1849: As the fateful year of 1849 begins, a newspaper editor scrutinizes San Francisco’s gold rush future.

gold rushFebruary 1, 1849
The eye of the Gold Rush hurricane

The spring of 1849 — dawn of a year forever branded into the national consciousness as the era of the California Gold Rush.

And so it was — but that was back East, in the “States”. In San Francisco, the Gold Rush had actually begun an entire year earlier.

I’d better set the scene.

The United States were at war with Mexico — it’s President Polk and “Manifest Destiny” time. San Francisco (then Yerba Buena) was conquered without a shot in July of 1847.

In the first month of 1848, gold was quietly discovered in the foothills east of Sutter’s Fort. Days later, the Mexican war came to an end, and Alta California became sole property of the United States.

Sam Brannan kick-starts things in ’48

San Francisco was skeptical about the gold strike, but in May of ’48, Sam Brannan made his famous appearance on Market Street brandishing a bottle of gold dust. His shouts of “Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River” triggered the first wave of the Gold Rush.

The village of about 500 souls was emptied almost overnight as its inhabitants hotfooted it for the hills. Among the many businesses left completely in the lurch was Sam Brannan’s own newspaper, the California Star.

While the entrepreneurial Brannan was busy becoming a millionaire selling shovels to gold miners, by June his entire staff had abandoned the paper and set off to make their own fortunes.

Edward Kemble publishes the Alta California

alta california newspaper buildingBrannan sold what was left of his newspaper to a more civic-minded businessman, Mr. Edward Cleveland Kemble. Kemble resuscitated the Star (along with San Francisco’s other gold rush-crippled paper, the Californian) as a brand spanking new paper he called the Alta California. The first issue appeared at the tail end of 1848.

That brings us right up to today’s timecapsule.

The editorial on the front page of issue #5 of the new paper is a treasure trove of contemporary San Francisco perspectives.

As editor Kemble was composing this piece — a retrospective of the previous year, and a peek into the uncertain future — it was the dead of winter, and the first wave of the Rush had crested and broken back towards the city.

Kemble was first and foremost a businessman, and he was concerned with the civic and financial future of San Francisco. He points out that the city is poorly governed, a little short on law and order, already swelling with gold-seekers from Mexico and Oregon, and — to sum it up — is woefully unprepared for the onslaught of humanity, the avalanche of “49ers” already looming on the horizon.

But though he’s aware that the next wave is going to be a doozy, with 20-20 historical hindsight we know that he doesn’t really have a clue.

What Kemble doesn’t know … yet.

san francisco harbor 1851By the end of 1849, the village of San Francisco will have burst at every seam, with a population exploding from 2000 to 25,000. Tens of thousands of gold seekers will flow through the port and even more will stagger in overland from the East, all in all 100,000 strong.

The beautiful harbour will be choked with hundreds of deserted, rotting ships, and the local government will prove to be ineffectual and almost totally corrupt. By the end of ’49 San Francisco will have become a wild, sprawling, lawless shanty boomtown, and the soul and future of our City by the Bay will be permanently transformed.

Kemble’s observations give us ground-level insight into the concerns of the village of San Francisco in the winter of 1848 — a priceless peek into the eye of the gold rush hurricane.

Note: article subheads below added by yours truly

San Francisco — Her Prospects

alta california mastheadIn the month of June, 1847, a census of the town of San Francisco was taken, by a Lieutenant of the 1st New York Regiment, who was then on duty here. That census exhibited the fact, that her population had increased one hundred percent in the preceding year, and then amounted to 459 souls. There had been erected within the year previous to June, 1847, thirty houses; and laboring men and mechanics were earning from two to three dollars per day. Business was brisk, and all the necessaries and some few of the luxuries of life met with ready sale at good prices. There was but little capital in the country, but that little was judiciously, economically, and steadily applied, and its effects were perceptible and satisfactory.

San Francisco before the Gold Rush

The prosperity and increase of the town was rapid and sure. Unimproved lots which had originally cost sixteen dollars were sold at prices varying from fifty dollars to five hundred, according to situation, and some of the most central were held as high as two thousand dollars. In the months of July and August, 1847, there were forty-eight houses erected, a number equal to five-eighths of all the buildings theretofore erected in the town. The clink of the hammer and the sliding of the plane were heard in every direction, and a fifteen minutes walk would have brought one in hearing of the woodman’s axe.

The farmers in the surrounding rich valleys had planted sowed and gathered rich harvests, quicksilver mines had been opened in parts of the country, and were being successfully worked, saw mills and grist mills were working profitably, and others were in process of erection, peace existed throughout the territory, and law and order were preserved and life and prosperity were secure.

During all this time the progress of San Francisco was continued and rapid, as a census taken by the school commissioners in the month of March, 1848 clearly proved. The number of white inhabitants, as exhibited by their returns, amounted to 812, which, compared with the number as stated in June, 1847, showed an increase of more than one hundred percent in the space of eight months. Business at this time was good, the mild winter had contributed to advance trade and agricultural pursuits, and the country was looking forward to a prolific harvest, a steady advance on the price of real estate, a large immigration, a profitable working of quicksilver mines, an influx of capital and industry, and a general and solid prosperity.

Gold discovered on the Rio Americano!

About this time (April, 1848,) rumors of the discovery of extensive gold mines on the Rio Americano began to circulate from mouth to mouth. Little knots collected at street corners to hear and tell the news — squads of workmen might be seen listening with eager faces to the tale of some newly arrived “digger”, and merchants and speculators bean seriously to calculate the changes this state of things was likely to produce in the value of merchandise and town lots, and its effect upon trade generally. Society was in a state of fusion; and the prospects, condition and business of the country were about to undergo a wonderful revolution.

For a moment, as the intelligence of new discoveries and the substantial evidences of old ones, came to the knowledge of the community, public energy, enterprise and industry seemed paralyzed. The laborer leaned thoughtfully on his spade, the mechanic, with hands in pocket, looked listlessly and abstractedly upon his work, and the merchant shut himself up in his counting-room and turned over the pages of his ledger with a desperation which showed how eager he was to clutch the golden spoils.

All classes and all conditions were spell-bound. But suddenly the change came. — The whole community, as if by a simultaneous impulse, literally rushed to this El Dorado. No inducement, no ties, could keep them away. The desire for gold reigned supreme, and swept before it, like a resistless torrent, every landmark of “things that were”.

“A dark and gloomy moment”

This was a dark and gloomy moment for San Francisco. Her streets were deserted, her houses untenanted, her improvements stopped in their very beginning, and the bud of her prosperity and advancement nipped. Real estate had no value, for there were no purchasers; the wages of laborers and mechanics had risen to five and ten dollars per day, and they were not to be procured at that; food had become enormously high, and the costs of the minor necessaries of life had so advanced that those few whose engagements rendered it impossible for them to go to the mines could see no probably means of procuring a bare subsistence.

Like fire, the news spread throughout the land. — The conservative industry of the country was dead; the plow was left to rust in the furrow, the crops to decay and waste where they grew, and the cattle to stay and wander where they choose. The news swept across the land and ocean, and Oregon, the Sandwich Islands, and Sonora sent their hundreds and thousands to participate in the golden harvest. The Indians in the country were seized with the mania, and not understanding the value of the article they found, they paid immense prices for food, beads, cloths of bright colors, and merchandise generally.

Inflation strikes the city

The sudden acquisition of wealth begat in all a desire to spend, and to spend freely. — Merchandise rose in price immensely, vile brandy and rum became as valuable as an oriental emperor’s choicest attar and rose, and provisions were almost worth their weight in gold. Business men turned their attention to the subject, whole cargoes were purchased at high prices, and sent into the mines, and still the demand continued, aye, increased.

The cost of transportation, and the means thereof, had gradually risen, until the wages of boatmen, instead of being from ten to forty dollars per month, were from thirty to three hundred dollars, and the value of launches that had originally cost from one hundred to two thousand dollars, now ranged from five hundred to ten thousand. Freight from San Francisco to Sutter’s Embarcadero, a distance of some one hundred and sixty miles, was three dollars per one hundred pounds, and the passage money for each passenger was ten dollars. The land transportation for Sutter’s Embarcadero to the Placer varied from twelve dollars to twenty-five dollars per one hundred pounds, according to distance, which in no case exceeded sixty miles. Notwithstanding these monstrous prices, merchandise, clothing, provisions and liquors continued to go forward to, and were in demand in, every portion of the mines.

A summer of sickness

In the month of July, 1848, the miners began to suffer from sickness, A new and furnace-like climate, unwholesome food, intemperate habits of eating and drinking, exposure to a fierce sun with the lower part of the body immersed in ice cold water, and the complete change of manner of living, did their work. Fever seized upon them, and many died. In the months of August and September the mines were nearly deserted, and every launch from Sutter’s Fort brought numbers of pale and emaciated sufferers. The hardy and strong, seeing their companions falling around them, also returned, and San Francisco again wore a populous though not as enterprising and advancing aspect.

But it could not long so remain. The inherent industry of its citizens soon manifested itself, and many buildings were erected and other improvements made. In the latter part of September, however, the current set again towards the mines, and beyond the merchants and those employed by them, but few remained.

A winter break — and proof that the Gold Rush is good for the city

In November, though, when the people returned from the mines for the winter, rich with the precious metal, the effects of the gold mines upon San Francisco were more sensibly felt, and more properly appreciated. Real estate rose immediately in value. Lots that had been purchased in the spring for from one hundred to two thousand dollars now ranged from one thousand to fifteen thousand dollars; buildings that had theretofore rented at from ten to twenty dollars per month, were now taken with avidity at from twenty to one hundred dollars per month; merchandise and provisions though enormously high before, advanced one hundred percent., lumber and building materials advanced in the same ratio, and it was then, and not til then, that the problem was solved, “Will San Francisco be benefited, or not, by the discovery of the gold mines?”

From that time all have conceded that she must advance and prosper, and that too, in a ratio which will astonish the methodical and plodding calculator. Recent accounts from different parts of the world, and recent arrivals of ship loads of immigrants, render this position incontrovertible. But to make it still more incontestible let us state a few important facts —

1st.   San Francisco possesses the safest, largest, and most accessible harbor on the whole Pacific coast;

2d.   The situation of the town is picturesque, and but four miles from the sea;

3d.   The large bay of San Francisco is navigable for medium sized vessels, as are also its great tributaries the Sacramento and San Joaquin;

4th.   The climate, though disagreeable to new comers from the prevalence of northwesterly winds, is remarkably healthy;

5th.   The population has increased since March last from 800 to about 2000 souls;

6th.   Real Estate has risen in value from one hundred to ten hundred per cent;

7th.   The export of gold dust from this port since May last is supposed to exceed $20,000,000;

8th.   The duties collected at the custom house were,

4th Qr. of 1847, $12,040.19
1st " 1848, 11,931.27
2d " " 8,835.38
3d " " 74,827.98
4th " " 100,480.83

Total, in 1848,   $196,074.66

9th.   The imports of merchandise, during the year 1848, have probably exceeded in value $1,000,000;

10th.   The importation of coin in the same period for the purchase of gold dust, have probably amounted to $1,000,000;

11th.   The arrival of passengers by sea have amounted to about 1000 souls;

And 12th.   The number of new buildings erected in the past year will probably exceed fifty.

“The worst governed community in existence”

And yet, with all those natural and acquired advantages, San Francisco is perhaps the worst governed community in existence. Her public funds have been expended in ill-digested and ill-planned schemes, whose results are scarcely perceptible and of but little benefit — her public domain has been parcelled out and sold, with the reservation of lots for public buildings, school-houses, hospitals or jails. She is without law, without proper executive officers, and without the means of confining and punishing offenders, and were it not that gold is so abundant, no man could calculate how long before the assassin’s knife would be at his throat, or at what moment the incendiary’s torch would be applied to his dwelling.

All men deplore this state of affairs, all exclaim loudly against it — and yet, it has heretofore been found utterly impossible to get a dozen reputable and intelligent inhabitants to stop a moment in their pace for wealth. And remember that there are higher motives than the desire for gold — dearer interests than the acquisition of property — and sublimer aspirations than schemes for making money. All can bring changes on the unfortunate circumstances that surround us, but united, determined, proper and continued action cannot be elicited.

“What shall be done?”

What, then, shall be done? Every breeze that sweeps across the Pacific or Rocky Mountains brings us intelligence that thousands of emigrants are already en route for California. Many of these will arrive in San Francisco, and it is fair to infer that the influx of strangers will add to the present unsettled and unsatisfactory situation of affairs, unless suitable means be adopted to prevent such a result. We shall be exposed to new evils, and it is the part of wisdom to be prepared for then. Again we ask, “What shall be done?”

We have indulged in the foregoing remarks, not so much to show to the world the prosperity of San Francisco, despite her bad government, as to make her citizens fully sensible that they are playing an important part in history — that as denizens of the place destined too to be the first city of commercial importance on the west coast of North or South America, it is de to the world, to the country, and to themselves, that they should labor to have good laws and to have them properly executed — that they should forget for a moment their personal interests, and attend to the public’s — and that they should not fail to remember that no man can be a good citizen unless he fully discharges his every duty towards that society of which he constitutes a part.

Alta California — Thursday, Feb. 1, 1849