited interest by the others. The boats landed their
crews near the spring where a sort of wharf had been constructed. They
returned for more and finally assembled seventy marines, a smaller
number of sailors and the ship's band. Captain Montgomery, in the full
dress uniform of a naval commander, reviewed his forces. Beside him
stood Lieutenant John S. Misroon, large, correct and rather awkward,
with long, restless arms; a youthful, rosy complexion and serious blue
eyes. Further back, assembling his marines in marching order, was
Lieutenant Henry Watson, a smaller man of extraordinary nervous energy.
Montgomery gave the marching order. Fife and drum struck up a lively air
and to its strains the feet of Yerba Buena's first invading army kept
uncertain step as sailors and marines toiled through the sand. Half a
thousand feet above them stood the quaint adobe customs house, its
red-tiled roof and drab adobe walls contrasting pleasantly with the
surrounding greenery of terraced hills. Below it lay the Plaza with its
flagpole, its hitching racks for horses and oxen.
Here the commander halted his men. "Lieutenant Watson," he addressed the
senior subaltern, "be so good as to request attendance by the prefect or
alcalde.... And for heaven's sake, fasten your coat, sir," he added in a
Saluting with one hand, fumbling at his buttons with the other, Watson
marched into the customs house, while the populace waited agape; but he
returned very soon to report that the building was untenanted. Captain
Montgomery frowned. He had counted on the pomp and punctilio of a formal
surrender--a spectacular bit of history that would fashion gallant words
for a report. "Haul down the flag of Mexico," he said to Lieutenant
Misroon. "Run up the Stars and Stripes!"
Lieutenant Misroon gazed aloft, then down again, embarrassed. "There is
no flag, sir," he responded, and Montgomery verified his statement with
a frowning glance. "Where the devil is it, then?" he asked explosively.
A frightened clerk appeared now at the doorway of the custom house. He
bowed and scraped before the irate commander. "Pardon, Senor
Commandante," he said, quaveringly, "the flag of Mexico reposes in a
trunk with the official papers of the port. I, myself, have seen the
receiver of customs, Don Rafael Pinto, place it there."
"And where is Don Rafael?"
"Some days ago he joined the Castro forces in the South, Senor."
"Well, well!" Montgomery's tone was sharp; "there must be someone incommand. Who is he?"
"The Sub-Prefect has ridden to his rancho, Commandante."
"That disposes of the civil authorities," Montgomery reflected, "since
Port-Captain Ridley is in jail with Fremont's captives." He turned to
the clerk again. "Is there not a garrison at the Presidio?"
"They have joined the noble Castro," sighed the clerk, recovering his
equanimity. "There is only the commander Sanchez, Senor. He is also at
Despite his irritation, Captain Montgomery could not miss the humor of
the situation. A dry chuckle escaped him. "Run up the flag," he said to
Lieutenant Misroon, and the latter hastened to comply. An instant later
the starry banner floated high above their heads. A cheer broke out.
Hats flew into the air and from the ship's band came the stirring
strains of America's national air. Then, deep and thunderous, a gun
spoke on the Portsmouth. Another and another.
Captain Montgomery, stiff and dignified, lifted his hand and amid an
impressive silence read the proclamation of Commodore Sloat, in which
all citizens of captured ports were assured of fair and friendly
treatment and invited to become subjects of the United States. He
suggested the immediate formation of a town militia. Leidesdorff came
"My house is at your service, gentlemen," he said. "And tonight," he
removed his hat and bowed toward the ladies, "tonight I bid you all to
be my guests and give our new friends welcome." He saluted Montgomery
and his aids, who, somewhat nonplussed, returned the greeting.
Nathan Spear elbowed his way to the commander's side. With him came
Senora Windham and the smiling Senorita Inez. Benito lingered rather
diffidently in the background with a group of Spanish Californians, but
was finally induced to bring them forward. There were general
handshakings. Many other rancheros, now that the ice was broken, brought
their wives and daughters for an introduction to the gringo commandante,
and Montgomery, his good humor restored, kissed many a fair hand in
response to a languishing smile. It seemed a happy and a friendly
seizure. Inez said, eyes a-sparkle, "We shall see you at the ball this
evening, Senor Commandante."
"I shall claim the first dance, Senorita," said the sailor, bowing low.
Her heart leaped as they left him, and she squeezed her brother's arm.
"He is a kindly man, Benito mio. I shall tell him of this
interloper--this McTurpin. Have no fear."
Benito smiled a little dubiously. He had less faith than Inez in the
future government of the Americans.