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Morse (Ephraim W.) Family Papers
MSS 0689  
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Collection Details
Table of contents What's This?
  • Descriptive Summary
  • Scope and Content of Collection
  • Biography
  • Publication Rights
  • Preferred Citation
  • Acquisition Information
  • Digital Content

  • Descriptive Summary

    Languages: English
    Contributing Institution: Special Collections & Archives, UC San Diego
    9500 Gilman Drive
    La Jolla 92093-0175
    Title: Ephraim W. Morse Family Papers
    Creator: Morse family
    Identifier/Call Number: MSS 0689
    Physical Description: 4 Linear feet (9 archive boxes and 6 oversize folders)
    Date (inclusive): 1838 - 1907
    Abstract: The Ephraim W. Morse family papers (1838-1907) document the private and public life of an important San Diego pioneer, businessman, merchant, and civic leader. The papers include family and general correspondence, documenting the concerns of 19th-century life both in New England and California.

    Scope and Content of Collection

    The Ephraim W. Morse family papers documents the personal, business, and civic life of a San Diego pioneer, businessman, merchant, and civic leader and provides a glimpse into his political, social, and financial life, as well as his relationships with family, friends, and colleagues. Largely comprising correspondence from 1849 to 1906, it includes letters from many of San Diego's earliest and most important pioneers including Alonzo Horton, Joseph Judson Ames, Manuelito Cota, Rufus King Porter, Judge James Robinson, Jonathan T. Warner, and Thomas Whaley, as well as family members. Because Morse was a storekeeper, lawyer, and express agent, people wrote to him about a variety of issues of concern to those living in or passing through San Diego in the 1850s-1860s period. The collection also contains biographical materials such as various civic office notifications, certificates, and oaths; economic transaction materials regarding the Massachusetts farm and woodlands inherited from his father; educational materials and juvenilia including his bookkeeping exercise ledgers; high school report cards; diaries and notebooks; and books he carried to California on his sea voyage around Cape Horn in 1849. The business and legal documents include memorandum, receipts, notes, correspondence, inventories, appraisals, private notes and account records; California materials include campaign materials of early San Diego city and county; subscription lists; county statistics; surveys, and newspaper clippings.
    The BIOGRAPHICAL MATERIALS series contains appointment and commission notifications and signed oaths for various civic positions (1852-1878) Morse held, business cards, his certificate to practice law, various personal legal documents, documentation of his personal and economic interests in the Massachusetts family farm, invitations, reference letters, and spiritualist session notes. The materials are arranged alphabetically.
    The EDUCATION AND JUVENILIA series contains Morse's high school instruction book on bookkeeping, as well as numerous practice exercise ledger books with realistic bookkeeping entries, his cursive handwriting sampler and practice sheets, high school report cards, and a child's book on astronomy. The materials are arranged alphabetically.
    The DIARIES AND NOTEBOOKS series contains leather-bound volumes (1852, 1854-57, 1866-1869, 1871) with handwritten annotations on a wide variety of subjects including his sea voyage and early experiences in California, mine inspection trips, mileage estimates, eventful days, meeting reminders, weather notations, recommended books, and his infant son's weight. The materials are arranged chronologically.
    The MISCELLANEOUS MATERIALS series is arranged in two subseries: A) Morse, and B) Family.
    A) The Morse subseries contains books that Morse brought to California in 1849, a San Diego restaurant menu (ca. 1904), invitations, gardening lists, newspaper clippings, a stencil for his name, notes on travel expenses and a borrowed book not returned, as well as the original wrapping paper Morse used to organize his paperwork. The materials are arranged alphabetically,
    B) The Family subseries contains a document regarding an estate sale by Morse's father, John, and Lydia Ann Morse's notebook recording letters, expenses, and earnings. Also included are miscellaneous notes, receipts, invitations, correspondence, school compositions, and prose by Morse's son, Edward Wallace Morse. The materials are arrange alphabetically.
    The CORRESPONDENCE series is arranged in two subseries: A) Family, and B) General and Business.
    A) The Family subseries contains correspondence from Morse's parents, sisters, in-laws, cousins, nieces and nephews, his two wives and his son. Of note is the correspondence between Morse and his son in which Morse compares and contrasts San Diego to Massachusetts and explains his San Diego successes and failures. The correspondence between Edward and his step-mother, Mary C. Morse, contains a wonderfully vivid description of the Morses' camping trips in San Diego County. The 1866 letters of courtship between Morse and his soon-to-be second wife, Mary, are illustrative of the romantic sensibilities of two transplanted 19th-century New Englanders. The correspondence is arranged alphabetically by last name.
    B) The General and Business subseries contains correspondence from customers and creditors, as well as many of San Diego's first inhabitants, including Joseph Judson Ames, Manuelito Cota, Thomas Rylan Darnall, James Donahue, O.W. Gould, Robert W. Groom, Alonzo Horton, James Ruler Lassator, John Pond, Charles and Mary Poole, Rufus King Porter, Judge James Robinson, Joseph Smith, Jonathan T. Warner and Thomas Whaley. Several letters are in Spanish, reflecting Morse's fluency in that language. The correspondence is arranged alphabetically by last name.
    Included in the BUSINESS AND LEGAL DOCUMENTS series are business memoranda, ledger entries, notes on real estate transactions, instructions, account reconciliations and receipts, many from Morse's early period when he ran a general merchandise store (1850-1860). Included in the legal papers are samples of legal language, administration of estates and guardianships, auctioneering records and other probate actions. Morse's self-labeled "private notes" reveal secret recordations of political and financial intrigues and conversations reported to or observed by Morse. The documents are arranged alphabetically.
    The CALIFORNIA MATERIALS series include a merchant's agreement to discourage the use of reals (foreign gold coins) (1864), notes on legislative acts important to San Diego, county statistics, notes on land issues affecting the new city, newspaper clippings, lists of persons entitled to do military duty (ca. 1856), and a list of the San Diego Guards. Also included are subscription lists to raise funds to aid the padre, purchase the town a United States flag for official use, aid citizens in a Mexican jail, and to fund a railroad expedition with engineers. The series includes campaign materials (1859-1884) consisting of printed ballot handouts (some with the local candidates' names penciled-in), as well as small "caucus tickets" listing candidates for city, county, and state offices. Political parties represented include the Union and Democratic Union party (1867), a local "People's ticket" (ca. 1868), the Regular Democratic ticket (1883), and the Regular Republican ticket (1884). Of note is an 1859 ballot handout featuring Leland Stanford in his first, unsuccessful bid for governor, printed in Spanish. The materials are arranged alphabetically.


    Ephraim Weed Morse was born on October 16, 1823, in West Amesbury, Massachusetts, the only son of New England farmers and apple growers, John and Hannah (nee Weed) Morse. He attended Newburyport High School (1838-1841) where he learned bookkeeping. Leaving New England and a teaching position, at age twenty-six, Morse joined the Gold Rush to northern California. He quickly became sick and disenchanted with his prospects so, in April of 1850, he ventured to the tiny settlement of San Diego, population approximately 800.
    Morse, with fellow New Englander, Levi Slack, immediately began keeping a general store, first, in a failed "new town" location known as "Davis' Folly." In 1853, he moved the store to Old Town and partnered with Thomas Whaley, and later, conducted business on his own. During the early decades of the city, being an educated and temperate man, he was called upon to hold many important government positions including city trustee (1854-55, 1867), county supervisor (1860), city treasurer (1878), county treasurer (1858-59, 1861-1862), associate justice (1852), secretary of the board of trade (1852-1864), school commissioner and trustee (1853-55), and public administrator (1853, 1875). In 1856, he earned his license to practice law and became a notary public.
    In 1860, he experienced financial losses and bankruptcy and for a short time partnered with Joseph Smith on a sheep ranch on Smith Mountain, now known as Palomar. He soon returned to San Diego (1861) as a merchant, real estate speculator, county surveyor, and an agent for Wells Fargo and various insurance companies. With Thomas Darnell, he unprofitably invested in the Jesus María Copper Mine in Baja California.
    Morse had returned to Massachusetts in 1851 to marry his first wife, Lydia Gray. Mrs. Morse arrived in San Diego in 1853, gave birth to their son Edward in 1856, and died shortly thereafter. The boy was then taken to Massachusetts by a Mrs. Stevens, where he was raised by his maternal grandparents.
    In 1866, Morse married Mary C. Walker, a former San Diego schoolteacher. She was removed from that position when some parents boycotted the school because of comments that she was rumored to have made after negative reactions to her sharing a meal with an African-American woman. Although Miss Walker denied commenting on the interracial marriages of some of her critics, she was dismissed due to the boycott. She then was hired by Rufus Porter, a Spring Valley pioneer, to teach his daughter until her marriage to Morse.
    The Morses were happily matched and enjoyed driving their horse and buggy far out into the San Diego county wilderness, visiting the mountains and local hot springs on camping trips. They both gardened and reveled in growing fruits and flowers year-round in the excellent climate. Mary wrote articles that were published in the newspaper. Their marriage lasted for thirty-three years until Mary Morse's death on May 17, 1899.
    In 1869, Morse was one of the City trustees who sold Alonzo Horton the land grant that would become "Horton's Addition" or "New Town," the present site of downtown San Diego. He was also instrumental in getting the City trustees to dedicate a large plot of land to be reserved for a city park, now Balboa Park. In 1871, he travelled to Washington, D.C., to fight for the City's title rights to the original "pueblo lands."
    Morse was involved in many of the attempts to bring a transcontinental railroad to San Diego. As a real estate speculator, he wanted to make the City easy and affordable for new settlers to reach. In 1854, he was a founder and director of the San Diego and Gila, Southern Pacific and Atlantic Railroad Company, which eventually failed. He was also involved in citizen's committees and in arrangements to reserve private land for railroad right-of-ways. He worked with Col. Thomas A. Scott to bring the Texas & Pacific Railroad to San Diego, a project that garnered Congressional support. However, all these efforts were successfully opposed by the powerful influence and money of the Central Pacific Group that included Leland Stanford, Colis P. Huntington, Charles Crock and Mark Hopkins. San Diego County would not become a terminus for a major transcontinental line until 1885.
    Morse's other business interests included being a founder and officer of the Bank of San Diego. He helped develop downtown San Diego, building the Pierce-Morse block located at the northwest corner of Sixth and F Street, and the Morse, Whaley, and Dalton block. With Whaley, Dalton, and Noell, he was involved in various real estate firms, and he invested in both the San Diego Flume Company and the El Cajon Valley Company.
    The failure to bring a transcontinental railroad to San Diego, in addition to national financial panics, such as the panic of 1873, caused Morse to lose most of his fortune. Like many San Diegans, he was land-rich but cash-poor, and land prices were not rising. He and Mary retreated to spartan living conditions in a small house in Alpine, a small foothill community twenty-five miles east of San Diego, while renting out their homestead in San Diego. The Bank of San Diego went into receivership and Morse was the subject of lawsuits due to his involvement with it for many years to come.
    Morse continued to live in San Diego until he was eighty-three years of age. He died on January 17, 1906, having finally witnessed substantial city growth, just as he had always optimistically predicted it.

    Publication Rights

    Publication rights are held by the creator of the collection.

    Preferred Citation

    Ephraim W. Morse Family Papers, MSS 689. Special Collections & Archives, UC San Diego.

    Acquisition Information

    Acquired 2007.

    Digital Content

    This collection was digitized in 2016 for inclusion in the Adam Matthew subscription database Frontier Life: borderlands, settlement & colonial encounters. The documents are viewable in that resource when accessed from a UC San Diego IP address, or via any institution that subscribes to that resource.

    Subjects and Indexing Terms

    Businessmen -- California -- San Diego -- Correspondence
    Railroads -- California, Southern
    San Diego (Calif.) -- History
    Morse, E. W. (Ephraim W.) -- Archives
    Ames, John Judson -- Correspondence
    Morse, Edward W. -- Correspondence
    Darnall, Thomas Rylan -- Correspondence
    Horton, Alonzo E. -- Correspondence
    Whaley, Thomas -- Correspondence
    Chase, A. J. -- Correspondence