San Francisco Ship Captains


Charles J. Brenham

Born November 6, 1817, Frankfort, Kentucky

As a teenager, he was master of one of a steamboat out of Natchez. When he arrived in New Orleans, the underwriters initially refused insurance because of his age. Even during his early years, he proved a competent commander. He left New Orleans on June 17th, 1849 for California and arrived in San Francisco on August 18, 1849.

Shortly after his arrival, he took command of the steamer McKim, running between San Francisco and Sacramento.

In 1850, he was nominated by the Whig party as a mayoral candidate even though he had not indicated interest. The nomination was unsolicited and as he was prosperous at the time, he never left his business, nor did he go on shore for the purpose of electioneering. In any case, his first nomination was defeated by Col. Geary.

In conjunction with others, Brenham purchased the steamer Gold Hunter and took command of that vessle. He remained in her until she was placed in the Mazatlan trade.

He later again was nominated for office, took interest in the position, and on May 5, 1851, at age 33, Brenham took office . . . the day after one of San Francisco's great fires. The city was burned down and broken in credit. There were no funds to purchase even stationery for the officers of the municipal government.

During his term, a riot occurred because of Captain James "Bully" Waterman. Captain Waterman had rounded the Horn in the Challenge in a gale with a mutinous crew. He and his First Mate beat them into submission and upon arrival in San Francisco those who took part in the mutiny were handed over to authorities. Others of the crew roamed the streets and waterfront bars telling stories of their harsh treatment aboard the Challenge. The newspapers picked up the story, fueled the flames, and about a thousand people assembled outside Alsop & Co., where Waterman and his First Mate were rumored to be holed up. They insisted that Captain Waterman be handed over to them.

Brenham called for order from the Alsop Building steps, but the mob paid no attention to his pleas. Soon, a rope appeared and one of the mob started to fashion a noose. Suddenly, two loud clangs rang out and members of the Committee of Vigilance began arriving on the run, all of them armed with guns. Mayor Brenham told the mob to leave. When no one moved to leave, Brenham pulled out his gold watch and shouted, "I shall now give you just ten minutes to disperse, and if you fail to comply, I shall order every last one of you to be incarcerated in the city Bastille. In other words, I will put every damned one of you in jail."

It was written of Brenham that "no one ever has performed, or ever will perform the duties of an office with more purity of purpose, and with a greater regard for the true interests of the city, than did Mr. Brenham. He retired from his office without the slightest taint or suspicion."


View of Golden Gate and Fort Point
San Francisco, California

The Presidio has served as a military reservation from its establishment in 1776 as Spain's northern-most outpost of colonial power in the New World. It was one of the longest-garrisoned posts in the country and the oldest installation in the American West.

In 1846, during the Mexican-American War, the 7th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment occupied the crumbling adobes at the Presidio. The U.S. Regular Army took over the post the following year. This military reservation at the Golden Gate developed into the most important Army post on the Pacific Coast. Over time its armaments evolved from smooth bore cannons to modern missiles. It became the nerve center of a coastal defense system that eventually included Alcatraz and Angel Island and that reached as far north as the Marin Headlands and as far south as Fort Funston. Eventually, there were five distinct posts at the Presidio, each with its own commander: the Main Post, Fort Point, Letterman Hospital, Fort Winfield Scott, and Crissy Army Air Field.

Also on the 1,491-acre reservation were a Coast Guard lifesaving station and a U.S. Public Health Service Hospital. From 1847 to about 1890, the Presidio defended San Francisco and also participated in the Indian Wars in the West. From the Spanish-American War of 1898 and the conquest of the Philippines to the end of the Vietnam War in 1973, the Presidio was a key link in the projection of American military power into the Pacific Basin and further west onto the mainland of Asia. New concrete fortifications built after the 1890s indirectly preserved native plant communities on the dramatic Pacific bluffs by making them off-limits.

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Sources: As noted on entries and through research centers including National Archives, San Bruno, California; CDNC: California Digital Newspaper Collection; San Francisco Main Library History Collection; and Maritime Museums and Collections in Australia, China, Denmark, England, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Wales, Norway, Scotland, Spain, Sweden, etc.

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