History Weekend: The Near-Forgotten Man

Edward Fitzgerald “Ned” Beale was a prominent 19th century hero, a celebrity, almost; a military officer, war hero, notable horseman and explorer, hero of the western frontier, good friend of several other notable frontiersmen, friend of one president, and appointed to offices of responsibility by four others – and those offices varied quite widely in scope. He was also a champion of the Native American tribes, prominent in Washington high society for decades, and seemed to lurk meaningfully in the background of key historical events at mid-19th century. Curiously, his name doesn’t readily spring to mind more than a hundred years after his death; the most prominent places bearing his name being Beale Street in San Francisco, and Beale Air Force Base, near Marysville in north-central California. One would think for all his various services to the nation and for his vast array of prominent and still-famous friends that he would be more of a household name. Perhaps he was for a while – but four decades or more of politically-correct restructuring of American history have elevated some, and reduced others to mere footnotes in dusty journals.

Ned Beale was born in 1822, in Washington D.C. – the capitol of a nation barely half-a-century old, to parents with connections to the American Navy. His father was a paymaster for the service, his mother the daughter of one of the first six commanders appointed by President Washington to head the new US Navy. So, it was only natural, when after the death of his father, Ned Beale was appointed to the Naval School in Philadelphia, a precursor to Annapolis. Upon graduation from the school in 1842, he was commissioned as a midshipman, and made voyages to the Indies, South America, and Russia. Three years later he was assigned to the Pacific Squadron, the command of Robert Stockton; an able and trusted officer, who had – as Beale himself would later have in his own career – the trust of presidents, and the friendship of the influential. Beale served as Stockton’s aide and private secretary; they were part of the American delegation to Texas when the Texas Congress formally accepted annexation to the United States.

Beale’s next assignment for Stockton was – not to put too fine a point on it – a spy, ordered to conceal his nationality and sail on a Danish ship to England, to suss out British feelings and possible war preparations over the contentious matter of the Oregon boundary. Barely having completed that assignment and reported his findings to President Polk, Beale was sent off hotfoot with dispatches to rejoin Captain Stockton, whose flagship happened to be in Peru at that moment. This necessitated that Beale make the journey by sea to Panama, cross the Isthmus and make his way to Peru – all this a kind of 19th century precursor to Planes, Trains and Automobiles.

Stocktons’ ship detoured to Hawaii, and arrived in harbor at Monterey, California in July, 1846. War between the United States and Mexico had already begun. The Pacific Squadron’s orders, in that eventuality, were to seize those ports along the Pacific coast – especially those in California. Stockton set about doing so with zeal and efficiency. Ned Beale was detached to serve with a US Army column which had come at speed overland from Fort Scott on the Missouri-Mississippi under the command of General Stephen Kearny. Briefly pausing to take Santa Fe, and New Mexico for the US, Kearney’s advanced column – guided by Kit Carson — arrived in California out of breath and weakened after a marathon march of 2,000 miles across country. Kearney’s advance party, augmented with sailors and Marines from the Pacific Squadron clashed with Californio-Mexican volunteers and Mexican presidial cavalry at San Pasqual, near San Diego. Both sides claimed a victory – although Kearney’s force suffered the heavier losses, they eventually took San Diego, and Ned Beale was one of the heroes. Two months after the San Pasqual fight, he was sent east with dispatches. Over the next two years, he made six cross-continental journeys on official business; one of them in disguise to make a short-cut through Mexico to bring irrefutable proof of the tremendous gold strike in the California foothills at Coloma to the federal government. Amid these expeditions, he found the time and energy to marry; the daughter of a politician from Pennsylvania, Mary Edwards, and sire three children with her.

Beale resigned his naval commission in 1851, but in no way was he done with the far west, or assignments of great import to the federal government. He returned briefly to California, to manage properties owned there by his mentor, Commodore Stockton. On his way west, he squeezed in a spot of surveying for a transcontinental rail line through present-day Colorado to Los Angeles. Two years later, he was appointed superintendent of Indian affairs in California and Nevada. Thereafter Ned Beale spent a hectic decade exploring and surveying the west, establishing a wagon road between Fort Defiance, New Mexico to a point on the Colorado River between Arizona and California – the initial phase of this project involved another project of interest to the Army – the Camel Corps. He proved to be a champion of camels in the far west; when the Camel Corps was formally disbanded at the end of the Civil War, Beale purchased some of the surplus camels and kept them at his vast California ranch property. The camels also served in a later Beale expedition to extend the road from Fort Smith, Arkansas, to the Colorado River. That same route was later followed by the Santa Fe railway, US Route 66 and the present day I-40.

In 1871, Ned Beale purchased a mansion in Washington, DC – Decatur House, notable for being almost next-door to the White House, and entertained a wide variety of guests there over the following years – guests including U. S. Grant, and prominent members of his administration. He spent one year as ambassador to Austria-Hungary, and made as much of a social splash in Vienna as he had in Washington. Doubt less his experiences on the far-west frontier – which by that point was almost legendary – coupled with his considerable diplomatic skills and ability to earn the trust of important people had a lot to do with that success.

His final years were spent between Decatur House, the California ranch, and a horse farm called Ash Hill, close to Washington. He died at Decatur House in 1893, a few years shy of the twentieth century. Sailor, soldier, spy, surveyor, explorer, diplomat, rancher, man about town – and a fine judge of horseflesh. Not many men of his time could quite equal that resume in every particular.
(Ned Beale is set to appear as a character in the next Lone Star Sons book – Lone Star Glory, which I hope to bring out by November, 2017.)

16 thoughts on “History Weekend: The Near-Forgotten Man”

  1. WKPD: “Beale Street Blues” is a 1916 song by American composer and lyricist W.C. Handy. The title refers to Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee, the main entertainment district for the city’s African American population in the early part of the twentieth century. No relation, I assume?

  2. I spent a good portion of my life working on Beale Street in San Francisco, just off Market, first with Bechtel and then across the street with Pacific Gas and Electric.

    Never knew the man for whom the street was named.

    Thanks Sgt. Mom!

  3. There’s a project called Open Street Maps which has an API. You can, if you master the query language, get a listing of all streets in any particular area, even the whole country. I wonder how many interesting stories are lurking in behind those names.

  4. Possibly, Dearie – as noted, he was well-known in the mid-19th century.

    It was just … interesting to me, that he was around and about, like an ethical and able American version of Flashman, sent hither and yon — and now is relatively obscure.

    Well, that’s why I write – to tell stories of fascinating people, doing interesting things, all those things that are left off the current history texts for the usual depressingly PC reasons.

  5. Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beale_Street) says:
    “Beale Street was created in 1841 by entrepreneur and developer Robertson Topp (1807–1876), who named it for a forgotten military hero”
    Which sounds like it is probably him, but only if the dates are wrong (entirely possible, of course), or if the name wasn’t finalized as Beale until 1851 or thereafter…

  6. “Stocktons’ ship detoured to Hawaii, and arrived in harbor at Monterey, California in July, 1846”

    It was not a detour. The sailing vessel course from Mexico to San Francisco goes very close to Hawaii, especially in the days of square rigged ships that could point no closer than 45 degrees.

    The prevailing wind along the California coast is out of the northwest and hugging the coast to try to stay on port is dangerous as the story of the Sacramento and a century later, the schooner Goodwill, which hit the Sacramento Reef

    She lies smashed on a reef in the Pacific 200 miles south of San Diego. Larrabee and seven persons who sailed with him on
    the majestic yacht’s last voyage are missing. The body of a ninth has been pulled from the sea by Mexican fishermen. The wreckage of the Goodwill was discovered Sunday on Sacramento Reef, four miles off this fishing village in the Mexican state of Baja California. She was identified Monday by Mario Marrs, an employe of Larrabee, a millionaire machine shop operator from Huntington Park. Calif. Marrs flew over the reef in a U.S. Coast Guard search plane. Lifeboats of the Goodwill were missing.

    The brother of a friend of mine chartered a plane and found the wreck when the vessel was late arriving in Ensenada. None of the missing were ever found and two women friends of mine lost their husbands in the wreck.

    It is much safer to sail for Hawaii and then tack back to the coast near the San Francisco latitude.

    Coming home from Hawaii, the best sailing course is to go north about 500 miles then turn right and sail across the top of the Pacific High in summer.

    In winter it is not wise to go north of Hawaii. Some people I knew were sailing back from Japan in a 61 foot yacht with good experience but they were rolled over in April and several were seriously injured by loose gear.

  7. “Beale’s Cut” is a landmark in Los Angeles. It was the original wagin route over the mountains between Loa Angeles and the north.

    Beale apparently had the excavation made. MY wife and I used to hike there and I have a photo of her standing in the cut. It is east of the present day “Grapevine Pass” highway out of LA.

  8. Oh – so that’s why from South America, to Hawaii and then to California – thanks, Mike – and for the link to the article about Beale’s Cut. Looks like he got the credit for what other people actually did…

  9. Speaking of oceanic diversions, I find the story of the Navy frigate that collided with the cargo ship to be very, very interesting. If one were conspiracy minded one could envision that someone might have been doing some hacking and/or spoofing of systems on one of both ships…

  10. That was curious, wasn’t it? And now it seems to have dropped entirely off the news horizon. How could a nimble, fast US Navy ship get T-boned by a hulking and slow container ship, when presumably the Navy ship had all the bells, whistles, bridge look-out?

  11. Well, I did say “if one were conspiracy minded…”

    That being said, any idiot can ram a ship into the land. Ramming another ship in the open ocean is a whole different proposition. All the examples I’ve seen given as to other similar events really were very different–a bunch of Cold War era Soviet-US collisions, a lot of collisions between US naval vessels in a convoy type setting, collisions with small fishing boats in crowded waters (Persian Gulf, Korea, etc.), many of all of the above involving a submarine, so that one ship didn’t know it was there and the sub lost track of the surface ship as it surfaced, etc. But I’ve seen nothing like two very large modern surface ships crashing into each other in the open ocean.

    So, sure, let’s stick with the idea that this is just a freak once-in-a-loooooong-time occurrence, and no third parties were involved in any way, shape, or form. Such third parties are surely working very hard to figure out all the implications of the fact that a major US naval vessel could find itself in such a predicament…

  12. I think I found the Beale that Beale Street was named after. Apparently there was a Captain Thomas Beale who commanded a company of volunteer rifleman at the Battle of New Orleans.

  13. I think that Martin is right – the Memphis Beale Street was most likely named after the Beale at the Battle of New Orleans.
    Most of the other spots named for Ned Beale are in the far West – and he was a Yankee and a Republican, after all.

  14. Brian .. while I don’t have a lot of experience with boating on the ocean I did have a watercraft for a couple of years and for my own peace of mind I took a boating safety course. Though there are some bodies of water with pretty strict and well marked travel lanes like harbors and channels, in open water which vessel maintains its current speed and course (called the ‘stand-to’ vessel) vs the one that should alter its course (the ‘give-way’ vessel) when two ships meet can be difficult to determine. The rules differ depending on angle of approach as well as their relative positions and in some cases a misinterpretation of the situtation could result in both vessels thinking they are the ‘stand-to’ vessel. Couple that with the fact that ‘nimble’ is a pretty relative term when you’re talking about an object over 500 feet long and weighing over 9000 tons. They might have missed the chance to avoid the collision several minutes before realizing it was going to happen.

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