San Diego’s Historic Places: Robinson-Rose Building, Old Town San Diego
By Donald H. Harrison
SAN DIEGO—The visitors center at Old Town San Diego State Historic Park is in the Robinson-Rose Building. It is named for James W. Robinson and Louis Rose, two pioneer San Diegans who met on a wagon train, became friends, and within a few years of their arrival in San Diego joined the ranks of the town’s leading citizens. Robinson built the home and lived in it first; after he died, his friend Rose purchased it from Robinson’s widow, Sarah, and later married Matilda Newman and started his own family here.
The residents of this building lived upstairs while the downstairs was divided into a variety of multipurpose rooms. At various times, the building housed a general store, offices for the citizens group promoting construction of a San Diego and Gila Railroad; and the first Masonic Lodge in San Diego. Additionally, it occasionally provided temporary space for the Jews of San Diego to hold High Holiday services.
As of this writing, the building’s principal display is a diorama by the late modeler Joseph Toigo of Old Town San Diego that shows buildings that were present at the end of the State Historical Park’s interpretive period of 1822-1872. A painting after a well-known photograph of Louis Rose looks down from the wall. Rose was generally a convivial man, but in this portrait seems to be scowling. There is also a mezuzah on the inside of the side room, where books about historic San Diego are sold. Rather than being on the outside of the door, as is Jewish custom, the mezuzah is on the inside, to guard against theft by souvenir hunters.
The mezuzah acknowledges the fact that Rose was a member of the Jewish community, and points up the fact that Jews were among the pioneers in San Diego. Across the plaza at the Casa de Estudillo, one of the rooms served as a Catholic chapel. In an adjoining section of Old Town and up on Presidio Hill, contributions of the Mormon Battalion are featured.
James W. Robinson, who built the home in 1853, was a self-taught attorney who had been politically active in Texas. When Mexico’s President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna suspended the liberal Mexican constitution of 1824, Robinson was among those who protested. He was elected a delegate from Nacogdoches to the Consultation of 1835, where delegates were divided between those who favored immediate independence for Texas and those who sought to condition future acceptance of Mexico’s sovereignty on the restoration of the Constitution.
The Consultation set up a provisional government in which Henry Smith, who was pro-independence, was elected as governor over Stephen Austin, a land baron who preferred a go-slow approach. Robinson, who had helped draft the Organic Law governing the affairs of the provisional government, was elected lieutenant governor. The position was to last but four months—Texans would hold a Constitutional convention on March 1, 1836.
Smith and the leadership of the Legislative Council fell to bitter quarreling. It got so bad between them that at one point the Legislative Council voted Smith out of office while Smith, simultaneously dissolved the Legislative Council. In a time of military danger from Mexican military forces, Texas, for all practical purposes, had two governments that did not recognize each other’s authority. One was headed by Smith, the other by Robinson, who had been elevated by the Legislative Council to the position of acting governor.
While members of the Texas government carried out their quarrel, Texas revolutionary forces suffered major defeats at the hands of the Mexican troops, culminating a few days after the Constitutional Convention convened with the fall of the Alamo.
When his provisional government elapsed, Robinson joined the Texas Army as a private under the command of Sam Houston and participated in the Battle of San Jacinto, during which Santa Anna was captured but later released. Afterwards, Robinson was appointed a district court judge, but his rulings were so controversial that a panel of his fellow judges persuaded him to resign from the bench. In one famous case, Judge Robinson had ordered a defendant whipped before his lawyer could appeal the verdict. In another case, the judge heard that friends of a defendant in a capital case were planning to break him out of jail the morning he was to be executed. Robinson ordered the sheriff to hang the man the night before.
After leaving the bench, Robinson returned to the practice of law in Texas. In 1842, he was in the courtyard of the courthouse in San Antonio at the same time a meeting was occurring inside between Comanche Indians and representatives of the Texas government. Robinson was amusing himself throwing coins in the air for young Indians to shoot with their arrows, when suddenly a war whoop from inside announced the commencement of a bloody battle. The youngsters promptly started firing their arrows at the Texans in the courtyard, including Robinson who was wounded in the buttocks.
In 1844, at the same courthouse, Robinson was among the civilians captured by Mexico’s General Adrian Woll whose forces were sent in an effort to force Texas to rejoin Mexico. Robinson and the others were marched to Perote Prison in Vera Cruz, where they were kept as prisoners. Santa Anna was in one of his periodic “retirements” from office—but pulling the strings of the Mexican government from behind the scenes. From prison, Robinson wrote Santa Anna a note seeking an audience. Santa Anna granted the meeting, and listened carefully to Robinson’s proposal that if Santa Anna would let him go, he would return to Texas and present to Texas President Sam Houston a proposal that Texas rejoin Mexico as an autonomous region. Santa Anna cannily agreed. Although Houston was not at all interested in Texas becoming part of Mexico again, he saw the Santa Anna proposal as a way to get the United States to take the issue of the annexation of Texas more seriously. Because of the split between the free states of the North, and the slave states of the South, Congress had delayed action on proposals to admit slave-holding Texas to the Union. Now that Santa Anna wanted to negotiate a return of Texas to Mexico, perhaps the United States could be persuaded to take action.
And that is what happened, Texas was annexed to the United States—so Robinson can be considered one of the men responsible for that development. However, Texans did not have so charitable an interpretation of his actions. Many of Robinson’s neighbors considered his leaving the prison ahead of the others and carrying such a proposal to Houston to be the acts of a traitor. Reviled by fellow Texans, Robinson found it more and more difficult to earn a living as a lawyer. He decided to take a wagon train from El Paso to California—and who else should be on that same wagon train? His former arch-rival Henry Smith. The two men did not suffer each other’s company after arrival in California, however. Robinson turned south to San Diego, and Smith went north.
With Robinson was his second wife, Sarah, and their son William. Robinson had gotten to know Sarah while he was teaching school in Ohio, and she was one of his students. They ran off together and later got married during the period that Robinson taught himself to become a lawyer. Robinson had never bothered with the formality of divorcing his first wife, Mary, who was pregnant with their third child when he abandoned her.
The details of the first meeting between Robinson and Rose in El Paso are not known. The two men were quite different in their backgrounds. Rose was a German-Jewish immigrant who had arrived in New Orleans in 1840 with a cargo including 60 bottles of cherry brandy, which he evidently sold at profit. In New Orleans, he became a merchant, presumably dealing in gold items like other family members back in Neuhaus-an-der-Oste.
Rose was accepted as a member in good standing of New Orleans’ Germania Lodge of the Masons, and in 1847 he entered into a disastrous marriage with Caroline Marks. Business had turned sour for Rose, his debts piled up, his wife frequently had to ward off creditors who came to their door, and before long, Rose set out for Texas in an effort to change his fortunes. He became a real estate salesman in San Antonio in 1848, remaining there until he decided to travel by wagon train to California, then in the midst of a gold rush. He later said that he had written to Caroline of his plans to go to California, but in a divorce case, she was quoted by her attorney as saying that she thought he was dead.
At times during his trip across uncharted Texas from San Antonio to El Paso, in association with a wagon train led by U.S. Army Maj. Jefferson Van Horne, death was a distinct possibility. Thomas B. Eastland, who traveled in the same wagon train, wrote in his journal for July 25, 1849, the following:
“…one of our party (a Jew named Rose) was (by order of Maj(o)r Van Horn[e]) drummed out of camp. He was condemned without a hearing, and thus disgracefully punished. A little brief authority in the hands of a damned fool, is ever exercised injudiciously, and therefore (except by accident) allways [sic] injuriously. The ‘Californians’ feel the insult, but like good citizens bear it for the sake of their country’s good. Perhaps the time is not far distant, when this officer will be made to know that a citizen traveling through his own country in a time of peace cannot be thus arbitrarily dealt with, no odds what the offence. Poor Rose cannot return to camp except at night, or when the troops are out of sight. We have determined that he shall not be driven entirely away.”
On July 26, Eastland related: “Last night, the government horses and mules stampeded, the cry was Indians, every man sprang to his arms, and was ready to fight, but the animals were stopped and safely herded to camp. It is uncertain what caused the stampede but as Indians had stolen horses a few nights before, it is reasonable to suppose they did it. The morning after the troops had marched, Rose returned to camp to see his property which had been taken care of. He was advised to keep out of sight for the present.”
The theft of the horses on the night of July 22 preceded Rose’s expulsion but care should be taken when inferring any cause and effect. Although civilians did have responsibilities to stand guard during the trip, there is no indication that Rose did so the night of the horses’ disappearance, or whether Van Horne’s ire with Rose had anything to do with that. Van Horn did not mention it in his official report of the journey and if Rose ever spoke later about the incident in San Diego, no one wrote it down.
Given the circumstances under which Rose had to travel alone, behind the main wagon train, one can imagine how glad he must have been to reach El Paso, where he joined the wagon train on which Robinson was traveling.
The friendship between the two men was formed in the long trek from El Paso to San Diego—a trek that was not completed until May of 1850.
When they arrived in San Diego, Robinson set himself up in law practice, with particular emphasis on litigating in American courts land ownership claims dating back to San Diego’s Mexican period. Rose, meanwhile, rented La Casa de Reyes Ybanez and there opened a hotel and saloon. Before long he expanded into other businesses including a butcher shop, general store, and, in the area that became known as Rose Canyon, a tannery.
Meanwhile the City of San Diego had fallen into debt, and the State of California revoked its charter for self-government. Instead a three-member Board of Trustees was created, with its elected members assigned the responsibility of getting the city out of its debt. The first board of trustees resigned in frustration, and in 1852 Robinson and Rose together were elected to the second board of trustees along with William Ferrell. Robinson and Rose, trail mates and fellow Masons, always voted together as a majority, effectively creating a Robinson-Rose era in city politics. They negotiated down the city debt, then sold public lands at auction to raise the money to pay it off.
In 1853, the county Board of Supervisors was created, with city trustees given automatic seats on that body, so the influence of Robinson and Rose extended throughout San Diego County—which at that time included today’s Imperial County and Riverside County in addition to present day San Diego County. Among the County Board of Supervisors first responsibilities was to lay out roads connecting far flung communities.
Robinson and Rose bid successfully at the public auction for lands along the shoreline of San Diego Bay, between Old Town and La Playa, in an area that Rose many years later would later develop as Roseville, and which subsequently would become part of the community of Point Loma.
Rose’s hometown of Neuhaus an der Oste was a short distance from where the Elbe River empties into the North Sea. Rose was familiar with the commerce that ships carried along the Elbe River to and from Hamburg. Similarly, when he immigrated to the United States, he saw the importance of shipping on the Mississippi River. In buying up bayside property, Rose and Robinson were expressing his belief that the city’s future would be tied to its development as a commercial port. However, Robinson died in 1857. Eleven years later, when Robinson’s widow, Sarah, sold to Rose her family’s house on the plaza in Old Town, she also sold Robinson’s holdings along San Diego Bay. Later, she and her son William moved to Jamul in the eastern portion of present-day San Diego County.
The death of Robinson, hard economic times and the Civil War all had prevented Rose from developing San Diego Bay as quickly as he had hoped. By the time he could subdivide Roseville, another settlement on the bay – at the present location of downtown San Diego—was being promoted by a far more energetic and wealthier visionary: Alonzo Horton.
In 1869, the same year that Rose founded Roseville, he married Matilda Newman, widow of Jacob Newman, a fellow Jewish merchant. The couple had two daughters—one of whom died in infancy; the other –Henrietta—who became a longtime school teacher, but who never married. Rose had no other descendants.
Robinson’s son, William, served in the state Legislature as a member of the Assembly, but after his term of office was over, his behavior became increasingly bizarre, until he eventually was committed to a state mental hospital. Robinson had children and grandchildren by his first marriage in Ohio, but, after William’s death, no descendants from his marriage to Sarah.
Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World and author of Louis Rose: San Diego’s First Jewish Settler and Entrepreneur from which some of this account is taken.