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Capt. Richard Gassaway Watkins (1826-1914) Recollections on the Mexican War

Article in "THE GRIZZLY BEAR" periodical published in May 1908, Sacramento, California.


AT THIS time, when the people of California are entertaining the officers and men of Uncle Sam's present-day navy, it is a pleasure to know that there still survives one member of the squadron of Commodore Sloat who participated in the capture of Monterey sixty-two years ago, and it is with pleasure that we reproduce the correspondence of R. G. Watkins relative thereto in which the survivor tells of this historic event in his own way.

To the Editor of the Grizzly Bear - Dear Sir: At the request of J. Emmet Hayden, a member of the Native Sons of California, I send you my photograph, as you were going to publish a letter of mine to Dr. C. C. O'Donnell of San Francisco, giving a short sketch of participation in the capture of Monterey while a member of the late Commodore Sloat's squadron in 1846, and in compliance with his wishes I herewith inclose you the only photograph I have. The lady by my side is my wife. I have no way of having another photograph taken, as I live miles (over fifty) from an artist. I am standing on my crutch, having lost my right leg in the early fifties. I was 82 years old April 7th and am very active. My friends say that I carry my age well. I had no idea that my friend Mrs. C.C. O'Donnell intended having my letter published, as I just dashed it off at a haphazard manner for her perusal. I had a few weeks before written her a letter in reply to her invitation to visit her and my old comrade and schoolmate, Dr. C.C. O'Donnell, during the visit of Admiral Evans' fleet at San Francisco, and incidentally mentioned the fact that it would be in good taste to have the only surviving member of Commodore Sloat's fleet or squadron, who participated in the capture of this country and raised the flag at Monterey, thereby giving Admiral Evans the right to enter San Francisco bay with his fleet, to keep and protect a country that Commodore Sloat had acquired - A heritage from one naval man handed down to another naval man - and in a joking way offered myself, being the only known survivor of the Pacific squadron of 1846, as a fit person to extend the welcome of the people of California to the great Admiral Evans, the hearty greeting of one sailor man to another. However, the suggestion was made in a joking way, and now that I have got my only foot into it, and find myself the honored quest of the Sons and Daughters of the Golden West, and my photograph solicited to be published in your valuable paper, I will consider it one of the greatest honors of my life, an honor that those of my kin and friends in the after years will be proud of. My wife, through whose veins flow good old Maryland revolutionary blood, her grandfather, as well as mine, being an officer in the Revolutionary War of 1776, feels very bashful or timid about the notoriety of having her photograph published, and says eliminate it, but she, being the mainstay and prop of my old age, I want it in, if possible, and I guess it won't offend her very much. However, use your own good taste. Respectfully yours, R.G. WATKINS

Coleville, Mono county, Cal.

Coleville, Mono county, Jan. 27, 1908

Dr. and Mrs. C.C. O'Donnell.

912 Devisadero street, San Francisco.

My Dear Friends:

Your very kind and welcome letter of the 22nd inst. duly received this morning. Mrs. Watkins and myself were very glad to hear from you and to learn that you both were well. Thanks for the kind interest you have taken in us, and your generous invitation for us to visit you and make your home our headquarters during our visit to San Francisco to welcome the, as you very justly say, biggest fleet and sight that ever will be witnessed on the shores of the Pacific for many a decade to come.

You ask me to give you my full name, etc., and the name of the vessels I served on during the war between Mexico and the United States, and a short sketch of events, which I will most cheerfully do to the best of my recollection, though necessarily brief.

My name in full is Richard Gassaway Watkins. I was named "Gassaway" after my grandfather, Colonel Gassaway Watkins, the last surviving member of the old Maryland line that served in the Revolutionary War. He died in 1840. I was born at Walnut Grove, Howard county, Maryland, in sight of the plantation owned by the doctor's father, April 7th, 1826. So you see I am of Revolutionary stock. I entered the United States navy in 1843, came to the Pacific in 1844 on board the United States sloop of war Warren, and during the war between the United States and Mexico I served part of the time on the Warren, the United States frigate Savannah, and on the sloop of war, Servant, and part of the time on shore, as at the time there were no soldiers to garrison San Francisco, Monterey and other towns. We had a long sea coast to defend, and the sailors had to be dispatched from one port to another as the emergency of the case required, hence my serving on the different vessels of Commodore Sloat's squadron. In the winter of 1846 our squadron, under command of Commodore Sloat, was assembled at Mazatlan, Mexico, as well as the English squadron, under command of Lord Admiral Seymour both squadrons anxiously awaiting news of a declaration of war between the United States and Mexico, and both squadrons under orders from their respective governments to proceed immediately to Monterey, California, after learning of the declaration of war between the United States and Mexico, and to take possession of this country (California), and to hold it at all odds and risks. It will take too long for me to tell you all about our stay at Mazatlan, and the watchfulness kept by each squadron upon the maneuvers of the other, for fear that one would get the first news of hostility being opened between the two countries. Suffice to say, after watching each other like cats and mice, and many strategic moves, Commodore Sloat one afternoon at a state dinner on shore, at which the officers of both squadrons attended, got an inkling that General Taylor had crossed the Rio Grande with his army and hostilities had actually commenced. The commodore (Sloat) quickly notified his aids and officers to withdraw from the banquet hall and proceed to their respective vessels and prepare for an immediate departure to sea. The English, watching the move of the American officers, also withdrew and repaired to their respective vessels, leaving the commodore and admiral, with their immediate aids, alone at the hall. The English did not know what news the American commodore had received, but watched him like a cat watches a mouse.

When Sloat thought his officers had prepared everything for an immediate tripping and catheading the anchors upon their respective vessels, he (Commodore Sloat), with his aids, left the hall very quietly without creating any undue suspicion, proceeded to his "gig" (commodore's boat), and without any ceremony gave the command to the boat's crew to pull, and pull with a will, for the flagship, which command was complied with with a will that only free-born American sailors, "scenting the prey afar" can perform. As soon as the commodore slipped over the side upon the quarter deck of his ship he gave the order to get under way immediately. My, but the excitement and activity of that hour. I can shut my eyes and see it all now, and it makes my blood leap and course through my old veins like the water in a millrace. It is needless to say in a very short time our white sails were spread, anchors catted, and our fleet was bounding over the blue waters of the Pacific in a northerly direction, and our boys, from powder monkey to flag officer, were thrilled with the excitement of the coming fray. We not only expected to cross swords and exchange shots with Mexico, but also with our late seeming friends, Lord Admiral Seymour and his British tars, for they were making ready as we left our anchorage to keep on our trail. Well, in sailor parlance, we "hugged the shore," all in a few weeks arrived at Monterey, California, and cast anchor, and as soon as the commodore could prepare his proclamation and address to the people of California the order was given, after all preparations such as pulling springs on our cables, loading side arms, sharpening cutlasses, and to man the boats with the crews already selected the evening before, and capture the town, which order was quickly complied with, and in a very short time we were "pulling for shore" with might and main, and as we leaped upon the shore with pistol and cutlass ready for the conflict, we gave a regular old "sea dog's" whoop, and with a wild and imperious rush we made for the custom house, where floated the Mexican flag, which was soon hauled down and the Stars and Stripes, "Old Glory", was run up amid salvos of cannon and cheers and yells the echoes of which are still ringing and vibrating the world over, for about 10 o'clock a.m. on the 7th day of July, A.D. 1846, an empire was conquered, and the largest and mightiest gem that adorns the constellation of the many bright stars of our glorious republic was added thereto, and that starry banner that we sailors and mariners of that memorable Pacific squadron, under the command of the most renowned and bravest of the many brave naval heroes of the United States navy, Commodore, but late Admiral, John Drake Sloat, still waves, and will for all time to come, over these lovely Pacific states, if it costs oceans of blood and millions of lives. Old Glory will ever wave at Monterey, and when Admiral Robley D. Evans, with the greatest and grandest collection of armored fighting ships of war under his command, casts anchor in the Bay of Monterey, and his "dogs of war" bark forth their appreciation of the deeds and valor of their predecessor, Admiral John Drake Sloat, and salute Old Glory with salvos of big guns, it will tell to the world, and that "bantam cock", Japan, that Old Glory is there to stay. And may I, Richard Gassaway Watkins, the only survivor of that glorious squadron under Admiral John Drake Sloat, live to extend the glad hand of welcome to "Fighting Bob" Evans at Monterey and San Francisco on the arrival of his squadron. Excuse this digression. I get a little off my bearings when I think of the days gone by in California. But to come back to our friends, the English squadron. They got under way and made a leg to sea; that is, kept away off, intending to make an angle on two tacks and beat us in, but as events told, they missed stays and lost an empire, and one lovely morning a few days after we had taken possession of the country the lookout at the masthead cried, "Sail, ho!". Immediately our drums beat to quarters. She came bounding forward and on into the harbor, and soon we made her out to be the Collingwood, Lord Admiral Seymour's flagship. She was bowling along with a bone in her teeth. Then we felt that the tug of war had come, and we stripped for battle, double-shotted every gun, every man and powder monkey at their station, fuse lit, and a grim smile of defiance on our countenances as we stood by to fire our last shot in this world and to go to the bottom of Monterey bay in a very short time after the combat began, for the Collingwood was more than double our weight in guns and metal, but not in spirit. We expected that she would dispute our rights to the conquest, and as a friend of Mexico she would endeavor to wrest the country from us, and we were determined to go to the bottom of the bay with our colors flying. The suspense for the time was trying, but the haughty Briton came on, and, as far as our lookout could see, no men at quarters. She came close to us and shortly dropped anchor, and the "war in a teapot" was over. I am told the admiral swore and cursed the Yankees to his heart's content on his own ship. He left soon after, there being no soldiers. Our sailors and mariners were drafted on shore to do duty in place of soldiers, but I will not go into details. Suffice for a time I was stationed at San Francisco, and quartered at the old adobe house on Portsmouth Square. There were only a half dozen houses in San Francisco at that time, but plenty of black bears and coyotes. I and several other of our men, under Lieut. Washington Bartlett, was sent out into the country as mounted cavalry to locate Col. Sanches and his troop, and somewhere about the vicinity of Dunbarton we uncovered them, and as they outnumbered us ten to one, after a brisk skirmish we surrendered. They took us up in the hills and lined us up to be shot. Word coming to Col. Sanches that his brother had that morning been captured at San Francisco as a spy saved our lives for the time being. Shortly after that our boys from the ship at San Francisco were sent out and met Sanches and his soldiers at or about near Stanford or Palo Alto, and gave battle, fought all afternoon, and entered into an armistice until 10 o'clock the next morning. In the meantime, and during the battle, we the prisoners were held under guard, with orders to shoot us in case the Mexicans were defeated. During the night Lieut. Maddox came up from Monterey, and, not knowing anything of the armistice, attacked the Mexican outpost. Col. Sanches, taking this as a breach of treaty, ordered the guard to line us up and shoot us as soon as the Americans came near. This was a trying scene. I don't mind being shot in battle, but to stand still with my hands tied behind my back, in the small hours of the night, and a squad of bloodthirsty greasers only a few paces off with loaded muskets pointed at my breast, ready and eager to shoot, was a little too trying on one's nerves. However, explanations were made and we were untied and all went to sleep. Next morning the Mexicans capitulated and we joined our comrades, went to Santa Cruz, and had a big time.

I have been interrupted so often since commencing this, and am expecting the mail every moment, and under the circumstances will close, and at some future time will or may take the narrative up and tell you a lot. Suffice, I fought all through the Mexican War, and when Stevenson's troops came out I went back to the ships and finally returned to New York and left the United States navy. Then, after a short visit to my dear old home at Walnut Grove, Maryland, I went to sea again in command of a vessel. Shipwrecked, returned to Maryland and spent a few weeks and sailed for San Francisco, arriving there in December, 1849. Had my ups and downs, as you are aware, including our celebrated wedding at the Vallejo street chapel, the chicken incident and our merry good time, to say nothing of the thrashing you gave that lawyer on Commercial street (Everats, I think his name was), your fight with Captain Mitchell, who palmed the would-be bride off as his niece, not even forgetting poor Harry and the cow you gave Lincoln, but I am rambling. I, as you know, was for awhile in the United States custom house, then also a detective on the police force, a constable of the Fifth ward, and at last a member of the Vigilance Committee that hanged Casey and Cora and purified the city, and that is just what is needed today in San Francisco; just such men, Charlie, as we used to have in the early 50's, and such dangling there would be, and such dancing on air. No use for the Appellate Court. But then they might say hanging was a crime. Instead we old 49ers would say it was no crime.

I am tired, so will not read this over. With best love from Mrs. Watkins and myself to both of you, I am as ever, your friend.



Richard Gassaway Watkins was my step-great great grandfather. His wife, mentioned in the above letters, was my great great grandmother, Ellen Amelia (Warfield) Crapster Watkins, widow (and 1st cousin) of the Reverend William Thomas Crapster of Lisbon, Howard Co., Maryland. After Rev. Crapster's death in 1879 his widow moved, with her 3-surviving children to Coleville, Mono Co., California where her 1st cousin (and future husband) Capt. Richard Gassaway Watkins lived. They were married on November 23, 1884. Capt. Watkins died at his home in Coleville on October 21, 1914. His widow, Ellen, died on July 13, 1919 at the home of her grandson, Carl Taylor, in Oakland, California. Both are buried in the Antelope Valley Cemetery in Topaz, Mono Co., California.

Transcribed by

Richard Warfield Faber, Jr. - September 4, 1999