Small Building, Big Responsibilities: The First San Diego Courthouse

By Nathan Fogerson, Intern, Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, Spring 2021, San Diego State University

The origins of the First San Diego Courthouse can be traced to a time before California gained statehood. To better understand the history of the First San Diego Courthouse, it is important to recognize and understand the people who built the building. President James Polk enlisted Mormon volunteers to serve in a battalion and help with the Mexican War effort in the West. They bolstered the ranks of the United States Army and its continuing effort in the Mexican American War. These volunteers were recruited to assist while parts of the Mormon community were beginning to settle further West into Mexican territory. When the battalion started their march from Iowa in 1846, the Mormon church members did not have any foothold in the West. After the march began, a large contingent of church members, unconnected to the battalion, travelled to Utah to make Salt Lake City the headquarters for the Church of Latter-Day Saints. Members of the Mormon Battalion ended up all over the West Coast, with some specifically landing in San Diego. The battalion arrived in San Diego on January 27, 1847, about two weeks after the signing of the Treaty of Cahuenga in Los Angeles on January 13, 1847, which ended the fighting in California. The enlistment papers, for many within the battalion, required their military service continue until July 1847. As a result, many stayed in San Diego to help with public service projects like building the courthouse.

Built in 1847, the building was the first fired brick structure in San Diego. (We know that the courthouse was constructed of bricks, but to this day we do not know where the brick kiln was located within the community.) By 1849, the building had taken on significant importance as the headquarters of the US Boundary Commission, which dealt with matters relating to the newly formed boundary between the United States and Mexico following the Mexican American War. This was only the beginning. This modest building became increasingly important in San Diego and served as much more than just a courthouse. Before California was admitted as part of the United States, the local Mexican mayor (or alcalde) of San Diego operated out of the building. Since the building was first erected, it has served as a hub for important individuals and organizations and continued to serve in that capacity until the building was burned down in 1872.


Address – 2733 San Diego Ave, San Diego, CA 92110

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