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The Earthquakes of 1800 and 1808

Early California historian, and attorney, Edmund Randolph (1819-1861) spoke at length to the Society of California Pioneers about the history of the state, from its discovery to the Gold Rush of 1849. He gave his remarks at Platt's Musical Hall in San Francisco on September 10, 1860.

Randolph, not to be confused with the Edmund Randolph (1753-1813), governor of Virginia and first attorney-general of the United States, was probably the first to speak of California’s early earthquake history. He told his audience of the disastrous quakes of 1800 and 1808.

With the beginning of the century, earthquakes make their appearance for the first time of record in the archives, and with startling effect. I prefer, on this subject to give the words of the contemporaneous documents.

Account of earthquake at San Juan Bautista, as given in letter of Capt. of Presidio of Monterey, to Gov. Arrillaga, on the 31st of Oct., 1800:

“I have to inform your Excellency that the Mission of San Juan Bautista, since the 11th inst., has been visited by severe earthquakes; that Pedro Andriano Martinez, one of the Fathers of said Mission, has informed me that, during one day, there were six severe shocks; that there is not a single habitation, although built with double walls, that has not been injured from roof to foundation, and that all are threatened with ruin; and that the Fathers are compelled to sleep in wagons to avoid danger, since the houses are not habitable. At the same place where the [Indian] rancheria is situated, some small openings have been observed in the earth, and also in the neighborhood of the river Pajaro there is another deep opening, all resulting from the earthquakes. These phenomena have filled the Fathers and inhabitants of that Mission with consternation.

“The Lieutenant Don Raymundo Carillo has assured me the same, for on the 18th he stopped for the night at this Mission (San Juan,) on his journey from San Jose, and being at supper with one of the Fathers, a shock was felt, so powerful, and attended with so much noise as to deafen him, when they fled to the court without finishing their supper, and that about 11 o’clock at night the shock was repeated with almost equal strength.

“The Fathers of the Mission says that the Indians assure them that there have always been earthquakes at that place, and that there are certain cavities caused by the earthquakes, and that salt-water has flowed from same.

“All of which I communicate to you for your information.

“May our Lord preserve your life many years.

“Hermenegildo Sal—

“Monterey, Oct. 31, 1800.”

San Juan Bautista is the Mission between Monterey and San Jose, about twenty miles from the former and forty from the latter. The next mention comes nearer home.

Account of earthquake at Presidio of San Francisco,
given by Luis Arguello, Capt. of Presidio, to Gov. Arrillaga,
on the 17th of July, 1808,

“I have to report to your Excellency that since the 21st of June last to the present date, twenty-one shocks of earthquakes have been felt in this Presidio, some of which have been so severe that all the walls of my house have been cracked, owing to the bad construction of the same, one of the ante-chambers being destroyed; and if up to this time no greater damage being done, it has been for the want of materials to destroy, there being no other habitations. The barracks of the Fort of San Joaquin, [the name of the fort at the Presidio,] have been threatened with entire ruin, and I fear if these shocks continue some unfortunate accident will happen to the troops at the Presidio.

“God preserve the life of your Excellency many years.

“Luis Arguello.
“San Francisco, July 17th, 1808”

IN: Address on the history of California, from the discovery of the country to the year 1849. Delivered before the Society of California pioneers, at their celebration of the tenth anniversary of the admission of the state of California into the union, by Edmund Randolph, esq. San Francisco, September 10th, 1860. San Francisco: Printed at the Alta California job office, 1860.
See the San Francisco History Index for more on California earthquakes.

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