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Related Museum Links Early History of California

Early History of
San Francisco

"Ranch and Mission Days in Alta California," by Guadalupe Vallejo

"Life in California Before the Gold Discovery,"
by John Bidwell

1846 Lithograph of
Yerba Buena

Yerba Buena Before the Gold Rush

1846 - Gen. Fremont and the Bear Flag Revolt

Capt. Montgomery Ends Indian Slavery

Lt. Bartlett Changes Name
of Yerba Buena to
San Francisco

From the 1820s to the Gold Rush

Early in the nineteenth century, ships from Boston began to visit the Spanish towns and Missions along the upper and lower California coast. They came first to barter for both otter and beaver pelts; later for tallow, hides, and materials used by the natives and settlers. In the 1820s American trappers and hunters began to drift into the State from the East. These early pioneers of the West were sometimes harshly treated by the earlier Spanish governors, later they were welcomed; but they had to show passports and submit to surveillance. Later, some new arrivals married the daughters of wealthy Mexican ranchers, and took up large land grants.

Photograph of William Heath DavisWilliam Heath Davis visited the California coast in 1831 aboard the trading bark Louisa, one of the many Boston vessels that combed the trading spots of the Pacific under the guidance of inquisitive and venturesome Yankee skippers. Davis gives a lively account of life, barter and primitive surroundings of the Missions, ranchos and life of that period. Mexican rule, of course, prevailed. The some of the comparatively few foreigners accumulated big ranchos and fortunes. Davis did so well on the trip, and was so delighted with his adventure in this strange land that he returned two years later aboard the trading bark Volunteer. These Yankee traders scraped up all the commodities in sight and touch at San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Monterey, San Francisco and other coast ports.

According to Davis on his trip to San Francisco in 1833: "We anchored in a cove known as Yerba Buena. Telegraph Hill was then called Loma Alto. At that time there were some half dozen barks from Atlantic ports trading along the California coast, Alaska and the Hawaiian Islands. All that time, Captain Mariano G. Vallejo, later General Vallejo, was in command of the Presidio. The population of the post was about two hundred and fifty men, women and children. The soldiers were Spanish, and all vaqueros. At that time Captain Vallejo had recently married Donna Francisca Benicia Carrillo. Fort Point was then garrisoned and known as Punta de Castillo, or Castle Point. A small number of foreigners were living near the post, among them Captain William A. Richardson, who owned the Sausalito ranch, and who was married to the daughter of the late Captain Ygnacio Martinez, who had been in charge of the Presidio post preceding Captain Vallejo, John Read of Ireland, owner of the Read ranch adjoining the Sausalito ranch, Tim Murphy and James Black, the latter of Scotland.

"Otters were then numerous in the bay and their skins plentiful. Murphy hunted them and sold their pelts to the Boston traders for from $40 to $60 each. Richardson commanded a vessel and traded along the coast as far south as Valparaiso. Trade at that time was practically all barter -- tallow and hides, sea otter and beaver skins being the currency. The latter animals were plentiful along the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers.

"In 1835 the Mission Dolores, now on Sixteenth Street, San Francisco, was then located about a mile from the site of the town of Yerba Buena. In August the population was estimated at two thousand Indians, many of them having been taught trades as blacksmiths, shipwrights, carpenters, tailors, etc. The Mission then owned tens of thousands of cattle, sheep, horses. Its possessions included most of San Mateo County."

Captain Richardson was, in 1835, appointed first harbor master of Yerba Buena. The same year he erected the first dwelling in the town. It was a large piece of canvas stretched on four redwood posts and covered by an old ship sail. Richardson had charge of several schooners belonging to the Mission Dolores, and one belonging to the Mission Santa Clara.

Photograph of Jacob LeeseThree years later, in May 1836, another famous pioneer arrived, Jacob Leese. On landing in Yerba Buena cove by sea he announced that he would establish a mercantile business. His partners, who handled a branch at Monterey, were Nathan Spear and W.S. Hinkley. The Spanish governor at Monterey instructed the alcalde at Yerba Buena to grant Mr. Leese an allotment of land within the government reservation. Accordingly, Leese took possession of a 100 vara (1 vara = 33 inches) lot on the south side of Richardson's tent, at the corner of Clay St. and Grant Ave., 250 yards from the beach, then washed by the waters of the bay, which came close to the present Montgomery Street. The building was finished July 4, 1836, and an enthusiastic celebration was held. Many Spanish dignitaries and their families attended the feast. The tent and the house erected by Richardson and Leese formed the nucleus of the present city of San Francisco.

Leese married a daughter of General Vallejo, and on April 15, 1838, Rosalie Leese was joyfully welcomed as the first child born in Yerba Buena.

The same year Leese erected a much larger frame building and began to branch out in real estate. Captain Richardson constructed an adobe building to keep up with the times.

In 1840, Leese sold his properties to the Hudson Bay Company, and moved to Sonoma. Later he went to Oregon, then just opening up.

There were about a dozen houses and fifty residents in Yerba Buena by 1844. But in 1846 the Hudson Bay Company sold its holdings and left; a move that largely cut down the number of settlers. For some reason, however, the new town proved a magnet for nomads and sailors deserting vessel, and towards the close of 1846 there were some ninety buildings, shanties, adobes and frame houses, and about 200 inhabitants.

photograph of store on Montgomery Street at edge of San Francisco BayUp to January 1847, the little village of shacks and occasional buildings between Sacramento and Washington streets, and from Stockton Street to the bay shore, which then came up to the present Montgomery Street, was known as Yerba Buena.

There was a lively contest between two rival factions on the bay shores to capture the name of St. Francis for their respective towns, Yerba Buena and Benicia. The latter town was then being backed by a number of strong capitalists, led by Mariano Vallejo and Thomas O. Larkin. They were determined to make Benicia the capital of the territory. Washington Bartlett, the first American alcalde, made a successful flank movement and succeeded in capturing the name San Francisco and issued the first official announcement of the change of name.

During 1847, six trading vessels entered the bay. The population of San Francisco was then 459 souls. The exports for that year were valued at $49, 597 and the imports $53,589. January of 1847 brought the first printing press to San Francisco, and on January 7 Sam Brannan published the first newspaper, "The California Star," a weekly of four pages.

Sutter's Mill, as painted by Arthur NahlJames Marshall's discovery of gold in the South Fork of the American River at Sutter's mill on January 24, 1848, started the great rush of Argonauts to California.

But gold had been found in 1843 near the Mission San Fernando in Southern California. Over $100,000 in gold was taken within two years, and a large part of it was shipped to the Philadelphia Mint for coining. But this gold discovery created little attention because the country was under Mexican rule, communication with outsiders was scant and there were very few newspapers.

Marshall and Captain John Sutter tried their best to keep the discovery of gold quiet until the construction of Sutter's mill was completed, well knowing that the workmen would desert their jobs and turn to digging gold. The news leaked out, and the stampede began.

By the following August there were 4000 men washing gold along the American River. At least one-third of this number were Indians. In all, $50,000 per day in gold was washed from the banks of the river.

When tidings of this discovery reached San Francisco, intense excitement prevailed, and this blazed almost into a mania when the first lucky miners reached the city, and lavishly scattered their rich findings among the stores, saloons and the many gambling places in the little town of San Francisco. The newspapers blazoned the exciting news throughout the state and abroad, and outgoing vessels disseminated the news at every opportunity. Every resident on the peninsula that could get away hurried to the mines, and the most famous gold rush in the history of the world was on.

Early in 1848, the San Francisco City Council made strong efforts to check the rising tide of gambling, a vice then sweeping the city. An ordinance was passed to seize all moneys found on gambling tables. The people were against the law, and it was later withdrawn. That withdrawal paved the way for the reckless gambling that flooded the town when the first of the hilarious gold seekers reached the city a few months later. In this period, 1848, sales became more numerous in disposing publicly of the town's real estate. Some great bargains were then picked up which became the nucleus of large personal estates. Many lots were sold at from $16 to $50 each.

In 1848, the school census showed a population of 575 males, 177 females and 60 children, a population of 812. The buildings numbered 200. there were two hotels, boarding houses, saloons and ten-pin alleys. Twelve mercantile houses were established, two more wharves were in the course of construction, the townspeople were hopeful, and the prospects of the city good. April 3, 1848, the first public school was opened.

As Spring advanced, the story of gold findings at Sutter's mill began to spread widely. Very quickly the excitement leaped to fever heat. Gold became the irresistible magnet and nothing could check the insistent rush. Laborers, clerks, waiters, servants, all disappeared as if by magic, and melted into the stream of feverish beings headed for the slopes of the Sierra.

In the month of May 1848 more than 150 people left San Francisco, and the days added to the departures. On May 29, "The Californian" announced it could not issue the newspaper "until further notice" because all of its employees had quit. Other papers were quickly closed for the same reason. On July 15, the "Californian" managed to get out slip of a paper announcing "The Whole World at War" alluding to the Revolution in France. The military governor of California issued a proclamation calling on the people to assist authorities in apprehending Army and Navy deserters who had joined the gold rush. Public schools were ordered closed because of the rush to the gold fields.

September 1848, was an eventful month to the little community of San Francisco. Gold dust was the only currency, and a big meeting was called to establish its value. Everybody in town attended. The ratio was fixed at $16 per ounce, and payable on all contracts at that rate. Congress was petitioned to establish a branch mint in San Francisco.

Another very important event was the arrival of the brig Belfast from New York. She discharged the first real cargo of merchandise at Broadway wharf. The price of goods in the town instantly dropped 25 percent, and the value of real estate jumped from 50 to 100 percent. The day previous a lot at Washington and Montgomery streets was offered at $5000 with no takers. The day after the arrival of the Belfast the same lot sold for $10,000.

All classes gambled in those days. Everyone made money, and apparently everyone was becoming a Croesus or had the chance. Feverish hope was in the air whether fortunes were lost or won upon green cloth in the gambling dens. Few thought of their occupation or considered the future. The saloons were crowded night and day by impatient revelers, who were unable to satiate themselves, so mad were they with excitement.

After the first wild rush, the cooler heads began to analyze the situation, and thereafter there was a more intelligent handling of conditions and prospects. But in 1849 it was a wild revel, with showers of gold on every side in a young community that had not yet found itself.

In the last half of 1849, immigrants arrived at the rate of one thousand per week by sea alone. In this period large numbers came from South America, the islands of the Pacific and Australia. Late in the year droves came from the Eastern States by way of Cape Horn. During the year, 40,000 arrived in San Francisco, aside from the desertions from vessels. Three-quarters of them headed for the mines.

The population of the town, at that time, was about 25,000, with comparatively few women. There was no such place as a home, as now understood, and very few habitable houses. Frame buildings for business and dwelling were the best. Shacks and tents were common. Only the great gambling houses, hotels, restaurants and a few public buildings had any pretension to size and comfort. The streets were uneven, and covered with numberless sand hills. In winter the mud was knee-deep in the streets, except the few that were planked. Citizens used lanterns at night because there were no streetlights.

Heaps of imported good disappeared as if by magic, off to the mines and other shipments appeared in their stead. In the gambling dens bets were made as high as $20,000 on the turn of a card, though the ordinary stakes were 50 cents to $5. A half dollar was the smallest coin in circulation, and a penny, dime or fivecent piece was a curiosity.

For any small service nothing lower than 50 cents was given. The entrance to the pit in the circus was $3. A hearty meal at a good restaurant cost from $2 to $5. Coarse boots were $30 to $40 per pair; superior boots were $100. Laborers received $1 per hour, and skilled mechanics from $12 to $20 per day. The carpenters struck because they were getting only $12 per day, and demanded $16.

San Francisco News Letter
September 1925

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