William Heath Davis loved the easy life of the Californios, the descendants of the Mexicans who had arrived in Alta California in the late 1770s. He found them the happiest and most contented people he had ever known.

Davis, born in 1822 in Hawaii to a Yankee ship owner and his wife, first came to California at 9, but it wasn't until he was a teenager that he came to these golden shores for good.

After sailing on trading ships that took him all around South and North America, he settled in Monterey to work with his merchant uncle. Davis managed to meet almost every prominent man and woman who lived in or passed through California.

He was one of the founders of New Town (now downtown San Diego). He served on San Francisco's first city council; he built San Francisco's first brick building and cofounded San Leandro. He married into the prestigious Estudillo family and became owner of a sizable bit of its rancho.

When he reached his late 60s, he recounted his experiences in a book, "Sixty Years in California."

The book was so well-received it became required reading for California schoolchildren.

In his book he praised California-born women, whom he found beautiful and smart -- smarter than their husbands.

"I was astonished at the endurance of the California women in holding out, night after night, in dancing, of which they never seemed to weary, but kept on with an appearance of freshness and elasticity that was as charming as surprising," he wrote.


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One of these charming women taught him how to waltz at one wedding celebration.

"On this occasion Dona Rafaela Martinez, wife of Dr. Tennent, and sister of the bridegroom, a young woman full of life and vivacity, very attractive and graceful in manner, seized upon me and led me on to the floor with the waltzers. I was ignorant of waltzing up to that moment. She began moving round the room with me in the waltz, and in some unaccountable manner, perhaps owing to her magnetism, I soon found I had no difficulty in keeping my place with the other waltzers."

He wrote about meeting with the Russians of Fort Ross. He sailed up the Sacramento River with Capt. John Sutter, who was looking for the right spot to build a fort.

Davis described the way the local Mexican government worked. He wrote about the visit of the U.S. Exploratory Expedition led by Commodore Charles Wilkes in 1841.

But Davis wasn't satisfied with his book. When he reached his 80s he started writing about his 75 years in California. He wrote and wrote at his San Francisco business house. Then came the 1906 earthquake, and his 1,200-page manuscript disappeared; only his notes were left. It was a loss from which he never recovered.

Davis died in 1909 at his daughter's home in Hayward. His children gathered his notes and took them to publisher John Howell, and Davis' "Seventy-five Years in California" saw the light in 1929.

Days Gone By appears on Sundays. Contact Nilda Rego at nildarego@comcast.net.