Chronicling and Making History from Adversity

“The pricelessness of water in a land where no rain falls during six months of the year cannot be appreciated by one who has not lived in such a country. There is a saying in South California that if a man buys water he can get his land thrown in. This is only an epigrammatic putting of the literal fact that the value of much of the land depends solely upon the water which it holds or controls.”

Helen Hunt Jackson, from her book, Glimpses of Three Coasts, published in 1886.

I recently discovered that very perceptive description of life in southern California while examining books by Jackson and other sources on western U.S. and southern California history. Glimpses of Three Coasts was published posthumously a year after Jackson’s death from cancer in 1885 at the age of 54. Her early death was the last of a long line of personal tragedies that had traumatized her life. Those tragedies began with losing her mother to tuberculosis when Helen was just 14 and losing her father to the same disease before she’d turned 18. Her 1852 marriage marriage to Edward Hunt, an Army engineer, would see one child die in infancy, Edward perishing in a military accident in 1863 and their only other child, Warren, dying of diptheria at the age of 9.

Her personal sorrows led her first into writing poetry, then prose, both fiction and non-fiction for magazines, then books.. Facing her own case of tuberculosis, Helen, a New Englander by birth, took a doctor’s advice and headed for Colorado. She visited California as well, becoming a chronicler of the west and also a voice of activism, speaking out against the oppression of Native Americans in books like A Century of Dishonor, published in 1881, the 1883 Report on the Conditions and Needs of the Mission Indians of California, co-written with Abbott Kinney,  and the novel Ramona, published in 1884.

I salute Helen Hunt Jackson for her resilience in the face of personal hardship, and for both revealing new history while making some of her own.

Sources for this post included a number of online archives including and .


Merle and more

Below is an item from the May 5, 1894 issue of The Poway Progress newspaper:

Many readers may know that grain growing was an important part of San Diego County’s economy in 1894. Not as many may know where Merle is, or, I should say, “was.”

Merle is one of what I call the Lost Towns of San Diego County. You can find out more about Merle and other such communities this Saturday, June 18, when I present my talk on the Lost Towns at the 4S Ranch branch of the San Diego County Library. The lecture begins at 1 p.m. in the library’s Community Room. Admission is free. Looking forward to seeing some of you history-seekers there!

Forward, Bostonia!

Regular readers know that one of my special interests is the lost towns of San Diego County, towns and villages which once thrived as small communities but no longer exist as separate entities. Sometimes, their names live on long after the local town hall or stagecoach stop has disappeared. That’s true of Bostonia, whose name endures as a neighborhood within the city of El Cajon. There was a time when Bostonia was the dream of two men who, like many others, came from elsewhere to buy land in San Diego County and pursue new lives. In this case the two men, Charles Crosby and William Souther, who came in 1886, happened to be from—guess where?—Boston, Massachusetts. And though they’d left the frigid winters of their hometown behind they still decided to name their newly acquired ranch New Boston. Within a few years, this had evolved into Bostonia.

Below is an article in the Poway Progress newspaper of June 30, 1894:

The article led off by announcing that Souther and Crosby were putting up a general store and that a postmaster had been appointed.

The article also mentioned plans to “extend the stemming house,” an indication that the town would be a center for fruit cultivation and processing.

Bostonia soon rated its own listing in local directories, as shown in this page from an 1897 San Diego County Directory:

While it’s been absorbed by the city of El Cajon today, local maps still carry the name Bostonia, and one of the neighborhood’s streets bears the name Crosby as well.

Sources for this post included historic San Diego County newspapers and directories and the book, San Diego County Place Names A to Z, by Leland Fetzer.

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The “foremost bee man in the world…”

Portrait of John Harbison, circa 1888

John Harbison left his mark on San Diego County. He did it mainly by raising and selling colonies of the insect which some supporters, with good reason, like to call the world’s greatest pollinator: the honeybee.

In November 1869 Harbison arrived in San Diego on the steamer Orizaba with his business partner R. G. Clark. Among the items they brought with them were 10 colonies of honeybees.

Harbison at that point already had a national reputation as an apiarist. He’d patented what came to be called the “Harbison Hive Box” in 1859. Then he’d written a groundbreaking textbook on the subject, The Beekeeper’s Directory on the Theory and Practice of Bee Culture, in 1861. He had flourishing hives and honey businesses in his home state of Pennsylvania and in northern California when he turned his attention to San Diego.

Within a couple of years he was shipping honey from his San Diego County operation across the country. He sold colonies and hive boxes to other apiarists as well, encouraging a burgeoning industry in the county and the state.

“In 1874 beekeeping became a major industry in the county,” according to a 1969 article in The Journal of San Diego History. “ Two sawmills were kept busy a good part of the year turning out beehives, frames, section boxes and shipping cases. Honey production for that year was nearly one-half million pounds.”

By 1885, according to the book, Picturesque San Diego, published in 1887,  honey production had reached 2,679,747 pounds, making San Diego County “the chief honey-producing county in California.” That came out to roughly 1.3 million tons of honey. Of that total, over 1 million tons were exported across the country.

It’s not hard to see why late nineteenth century San Diego newspapers used phrases like “King of the Beekeepers” or “the foremost bee man in the world” when describing John Harbison.

Honey production isn’t as dominant in these parts today as it was then. Still, San Diego County produced over $4.4 million in honey and other apiary-related products in 2020, according to the most recent statistics available from the county agriculture department.

So John Harbison’s name and contributions live on in today’s local apiarists and in the Harbison hive box design many of them use. His name lives on as well in the place near the Sweetwater River that was home to his local hives, Harbison Canyon.

Sources for this post included historic San Diego newspapers, the article, “John S. Harbison: Pioneer San Diego Beekeeper,” by Lee H. Watkins, which appeared in the fall 1969 issue of  The Journal of San Diego History, the 1887 book Picturesque San Diego, by Douglas Gunn, and the 1888 book, The City and County of San Diego Illustrated and Containing Biographical Sketches of Prominent Men and Pioneers, by Leberthon and Taylor.

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Mission Valley Snapshot

Here’s another view of San Diego from way back, 137 years to be exact. The San Diego Union of November 8, 1885 ran an article entitled “Mission Valley and the Mission” that provided a view that might surprise many readers today: “Only a few miles from the city is the Mission Valley. It is still very sparsely settled. Herds of cattle graze along the river banks on ranges, which, to a large extent, remain unfenced. The hill sides are, generally speaking, devoid of improvements. In the little canyons there are bee ranches.”

That view of what was then a rural, sparsely populated area also included this: “At the head of the valley, visible at a long distance and overlooking the country for miles, is what remains of the old Catholic mission. While the buildings are practically demolished, enough of the front elevations remain to make a striking feature of the landscape.”

That written description of the mission ruins is borne out by the photo below, taken two years later for Douglas Gunn’s book, Picturesque San Diego:

The mission buildings would eventually be partially restored by the local Catholic archdiocese in 1891 to house a school for Indigenous students. That school would be moved to Banning in 1907. The entire mission would be fully restored in 1931.

Sources for this post included historic San Diego newspapers, the aforementioned book Picturesque San Diego and the website of Mission San Diego de Alcalá.