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Jul 23

James J. Ayers, founder of the San Francisco Call, editor of San Luis Obispo Tribune

Daily Morning Call original office building in San Francisco. James J. Ayers would be involved in the founding of four newspapers including the Daily Morning Call and for a brief time own the San Luis Obispo Tribune. Photo Courtesy Found SF

His book “Gold and Sunshine” opens with James J. Ayers, then all of 18 years old, departing St. Louis for the California gold fields in February 1849.
After a long strange 22-year journey Ayers would briefly become the second editor of the Tribune in San Luis Obispo.
Ayers planned get to the California gold by boat, New Orleans – overland at Panama – San Francisco.
The steamer’s boiler blew up on the Caribbean leg of the journey. The passengers entertained themselves by shooting sharks as the boat limped to port.
Transferring to another ship Ayers landed at British Honduras and crossed overland to the Pacific Ocean. The next problem to solve was finding a ride to San Francisco. Ships were packed with northbound 49ers and passage was almost impossible to book. One desperate group decided to make their own boat from scratch.
Ayers was able to shoehorn onto an overcrowded brig.
“The Laura Anne was an old-fashioned tub of a vessel, almost as broad at the bow as at the stern, and slower than justice. Water became the absorbing question, and how to safely stow away enough to supply over one hundred souls for a voyage of many weeks was the difficult problem to be solved. ”
Stormy weather broke the improvised water tanks and the high seas were followed by dead calm under a tropical sun.
At one point rations were cut to a pint of water, rice and a biscuit each day.
Their luck would turn and eventually they made it to San Francisco. Ayers took eight months and three days from departure in St. Louis to arrival in San Francisco. The Bay was a forest of masts and the San Francisco a tent city.
He would return many times over the next half-century and chart the progress of the city.
Ayers was reunited with the friends who had built their boat and he hitched a ride with them to Stockton and from there it was off to find fortune in the dirt.
Mining towns were populated almost exclusively by energetic and excitable men. Without the moderating influence of women, children and families disputes could turn into ugly incidents. Immigrants from different regions viewed others with suspicion. Ayers argues it took more courage to walk away from an argument than to escalate.
In Calaveras County a dispute with a group of Chilean miners turned ugly. Anglo miners in the camp said claims were monopolized by a bullying group of Patrons and their hired men. Ultimatums were followed by court orders and gunshots, two Anglo miners were killed. Ayers found himself taken hostage by Chileans along with others. He was able to talk to his captors and bring down the emotional fever, long marches and threats of death followed. The captives were able to turn the tables wriggling out of their bonds and grabbing weapons as their captors slept. Ayers quietly released one Chilean leader who had stood up against killing the Anglo captives. The others were marched into the custody of Stockton Rangers.
The sheriff and judge who had mis-handled the affair, raising tensions skipped town and the miners convened. The improvised court handed out cruel frontier justice. Death for three ringleaders, four or five men were lashed 50-100 times and two men had their ears cut off.
Apparently 40 years later lingering resentment over this mining dispute lead to the Valparaiso incident in Chile.
Ayers would work two hard years in the Sierra foothills sluicing dirt with fair results. He claimed a good day could yield a pound of gold, but most days consisted of moving ten to fifteen feet of unpaying dirt before finding a thin layer of paydirt. Standing in Sierra snowmelt was icy and your back boiled under summer sun.

On October 18, 1851 Ayers founded the Calaveras Chronicle with partners H.A. De Courcey and Henry Hamilton after shipping a printing outfit to Mokelumne Hill. Newspaper editors in this era needed courage, a libel lawsuit was the least of their worries. Bruised honor responded with a challenge to a duel. De Courcey had argued with Sam Carter on the boat from San Francisco and the matter was resolved at Sacramento.
When Ayers got the message that his partner had been shot in the bowel he expected to attend the funeral of his partner. Bowel wounds were almost certain death in the era before antibiotics.
De Courcey was in excellent spirits however. The man acting as his second had advised De Courcey to adhere to a strict toast and tea diet before the fateful day. The flaccid intestine would offer no resistance to a bullet and pass between them and through. This same adviser had witnessed the death of the editor of the Alta California, the first California newspaper, in a duel.
Ayers’ partner beat the odds and survived.
The next edition of the Calavaras Chronicle was late, but not due to the injured partner. The inking roller had gone missing. Investigation revealed that the tasty molasses and glue mixture that the roller was crafted from was prized as a delicacy to the local Indians. They had eaten the cast out pieces of old rollers and liberated the fresh one from the stock.
The solution Ayers came up with was to ask the local druggist to put a powerful but harmless cathartic in the mixture. This ended the desire to eat the press.
He left Calaveras to go home to New York in February 1853.
When Ayers returned he spent a few months touring the mining country in a theater company.
Returning to San Francisco he worked at the San Francisco Herald but the paper had angered the powerful Vigilance Committee. Made up largely of prominent businessmen they took the law into their own hands when the institutions charged with public safety failed to keep up with a large lawless and transient component of the Gold Rush contingent. The Committee was not universally loved but to antagonize them was to risk advertising dollars and the Herald soon foundered.
Ayers took stock of the situation and gathering partners decided the time was ripe for an inexpensive daily newspaper. He came up with the name when his eyes struck a theater poster advertising “A Morning Call” and on December 1, 1856 San Francisco Daily Morning Call was born.
The paper started small and avoided antagonizing the members of the Vigilance Commitee.
Said Ayers, “It gave all the news in the most concise shape, its most elaborate articles being limited to about sixty lines. It took especial interest in the working classes, and was the first public organ to sound the alarm against the importation of coolie labor, which had then begun on a scale that threatened to disastrously affect the welfare of workers of our own race.”
Racism would show up again when the paper lost a libel suit to the tune of $5,000. (Inflation calculators only go back to about 1913 and using that measurement it translates to about $116,000 in 2012 dollars.)
An African American man had been removed from an outward bound steamer, the Brother Johathan. Creditors had the man hauled ashore as the lines were being cast off. The ship was lost at sea and nearly all aboard perished. The Call published a bright paragraph under the headline “A Darky in Luck.”
Ayers noted that it didn’t help that the judge said the very title of the article was libelous. The newspaperman also realized that sympathy for African Americans was running high as tensions built between the North and South over slavery. The paper must have been doing well by then to pay such a large settlement.
The paper won a different libel trial when a U.S. Mint employee confessed on the witness stand that gold had been stolen by employees. This vindicated the paper after a series of sensational stories.
San Francisco was undergoing explosive growth. Sand dunes were being scooped up with a steam shovel and sent on temporary rails to fill water lots by the bay.

Broderick-Terry duel at Lake Merced near present day Daily City. Photo Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

A chapter of the book covers what some call the “Last Notable American Duel” between U.S. Senator Broderick and California Chief Justice Terry, leaving the Senator fatally wounded. Broderick and Terry once had been political allies but had fallen out over the issue of slavery.
Another chapter traces how Civil War was averted in California. General Albert Sidney Johnston was the commander of U.S. military forces in California and a loyal Southerner. He could have wreaked havoc in the state but instead surrendered his command and resigned his commission returning home to fight for the Confederates. He took many southern loyalists in the California ranks with him. The general would die at the battle of Shiloh.
By 1864 Ayers was suffering from what he terms “domestic affliction” or “indisposition” and took a trip to the East where he met President Abraham Lincoln.
Ayers found the president to be compassionate, affable, tender and kind. Ayers was also moved by the sight of a procession of ambulances, each carrying a flag draped coffin to the newly opened Arlington Cemetery. The site had been the family home of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
When Ayers returned west he soon decided to take a trip to the Hawaiian Islands.
Ayers enjoyed his time on the Islands and found his health renewed. When he returned to San Francisco the affliction returned.
“This caused me to hastily make up my mind to dispose of my interest in the Call can go back to Honolulu. It was a foolish resolution to come to, for my trouble was not serious. I had been at the head of the Call from its foundation, and its business had prospered immensely. Ten years of my life had been spent in building it up, and I knew that it was destined to become, with careful management, one of the great dailies of the country. I have only regretted this ill-considered step once, and that has been all my life from the time I took the rash resolution.”
When Ayers returned to the Islands he was surprised to see Mark Twain, who had been a reporter at the Call. The management at the paper had dropped hints they were unhappy how the writer’s abundant imagination varnished his stories. Though hints were dropped Twain was never fired.
Drawled Twain: “Well, you see, I waited for six months for you fellows to discharge me—for I knew you didn’t want me,—and getting tired of waiting, I discharged myself.”
The Sacramento Union had hired Twain and the Hawaiian trip would raise his visibility as a writer. Soon the New York Tribune would hire Twain to take a trip to Palestine which would result in his first book, “Innocents Abroad.”
Ayers went to Honolulu and founded the Daily Hawaiian Herald with assistance from one of his former Calaveras partners Henry Hamilton recently of the Los Angeles Star.
The Herald strongly advocated that the United States become involved in Island politics. The Scotland born editor feared that the British would become the dominant force.
The Herald supported Anglo plantation owners who wanted a duty free market for sugar and eventually this movement would conspire to overthrow the Hawaiian Royal Family.
Ayers had a chance to reap profit from his efforts but business washed out when the Hawaiian pressman left open a second floor water tap, flooding the clothing business below. The local water company was an intermittent provider and the pressman left the forms in the washing trough forgetting the open tap when he went home on Saturday. Ayers was forced to buy out the lost goods and he lost his interest in the venture, sold out and sailed for the Golden Gate.
In 1868 Ayers worked as editor for Joe Goodman at the Territorial Enterprise in what would become Nevada. New mines in the Comstock ledge had reenergized the regional mining boom.
Soon word of a new fabulous mining strike was said to be underway in Eastern Nevada in a region called White Pine.
Ayers jumped on the bandwagon and wrangled precious space on the Central Pacific Railroad, still in a furious transcontinental construction competition with Union Pacific to plant miles of rails in Utah. The press was then shipped from the railhead two hundred miles from Elko to Hamilton, at an elevation of 10,300 feet.
Ayers took a tour of the mines and trusted the sources he talked to. The cold was bitter as winter set in but Ayers was optimistic that he would be the leading newspaper in the region. His paper, the Inland Empire got news from the outside via pony express to the nearest telegraph station 50 miles away. Pneumonia and smallpox swept through the boomtown but as spring came worse news hit when Eberhardt company sealed their most noted mine. The boom turned bust as credit ran out and the Sheriff foreclosed on some of the best houses.
Said Ayers: “The rival newspaper—for there was a rival newspaper in Hamilton as there is everywhere—seemed to be weathering the storm in good enough shape. But then it is not every editor that can run a newspaper, a whiskey mill and a gambling establishment at the same time. This feat J.W. Forbes accomplished with ease. After writing up his newspaper he would adjourn to his saloon, run that in lively fashion for a while, and then go into his faro rooms and see how his banks were getting along. Next morning his paper would come out inveighing loudly against the growing immorality of Hamilton, how the vile passion for gambling and drinking was increasing, and calling upon the authorities to take effective steps to purify the moral atmosphere of the place.”
When the rival, Forbes, had left Virginia City for White Pine he wrote that a man would grudgingly pay 5 cents for a newspaper but gladly toss 25 for a drink. Perhaps this is a business model newspapers of today need to explore.
Hamilton is now a ghost town, south of I-50 and east of Ely, Nevada.
The Inland Empire folded in November 1870 and Ayers returned to the Bay Area to edit the Oakland newspaper.
Later he moved to the San Francisco Dispatch but when the paper’s backers insisted on meddling Ayers resigned.
His next stop would be San Luis Obispo and the Tribune.

More in the next post.

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