Colton Biographies - Reverend Walter Colton

Reverend Walter Colton

Reverend Walter Colton

If you have never heard of Monterey, California, then most likely you have never heard of the Reverend Walter Colton, as they are synonymous and go hand in hand. Perhaps Reverend Walter is the most famous of all the Colton ancestors, but his story took place so many years ago it is well worth hearing it again! So if you care to stow away with me let us both learn who this most famous ancestor was and how he spent his short life!

Life begins much the same for everyone, and Walter Colton became the third child born to Deacon Walter and Thankful (Cobb) Colton on the 9th of May, 1797 in Rutland, VT. This was to be a large family of 12 total children and all but 2 would live well into their senior years and each in their own way would accomplish something notable during their lifespan but it was for Walter to become the most famous in all this family.

He was destined to be an Editor, Author, Teacher, Naval Chaplain, Theologian, Journalist, Congregational Preacher, Professor of Moral Philosophy, and an Alcade, but not in this particular sequence. Before we delve into all these many roles, let us quietly follow his life from the start!

The family was very religious and hardships were common and everyday occurrences. As a youth he was an active, happy boy, especially fond of fishing, skating and gunning along the shores of Lake Champlain where his Father had moved when Walter was but an infant. He liked to act the Preacher, getting his books, pulpit, and bearers about him and going thru the forms of public worship with a grave propriety far above his years. Walter was remarkably familiar with the bible and his memory was excellent for one so young. Walter was distinguished among his brothers and playmates for his imagination, sparkling wit and aptness at story telling. Still he was small of build, delicate in health with a nervous temperament and a mind unduly exercised for his small body size.

              At the age of 17, his Father, fearing Walter was in danger from evil associates, sent him off to an uncle in Hartford, CT to learn the trade of a cabinet maker. There he came under the pastoral influence and instructions of a Reverend Nathan Strong and was received into the Centre Church of Hartford. Shortly after his decisive move, he entered the Hartford grammar school of Reverend Horace Hooker in order to prepare for college.

In the fall of 1818 he entered Yale College at 21 years of age and where he would win the Berkleyan Prize for the best Latin translation and did deliver the Valedictory Poem for his graduating class in 1822. He then taught 1 school year in his college course at West Springfield, MA. While in college he gave no indication of his greatness yet to come as he was not in the first rank of his class due in part to his late start in college and a lack of superior training early on. The great object for Walter from the beginning was a course of study of the Gospel Ministry.

He entered the Andover Theological Seminary soon after graduating on 7 June 1825; he was ordained as an Evangelist, according to the usage of the Congregational Church and was then chosen Prof. of Moral Philosophy & Belle Letters in the Scientific & Military Academy at Middletown, CT. This proved to be the rudder of his life during his battle with dyspepsia (sometimes associated with ulcers) which at 28 years was already trying to undermine his health.

It was during the next four years of his life Walter started serious writing while a professor, but to numerous to list herein. In 1830, Walter resigned his professorship and proceeded to Washington, DC, where he undertook the Editorship of the “American Spectator” and “Washington City Chronicle,” the main object being to controvert and prevent the policy of President Andrew Jackson regarding the removal of the Georgia Indians and involving the Nation in a breach of faith! While thus involved Walter was known to occupy the pulpit of the Church where Pres. Jackson attended public worship. Their acquaintance ripened into friendship and Mr. Colton was a frequently invited guest at the White House. Pres. Jackson, aware of Walter’s infirmed health, offered him the choice of a chaplaincy in the U. S. Navy or as a foreign consulate. He chose the former in hopes of restoring his health and was at once nominated by President Jackson to the chaplaincy of the West India squadron over strong objections due to the Indian Removal Policy, but President Jackson stuck by his man. On the 29th of January 1831 Walter left New York on the U.S.S. Vincennes for St. Thomas, Cuba and Pensacola. He returned from this cruise in autumn 1831, his health no better than before.

Early in 1832, he was ordered to the Mediterranean on the Frigate U.S.S. Constellation. This cruise would last three years. He would visit London and Paris while intermittently writing volumes of stories about his travels. After arriving back in Washington, he gave his attention to passage of a Bill by Congress to increase the Pay of Naval chaplains from $650 a year to $1,200 per annum when on duty and $800 when off duty.

Then in 1837, he was appointed Historiographer & Chaplain to the South Sea Surveying & Exploration Squadron but the consequent resignation of some of his associates and the infirmed state of his health it was doubtful he could bear the hardships of the voyage and he also resigned and obtained a release from his appointment. By the close of 1837, being in Washington, he edited the Colonization Herald for several months and he returned to Boston, MA. Soon he was assigned to the Chaplaincy of the Naval Station at Philadelphia, PA. With the consent of the Navy he took the editorship of the “Independent North American” newspaper. Though a secular paper, as its gentlemanly and Christian editor, what he says (writes) is with emphasis and to the point! He labored patiently at his post until compelled by the government to abandon it or quit the Navy, this owing to the politics of the paper being contrary to those of the Vice President and his administration who had gained power upon the death of Pres. Harrison.

And a wise choice it was. He stayed with the Navy and devoted himself to the duties at the Navy Yard and Naval Asylum; the later for which he wrote to Sect. of the Navy requesting $435 to procure an organ, a reading room and aid for his efforts to promote temperance among seamen, no small task! His request was so honored!

In the year 1844, Walter was elected Anniversary Poet for the Literary Societies in Vermont University at Burlington, VT. By 26th of June in that same year, he married a distant cousin, Cornelia Baldwin Colton (#962) in Philadelphia, PA. His spirits buoyed and feeling in much better health they spent part of the summer of 1845 visiting friends in Vermont. Upon returning to Philadelphia Walter Colton was ordered forthwith to sea in the Frigate U.S.S. Congress, bound for the Pacific. Within 24 hours he was at his post in Norfolk, VA, leaving the sweet domestic life for the accommodations aboard a man-of-war. Let us remember that ships were still powered by wind & sails, engines were not to be used until sometime later.

Again Walter utilized his time to write about the incidents on that voyage on the flagship of the Pacific Squadron with volumes entitled, “Deck & Port” and “Three Years in California”. Again, we note that 20 days after they sailed from Hampton Roads they had gone 2,500 miles and were still 4,000 miles from Rio, over 6,000 miles from Norfolk. There was no Panama Cannel, a long, tedious trip to the Pacific! The above books are recommended reading for the entire family to view what life was like 156 years ago!

By this time the United States was near war with Mexico. The years of 1845-46 were years of national crisis, years in which the Navy played an important part in California waters! In June 1845, the Secretary of the Navy sent secret instructions to Commodore John D. Sloat of the Pacific Squadron, to seize San Francisco and to blockade other California ports in case war broke out. Commodore R. F. Stockton was sent out to relieve Com. Sloat and it was a blessing for Chaplain Colton as Com. Stockton gave him encouragement in his work, drinking and profanity were discouraged and grace was said at meals.

On May 11, 1846 President Polk announced the U. S. was at war with Mexico. The United States flag was first raised in California over Monterey on July 7, 1846 by Commodore Sloat, and on July 15 the U.S.S. Congress arrived at Monterey. Since the U.S. was then responsible for the civil administration of California, some provision had to be made to establish and maintain authority. Commodore Stockton selected Chaplain Colton to be Alcalde at Monterey, a district which extended 300 miles along California’s coastline. This would make him the highest judicial authority, the senior administrator, and the senior Alcalde of all Alcaldes!

The office of Alcalde was a Mexican institution that combined duties of sheriff, judge, prosecutor, coroner and governor among other things. Walter was to be the very first Protestant clergyman to settle in California! What would a Naval Chaplain, born and raised in the East and never having held public office do with this new responsibility, far from wife and family in a totally different land and people? For nearly three years he would play the role of a benevolent dictator and after serving as Alcalde about 2 months by appointment, he ran for and was elected by popular vote on September 15, 1846 by the citizens of Monterey, CA to that same position.

By June 3, 1846 the only child of Rev. Walter Colton was born. Walter Ewing Colton (#1603) came into this world in Philadelphia but it would be some period of time before his father would be able to set eyes on him.

Meanwhile, things moved fast with and for Walter Colton. He established the 1st American newspaper in California. He found Robert Stemple, an emigrant from Kentucky, complete with buckskin dress and foxskin cap, who was “true with the rifle, ready with his pen and quick at the type case”, who agreed to assist. The two became partners on Aug 15, 1846 published the 1st issue of the “Californian”. That first issue told about the declaration of war between the U.S. and Mexico, half was in Spanish, the other half was in English. It produced quite a little sensation!

On September 4th, this Naval Chaplain impaneled the 1st Jury to be summoned in California. There was no appeal from his court and there was no judge sitting on any bench in England or the U.S. whose power was so absolute as that of the Alcalde of Monterey! In October he issued an ordinance against gambling but this only drove gamblers out into the bush. Once he took a file of soldiers and surrounded a Saloon. His net caught fifty men, including the Alcalde of San Francisco, and each was fined $20.

With monies derived from fines, and with the aid of prisoners from the town’s jail, Alcalde Colton began construction of a white stone building, quarried from nearby, about 70 by 35 ft. that would be the Town Hall. This building still stands and is now the “Colton Hall Museum”. It stands two stories tall and at one time the 1st floor was used as a School and the 2nd floor for public assemblies. It was completed in a little more than a year and put into use by summer of 1847. It is still in use for meetings with space for the Museum.

Now it is April 1847, and Walter had been appointed Judge of the United States Court of Admiralty, which meant that when a vessel of any kind is captured by our Navy, she is considered a prize. However, before she becomes legally so, it is necessary that she be tried and condemned; if it is found she belongs to a neutral nation, she is liberated, but if she belongs to the enemy she is condemned. Seven prize cases came before his court in Monterey during his 3 years service there. In one, the schooner William and her cargo were condemned, both of which were worth about $20,000 each. By Feb. 1848 the Mexican’s signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and it would seem life in California could settle down but now it was time for Gold to be discovered and in early 1848 gold was found at Sutter’s Fort and the Rush was on! In a short period of time this would bring 80,000 people into California seeking a quick fortune. The gold rush swept Monterey of its men except for those who were in jail or in uniform; one whole platoon deserted, leaving their colors behind.

From May until October of 1848 were hard times in Monterey. Provisions were scarce and difficult to obtain and the needs of the people rendered it necessary for the Alcalde to assist in preparing food for the table. His own sleeping quarters were much the same as the poorest laborer; a dark room, no window, not even 6 ft. wide and almost as bad as the calaboose itself. More than 7 months later Alcalde Colton was still at his post, yearning to return to domestic enjoyment and to see his son but his responsibilities held him close and it would be almost another year of anxiety before his safe return to wife and family.

The fame of Walter’s administration in California became well publicized. A sketch in International Magazine stated that “the difficult duties and large responsibilities of his office demanded the most untiring industry, zeal and fortitude and were discharged with eminent faithfulness and ability so that he won the regard of the conquered inhabitants as well as the respect of his associates.”

Colton Hall exterior view
Colton Hall Museum - Exterior View
Built under the direction of Walter Colton
Colton Hall 2nd Floor Meeting Room
Colton Hall Museum - Second Floor Meeting Room
Site of California's first Constitutional Convention in 1849

There still remained a visit to the gold fields in southern California, with Col. Richard Barnes Mason in Oct/Nov of 1848. Next it was the 1st Constitutional Convention in 1849 and held in Colton Hall in Monterey. It would not be until Sep. of 1850 that California would be admitted to statehood and by then Walter would have made the lengthy return trip to Philadelphia and a visit to his aging father (85) in VT, back to his family at last!

It would seem that Walter Colton had answered God’s calling, had given of himself more than should be asked of any individual and now he approached his final battle, a confinement that would last 5 months until his last breath the 22nd of Jan, 1851 in Philadelphia, PA

Now that we know some of the story about this Colton, who died young but packed so much into a short lifetime, do we make a final report card? How successful had he been? Does any person lead such an active life without enemies scattered along the way? Through it all Walter Colton seems to have taken deep pride in everything he did, using common sense laced with patience and understanding for his fellow man and leaving his record etched in history for all of us to share.

Thank God for Walter and thank Walter for some of our rich Colton heritage!

Final Resting Place of Reverend Walter Colton
Laurel Hill Cemetery
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Portions of this story on Reverend Walter Colton and some photos were used with the express permission of the Colton Hall Museum in Monterey, California.

Other photos were used from the Library of Congress web site:

Prints and Photographs Division
Pictures can be viewed by searching for "Colton Hall."

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