Taylor Street & the Death of President Zachary Taylor

In 1847, just after the Mexican hamlet of Yerba Buena became known as San Francisco, Ireland-native Jasper O’Farrell was hired to perform an extensive survey of the town. Taking the previous surveys of Yerba Buena (Vioget’s and Buckelew’s), O’Farrell’s job was not only to bring the actual streets into the reality of what was on paper (that is, moving structures off of what was supposed to be a street, etc.), but also, to expand the grid of San Francisco for future development. Therefore, extending the right-angle grid system westward, O’Farrell’s 1847 plat ended at Taylor Street, named for General Zachary Taylor, a national celebrity of the day due to an impressive string of military successes in northern Mexico during the Mexican-American War, which was still going on as O’Farrell worked his survey.

Battle of Buena Vista - Mexican War
The Battle of Buena Vista, Feb. 22-23, 1847. Gen. Taylor is on the white horse.

To anyone standing at Clay and Kearny streets in 1847 however, to look up hill toward where Taylor Street was supposed to be, development would have seemed a pipe dream, dense chaparral climbing the hill above Dupont [Grant Avenue] up into the country. With the California Gold Rush of 1849 however, with the population jumping from around roughly 2,000 to 20,000 basically overnight, the instant city of San Francisco soon climbed the hill to Stockton Street, and furthermore to the Pacific and Powell area. And as the need for space and revenue converged into O’Farrell’s survey, lots on the hills were crudely sectioned off and put up for auction. While “water lots” were the most desirable, especially for commercial use (as it was much easier to move into and over the water than up the hills at the time), the lots in the up-hill portion of O’Farrell’s plat were generally auctioned off between 1850-55.

But while having O’Farrell’s pre-gold rush survey may have been a blessing in the chaos of the gold rush, during the following decade it left many developers scratching their heads, convinced the surveyor had plotted his plat in some place far from San Francisco: “A system of lines, at right angles to each other, were laid down as the street boundaries, without the slightest regard to the nature of the surface over which they were to pass, and as the city progressed, the improvements made rendered a charge wholly impracticable. . . . The city, it is conceded, never was laid out properly . . . The labor of making regular streets on a site so uncompromising and so peculiarly laid out as that of San Francisco, has, of course, been immense, and large sums of money have been engulphed, fairly wasted, in rendering many locations accessible and available, which, if the city had been planned with a view of its topography, could have been beautified and rendered still more desirable, at a very small outlay. Late residents can scarcely form an idea of the amount of energy and expenditure of capital which has been lavished in accomplishing what now exists. To realize in a measure the amount of labor already expended, mount to the altitude of California and Taylor streets, from which point one can judge of the past, and obtain a slight inkling as to the future.” (Daily Alta, Sept. 1, 1859, p. 1, c. 5)

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In the fall of 1848, as gold fever was slowly setting in on the east coast, war-hero Zachary “Old Rough and Ready” Taylor (of the Whig Party) was elected president of the United States, even though his predecessor James K. Polk (a Democrat) had attempted to stymie his popularity by limiting his military action following his early successes (in other words, instead of having Taylor continue his march to Mexico City, Polk shifted command). While Taylor was sworn in as the country’s 12th president on March 4, 1849, during the California Gold Rush, his stint as president was brief; for just over a year later, Taylor died on July 9, 1850. News of President Taylor’s death didn’t reach San Francisco until almost two months later however, on arrival of the steamer California on August 23rd. (Daily Alta, Aug. 23, 1850)

The many east coast papers aboard the California reported that Taylor grew sick on the evening of July 4th after eating “heartily of cherries and wild berries, which he washed down with copious draughts of iced milk and water. At dinner he applied himself again to the cherries, against the remonstrances of Doctor Weatherspoon, and in an hour was seized by cramps, which soon took the form of violent cholera morbus. . . . Toward midnight, instead of relief, the attack increased in violence and threatened desperate results, if not speedily arrested.” (Sacramento Transcript, Aug. 27, 1850) This continued until the 6th, and more doctors were brought in. By the morning of the 8th, “the disease had made rapid encroachments on his frame; but by the united skill of these eminent practitioners the visible stages of the cholera morbus were soon after checked. — However, fever ensued, and from a remittent character, it took the form of typhoid. . . . His chances of life hung upon a thread.” (Ibid.)

Steamer California 1848

By the evening of the 8th, the dysentery ceased, but vomiting commenced, and by the time the 9th came around, “gloom still surrounded the Executive mansion. Thousands began to flood the avenue leading thither, and throughout the day a messenger was kept posted at the main door to answer the interrogatories that were incessantly poured upon him. . . . about seven in the evening, the pall of gloom again shrouded all faces, for it was announced that the illustrious hero was dying. . . . the physicians refused to administer any more medicine, considering his case hopeless, and in the hands of God. . . . The medical yielded to the spiritual agent, whose office it was to prepare for the approach of the King of Terrors. But there was nothing in the conduct of the sufferer to indicate that he feared the mortal leap. . . . After prayer he seemed refreshed, and called for a glass of water. It was given him, and he drank sparingly. He then inquired of Dr. Weatherspoon, how long he thought he would live, to which the latter replied, ‘I hope, General, for many years;’ but thinking this a useless deception, he added, ‘I fear not for many hours.’ ‘I know it,’ was the response . . . At thirty-five minutes past 10 his wife, and other members of his family, were called to his bed side, to receive his last early adieu — a farewell that the stoutest could not gaze upon without a tear.” Thankfully at ease, but knowing he didn’t have long, Taylor spoke after asking if he was comfortable, “‘Very,’ he replied, ‘but the storm, in passing, has swept away the trunk.’ Finally, he adverted to the subject of his previous broodings — the Slavery question — and observed, ‘I am about to die — I expect the summons soon — I regret nothing, but am sorry that I am about to leave my friends.’ These were his last audible words. . . . It must be remembered that his was a domestic life; and his beloved partner, ignorant as himself of those fashionable formulas which sunder the husband from the wife, felt for the first time the loneliness of a bereaved heart, and understood nothing of that rigid discipline that would have dictated to her, ‘Go and weep in solitude — society decrees it.’ Her abandonment and grief were truly heart-piercing.” (Ibid.)

“It was a kind of sinking into eternity,” relayed the Alta, “without feeling its pain, or experiencing its horrors. When all was over, the chamber was cleared, until the undertakers had concluded their duties. The body was incased in ice, and ordered to remain where it was until this morning, when it was finally robed for the grave, and laid out in state in the east room. Thus ended the melancholy siege of disease against a strong bulwark of nature.” (Daily Alta, Aug. 23, 1850)

Atwill - Plaza- San Francisco - 1850
Atwill & Co.’s 1850 lithograph of Portsmouth Square, or “The Grand Plaza,” looking north from Clay, Telegraph Hill in the distance.

Following the news, San Francisco organized a procession in honor of President Taylor on Aug. 29, 1850 that spiraled into the nucleus of the city, Portsmouth Square. Organizing on Broadway, between Stockton and Dupont [Grant], the procession started at 11am, moving south down Dupont to Sacramento Street, where it then moved east to Kearny, north on Kearny to Commercial, east on Commercial a block to Montgomery, north on Montgomery to Pacific, west on Pacific back to Kearny, and then south on Kearny to Portsmouth Square. Business in town was suspended for the celebration, and the Alta noted that “even the bar-rooms and gambling houses were closed. . . . Along the whole line, as the procession moved slowly onward, the streets were crowded with spectators, and heard no expression other than that of approval of the admirable manner in which the arrangements were carried out.” (Daily Alta, Aug. 30, 1850, p. 2, c. 1-2)

Leading the procession was Col. John B. Weller (who later that decade became California’s fifth governor), Chief Marshal and Chair of the Committee of Arrangements, followed by a band. Next were the Masons: California Lodge No. 1, David Crockett Lodge, and the Royal Arch Chapter, carrying a replica of the Ark of the Covenant; next were the Odd Fellows, with a band playing a “mournful dirge.” The Alta noted, “Many of our most eminent citizens were to be found in the ranks of the Masons and Odd Fellows” — Judge Morse (of the Superior Court), Col. Gregory Yale of Yale & Nunes, who had their counseling offices in the old adobe Custom House on Portsmouth Square (Kimball’s City Directory of 1850, p. 120), Col. J. D. Stevenson, etc. Next came the First California Guard, led by Capt. W. D. M. Howard, with another band in tow; behind them a hearse, drawn by four horses. Upon the horse was painted [another version of] Taylor’s last words: “I have done my duty — I am ready to die.” A white horse walked behind the hearse, followed by the “clergy, relatives of the deceased, officers of the army and navy, officers and soldiers who had served in the Mexican war, United States government officers, foreign Consuls, heads of departments and members of the Legislature. The revenue service was strongly represented. The sailors belonging to the cutter bore with them the United States flag, dressed with black.” Next came Col. James Collier, Collector of the Port, and many of the officers of the Custom House, then located at Montgomery and California (Kimball’s City Directory of 1850, p. 30); next were the firefighters with decorated engines (keep in mind these were steam-powered, and horse-drawn engines, much different than today!): the Howard Fire Company No. 1, the St. Francis Hook and Ladder Company, and the Howard Hook and Ladder Company. Behind them Mayor John W. Geary, Recorder Franklin Tilford, the Board of Alderman and the Asst. Board of Alderman, and Chief of Police Malachi Fallon with the whole police force carrying a “blue satin banner, with gilt lettering — ‘San Francisco Police Department, organized August 12, 1850.'” (Daily Alta, Aug. 30, 1850, p. 2, c. 1-2)

Toward the back were judges, lawyers, doctors, ship captains, sailors, etc., followed by the “old Californians in goodly number. . . . men [who’d] resided in California more than three years [who] were regarded with considerable curiosity. . . . [A] distinct class, for their associations with [the] soil commenced at a time when few of [the] present population had dreamed of making California their residence.” (Ibid.) Behind the pioneers were representatives from various states, like those of New York, carrying a banner: “Sons of New York. We mourn the loss of our President.” Lastly, bringing up the rear of the procession, were “the China Boys,” the nickname used for the mostly-male Chinese immigrant population of gold-rush San Francisco. The Alta reported that the China Boys “were dressed in their richest attire, and attracted the attention of all who had gathered along the route to view the display.” (Ibid.)

Zachary Taylor
Zachary Taylor

The procession ended at Portsmouth Square, where a stage was set. The closest seats below were reserved for women, of which the Alta remarked: “we may safely say that the fair sex never collected in larger numbers in San Francisco than upon this occasion.” (Ibid.) A band was stationed upon the stage, and the first speaker was Rev. Dr. Fitch of the Episcopal church, who said a prayer, following which, the band broke into a dirge. Next up, the Hon. Elkan Hydenfeldt, a member of the legislature, and one of the leaders of the city’s Jewish community, delivered a ten-minute eulogy. While the Alta criticized Hydenfeldt for being too brief, the paper relayed a condensed version of his address, which serves as a nice two-paragraph bio of Taylor’s life:

“The illustrious deceased was born in Orange County, Virginia, on the 24th November, 1784. His parents were highly respectable, and his father served with distinction in the war which obtained for the United States their independence. Until he reached the age of 21 years, he worked on his father’s farm. Early in life he manifested a desire for military pursuits, and on the 3rd of May, 1808, he was commissioned as a first lieutenant in the 7th infantry. Two years subsequently he married a Maryland lady, Miss Margaret Smith. He served under General Harrison in the Indian war, on the north west frontier, as captain, and in this service it was that his gallant conduct in the defense of Fort Harrison, procured for him his brevet of major. His courage and coolness in the defense alluded to have been highly applauded, but he also distinguished himself on other occasions. When the Indian war was concluded, he was reduced to the rank of captain, in consequence of the reduction of the number of regiments, and resigned his commission. For the next three years we find him engaged upon his farm, from which he was called in 1816, the full rank of Major in the army of the United States having been tendered to him. For two years he commanded the forces at Green Bay, on the shores of Lake Michigan, and from thence duty called him to the South, an active duty which knew of no remission. He was commissioned as Lieutenant Colonel, on the 19th April, 1819. In the year 1826, he was again sent upon the north west frontier, where he remained five years. In 1832, he was created a colonel, and served in the Indian war known more familiarly as the Black Hawk war. From this time until the year 1836, he was stationed at Prairie du Chien, and was then ordered to Florida. The famous battle of Okechohee was fought on the 25th December, 1837, and this engagement procured for him the brevet rank of Brigadier General. The battle of Okechohee brought to a close the Florida war. It was a master stroke, and the annals of our Indian wars show nothing more conspicuous.

“General Taylor did not leave Florida until 1840, when he was called to command the first department of the army in the southwest. His headquarters were at Fort Gibson, Arkansas. In 1845 a war with Mexico was anticipated, and Gen. Taylor was ordered to the Texan frontier. Early in August of that year, he took up his position at Corpus Christi. In obedience to the orders of President Polk, he commenced his march to the Rio Grande in March, 1846. Thenceforward the events are fresh in the recollection of almost every body. The battle of Palo Alto was fought on the 8th of May, 1846, and the battle of Resaca de la Palma on the following day. Matamoras was captured on the 18th of May, and on the 30th of the same month he was promoted to the rank of Brevet Major General. One month subsequent he was commissioned a full Major General, his commission dating on the 29th June. On the 21st September he beseiged Monterey [spelled with one “r” here, but generally spelled Monterrey in Mexico], and after three days’ fighting, the city capitulated. His crowning battle was that of Buena Vista, which was fought on the 22d February, 1847. In November following, Gen. Taylor returned to the United States. On the 5th March, he was inaugurated President of the United States, having been called to that high office by the votes of a grateful people. He died June 9th, 1850. His principal characteristics were firmness and almost unerring judgment, and that he possessed these qualifications, even those who denounced and opposed him most, have conceded. In regard to California, he stood in the light of a friend — an ardent and sincere friend.” Following Hydenfeldt’s address, Rev. Albert Williams of the First Presbyterian Church “pronounced a benediction, and then the assembly moved slowly and quietly away.” (Ibid.)

Following Taylor’s death, Millard Fillmore, Vice President, became the 13th President of the United States, the country’s last Whig president, and the last “third party” president in today terms. On Sept. 9, 1850, the state of California was ratified into the Union.

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