“Shopping” in Early California

In late-17th and early-19th century California, before online shopping, before stores, before mail, how did people get stuff?  And what kind of stuff did they want?  In the early 1800s, what was it like to go “shopping” in Los Angeles?

Invoice of the Mercury

Invoice of items found on The Mercury, a trading vessel confiscated off the California coast in 1813. Image courtesy of the author.

Well, people didn’t exactly go shopping.  Through their local mission they asked for stuff from Mexico City, and the government tried to send them more or less what they had requested.  Ships sailing from San Blas brought in things like: medicine, sugar, candlesticks, wine, chocolate, buttons, ribbons, cloth, stockings, hats, and tools.  In payment they took away tallow and hides. Improvisation was common and necessary.  For example, a March 31, 1785 invoice detailing a shipment from San Blas to Mission Santa Barbara lists “14 ordinary bombazines [fabric for women’s dresses] for lack of those from China,” (Perissinotto, 81).  On January 25, 1789, moreover, we see San Blas had to substitute ribbon from Granada “for lack of it from Genoa,” (Perissinotto, 133).   Such invoices from Mission Santa Barbara reveal that while settlers and soldiers got what they needed, they couldn’t always get exactly what they wanted.

Angle view of old Santa Barbara Mission church; shows twin bell towers, Roman temple facade, stone walls. Two men stand on entrance steps. Santa Barbara; ca. 1887.
Mission Santa Barbara in 1887; Image courtesy of the California State Library.

So, how did they manage?  Did they just go without?  Hardly.

The Santa Barbara invoices tell us about official, government sanctioned trade, but plenty of merchandise fell off the back of the boat and remained unrecorded.  The California coast saw its fair share of smuggling in the years leading up to Mexican independence in 1821.  Spain tried to keep a tight handle on things, but California had been difficult to survey and settle.  Its inhabitants were difficult to manage, and the territory was always difficult to protect.  Illicit trade was rampant, and the central government in Mexico City saw it as a threat to Spanish control of its own northern frontier.

International sword rattling was significantly less interesting to the bulk of Californian settlers, however, than the necessities and small luxuries smugglers could bring in.  Officially, two, small supply ships serviced the coast beginning in the 1770s.  As the population grew, those ships weren’t able to bring in everything settlers wanted, as the Santa Barbara invoices reveal, nor were they able to carry away all the tallow, hemp, hides, and otter skins the missions relied on for credit.  Unofficially, smugglers were only too happy to pick up the slack, selling mission products in China and providing Californians with, among many other things: microscopes, Chinese silk, fake pearls, children’s stools, punch glasses and candy dishes, tea, scissors, and watches.

If this trade was so under the radar, though, how do we know what was on those illegal ships?

We know because on the morning of June 2, 1813, Nicolás Noé, captain of the merchant vessel Flora, happened to be sailing off the coast of Monterey.  He had come from Peru with a Spanish trading license, but was unable to sell his goods because Californians told him they could purchase the same things for less money from Yankee smugglers.  Imagine Noé’s combination of glee and rage upon discovery of the Mercury, anchored in Refugio Cove just around Point Conception.  George Eayrs, captain of the Mercury, declared he had every right to be where he was with the cargo he had (spoiler alert: furs, fats, money, microscopes, and so on).  Noé took the Mercury’s first mate and pilot ashore to see Governor José Arrillaga, who ordered depositions of all Mercury personnel and demanded an inventory of the ship.  Eayrs went ashore on June 4 with his common-law wife (a Polynesian teenager referred to as “Peggy” in the historical record), his baby, and his indigenous servant (an 8-year-old boy Eayrs claimed to have purchased in the Pacific Northwest).  All of this was meticulously recorded in the Spanish, bureaucratic fashion, and the archive remained complete and intact, revealing much about how everyday folks got by in early California.

Eayrs’ capture marked the end of his trading career and, apparently, the end of his having regular employment.  He spent his remaining 40-odd years living in Guadalajara, Mexico, and most of that time was spent appealing and petitioning to any authority he could think of.  He wanted his ship back.  He wanted compensation.  He wanted lots of things, and he kept asking for them until finally, in 1842, a claims commission in Washington, DC ordered the Mexican government to pay Eayrs $100,000 (Miller, 96).  Talk is cheap, however, and it’s not clear what authority the US would have had over Mexico at the time.  Plus, years of civil war following independence left Mexico practically bankrupt.  It couldn’t have paid Eayrs even if it had wanted to.

Nevertheless, all these letters, petitions, claims, and judgments comprise “The Mercury Case,” which is open for anyone to see in Rare Books and Special Collections at the Central Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library (call # 979.4 M6118a). These documents – including Arrillaga’s depositions, the inventory, and lots of angry letters from Eayrs – speak volumes about daily life in that time and place, and they illuminate arcane and complex political conflicts.  Because, okay, Yankee traders stepped up to fill in supply gaps to the northern frontier, but how did they know about these gaps, and why was their presence such a big deal to the Spanish?  What was Eayrs doing off the Santa Barbara coast in 1813 in the first place?

The short answer is that during the War of 1812 the British had an effective naval blockade keeping Yankee ships from transatlantic routes, forcing more merchants to seek trade around Cape Horn.  The long answer is that by 1813 Eayrs was profiting from an extended, complicated fight between Britain, Russia, and Spain over seal and otter skins, which could be hunted cheaply but sold very expensively in China.  The pelts were harvested from the Aleutian Islands, down along the Pacific Northwest coast, and into Californian waters.  The Russians and the British had been clashing over this corridor since the 16th century as England made its way west through Canada and Russia pushed east across Alaska.  Spain entered the scene in 1789 by establishing a settlement at Nootka Sound, near Vancouver, claiming it as the northernmost edge of their northern frontier.  Spain eventually gave up that fight to the British and decided to focus on the southern part of their northern frontier.  British traders eventually gave up because draconian rules set by their own government made trading there difficult and unprofitable, but British smugglers and ever-encroaching Russians were perpetual thorns in Spain’s side. 

Added to this, the arrival of Yankee ships starting around the turn of the century made everything worse and pissed everyone off.  Russians saw Yankee trade with native Alaskans as a threat to Russian control of the region, and Spain saw Yankee trade with Russians as a threat to Spanish dominance.  The British just bided their time and took advantage of any opportunity to profit from the chaos.

And there was profit to be had, especially after Mexico declared independence from Spain in 1810.  Even before then, however, Eayrs was doing well for himself, having contracted with the Russian American Company at Sitka in 1808 to take a crew of Native Aleutians hunting up and down the Pacific Coast, during which time he engaged in substantial, illicit trade with mission priests and prominent, Californian families, all of which he recorded.  Also recorded is a letter sent to Eayrs from Los Angeles commissioner Xavier Alvarado in 1809 asking him to “retire from this coast with your frigate and people who accompany you,” (quoted in Miller, 20).  Resource-starved California was never in a position to do much more than send angry notes to lawbreakers.  But, Captain Noé was motivated to see justice done, and when he caught up with Eayrs in 1813, Eayrs couldn’t really make a convincing case for himself, try as he might.

That was the end of the road for Eayrs.  But his loss is our gain.  The Mercury was far from the only ship engaged in illegal trade along the Pacific Coast in the nineteenth-century, but it is the only one whose capture and trial are so meticulously documented.  Those documents avert our attention from the capital-H history of textbooks and museums towards regular people living their regular lives.  The Mercury Case reveals the distance between what regular people needed (wine, chocolate, and rice) and what they wanted (fake pearls and microscopes) and how the weight of the world can be read in an inventory.  And people say shopping is shallow!

Works Cited

Miller, Robert and Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation. A Yankee Smuggler on the Spanish California Coast: George Washington Eayrs and the Ship Mercury. Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation, 2001.

Perissinotto, Giorgio Sabino Antonio, et al. Documenting Everyday Life in Early Spanish California: The Santa Barbara Presidio Memorias y Facturas, 1779-1810. Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation, 1998.