by Angus MacFarlane
The greatest enemy of truth is often not the lie—deliberate, contrived and dishonest—but the myth—persistent, persuasive and unrealistic.
Stretching from Gough Street on the east to Stanyan Street on the west, our internationally famous Haight Street is 1.7 miles long and intersects 21 streets. The origins of the names of those streets are known, but Haight Street itself is problematic. Various sources cite three possible candidates for the honor: Henry W. Haight (a banker); Henry H. Haight (a lawyer and Governor of California); and Fletcher Haight (a lawyer and later a judge). The reasoning behind each of these possibilities seems to simply be that they are conveniently named Haight.
Market and Haight intersection, c. 1900. Mint Hill still prominent on north side of Market at top of hill.
Photo: San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library, courtesy C.R. collection
These gentlemen are related. Fletcher Haight and Henry W. Haight (the banker) were brothers, and Henry H. Haight (the Governor) was Fletcher’s son. The Henrys arrived in San Francisco in 1850. Fletcher was the last to arrive in 1854. But another member of the Haight clan had been in San Francisco for three years before his relatives arrived: Samuel W. Haight.
The Haights of San Francisco can be traced to New York and Samuel S. Haight, the son of Stephen and Margaret Haight. Samuel Haight was born in Greene County in upstate New York on September 17, 1778. During the War of 1812 he was a Major General in the New York Militia. After the war he started a law practice in Allegany County in western New York, eventually becoming Judge of the Allegany County Court. In January of 1799 he married Sarah Mathews and between 1799 and 1822 the couple had nine children, five boys and four girls. Among the boys were the eldest child, Fletcher Haight (born December 1799), Henry Welles Haight (born October 14, 1820) and Samuel Welles Haight, the youngest child, born September 13, 1822. (1)
In 1824 Fletcher moved to Rochester, N.Y., where hung out his law shingle and began a family. (2) Fletcher’s son, Henry Huntley Haight (California’s future tenth governor), was born there on May 20, 1825.
In 1834 General Haight, now a widower, moved to Rochester with his two youngest sons, 13-year- old Henry Welles and 11-year-old Samuel Welles. The boys grew into adulthood and became established in the community—Henry becoming a banker at the Bank of Monroe County (3) and Samuel a wholesale and retail hardware merchant.
In May, 1841 Fletcher (now 40 years old) and Samuel (19 years old) briefly formed a mercantile partnership in Rochester doing business as S. W. Haight & Co. In July Fletcher sold his interest to brother Robert (26 years old) who became Samuel’s partner. (4) S. W. Haight & Co. continued through at least 1845. (5)
In 1847 Henry W., who had married Weltha Ann Buell of Rochester in 1845, left the Bank of Monroe County to join the prestigious St. Louis banking house of Page, Bacon & Co. (7)
The United States declared war on Mexico on April 25, 1846. On September 26, Samuel Haight, now 24-years-old, was one of 770 men under the command of Col. Jonathan D. Stevenson who undertook a six-month, one-way ocean voyage from New York to California to establish a western front in the Mexican-American War. This was Stevenson’s Regiment, also known as the First New York Volunteers.
Before Samuel began his journey, the pueblo of Yerba Buena had been “captured” by a detachment of sailors and marines from the USS Portsmouth under the command of Captain John Montgomery on July 9, 1846. It was renamed San Francisco by Montgomery’s lieutenant, Washington A. Bartlett, in January, 1847.
Stevenson’s three transport ships arrived separately on March 6, 19, and 26, 1847. When the last man came ashore the regiment outnumbered the few hundred souls of the cove-side settlement. (8)
On March 10, 1847, General Stephen Kearny, the Military Governor of California, “grant[ed] to the town of San Francisco right, title and interest to the beach and water lots on the east front of the town of San Francisco included between the points known as Rincon and Fort Montgomery” which were to be surveyed and sold at auction to raise money to finance the operation of the town. This was east of today’s Sansome Street between the low- and high-water marks. (9) The day after Stevenson’s last ship dropped anchor, ads appeared in California’s two newspapers, the Californian (published in Monterey) and the California Star (published in San Francisco), that the water lots would be auctioned on June 29.
Stevenson’s ten companies were deployed by April 2. Two companies (about 154 men) remained in San Francisco, and a third company (about 77 men) was sent to Sonoma. The largest number, four companies including Stevenson and his regimental staff, was posted to Monterey. The final three companies went to Santa Barbara. (10)
It’s not recorded where Samuel went. The young hardware merchant from New York was not a soldier but a sutler, an archaic military term for a civilian contracted by the Army to provide the soldiers non-essentials, i.e. non-military items. (11) Whether he remained in San Francisco or followed the largest number of men who would have had the greatest needs for his sutler services to Monterey, both places had advantages for the ambitious young man.
Because it took Jaspar O’Farrell longer than expected to survey the 444 water lots, the auction was delayed to July 20, 1847. Over a three-day period, the well-attended auction brought prices ranging from $50 to $600 per lot. The California Star accurately predicted that this would be beyond question the most valuable property in town. (12)
When he shipped out of New York, Samuel knew that California was not a bustling hub of commerce, so he must have brought his sutler wares with him along with a substantial financial grubstake, probably from liquidating his hardware store’s inventory and assets. Although he was not a lawyer, as were his three older brothers who lived to adulthood, this did not mean that Samuel was the underachiever of the Haight family. Being a businessman from a young age, Samuel was undoubtedly aware of California’s limitless potential, so it wasn’t just patriotic fervor that motivated him to join Stevenson’s expedition and endure a six-month sea voyage.
Given that he came to California to seek his fortune with a military expedition intent on seizing land for the United States, it makes sense that Samuel had his own ideas of claiming some of California for himself. Fate could not have been kinder, bringing him to San Francisco just as the opportunity of a lifetime presented itself in the water lots auction. Although no records exist of the water lot sales, newspaper accounts from December, 1849 refer to property that Samuel owned at the foot of Jackson Street. This was water lot property.
Additionally on December 9, 1847 Samuel bought Rancho Atascadero from William Breck. This was one square league of land (about seven square miles) in present-day Atascadero in San Luis Obispo County. (13)
Under the terms of their enlistment the men of Stevenson’s Regiment would be discharged from their military obligation at the end of hostilities, though they were expected to remain in California to settle the land that the United States intended to seize as a prize of war from Mexico. The war ended on February 2, 1848, nine days after gold had been discovered. However, word of peace did not reach California until August. By October all the men of Stevenson’s Regiment, even those who had gone AWOL to the diggings, were mustered out.
After his discharge Samuel didn’t go to the mines. Instead he was in San Francisco where, on September 30, 1848, he entered into a business partnership with pioneer Californian Thomas Larkin, investing $10,000 to purchase merchandise in Mexico “on the most advantageous terms . . . [then] to be sold in such manner as may seem best in the opinion of the parties concerned.” This partnership lasted until at least February 1849. (14)
In July, 1849 Samuel went into the exchange brokerage and banking business with his assistant sutler, James Wadsworth. Along with Stephen A. Wright, and John Thompson they formed Wright & Co. with offices at the northwest corner of Washington and Kearny Streets. Their “building” reflected the price of doing business in San Francisco at the height of the Gold Rush. Costing $76,000 per year in rent, it was described as “half the size of a New York fire house” (15) and “a small building which might have made a stable for half a dozen horses.” (16) Also known as the Miners’ Bank of Savings of Alta California, they began with $100,000 cash capital. Within three months they had doubled their capitalization. Wright was president of the company and Samuel was the cashier. (17)
Although by now California was awash in gold dust and gold nuggets, there was a critical shortage of gold coins which created problems for business and commerce. Large financial transactions needed something more portable and standardized than gold dust or nuggets. On August 7, 1849 Wright & Co. sought permission to mint $5 and $10 gold coins. By October, before receiving permission to do so, they were minting coins using the time-honored method of sledgehammer striking, since no coin press was available. The Miners Bank ten- dollar gold piece was one of the earliest private gold issues of the California Gold Rush. But their request was subsequently rejected and the minting ceased. (18)
Adding to The Miners’ Bank problems, one of the many fires that plagued early San Francisco severely damaged their building on Christmas Day, 1849. On January 14, 1850 the partnership was dissolved amid charges and counter-charges of fraud between the partners. Wright and Thompson sued Samuel and Wadsworth but an examination of the books by court-appointed experts exonerated Samuel and Wadsworth and the plaintiffs were ordered to pay all costs. (19)
Not long after the dissolution of Wright & Co., Samuel and James Wadsworth were in business on Clay Street near Kearny as Haight & Wadsworth. (20)
Samuel also took a brief fling at politics in 1849, running for delegate to the California Constitutional Convention in August, (21) and for California treasurer in December, (22) losing both times.
On January 20, 1850, Samuel’s nephew, Henry Huntley Haight, arrived in San Francisco and set up a law practice. (23)
On June 21, 1850, two men from St. Louis disembarked from the steamship Tennessee, intent on establishing a San Francisco branch of Page, Bacon & Co: Samuel’s older brother Henry Welles Haight and Francis W. Page of the banking family. (24) Within a week PB & Co. had an office on Clay Street between Kearny and Montgomery and was advertising prominently in the newspapers.
Although married and the father of a young child, Henry W. Haight came west by himself. Samuel and Henry H. were still bachelors. Three years after Samuel Haight came ashore in San Francisco, the Haights were together for the first time since 1846 when they all lived in Rochester.
Fletcher Haight did not arrive in San Francisco till 1854 and is irrelevant to this history. (25)
1. Dwight, Benjamin W, The History Of The Descendants Of Elder John Strong, Of Northampton, Mass., published by Joel Munsell, 1871, Albany, New York; pgs. 656-670.
2. ibid, pages. 665-666.25. The Municipal Record, March 16 1916, pages 86 and 87, gives the origin of a number of San Francisco Street names. The compiler, Zoeth S. Eldredge, gives the origin of Haight Street as: “Fletcher M. Haight, a prominent lawyer of San Francisco and later a United States district judge for the Southern District of California.” He does not provide any reason, explanation, or citation for this.
3. San Francisco Bulletin, March 25, 1869, page 3: “Death of Henry Haight”.
4. Reports of Cases in Law and Equity Determined in the Supreme Court of the State of New York, vol. 2, Banks & Brothers, Law Publishers, Albany, New York, page 551.
5. Rochester City Directory, 1845, page 88.
6. Dwight, pages 665, 666.
7. Dwight, page 670.
8. Biggs, Donald C., Conquer And Colonize, Presidio Press, San Rafael, Cal. 1977 p. 91.
9. California Star, March 20, 1847, page 4.
10. Biggs, p. 98.
11. Giffen, Guy; California Expedition: Stevenson’s Expedition of First New York Volunteers, Biobooks, Oakland, Cal., 1951, page 50.
12. California Star, July 24, 1847 page 2 column 2 & September 4, 1847, page 2 column 3.
13. The United States VS. Henry Haight, Case No. 113, Southern District, Atascadero Grant, page 5. (At Bancroft Library.) On September 24, 1851 Samuel sold the land to Henry Haight. No middle name or initial is provided in the documents, so it’s uncertain which Henry.
14. Larkin, Thomas O.; Larkin Papers vol. VII (1847-1848), page 368, edited by George P. Hammond, & Vol. VIII (1848-1851) page 126. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1960.
15. Taylor, Bayard; El Dorado, Adventures in the Pat of Empire, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, 2000, p. 47.
16. Soule, Frank; Gihon, John; Nisbet, James; The Annals of San Francisco, Berkeley Hills Books, Berkeley, Calif. 1999, page 254.
19. Daily Alta California, February 15, 1850 Page 2 column 3.
20. Daily Alta California, March 4, 1850, page 3 column 3.
21. Daily Alta California, August 2,1849, page 1, column 1.
22. Daily Alta California, December 28, 1849, page 2, column 1.
23. Sacramento Daily Union, September 3, 1878, page 2, column 2.
24. Rasmussen, Louis J., San Francisco Ship Passenger Lists, Vol. 2 Page 2, San Francisco Historic Records, Colma, 1966.