Elisha Oscar Crosby, one of the most historic men of California, now resides in Alameda. A systematic biographical sketch would require us to refer in the first place to his parentage and ancestry, who were English and came to America during its early history. His first paternal ancestor in America, Simon Crosby, settled in this country in 1635, and his first maternal ancestor, Spaulding, in 1633,—both locating in Plymouth colony. Those were the progenitors of all the Crosbys on this continent. Simon Crosby was twenty-six years of age when he emigrated to America, in the ship Susan and Ellen, with his wife Ann, aged twenty-five, and their young son Thomas. Both the grandfathers of Mr. Crosby were soldiers in the Revolutionary war. Enoch Crosby, the hero in Fenimore Cooper’s “Spy,” was a first cousin of Samuel Crosby, the grandfather of our subject.
After the close of the Revolution Samuel Crosby, with his family and whomsoever of his neighbors he could induce, moved to Central New York, upon a tract called the Military Reserve. Being a man of considerable means and public spirit, he did much toward developing that section of the country and aiding the needy settlers. He died there and was buried in the old Presbyterian cemetery in the town of Groton, Tompkins county, New York. His son Samuel succeeded to the homestead, where Elisha O., the present subject, was born, July 18, 1818. The father was a Lieutenant of a volunteer company in the war of 1812, served under General Wadsworth, was taken prisoner at the battle of Queenstown and conveyed to Quebec, where he remained until exchanged. Mr. Crosby’s mother, nee Mehitabel Spaulding, was a daughter of Edward Spaulding, a Revolutionary soldier, who also came into the Military Reserve.
Mr. Crosby, the subject of this biographical sketch, was employed upon his father’s farm until he was seventeen years of age, together with two brothers and two sisters. Receiving a fair classical education at Cortland Academy, in the town of Homer, Cortland county, New York, he graduated there, in 1839. Next he began the study of law in the office of his uncle, E. G. Spaulding, at Buffalo, who was prominent in the early history of New York State; in October, 1841, he was admitted to the bar of the Court of Common Pleas of Cortland and Tompkins counties; July 14, 1843, he was admitted as attorney and counselor of the Supreme Court of the State of New York; Solicitor of the Court of Chancery on the twenty-fifth anniversary of his birthday, July 18, 1843; and by the Supreme Court of the United States December 6, 1865. Going to New York city in 1843, he associated himself in practice with Abner Benedict, a distinguished lawyer, especially in admiralty cases. During the five years of this partnership the firm of Benedict & Crosby had for their clients the large shipping house of Howland & Aspinwall, of New York, who had the subsidy for building three steamers for the Pacific coast trade, as noted elsewhere in this volume. (And here we should remark that many passages in the life of Mr. Crosby, our present subject, are already given in the general history in the first portion of this volume.)
The knowledge of this coast which Mr. Crosby thereby incidentally attained and the discovery of gold induced him finally to come to California. On Christmas day, 1848, he sailed from New York on the steamer Isthmus to Chagres, having as compagnons de voyage Thomas Van Buren and E. V. Joyce. He reached Panama only five days ahead of the ship California, which had doubled Cape Horn and which he had aimed from the first to intercept. Leaving Panama on this vessel February 1, 1849, he landed at San Francisco on the 28th. The incidents and hardships of the trip Mr. Crosby does not care to dwell upon. He says the passengers generally were a hilarious company of fellows, disposed to take things as they found them, etc.
On arrival here the crew deserted the ship for the mines; and as San Francisco was only a mud hamlet and could afford no protection to the vessel, the captain (Forbes) applied to Commodore Jones, in command of the squadron on board of the United States frigate Ohio, for the protection of the vessel while it remained in that harbor. After landing Mr. Crosby met Dr. Leavenworth, then acting as alcalde of San Francisco, whom he had previously known and who had come out as surgeon and chaplain in Colonel Stevenson’s regiment in 1848. Leavenworth received Mr. Crosby very courteously, gave him quarters in his room in the old City Hotel, where he was administering justice, opposite the plaza. The two great objects in life among all the people here at that time seemed to be to get something to eat and to reach the mines. Prices of provisions were consequently very high, and accommodations poor. Two days afterward Mr. Crosby purchased an old whale-boat, had it repaired and with six passengers who had come with him on the California rowed up to Sacramento. Each passenger paid $50 fare, besides having to row; the proceeds paid for the boat. At Sacramento Mr. Crosby met a man named Morris, the boatswain of the steamer California, who for $500 hired Mr. Crosby’s boat to take down to San Francisco a number of miners who desired to go there for supplies.
Mr. Crosby first arrived at Sacramento March 10, 1849, when a survey of the city plat was in progress, by order of General Sutter. Going out to the fort, two miles distant from the embarcadero, he was invited to take quarters with Alcalde Frank Bates, who was administering law in California fashion. With his assistance, and as soon as he could obtain an animal, Mr. Crosby started for the diggings at Mormon Island, at the junction of the north and south forks of the American river, and arrived there about the middle of the second day, exhausted by heat. He became convinced that mining was not his “forte.” There was plenty of gold indeed, but the labor and heat were fearful, and scarcity of the necessities of life was a matter to be seriously considered. He sold coin, which he had brought with him, for gold dust at the rate of $10 an ounce, which afterward netted him $17 an ounce at the Philadelphia mint.
From Mormon Island, Mr. Crosby went to Sutter’s mill (now Coloma), where gold was first discovered, and met Marshall, the first discoverer of gold, who told him the whole story of the discovery. After visiting several others diggings, also, and buying a considerable quantity of gold dust, at $10 and $12 per ounce, he returned to Sacramento, recuperated a little, subscribed for a number of lots that were still to be surveyed, and found that Morris had returned from San Francisco with the whale-boat, with which he and Mr. Bates went down to that city, hiring some men to do the rowing. On arrival there he sent his gold dust to the East on the steamer Oregon, which then carried out the first mail and the first shipment of gold.
Returning to Sacramento again, Mr. Crosby, in company with Frank Bates and Samuel Morris, bought a strip of land a mile wide and three miles long on the east side of the Sacramento river, opposite the mouth of Feather river, and laid out the town of Vernon, at what they supposed was the head of navigation; but after the water went down they found that sand bars lay in the river all the way down, and the smaller craft only being able to reach Vernon. They, however, commenced selling lots there, as soon as they could be good advantage. From this point Mr. Crosby, in July, 1849, by invitation accompanied Hon. Thomas Butler King and a number of Government officials, including General Persifer F. Smith, Colonel Joseph Hooker, commodore Jones and staff, and other prominent men from the East to the gold mines on the Yuba river.
Returning to Sacramento the third time, Mr. Crosby spent some time there recovering from a fever; and during his sojourn in that city he was elected a delegate to the first Constitution Convention, which met at Monterey, September 1, 1849. (See a preceding page in this volume for a history of this convention.)
During the session of that convention, Mr. Crosby was appointed Chairman of the Finance Committee, and Prefect for the Sacramento district by Bennett Riley, the military Governor of California. On arrival at Sacramento the last of October, he appointed Colonel A. M. Winn sub-Prefect, to aid him in establishing precincts and collecting the vote of the district on the adoption of the constitution, at the election, November 13. With four or five special couriers he established fifty-two precincts, and after the election he expressed the returns to Monterey, to be counted by General Riley, December 10. While the whole vote of the State was 12,872, Mr. Crosby returned almost half, namely 6,052, at his own expense, which was $3,000.
At this same election, which took place November 13, 1849, Mr. Crosby was elected one of the State Senators from the Sacramento district, and during the legislative session was Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and served as such through both the first two sessions. That position was then by far the most important in the Legislature. Too much credit cannot be given Mr. Crosby for the interest he took, with great personal self-sacrifice, in the crowning efforts of his life in the organization of the government of this State. In the Constitutional Convention he opposed the system of elective judiciary, believing that popular excitement would sometimes make unwise selections, and that the stability of the bench, in this country as well as in England, is due to the life-tenure system—the judges being removable only for cause. The elective system, notwithstanding, was adopted; and Mr. Crosby took special interest and great pains in the inauguration of the judiciary system of this State under the first constitution. Soon after the meetings of the Legislature he prepared and presented a report, with a bill accompanying, for the organization of the Supreme Court of California; and a few days after that he prepared and presented a bill to the Senate for the organization of the district courts of the State. Considerable popular interest was manifested in the problem of introducing the civil law, or the American system as it existed in the older States of the English common-law, especially as up to that time the Californians were familiar with the Mexican system and with the temporary military government necessarily intervening between the old and the new epochs. The immigrants from the old States were used only to the common-law system of England, as modified by our republican form of government. After a thorough investigation of all these matters the Judiciary committee of the Senate reported favorably to the adoption of the English common-law system, with modifications, Mr. Crosby doing most of the work; and the reported was received with the highest commendations, both by the bench and bar of this State, as well as by jurists from the East.
The division of California into counties and the establishment of county courts and the inauguration of local officers, received also great attention from Mr. Crosby, involving much laborious detail of work, as California was in a condition more heterogeneous and peculiar than all our colonies together were in 1789. Some of the statutes framed by him are still in force. It may therefore be truly said that Mr. Crosby is one of the “Fathers of the State of California.”
In 1852 he removed to San Francisco and engaged in the practice of law, and was employed as attorney for claimants of titles to land grants in this State before the United States Land Claim Commission, organized that year and beginning to hold its sessions in this city. Of the 812 claims presented he had nearly a hundred. He was engaged in prosecuting these claims both before the Commission, and, in appellate cases, also before the United States District Court, up to 1860. As many of these claims were by operation of the law referred to the Federal Supreme Court, Mr. Crosby went to Washington to prosecute them, and was there during the winter of 1860-61.
Within three weeks after Mr. Lincoln was first inaugurated President, Mr. Crosby was appointed United State Minister to Guatemala, at the personal request of William H. Seward, Montgomery Blair, E. G. Spaulding, Preston King (Senator from New York), Senator Doolittle and others. March 14 he was nominated for that office, and on March 22 he was confirmed; and he held the position four years. While holding this position he had the further honor to be appointed Presiding Judge and Umpire of the Mixed Commission to settle treaty stipulations between Great Britain and Honduras, held in the city of Guatemala in 1862-63. At the end of this time, being somewhat enfeebled in health, he repaired to Philadelphia for medical treatment, and while there he purchased a residence in that city. In the spring of 1867 he went to Europe, to satisfy a long cherished desire, and he enjoyed a pleasurable tour.
In 1870 he returned to San Francisco and resumed the practice of law. In 1877, meeting with a severe affliction to his eyes, he was compelled to abandon his practice to a great extent, and since that time he has been a resident of Alameda. During the first year of his residence here he was elected Justice of the Peace, and he held the office nine years. In 1889 he was appointed Judge of the Recorders’ or Police Court for the city of Alameda. For two years he has also been Notary Public. He has been a member of the Society of California Pioneers ever since its organization; and he is a Knight Templar, belonging to commandery No. 1. In politics he has always been a Republican since the organization of that party. Is also a member of the Veteran Tippecanoe Club, the qualification for membership therein being the fact that the subject voted William Henry Harrison for President in 1840.
Transcribed by Donna L. Becker
Source: "The Bay of San Francisco," Vol. 2, pages 108-112, Lewis Publishing Co, 1892.
© 2005 Donna L. Becker.