Cadwalader Ringgold, U. S. Navy

By Houston, Alan Fraser | California History, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

Cadwalader Ringgold, U. S. Navy


Houston, Alan Fraser, California History


Gold Rush Surveyor of San Francisco Bay and Waters to Sacramento, 1849-1850

By early summer of 1849, hundreds of ships were anchored in the harbor of San Francisco. Forty-niners were scrambling for available means of transportation to the gold region, and suppliers faced the same difficulties as the gold seekers. Navigation by ships on the Sacramento River was severely limited by reefs, bars, mud, and tortuous channels. Groundings were frequent and losses occurred. Ships were forced to unload to smaller vessels at either San Francisco or across the bay at Benicia, resulting in delay, inconvenience, and increased expense. Non-existent charts of the harbor, bays, rivers, and shoals compounded the hazards. The business community and local government quickly recognized the problem and just as quickly proposed a solution: enter marine pioneer Cadwalader Ringgold, USN.

On June 20, San Francisco's Alta California announced:

Enterprising--A subscription is on foot among our business men [1] to survey and buoy the Suisun bay and the Sacramento river between this port and Sacramento city. Captain Ringgold, U S N, has been employed to make the survey, and there is every prospect that it will be speedily accomplished. [2]

Ringgold later replied:

[T]he enterprising citizens of San Francisco ... in the absence of any authentic charts, saw the necessity of careful and immediate surveys. Being at the time in California, [3] I was requested to undertake the laborious and toilsome duty of surveying a vast and unknown sea, buoying out the channels, and removing the many obstacles attending intercourse with the mines. [4]

Who was Cadwalader Ringgold? What were the eastern origins of this noted but largely undocumented nineteenth-century marine explorer? What were his contributions to San Francisco and the gold regions? The answers to these questions begin with his family's distinguished military tradition and with his own exemplary naval career.

The sixth of eleven children, Cadwalader Ringgold was born on August 20, 1802, at "Fountain Rock," his father's 18,000-acre estate in Washington County in western Maryland. His father, Gen. Samuel Ringgold of the Maryland militia, served in the Maryland state senate and, except for one term, as a U. S. congressman from 1810 to 1821. Cadwalader's mother was Maria Cadwalader, the daughter of the distinguished Gen. John Cadwalader of Philadelphia. Gen. John Cadwalader had been commander of the "silk stocking company" of Philadelphia at the opening of the Revolutionary War, so-called because it was recruited from the elite young men of Philadelphia. Under General Cadwalader's command, however, they were a welldrilled, efficient, and effective force. General Cadwalader led his Pennsylvania troops in the winter campaign of 1776--77 and received General Washington's recognition: 'A man of ability, a good disciplinarian, firm in his principles, and of intrepid bravery." [5] In defense of General Washington, General C adwalader later successfully fought a duel with Gen. Thomas Conway after the latter had sought to undermine Washington's leadership.

Cadwalader Ringgold's older brother, Samuel, was born at Fountain Rock in 1800 and graduated from the U. S. Military Academy at West Point in 1818 with high honor. He began service as a lieutenant of artillery and became an aide to Gen. Winfield Scott. Prior to the Mexican War, while at Fort McHenry, Baltimore, he organized the first corps of flying artillery--a corps capable of rapid movement. Immensely popular and highly respected, Major Ringgold was wounded at Palo Alto in the Mexican War on May 8, 1846, while personally directing cannon fire. He died at Port Isabel, Texas, on May 11, and was buried with full military and civic honors on December 22, 1846, at Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore.

Cadwalader Ringgold's half-sister, Marie Antoinette Ringgold, the "beautiful and accomplished" [6] sister of George Hay Ringgold, moved to California [7] and married the prominent Gen. …

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