A Page from History: Winifred Davidson found Point Loma’s ‘lost history’

Winifred Davidson was a top authority on San Diego’s pioneer Spanish, Mexican and early Anglo-American heritage.
Winifred Davidson, pictured in the 1920s, was a top authority on San Diego’s pioneer Spanish, Mexican and early Anglo-American heritage.
(John Atherton Collection)

On Jan. 10, 1934, in the Point Loma community of Roseville, several hundred people gathered on the west side of Rosecrans Street near Byron Street. They were there to witness the unveiling of a concrete marker commemorating an important aspect of Point Loma’s forgotten history: the route of the Old La Playa Trail.

The first of many such markers planned along the historic route, the upright rectangular marker’s top face featured a horizontal bas-relief of a young California Mission Indian leading an ox-driven carreta along the “oldest commercial trail in California.” Caravans of these primitive wooden vehicles would have passed along the site during the Colonial Spanish, Mexican Rancho and early Statehood eras carrying people, provisions and goods along the trail to and from ships anchored off La Playa (the beach), 12 miles along San Diego Bay’s northern shoreline to the fort, pueblo and Mission San Diego de Alcalá.

Speaking to the crowd, Leroy Wright, president of the San Diego Historical Society and chairman of the local Old La Playa Trail Marking Committee, said the monument’s purpose was to “bring early California history into the modern scene.”

What Wright failed to mention were the contributions made by another committee member standing near him, 60-year-old Winifred Davidson. The premier authority on San Diego’s pioneer Spanish, Mexican and early Anglo-American heritage at the time, she had opened her files to the committee members regarding the trail’s historical background and significance.

Davidson’s knowledge of the Old La Playa Trail began in 1919. A former follower of Madame Katherine Tingley’s Theosophical Society, she and her family had moved out of the society’s Lomaland homestead into a small, rented bungalow on Point Loma’s leeward side. Three years later, they bought and moved into a new home a few blocks away on Carleton Street. With her husband, John, at his downtown job, their daughter May boarding at the society’s school and her live-in sister-in-law Eolia keeping house, Davidson had time to pursue her longtime ambition to be a freelance writer.

Davidson’s interest in writing went back to her Pennsylvania childhood. The third child of nine born to hotel owner-operators Catherine and Russell Hall McIntyre, she was already a prolific reader and writer at age 7. By 26 she was writing poems, essays and children’s stories under the pseudonym Yetta Kay Stoddard.

She grew up in a time when most well-read Americans believed that everyone, particularly educated women, could and should write and have their work published. Many regional and national publishers encouraged writers like her to submit articles based on local myths, legends and folklore. They saw these as a means to preserve an area’s cultural history for future generations.

While strolling along well-trodden dirt paths leading from her house to the bay shore, Davidson often wondered how many Native Americans had preceded her. She also fantasized about what it would have been like for them first seeing the sails of Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo’s ships entering the harbor and anchoring in the cove below.

After reaching the shoreline communities below, she would stop to chat with old-time residents. After hearing about Cabrillo’s anchorage and a forgotten Spanish fort at Ballast Point, hide houses and whaling stations at La Playa, as well as Louis Rose’s namesake townsite, she would return to her home to transcribe her notes.

Based on her observations and interviews, she composed a series of “Point Loma Sonnets” that were published in national serials. One of them, “Rain,” the first published under her given name, was described as “one of the distinguished poems of 1924.” Published worldwide, the sonnets brought her international fame as “one of the most prolific writers [from] San Diego” as well as “one of the most successful modern writers from California.”

However, as she continued to gather information, Davidson began to despair about Point Loma’s “lost history.” Determined to correct this, she composed and submitted sonnets and articles based on the peninsula’s history to the Ocean Beach News. Published weekly as “Loma Lore,” her 40-odd articles helped reveal to her readers the role Point Loma played as, according to Davidson, “the place where California began.”

Among the articles’ readers were members of the San Diego Chamber of Commerce, which commissioned Davidson in 1926 to write a “Brief History of the Point Loma Lighthouse,” the first of many pamphlets and articles she would write devoted to identifying previously unknown or unrecognized local historic landmarks.

In July 1929, Davidson coalesced her collection of local legends, oral traditions and stories, interspersed with historical facts about the peninsula’s history, into her first and only published book. Davidson described “Where California Began” as “history authentic as research can make it, but viewed through the eyes of a poet.”

The well-received book would inexorably draw her into the vanguard of San Diego’s historic preservation movement during the next two decades.

Local historian Winifred Davidson was the subject of a San Diego Union article on Oct. 6, 1933.
Local historian Winifred Davidson was the subject of a San Diego Union article on Oct. 6, 1933.
(John Atherton Collection)

Coinciding with the book’s publication July 16, 1929, the 160th anniversary of San Diego’s founding, George Marston gifted Presidio Park to the people of San Diego. Marston also funded the design and installation of the Junípero Serra Museum on a ridge overlooking the ruins of California’s first Spanish mission and presidio. The Spanish Colonial Revival-style building would serve as headquarters of the newly formed San Diego Historical Society. As charter members, Davidson and her husband would play critical roles in the Historical Society’s growth and development.

In 1930, John Davidson, who was hired as the Serra Museum’s assistant curator, initiated and oversaw a campaign to seek public donations of historical books, papers, diaries, photographs, maps and other objects for the museum’s exhibits and collection. Assisting in that goal was Winifred Davidson, who, after being elected to the Historical Society’s board of directors on April 14, 1931, became the Serra Museum’s first historian. Indeed, the bulk of her research collection became the core of the museum’s nascent library/archives.

As a member of the California State Historical Association and California State Landmarks Committee and chairwoman of the San Diego County History and Landmarks Committee, Winifred spent the next 33 years seeking to fulfill the goals to educate Californians about their state’s history through the identification and preservation of local landmarks. Her leadership and research led to the placement of bronze plaques at 48 places of historic interest.

Winifred also sought and interviewed many senior Old Town San Diego descendants who could serve as living links to the past. For example, every Thursday, John (now a full-time curator) would drop her off in the middle of Old Town before continuing up Presidio Hill Drive to open the museum. Whenever he picked her up, he would ask if “anyone talked history today.”

As she slowly ingratiated herself with the locals, members of San Diego’s earliest pioneer families began lending her long-forgotten letters and diaries, which she dutifully transcribed before returning them. The problem was, many of them were written in Spanish, which also was the primary language of most of the folks who had them in their possession. Undeterred, Winifred sought to find bilingual descendants who could help her translate the documents, as well as locate additional pioneer families to interview.

Lucy Brown Wentworth, the former Luz de Villar, acted as her Spanish tutor, interjecting her own experiences growing up in Point Loma as impromptu history lessons. For example, when discussing the Spanish word for ox, buey, Doña Luz “of the iron memory” remembered that when her father, John Brown, was at sea, she drove the family’s ox team from their home at La Playa to fetch supplies at Old Town.

“Oh, a carreta!” Winifred said. “You drove oxen yoked to a carreta!”

“Indeed,” she responded. “Mother rode in the cart with my sister [while] I carried a long stick walking beside the oxen.” Whether by design or accident, Wentworth had introduced Winifred to the Old La Playa Trail.

Under Wentworth’s tutelage, Winifred was able to learn enough conversational Spanish to interview hundreds of San Diego’s Spanish-speaking pioneers and their descendants on both sides of the border, as well as translate rare mission and military records. By doing so, she helped piece together the previously disconnected story of San Diego’s earliest beginnings.

Armed with this information, she authored a series of newspaper articles: “Famous Firsts of San Diego,” “Romance of Old San Diego” and “Old Tales of the Southwest” in the San Diego Union; “True Love Stories of Early California” in the Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine. She also contributed to her husband’s articles about San Diego County place names, as well as a later series of her own.

Winifred also lent her time and knowledge to local students and historians. For example, in 1936, she contributed the entire chapter on San Diego’s history in Carl Heilbron’s “History of San Diego County.” In the book’s foreword, Heilbron recognized Winifred as “the leading authority of San Diego County history [who had written] the most historically correct narrative of this period yet.”

While age was inevitably catching up to Winifred, it hardly slowed her down.

Besides writing articles, she continued to advocate for the recognition and preservation of local historic sites and landmarks, particularly Old Town’s El Campo Santo Cemetery; El Jardín del Muertos, the Spanish camp and cemetery site at the foot of Presidio Hill; and the Cabrillo National Monument in Point Loma.

In recognition of their 50-year collaboration as husband and wife, on July 24, 1951, the Davidsons renewed their wedding vows, followed by a reception and dinner at Old Town’s Casa de Machado. Two years later, on Sept. 22, 1953, the San Diego Historical Society held a ceremony at the Serra Museum honoring their 25 years of service to the organization.

John and Winifred Davidson celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary in 1951.
(John Atherton Collection)

While John soon retired as the Serra Museum’s executive director, Winifred, 79, continued to serve as the museum’s historian and on the San Diego Historical Society board for the next 10 years. During that time, she continued to seek out and transcribe historical records and translate Spanish manuscripts for the museum’s library collection.

As the Davidsons grew older, they were fortunate to have their daughter May, a nurse, care for them the rest of their lives. John would live to be 98, but Winifred preceded him in death 11 years earlier in 1964.

News of Winifred’s death reverberated throughout San Diego’s historical and literary communities.

Richard Pourade, author of a series of books on San Diego history, said, “She, more than anyone else for more than a quarter of a century, kept alive the memories of the old Mexican and Spanish days in San Diego during a period when no one wanted to listen.”

Though much of her research and writings on San Diego’s early history are still available to scholars at the San Diego History Center, San Diego Central Library and online university subscription newspaper archives, her legacy has largely been forgotten except for her family and a few local historians.

Not even her former home on Carleton Street exists. Shortly after John died Jan. 6, 1975, May had it torn down and replaced with a more modern-style home.

Still, her life’s work did much to uncover her adopted city’s “lost history.”


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