Inches in America


Robert Inches, born in Balbeggie on 12 October 1821, followed his father into the family business. He appears in the 1841 Census in Balbeggie Village as a Shoemaker.


It is thought that he married Isabella Smith, daughter of a Gardener from St Vigeans, Arbroath, around this time.


He emigrated from Greenock with his brother Thomas, sailing as assisted immigrants on the newly launched 459-ton barque Marquis of Bute, which arrived in Port Phillip, Victoria on 30 November 1841 after a voyage of 111 days.


The horrors of such a long sea voyage, cooped up in the bowels of a tiny sailing ship, can hardly be imagined.

The vessel, reported the Port Philip Herald on 3 December, had a very severe passage, with a head wind the greater part of the way. The paper noted there were 3 births and 8 deaths on board. The deaths were mainly of children. Because 4 people arrived in port suffering from typhoid fever, the ship had to anchor some distance off shore, adding greatly to the hardship of the passengers.


There is no record of Isabella in the Australian shipping records but she must have joined her husband before 1846 because their son, Robert Walter Inches, was born in that year [1].


It is not known where the family was at the time of the birth - there are no surviving records that point to the family’s whereabouts between 1841 and 1850. There is nothing to suggest, for example, that Robert was with his brother in Tasmania.


In 1849, Californian Gold Rush fever was sweeping the globe.

Robert Inches probably heard about it from ships carrying Sandwich Island (Hawaiian) newspapers and decided to join the thousands of Australians booking passages to an obscure harbour on the Californian coast called San Francisco.


He was not to know it, but Australia was soon to find itself in the midst of its own gold rush.


With his heavily pregnant wife and three-year-old son, Robert boarded the 500-ton barque Pauline in Adelaide on 12 January 1850 and set sail for California. The voyage to San Francisco would take 81 days. 


Isabelle was born en voyage the following month. One researcher gives the date as 13 February [2].  Subsequent US census records state that she was born in Australia so perhaps the vessel was still in Australian waters at the time of the birth.  Another researcher says she was born at sea off Sulawesi Tengah, in present-day Indonesia [3]. Given that the usual route to North America lay via New Zealand, Tahiti, and the Sandwich Islands, such a significant deviation to the west may seem surprising. It suggests that the Pauline was doing more than simply conveying passengers to California.

A year earlier, one of the first vessels to make the voyage, the Eleanor Lancaster, had completed the passage in a remarkably quick 71 days (some vessels took twice as long). The cost for steerage passengers was £10, one-third the price of a cabin.


Robert’s first venture in California was, naturally enough, mining. Unfortunately, he fell sick and had to give up [3]. 


He moved south to Belmont and harvested a volunteer crop of wild oat hay, which he sold for $120 per ton [3]. 


The 1852 California Census records the Inches family as living in San Francisco again, though Robert’s occupation is not mentioned.

In fact he was in the water business – he is listed as a Waterman of Stockton St in the 1852/53 San Francisco City Directory. At that time San Francisco was supplied with water from Sausalito, brought over by boats such as the aptly named Water Pixie, then distributed by mule- and horse-drawn cart for 25 cents per bucket of around eight gallons. Robert was probably a drayman who delivered water to the residents of the city.


By 1858 he was described, by the City Directory, as a Teamster living at Jane St. This suggests that he was an employee. The use of the term “teamster” was probably fashionable – the Teamsters', Draymen's and Watermen's Union had been established the previous year. The description indicates that Robert was still in the water haulage business, a conjecture confirmed by the 1859 Directory, which lists him as a Drayman, living on Prospect Place, near Sacramento St.


Almost any kind of service industry in the gold rush years was guaranteed to make money for hard-working entrepreneurs and water was no exception. Robert soon made enough money to invest in a house and lot on the southwest corner of Jane St and Rose Alley [3]. (Jane St was a small street running north/south between Second and Third and Market and Mission Streets.)


The 1862 Directory shows him at this address – 10 Jane St, with a Shoemaking business at Sansom (sic) St. It also shows that he had reverted to the trade that began his working life in Balbeggie – shoemaking.


The 1863 Directory has him in a shop at 131 Fourth St and the following year a John Webster is listed as “shoemaker with Robert Inches”.


The situation is not entirely clear, however. There is a suggestion in the 1867 Directory that he was an employee – it lists Robert as “shoemaker with Adler & Stern”. The latter was an established company that had a boot and shoe factory at 305 Third St.


His legal status became more clear-cut, however – on 5 August 1867, Robert Inches became a Naturalized US Citizen.


His new status may have made it easier to pursue his next venture, which was reported by the Daily Alta [4]. On 20 April 1868 the paper wrote that he had commenced proceedings against George W Dam and others to recover possession of an enormous tract of land that, the paper claimed, comprised over four-fifths of the city east of the peak of Lone Mountain. These proceedings, one of hundreds of similar actions known as “ejectment suits” were associated with the city government’s efforts, on behalf of the railroad companies, to assume control of large tracts of the San Francisco waterfront. The Daily Alta wrote that many claimants were indulging in the hope that they had a clear title to their lots but suggested that such optimism was based on the flimsiest of evidence. In effect, they were attempting to assert their right, under the 1868 Tidelands Act, to purchase lots even though they were mere squatters. What happened in the case of Inches v Dam is not known: one presumes that it was not a lot.


After the 1868 earthquake, a property developer called Asbury Harpending conceived a grand plan to extend Montgomery St to the waterfront. This involved buying up existing lots and among them was one in Jane St owned by Robert Inches. Despite an economic slump, he is said to have obtained a “big price” [3]. Harpending, however, maintained that he paid “prices so pitifully small that they would test the credulity of the reader” [5].


Around this time – 1867 or 1868, Robert and Isabella adopted an abandoned child as their second daughter, calling her Jessie [2].


In 1866 and 1868, Robert and his wife, along with “others” were named as the grantors (owners) in two land deals in San Mateo County. These deals may relate to the purchase of a 71 acre rancho at San Pedro, which today encompasses most of Pacifica, on the west side of the peninsula.


However, the 1870 Federal Census shows that the family were still in San Francisco. He and his son, Robert Walter Inches, who was a Carpenter, appear to have shared two properties – 114 Fell St and 33 Natoma St.

The pair was still at Fell St in 1871. But in the 1872 Directory, while Robert junior was still at Natoma St, his father was not listed.


It is not known exactly when the family finally moved out of San Francisco, though the Patron's Directory recorded them at Rancho San Pedro in 1878.


Robert Inches died at San Pedro on 9 September 1895 aged 74.  His obituary said “he was a man of sterling qualities and always willing to help a friend in need. His word was his bond. He will be sadly missed by his numerous friends” [3]. He is buried at Cypress Lawn Memorial Park, Colma.


The property he owned in San Francisco – on Fell St and Prospect Place was transferred to his wife and eventually to his son and adopted daughter [6].


After Isabella died on 10 March 1905 aged nearly 86, the Fell St lot was bought for $12500 by the city, which wanted the land to build a public library [7].


Isabelle Inches married into the Tuscan Silicani family She died in Colma, San Mateo in 1927. Her granddaughter Mary continued the Italian affair by marrying into the prominent Genoese Balbi family.


Jessie Inches also married into an Italian family – the Malerbis. She died in San Francisco in 1939.


After his father died, Robert W Inches briefly farmed the San Pedro rancho with his mother before resuming his trade as a Carpenter in San Francisco. He died in 1918.




[1] See US Federal censuses 1880, 1900 and 1910.

[2] See Cindi Oliver’s family history at

[3] See Obituary on the langthomas page on Mundia at

[4] Daily Alta 20 April 1868

[5] The Great Diamond Hoax and Other Stirring Episodes in the Life of Asbury Harpending - An Epic of Early California - edited by James H. Wilkins

[6] San Francisco Call 16 Oct 1903

[7] San Francisco Call 21 June 1905