James KING of William, one of the most notable and outstanding of the early settlers in California, wa born in Georgetown , District of Columbia, on the 28th day of January, 1822, and was the son of William KING. Upon reaching the age of sixteen, James KING, in an endeavor to clarify his identity, in that that there were a number of James KINGS then living in the community where he resided, adopted a method then prevalent and used as part of his name the term “of William” in order that he might be distinguished from the other James KINGS. This designation to his name and its singular form were really strikingly characteristic of the clear cut individuality which animated and influenced James KING of William during the entire period of his remarkable and eventful life.
During his early career he received a sound education, and even as a youth showed a strong leaning towards a literary career. He was a Latin, French, Spanish and German scholar.
He left home at the age of fifteen years and followed the occupation of clerking in various establishments and industries and was rapidly rising as a proficient employee when he was suddenly stricken with a severe attack of fever and compelled to return to his home in Georgetown in 1838. The following year he secured a position as clerk in the local post office and was thus occupied when the presidential contest between Van Buren and Harrison took place, in 1840. After about two years spent in the post office he accepted a position and took his training in journalism in the office of KENDALL’s exposition, a democratic sheet then issued in Georgetown. Following this he was for a time connected as a reporter and advertising manager with the Washington Globe. This experience opened his eyes to the possibilities of newspaper growth and influence.
Circumstances, however made it necessary for James KING of William to give consideration to making his own way into the world and he therefore became a bookkeeper for the mercantile house of Corcoran & Riggs of Washington, where he remained at his duties until 1848, during which year he determined to change his location as well as occupation.
At the time Mr. KING severed his connection with the firm of CORCORAN & RIGGS, Mr. RIGGS, one of the employers, said of him, “He is very clever, steady, sort of man, but I don’t believe he will ever set the Pacific on fire.” This remark was made by him after he had learned that Mr. KING was planning to start for California.
In 1848, when the first gold rumors were kindling the fires of ambition in the East, James KING of William, bade good-bye to his relatives and friends, boarded a vessel and set sail for the Pacific Coast, going via the Isthmus of Panama. While gold, of course was one of the lures or inducements, yet James KING was largely influenced by the letters of his brother, who was a member of Colonel FREMONT’s expedition, had already crossed the Rocky Mountains. No doubt the wild and adventurous takes in these letters stirred the blood of James KING to a feverish intensity. This adventurous brother had gone to California in 1846 and had depicted in flowing expedition in 1848, which expedition exerted such an important influence in conquering the Pacific Coast from Mexico and thus prepared it for transmission to the United States at the conclusion of the Mexican War. Mr. James KING of William’s brother perished on one of the disastrous maneuvers of this historic campaign.
James KING of William left the harbor of New York on the 24th day of May 1848, and upon reaching the other side of the Isthmus was unable to find any vessel to convey him to San Francisco, where it had been agreed that he meet his brother and there from a combination to engage in ranching in the southern part of the state. Mr. KING, therefore, sailed down to Valparaiso, Chile, where news of the gold discovery in California had but recently arrived and where the excitement had taken a firm hold upon the ambitious and romance of the citizens.
Mr. KING saw at once his opportunity and accordingly purchased a stock of goods from teh Valparaiso merchants, employed nine workers of that land to go with him to assist in opening up the mines in the interior of California, and those arrangements having been completed he then set sail to San Francisco, where he arrived on the 10th day of November 1848.
Soon after his arrival six of his employees deserted him but with the three other he trailed out to Placerville, El Dorado County, and commenced the hard work of practical mining. In three weeks time they had discovered enough gold to pay the m en and repay James KING for his outlay at Valparaiso. Later, for some reason not wholly clear, he quit the field, went to Sacramento, and there became associated with the mercantile house of HERSLEY, READING & Company, but was still unsatisfied with the outlook. He soon severed his connection with this concern, and at this time had considerable financial means.
After some investigation and no doubt considerable dickering he started for the East with the matured plan in view of completing arrangements of contracts to open up a series of banks along the Pacific Coast. After covering much of the East, he finally succeeded beyond his expectations in inducing a number of the most prominent capitalists or bankers of that section to engage in the proposed undertaking. Accordingly, he returned to California in December 1849, and at one opened up a bank in San Francisco in a small frame building situated on Montgomery Street, between Clay and Merchants streets, under the name of James KING of William Bank. Here he did a rapidly growing and highly profitable business and soon was regarded as one of the wealthiest and most successful bankers on the Pacific Coast. It was not long after he had established himself as a banker before he had constructed a large brick building at Montgomery and Commercial streets, where he continued to grow and expand until his career as a banker challenged attention. Then it was that his social prominence and civil distinction attained the pinnacle of their power and popularity, an attainment that crows his descendants to this day and is an exemplary start in the West to guide all citizens to higher conduct and character.
His banking career was comparatively short. Here is the reason:
he entrusted a large sum of money to a man in whom he had great confidence, with instructions to invest the same in crude gold dust from the mines. Instead of doing as directed this m an spent the money in the purchase of watered mining stock which when the water had been squeezed out, proved to be almost wholly worthless. In order to save his investments he was induced to invest almost another $100,000, but the attempt was useless and the additional sum was also swamped in the water. He was left enough to pay his creditors, but not much more. For two years he was with ADAMS & Company, and by that time had cleared himself of all obligations to his creditors, but he was left nearly penniless.
In 1855, he again started i the banking business, but his efforts were unsuccessful, owning mainly to the financial panics which then swept over the country. however, no one could say that he lost a cent through the adversity of James KING of William.
In October, 1855, he engaged in the newspaper business and became editor of the daily San Francisco Bulletin, which journal is still one of San Francisco’s leading evening papers. Soon the venture was a splendid success, with a large circulation, plenty of advertisements and a power and popularity excelled by any other journal. He made it a distinctive point to champion good morals, better schools, honestly in public office, exemplary citizenship and professional competency. He fired hot shots at all corrupt public officials, violations of the law, professional gambling, self lauded duelists, flower-ornamented criminals and municipal paralysis and inefficiency. These attacks brought savage response from the offenders. He was finally murdered. His assassination was a deliberate crime engineered by the law breaking class who selected as either tool a convicted felon named James P. CASEY. Mr. KING of William was deliberately shot on May 14, 1856, at the northeast corner of Montgomery and Washington streets. He died on the 20th of May, and two days later his assassin was hanged by the Vigilance Committee.
While he was in Washington in 1843 he married Miss Charlotte M. LIBBEY of Georgetown, and to this union were born six children. As soon as possible after reaching California he prepared a suitable home for them and in 1851 they joined him here. Soon his residence was the center of education, refinement, culture and elegance, and ever since his descendants have lived in the light of his illustrious character.
Transcribed by Deana Schultz.
Source: "The San Francisco Bay Region" Vol. 3 page 59-62 by Bailey Millard. Published by The American Historical Society, Inc. 1924.
© 2004 Deana Schultz.
California Biography Project
San Francisco County
Golden Nugget Library