The Farmer with the Golden Plow: John Meirs Horner (1821-1912)

Historical Essay

by Mae Silver, from the chapbook Rancho San Miguel


John Meirs Horner, early Mormon farmer of the Rancho San Miguel

In 1852, John Meirs Horner purchased land from Rancho San Miguel and began farming in the region. Hailing from New Jersey, Horner was inspired by his Mormon faith, which he joined during his teenage years. Horner started his farm in California by sowing wheat. Despite a penniless first year, he eventually succeeded due to quality crops and hard work. With his earnings, he purchased the steamer Union to carry produce to market. However, two financially crippling events—Horner’s lockjaw, and the Panic of 1857—caused the family to sell their farms and move to a sugar farm in Hawaii. There, he prospered, leaving a legacy as one of San Francisco’s founding farmers.

The first American owners of Rancho San Miguel were from Hornerstown, New Jersey, They were John Meirs Horner, his brother William Yeats, and their families. By any measure the Horners were worthy of the glorious land they bought from Jose de Jesus Noe in 1852.

John Horner, a Mormon, was a man of astonishing energy and talent. According to his memoirs, Horner and his bride of six months were two of "235 Saints—men, women and children—and two other passengers educated gentlemen—the captain, mates, sailors, stewards and cooks, altogether 252 souls ... " on board the Brooklyn as "... a strong trade wind struck us and wafted us speedily and safely through the 'Golden Gate,' without a pilot or halting, with all sails set, until we dropped anchor in front of Yerba Buena—now San Francisco—in the bay of San Francisco. We were all well, thankful and happy." It was an exciting trip with severe storms and cliffhanging accidents that nearly destroyed the ship. What an exhilarating experience for a young couple, on their honeymoon, fresh from the farm, not accustomed to the ocean and its adventures!

In John Horner's words, "It was fine weather when we doubled Cape Horn. The women were making bread, pies, cakes, frying doughnuts, etc., and the children were playing and romping about the deck.

"We were too far south to see the cape when we passed around it, in fact, we saw no land after leaving New York until we sighted the island of Juan Fernandez, where we stopped a few days replenishing our wood and water, catching, eating and salting fish. While coming up the coast of South America, a hint was given that the captain did not know where he was. The captain, hearing of this, immediately pointed his ship toward the mainland and stated: 'If I am right, I will show you the highest points of the Andes, if this wind keeps up.' Sure enough, we soon saw a small, black cloud arising out of the eastern horizon, which rapidly increased in height and length, and which, to us landsmen, looked like a thunder cloud. By gazing through strong glasses, we saw the captain was right. He then pointed his ship for the Hawaiian Islands." A month later, the Brooklyn anchored in Yerba Buena in July 1846, and deposited the first of several waves of Mormons coming west to colonize.

The Horners had come from Monmouth County, New Jersey, an area well known for its orchards, fields, and mills. From 1830 to 1850 it was also a place of concentrated activity by the Mormons, as they recruited converts to colonize the Frontier. Hornerstown, New Egypt, Toms River, and Forked River were particular favorites of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, Benjamin Winchester, and Sam Brannan. In 1844 Brannan preached in Toms River looking for passengers for the ship Brooklyn he was chartering. The story goes that the Prophet Joseph Smith held people in New Egypt spellbound with his oratory under the Buttonwood tree on the Crosswick Creek in 1840. That tree still stands at 40 Main Street in downtown New Egypt.

It was during his late teenage years, John Horner explained, that he joined the faith. "I had been wrought up over the subject of religion. The Methodists were the most persistent in my neighborhood, and my preference was for them. In these days came ministers of a new sect, calling themselves Latter-day Saints, with a new revelation preaching the gospel of the New Testament, with its gifts and blessings. It attracted much attention; people listened, and some obeyed, thereby enjoying the promised blessings. Members of the Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian faith, as well as non-professors, began to join them. Among the latter class were my father, mother and sisters. I was the first of the family to obey, being baptized by Erastus Snow, in the Layawa Creek, on the second day of August, 1840. In the spring of 1843 I went up to Nauvoo. Here I was introduced to and shook hands with the Prophet Joseph Smith."

"My Star of Hope Arose Early"

Horner's enthusiasm for life was his guiding light. He wrote, "My star of hope arose early, promising me many things, as well as time to acquire them. I was without money, and had only small business experience. I had good health, however, and was industrious and ambitious. These qualifications impelled me to strive to be the best work-man on the farm, to run faster, and jump further, than anyone else; to be the best ball player, and to always strive to be at the head of any classes at school. I did not always succeed, but was awarded a premium by my teacher, for 'trying harder to learn than any other scholar in school.'

"In the summer of 1845, I was boarding with my father, and teaching a district school. In his corn field were sharp corners and crooks in his fence, leaving a few square feet of land, here and there, which he could not cultivate with his teams. He consented that myself and brother might dig it up and plant potatoes in it for ourselves, which work we did mornings and evenings, so as not to interfere with our daily duties. We did not anticipate much of an income from what we were then doing; but it was exercise, and a good lesson for us ... we raised some potatoes ... and buried them to protect them from the winter's frost.... They were yet under the frozen ground in January 1846, when I was ready to start for California. I sold my share for five dollars. When I got to New York, I added two dollars to the five and bought a Colts six-shooter pistol. I was told, 'You are going to a country occupied by savage beasts, and still more savage men, so you must go armed to protect yourself.'

"When I arrived in California, it was in the throes of a revolution. A war was raging between the United States and Mexico. I carried my rifle and pistol wherever I went prospecting, but seeing no one whom I wanted to shoot and no one who wished to shoot me, I concluded my pistol was useless and traded it to a Spaniard for a yoke of oxen, the first animals I ever owned; with them I plowed for my first crop of vegetables in California.

"So, after about thirty days, Brother James Light and I, with our families, left to fill a contract made with Dr. John Marsh, to put in a field of wheat on shares, on his farm, which was situated on the lower San Joaquin. We put in forty acres. It grew well; the land was good, while the rains were early and abundant that year.

"After the wheat was sown and there being nothing more to be done at the doctor's, in March 1847, I moved over to the Mission de San Jose, where I found farming prospects more favorable. At the Mission, in March, I plowed and sowed wheat, barley, peas, and potatoes, and made a garden, planted with different kinds of truck. All of this sowing and planting were of no avail, as the plants were destroyed by grasshoppers ...

"The wheat at the doctor's was harvested and stored in his granary, but when our share was called for, the doctor gravely informed us: 'You have no wheat here, your share was destroyed by elk, antelope, and other wild animals; my share alone was harvested.' So we got nothing for our labor. Thus ended my first year's farming in California."

This exchange between Horner and Marsh was the sort that did not endear Dr. Marsh to many people. He was, at best, predictably unpredictable as far as hospitality and kindness were concerned.

Horner summed up his first years farming in California. "The first remuneration from my first three years of farming venture in California, was two dollars, paid me for watermelons, in September of this year. Fortunately, October and November brought to California a large number of gold hunters, coming both by sea and land; the appetites of these people seemed to crave nothing so much as vegetables, since some of them had, and others were rapidly contracting, the scurvy. They ate raw onions, or potatoes, with apparently as great relish as if these were nicely flavored apples. As I was the only farmer in the territory for sale, I was much sought after by customers from all sides; two wagons came several times from the mines, two hundred miles distant, and bought loads of vegetables at fair prices.

"This crop was worth about eight thousand dollars; but unfortunately an early rain sent a flood of water over my field from a brook near by, and continued so long that one-half of my potatoes were destroyed, before I could secure them, help being so scarce. However, what I did gather was a partial compensation for my long struggle; besides, my success was gratifying, and I put that also down in my ledger as a further credit. Thus ended my farming venture of 1849.

"In the beginning of January, 1850, my brother William came to me by the way of Panama, consuming six months time on the journey. … He escaped the cholera on the Isthmus; his shipmates died by the dozens. He escaped starvation and perhaps a violent death. …

"My brother had also been bred on the farm, was young, (about twenty-one) ambitious and very industrious. I received filter as a partner in my business. We worked and flourished together during the next four years, perhaps as no other farmers ever flourished before in the United States, in so short a time. …

Fortune Knocks on Our Door

"We looked upon this time and opportunity as [fortune] … knocking at our door; she found us home. We opened the door and bade her welcome, thankfully accepting her offer.

"Our gross sales this year approximated one hundred and fifty thousand dollars. … We established a commission house in San Francisco, under the firm name of J. M. Horner and Co., to sell our own and others' produce. Thus ended our farming venture of 1850. This year we purchased one hundred acres of land at the landing, on the Alameda River, and laid out the town of Union City upon it. We made extensive preparations for increasing our business in 1851. We bought some excellent farming land near Union City, fenced, built upon, and farmed it, in addition to improved our home farm, which was ten miles away. …

"We secured by purchase the steamer Union to carry our produce to market. This year our gross sales amount to two hundred and seventy thousand dollars."

Horner bought the steamer Union in New Jersey, had it crated in pieces and shipped around the Horn. Some say Union City, California, was named for the Union. The Horners were the initial founders of Union City, California. Clearly, there was a New Jersey connection to Union City, California. Not only was Horner's farming lucrative but it was quality stuff. When San Francisco held its first agricultural fair in 1852, Horner received the highest praise for his produce and won a silver goblet, the largest premium offered to anyone entering the fair.

"I sent my brother back to New Jersey on business, and he brought back with him my father and mother and all their children and grandchildren, two of my wife's sisters, and a brother, and some other young people, some twenty-two souls. He arrived home safely in the fall, and in time to take the place he had left in the firm of J. M. Horner and Co., to sell our large crop now ready for market. We continued our energetic and prosperous career, buying more lands, and farming them ourselves, or letting them to—our potato crop reached the enormous quantity of twenty-two million pounds in 1853. We had also in that year fifteen hundred acres of wheat and barley, besides cabbages, tomatoes and onions in quantities. California had not only supplied herself with vegetables this (1853) year, for the first time, but she produced a large surplus which could not be sold, and was never sent to market.

"Flour mills not being sufficient in California at this time, we built one at Union City … at a cost of eighty-five thousand dollars, and ground our grain and that of others.

"We equipped and ran a stage line in connection with our steamer, as far up the valley as San Jose, twenty-five miles. Thus completing a through passenger line from San Francisco to San Jose. We opened sixteen miles of public roads, mostly through our own land, and fenced part on both sides."

In 1851-52 the Horners bought Rancho San Miguel and paid for it two hundred thousand dollars.

"We spent considerable money on this land in surveys, fencing and improvements. Some six hundred acres adjoining the city, as it then existed, we laid out in lots, blocks and streets, and made them conform to those already laid out by the city.

"We named the streets, which names are still retained, and the property is assessed as situated in 'Horners Addition.'" In 1853 John Horner ordered 300 grafted fruit trees from New Jersey, had them packed in moss and charcoal, carried on mule back across the Isthmus of Panama, then shipped to San Francisco. Where he planted them is a question. One can do a little speculation. Since, by this time, he had bought Rancho San Miguel, it is conceivable the trees came from around the New Egypt and Hornerstown areas well known for their lush orchards and fields. Probably the fruit trees planted in Horner's Addition, the geographical heart of San Francisco, came from land in Monmouth County, the geographical heart of New Jersey.

By this time, John Horner was on shaky legs, financially. The Panic of 1857, which some described hitting San Francisco slightly, leveled John Horner. He said, "The first wave of money panic struck California, and swept over America with such disastrous results from 1853 to 1859. It is said that during two months in 1857 in New York, discounts at the bank fell off $4,000,000, deposits $40,000,000, interest went up to 36 per cent per annum, and six thousand failures, involving an indebtedness of $300,000,000. Yet how small is this large sum, when compared to the direct and indirect loss endured by the whole people during these years of panic. The breaking up of business, the depreciation of property, the enforced idleness of labor and machinery and the check to enterprise, all combined to make up a loss impossible to compute; besides the above, the heartache and mental anguish arising from the loss of business and property. Men of families, wealth and enterprise driven from their homes and reduced to poverty, and in consequence on the Pacific Coast, self destruction was resorted too, to end their misery; some poisoned themselves, some shot themselves, some went crazy, etc."

With the Panic of 1857, the Horners lost everything, including Rancho San Miguel. Horner recalled, "I was an active participant, I may say an acute sufferer in those scenes.

"We for the first time commenced mortgaging our property and at this time money was not to be borrowed in San Francisco on our San Francisco real estate. We did however succeed in mortgaging it to C. K. Garrison for $50,000, interest 4% per month, compounded monthly and payable in advance. He drew on New York, we received the money there.

"This $50,000 was about one-sixth of the amount we had paid for the property (Rancho San Miguel) and the improvements, but it was enough, as it swept away the entire property. Thus slipped from us $250,000. Our $18,000 steamer went for $7,000 to pay an endorsement creditor. In parting with our $85,000 flouring mill we did a little better, but the panic continued so long and was so heavy upon property the purchaser sold it for $5,000, this property had been depreciated $80,000 by the panic. The San Jose Mission lands that had cost us $70,000 including improvements went from us for an endorsement debt of $10,000. However the squatters had done as much to render this property of little value as the panic."

It was not surprising that John Horner came down with a case of lockjaw that nearly killed him. At the same time, the Horners' only daughter died. There were times, languishing with fever in bed, John Horner thought he would not ever recover. However, his "star was still shining." He regained his strength. Once he was up and well, he was the same enthusiastic John Horner. He built a bridge over the Alameda River and made three hundred dollars from that. He farmed various pieces of land offered to him and made a profit. Using the Alameda River mill, the Horners rented the use of the water, planted potatoes and realized seven thousand dollars from that crop. Horner's oldest son, cultivating sugar on the Island of Hawaii, knew Claus Spreckels was about to open a large sugar plantation. He advised his father to inquire about contracting to do the planting for him. On reflection, Horner probably saw little reason to stay in California. He had been financially stung, and still smarted from the pain. Horner contracted the sugar farm for Claus Spreckels in Hawaii.

That was the final turning point for the Horner family. "We sold our farms, chartered a schooner, and placed therein our families—eighteen souls—our household effects, horses and farming tools, and started for the islands."

The rest of John Horner's story: Again, Horner became a very wealthy planter, only this time there was less adversity to dim his fortune. As in the early days when he served as an Alameda County Supervisor, Horner became a Noble serving for a six-year term with the legislature of Hawaii. The Honorable John Meirs Horner, a farm boy from Monmouth County, New Jersey, and finally of Hamakua, Hawaii, was 91 years old when he died.

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