By Katherine Hon
Bancroft Street between University Avenue and Upas Street was originally named Washington Avenue. Did Park Villas tract founder Joseph Nash — a new immigrant from England via Australia — name this street to recognize America’s first president, George Washington? Or did he follow his typical pattern of naming streets after people he knew or wanted to acknowledge in the early 1870s?
No Washington appears in San Diego’s Great Register of Voters through the 1870s or in the 1870 Federal Census for San Diego. With some historical conjecture, however, a Washington in San Francisco satisfies both hypotheses. Benjamin Franklin Washington (1820-1872) was a prominent resident of San Francisco when Nash arrived in 1867 and was the great-grandson of Samuel Washington, one of President George Washington’s brothers.
B.F. Washington was born in what is now Jefferson County, West Virginia, and grew up at “Cedar Lawn,” a house built for his father around 1825 near Charles Town, West Virginia. The town was founded in 1738 by Charles Washington, youngest brother of both George and Samuel Washington. The Cedar Lawn property had originally been part of the Harewood estate of Samuel Washington and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
B.F. Washington studied law and practiced locally until 1849. In a story that will sound familiar, he led a group across the plains when California gold fever broke out but did not pursue mining for very long. He moved to Sacramento, obtained a position in the post office, and was elected Recorder when the city organized in 1850.
In 1852, Washington became co-editor of the Democratic State Journal. He moved to San Francisco the next year and partnered with others producing the Times and Transcript from 1853 to 1855. By appointment of President Buchanan, Washington served as Collector of the Port of San Francisco from 1857 to 1861. He retired to his sheep ranch in Tehama County during the Civil War.
In 1865, Washington returned to the city and became editor of the San Francisco Examiner, where he remained until his death in 1872. During this time, he also served on the Board of the State Tide Land Commissioners by appointment of Governor Haight in 1868.
Washington’s death was reported in newspapers across the country from the Los Angeles Daily Star to the New York Daily Herald and all points in between, including the Feather River Bulletin, Idaho World, Daily Memphis Avalanche, Buffalo Evening Post, and Shepherdstown (West Virginia) Register.
His extensive obituary in the Charles Town Spirit of Jefferson’s March 12, 1872 issue noted, “As a paragraph-writer it is conceded that he had few equals in the United States…He was at the same time by nature a poet.”
The San Diego Daily Union’s January 27, 1872 issue presented a lengthy notice of Washington’s death, describing him as “one of the leading Democratic politicians of the State” and stating that he “had long been connected with the Press, and was one of the ablest political writers on the coast.”
This street name was changed in 1914 by Ordinance No. 5417, which stated, “Change Washington Avenue in East Lynhurst and Park Villas and Wisconsin Street in University Heights to Bancroft Street.”
The name Bancroft likely recognizes Hubert Howe Bancroft (1832-1918), another prominent San Franciscan. He came west in 1852 from Ohio, following his father, who left to pan for gold in 1850. But Hubert did not pursue mining. He set up a bookstore in San Francisco. The 1861 San Francisco directory described H.H. Bancroft & Co. as “importers and jobbers books and stationery.” Bancroft left the bookselling business to his brother, Albert, in 1868 in order to focus his attention on writing, compiling and publishing histories of the West. By this time, Hubert had accumulated a vast library of historical material which continued to grow. In 1905, the University of California, Berkeley, purchased Bancroft’s 60,000-volume collection of books, maps and other documents.
Bancroft had multiple connections to San Diego, although he lived and operated his businesses in San Francisco for much of his adult life. The 1873 City of San Diego Lot Book recorded H.H. Bancroft as the owner of 34 lots in Middletown, two whole blocks in Horton’s Addition, and two whole blocks in Taggart’s Addition. In 1886, he had a four-story commercial building constructed at the southeast corner of Fifth Avenue and G Street. The Bancroft building survives in a reduced one-story state at 665 Fifth Avenue.
In 1885, he bought a ranch with an adobe cottage built in 1863 in Spring Valley from Rufus King Porter. The Bancroft Ranch House is now operated as a historic house museum by the Spring Valley Historical Society. Their website at svhistoricalsociety.org features many fascinating historical photos and notes the following about preservation of the ranch and structures:
“The Spring Valley Chamber of Commerce was instrumental in getting the adobe designated California State Historic Landmark No. 626 in 1958, changing the name from the ‘Porter adobe’ to the ‘Bancroft Ranch House.’ On March, 24, 1963 — just short of 100 years after being built — the newly restored adobe was opened as a museum. The Spring Valley Historical Society was founded in April of that year and became the manager of the property, later purchasing the adobe and a portion of the land in 1967. The Society has been dedicated ever since to preserving the history of the Spring Valley area. The museum is located at 9050 Memory Lane (off Bancroft Dr.); admission is free.”
The property is also on the National Register of Historic Places.
The 1901 San Diego City Directory listed Hubert H. Bancroft, his wife Matilda, son Griffing and daughter Lucy living at “Fir SE cor 4th.” That location is now a parking lot. Griffing, an attorney, remained in San Diego until his death in 1955, while his father returned to San Francisco around 1905.
When Hubert H. Bancroft died on March 2, 1918, newspapers far and wide from the Hawaiian Gazette to the Boston Post carried the news. The San Diego Union’s March 3, 1918 issue highlighted his local connections, stating, “Hubert Howe Bancroft formerly resided in San Diego. He owned much realty here…The Bancroft property in this city includes the block bound by Fifth and A, Sixth and B streets and property on Fir, Elm, Fourth and Third streets.”
The San Francisco Examiner’s March 3, 1918 issue detailed his accomplishments as a historian, quoting Professor Henry Morse Stephens, head of the University of California, Berkeley’s history department, who said, “Bancroft was the greatest of a half dozen great American historians, and the only one who had an adequate understanding of the historical west. His greatest value was as a collector of writings concerning the Pacific Coast, for the Bancroft collection is the chief historical glory of the University, which owns it. His histories constitute a museum of information of Mexico, California, Nevada, Oregon and all the West, based on his study and knowledge of the country.”
— Katherine Hon is the secretary of the North Park Historical Society. Reach her at email@example.com or 619-294-8990.