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Selim E. Woodworth (November 27, 1815 – January 29, 1871) was a commander in the United States Navy, prominent San Francisco businessman, and member of the Woodworth political family.

Early years[]

Woodworth was born in New York City, the second son of poet and dramatist Samuel Woodworth. He was a descendant of colonial settler Walter Woodworth. At age twelve he set out with a rifle to cross the continent, but was intercepted after walking 300 miles and sent home. In 1834 he sailed as captain's clerk in the ship "Margaret Oakley," which was shipwrecked off Madagascar. He lived on the island with the natives, but eventually reached Mauritius, returning home after an absence of four years.[1]

U.S. Navy career[]

Appointed a midshipman on 16 June 1838, Woodworth was ordered to join the Wilkes Exploring Expedition. However, the order was sent to Norfolk, Virginia and was not forwarded to him. When he reported in response to a duplicate order, the expedition had already sailed. He was instead sent to the Mediterranean Sea for duty in the ship of the line Ohio. On 3 August, he was detached for a three-month leave; he received an additional leave of three months to visit Milano, Italy, and on 24 December was ordered to join the Falmouth, then fitting out at New York.[2]

While serving in Falmouth, he received new of his father's death. He returned to New York and was assigned to the receiving ship North Carolina. He served on Lawrence before entering the Philadelphia Naval School. On 20 May 1844, Woodworth was warranted a passed midshipman. After six months leave, he reported to the new sloop-of-war Jamestown and served on the coast of Africa, helping suppress the slave trade. He was transferred to Truxtun, but detached on 24 November 1845, and granted a three-month leave.[3]

The United States was on the brink of war with Mexico, and Woodworth was assigned to carry dispatches about the Navy's naval participation overland to the Pacific Squadron in Oregon. He set out with two companions from Independence, Missouri, on 14 May 1846, arriving in Oregon 98 days later.

California pioneer[]

Woodworth reported to naval authorities at the mouth of the Columbia River, where he remained until 18 January 1847, when he left for San Francisco. Shortly after his arrival news reached the settlement that a group of overland emigrants—the Donner Party—was trapped and starving in the Sierra Nevada. Woodworth received permission from his naval superiors to command the rescue efforts and on 7 February, set sail for Sacramento with a load of supplies. Although Woodworth trekked into the mountains with men and provisions, he failed to meet the rescue parties when expected. Donner Party survivors and rescuers regarded him as a braggart who had let them down.[4]


Woodworth was the first owner and resident of Red Rock Island

Woodworth arrived back in San Francisco on 1 April 1847 and reported on board sloop-of-war Warren at Monterey Bay, California on 17 May 1847. On 8 October, he requested a leave of absence in order to make a trip across the southern part of South America with permission to join the squadron on the coast of Brazil or in the United States. Permission was to be granted whenever he could be spared. He left Warren on 16 February 1848 to take command of the bark Anita. From 5 June 1848 until 1850, naval registers carry him as attached to the Pacific Squadron; however, no record of him has ever been found.

Woodworth resigned from the Navy in 1849 after being elected as a State Senator representing Monterey.[1] For a little more than a decade, he lived in San Francisco, California and took a prominent part in the development of the state of California. He and his brother, Frederick A. Woodworth, were among the organizers of the vigilance committee, and Selim Woodworth was the group's first President. Woodworth and his sons, along with brothers, were original members of the Society of California Pioneers. Woodworth ran the successful Case, Heiser & Company, a commission merchant business, with his brother. When serving in the first legislature for California, Woodworth is credited as defining the state's policies concerning slavery; he was an abolitionist.[3]

Woodworth and his brother would build the first house in San Francisco situated on a water lot, which would eventually become the Clay Street Market.[1] He owned several properties with his brother, including the lot at Market and Second Street where the Grand Hotel would be built; he was also the first owner and resident of Red Rock Island, where he built a cabin and maintained a hunting preserve.[5][6][7]

Mary Ellen Pleasant[]

Mary Ellen Pleasant was a fugitive slave who worked for Woodworth and his family when she arrived in California. Woodworth's wife, Lisette, would play a crucial role in the landmark civil rights case Pleasant v. North Beach & Mission Railroad Company, where Pleasant was refused service on the San Francisco rail cars. Lisette testified on behalf of her former employee, and lent her credibility as a San Francisco socialite to Pleasant's claim. Pleasant would go on to win the case.[8]

Civil War service[]

File:Abraham Lincoln head on shoulders photo portrait.jpg

U.S. President Abraham Lincoln recommended Woodworth receive special thanks from Congress for his service in the war

After the outbreak of the American Civil War, Woodworth returned to the east coast and reentered the Navy on 10 September 1861 as an acting lieutenant.[1] On 13 January 1862, he assumed command of John P. Jackson, a former ferry boat, converted to a steam gunboat. This vessel was assigned to the Mortar Flotilla raised by Comdr. David D. Porter to support Flag Officer David Farragut's conquest of New Orleans, Louisiana and the lower Mississippi River. While in command, he assisted in the capture of Forts Jackson and St. Philip in April and participated in operations around Vicksburg, Mississippi in June and July. Porter commended Woodworth for these services, and President Abraham Lincoln recommended him to Congress for special thanks. On 29 September 1862, at his own request, he was detached from command of John P. Jackson and allowed to return to the North. Later that autumn, he was assigned to the Mississippi Squadron and reported at Cairo, Illinois, for duty.[9]

On 1 January 1863, he was given command of the "tinclad," stern-wheel steamer, Glide. On 24 January, Porter—now a Rear Admiral—recommended Woodworth for appointment to the regular Navy. Woodworth was commissioned a commander in April 1863, to date from 16 July 1862. After Glide was burned, he commanded the ram General Price from 7 February 1863 through August. After months of commendable fighting up and down the Mississippi River, Comdr. Woodworth was detached from General Price and sent to the Pacific where he took command of the bark Narragansett on 7 October 1863. After having brought Narragansett around the Horn, he arrived in New York on 18 March 1865. Monocacy, a double-ended gunboat, was his last command, which he assumed on 30 November 1865.[9]

Later years and legacy[]

Comdr. Selim E. Woodworth resigned from the Navy on 2 March 1866 and returned to San Francisco, where he resided with his family until his death in 1871.

Marriage and family[]

Woodworth married Lisette, by whom he had six children:[10]

  • Selim II, a graduate of the Naval Academy who served until his death; married a daughter of California pioneer and assemblyman James S. Wethered
  • Frederick, who attended the Naval Academy but was suspended for hazing
  • Benjamin
  • William
  • Lydia
  • Samuel

After Woodworth's death in 1871, Lisette married Erasmus Dennison, son of Gov. William Dennison, Jr.


USS Woodworth (DD-460) was named for him.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 "The Beginnings of San Francisco", p. 708, Retrieved 7 oct 2009.
  2. "History of California, Volume 23", p. 309, Retrieved 7 oct 2009.
  3. 3.0 3.1 "A Colored Mosaic", California State Library Foundation, Retrieved 7 oct 2009.
  4. "The Donner Party", Utah Crossroads, Retrieved 7 oct 2009.
  5. "The Pacific Historian, Volume 25/26", p. 25, Retrieved 7 oct 2009.
  6. "Red Rock Island History", Retrieved 7 oct 2009.
  7. "San Francisco Chronicle", Retrieved 7 oct 2009.
  8. "The making of Mammy Pleasant", p.52-53, Retrieved 7 oct 2009.
  9. 9.0 9.1 "Selim Woodworth", Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, Retrieved 7 oct 2009.
  10. "Descendants of Walter Woodworth", p. 12, Retrieved 7 oct 2009.