Walter Colton
The Californian

Robert Baylor Semple
The Californian

The names of Dr. Walter Colton and Robert Baylor Semple, co-publishers of California's first newspaper, The Californian, are linked with the men who forged the history of the Golden State.

In an era that needed men of action and leadership, Semple and Colton provided both as adventurers, frontiersmen, orators, statesmen and leaders.

The two men produced the initial issue of The Californian in Monterey on Aug. 15, 1846. Such a first was not an exception with Walter Colton, however, as he had previously engaged in journalistic enterprises in Washington, D.C., where he edited the American Spectator in 1828, and in Philadelphia where he worked on several papers during the early 1840s.

Colton was born in Rutland County, Vt., on May 9, 1797. He was the third of 12 children born to Walter and Thankful Colton.

At the age of 17, Colton went to Hartford to learn the cabinetmakers trade.

He was deeply interested in personal religion and in 1816 became a Christian. Deciding to continue his education, he prepared for college at Hartford Grammar School and entered Yale in the fall of 1818. So successful was he in his studies that he won the Berkeleyan Prize for the best Latin translation, and at graduation in 1822 he delivered the valedictory poem.

Determined to follow a religious life, he entered Andover Theological Seminary, from which he graduated in 1825. After ordination, Colton became a professor of moral philosophy and letters at the Scientific and Military Academy at Middletown.

Proceeding to Washington to undertake the editorship of the American Spectator and Washington City Chronicle, he was also elected to preach at a church attended by President Andrew Jackson.

A close acquaintanceship developed between the men, and the president offered Colton the choice of being a chaplain in the Navy or a foreign consul. Colton chose the former, was nominated chaplain of the West India Squadron in 1831 and visited ports throughout the world.

Following marriage to a Philadelphia woman of the same family name, he sailed to the Pacific in 1845 and later recorded the story of that eventful voyage in his book “Deck and Port.”

He had been in California less than a fortnight when Commodore Stockton appointed him Alcalde of Monterey. As such, Colton served with wisdom and sound judgment in dealing with lawbreakers, employed prison labor in building Colton Hall and fined every gambler $20 to help cover the costs of building California's first schoolhouse. He trusted men to work under their own guard, won wide acclaim as a fair judge and impaneled the first jury in California to assist in making decisions.

It was during this period that Colton met Robert Semple and decided to launch a newspaper, which on Aug. 15, 1846, only a month after the American flag was raised at Monterey, carried the news of the declaration of war with Mexico.

Semple's influence upon California was short but lasting. Born Feb. 3, 1806, in Kentucky, he left Independence, Mo., in late August 1845 as part of the Hastings party. The group beat the Sierra snows by a single day because of its late start, and only 10 of the original 22 completed the hazardous journey and arrived at Fort Sutter on Christmas.

Semple immediately joined the Bear-Flag Party and in 1846 led the attack that took Sonoma and captured Gen. M.G. Vallejo.

Joining Col. Fremont's march to Monterey, Semple met Colton, the newly named Alcalde of Monterey.

As a youth, Semple had been indentured to learn printing, but he was allowed to quit that pursuit and successfully studied dentistry, law and medicine. Restlessness had prevented him from taking root in any one place or profession.

In co-publishing The Californian, he drew both upon his past experience in the printing field and in an ability to utilize any printing equipment he could find.

A wooden, hand-operated Ramage press produced that first issue of The Californian. Manufactured in New York about 1800, the press had been shipped to Mexico City for use in the government printing office, and was later packed by mule to Monterey about 1834. By Colton's own admission, “it was old enough to be preserved as a curiosity.”

Printing on what is described as yellow tobacco-wrapping paper, hardly larger than common-size foolscap, one-half of The Californian appeared in English, the other half in Spanish. Copies sold for “one bit” (12.5 cents). Type available at that time was all in pi and so rusty that it was only by hard scouring that the letters were made ready for the press. There were no rules or leads, and in their absence, several sheets of tin were cut by jack-knife to serve as substitutes.

Early news of the day was secured by couriers from all military posts in Alta California. A liberal editorial policy favored the United States, but the paper also served as the official organ of Commodore Stockton.

On May 22, 1847, The Californian was moved from Monterey to Yerba Buena with Semple as the publisher. In 1849 Colton returned to the East where he published his experiences in the book “Three Years in California.” He died in 1851.

The nature of Semple and his exploits indicate a person who would insist upon his say in the handling of news and shaping of the paper's policies. His restless nature, under any circumstances, was bound to lead him in search of adventure. Had he not been the adventurer he was, he never would have become affiliated with The Californian in the first place.

Although he sold the paper in July 1847, several months after becoming sole owner and moving the publication to San Francisco, no discredit should be given him. Few found publishing a newspaper profitable in the early days of California, and many pioneer editors lasted only a year or so.

Semple's adventurous spirit led him to establish the first regular mail route in the territory, to attempt to found a city to rival Yerba Buena (later San Francisco) across the Carquinez Strait, and to establish a ferry between Benicia and the rancho of Martinez in 1848.

His marriage to Frances Ann Cooper in 1847 is said to be the first in which both contracting persons were Americans, and their daughter Mary is believed to be the first California-native daughter born of American parents.

Further search for adventure led Semple to the mining area of the Feather and Yuba Rivers, where he believed the head of navigation to be.

He helped in the founding of the City of Colusa at that site, and he took up property there in what became Colusa County. It was on his ranch there that in the autumn of 1854, he was fatally injured when thrown from a horse.

Semple's greatness of spirit was seen in different ways. He is remembered as a frontiersman of great physical stature and as a dignified man who at one time was chosen as president of the California Constitutional Convention.

By choice, he spent his days in California, married there, and met his death there.

Along with Colton, who returned to the East after three years in California, he is best remembered for launching the first journalistic enterprise in as primitive a place as early Monterey.

Hall of Fame inductees are selected annually by a committee appointed by the California Press Foundation. They recognize career achievements of weekly and daily publishers in California who were important and influential in their era, as judged by their peers in the association. The write-ups are a historical and journalistic snapshot in time and not official biographies.