The Jumping Off Place of the World
California and the Transformation of Thomas O. Larkin
Thomas O. Larkin was an ambitious young man. In 1831, he decided at age twenty-eight that he had frittered away enough time and now must look to the future. He considered his options. His first choice was to marry a rich cousin and settle down on a comfortable farm near Boston. His second choice was to secure a postal appointment in Washington with the help of his cousin and stepbrother, Ebenezer Larkin Childs, who was a minor official at the Post Office. The third option, and one that Larkin did not care much for at all, was to go to Monterey, in Mexican California, to work for John B.R. Cooper, a merchant and sea captain and Larkin's half brother.
More than anything else, Larkin wanted to be rich. He would not marry the wealthy cousin unless he could find "Some small love for her," as he said, and one can assume that he would work hard to find that small love. But the match did not materialize. And the Post Office job did not come through. That left California.
Cooper had not actually offered a position to Larkin. The sea captain had asked Samuel Childs, stepbrother and cousin of Larkin, to come to Monterey as his clerk. Childs declined, and the offer was passed around among the extended family. The prospect did not appeal to Larkin. California seemed to him "the jumping off place of the world," and he worried that he would have to forget English, learn Spanish, and live among Mexicans, whom he had always despised. But there seemed no other options left open to him. He was a bit desperate. After leaving his Massachusetts home in 1821, he had spent ten years in North Carolina in various ventures. Mostly, he learned how not to conduct business. Now, he decided that he would brace himself and take a chance.
Much has been made in the literature about how Larkin's experience in California differed from the other Americans living there. That is, he remained an American citizen, he remained Protestant, and he married an American woman. All true, but Larkin had not planned it that way. Larkin was driven by a hunger for wealth. He had every intention of doing exactly what Cooper and other Americans had done on arriving in California: marry a local Mexican beauty, become a Catholic and a citizen, and through family connections find his fortune. He was not completely mercenary; he would marry, he said, "providing I had any (say a little) love for the Lady, and the Lady had loot enough for me. A little of the former and much of the latter [and] I'm a married man."
All this changed when he met Rachel. Or did it change when she became pregnant? Larkin and Rachel Hobson Holmes arrived in California on the same ship in 1832. Rachel was coming to join her husband, who was a sea captain. A shipboard romance probably bloomed. When the historian John A. Hawgood in the late 1960s first discovered the existence of the illegitimate child and told Alice Larkin Toulmin, Larkin's granddaughter, she said: "Oh well, it must have been a very long voyage in those days and I suppose there was little else to do." During Rachel's pregnancy, while both she and Larkin were living at Cooper's house, she learned providentially that her husband had died.
The news did not immediately produce a marriage. The child was born in January 1833, and Larkin and Rachel were married the following June. There are any number of explanations for Larkin's decision to marry: he was conscience-striken; or he was in love with Rachel after all; or he had learned that the death of Captain Holmes had left Rachel a tidy sum, over which Larkin would have complete control; or, since they wished to marry in a Protestant ceremony, they had to await an opportunity.
There is an interesting sidelight on this last point. They were married on an American ship lying off Santa Barbara by the American consul to Honolulu. Twelve years later, in response to Larkin's question--Larkin was himself a consul by then--the United States State Department informed him that consuls had no authority to perform marriages. By that date, the Larkins had parented eight more children.
Little Isabel, the first child born in California to American citizens, died in July, approximately one month after the marriage of her parents. She was buried, as she had been baptized, at the Santa Barbara mission.
Larkin was in his element in California. The economy was based on cattle, and almost the entire Hispanic community was involved in it in some fashion. Other business activities were left largely to naturalized Mexicans or foreigners. With Rachel's inheritance, Larkin began his climb to success as an entrepreneur. He engaged in any venture that would make a profit. Within the first two or three years of his arrival, he was involved in debt collection, he had a wheat mill, and he engaged in lumbering and ranching. In 1834, he opened his first store in Monterey.
Before the end of that same year, Larkin had begun construction of his house. He was a close budgeter, but the actual construction expenses were always greater than his estimates. He even budgeted the cost of the rum punch that he served his workers at the roof-raising celebration. The actual cost of the rum was twice his estimate. The cost of the house itself is recorded on his books as $4,105. After adding nearby outbuildings, the cost rose to about $5,000.
The Larkins moved into their new home sometime after June 1835, probably not until 1836. It was a fine house, the first two-story building in Monterey, and just right for the entertaining for which Larkin became famous. Any visitor of note enjoyed Larkin's hospitality. The journals and letters of travelers in the 1830s and 1840s are filled with comment about his open-handedness. For example, an American naval officer told about a visit to Larkin's house in 1844:
According to previous invitation, we met at two o'clock in the afternoon at the house of our consul, and found there an assemblage of the citizens of the place, ladies and gentlemen, Mexican and Californian. General and la Senora Micheltoreno [Micheltorena], were of the party. . . . Dancing commenced immediately, and, in the varous combinations of quadrilles, contradances, and waltzes, was kept up until nine o'clock at night. . . . We were not the only foreigners present; as Her British Majesty's ship Modeste, having just come into the port, we had the pleasure of their company.
Larkin loved a good party and spent huge sums on them. He also enjoyed the company and conversation of interesting people. Entertaining also was good for business. Those of little influence or profit potential were rarely seen at Larkin's table.
Larkin's store was located in the house. He was among the first local merchants in California to service the growing ranchero class. Secularization of the missions had released vast tracts of land that were now in private hands. Few rancheros were actually wealthy, but they could afford to buy manufactured goods available only from outside California. The hide ships and whalers that usually brought these goods on the outbound passage from New England sold directly to the rancheros, even establishing resident agents on the coast. Buying from the ships always was a festive occasion, dear to the hearts of californios, but it was inconvenient.
A local store, with a constant supply of goods, solved a great number of problems. The rancheros could now bring hides to pay for goods when it was convenient, not when the ships were loading on the coast. Ships could sell directly to local merchants and not have to send agents ashore to beat about the countryside for hide sellers and goods buyers. Merchants also extended credit to rancheros, something ship captains often were reluctant to do. Larkin was in the right place, the capital of California and the leading town in the north, at the right time.
Larkin's attitudes toward californios began to change. He did a brisk, profitable business, supplying California governments from time to time. He traded up and down the coast, with both expatriate and Hispanic merchants and soon began to count a number of good friends among californios. He was on close personal terms with Micheltorena, who was both a debtor and a friend.
His attitudes toward California also changed. This "jumping off place of the world" began to have a hold on him. Beginning in 1843, Larkin wrote regularly to eastern newspapers, singing the praises of his adopted home. In this smiling land, the forests were full of game, the bays were broad, and the streams teemed with fish. "Solomon, in all his glory," he told readers of the New York Herald, "was not more happy than a Californian."
He liked California so much that he wished it to become American. He feared, however, that it might fall under the control of France or Britain. Some californios indeed favored seeking European protection from the tyranny and neglect of Mexico. Others, notably Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, favored an association with the United States. It was this attitude that Larkin tried to nourish among Californians. As a merchant and, after 1844, as United States consul, he did not seek and never advocated an American conquest of the Mexican province. He favored instead an association of California with the United States at the initiation of the californios themselves. He might have succeeded if the politicians in Washington had been more patient.
As relations between the United States and Mexico worsened in the mid-1840s, President James K. Polk added to Larkin's consular duties by appointing him his secret agent in California. Larkin was flattered and pleased with the new charge because he now had official encouragement to do exactly what he had been doing unofficially for years: try to persuade the californios that their best interests lay with the United States, not with Mexico.
Larkin received word of the appointment on April 17, 1846. Times were troubled in California that spring. Army Captain John C. Fremont had arrived in the province in January with a party of about sixty heavily-armed mountain men. When Mexican authorities questioned the intrusion, Fremont and Consul Larkin explained that the party was simply surveying. Fremont was granted permission to gather supplies at Monterey, after which he was to leave California. The captain instead marched his force to the coast near Santa Cruz. When californio authorities learned of the unauthorized trek, they ordered the Americans to leave the province immediately. Fremont considered the order a personal affront and barricaded his force atop Gavilan Peak near Monterey.
On reflection, and at Larkin's urging, Fremont withdrew quietly, but his belligerency had raised the specter of an American invasion. Meanwhile, Americans who had emigrated overland and settled in the Sacramento Valley, largely without the required passports, feared expulsion by Monterey authorities. Californios, on the other hand, feared violence on the part of these same overlanders. Tensions were growing.
Yet, the dark times were fraught with possibilities. A junta convened by General Jose Castro, the military commandant, had met in late march to discuss California's precarious situation. Meetings were held in Castro's house and, as evidence of the warm relationship between californio authorities and Larkin, at Larkin's house. Junta members pondered whether California should seek protection from a foreign power, particularly Britain or France. Some advocated a declaration of independence from Mexico. If that were done, the next logical step, Larkin hoped, would be a move for an association with the United States. Vallejo and others indeed spoke in favor of looking to the United States for protection. The meeting broke up with no firm conclusion.
Within weeks, it appeared that Larkin had succeeded after all. At the junta, Castro had declared for the annexation of California by Catholic France. Afterwards, when he had time to reflect on events, he had a change of heart. He showed Larkin a plan for declaring California independent from Mexico as soon as a sufficient number of immigrants had entered the province to ensure success, probably by 1847 or 1848. He asked Larkin for his approval, and Larkin readily gave it. It was everything that Larkin had worked for.
The Bear Flag affair, a challenge to californio authority initiated in June 1846 by American settlers in the interior valleys, burst the bubble. Larkin was devastated. He feared that all the good will that he had built up over the years was lost. As consul, he tried to get an explanation from the Bear Flaggers about their intentions, and at the same time to soothe the fears of the californios. But events were soon to overtake his campaign for a peaceful union.
In late June, Californians learned that war between the United States and Mexico had erupted on the disputed Rio Grande. The war over Texas soon became the conquest of California, and American naval forces arrived shortly. Larkin was caught up in the conflict from the beginning. He advised commodores John D. Sloat and Robert F. Stockton, successive fleet commanders, and acted as an intermediary between the American officers and californio leaders. He hoped that the change of sovereignty could be accomplished with the quiet acceptance, if not approval, of the californios. This hope was dashed by the unnecessarily belligerent tone of a proclamation issued by Stockton in Monterey on July 29 and the severe treatment of Los Angeles residents in September by Lieutenant Gillespie, whom Stockton had placed in command there. Gillespie's action precipitated an uprising by townsmen, and resistance to American rule spread into the countryside. California was once again at war.
It was this last action that would bring Larkin personally into the conflict. He had heard rumors from the beginning of the conquest that he might be taken hostage by the californios. After all, as consul, he was the leading American civil authority in the province. By implication, he must be responsible for what was happening. Responsible or not, he could be useful to the californios if they needed to recover prisoners held by the Americans. Larkin accepted the possibility of capture philosophically. "I do not care whether I am made Prisoner or not providing I sleap in a good Bed, under cover, and have tea or coffee before I start in the morning and during the day." But Larkin discounted the rumors; the californios were his friends and would not harm him.
Perhaps not, but they would hold him. Larkin earlier had sent Rachel and their children to the relative safety of San Francisco, away from the intrigue and volatility of Monterey. In mid-November, he received a letter from Rachel, telling of the serious illness of their daughter, Sophia Adeline. Larkin left immediately for San Francisco, making no secret of his departure. He was captured on the road by a californio force. The leader of the party was Manuel Castro, the prefect of Monterey and an old acquaintance.
A sharp skirmish was fought the next day between the californios and a party of American volunteers who had gathered at Mission San Juan Bautista. The Americans had learned of Larkin's capture and had been on the lookout for the hostile force. As prisoner of the californios, Larkin was spectator to the battle, and it deeply troubled him. On one side were his countrymen, on the other men whom he had come to know and respect: business associates, neighbors, friends. A defeat by either side, he told Rachel later, "appeared sad and disagreeable to me."
The battle ended in a draw, but Castro gave up the fight for the north and withdrew southward, taking his hostage with him. Larkin was closely guarded and cared for during the journey. The leader of his escort was Francisco Rico, whom Larkin knew from Monterey. Larkin considered him a straightforward, honorable man. Larkin's captors might expect to win some advantage eventually with their hostage, and they did not dare let any harm come to him while they were responsible for him. They took care that his horse did not slip during night rides. If there was only one bed or one piece of bread, it was his.
Indeed, the members of the escort were so attentive during the journey southward, it is unclear whether Rico or Larkin was in control. Several members, concluding that this war was not for them, told Larkin that they would help him escape and promised to ride back north with him. Larkin declined. On another occasion, Larkin noticed that most of the escort had fallen behind, and only four men rode with him and Rico. Larkin remarked to Rico that three of the four would help Larkin shoot Rico in the back, and that it was an open question whether the fourth man would support Rico or Larkin. Rico thanked him and said that in the future he would be more careful.
Larkin was lodged briefly in Santa Barbara as an honored guest of Dr. Nicholas Den, a naturalized Mexican of Irish origin. He was soon taken to Los Angeles, where he was more guest than prisoner of General Jose Maria Flores, leader of californio forces in the south, who had regained control of Los Angeles. Larkin was given the best room in Government House. Local citizens sent furniture and meals, and Senora Flores served him tea and bread four times a day. This last must have particularly pleased Larkin; he loved his tea. General Flores apologized for not having certain English books that Larkin requested. Larkin was finding captivity bearable and, in conversations with his captors, learned something of their cause. He admitted in a letter to Rachel that "both North & South have been prolific in falsehoods of late."
As American forces converged on Los Angeles from north and south, Larkin feared for his life, not so much from official violence, but from an accident while being moved or at the hands of an aggrieved citizen. His fears appeared justified when General Flores summoned him to his defensive position southeast of Los Angeles. Larkin delayed, thinking he was being sent to Mexico. By the time he arrived, the californios had lost the Battle of San Gabriel and the war.
Flores took considerable pains to explain to Larkin why he had held him prisoner and why he had taken command of the patriot forces. Some common soldiers who recognized Larkin asked him to help their families now that the war was over. The general gathered a half-dozen officers, with himself as leader, and escorted Larkin, now a free man, to his lodgings.
Upon his return to Monterey in February 1847, Larkin published an open letter in the Monterey Californian, expressing his thanks for kindnesses he had received during his captivity. Among those specifically named were some of his captors, notably General and Senora Flores.
For the next few years, Larkin devoted himself primarily to becoming rich in the new American province of California. His official positions had terminated, though he continued to act as Navy Agent for a time. He bought and sold building lots in Monterey, San Francisco, Vallejo, Sacramento, and elsewhere. He bought large tracts of land on the Sacramento River and north of San Francisco Bay. Some he had surveyed, subdivided, and sold piecemeal. Others he stocked with cattle, horses, sheep, and pigs. The Boga Rancho, on the Feather river just south of today's Oroville, was thought to be so rich in gold that Larkin eventually offered it on the London market for $1 million. He was the chief founder and promoter, along with Robert Baylor Semple, of the town of Benicia. He invested in railroads and a quicksilver mine and sent trading ships to China and Mexico. He was rich, powerful, and influential. In 1849, he was a respected member of the state Constitutional Convention that met in Monterey.
Yet, all was not well with Larkin. The pace he had set for himself was beginning to tell on him. He was working too hard. His frequent trips and extended stays in San Francisco were exhausting. He wrote to a friend:
My head whirls with speculation; my hair grows grey by the excessive working of my brain, and ambition. . . . I leave next week for my Monterey home and would give 500 ounces of gold to chase out of my brain for a year or two every idea of trade or speculation.
As he increasingly transferred his interests to bustling San Francisco, Monterey proved a refuge to him, and he found peace there. "May California be the best country in the world and Monterey the best part of California, is my prayer," he wrote once to Jacob Leese.
Larkin had loved Monterey well enough, but his world was the place of business, and San Francisco was now the place to be. In January 1850, he traded his house and other Monterey properties to Jacob Leese for some San Francisco properties. Although Larkin's specific reasons for disposing of his house are uncertain, what is known for sure is that he planned to move permanently from Monterey.
A trip to the East had been on his mind for some time. As early as 1842, he had planned such a voyage. For the next eight years, he announced periodically that he wanted to return East. He said that he wanted to own some land there, especially in Massachusetts, his boyhood home. In 1847, he began to invest in eastern railroads and other stocks. He was also concerned about his two sons, Oliver and Frederic, who were attending eastern schools.
Larkin's early plans for a visit to the East suggested a visit of a few months only. By 1850, he intended a longer residence. In February, shortly before leaving San Francisco, he gave an agent a batch of promissory notes, the last falling due in thirty months. He instructed the agent to send the payments to him in New York. In the same month, he backed out of a partnership arrangement that he had proposed only the month before. The disappointed associate wrote to a friend the Larkin "says he dont want to make any more property in California." The associate concluded that Larkin was homesick.
Thomas and Rachel, with three of their children, Francis, Caroline, and Alfred, arrived in New York in April 1850. The Larkins rented a comfortable suite at the fashionable Irving House, a popular gathering place for Californians. They entertained lavishly and lived in luxury that could only be dreamed of in California. Within two months of his arrival in the East, Larkin wrote to an old Monterey friend Pablo de la Guerra, that he planned to buy a house in New York.
The letter to de la Guerra includes a hint of the turmoil that would distress Larkin for the next three years. After telling about the excitement and glitter of New York, he turned to beg friend Pablo for California news. "No doubt business will next year take me back to the land of adoption[?]. The place of my name & fame and fortune will also call me back to see old friends." Only three months after leaving California, Larkin was homesick.
In November, the Larkins purchased an eighteen-room house on a good street. They repaired, painted, and furnished until they had, in the word of a friend, "a palacia." The fourth floor was largely occupied by servants. Larkin's New York house soon had the same reputation for hospitality as his Monterey home. His household bills were enormous.
Comfortably settled, Larkin investigated business opportunities. He soon began buying and selling building lots and rental houses. He traveled to Washington and also worked through agents to pursue his claims against the government for services and supplies furnished to American forces in California during the war. He pressed for approval of his California land titles and worked for passage of laws favorable to California. He attempted to accelerate California's admission to statehood, notably by presenting a watch chain made of California placer gold to Henry Clay. Clay assured him that all was going well.
Larkin had anticipated early that he would have to return to California to look after his interests there. His first trip was in early 1851, less than a year after arriving in the East. He had written ahead to tell Cooper that he would come to Monterey "where I really believe my old Paisanos will be all glad to see me, as I shall to see them."
As much as he looked forward to seeing his old friends, he was not at that time planning a permanent return to California. Just three days before leaving the East, he wrote a will, directing that, in the event of his death, his executor sell his California properties and invest the proceeds in the East for the benefit of Rachel and their children.
During the six-month sojourn in California, Larkin tended to his business affairs, which must have seemed particularly troublesome after his comparatively carefree interlude in the East. He listened to growing problems about squatters on his lands. Semple, his partner in the Benicia venture, criticized him severely for what he called Larkin's indifference to the interests of the fledgling town. A disastrous fire burned some of his most valuable San Francisco properties. Before leaving the coast, Larkin gave a broad power of attorney to an agent to handle his affairs, but no authority to purchase property or reinvest proceeds from sales. It appears that he was planning to wind down his California business.
Larkin returned to New York in November 1851, but he was back in California the following May. He brought Frederic this time, placing him with Leese--who was now living in Larkin's former home--Cooper, and other friends in Monterey, where he expected his son would enjoy himself, build up his strength, and regain his Spanish. It was a happy interlude for Frederic, a return to the California of his childhood.
Larkin then plunged into business, which was now more promising. A survey of the Boga Rancho confirmed the presence of placer deposits. He sold half of another property, the Jimeno Rancho in Colusa County, for a substantial profit. Some of the squatters on his lands, resigned that Washington was going to confirm Larkin's land titles, were writing to ask for leases or purchase terms.
Larkin left San Francisco in a different frame of mind from the last departure. Before leaving, he revoked the broad power of attorney that he had given the agent the previous year. There is a strong hint that Larkin indeed had decided before leaving California that his next sojourn in the East would be short. Correspondence with a friend suggests that Larkin was coming to New York to dispose of his eastern properties, and to say a final farewell to the East. That done, wrote his friend, Larkin planned to take Rachel and the children and "pitch your tent for life, amidst the golden sands of the more congenial soil of the West."
Whatever his state of mind on returning to New York in the fall of 1852, Larkin became increasingly disenchanted there. He was particularly distressed by the repeated bouts of illness that had tormented the family since their coming in 1850. While traveling in the East, Larkin himself had been so ill of erysipelas, an acute skin disease, that the family had despaired of his recovering. He called for newspapers every hour, read them upside down, sent telegrams to scores of friends, and repeatedly rose from his bed, dressed and announced that he was off for New York. By the time he began to recover, Rachel, who had helped doctor him, collapsed. It was two months before Larkin was himself again. In the meantime, the newspapers had announced his death, much to the dismay of his friends in California. They would not know the truth for many months.
Rachel and the children were often ill, Caroline once at the point of death. The illnesses often resulted in friction between Thomas and Rachel. Larkin repeatedly wanted to remove temporarily to South Carolina to avoid the cold and damp of New York, but Rachel refused, and Larkin then blamed her for the family's suffering.
Larkin finally decided, if he had not already done so, to return permanently to California. He instructed his agents to sell his New York house and lots and rental properties. He vowed that he would move as quickly as the house was sold. The prospect of being without a home in the city was decidedly satisfying to Larkin. The house held too many memories of serious illness in these brief three years.
Larkin's disenchantment with the East was matched by a newly-found enthusiasm for California. To Faxon Dean Atherton, an old California friend now in Chile, Larkin wrote that the new American state was "progressive under go ahead Yankees and a thousand horse power." The region's gold, grain fields, free institutions, temperate and healthy climate, he said, would make it one of the most populous and richest states in the country. "[C]an the hand of man trace out anything its equal in former days, can he dream of, can he imagine any corresponding circumstance in all time to come." He urged Atherton to do the same as he, move back to California. "You and I were of that country. Our eyes were turned towards it in admiration and in my part in gratitude. My children were from there. They and yours will soon be. . . ." To another correspondent, he pointed out that his children were the first born in California to an American mother, and that his brother had married into the Vallejo family. Larkin was beginning to discover California anew and to see his own place in California history more clearly than before.
Larkin looked forward to being once again with his old paisanos. He remembered the admonition from Jacob Leese, who had urged him to return to the coast, for "a long life in California a living on 'Carne, Frejoles y Papas' . . . is much more pleasanter than a short life caused by . . . pumpkin pies, plumb puddings &c &c and then dy with the collery morbus . . ." Come back and grow rich in the new state, Leese told him. "Here you wil be a lyon and there you wil have to be as cunning as a fox." Larkin would have been flattered by his election, without his knowledge, as a director to railroad companies in Monterey, San Jose, and Marysville. He learned that some settlers on one of his ranchos, petitioning for a local post office, planned to call it "Larkin." California, temperate of climate and temperament, land of unlimited opportunity, also honored him. He would go home.
Settled back in San Francisco in May 1853, Larkin plunged again into land speculation and managing his ranchos. The family was much healthier, and he saw his old friends regularly. Rachel was not completely content with the move, for she missed New York. Yet, she was favorably impressed with the changes in San Francisco during their three years' absence. The Larkins placed their two youngest children in good local schools and soon built a fine house. Larkin was rich, an Episcopalian, and a Whig.
By the mid-1850s, Larkin, comfortable, well-established, respected, began to look back. He started addressing his sons as "Frederico" and "Francisco" and included Spanish phrases in his letters. He called his daughter "Carolina" once again. Alfred Robinson was now "Don Alfredo." He wrote to John Gilroy, the first foreigner to settle in California, to ask him to describe the early days in detail. Larkin compiled a list of 285 men and women of United States or British origin who lived in California before 1840. He wrote to the Society of California Pioneers as its former president to urge a new category of membership. This "First Class" of membership, he said, should include those who lived in California before July 7, 1846, the date of California's final separation from Mexico. "Those who contributed to bring about the events of that day," he said, "are those who are especially entitled to honor at our hands."
The date stirred bittersweet memories for Larkin. To old friend and paisano, Abel Stearns, he confessed to an uneasiness with the modern age. "I begin to yearn after the times prior to July 1846," he wrote, "and all their honest pleasures and the flesh pots of those days. Halcyon days they were. We shall not enjoy there [sic] like again."
This article was published in California History, Winter 1991/1992.