Edward Gilbert was an orphan at an early age in his home town of Cherry Valley in upstate New York. As a child he was put into a printing office to learn a trade and ensure him a means of making a living. In the early 1840s, when Gilbert was a young man in his 20s, his life seemed set before him: He would be a poor, honest printer in a sleepy New York hamlet.
But Gilbert was not the common man — he didn’t stop when personal security allowed a stop. He moved on to a larger town, Albany, N.Y., and a better position. associate editor of the Albany Argus, an important New York newspaper. Again Gilbert could have stopped and remained at the quite comfortable place as a respected editor, but he didn’t.
In reaction to the war with Mexico, Gilbert raised a volunteer company in spring 1846. His company later joined the 1st regiment of New York under Col. J. D. Stevenson, and Gilbert was given second command and the rank of lieutenant. To Gilbert’s disappointment his regiment never saw battle in the war but was instead shipped to San Francisco, arriving in March 1847. Gilbert performed most of the duties of the customs collector.
During the summer of 1847 Gilbert took a census of San Francisco. At that time there were 459 residents divided into 247 white men, 128 white women, 34 Indians, 40 Sandwich Islanders and 10 Negroes. What is significant about this census are the predictions he made in it. Explaining the census in an article in the California Star newspaper, Aug. 28, 1847, Gilbert spoke out against a school of thought that believed Monterey would soon be Northern California’s largest seaport city. “San Francisco is destined to become the great commercial emporium of the Northern Pacific coast. With the advantage of so fine a harbor and the enterprise of so hardy and intelligent a race of pioneers, it can scarcely be otherwise.”
San Francisco’s only newspaper at this time (late 1848) The Star and Californian, was owned by a man also from upstate New York, Edward Kemble. Knowing of Gilbert’s past accomplishments as associate editor of the Argus (and perhaps knowing him personally), Kemble invited Gilbert, when he was released from the Army, to buy into the paper and take the title of senior editor. He accepted, on condition that a good friend, G.O. Hubbard, a printer from New York, become a third owner of the paper. Kemble acquiesced.
Gilbert’s first act as senior editor was to change the name of the paper to the Alta California and make it entirely new in typographical style and size. These innovations were typical of Gilbert’s four-year career as senior editor. His hand was ubiquitous in forming and perfecting every aspect of San Francisco’s new and popular newspaper, which rapidly grew from a weekly to tri-weekly in December of 1849 and to a daily in January 1950.
As Kemble explains in his widely acclaimed book, A History of California Newspapers, 1846-1858, “The leading editorials were written by Gilbert.” As an example of the spirit Gilbert tried to infuse into the Alta are the following comments he made the first day the paper appeared:
This press will be independent of all parties, cliques and persons. The cause which it will assert is the cause of California — the interests which it will endeavor to advance are the interests of California, and the right which it will lend its aid to establish and preserve are the rights of the citizens of California ...
The unenviable position which this sheet at present occupies, of being the only paper printed in California, renders it imperatively necessary, were there no higher considerations, that it should be independent and fair. The publishers are fully sensible that unless such is the course it can accomplish but little in any cause, and nothing in a country so peculiarly situated as this.
Kemble wrote: “The Alta California remained true to its independent convictions, although its publishers were all Democrats, and in the political changes which took place in the territory and in the organization of the parties they did not want tempting offers and inducements to conform to the practice of their newspaper to their political faith as individuals. It entered earnestly into the work of forming a Provisional Government, and as zealously into the reform of municipal matters in San Francisco. The stand taken by the papers against high-handed acts of the military authorities and the town officers appointed and sustained by Gen. Smith and Col. Mason, was warmly seconded by the people, and it would be difficult to conceive of closer knit sympathies between the public and newspaper than those enjoyed by the Alta California in 1849. It was emphatically the people’s organ, and its crowded business columns gave token to their hearty admiration.”
True to the independent nature of the paper and its editors is the editorial by Gilbert on July 27, 1852. A Democrat himself, Gilbert compared the recently adopted platforms of the Whigs and the Democrats and found the most fault in the platform of his own party:
One of the great arguments in favor of parties is that through their institution the elections of the State turn entirely upon principles and not upon men; but the Democrats’ platform avoided answering questions and laying down principles.
Hitherto, the Democratic Party has been loudest in its professions. It had generally affected to have an opinion upon all questions of public policy, and has probed itself upon the plainness and fearlessness with which it has made up its “issue” for every contest.
Attesting to the popularity of Edward Gilbert and his paper, the people of San Francisco chose him to be one of the delegates from the District of San Francisco to the Constitutional Convention in September 1849 in Monterey. Significant was the vote for Gilbert — he received 1,512 out of 1,519 votes cast, winning by a larger majority than either of his co-delegates. Gilbert had the honor also of being the youngest delegate to the convention. However, his youth did not harm his performance, as his good friend the Rev. T. Dwight Hunt observed:
“There were men there of more years, of more influence, of more celebrity, but none of more thoughtful attention, gentlemanly ease or manly dignity. In this respect, for one so young in appearance, he was peculiar.”
That autumn Gilbert ran and was elected with “a flattering majority” to the United States Congress. After a single term as one of California’s first Congressmen and its youngest, Gilbert returned to his editorship of the Alta. As a newspaperman again he remained the man of honor he had been as a representative of the people. He retained his “scorn for the mean or low, corrupt or vile.”
It was his honor and his scorn for corruption which led Gilbert to his premature death.
Gilbert wrote an article on an expedition by General James W. Denver (for whom the Colorado city was later named) to aid immigrants reported in destitute circumstances on the plains between the Humboldt River and the Carson Valley. The article charged Gen. Denver with negligence and gross mismanagement in the distribution of provisions meant for the immigrants. The senior editor of the Alta said some of the supplies were sold to Denver’s subordinates who pocketed the receipts and, when the general learned of the happenings, he dismissed the charges peremptorily as the offenders were political satellites of his.
Strong words ensued, and Kemble explains that “Gilbert was seduced into a duel through convictions, and a temperament which forbade his shrinking from his responsibilities.”
Gilbert was the challenger, and on Aug. 2, 1852, with rifles at 40 paces, the two met at Oak Grove, 8 miles from Sacramento. The first exchange was without effect. Denver, an expert, deliberately fired aside; Gilbert, who could “barely hold his piece,” missed.
The story goes that an effort was made by the combatant’s seconds and the other few witnesses to call the whole thing off. But while Denver was amenable, Gilbert was not, perhaps because he had often scoffed at bloodless duels in print — and he insisted on continuing.
Denver then became angry and muttered something about not going to stand around all day being shot at.
The rifles were reloaded, and Denver’s bullet went through Gilbert’s body through the abdominal cavity just above the hipbone. Within five minutes, he was dead.
It’s common knowledge that once a man is dead, his memory usually becomes distorted to emphasize his qualities and pass over his flaws. With Gilbert the same may hold true, yet knowing something of his career and popularity one can believe a large part of the eulogies to the dead man.
Gilbert’s death caused mourning throughout the state. When his body returned to San Francisco for burial via a boat from Sacramento, “thousands of his fellow citizens waited upon the wharf for hours before the arrival.” The number of groups in Gilbert’s funeral procession attest to the breadth of his life. The procession included the 1st California Guard, The California Pioneers, the members of the press of San Francisco, The Pioneer Club, the National Lancers and the Marion Rifles.
What kind of man was Gilbert eulogized to be?
A brief biography of the soldier-editor-statesman carried in the Alta described his as a special and rare breed of politician:
Deliberate and calm in the investigation of acts and principles, he was slow and moderate (his friends sometimes thought even to a fault) in their enumeration, but they then became the deliberate conviction of a clear and unbiased judgment, and he never failed to defend them with dignity, ability and courage. His independence and the whole genius of his character placed him above the vulgar trammels of cliques and parties and in the performance of his duties as a politician he never forgot his character as a citizen and a man.
The Rev. T. Dwight Hunt briefly extolled Gilbert’s virtues, saying at his funeral: “The state has lost an early soldier, a prominent founder, a fearless defender and a constant friend. Few have equaled the deceased in gentlemanly deportment. Naturally reserved, he had few companions but a host of friends.”
Perhaps the one eulogy which makes all the others seem credible was written by a press rival of Gilbert’s, A. J. Moulder of the San Francisco Herald, who said, “As a journalist he enjoyed a high reputation. He was ever the champion of right and the stern reprover of corruption. He was devoted to his profession, energetic and fear- less. In life he pursued the path of duty, regardless of the consequences.”
Gilbert left many pictures of himself, as a politician, a soldier, a customs collector, yet a quality of the man is evident in the record of his pursuits — his independence and ultimately his striving after good, after the truth.