California brick

Mormon Battalion Brickyard, San Diego


Mormon Courthouse In July 1846, the Mormon Battalion, a volunteer unit of 500 soldiers, left Council Bluffs, Iowa, on their 2,000-mile march to San Diego. They were to protect the southern border post at San Diego during the Mexican-American War. They arrived in San Diego on January 29, 1847. During the next five months, when not performing garrison duties, the soldiers were engaged in civic projects in San Diego. Most of the brickmakers were privates in Company B, led by Captain Jesse Hunter. Thanks to the detailed journals kept by several of the soldiers, we have a fairly detailed account of the brickmaking activities.

On March 28, 1847, Philander Colton and John Rufus Stoddard began making the wooden molds to form bricks. Surface soil was mixed with water to make the mixture that was thrown into the wooden molds. By May 10, the men were ready to burn bricks, but they needed fuel to fire the kiln. The five soldiers who were sent eight miles to cut wood were Azariah Smith, Ephraim Green, Israel Evans, Jesse Martin, and Hyrum Mount, all of Company B. Finally, on May 23, the first bricks were fired in the kiln. These first bricks were used to line wells.

On June 28, 1847, ground was cleared for a brickyard by Henry W. Bigler and others, for the purpose of making several thousand bricks for a Californian named "Bandena," probably Juan Bandini who was a legislative councilman and alcalde of Old Town San Diego. The small building was built by subscription originally for a school house, but it was later to become the first courthouse in San Diego. The kiln-fired bricks were made by Philander Colton, Henry Wilcox, William Garner, and Rufus Stoddard, all of Company B. The building, completed by July 8, stood on the corner of San Diego Avenue and Mason Street, in the Old Town plaza. A fire destroyed the building in 1872. A 1991 reconstruction of the courthouse building using modern brick is shown on the right. This may have been the first brick building built in San Diego and possibly the first in California.

During their brief stay in San Diego, the Mormon Battalion brick masons had lined some of the 15 to 20 wells around town, laid brick sidewalks, and built other brick buildings and chimneys. From May to July of 1847, over 40,000 bricks were made at the Mormon Battalion brickyard. The brickyard closed when members of the Mormon Battalion were mustered out of service on July 16, 1847.

Philander Colton, a construction consultant, was in charge of making bricks and building the first brick building. He was born in New York in 1811, and in 1833, married Polly Merrill in Michigan. In the 1830s, while still in Michigan, Colton joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and went to California with the Mormon Battalion. He was mustered out with Company B in July 1847. In 1849, he went to Utah, where he died in 1891.

Rufus Stoddard was born in Leeds, Ontario, Canada, in 1827. He was a member of the Mormon Battalion Company B, mustering out in July 1847. In October 1848, Rufus went to Utah, where he remained until his death in 1904.

Henry Bigler, born in Shinnston, Virginia, in 1815, was a member of the Mormon Battalion Company B. After he mustered out of service in 1847 in Los Angeles, he made his way up to the American River to construct a sawmill for John Sutter. There he had witnessed James Marshall picking up gold at Sutter's Mill in 1848. Bigler died in Saint George, Utah, in 1900.

Perhaps Zaccheus Cheeney and Captain Jesse Hunter from Company B and James Bailey from Company A, also worked at the San Diego brickyard. Cheeney and Bailey later went to San Francisco to make some of the earliest bricks there. In 1852, Captain Jesse Hunter went to Los Angeles to erect the first brick building there.

In 1984, the First San Diego Courthouse, Inc., a non-profit corporation, was organized to raise funds to reconstruct the first courthouse in San Diego. After a decade of planning and archaeological excavations to determine its original site, construction began on August 7, 1991. The completed building was dedicated on September 26, 1992. Today, visitors at Old Town San Diego State Historic Park can tour the courthouse building to see the 1850s style courtroom and related exhibits.

On the grounds in the plaza and around the old courthouse are pieces of what may have been the original brick made by the Mormon Battalion. The brick has a very crude appearance and was not well fired. From the brick pieces, we can tell a little about the process used by the Mormon brickmakers. The clay was not screened, but put directly into wooden molds, which were lined with sand, to form the bricks. The mixture contained clay, sand, rocks, and plant debris. The bricks were fired in field kilns or scoves built on site using wood as fuel, and the kiln operator had difficulties in maintaining constant heat in the kiln as indicated by the irregular and underfired nature of the brick. The brick turned out smaller in size compared to the modern standard brick. We can see from these brick bats that the original courthouse was composed of small-sized, tan to pale orange common brick, quite strikingly different than the larger, smooth, orange-red, machine-made bricks seen in the replica courthouse.

Mormon Battalion Brick

Mormon brick
View of the face of a Mormon Battalion brick bat.

Mormon brick
View of the interior clay body of a Mormon Battalion brick bat.

Mormon brick
View of the face of a Mormon Battalion brick bat, showing the red color typical of kiln fired bricks. Note the rectangular twig or straw impressions.

Mormon brick interior
View of the highly porous interior clay body of a Mormon Battalion brick bat.

Common brick is tan to pale orange-red in color. The surfaces were sand-struck with coarse, clear quartz sand and sparkly mica flakes. Edges are straight and dull. Corners are dull. Subangular clasts up to 1/2 inch across constitute 15 to 20 percent of the clay body. The clasts are mostly rhyolite, sandstone, feldspar, and quartz. Twig or straw impressions can be seen in the clay. The clay body is highly porous with large pits displayed throughout the brick. These bricks were quite thin and narrow compared with standard bricks. This brick was made using the sand-molded, soft-mud process. Length unknown, width 3 1/4, height 1 3/4 - 2 1/2 inches.


Aner, Alexander and Olines, Philander Colton, Weller Family Portal, 2007, (accessed 2008).

Bringhurst, Lila. Personal communication, 2007.

Crockett, David R., Pioneer Date Summary, Heritage Gateways website, 2007, (accessed 2008).

First San Diego Courthouse, Inc., The First San Diego Courthouse 1847 - 1872, Brochure, revised 7 June 2007.

Old Town Visitor Center, San Diego State Park, San Diego, CA, personal communication, 2007.

Pottawattamie County, Iowa Gen Web Project, The Iowa Mormon Battalion Company A, 2007, (accessed 2008).

Pottawattamie County, Iowa Gen Web Project, The Iowa Mormon Battalion Company B, 2007, (accessed 2008).

Ricketts, Norma B., The Mormon Battalion, U.S. Army of the West, 1846-1848, Utah State University Press, Logan, Utah, 1996.

Rootsweb, Philander Colton, 2007, (accessed 2008).

Sefton, Donna K., Justice In Old Town, The Journal of San Diego History, v. 2, no. 4, October 1956.

Serr, Carol, written communications, 2007.

Symthe, William Ellsworth, History of San Diego, 1542-1908, The History Co., San Diego, CA, 1908.

Tyler, Sgt. Daniel, A Concise History of the Mormon Battalion in the Mexican War 1846-1848, Publishers Press, Salt Lake City, UT, 7th printing, 2000.

Vurtinus, John F., The Mormon Volunteers: The Recruitment and Service of a Unique Military Company, The Journal of San Diego History, v. 25, no. 3, Summer 1979.

Copyright 2008 Dan Mosier

Contact Dan Mosier at