This article by Allston-Brighton historian Dr. William P. Marchione appeared in the Allston-Brighton Tab or Boston Tab newspapers in the period from July 1998 to late 2001, and supplement information in his books The Bull in the Garden (1986) and Images of America: Allston-Brighton (1996). Researchers should, however, feel free to quote from the material, with proper attribution.
James L. L. F. Warren: "Father of California Agriculture"
Bostonians have made many significant contributions to the development of California and the Pacific Northwest. In the 1790 to 1792 period a Boston-owned ship, the Columbia, was the first American vessel to visit to the Pacific northwest, the name of the great Columbia River deriving from its explorations. So common was the arrival of Boston-owned trading vessels in western waters by the early 1800s, that Americans were referred to simply as “Boston Men,” whether from the Hub or not. Later, Bostonians also played a key role in the development of the western mining industry and in the financing and management of the transcontinental railroad, the first reliable east-west transit link.
Another major contribution to western history that deserves to be much better known was that of a Boston-area horticulturalist, James L. L. F. Warren, who has been referred to as the “Father of California Agriculture.”
James Lloyd LaFayette Warren was born in the Boston suburb of Brighton on August 12, 1805, the son of Captain Joseph Warren, carpenter, farmer, and a long-time Brighton Town Clerk. James’ childhood residence stood atop the eastern slope of Nonantum Hill, on the site of the present EF Language Institute on Lake Street. Later he resided in a house that is still standing at 222 Lake Street.
From an early age Warren showed a great interest in the cultivation of plants and flowers. As early as 1820, when he was just 15, a nursery he laid out on his family’s Brighton estate was attracting wide notice from horticultural enthusiasts. By 1829, this establishment, the “Nonantum Vale Gardens,” was a famed and thriving enterprise.
Warren also won many awards from the Massachusetts State Board of Agriculture for his contributions to horticulture. In 1838 he received a medal from the Boston Horticultural Society for growing the first tomatoes in Massachusetts. He also propagated new varieties of the camelia, which he later introduced into Britain and California.
Warren was also a highly successful Boston businessman, the owner of two enterprises in the downtown. In 1826 he founded a dry goods emporium, known as “Warren’s Shawl and Silk Store,” in the Joy Building, on Washington Street near the Old State House. More significant still, was his founding in 1844 of Warren’s Floral Saloon, an exhibition hall and sales room in the Tremont Temple building. He inaugurated this downtown horticultural outlet with an exhibit of a bed of tulips (then still a rarity in the United States) that was 9 feet wide by 100 feet long.
Warren’s Brighton nursery and downtown “floral saloon” attracted many distinguished visitors over the years, including such political and literary luminaries as Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun, Wendell Philips, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel P. Willis, William Cullen Bryant, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, to name but a few.
The great horticulturalist’s career also had its journalistic, educational, political, diplomatic, and philanthropic dimensions. The common denominator of virtually all his activities was human and societal improvement.
Warren’s commitment to reform included a leadership role in the Massachusetts branch of the Liberty Party, a radical anti-slavery political movement that his close friend, the poet William Cullen Bryant, helped found in 1839.
In 1846 Warren, who was at the point of sailing for Europe, was enlisted by the State Department to carry dispatches to George Bancroft, then U. S. Minister to Great Britain (possibly relating to the Oregon dispute which was then troubling Anglo-American relations). He remained in Europe for two years, traveling extensively in the British Isles, France, and the Low Countries. He also toured Ireland, then in the grips of the devastating Potato Famine.
Upon his return to the United States, Warren, called attention to the “intense suffering [and] the absolute starvation of thousands” in Ireland, joining others, including the great Irish temperance lecturer Father Theobald Mathew and the so-called “Learned Blacksmith” Elihu Burritt, in proposing a plan for Irish famine relief. The U. S. government became interested in their proposal, and soon after supplied the U.S. frigate Jamestown to transport food to the famine victims.
U.S. acquisition of California in 1848 and the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in the same year led to large-scale migration of easterners, the so-called “Forty Niners,” to the gold fields. One of these was Warren, who was destined to spend the second half of his life in the west.
While most of the “Forty-Niners,” were young, unmarried men, at the time of his migration Warren was a mature 44, a married man, and the father of several children. Moreover, his decision to go west was a carefully thought out business decision. Warren had accepted an offer from a group of Boston and New York investors to act as business manager of the recently-organized Sweden Mining Company. In exchange for their passage to California, the participants agreed to work in the gold fields under company auspices for an established period of time.
Warren set out on March 2, 1849 for the western El Dorado, temporarily leaving his family behind in Boston. The members of the Sweden Mining Company were transported to the gold fields aboard a company-owned vessel, the Sweden, a 650 ton ship of recent construction, named in honor of the great Swedish soprano Jenny Lind, a great popular favorite in Boston. The ship, with its 212 passengers, reached San Francisco by way of Cape Horn on August 6, 1849, after a torturous five month passage.
Warren had scant opportunity to demonstrate his skills as a mining company manager, however, for the employees of the Sweden Company quickly reneged on their agreements, scattering to the various gold fields on an individual basis.
Never easily discouraged, Warren saw other business opportunities in California and proceeded to take advantage of them. He quickly established a letter carrying service between San Francisco and the interior mining camps. And in November 1849, a mere three months after his arrival, founded a general provisioning firm, Warren & Company, in California’s capital city of Sacramento.
The frequency of scurvy in the mining camps, and his own deep interest in horticulture, led Warren to orient his provisioning business toward the acquisition and sale of fruit trees, seeds, and agricultural implements. By 1852 Warren’s store had become so important to the state’s expanding agricultural economy, that it served as the site of the first California State Fair, the rooms above it being dubbed “Agricultural Hall.”
Many of the practices followed at this first California State Fair, which Warren almost singlehandedly organized, it should be noted, closely paralleled those followed at the Brighton Fair and Cattle Show, held for many years at Brighton’s Agricultural Hall under the auspices of the Massachusetts Society for Promoting Agriculture. Here again we see evidence of the influence of New England men, practices, and institutions upon the west.
In 1853, Warren shifted his business headquarters to San Francisco, the state’s largest city, thereafter running the enterprise in association with his son, John Quincy Adams Warren.
The great horticulturalists contributions to California agriculture were many and varied. In addition to his role as initiator of the first state fair, Warren was also largely responsible for establishing the principal agricultural publication in the west, The California Farmer and Journal of Useful Sciences, and also took the lead in the foundation of the California State Agricultural Society, which was incorporated, largely at his behest, by the state legislature in 1854, with permission to establish two experimental farms, and to erect meeting halls and exhibition buildings.
As Historian Walton Bean wrote of the Bostonian J. L. L. F. Warren’s many contributions to California agriculture: “One of the greatest needs of the frontier state’s slowly and clumsily developing agriculture was the introduction and adaptation of new crops, and it was here that Warren rendered one of the greatest of his services. His office served as a clearinghouse for the exchange of information, specimens, and seeds, not merely within California, but with other parts of the United States, South America, and the Orient.”