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First Name: George

Last Name: Derby

Birthplace: Dedham, MA, USA

Gender: Male

Branch: Army (1784 - present)

Middle Name: Horatio

Date of Birth: 03 April 1823

Date of Death: 15 May 1861


Years Served:
George Horatio Derby

•  Mexican-American Wars (1846 - 1848)


George Horatio Derby
Lieutenant, U.S. Army

George Horatio Derby was born on 3 April 1823 in Dedham, MA, the son of John B. and Mary Townsend Derby. His eccentric father deserted the family mercantile business to be a poet, spending the family's money on self publishing.

George graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1846, 7th in his class, followed by classmates Stonewall Jackson and George Edward Pickett. He was commissioned in the U.S. Corps of Topographical Engineers and distinguished himself in the Mexican War in which he was severely wounded at Cerro Gordo. According to the newly (2010) published "Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. One," Ulysses S. Grant was a classmate of "Squibob's" and the General told Twain some stories of Squibob at West Point.

The peacetime field reports of Brevet First Lieutenant Derby were written mock-serious, often flippant; for this he was rewarded with assignment to distant California and was nearly forgotten by the Army. Lieutenant Derby remained in the Army and was given occasional assignments while also leading expeditions into gold country.

In 1853, Derby arrived in the small outpost of San Diego, CA, to begin mapping the region and developing plans for redirecting the San Diego River from the marshy delta of San Diego Bay and directly into the Pacific Ocean. This was to avoid floods that periodically silted up the bay and made use of the bay by ships difficult or impossible.

Derby married Mary A. Coons on 14 January 1854 in San Francisco. His wife's family was wary of Derby because of his erratic, flippant manner that infuriated his superiors. Coons tricked Derby into marrying her by placing a notice in the San Francisco paper stating that she would depart with her mother back home to St. Louis, MO, although she had no intention to do so. Derby read the notice and immediately took a steamer from San Diego to marry her. They had one daughter, Daisy, born 1854 in San Francisco.

While waiting for approval of his San Diego River diversion plans, he had some time on his hands. He supplemented his low military pay by contributing humorous articles to the San Francisco Herald, California Pioneer magazine, and the fledgling local newspaper, the San Diego Herald. He wrote articles that poked fun at the figures and pretenses of high society. These articles were written to appear as if a running narrative from John Phoenix and were the state's first published humor. When another writer started writing articles with his penname Squibob in a competing San Francisco newspaper, Derby wrote an article "killing off" Squibob and continued to write with a new penname, John Phoenix.

In 1855, Derby bought the Herald, which went out of business in 1860. In 1856 George Derby was transferred to the East and continued writing his burlesques as "Squibob." In 1857 Derby had Amaurosis (today, some historians think he had a brain tumor), which prevented him from reading or writing. He requested leave from the Topological Engineers in 1859. One month after the cannonading of Fort Sumter in 1861, Derby suffered sunstroke and died insane in New York City.


His uncollected writings were published by his wife at the end of the Civil War as "The Squibob Papers."

In honor of George Derby and his contribution to the lighter, more irreverent side of California history, the local chapter of the organization E Clampus Vitus is named in his honor, using his pseudonym John P. Squibob.


One of our Fort Yuma men died, and unfortunately went to hell. He wasn't there one day before he telegraphed for his blankets.

It rains incessantly twenty-six hours a day for seventeen months of the year [speaking of Oregon and Washington Territory]

"Antidote for Fleas" (from Phoenixiana):

Boil a quart of tar until it becomes quite thin. Remove the clothing, and before the tar becomes perfectly cool, with a broad flat brush, apply a thin, smooth coating to the entire surface of the body and limbs. While the tar remains soft the flea becomes entangled in its tenacious folds, and is rendered perfectly harmless; but it will soon form a hard, smooth coating, entirely impervious to his bite. Should the coating crack at the knee or elbow joints, it is merely necessary to retouch it slightly at those places. The whole coat should be removed every three or four weeks. This remedy is sure, and, having the advantage of simplicity and economy, should be generally known.

Death and Burial

Lieutenant George Horatio Derby died on 15 May 1861 in New York, NY. He was originally buried in his wife's family plot in Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis, MO. Thirty-eight years later, his remains were removed and re-buried at the U.S. Military Academy Post Cemetery in West Point, NY.


Honoree ID: 2424   Created by: MHOH




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