San Francisco History

The Annals of San Francisco



IN the course of the year 1850, upwards of thirty-six thousand persons arrived by sea in San Francisco. Of these fully one-half came direct from foreign ports, while many of those that crossed the Isthmus of Panama were likewise from foreign countries. By far the greater number of immigrants were adult males, as might have been anticipated. The most of these persons hastened at once to the mines, only staying a few days, or at most a week or two, in town, to recruit their strength and make preparation for the digger’s toil. Perhaps two thousand females, many of whom were of base character and loose practices, were also added this year to the permanent population, if that can be called permanent which dwelt at least a twelvemonth in the city. The immigration across the plains and by land generally into the State was also, as in the preceding year, very large. Great numbers of all these sea and land immigrants, after they had been some months at the mines, and made perhaps a few thousand dollars, returned by way of San Francisco, to their former homes. Many others, altogether disappointed with or unfit for the country, went hastily back to the places from whence they had come. Thus vessels leaving the bay, and especially the steamers, were nearly as well filled with passengers as when they had first arrived. This constant migration to and from the State gave a wonderful animation to the streets of the town. Many of the incomers remained in the place, and the regular population continued to increase. At the close of this year, the inhabitants probably numbered between twenty-five and thirty thousand. The Chinese had not yet arrived in any great numbers, but the Chilenos and other people of Spanish-American extraction continued very numerous.

The year 1850 saw a wonderful improvement in the aspect of San Francisco. Notwithstanding the conflagrations which had so often laid in ruins large portions of the city, or perhaps rather to some extent in consequence of them, the buildings in the business quarters were now remarkable for their size, beauty and solidity. The tents and shanties of last year had totally disappeared from the centre of the town, while many of the old frame buildings that had not been destroyed by fire were replaced by others of a larger and stronger kind, if not by extensive fire-proof brick structures. It is true that in the outskirts there were still numerous frail and unsubstantial habitations left, while, farther away many more of the same kind were being weekly and daily added; but as population and the value of real estate and household property gradually increased, these temporary erections began to give place to more solid and comfortable buildings. Though labor still commanded high prices, during a great part of the year, most kinds of building materials could be obtained at comparatively low rates, probably at an average of one-fourth or one-sixth of the prices of the preceding season.

While houses were thus changing for the better, an equal improvement was taking place in the character of the streets. If nature had given to San Francisco magnificent water privileges, she had certainly been very chary in bestowing upon it land ones. The site, immediately available for building operations, was exceedingly small, and it was only by the expenditure of a vast amount of labor that additional space could be obtained for the necessary extension of the town. The land around was very hilly and irregular, which had all to be made smooth and plain before proper streets could be designed and convenient houses built. Fortunately the obstructing hills were composed chiefly of sand and easily removed. The original tents, shanties and houses had just been placed upon the old uneven surface, high up or low down as it happened; but it was soon found, that if the city was ever intended by its inhabitants to grow to greatness, some method must be observed in bringing them more upon a straight line, with ready access between all parts of the place. Very expensive works were therefore ordered by the town council, to establish a regular and convenient grade to the streets, while these were in many places substantially planked, and in some instances had sewers constructed along them. During the summer of 1850, such alterations had been proceeded with to a considerable extent, and now, when the winter and rainy season approached, their utility was seen and appreciated by all.

Other material improvements were keeping pace with those of the houses and streets. Numerous well appointed wharves were run out into the deep waters of the bay, at which the largest vessels could lay alongside and discharge. Better regulations were continually being adopted by the harbor masters to facilitate the shipping interests. In the year just passed six hundred and fifty-six sea-going vessels had arrived and discharged at the port. Of these five hundred and ninety-eight were American, and fifty-eight of different foreign countries. The public offices of the city and State were removed to more commodious and accessible buildings. The towns around the shores of the bay and those situated on the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers could now be easily, rapidly and cheaply reached, by means of numerous large, strong and beautiful steamboats. All along the outer coasts, magnificent steamships regularly carried the mails and passengers. In San Francisco itself, many workshops and manufactories began to be established; and, if few articles of trade were manufactured from the beginning out of raw materials, at least extensive repairs could always be now made upon them. The important suburb of “Happy Valley,” on the southern side of the town, became quite a hive of manufacturing industry, where there were many large works for the building and repairing of steam and sailing vessels, foundries, lumber-yards, docks, flour-mills and workshops of various kinds. Labor of every description was highly paid, and generally all branches of the community had reason to be satisfied with their profits.

The enormous gains of the preceding year had tempted those who partook of them to largely increase their shipments for 1850, while others, determined to share in the golden spoil, hastened to send additional goods to what was a limited market at best. The increased supply of merchandise soon affected the market, and prices in the spring of 1850 fell very considerably. There was a slight subsequent reaction in the course of the year, but towards the close, markets became more depressed than ever, and much embarrassment ensued to the mercantile class. This fall in prices, as well as the natural depreciation in the value of real estate from the former excessive rates, and the losses sustained by the many great fires, led to a monetary crisis, when a great number of merchants, real estate jobbers and others became bankrupt. One particular consequence of the excessive supply of goods was the sudden extraordinary increase of auctioneering business. When markets began to fall, and merchants found that their importations could not afford to pay storage and other charges, and still more, when commission agents desired to realize their advances, or were urged by foreign correspondents to sell at any price, then whole shiploads of merchandise were rattled off with a crack of the auctioneer’s hammer. It seemed to be of little moment at what rate so that somehow the matter was fixed, accounts could be adjusted, and the distant sufferer made aware of the net amount of his loss. This was still farther the case during the succeeding year. The auction business was meanwhile becoming one of great importance, which it continued to be, and is now, in San Francisco. That system of disposing of goods possesses many advantages, among which are speedy returns, and in the case of brisk demand, perhaps also better prices than can be obtained otherwise, but, at a period of glut, it fearfully sacrifices the interests of the luckless absent proprietor of unsaleable merchandise. In 1850, and still more in 1851, these things could not well be helped by any party. Still, however great individual losses and sufferings might be, the general interests of the place were all this while steadily advancing; and this was only one of the severe ordeals through which every great city in its unexpected origin and speedy progress might be expected to pass.

The mines were yielding larger returns than ever, the country was being rapidiy peopled, agriculture was beginning to be followed to a considerable extent, towns were in course of erection, and magnificent structures built on all the land. San Francisco was the great centre from whence all these changes and improvements originated, and naturally kept to itself a large proportion of them. Steam and stage “expresses “—the invariable concomitants of American progress—were established over the whole country and to the Atlantic States, and letters, newspapers and packages were conveyed with speed and safety at moderate rates. A powerful press diffused general information, and from the pulpits of many able churches flowed religious and moral consolation. These are the marks of high civilization, and they were strikingly stamped upon San Francisco. Some of the first immigrants had sent for their wives and families, and a few of those who had come later brought them in their train. The “household gods” were set up in many a dwelling, and the inmates could now worship and enjoy their blessings together. Instead of the old scenes of terrible confusion which we have described as existing at the close of 1849, the city, only one twelvemonth later, presented an orderly, decent and busy aspect, with moderately clean and regular streets, houses of fair proportions, prices of provisions and goods reasonable, markets supplied with every luxury for the table, convenient wharves for shipping, “expresses” by sea and land, a dozen churches, half-a-dozen banking establishments, several theatres, well-filled book and music stores, six or seven daily newspapers, magnificent hotels and restaurants, handsome public carriages for the rich and ostentatious, and with almost every luxury, convenience and necessary, mental and corporeal, that old cities in long peopled and civilized countries could boast of. The earliest citizens formed themselves into the “Society of California Pioneers,” and numerous associations were organized for municipal and defensive, literary, charitable, musical, social and similar purposes, just as we find in the old established communities. Most of the inhabitants certainly seemed to live purely to heap more dollars to their existing store; but it was not altogether so. Rays of refinement were shooting through the sordid mass, and gradually turning it towards a feeling that there was something higher, happier and better than mere money gathering. But while this ennobling leaven was silently and slowly at work among the busy multitudes, the great apparent characteristics of the place continued to be its material progress and the incessant stir and industry of the people. The town had been severely tried in the conflagrations which so repeatedly destroyed large portions of the most valuable districts; but nothing could daunt the energy and enterprise of the inhabitants. These losses and all the natural obstacles of the site were successively overcome, and the city grew daily more grand and rich.

Cholera visited San Francisco in the fall of this year; but its ravages were slight. The greatest number of deaths in any one day did not exceed ten or twelve. The epidemic began in October, was at its height in November, and disappeared by the close of the year. Notwithstanding the filth and rubbish which naturally collected around the scene of so many busy operations by a vast population which had hitherto adopted no proper means to preserve cleanliness and purity of atmosphere, the health of the place was wonderfully preserved; and neither by cholera, which alights and is most deadly on the filthiest spots of a country, nor by other diseases, did a disproportionate or unusual number of deaths occur. This is high testimony to the extreme salubrity of the climate. The winter of 1850-51 was a remarkably dry and pleasant one, a striking contrast to the dreary winter of 1849-50.

In the course of 1850, two great political changes had taken place: California had been admitted into the Union, and a city charter, previously approved of by the inhabitants, had been granted to San Francisco by the State Legislature. The latter was much improved and re-granted in the following year. In the Appendix we give copies of the State Constitution and of the amended City Charter. By these events, the hands of both the general and local authorities were greatly strengthened, and the foundations of a firm government fairly laid.

Aldermen's Medal.The first common council of San Francisco, under the charter, had certainly a considerable deal to do, and perhaps did it well enough; but their appropriation of a large portion of the city funds to themselves, by the name of salaries, met with much opposition from the citizens, which had at least the effect of reducing the amount one-third. At a later date of the year, the aldermen were said to have mysteriously voted to themselves a gold medal, of the value of one hundred and fifty dollars, supposed to be for those public and extra services which were not covered by the salaries of six or four thousand dollars, nor by the very many fine opportunities for corporation jobbery. But general curiosity being excited on the subject, and prying inquiries made as to the when and how, the why and the wherefore, these medals were earned, voted and paid for, the council boards suddenly found it convenient to pretend utter ignorance of the whole matter, and to quietly pay for the medals themselves, to put into the melting pot. The truth of the matter seems to have been that one of the sub-committees appointed to make arrangements for the public festival of the 29th October, to celebrate the admission of California into the Union, had wilfully or ignorantly overstepped their duties, and, assuming the glad consent of their brethren, had ordered these medals, on pretence of suitably decorating the aldermen for the occasion. But unluckily the medals were not, and could not have been procured in time for that celebration. The whole affair became an excellent joke, although a somewhat bitter one against the goaded council. To perpetuate the memory of those happy, or unhappy times for our “city fathers,” we give illustrations of the wonderful medal. It will be noticed that a blank is left in the inscription for the name of the worthy recipient.

All human institutions are subject to abuse, and especially in the youth of a quickly growing community, where every member is heart and soul occupied in providing only for himself. Many charges have been made and more insinuated, as to the corrupt, careless, and extravagant behavior of most of the officials, since the fall of Mexican power, down even to 1854, in the administration of the revenues and properties, both of the State of California and of the City of San Francisco. In a country and place like these, where hitherto gold has been pretty generally the only thing supposed to be worth living for, one cannot avoid believing that many of these charges and insinuations were true; and yet the occupants of office might otherwise have been “indifferent honest” men, and, after all, perhaps quite as good as their clamant neighbors. When any transaction of a particularly glaring, base or improper nature was found out, public opinion was sure to rise in rebellion and shame the rogues to common decency at least. Much popular feeling was, at one period of 1850, expended at “mass” and “indignation” meetings against the municipal authorities; but, by and by, the community, who could not afford the pecuniary loss of such gratis excitement and attention, settled down into comparative calmness and indifference.

The “Colton Grants” and the “Leidesdorff Estate,” proved the means of much litigation in the courts of law, and from the great extent of pecuniary interest involved, and the variety of parties interested, these legal matters became of exceeding public importance, and merit a passing allusion. We have already noticed the death of Mr. Leidesdorff on the 18th May, 1848. Circumstances had led that gentleman to become a Mexican citizen about the year 1844, whereby he was enabled to hold, as he afterwards acquired, real estate to a large extent in Yerba Buena and its neighborhood, now San Francisco. From the great immigration which subsequently took place, this property suddenly became of immense value. Mr. Leidesdorff was reputed to have died some fifty thousand dollars in debt, and yet within two years afterwards his estate was worth nearly a million. This indeed was a prize worth contending for. The very administration of its revenues, at San Francisco charges, was the means of making annual fortunes to lucky agents. Hence the legal strife, and perhaps the imputing and bandying of improper motives among the judges and parties chiefly interested. The Leidesdorff estate was subsequently claimed by the State of California, on the ground that Mr. Leidesdorff had died intestate, leaving only alien, though legitimate relatives, whereby his property escheated to the State. In the spring of 1854, measures were about to be taken by the Legislature to make that claim effectual.

The financial condition of the city continued in a very bad state. Large sums of money were raised on scrip and loan warrants, for the purposes of municipal improvements and to defray the ordinary expenses, which there seemed no apparent means of soon redeeming. It is true the city possessed considerable property, but it was not yet time to sell it to advantage, while the pressure of taxation was beginning to be heavily felt by the inhabitants. The interest payable for public loans, as likewise in the case of private accommodation of the kind, was exceedingly great, the ordinary rates varying from five to eight per cent. per month. When private parties borrowed, they had generally to give real security for the amount, and to pay these high rates of interest monthly in advance.

San Francisco, Winter of 1849-50, showing Montgomery street North from California street.The social and moral state of general society had meanwhile improved but little. Gambling indeed was not pursued, at least openly, by the more respectable classes, and among all it was much diminished in intensity. The common council had likewise passed ordinances which effectually prevented the public following of the avocation on Sunday. But notwithstanding this tribute to religious decency, and check against one branch of profligacy, crime was increasing, and the boldness and number of the criminals became very alarming. All manner of burglaries, robberies and thefts were of daily occurrence. So were personal assaults of an aggravated nature; while murders were repeatediy taking place. A great many attempts at incendiarism had been detected, although the charge seldom or never could be fairly brought home to individuals. If, however, there were some legal uncertainty on the subject, which prevented convictions, no moral doubt existed but that there was an active and numerous band of desperadoes existing in the city, who added to many other crimes that of wilful fire-raising. They did not display banners and march in procession through the streets to the music of drum and fife, like the old “hounds,” but nevertheless they seemed to be as thoroughiy organized and to support each other when necessary, as that notorious gang of villains. Besides the numerous real cases, false alarms of fire were still more frequently raised; and during the attendant confusion many depredations were committed. Hundreds of the loafer and rowdy class haunted the town, who had no visible means of support, and whose lives showed only one continued scene of vice, crime and violence. There seemed a wide-spread combination among the rogues to divide systematically the different branches and gains of their unhallowed profession; and from petty theft and swindling up to highway robbery and murder, the actors seemed to be perfect adepts in their several parts. The prisons were full; but they could not hold a tithe of the offenders. The police were few and not very highly paid, and they could not pretend to cope with the more daring rascals, who defied all their efforts at capture and conviction. False swearing at trials, by trusty and unblushing comrades, confounded the few prosecutions and ensured ultimate escape to the most guilty.

People, at last, began to talk among themselves of the urgent necessity of again adopting Lynch law, since the tedious and uncertain measures of the authorities did not seem to have the effect of terrifying and putting down the disturbers of the public peace. Even a portion of the newspaper press boldly advocated such doctrines; considering that the present alarming juncture of events formed such an exceptional case as to require a departure from the ordinary course of administering justice. As the successive conflagrations had developed a large volunteer force to watch over the safety of the town from fire, so the continued increase of open and daring crime was certain in the end to induce the establishment of a great police that would not be trifled with, but would uproot, by some sure and terrible means, villainy and villains wherever they could be found. Already the necessity of such a police was recognized, and it only wanted a few more glaring cases of outrage, spoil and murder, to give it a sudden being and irresistible strength.

Source: Frank Soulé, John H. Gihon, M.D., and James Nisbet. The Annals of San Francisco. 1855: San Francisco.

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