Born on August 12, 1821 to John and Margaret McCormick McCoy, James McCoy grew up inCounty Antrim, on the northeast coast of Ireland. One of the northernmost counties in Ireland, Antrim is separated from England by a short 60 miles across the North Channel. James McCoy chose, however, to emigrate across the Atlantic to the United States, over 3,000 miles away. (169)
McCoy left Ireland in 1842, just three years prior to the “Great Hunger” and the mass immigrations that followed. By 1842, the Irish had already experienced decades of starvation and oppression at the hands of the British, so it is possible that young James left his troubled homeland in anticipation that the environment, both economic and political, would deteriorate further.
On July 9, 1842, just one month before his twenty-first birthday, McCoy arrived in Baltimore on the ship Alexander. A farmer by birth, McCoy took his first job in the United States working in a market garden, but soon moved on to become a laborer in a distillery. (170) On January 24, 1850, eight years after his arrival in Baltimore, McCoy left for California, destined for Brevet-Lieutenant Colonel John Bankhead Magruder’s 1st U.S. Artillery Headquarters. Magruder assigned Mccoy to protect the settlers at San Luis Rey Mission against the threat of Indian attacks. A non-commissioned officer, McCoy led twelve soldiers on that assignment. (171)
In 1852, Magruder ordered McCoy to Jacumba (172) in the back country. Located approximately mid-way between San Diego and El Centro, close to the Mexican border, the Indians recognized Jacumba as a natural health resort with miraculous powers attributed to the hot springs. Formerly peaceful, the Indians became hostile in their defense of the springs against white intruders. Magruder deployed Mccoy, with fourteen men, to Jacumba to protect the mail line station from the frequent Indian raids. During his eleven months stationed there, McCoy came under many Indian attacks. This prompted the soldiers to construct of a small fort at Jacumba to protect themselves. Legend has it that a band of 500 Indians attacked the fort, but were bested by McCoy and his well-trained soldiers. (173) No matter how well-trained, it is unlikely that fifteen men could defeat an angry band of 500 Indians!
Upon the expiration of his enlistment in 1853, McCoy received an honorable discharge from the military. He opted to stay in the Southwest, and took a post with a Colorado Desert surveying party for two and one-half months. For the next two years, McCoy worked for the government driving teams between San Diego and Fort Yuma. (174) With this post, McCoy began to establish the bonds which would keep him in San Diego and assist him in his future success.
The former soldier became a more and more frequent sight in San Diego, and eventually held a position with the San Antonio and San Diego Mail Line, commonly known as the “Jackass Mail.” (175) McCoy’s routes lay over the desert terrain with which he had become so familiar. (176) He first had charge of the San Diego-Fort Yuma run followed by the Fort Yuma-Tuscon run, a distance of 289 miles over difficult desert and mountain terrain. Mccoy established a reputation for fast runs, and, on one occasion, he supposedly covered 300 miles in three days and eleven hours, only changing mules twice. (177)
McCoy’s interests went beyond the “Jackass Mail” however. His close ties with the San Diego community paid off, when, in September 1859, he became county assessor. He held this post for two years, after which time, in 1861, he ran for sheriff. (178) In a few short years within the community, James McCoy had already begun to make his mark.
McCoy seemed the perfect candidate for sheriff, a post he eventually held for ten years. As a bachelor, the new sheriff lived by the river in an adobe house with his deputy and friend, Tom Fox. (179) Charles Kelly, owner of a livery stable in Old Town and a friend to McCoy, described them both as “fine specimens of young Irish manhood, six feet tall, weighing about 190 pounds.” (180) Kelly further stated that the sheriff “could speak Spanish fluently. Everybody thought a great deal of him.” (181)
As a further testament to Mccoy’s character, Ephrain W. Morse, a merchant and fellow Old Town resident, wrote his father that there were only two men in San Diego who did not occasionally get drunk, himself and James McCoy. (182) This contradicts the traditional view of the drunken and disorderly Irish held by Easterners. In good Irish tradition, however, McCoy and his deputy reportedly sparred each morning in a one-round bout. The victor won a beefsteak breakfast prepared by the loser. (183)
In conjunction with his duties as sheriff, James McCoy served his fellow citizens as Chief of Police. An old record found in the office of the Board of Supervisors details how an outbreak of smallpox prompted his appointment to this additional office. In 1863, the Board of Supervisors charged McCoy with the added responsibilities of Chief of Police in order to “better protect the inhabitants of (San Diego) from the exposure of smallpox disease.” (184) They directed him to prevent any person who resided in an infected area from entering San Diego and to eject anyone caught in town from those areas. McCoy’s orders also dictated that he command all undesirable, unemployed Indians and Mexicans to leave town within twelve hours. (185) It is not clear if this remained a standing order or if it referred specifically to the duration of the smallpox outbreak.
Despite his civic responsibilities, McCoy managed to find time in his life, albeit late, for love and marriage. On April 27, 1869, Reverend Father Antonio Ubach joined James McCoy and Winifred Kearny, also a native of Ireland, in holy matrimony at the residence of a friend in Los Angeles. Following the ceremony, the couple left for an extended honeymoon trip aboard McCoy’s steamship, the Sierra Nevada, en route to SanFrancisco. (186)
A lengthy article appeared in the May 5, 1869 San Diego Union which detailed the nuptials and proclaimed that McCoy was “one of [San Diego’s] oldest and best citizens and only lacked a good wife to be a full grown man.” The article further extolled him as one of the most popular men in the county and surmised that if he made as good a husband as an officer, then Mrs. McCoy should be most happy. (187)
Upon their return to San Diego, the McCoys settled in an elegant residence on Garden Street, in Old Town. Completed in September, 1869, a white picket fence surrounded the house and trees and shrubs shaded it from the Southern California sun. Constructed by D. B. Kurtz and Co., the McCoy house remained one of the largest and most impressive structures in Old Town. (188) A Union reporter even remarked that the McCoy home ‘‘[loomed] up over the rest of the houses in the neighborhood in about the same proportion that its owner did over his late competitor in the race for Sheriff." (189)
In the manner of true Irish hospitality, the McCoys shared their large home with many guests. They made certain to take good care of any visitors who stopped by, with an Indian boy always at hand to attend to the horses and lunch always offered. The McCoy house featured numerous bedrooms so that any of the sheep herders who came into town from the range could have a room if they needed a place to sleep. (190)
McCoy’s connection to sheep herding began prior to his marriage. In 1867, he acquired San Bernardo Rancho, which encompassed 17,763 acres, where he claimed to raise the finest sheep in the county. A cattle ranch during the Mission period, San Bernardo was later granted to an Englishman, Captain Snook. (191) On December 19, 1868, five months before his wedding to Winnifred Kearny, however, the San Diego Union announced that McCoy sold his ranch for $35,000, the rate at the time being approximately $2 per acre. Perhaps he used part of the income from the sale as payment for the home he had constructed for Winnifred.
McCoy prospered in San Diego. Prior to his acquisition of San Bernardo, McCoy owned a tract of government land in the San Pasqual Valley. (192) On both San Bernardo and San Pasqual, McCoy raised a considerable number of sheep. Assessment rolls show a steady increase in livestock, particularly in the sheep of which McCoy was so proud. In the 1860 assessment, McCoy claimed 500 sheep and 125 goats, as well as one mule and one horse. Just two years later, in 1862, the number of sheep grew to 1,200 and by 1865 McCoy owned 3,200 head.
The value of the sheep varied between only $.50 and $1.00 per head. (195) This price was obviously sufficient, however, to ensure financial success for McCoy. The San Pasqual ranch was only assessed at $20.00 for the five years it appeared on McCoy’s assessment. The San Bernardo ranch, valued in 1868 at $3,550, appeared to be the greater return for McCoy.
A farmer by birth, McCoy must have felt an affinity with the land, as evidenced by his land purchases in San Diego. At a delinquent taxes auction in April, 1873, McCoy purchased two pueblo lots and a lot in New Town. He obtained pueblo lots 1208 and 1209 for $20.10 and he bought lot A in New Town for $8.25. (197 Assessment rolls from that same year indicate that McCoy paid taxes on 2186 acres.
In addition to sheep-herding, McCoy’s interests burgeoned in the field of civil service. In keeping with Irish-American tradition, McCoy flourished in the realm of civic duty and public leadership. In 1869, McCoy served on two social committees in Old Town. The first, the Committee of Arrangements, organized the July Fourth celebration in Old Town. Along with fellow Irishman Andrew Cassidy, McCoy helped coordinate the celebration of his adopted country’s independence. The committee opted for an excursion arid a picnic in Rose’s Canyon, one mile east of the Los Angeles stage road. For entertainment, they decided on a prayer, music by the choir and a recitation of the Declaration of Independence, highlighted by refreshments and a dance to conclude the festivities. (199)
In November, McCoy served on a second special social committee in Old Town, this time in preparation for the Thanksgiving Grand Ball sponsored by the Independent Order of Odd Fellows of San Diego. (200) A member of the club, McCoy served on the invitation committee. The I.O.O.F. extended invitations to all of San Diego and held the Ball in a newly constructed bank building in South San Diego. (201)
McCoy followed in the footsteps of his fellow San Diego Irishmen and ventured further into the public sector. His long and distinguished career began with his election to sheriff in 1861, a post which he held for ten years. The election of 1869 in which McCoy appeared on the Democratic ticket is a testament to his popularity. In the September 1 election, McCoy won with a victory of 352 votes to his Republican opponent’s 175 and the independent’s 246 votes. (202)
In addition to his service as sheriff and chief of police, McCoy served his fellow San Diegans as City Trustee. Nominated for the position in February, 1869, McCoy held two executive posts as a member of the Board of City Trustees. (203) In 1870, he served as treasurer, and, in February, 1871, he filled the position of President left vacant by the untimely death of C.W. Lewis.
In the following year’s election, a committee formed by San Diego citizens nominated McCoy once again. The Union endorsed McCoy and two other candidates as people’s candidates. They all embraced the principal of making the Pueblo lands available to the citizens of San Diego for fair prices and desired to maintain the ancient Pueblo boundaries. (204) The Union further stated that “[it believed] they are honest and capable and will give [San Diego] a better municipal administration than the ‘Reform’ candidates.” (205)
A rumor erupted in 1871 that McCoy would in fact run for the position of Sheriff once again. In May, McCoy wrote to the San Diego Union and denied that he had any intention to run for public office as he needed to devote his time to his private affairs. (206) Ironically, on August 8, 1871, the Democratic Joint Senatorial Convention for State Senator for the First District unanimously nominated James McCoy as their candidate.
The Los Angeles News endorsed McCoy’s candidacy on August 24 and claimed that McCoy, “by his own energy and business talent amassed a handsome fortune,“ and hailed him as “a genial gentleman, generous to a fault, [who] unites in himself not only many elements of popularity, but the qualities that go to make a good legislator.” The article further highlighted McCoy’s impressive public career in San Diego. (207) He held the post of Assessor for four terms; Sheriff for four terms; and had been elected several times to the Board of City Trustees. (208) Following the November election, a victorious McCoy resigned from the office of sheriff and departed for the state capital at Sacramento.
During his four—year tenure in the California State Senate, McCoy introduced more than twenty bills. He introduced his first bill on September 8, 1871, just four days after his first session opened! It requested that the legislature “legalize, ratify and confirm deeds of conveyance and grants of land made by the municipal authorities of the city of San Diego.” (210) Passed on March 9, 1872, this bill gave the Board of Trustees the authority to sell, grant, and deed city-held lands to the railroad. (211) With this, McCoy was off to an impressive start in the state government.
The Senate’s adjournment on Monday, March 30, 1874, marked McCoy’s permanent retirement from public office. The San Diego Union gave McCoy favorable reviews for his four years in the state government. The paper even printed a rumor that the Southern California Democrats favored the Honorable James McCoy for United States Congress in the next election. According to the article, “the soundness of Mr. McCoy’s democracy is unquestioned and the ‘old liners’ want that kind of a man in these days...“ (212) Despite this support, McCoy would not hold an office beyond the local level again.
He made an attempt for Sheriff in 1875, but lost by a return of 915 to 657. In 1885, McCoy applied for the post of Collector of the Port. Both McCoy and his competitor planned to petition President Grover Cleveland for the position. (213) This post never materialized for McCoy, however, and he spent the remainder of his life looking after his nearly 200 deeds and filling lesser posts in the public realm. (214)
Although a wealthy and well-respected member of the San Diego community, controversy surrounded McCoy on several occasions. In 1873, two years after his term as county tax collector expired, the Union published an article on April 6 which listed delinquent taxes from 1869 and attributed them to the “impotency of the county tax collector in years past.” McCoy took offense to the comment and requested that the newspaper correct itself. According to McCoy, when he served as tax collector, the law provided a limitation on the amount of time in which the collector could take action to secure payment of monies due. McCoy further claimed that very little remained unclaimed for which it had been his duty to enforce payment by the seizure and sale of property. He asserted that in some instances, he paid the taxes of poor persons from his own pocket rather than seize their property. (215)
In another article in April 6, 1869 the Union claimed that McCoy stated he “was in the habit of commanding the columns of [the] sheet for coin.” The newspaper demanded proof from McCoy in the way of vouchers showing that he paid the Union for anything other than advertising purposes. McCoy denounced the statement as a malicious rumor and asserted that he never paid the Union to secure friendly view of his politics. (216)
Controversy followed McCoy in the way of legal suits as well. In 1870, Cave J. Couts, County Judge, Judge of the Plains and Justice of the Peace, sued McCoy in the District Court for $20,000 in damages. In a complaint filed September 12, 1870, the plaintiff claimed that upon spending some time in the San Diego jail, McCoy, then sheriff, beat him. He attested to the fact that“...the said James McCoy in and upon the said Couts did then and there beat, wound and ill treat and other wrongs to said Couts...and with intent to humiliate, degrade, and injure the said Couts manacled and then did beat.” (217)
Couts asked for the $20,000 plus costs and demanded the trial be held in another city. He claimed that McCoy had too many friends in San Diego for him to receive a fair and impartial trial. The judge refused to change the venue, dismissed the case and ordered Couts to pay $28.25 in costs to McCoy. Couts appealed the judgment, and, in 1872, Couts again lost his case and paid McCoy’s costs of $75.45 (218)
McCoy’s legal problems continued. In 1882, he found himself further embroiled in problems related to his service as Sheriff. In 1869, the county assessor evaluated a lot in New San Diego with a house and fence, then owned by Joseph Morrison who continuously used it as a home. The assessment for state and county tax listed the house as belonging to unknown owners. The tax remained unpaid and the District Attorney brought a suit to condemn the land in order to collect the taxes. Service of the condemnation was made by publication; a notice was neither placed on the property in question nor received by the owner. (219)
As sheriff, McCoy legally sold the land. In 1878, McCoy and his attorneys commenced suit to eject Morrison from the land. On December 21, 1880, the court ruled in favor of the Plaintiff, James McCoy. Morrison and his attorneys appealed the case, and, in February 1882, the Supreme Court of California overturned the first decision and invalidated all tax decrees in question in regards to Morrison’s property. (220)
Although an upstanding, respected citizen, Mccoy encountered his share of trouble. On March 2, 1857, he became involved in a shooting incident at the “Jolly Boy.” Although wounded in three places, McCoy survived the confrontation. (221) Twenty-five years later, the ex-soldier was again involved in a shooting, this time with the proprietor of the American Hotel in Old Town, Patrick O’Neill. Several bystanders intervened after McCoy and O’Neill exchanged the first shots, and everyone involved escaped harm. (222)
In the winter of 1884 to 1885, McCoy’s health began to fail and he departed for San Francisco to undergo medical treatment. On February 4, the sixty-three year-old returned home after two months in San Francisco. Reports indicated that his health had much improved. (223)
When he fell ill again ten years later, however, McCoy would not be able to recover his health. On November 8, 1895, the 74-year old Irishman passed away in his home at 10:00 p.m. The death came as no surprise since his health had deteriorated and he succumbed to an attack of the grippe. (224) His doctor proclaimed the cause of death to be lung congestion. Buried in Calvary Cemetery, Mission Hills, the inscription on his tombstone reads:
"Ah, why should we grieve that
the spirit has flown
To the heaven of rest where
No sorrow is known.
Rest in Peace." (225)
The Irishman’s last will and testament, dated June 4, 1894, clearly outlined his wishes in regards to his considerable estate. To Winifred McCoy, his wife, he left all of his property, “of every kind and nature.” He appointed her as executrix of the estate and requested that she hold $200.00 in trust for James Freeman, also known as Bennie McCoy. (226) As executrix, Winnie had the right to manage the estate as she pleased.
Years of controversy, however, surrounded the settlement of the considerable estate. Estimated worth more than $50,000, McCoy’s vast holdings included property in the Pueblo lands, La Playa, New San Diego, Horton’s addition, Sherman’s addition and Old San Diego. In addition, he also owned 1,975 acres of the San Bernardo ranch worth approximately $50,000. (227)
William Roarke, McCoy’s nephew, first came forward to contest the probate of the will. Despite the will’s specifications that McCoy’s widow receive the entire estate, Roarke alleged that his uncle intended to leave the property to his blood relations and that Winnifred obtained it while McCoy was of unsound mind. Roarke also claimed that Winnifred promised her late husband that she would provide for his relatives. Furthermore, he asserted that McCoy acted as his guardian and cared for his money, some of which had not been accounted for. (228)
Despite Roarke’s claims, on December 23, 1895, the superior court admitted McCoy’s will to probate and appointed his widow as the executrix. (229) In April, 1896, a reassessment of the estate valued it at $50,241, the principal items of which included lot 1 in Pueblo lot 1105, which overlooked Mission Valley, valued at $19,200, and 1,920 acres of San Bernardo Ranch, valued at $25,000. (230)
Winnifred McCoy’s troubles continued, however. In May, 1896, Joseph Winchester, trustee for the Savings Bank of San Diego, sued Winnifred. Winchester held her liable, as trustee for McCoy’s estate, for $4454.96 due to numerous creditors. (231) Yet another claim to McCoy’s estate came the following year when his brother, Hugh, brought suit against Winnifred for $1,820.00 allegedly due him. (232) The result of this case is unknown.
James McCoy led a very full life in San Diego. He strove to effect changes to better the world around him through his contributions to the social and civic development of San Diego, and his efforts in the California State Senate. McCoy’s hospitality, his work as sheriff, his achievements in the Senate and his countless civic contributions are interwoven with the history of San Diego. His Irish heritage remained a part of him, but it did not become the focal point for others. Events in McCoy’s life are referred to in publications and public documents for what they were, not as a reflection of his Irish birth. As an Irishman, he found acceptance in the San Diego community and worked to make difference for himself, his family and his fellow citizens. His character and accomplishments are the qualities of James McCoy which endure.
(169) Today, County Antrim lies in Northern Ireland and is part of the United Kingdom.
(170) Sue Sullivan, “James McCoy, Lawman and Legislator,” p. 1, San Diego Historical Society Research Archives.
(171 Sullivan, “James McCoy,” p. 2.
(172 It is thought that the name Jacumba meant either “magic springs” to the Indians or “water” to the Spanish. Jordan Edward Detzer, Th.D., Jacumba: Mountain EmDire Town with Bibles and Bullets on the border 1973, p. 4.
(173 Detzer p. 4.
(174) An Illustrated History of Southern California (Chicago: The Lewis Publishing Co., 1890) p. 148.
(175) The mail line was so-named due to the mode of transportation - mules.
(176) An Illustrated History p. 148.
(177) Jerry MacMullen, “Saga of James McCoy” San Diego LLama, March 11, 1962, H3:1—8
(178) MacMullen, “Saga of James McCoy.”
(179) Once, the San Diego River washed under its left bank near McCoy’s house which caused the end of the house to fali in the river. Charles Kelly, “Recollections,” 1935, San Diego Historical Society Research Archives.
(180) Kelly, “Recollections”.
(181) Sullivan, “James McCoy,” p. 5.
(182) Pourade, The History of San Diego v. 4, p. 6.
(183) MacMullen, “Saga of James McCoy;” Kelly, “Recollections.
(184) “Smallpox Brought Police Position.” San Diego Union Dec 4, 1938, D4:6.
(185) “Smallpox Brought Police Position.”
(186) Sullivan, “James McCoy,” p. 7.
(187) San Diego Union Weekly, May 5, 1869, 2:1.
(188) Sullivan, “James McCoy,” pp. 8—10.; It is possible that fellow Irishman George Lyons had a hand in the construction of McCoy’s home. In 1869, Lyons became involved in a partnership with Kurtz, in the field of architecture and building. University of San Diego, Architects, pp. 104, 110.
(189) San Diego Union Weekly, Sept 8, 1869; The McCoy home, which offered so much hospitality, is scheduled to be reconstructed on its original site in Old Town State Park in 1995. Interview with Ron Quinn, Historian, Old Town State Park, October 12, 1994.
(190) “Unveil Bronze Tablet Marking End of Kearny Trail at Old Town,” Vertical file 439, San Diego Historical Society Research Archives.
(191) R. N. Brackett, The History of San Diego County Ranchos (San Diego: Union Title Insurance & Trust Co., 1951) pp. 40-41.
(192) San Diego Union Weekly, Dec 19, 1868, 2:4.
(193) San Pasqual Valley is located northeast of Lake Hodges near the town of Escondido. This peaceful valley is the site of the bloodiest battle of the Mexican-American War, fought between General Steven Watt Kearney and Andres Pico ‘s Californios. Richard Pourade, “Battle of San Pasqual Mingled Politeness, Bloodshed; Lancers Refused to Cut Up Unhorses Americans,” San Diego Union, Mar 19, 1944.
(195) In 1862 and 1864 they were valued at $.50 and in 1863, $1.00.
(197) San Diego Union, March 1, 1873, 3:2.
(198) San Diego Union, November 11, 1873, 3:1.
(199) San Diego Weekly LLakn, June 30, 1869, 3:2.
(200) A fraternal organization, the San Diego lodge of the I.O.O.F. was founded in December 1868 and formally instituted on March 23, 1869. McGrew, of San Diego.
(201) San Diego Weekly Union, November 11, 1869, 2:4.
(202) San Diego Weekly Union, August 25, 1869, 3:3; Lan Diego Weekly Union, September 22, 1869.
(203) San Diego Weekly Union, February 27, 1869, 2:3.
(204) San Diego Union, May 12, 1870; San Diego Union February 26,1871, 2:6.
(205) San Diego Union, March 2, 1871, 2:1.
(206) San Diego Union, May 4, 1871, 3:5.
(207) San Dieoo Union, August 17, 1871, 3:1.
(208) San Diego Union, August 24, 1871, 2:4.
(209) Sullivan, “James Mccoy,” p. 10.
(210) Sullivan, “James Mccoy,” p. 11.
(211) Sullivan, “James McCoy,” p. 11.
(212) San Diego Union, February 2, 1874, 2:2
(213) San Diego Union, February 21, 1885, 3:2
(214) Sullivan, “James McCoy,” pp. 11-12.
(215) San Diego Union, April 6, 1873, 3:3.
(216) San Diego Union, April 6, 1873, 3:1.
(217) Sullivan, “James McCoy,” p. 21; San Diego Union, September 29, 1870, 3:2.
(218) Sullivan, “James McCoy,” p. 21.
(219) San Diego Union, February 11, 1882, 3:3.
(220) San Diego Union, February 11, 1882, 3:3.
(221) San Diego Herald, March 7, 1857, 2:1.
(222) San Dieoo Union, December 9, 1882, 3:1.
(223) San Diego Union, January 17, 1885, 3:1; San Diego LLama, February 5, 1885, 3:1.
(224) Death of James McCoy,” San Diego Union, November 9, 1895, 5:3
(225) Sullivan, “James McCoy,” pp. 13-14.
(226) James McCoy, “Last Will and Testament,” June 4, 1894, on file at the San Diego County Superior Court.
(227) Sullivan, “James McCoy,” pp. 13—14.
(228) San Diego Union, December 21, 1895, 2:2.
(229) San Diego Union, December 24, 1895, 5:1.
(230) San Diego Union, April 5, 1896, 5:4.
(231) San Diego Union, May 30, 1896, 5:1.
(232) San Diego Union, July 15, 1897, 5:1