San Francisco History

San Francisco and Thereabout
 by Charles Keeler
The California Promotion Committee of San Francisco, Publisher, 1902


        Richard Henry Dana, in his classic of California, "Two Years Before the Mast," gives a glimpse of San Francisco at the close of the year 1835.  In the course of his narrative he thus describes his first impression of the lonely port:

        "About thirty miles from the mouth of the bay,* and on the southeast side, is a high point upon which the presidio is built.  Behind this is the harbor in which trading vessels anchor, and near it, the mission of San Francisco, and a newly begun settlement, mostly of Yankee Californians, called Yerba Buena, which promises well.  Here, at anchor, and the only vessel, was a brig under Russian colors, from Asitka, in Russian America, which had come down to winter, and to take in a supply of tallow and grain, great quantities of which latter article are raised in the missions at the head of the bay."

        This was the San Francisco of 1835--a Spanish presidio on the shore of what was afterwards so prophetically named the Golden Gate, a mission establishment two or three miles away where a few score Indians were employed, and a hamlet known as Yerba Buena, consisting of a handful of Yankee traders, on the rim of the bay!  As late as 1846 the place had grown so little that not more than twenty or thirty houses of all descriptions lined the beach.  Mud flats, laid bare at low tide, extended for some distance out from the shore, and the only landing-place for boats was at Clark's Point where rocks jutted out into the water.  This was near the present site of Broadway Wharf.  A bay reached up into the valley now traversed by Market Street, cutting across the present line of First Street and penetrating as far as the border of Montgomery.

        In order to understand the sudden transition of this quiet little Spanish settlement into a lawless frontier town of America, and from that into a great metropolis where the commerce of the Pacific centers, a brief glance at the history of the time is necessary.  For years Mexico had been disturbed by revolutionary upheavals.  In 1821 these culminated in the recognition by Spain of the independence of the land from which for centruies she had drawn such store of treasure.  Three years later a liberal constitution was adopted, making the country a republic.

        The republican government was on the whole unfavorable to the church, but for the first ten years no action hostile to the missions of California was taken.  A comandante-general acted as governor of the territory, but the chief power was still lodged in the hands of the padres.  During the year 1833, however, the Mexican Congress enacted a law providing for the dispersion of the Franciscan fathers of California, and a division of their vast principalites among the settlers and Indians.  This so-called order of secularization was not put into immediate execution.  Revolutions and rapid changes in Mexican politics delayed it somewhat, but the padres realized that the inevitable was at hand and wasted the mission property in a most reckless fashion.  Cattle were slaughtered in vast numbers for their hides, the buildings were neglected, treasure was sent to Mexico and Spain;  so that, when the blow fell a few years later, the missions were already stripped of their wealth.  Soon the Indians scattered, the padres left the country and the broad fields of the California valleys fell into the hands of the Mexican ranchers who governed their principalities like the barons of old.  These were the days of boundless hospitality, when a man's family was as large as the surrounding population, when every stranger was welcome at the hacienda and became a guest for as long as he chose to stay.  Those happy patriarchal times on the ranches of California, how they vanished at the coming of the gringo, the stranger from across the plains!

        By the year 1840 a number of Americans had found their way to the remote Mexican territory of California.  They had come as trappers and traders and were a hardy, adventurous set of men.  That the suspicion and jealousy of the dons was not unfounded, subsequent events soon demonstrated.  The Russians had pushed down the coast from their fur-trading posts in Alaska, and were narrowly watched by the Mexicans until, in 1841, they sold their California possessions to a Swiss settler, Captain John A. Sutter.  Another element, however, was added to the population by the visits of the American whalers at San Francisco.

        So strained had become the relations between the Mexicans and the Americans that about a hundred English-speaking people were arrested at San Francisco on one occasion by order of the governor.  They were sent to Monterey as prisoners and subsequently many of them were carried south into Mexico where they remained for varying periods without trial.  Such violent efforts to discourage immigration had little effect in staying the tide which had already set in.  Fremont, the pathfinder, had crossed the plains and had written glowing accounts of his adventures on mesa and prairie.  Farnham, another early comer, described the Mexican territory of California in enthusiastic terms.  They told of the wonderful landscape, of the great Sierra forests and the herds of deer, elk and wild horses that made their home on the broad valleys of the Sacramento and San Joaquin.  Societies were formed in the East to promote immigration to the new country.

        The American flag was first raised at Monterey by Commodore Jones of the sloop-of-war Cyane.  Hearing that the United States was at war with Mexico, he put up the stars and stripes and proclaimed the territory American.  A day later, becoming convinced of his error, he retracted and apologized to the best of his ability.

        When, in April, 1846, the war which had for some years been brewing between the United States and Mexico, finally reached the stage of active hostility, an independent war of conquest had already been waged in California by General John C. Fremont (then a colonel in the American army) in co-operation with Commodore Robert T. Stockton of the navy.  Fremont had been sent with a party of army engineers on an exploring expedition, to map new routes from the East to California.  In pursuit of this work he arrived near Monterey at a time when relations between the Mexicans and gringos were much strained.  General Castro, the comandante of Monterey, suspected ulterior motives, but Fremont went in person to explain the peaceful nature of his mission.  Proceeding on his route, he found a band of hostile Indians opposing him and received a report that Castro was planning an attack on his rear.  A man of sudden resolution and indomitable will, he decided upon the hazardous plan of declaring war against California with his miniature army of sixty-two men.

        Following this alarming move on the part of Fremont came the raising of the Bear Flag at Sonoma.  William B. Ide was made commander of the troops there and issued a proclamation calling upon all citizens to rally around his standard.  General Castro planned to attack Sonoma, but Fremont, who had left the town feebly garrisoned, hastily returned and held the Mexicans at bay.  On July 4, 1846, the assembly of Americans at Sonoma declared their independence, made Fremont governor, and issued a formal declaration of war.

        It would carry us too far from the immediate history of San Francisco to describe the numerous complications which followed during the Mexican war,--the work of Commodore Sloat in seizing Monterey, the raising of the American flag in Portsmouth Square by Captain Montgomery, the military operations in the South under Commodore Stockton and Colonel Fremont, when, with a forlorn-hope band, they marched through a hostile country and conquered it, the arrival of General Kearny and subsequent misunderstanding which led to the courtmartial of Fremont.  By the treaty of 1848 the country became American territory and the last political obstacle to the emigration of American pioneers was removed.

        There is something pathetically tragic about the discovery of gold in California.  For centuries, Spanish adventurers had been the advance guard of the world in finding treasure.  El Dorado of song and story was ever before them.  But in California they had seen no trace of the precious metal.  In January of the very year when the land was wrested from Mexico, 1848, the news reached San Francisco which ere long set the whole world into a fever of excitement.  James W. Marshall, an employee of Captain Sutter, the Swiss settler, had discovered gold in large quantities amid the sand of the American River, a tributary of the Sacramento.  When the report was confirmed by the shipment of considerable quantities of the coveted dust to San Francisco, a wild scramble to the spot ensued.  The news spread in all directions like an epidemic, despite the remoteness of the land.  Ships carried it to the four corners of the Pacific.  From Chili and Peru came dark-eyes mestizos.  Whalers and traders brought their quota of Kanakas and Marquesans.  It is said that the Hawaiian Islanders were so stirred by the news of gold in California that by the month of Novemer, 1848, twenty-seven vessels had sailed for San Francisco, carrying some six hundred people, while four thousand persons are reported to have gone from Chili that year to work in the mines of the new Dorado.

        Meanwhile word reach the Eastern seaboard of America, and the great westward wave of migration swept across the plains.  Stillman says that never since the Crusades was such a movement known.  The host, estimated at from twenty-five to forty thousand people, traveled in prairie schooners over that interminable stretch of plain, of desert, and mountain, braving the hardships of hunger and thirst, the perils of predatory Indian tribes, the dangers of the road which beset them from start to finish.  Women and children shared with the men the privations of that terrible overland trail.  Some were killed by the Indians, some perished of sheer exhaustion, others were storm-bound by the high Sierra snows, and died by inches, resorting to cannibalism in their maddened desperation.

        At the same time that this multitude was crossing the plains, ships were fitted out for the long voyage around Cape Horn, and old-fashioned side paddle-wheel steamers were put on the run to carry people by way of Panama.  Thus from every State of the Union and from various parts of Europe came adventurous spirits, all expecting to rock the sands of the Sacramento and make their fortunes.

        The city of San Francisco grew almost in a day.  It was a city of tents and gambling houses--a raw, crude, lawless place with the most cosmopolitan population the world has ever seen.  Here if anywhere was a confusion of tongues that would rival Babel.  Bayard Taylor, who came by steamer in 1849 as correspondent for a New York paper, thus describes the scene:

        "We scrambled up through piles of luggage, and among the crowd collected to witness our arrival, picked out two Mexicans to carry our trunks to a hotel.  The barren side of the hill before us was covered with tents and canvas houses, and nearly in front a large two-story building displayed the sign 'Fremont Family Hotel.'
        "As yet we were only in the suburbs of the town.  Crossing the shoulder of the hill, the view extended around the curve of the bay, and hundred of tents and houses appeared, scattered all over the heights, and along the shore for more than a mile.  A furious wind was blowing down through a gap in the hills, filling the street with clouds of dust.  On every side stood buildings of all kinds, begun or half finished, and the greater part of them were mere canvas sheds, open in front, and covered with all kinds of signs, in all languages.  Great quantities of goods were piled up in the open air, for want of a place to store them.  The streets were full of people hurrying to and fro, and of as diverse and bizarre a character as the houses;  Yankees of every possible variety, native Californians in serapes and sombreros, Chilians, Sonorians, Kanakas from Hawaii, Chinese with long tails, Malays armed with their everlasting creeses, and others in whose embrowned and bearded visages it was impossible to recognize any especial nationality.  We came at last into the plaza, now dignified by the name of Portsmouth Square.  It lies on the slant side of the hill, and from a high pole in front of a long one-story adobe building used as the Custom House, the American flag was flying.  On the lower side stood the Parker House, an ordinary frame house of about sixty feet front--and toward its entrance we directed our course."

        Bayard Taylor tells us of the chaotic state of city streets and of all that goes to the making of a metropolis of canvas and packing boxes.  He itemized some of the rents during that feverish year.  The Parker House yielded a hundred and ten thousand dollars annually, at least sixty thousand of which was paid by gamblers who held nearly all the second story.  A canvas tent fifteen by twenty-five feet in size, called El Dorado, was leased to gamblers for forty thousand dollars a year.  Provisions and wages were proportionate;  extravagance, profligacy and gaming were the order of the day.

        The winter of 1849 was the most notable in the history of San Francisco.  The rains wre unprecedentedly heavy and the miserable streets became impassable bogs.  Horses were hopelessly mired and left to die.  Kegs, boxes and rubbish of all sorts were thrown into the worst mud-holes to form stepping stones for pedestrians.  The tent city was of the most temporary and inadequate desription.  Men leaving for the mines were obliged to travel by sailboat up the bay and Sacrmento River, a tedious journey of days and sometimes weeks.  Municipal affairs were in such a state of chaos that at one time there were three town councils in the city.

        Out of all this hurly-burly and confusion of the mushroom metropolis, matters were presently reduced to at least a semblance of order.  During nine months of this year, two hundred and thirty-three ships arrived from the Atlantic Coast and three hundred and sixteen from Pacific ports.  As most of these vessels were deserted by their crews, who all rushed for the mines, the fleet of ships anchored in the harbor made an imposing appearance.  A line of steamers was also put on by the Pacific Mail Steamship Company during this year, leaving monthly by way of Panama.  Still, the difficulties of crossing the isthmus by row boat and pack train and the dangers of fever there, made many peope prefer the longer route around Cape Horn.  During this period of excitement and disorder, an organization of ruffians known as the "Hounds" terrorized the city.  They marched through the streets professing to be upholders of the rights of Americans as against the foreigners, and, with this pretext to shield them, attacked and looted tents, chieftly of the Mexicans and Chileans.  Emboldened by success, they established headquarters, changed their name from Hounds to Regulators, paraded the streets with drum, fife and banners by day, and robbed and murdered by night.  When, in July, 1949, they had become so fierce and deperate as to terrorize the whole city, a public meeting in Portsmouth Square was called by the Alcalde.  Those present formed themselves into a voluntary police force to punish the deperados.  Many of the worst offenders were speedily arrested and imprisoned on a ship in the harbor.  An impartial jury trial followed which resulted in the conviction of a number of the ringleaders to imprisonment with hard labor for varying terms.

        To add to the terrors of this memorable year, a destructive fire swept the town, fanned by a high wind, licking up the flimsy houses of frame and canvas.  It was but the first in a series of disasterous conflagrations which leveled the city during its early years.  Painted cloth interiors furnished excellent fuel for a big blaze, and once started, the hand engines worked by a host of resolute young fellows, could make little stand against it.  During the three years from 1849 to 1851, six fires devastated the city, involving a loss amounting in some cases to several millions, but with wonderful energy and courage the ruined citizens went to work each time to rebuild, improving with every bitter experience, until they learned to put up brick buildings with iron shutters on doors and windows to withstand the fearful ravage of the flames.

        That some of these fires were of incendiary origin, no doubt was felt.  Desprite the suppression of the Hounds, lawlessness grew apace.  The rush to the latest gold fields had attracted numbers of fearless criminals from various parts of the world.  Australia was a penal colony, and thence in particular came a crowd of villians ready for robbery, murder, arson and all desperate deeds.  They frequented the water-front saloons about Broadway and Pacific Street--a quarter of the city which was known s Sydney Town--and this region became a veritable hotbed of crime.  The police were too corrupt and inefficient to cope with the evil.  Judges and juries failed in their duty, and although over a hundred murders had been committed, not a criminal had been executed.

        So terrible had the demoralization of society become that desperate measures were necessary to restore order.  In this period of stress and peril a band of citizens formed the world-famous Vigilance Committee--an association as they themselves declared "for the maintenance of the peace and good order of society, and the preservation of the lives and property of the citizens of San Francisco."  They had been organized but a short time when work was found for them to accomplish.  John Jenkins, a member of the gang of Sydny Coves as the criminals from Australia were termed, entered a waterfront store one evening and carried off a safe.  Pursued, he took to a boat.  Other boats were close upon his traces when he threw his plumder overboard and submitted to arrest.  The safe was recovered, thus establishing the guilt of the prisoner beyond a shadow of a doubt.  He was taken to the rooms of the Vigilance Committee on Battery Street near Pine.  Almost immeditely the town was aroused by short sharp double clangs of the Monumental Fire Engine Company's bell.  It was the signal for the Vigilantes to assemble.  Swiftly they responded.  At the door only those who could give the pass-word were admitted.  Outside waited the excited crowd, knowing that a dramatic moment in the history of the city was at hand.  From ten to twelve o'clock they stood about, when, at the midnight hour, a thrill went through the assembled multitude.  The bell of the California Engine House was tolling a death-knell.

        It was nearly an hour later when Mr. Brannan, one of the committee, came out and announced to the people that the prisoner had been tried and found guilty.  Within another hour the committee, all armed, marched silently forth from their quarters, guarding the prisoner in their midst.  Solemnly they proceeded through those dark streets, followed by the multitude, to the Plaza.  A rope was hastily tied about Jenkins' neck and in a trice the other end was tossed over a projecting timber of a low adobe house.  The prisoner was speedily hoisted up and the rope, held in the grasp of willing arms, suspended him for some time after he ceased to move.  The thousand spectators looked on in silence until the body was lowered when they quietly dispresed to their homes.

        The effect of this dramatic episode was electrifying.  Most of the sober-minded of the community justified the violation of the law.  All but one of the papers sustained the Vigilance Committee.  It was the spirit of the people asserting itself against crime, but in defiance of constituted authority.

        Other executions followed in rapid succession during 1851.  A month later, another nototious criminal, James Stuart, was tried by the committeee for a number of offenses, and after receiving the death sentence confessed his crimes and admitted the justice of the punishment.  He too had been an Australian convict before coming to San Francisco.  Two hours of grace were given him after the passing of judgment, and a minister was left alone with him.  The whole committee, four hundred in number, kept the death watch in an adjoining room.  Silent, resolute, they waited there.  Not a whisper, not a murmur distrubed the awful calm of those two hours.  Then the prisoner was brought forth and, closely bound and guarded, was marched to the end of the Market Street Wharf where he was hung up to a derrick.

        Two more men were subsequently hanged together from beams out of the windows of the Vigilance Committee rooms, a crowd of six thousand people witnessing the execution.  This, with the deportation of many other desperate criminals, ended the work of the first committee and brought a state of tolerable security to life and property out of the condition of anarchy which had hitherto existed.

        In 1856 the disordered state of society called a second time for strenuous measures and the Vigilance Committee was revived.  Politics were at this period shockingly corrupt, and professional ballot box stuffers plied their vocation with impunity.  A champion of the people and of order arose in the person of James King, the popular editor of the Bulletin.  When, one day, the Bulletin made a statement, undoubtedly true, that a certain office-holder named Casey had served a term in the Sing Sing Prison, the individual cited attempted to clear his reputation by a personal attack on the editor.  He therefore shot and fatally wounded King, who died in a few days.  Again the Vigilance Committee formed, larger, stronger and better organized than before.  They went to work in the same cool determined way to mete out justice and restore order.  The execution, after due trial, of Casey and another desperate criminal, Cora, followed.  Dangerous and disagreeable as was the work of the committee, they did not flinch in their attempt to supplant the law with a more just and effective tribunal.  The spectacle of an organized body of the most respected citizens, formed to act in defiance of the law for the establishment of order in the community, has no parallel in history.  They assumed full responsibility for their actions, their names were published with their sanction, and they incurred heave personal expense and the danger of violent retaliation both from the desperate men whom they punished and the law which they defied.

        The second Vigilance Committee ended its work amid great enthusiasm on August the eighteenth, 1856.  The city was crowded with sightseers from the surrounding country.  Flags and bunting brightened the streets.  So strong had the organization become that over five thousand armed men passed the reviewing stand of the Executive Committee, including infantry, cavalry and artillery, all equipped for action.  After the parade the Vigilance Committee disbanded, having done its work so thoroughly that a different moral tone pervaded the community.

        During this period, and in fact ever since 1852, when the gold output of California culminated in eighty-five million two hundred and fifty thousand dollars, a period of great depression occurred in San Francisco.  Although over seventy-four million dollars' worth of gold were obtained in 1853 people became alarmed at the decline.  Miners began to economize, trade fell off, the tide of immigration ceased and after a year or two even turned the other way.  Business houses failed;  Meiggs, the financier and promoter of North Beach, became a defaulter for immense sums and made his dramatic flight to Tahiti and South America.  The whole situation in San Francisco looked blue enough.  It was not until the Bonanza days of the Civil War that a revival of prosperity came to the city.

        Thus toiled the Argonauts for the golden fleece of El Dorado, and thus out of chaos and the strenuous life of the frontier grew modern San Francisco.
*In Dana's time the coast line from Point Reyes to Ocean Beach, with the Farallones of shore breaking the full force of the sea, was known as the outer harbor or bay.  It is evidently to this he refers, since from the mouth of the Golden Gate to the anchorage in only five to nine miles.



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