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Paddy comes to California

American San Diego

Andrew Cassidy

George Lyons

James McCoy

Joshua Sloan


"From Shamrocks to Serapes"

(Kelly Tobin O'Donnell - Masters Thesis USD 1995)

American San Diego

Modern San Diego bears little resemblance to the San Diego of the 1800s. Vestiges remain in the form of reconstructed buildings in Old Town State Park, but if Father Junipero Serra (49) returned today, he would no doubt find the one-time remote frontier town unrecognizable. After the Mexican-American war, little change occurred in San Diego from the Mexican era, and a rustic life-style confronted newcomers, such as the Irish.

Although graced with a moderate climate, San Diego’s harsh environment must have greeted new arrivals with a rude awakening. In the mid-l800s southern California lacked all of the comforts which most cities and large towns possessed at that time. The rugged, semi-barren southern Californian terrain forewarned newcomers what to expect in the small frontier town. 

To the west of San Diego stretched the Pacific Ocean. To the east, rose the coastal ranges behind which lay the harsh wastelands of the Colorado Desert. Although the coast proved mild year round, the mountains, with peaks that reached over 6,000 feet, became blanketed with snow in the winter months. For the remainder of the year, vegetation covered the western slopes while the eastern slopes remained steep, rocky, dry and hot. Even near the coast a season’s rainfall could vary greatly from year-to-year, from a few inches to more than twenty-five. The majority of the rain San Diego received fell within the few winter months, often, almost all at once. (50)  

The population of the town following the war remained predominantly of Mexican and Spanish heritage, combined with the newly arrived American soldiers garrisoned there. Mexican culture and traditions permeated every aspect of San Diego. 

Religion, in particular Catholicism, represented a large portion of that heritage, even when it came to laws and local customs. Under Mexican law, anyone who desired to trade, marry or own property in California had to be a Mexican citizen. The law further stipulated that in order to become a naturalized citizen, it was necessary to be a nominal Catholic.

San Diego remained much this way until the arrival of Alonzo Erastus Horton in 1867, therefore, it is not surprising that Irish Catholics who arrived in Mexican and early American California found at least one aspect of the culture with which they could readily identify.

Social life and customs in San Diego drew largely from the Spanish and Mexican cultures, and the Americans who arrived in San Diego even after the conquest of California adopted the lifestyle of the inhabitants. Amusements in the early American period still included fiestas, bullfights and many religious celebrations. (51)  Residents also indulged in horse racing during the holiday seasons. Eventually, to accommodate this pastime, they laid out a half-mile track in town for the horses brought in from the ranchos. (52)  

San Diegans also enjoyed cock fights, bull baiting with dogs and, most of all, dancing. Marriages, christenings and even deaths provided occasions for a baile some of which could last for several days. The newcomers adopted this custom and all residents of the town, regardless of ethnicity, religion, or social status, were invited to partake in the festivities. (53)

Although devout Catholics, the Mexicans had never erected a Catholic Church in San Diego, other than that at the Mission. Services had always been held at the small chapel in the home of Juan Bandini. (54)  As more and more foreigners arrived, however, Catholic San Diegans needed a larger place of worship. On January 10, 1850, the first Catholic church in San Diego in the American period was organized. (55)  The parishioners built their church in Old Town and christened it the Church of the Immaculate Conception. (56)

The central plaza in what is now Old Town State Park represented the center of life for San Diegans. Stores and residences surrounded the plaza and, in the 1860s, mercantile houses covered approximately one entire block. In the 1850s and 1860s, a number of pretentious Spanish-style residences and several frame buildings constructed by Americans decorated Old Town.

On the south end stood the Estudillo house, (57)  which occupied the entire frontage of the block. Just east of this, stood the Bandini home (58)  (today it's the famous Casa de Bandini restaurant). To the west, the San Diego River, which ran directly to the harbor, bordered Old Town. Willows and sycamores which grew in the wash enclosed the small farms along the river and created a natural boundary along the outskirts of town. (59)

After the American conquest of California, San Diego retained much of its Spanish and Mexican flavor. In Lillian Whaley’s reminiscences of Old Town, she describes how the small town appeared to her newlywed parents upon their arrival from New York in 1853. (60)  At that time, the population was a mixture of Americans, Mexicans and the local Indians. The upper classes obtained their riches through cattle ranches and were generally hospitable and pleasure-loving. Often, they proposed a baile to be arranged and held the same day. Elaborate and costly, the balls provided great entertainment and gaiety in Old Town. Whaley describes the festivities: 

The musicians, if Spanish, kept up a running comment on the dress and general appearance of the ladies, all the time continuing their playing. Violins, guitars and accordions were the instruments. Spanish dances were in order: the contradanza, ei jarave and jota. The old ladies danced a peculiar gliding step, shuffling their feet and clacking their heels on the floor. A glass of water was placed on their head not a drop of which was spilled during the dance and for which performance money was flung to them in generous measure. (61)

Also representative of the Spanish and Mexican periods was the manner of dress of many of the citizens of San Diego. The serape a type of mantle worn with the head inserted through a hole in the center, was a standard for the men. The women wore a garment called a rebosamade of heavy silk in gay colors. Bright colors, usually striped, characterized these woven garments.

In addition, the women wore canton crepe shawls, heavily fringed and embroidered in vivid colors, as well as shawls worn over their heads, with one end thrown over the left shoulder. The style also called for wide gathered skirts, worn as many as twelve at one time by the women. (62)

The manner of dress alone would be foreign to the Irish immigrants, accustomed to Anglo and Northern European fashion. They must have embraced their new culture, however, because they participated in the festivities and community events. Several Irishmen in California even married daughters of the best-known Mexican families. This undoubtedly necessitated learning Spanish and accepting new customs. 

Although San Diego provided many amusements and modern buildings, it still had the look of a wild, rough frontier town to many new arrivals. The desolate landscape consisted of brown, barren hills, devoid of trees and vegetation. The town itself wanted for the conveniences of the modern, eastern cities, such as streetcars and carriages. While the culture and lifestyle of San Diego appealed to some, the majority of well-to-do visitors from the cosmopolitan cities of the east must have found the town lacking in basic comforts. 

One such arrival, Mary C. Walker, who would become the wife of businessman Ephraim Morse, expressed her dismay upon arrival in San Diego. From Manchester, New York, Walker disembarked in San Diego in 1865. Unfamiliar with a frontier town, Walker viewed with disdain the horsemen who rode through town in wild costumes and was shocked that upon landing, ship’s boats took passengers to shallow water and sailors carried them to shore, because wharves had not yet been built. To one accustomed to the large, modern cities of the east, the Plaza in Old Town looked unrefined and dilapidated with its one-story adobe buildings. (63)  

Life in San Diego presented many challenges for newcomers unused to the rough living conditions. Whaley relates stories of outlaw gangs who rode up from Baja California and circled around the town at night, yelling like Indians and firing their revolvers in the air. Indians, guilty of horse theft were strapped to the cannon in the plaza and flogged with riatas, usually by another Indian. (64)  These types of incidents, although unheard of back east, occurred regularly in the early days of San Diego. 

The first group of Irishmen arrived in San Diego during the Mexican-American War as a contingent of the United States Army destined for Mexico. General Winfield Scott estimated that of the 3,500 soldiers of foreign birth in Mexico, 2,000 of them were Irish.

Smith also praised his Irish soldiers and their bravery in the line of battle. (65)   The final American conquest of California in 1848 would be a precursor to the great things other men from his ancestral home would achieve in San Diego. 

A glance through the public records of San Diego County in the fifty years following the American acquisition of California reveals many Irish surnames. Census data from 1850 up to and including 1880 indicates place of birth, leaving no doubt as to which residents of the county were Irish-born. The register of deaths and coroner’s inquest records specify vital statistics such as date and cause of death, and place of burial. Voter registration rolls include age, occupation, residence at time of registration, and date and place of naturalization for foreign-born citizens. Finally, assessment rolls provide crucial financial information which gives insight into land ownership and personal wealth. 

The 1850 census revealed 36 distinct families with at least one adult born in Ireland. The majority either claimed “soldier” as their occupation or held an auxiliary position related to the camp such as clerk, carpenter or, for the women, cook and housekeeper. (66)  

It is probable that most of the Irish included in the 1850 census did not plan to make San Diego their home because only two of the thirty-six listed indicated any property. William Limoney, 38, a butcher, claimed $2,500 in real estate, no small amount for the time. William B. Dunn, a carpenter, and his wife Maria, a native of California, claimed $1,000 in real estate. (67)  Dunn undoubtedly had a profitable carpentry business due to the post-war growth San Diego experienced. 

A decade later, the number of Irish-born in San Diego County had more than doubled. The 1860 census shows that 84 Ireland natives, plus their families, called San Diego home.

Although more than ten years after the conquest of California, many of the Irish still comprised part of the military force in San Diego. Not many of the soldiers from 1850, however, appear on the 1860 census. They must have departed when their military service ended. A few of the 1860 soldiers had wives, although none listed any property, strong evidence that they, too, would not stay to reside permanently in San Diego. Many probably became part of the patriotic Irish brigades which fought so valiantly during the Civil War. 

The census indicates that most of the Irish earned a living through manual labor, however a large number reported at least a modest amount of property, real and personal. The occupations listed on the roll included: farmer, painter, gardener, assistant lighthouse keeper, teamster, ferryman and hostler.

In one case, a woman, Bridget Knowles, who worked as Andrew Cassidy’s housekeeper, claimed $300 in real estate and $500 in personal property, no small accomplishment for a woman, who probably lacked an education. (68)  Undoubtedly the young Irish women taken in by the wealthy Boston families as housekeepers did not manage to save money or buy property. The opportunity just did not exist for them. 

Along with the dramatic increase in the general San Diego County population by 1870, the number of native Irish surnames rose to 134. The majority of the Irish listed owned property and had families. Approximately 64% of those on the census roll declared some amount of real and/or personal property. (69)  Many of those included in that percentage were not well-to-do merchants or large land owners, but semi- and unskilled workers who managed to take advantage of the opportunities offered by Southern California. 

These immigrants filled every job necessary for the small frontier town’s expansion. They performed the duties of carpenter, painter, blacksmith, grocer, surveyor, cook, farmer, merchant, undertaker and even sheriff. They all filled a need and contributed in a tangible way to the growing community, and, at the same time, took advantage of that need to create a better life for themselves and their families. 

In the 1880 census rolls, indicate 38 fewer Irish families, for a total of 91. This may be due to several factors. As the region stabilized, most of the military force deployed there left, including the large number of Irish-born soldiers. Perhaps the population of San Diego County decreased in general. (70)

Regardless of the fewer numbers, the Irish continued to fill positions crucial to the development of the community. The 1880 census did not include property, so it is not possible to determine if the level of opportunity remained as great as in the previous three decades. (71)  It is safe to assume, however, that those who had a “steady” occupation, settled in San Diego with the intention of making Southern California their home. Most of the itinerant Irish, comprised of soldiers and camp followers, probably left with the U.S. military force.

Similar records from a large Eastern city, such as Boston, provide the same data as do those from San Diego. The 1850 Boston census illustrates that most of the Irish who lived within the city limits filled positions at the lowest levels and owned no property, real or personal. 

A survey of several wards of the 1850 Boston census supports this. Of 7,600 Irish immigrants chosen, the majority worked as unspecified laborers. (72)  Many filled positions as stone cutters, carpenters, painters and plasterers. Unlike San Diego carpenter William B. Dunn, however, the Boston carpenters from the first, fifth and ninth wards did not declare any property on the census. Even the skilled workers such as tailors and printers declared nothing in the way of property. 

Success eluded the majority of these immigrants. The opportunities available for skilled and unskilled laborers in the budding Southern California community did not exist in the large eastern cities. The Irish immigrants in Boston, New York and Baltimore took their place at the lowest levels with little or no chance for advancement. The ghettos and prejudice which trapped the East Coast Irish did not exist in San Diego. 

A notable lack of discrimination against any new settlers characterized San Diego. Those immigrants who settled in San Diego found a welcoming community and ample opportunity for a better life. The Irish who resided in San Diego represented achieved a higher level of success than did their counterparts on the East Coast. At fifty to seventy-five cents per day, the immigrants who remained in the East could barely sustain themselves, let alone purchase real estate. They could not become self-sufficient nor could they make major contributions to the development of their communities.

Andrew Cassidy, George Lyons, James Mccoy and Joshua Sloane exemplify the success of the Irish in San Diego. They became prominent members of the community and achieved financial success.

Both Andrew Cassidy and George Lyons married into well-known and respected local families, in the “upper class” of San Diego society. This would not have transpired on the East Coast. James McCoy became one of the best-known San Diegans of his time and eventually served as a state senator. Joshua Sloane’s eccentricities would have made him an object of ridicule anywhere. San Diegans, however, took his oddities in stride and accepted him into the community. 

The noticeable lack of prejudice among the community and the opportunity that abounded in San Diego, made it the ideal situation for the Irish immigrants. From the most unskilled laborer to the future state senator, the San Diego Irish grasped the opportunity presented to them and succeeded in a land as distinct and rich in culture as their own homeland. They played an integral part in the development of the small frontier town to a cosmopolitan city, and their legacy quietly endures throughout Southern California.


(49) Born on November 24, 1713 on the Spanish-held island of Mallorca, Junipero Serra became a Franciscan priest and arrived in California in 1770 as a missionary. Fr. Serra established the first mission in Alta California at San Diego and began to convert the natives as well as build a community. Richard Pourade, The History of San ~ vol. 1 (San Diego: Union Tribune Publishing Co., 1960) pp. 91-116.

(50) Pourade, History of San Diego vol. 3, p. 5.

(51) Beatrice Frichette Knott, “Reading Between the Lines: Social History of San Diego during the Early American Period as Determined from Public and Business Records,” Masters thesis, University of San Diego, 1991, p. 60.

(52) Clarence Alan McOrew, City of San Diecjo and San Diego County: The Birthplace of California (Chicago: American Historical Society, 1922) p. 62.

(53) McGrew, City of San Diego pp. 63—64.

(54) One of the earliest settlers of San Diego, Juan Bandini arrived from Peru with his father around 1820. Of Spanish extraction, the elegant Bandini became an established, well-to-do San Diegan. He held many important positions in the government of California, including secretary to Governor Pio Pico, and first Alcalde of San Diego under the Americans. His adobe home still stands near the Old Town Plaza on Calhoun Street. In Don Juan’s days, large dinners, fiestas and bailles were common events in the house. Today, the house is a fine Mexican restaurant called, appropriately, “Bandini’s”. Bandini biographical file, San Diego Historical Society Research Archives.

(55) Knott, “Reading Between the Lines,” p. 82.

(56) Originally an adobe building with a frame structure over it, the one story church featured a choir loft. Now known as the “Old Adobe Church,” the chapel was dedicated on November 11, 1858. In 1868, the parish moved the Church of the Immaculate Conception to its present site near Old Town State Park on San Diego Avenue. The dedication of the new structure did not occur until 1919 however, due to financial difficulties and a fire which destroyed most of Old Town ,including the new church under construction. Vertical file 94—3, San Diego Historical Society Research Archives.

(57) A U-shaped building with its frontage on the plaza, the Casa de Estudillo is a beautiful representation of Spanish architecture in Southern California. Built in the 1820s by Jose Antonio Estudillo, the one-story adobe house was roofed with eucalyptus logs and Spanish tile, and topped with a cupula from which family and friends could watch the diversions in the plaza. San Diego Historical Site Board Register no. 14(a), San Diego Historical Society Research Archives. Clyde Trudell, “Historical-Architectual Summary for the Casa de Jose Antonio Estudillo,” 1967, San Diego Historical Society Research Archives. Vernon Aubrey Neasham (ed.), “Casa de Estudillo, California Historical Landmarks Series, Berkeley, 1936, San Diego Historical Society Research Archives.

(58) Juan Bandini’s original one—story home was blessed in 1829. In the l860s a second story was added and the adobe became the Cosmopolitan Hotel. James E. Reading, “Old San Diego’s Background,” An Interpretive Prospectus. San Diego Old Town by the Department of Parks and Recreation, 1968—1969.

(59) McGrew, City of San Diego.

(60) Lillian Whaley was the daughter of one of Old Town’s most prominent residents, Thomas Whaley.

(61) Lillian Whaley, “Old Times in Old Town, unpublished essay, San Diego Historical Society Research Archives, p. 2.

(62) Whaley, “Old Times,” p. 3.

(63) Mary C. Morse, “Recollections of Early Times in San Diego,” unpublished essay, San Diego Historical Society Research Archives.

(64) Whaley, “Old Times,” p. 6.

(65) Griffin, The Irish in America p. 72.

(66) National Archives and Records Service, “Population Schedules of the Seventh Census of the United States - 1850, San Diego County, California.” Family History Center, San Diego.

(67) National Archives, “Seventh Census of the United States.”

(68) National Archives and Records Service, “Population Schedules of the Eighth Census of the United States - 1860, San Diego County, California.” Family History Center, San Diego.

(69) National Archives and Records Service, “Population Schedules of the Ninth Census of the United States - 1870, San Diego County, California.” Family History Center, San Diego.

(70) Human error is not ruled out in this case due to the nature of calculation used in compiling the statistics. As the census rolls were reviewed, the number of Irish-born was calculated by manually counting how many claimed Ireland as their place of birth in the appropriate column.

(71) National Archives and Records Service, “Population Schedules of the Tenth Census of the United States - 1880, San Diego County, California.” Family History Center, San Diego.

(72) To achieve a random survey, data was compiled from every twentieth person of Irish birth for three wards of the Boston Census. The 1850 census included 12 wards. The census only indicated employment for men over the age of 21, therefore a determination of the percentage of unemployed Irish in Boston would be difficult and inaccurate. National Archives and Records Service, “Population Schedules of the 7th Census of the United States —1850.” Family History Center, San Diego.