When 16-year-old Agnes Poett first stepped onto San Francisco soil in June of 1849, San Francisco was a primitive backwater compared to her home port of Valparaiso, Chile. A Chilean of English descent, Agnes had been raised in Concepción, Chile, by her physician father Dr. Joseph Henry Poett and her mother Sarah, who had died the year before.
Valparaiso was a cosmopolitan city for its time. After Chile broke free from the Spanish empire and its restrictive trade policies, Valparaiso became an international port, with a substantial English-speaking population. It was an important stop for all trading ships traveling through the Straits of Magellan from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Agnes’s future husband, W.D.M. Howard, and his business associates knew the port well. Another ex-Bostonian trader, with whom Howard was acquainted, Faxon Dean Atherton, made his home in Valparaiso in 1843, after marrying a daughter from one of Chile’s finest families.
Agnes spoke three languages: English, Spanish and French. Like other well-bred girls of her time, she played the piano and was an equestrian. She was also beautiful: Thick brown hair, big brown eyes, and a button nose topped her petite and shapely figure.
When Agnes and W.D.M. married on July 9, 1849, they could not have foreseen the sorrows that were to come. By the time their second son was born—just two and one-half years after their marriage—the family had endured both the tumult and lawlessness of early Gold Rush San Francisco and the great fire of 1851. Then, W.D.M.’s health began to fail. In late 1852, the family sailed for W.D.M.’s native Boston for a holiday with his extended family. While there, the young couple left their two toddler boys in the care of a nurse while they went to a seaside resort. When they returned to their hotel, to the horror of all, they found that the nurse had reportedly drunk cologne, gone crazy and beaten the younger son, Freddy, to death by holding him by his skirts and banging his head against the wall. The older boy, 3-year-old Willie, was also badly beaten but managed to escape from the woman and hide.1
After the horrific murder of their child, Agnes, with young William in tow, left for Paris accompanied by her father and sisters. The apparent purpose of the trip was recuperative after the awful events in Massachusetts. Too sick to go with the group, however, W.D.M. stayed in the Boston area, nursing his undiagnosed illness. W.D.M. wrote several tender letters to Agnes while she was in Paris, describing his health issues, his daily life in Massachusetts, his concern about her and little Willie, and his eagerness to return to San Mateo. In one letter, W.D.M. described a bouquet of flowers that were sent to his home while he was having tea and he wrote: “among them were some sweet pea. I send enclosed two or three to remind you of California where I wish we were.” A few weeks later, W.D.M. wrote: “Kiss Willie a hundred times for me and tell him to be a good boy and as soon as he gets back to San Mateo he shall have a pony with a saddle and a bridle.”
The cause of W.D.M.’s poor health is unknown. Some have speculated that W.D.M. suffered from liver damage caused by excessive drinking; some have thought that he contracted malaria and/or yellow fever on one of his trips across the Isthmus. Whatever the cause of his poor health, the Howards eventually returned to California. They spent most of 1855 nursing W.D.M.’s health, with country visits to their San Mateo ranch home, which they named El Cerrito. When W.D.M. eventually succumbed to his illness in January 1856 at the age of 36, he left Agnes a widow at the age of 23, with one six-year old son and the haunting memories of another son, now deceased.
Agnes did not remain a widow for long.2