Saturday, June 27, 2009

Did President Grant really visit Palo Alto in 1877?

or is it similar to claims that "Washington slept here"?

I went for a walk in the neighborhood the other night, specifically to get a picture of a historical marker about 1/4 mile from my apartment. In 12 years here, oddly enough, I never got around to visiting this marker until this week—odd, because I am a little bit obsessive about seeing every marker I pass by, or am in proximity to. In fact, I thought it was on another block of La Selva, probably hidden from easy view, and never took the time to investigate further.

California Registered Historical Landmark marker number 969 reads:

Sarah Armstrong Wallis (1825–1905) was a pioneer in the campaign for women’s voting rights. In 1870 she was elected president of California’s first statewide suffrage organization which in 1873 incorporated as the California State Woman Suffrage Education Association. The home she built on this site, Mayfield Farm, was a center of suffrage activities attracting state and national leaders such as Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Ulysses S. Grant

Some articles, like this one in "California Historian," state that Wallis "entertained President U.S. Grant there in 1877." Grant would have left office in March of 1877 (inauguration in those days did not occur until around March 20), so I assumed a visit would have occurred in the early months of the year. It did not dawn on me right away that, of course, even after he left office people would still refer to him as "President" Grant. There is also the fact that Grant left for a European tour soon after leaving office, which narrows the window for a West Coast visit still more.

I spent a good deal of time last night searching digital archives of early California papers, in particular the Daily Alta California, and the Daily Call, which, it seems, almost certainly would have recorded a visit by Grant to the Bay Area in 1877 (given the amount of reporting on Grant in general). I also searched my limited personal library of Grant-related material for any mention of a Mayfield visit. My cursory searches yielded nothing.

By chance, yesterday I commented on Kevin Levin's blog entry about his reading of a new work on Grant, Joan Waugh's, U.S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth. Specifically, I asked Kevin if Waugh's work spends "any time on women’s support for Grant in 1872 (Susan B. Anthony was arrested after voting for him him that year)? I’m looking for references to President Grant’s visit to the West Coast at the tail end of his 2nd term, when he apparently met with California suffragette Sarah Wallis."

Intriguingly, this prompted a response from one Bob Pollock, a ranger at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site: "David, Your question has sparked interest among the park rangers here at Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site. We are not aware of a trip by Grant to California in 1877 and it seems unlikely. He left office in March, and boarded a steamship at Philadelphia in May to go on his around the world trip. It seems more likely that if he met Sarah Wallis it would have been in 1879 when he and Julia conclude their travels by arriving in San Francisco. We are going to look into this some more."

I'll address that here in the hopes that Bob will weigh in and help shed more light on the matter. My neighborhood historical marker just got a lot more interesting on this steamy June Saturday.

Bob, my source for it is simply the marker itself (and one article), though I will now email the long-time historian for the neighborhood association in the hopes of uncovering something substantive. One encounters passing reference to Grant's visit in any number of articles, but I suspect they're all relying on the same source—probably the marker, or a database of marker text. One contributor from the Palo Alto Historical Association avoided reference to Grant in his essay on Sarah Wallis. The aforementioned "California Historian" article specified the 1877 visit. Maybe that was just a typo.

I hope we can establish Grant's visit to Sarah Wallis, a spectacular historic figure in her own right (more on her in a subsequent blog entry). The mansion Wallis built burned to the ground in 1936, and the area is now the quiet residential area of Barron Park. Few old growth redwoods remain, but a few of those magnificent trees in the neighborhood appear to be old enough to have witnessed a visit by the old general.

(image at top is entitled "Res of Mrs. Sarah Wallis, Mayfield, Santa Clara, Co., Cal., from the David Rumsey Map Collection. Mayfield is part of what makes up Palo Alto).

Just for fun, visit this
2006 blog entry on a California tree named for General Grant (along with the Lincoln and Sherman trees).


Bob Pollock said...

Hi David,

I read your comment on Kevin's blog close to the end of the day at the park. I had never heard of Sarah Wallis so I asked a couple other rangers on duty and that piqued everyone's interest. As I said though, we are not aware of Grant visiting California in 1877 or 1876. A cursory look at the Volume of "Grant's Papers" covering late 1876 and 1877 did not reference any trip west or Sarah Wallis. I must say, I don't see on the marker in question any indication of a date of Grant's visit or a reference to Grant as "President."
For the most part, people continued to refer to him as General Grant even after he was elected President. It still seems more likely to me that if Grant visited Wallis' home it would have been in 1879 when he and Julia returned to the U.S. from their global touring. I checked the Volume of Grant Papers covering 1879, however, and again could not find any references to Wallis. Julia does not mention a visit to Wallis in her Memoirs either. None of this, of course, means that he did not visit her. I think your best bet is newspaper articles. Our Site Historian wasn't in today, but I think she is tomorrow. I'll ask her if she knows anything that might help.

BTW, I was born and raised in So Cal, as were my parents and maternal grandmother. After living in Washington State fifteen years, I returned to Cali and lived in Santa Maria for thirteen years. I have a daughter and grandkids living there still. It has been so hot and humid here in St. Louis this week, I have really been missing the coast and the smell of saltwater in the air!


dw said...

Hi Bob,

Thanks for the comment. You're right, the plaque DOESN'T say "President" Grant. I think I may have read that into it because of other local articles, like this neighborhood association newsletter:

I'll keep scouring the old papers and, as I mentioned, query some local historical society types.

Santa Maria is a nice area -- I'm sure the breezes there are pretty nice. I grew up partly in the Midwest, and went to college along the Ohio in Evansville, IN, so know something about those swelteringly humid days along the great rivers of the heartland.

dw said...

I did come across this account of General Grant's visit to San Francisco in 1879. At least on one day, he took the train down to San Jose, which would have meant stopping at or passing through a train station not far from her home.

James F. Epperson said...

Hello, David. Apparently your software doesn't like me, because I left this comment yesterday afternoon (I thought).

The transcription for the plaque doesn't give a date for Grant's visit, so it seems most likely to me that he was there when his tour around the world came back to the States

dw said...

Hi Jim,

Thanks for dropping by. Yes, I read the date into it (and "President") from having read other short articles on the subject, e.g.,

I'm inclined to think you're right -- almost certainly Grant's visit to the farm, if indeed it happened, would have been during the 1879 visit.

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