Ágoston Haraszthy

The plaque outside the Hungarian cottage states that Haraszthy was the first sheriff of San Diego and that he lived from 1812 to 1869. This hardly does justice to a man and his family who contributed so much to America and to California in particular. Here is the story of this Hungarian-born American.

Ágoston Haraszthy’s Early Background

Haraszthy was born August 30, 1812, at Futak in Bácska County, Hungary, the only son of the nobleman Charles Haraszthy de Bácska and Anna nee Halász. He received his commission in the Royal Hungarian Guards of Francis I, Emperor of Austria-Hungary in 1830. Returning to the family estate after service in the Guard, Haraszthy assumed the office of County Lord Lieutenant and delegate to the Diet in Pozsony. During his time in the Diet, he developed a close friendship with Transylvania reformer Baron Wesselényi and future Hungarian 1848 revolutionary hero Lajos Kossuth.

In 1834 he married Eleonora Dedinsky, a member of a Polish noble family that had settled in Hungary after the Polish Revolution of 1831. A year later, their son Géza was born. By 1840, Haraszthy was feeling the heat of the Austrian emperor; Wesselényi and Kossuth had been arrested in 1837 and charged with treason. Sensing that he was a marked man, Haraszthy traveled through continental Europe, England and finally to New York. Entertained by the wealthy of New York, he traveled throughout the state and was impressed by the magnificence of Niagara Falls.

Invited to Washington by Daniel Webster and other leading Democrats, he was introduced to President Tyler, with whom he discussed commercial relations between the US and Hungary. In 1840-41, Haraszthy was the darling of the Washington social season in his full-dress Hungarian Guard uniform: “Everyone admired my heavily gold braided and richly trimmed dolman. … Invited to a Presidential soiree, I was informed that the President would like me to wear my dress uniform because many ladies invited would be curious to see it.”

The Start of the American Period

Continuing his tour of America, he traveled through Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and as far west as the territories of Wisconsin, Iowa and Kansas. Impressed by what he saw, he purchased a small plot along the Wisconsin River, then in partnership with Robert Bryant, an English aristocrat immigrant, bought 10,000 acres from the US Government for a townsite.

Fearing that he would be arrested when he returned to Hungary, Haraszthy gained the good offices of U.S. General Lewis Cass along with a guarantee of safe conduct for one year. Upon his return to Hungary in early 1842, he convinced his father to liquidate the ancestral estate and have the entire family emigrate to America. The Haraszthy holdings, along with his wife’s substantial down wealth, placed them among the best capitalized immigrants of the 19th century.

Sauk City, Wisconsin

Returning to Wisconsin in the fall of 1842, the family began in ernest building the town of Széptáj (Beautiful View). Roads, bridges, a sawmill, gristmill and brickyard were soon built. Haraszthy established a general store, which stocked not only necessities of life on the frontier but also luxury items from New York, London, Amsterdam and Paris.

He encouraged other European immigrants, mainly from Germany, and helped finance their setup. Agricultural experiments led to success in sheep raising and growing hops. His farms secured contracts to supply grain to nearby Fort Winnebago. He established the first steamboat transport company on the Wisconsin River.

In spite of these successes, Haraszthy was disappointed in not being able to establish the high-quality vineyards of his native Hungary. By 1848 the Haraszthy family decided to answer the common call to California. Again liquidating their holdings, the now expanded family left their town on Christmas Day 1848. Széptáj was later renamed Sauk City by its residents.

The Wagon Train and San Diego Period

The family unit now consisted of Haraszthy, his wife, six children, his father and stepmother, and Thomas W. Sutherland, the former U.S. Attorney for the Wisconsin Territory. In the Kansas Territory, Haraszthy formed a wagon train of approximately 60 immigrants for the trek to California. As wagon master, Haraszthy led the train safely to California, arriving in late December of 1849. Stopping at Warner Hot Springs, the earlier encampment site of the Mormon Battalion, the family rested for a while.

Colonel Jonathan Warner apprised Haraszthy of the agriculture and politics of this San Diego area. The population of San Diego village was then about 650 people, mainly vaqueros, Yankee sailors who had jumped ship and a few Mormon soldiers. Purchasing a plot adjacent to the San Luis Rey Mission, Haraszthy with sons Attila and Árpád first planted a large fruit orchard. With local friends, he bought 160 acres in Mission Valley and planted peach and cherry trees with stock sent from New York State. He set up San Diego’s first English-language school in his home.

Haraszthy also became involved in San Diego business and politics. In partnership with Don Juan Bandini, he set up the first regularly scheduled omnibus transit system and established a livery stable. He established a very profitable butcher shop. With other real estate speculators, Haraszthy established the subdivision of Middletown; there, Haraszthy Street existed until the early 1960s, when it was wiped from the map by the construction of Interstate 5.
San Diego County received its charter in March 1850. In the first election that same month, Haraszthy was elected sheriff for the county. In May 1850, San Diego City was incorporated and Ágoston Haraszthy was chosen to be the first City Marshall; his father, Charles, was elected Magistrate and Land Commissioner; and Tom Sutherland became San Diego’s first City Attorney.

Ágoston Haraszthy was a tough cop. He cleaned up the waterfront. Drunken sailors, gamblers and other undesirables were encouraged to make haste for the goldfields of Northern California. Siding with American and Mexican ranchers against native Indian farmers in the collection of taxes, he touched off the Indian uprising led by Antonio Garra. After the revolt was put down, Garra was tried and hanged.

In 1851 Haraszthy was elected to the California State Assembly and resigned his other San Diego offices. In the legislature, then meeting in Vallejo, he succeeded in getting funding for the expansion of San Diego Harbor and the county’s first public hospital. He was successful in blocking the establishment of a state telegraph monopoly based in and controlled from San Francisco. He was the first to introduce the legislation to divide California into two states: North and South. That bill died in the State Senate because of powerful interests in Northern California.

While in the legislature, Haraszthy traveled throughout the Bay Area looking for land more suitable to agriculture and horticulture than the subtropical desert of San Diego County. In early 1852 he purchased 210 acres near San Francisco’s Mission Dolores. At the end of the Assembly session, he sold all his holdings in San Diego and moved the family north; except for a few short trips back, Haraszthy’s San Diego period was over.

Why He Is Remembered

The end of the San Diego period was just the beginning of Ágoston Haraszthy’s contribution to American and Californian history. Consider the following:

  • He is identified as the “Father of the California Wine Industry.”
  • Haraszthy introduced the “Zinfandel” red wine grape and the “Muscat of Alexandria” raisin grape.
  • He invented an efficient gold refining process and was founding partner in the Eureka Gold & Silver Refining Co.; EG&SR Co. was one of the major contract refiners for the San Francisco Mint.
  • Haraszthy was appointed Assayer of the Mint in 1855 because of his fine reputation of fairness and honesty.
  • Haraszthy developed the first very large, high-quality grape vineyard at Crystal Springs in San Mateo County.
  • In 1857, while visiting General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo at the general’s Lachrima Montis estate, Haraszthy was introduced to the Sonoma Valley with its weather, topography and soil so similar to that of his Hungarian homeland’s high-quality vineyards.
  • In Sonoma he established his Széptáj Estate (Buena Vista). The Buena Vista Winery is today a State Park and historical site.
  • In 1861 Haraszthy was appointed to a California commission that thought to improve agricultural methods and to collect vines and fruit-tree stocks in Europe.
  • During the five-month European tour in 1861 with son Árpád, Haraszthy purchased (with his own money) 100,000 grapevines representing 1,400 varieties, along with small selected lots of planting stock for olives, almonds, pomegranates, oranges, lemons and chestnuts. The tour included visits to France, present-day Germany, Switzerland, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece and Egypt.
  • Upon his return in 1862, Harper & Bros., N.Y., published his report titled “Grape Culture, Wines and Wine Making, with Notes upon Agriculture and Horticulture.” The book remained the classic wine-making authority in the English language well into the 20th century.
  • The Haraszthy family planted vineyards for European immigrant friends and wine growers including Charles Krug, Emile Dreser and Jacob Grundlach.
  • In 1863 sons Attila and Árpád Haraszthy were married in a double ceremony to General Vallejo’s daughters, Natalie and Jovita. Their descendants include many who made California the great place it is today.
  • Later, the French and German wine industry was rescued from the devastation of a root blight when a blight-resistant root stock that Haraszthy had originally brought to America was transported from California back to Europe.

Ágoston Haraszthy died on July 6, 1869, near his estate Hacienda San Antonio at Corinto, Nicaragua. His family believed that he fell into a river while attempting to cross and that he was dragged away by an alligator. His body was never found, but his passing and the Nicaragua period of his life is another adventure story entirely.

His biographer, Theodore Schoenman, wrote this of Haraszthy:

”Born aristocrat, yet frontiersman at heart, he was equally at home in the elegant ducal salons of Europe or the gaudy nouveaux riches of San Francisco. … Playing Bach and Beethoven while enforcing the law of the frontier, he was a soldier, law student, author, sheriff, metallurgist, land promoter, steamboater, saw mill operator, wagon train master, politician, lobbyist, humanist, visionary, but most of all … ‘The Father of California Viticulture’”.

Prepared by: Louis Toth

The Supervisors of the County of San Diego declared October 9, 1977, Agoston Haraszthy Day with the following proclamation:


Agoston Haraszthy Day Proclamation

Agoston Haraszthy Day Proclamation

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