San Francisco History

The Annals of San Francisco



THE population of the State, and of San Francisco in particular, had been largely increasing during the last six months. Between the 1st of January, 1849, and the 30th of June following, it was estimated that fifteen thousand had been added to the population of the country; of which number nearly ten thousand came by sea, and landed at San Francisco. Only about two hundred of these were females. The next half year gave an average of four thousand immigrants per month, by sea alone, about five hundred of whom, in all, were females; and the whole of which numbers landed at San Francisco. In the early part of 1849, the arrivals were principally from Chili, Mexico, and other countries on the Pacific coasts of America; but later in the year, an immense number of Americans came direct from the Atlantic States, around Cape Horn, or by way of Panama, while many foreigners also arrived from China and from various parts of Europe. Hitherto the departures were comparatively few. Altogether nearly forty thousand immigrants landed at San Francisco during 1849. Besides that great number, some three thousand or four thousand seamen deserted from the many hundred ships lying in the bay. Probably two-thirds of all these proceeded to the mines, or to various parts of the interior; but, on the other hand, numerous fortunate diggers, or those who had tried gold digging and been disappointed, visited town, to spend their gains, recruit their health, or follow out some new pursuit there. It will be remembered also that somewhere about thirty thousand American immigrants had reached California across the plains, many of whom ultimately settled in San Francisco. Therefore, it may be reasonably estimated, that, at the close of 1849, the population of the town numbered, at least, twenty, and probably nearer twenty-five thousand souls. A very small proportion of these were females—a still smaller one, children of either sex; while the vast majority of inhabitants were adult males, in the early prime of manhood. This circumstance naturally tended to give a peculiar character to the aspect of the place and habits of the people.

Muddy Streets.There was no such thing as a home to be found. Scarcely even a proper house could be seen. Both dwellings and places of business were either common canvas tents, or small rough board shanties, or frame buildings of one story. Only the great gambling saloons, the hotels, restaurants, and a few public buildings and stores had any pretensions to size, comfort or elegance. The site on which the town is built was then still covered with numberless sand-hills. The streets were therefore uneven and irregular. By the continued passage of men, and of horses and drays with building materials and goods, while the rainy season (which commenced earlier than usual, and was remarkably severe) was shedding torrents from the clouds, the different thoroughfares were soon so cut up as to become almost, if not quite impassable. Indeed both horse, or mule and dray were sometimes literally swallowed up in the mud, while their owner narrowly escaped a similar fate. The town authorities caused numberless cart loads of brushwood and limbs of trees to be cut from the surrounding hills, and thrown into the streets; but these only answered a limited and temporary purpose. The difficulty could not thus be remedied. Nobody troubled himself to remove any rubbish from the way; but inmates of tents and houses satisfied themselves with placing a few planks, tobacco-boxes, bags of coffee, barrels of spoiled provisions, or any other available object, across and along the worst parts of the roads, to enable them safely to reach their own dwellings. It was not for every body, however, to attempt to navigate these perilous places, or hope to keep on the narrow, slippery, unsteady, and often interrupted path which spanned the unfathomed abysses of mud and water which lay on all sides. Lanterns were indispensable to pedestrians at night, and even in daylight not a few would lose their footing, and find it difficult to extricate themselves from their unpleasant predicaments.

In those miserable apologies for houses, surrounded by heaps and patches of filth, mud and stagnant water, the strange mixed population carried on business, after a fashion. It is not to be supposed that people could or did manage matters in the strict orderly manner of older communities. Very few were following that particular business to which they had been bred, or for which they were best fitted by nature. Every immigrant on landing at San Francisco became a new man in his own estimation, and was prepared to undertake any thing or any piece of business whatsoever. And truly he did it; but it was with a deal of noise, bustle and unnecessary confusion. The great recognized orders of society were tumbled topsy-turvy. Doctors and dentists became draymen, or barbers, or shoe-blacks; lawyers, brokers and clerks, turned waiters, or auctioneers, or perhaps butchers; merchants tried laboring and lumping, while laborers and lumpers changed to merchants. The idlest might be tempted, and the weakest were able, to do something—to drive a nail in frame buildings, lead a burdened mule, keep a stall, ring a bell, or run a message. Adventurers, merchants, lawyers, clerks, tradesmen, mechanics, and every class in turn kept lodging-houses, eating and drinking houses, billiard rooms and gambling saloons, or single tables at these; they dabbled in “beach and water lots,” fifty-vara blocks, and new town allotments over the whole country; speculated in flour, beef, pork and potatoes; in lumber and other building materials; in dry goods and soft, hard goods and wet; bought and sold, wholesale and retail, and were ready to change their occupation and embark in some new nondescript undertaking after two minutes consideration. All things seemed in the utmost disorder. The streets and passages, such as they were, and the inside of tents and houses, were heaped with all sorts of goods and lumber. There seemed no method in any thing. People bustled and jostled against each other, bawled, railed and fought, cursed and swore, sweated and labored lustily, and somehow the work was done. A spectator would have imagined the confusion inextricable, but soon had reason to change his opinion. Every body was busy, and knew very well what he himself had to do. Heaps of goods disappeared, as if by magic, and new heaps appeared in their place. Where there was a vacant piece of ground one day, the next saw it covered with half a dozen tents or shanties. Horses, mules and oxen forced a way through, across, and over every obstruction in the streets; and men waded and toiled after them. Hundreds of rude houses and tents were daily in the course of erection; they nestled between the sand-hills, covered their tops, and climbed the heights to the north and west of the town.

Lodging Room.As we have said, there were no homes at this period in San Francisco, and time was too precious for any one to stay within doors to cook victuals. Consequently an immense majority of the people took their meals at restaurants, boarding-houses and hotels—the number of which was naturally therefore very great; while many lodged as well as boarded at such places. Many of these were indeed miserable hovels, which showed only bad fare and worse attendance, dirt, discomfort and high prices. A few others again were of a superior class; but, of course, still higher charges had to be made for the better accommodation. At best all were inconveniently crowded, heated and disagreeable. The whole population was constantly moving, and always visible, which added greatly to its apparent numbers. If only people did not sleep in public, they at least worked, eat, and amused themselves in crowds. But even at night, they lay from half a dozen to two score in a room, on the floor, in rows of cots, or contracted and filthy bunks fastened to the weather-boards from floor to ceiling, in which were immense swarms of fleas and other troublesome vermin. At some lodging-houses and hotels, every superficial inch—on floor, tables, benches, shelves, and beds, was covered with a portion of weary humanity.

While wages and profits were so high, and there was no comfort at their sleeping quarters, men spent money freely at different places of riotous excess, and were indeed forced to pass their hours of leisure or recreation at drinking bars, billiard rooms and gambling saloons. Such places were accordingly crowded with a motley crew, who drank, swore, and gamed to their hearts’ content. Every body did so; and that circumstance was a sufficient excuse, if one were needed, to the neophyte in debauchery. To vary amusements, occasionally a fancy-dress ball or masquerade would be announced at high prices. There the most extraordinary scenes were exhibited, as might have been expected where the actors and dancers were chiefly hot-headed young men, flush of money and half frantic with excitement, and lewd girls freed from the necessity of all moral restraint. A concert or a lecture would at other times help to entertain the weary spirits of the town. But of all their haunts, the gambling saloons were the most notorious and best patronized.

Gambling was a peculiar feature of San Francisco at this time. It was the amusement—the grand occupation of many classes—apparently the life and soul of the place. There were hundreds of gambling saloons in the town. The bar-room of every hotel and public house presented its tables to attract the idle, the eager and covetous. Monté, faro, roulette, rondo, rouge et noir and vingt-un, were the games chiefly played. In the larger saloons, beautiful and well-dressed women dealt out the cards or turned the roulette wheel, while lascivious pictures hung on the walls. A band of music and numberless blazing lamps gave animation and a feeling of joyous rapture to the scene. No wonder the unwary visitor was tempted and fell, before he had time to awake from the pleasing delusion. To make a fortune in the turning of a card was delightful—the very mingled hope and fear of eventual success was a charming excitement. For the moment, men felt as great conquerors may be supposed sometimes to feel; they manoeuvred on the green cloth,—the field of their operations,—thinking their own skill was playing the game, when chance alone gave the result. At the end of a long evening’s campaign of mingled victories and defeats—petty skirmishes—they would either draw off their forces to renew the game next day, or hazard their all, thousands of dollars perhaps, on the issue of one great battle, and a moment afterwards leave the table richer or poorer by a moderate fortune. Again and again, were such campaigns fought, till the excitement and intense desire of playing became chronic. When great sums could no longer be had, small ones served the same purpose; and were, in the end, lost like the others. Gambling became a regular business; and those who followed it professionally were really among the richest, most talented and influential citizens of the town.

The sums staked were occasionally enormous. One evening sixteen thousand dollars’ worth of gold dust was laid upon a faro table as a bet. This was lost by the keeper of the table, who counted out the money to the winner without a murmur, and continued his business with a cheerful countenance, and apparently with as good spirits as though he had incurred no more than an ordinary loss. As high as twenty thousand dollars, it is said, have been risked upon the turn of a card. Five thousand, three thousand, and one thousand dollars were repeatedly ventured. The ordinary stakes, however, were by no means so high as these sums—from fifty cents to five dollars being the usual amount; and thus the common day laborer could lay his moderate stake as stylishly as a lord. It was only when the rich gamester was getting desperate, or a half tipsy miner had just come from the diggings with a handsome “pile,” that the larger sums were put on the cloth. Generally speaking, the keepers of the tables, or “bankers,” had no objection to these heavy stakes; they knew the game better than the player, and were well aware of all the chances in their own favor. But it was scarcely necessary for the professional gambler to encourage particularly large stakes. The combined amount of all the usual small ones was very large; while every two minutes there was a new game formed, and new stakes put down. The extensive saloons, in each of which ten or a dozen such tables might be placed, were continually crowded, and around the tables themselves the players often stood in lines three or four deep, every one vieing with his neighbors for the privilege of reaching the board, and staking his money as fast as the wheel and ball could be rolled or the card turned. The professional gamblers, who paid great rents for the right of placing their tables in these saloons, made large fartunes by the business. Their tables were piled with heaps of gold and silver coin, with bags of gold dust, and lumps of the pure metal, to tempt the gazer. The sight of such treasures, the occasional success of players, the music, the bustle, heat, drink, greed and deviltry, all combined to encourage play to an extent limited only by the great wealth of the community. Judges and clergymen, physicians and advocates, merchants and clerks, contractors, shopkeepers, tradesmen, mechanics and laborers, miners and farmers, all adventurers in their kind—every one elbowed his way to the gaming-table, and unblushingly threw down his golden or silver stake. The whole of the eastern side of Portsmouth Square, three-fourths of the northern, and a portion of the southern sides were occupied by buildings specially devoted to gambling. At these portions of the plaza were perhaps the greater saloons, but all around the neighborhood there were numberless other places, where the same system was carried on, and where the proceedings were exposed to the careless look of every passer-by.

While such scenes, in hundreds of distinct places, were night and day being acted in public, the better or richer classes, who at first had openly appeared and gambled among the crowds at the general saloons, began to separate and confine themselves to semi-private play in the rear of the Parker House, and at similar places. There, if the external excitement of moving crowds and music was wanting, the interest in the sport arising from larger stakes was correspondingly increased, if that were possible. The amounts ventured in such secluded circles were immense; and almost surpass belief. Men had come to California for gold; and, by hook or by crook, gold they would have. It was a fair and honest game, they thought, to hazard one’s own money against that of another. Therefore, they staked and lost— staked and won—till in the end they were rich indeed, or penniless. But poor or rich, the speculative spirit continued—(there was surely something infectious in the air!)—and either in direct gambling, or in nearly similar operations in mercantile, land-jobbing, or general business, the inhabitants of San Francisco, at this period of its history, seemed to be one great horde of gamesters. There were exceptions indeed, and some men scorned to enter a gambling saloon or touch a card, but these were too few comparatively to be specially noticed in the general hubbub and speculative disposition of the place.

Parker House when first opened.Who can tell the joy, the hope, the triumph, or the fear, misery and ruin of the busy gamester? It is not avarice alone that urges his course—for we often find the professed gambler careless of money, liberal and generous to excess. There is mental excitement—personal victory—riches, and consequent power, honor and happiness in the game. Other passions have their moments of excitement and ecstasy; but perhaps few have more blissful ones than the uncontrollable spirit of play. Let cold-blooded, lethargic people, who condemn the practice—for it is still a pernicious vice—consider the temptations and pleasure, as well as the evils and crimes it induces, and withhold their indiscriminating censures against those who have fallen victims to it. Some countries indulge in national vices—it may be intoxication or gambling, gross superstition or fanaticism. But no man can know all the peculiar circumstances and temptations that lead to wrong-doing; and no man is so personally and morally pure that he is entitled to throw a stone at the offender. We would not seek to excuse the San Franciscans of those days for indulging in gambling; but we think some palliation might be found for their conduct in the anomalous circumstances in which they were placed, and much allowance made for their temptation and fall. The same speculative spirit continues, although in a much less degree. There are still many public gaming tables, open every day of the week, at nearly all hours; but the stakes are much smaller than before, and the more respectable classes of the community do not attend such places. Private play is likewise still carried on, but to nothing like the extent of former years. The evil is dying away; though many years must pass before it be altogether extinct. So long as San Francisco is without proper homes, and its population is composed chiefly of adult males, while enormous profits and wages are usually made in every undertaking, so long will the only amusements be public ones, and chief among them, gambling. The richer and more respectable classes have now such homes and families to enjoy themselves among, and they no longer gamble. Give an agreeable domestic circle to the mechanic and the laborer, the general speculator, the tradesman and the clerk, and they likewise will forsake the public haunts of dissipation.

We have occasionally alluded to the desertion of seamen. At the time of which we write there were between three and four hundred large square-rigged vessels lying in the bay, unable to leave on account of want of hands. Many of these vessels never got away, but, in a few years afterwards, rotted and tumbled to pieces where they were moored. As stores and dwelling-houses were much needed, a considerable number of the deserted ships were drawn high on the beach, and fast imbedded in deep mud, where they were converted into warehouses and lodgings for the wants of the crowded population. When subsequently the town was extended over the mud flat of the bay, these ships were for ever closed in by numberless streets and regularly built houses both of brick and frame. When, by and by, the runaway seamen returned from the mines, crews could be more easily had, though still at a great increase of wages; and gradually the detained vessels were enabled to leave the port, to make room for new fleets.

The circulation of money,—partly coin, partly gold dust,— was very great. Men had a sublime indifference to the smaller pieces of coin, and talked as familiarly of dollars as people elsewhere would of dimes. A copper coin was a strange sight. There was nothing less received for any service, however slight, than half a dollar; for any article, however trifling, than a twenty-five cent piece. The price of admission to the pit of the circus was three dollars; while fifty-five dollars was the cost of a private box. Thirty dollars a week, or eight dollars a day, was the sum asked for good boarding; while the most indifferent could not be obtained for less than twenty dollars a week. Every mouthful at dinner might be valued at a dime; and to get a hearty meal would cost from two to five dollars, according to the quality of the viands. Other things were in proportion. Wheat flour and salt pork sold at forty dollars a barrel; potatoes and brown sugar at thirty-seven and a half cents a pound; a small loaf of bread, such as might cost four or six cents in the Atlantic States, brought fifty cents; and the same price was required for a pound of cheese; coarse boots, the only description for which there was any demand, could not be purchased for less than thirty to forty dollars a pair, while superior ones of the same class were sold for more than one hundred dollars. And truly, when one considered the horrible muddy holes and ragged streets of the place, boots were reasonable at these rates. It was about as economical to throw away certain soiled articles of clothing and buy new ones, as to get the old ones cleaned, when people had to pay from twelve to twenty dollars for the washing of each dozen of articles, large or small. Laborers’ wages were a dollar an hour; skilled mechanics received from twelve to twenty dollars a day. The carpenters struck work because they were getting only twelve dollars a day, and insisted on being paid sixteen. Their employers then offered fourteen dollars a day, for a limited time, and afterwards an increase. Every brick in a house was roughly estimated to cost a dollar, one way and another, before the building was finished. Lumber rose to five hundred dollars per thousand feet.

Custom House on the Plaza.Rents were correspondingly enormous. Three thousand dollars a month, in advance, was charged for a single store, of limited dimensions, and rudely constructed of rough boards. A certain two story frame building, known as the “Parker House,” and situated on Kearny street, facing the plaza, paid its owners one hundred and twenty thousand dollars a year in rents. Of this sum, somewhere about sixty thousand dollars was paid by gamblers, who occupied nearly the whole of the second floor. The “El Dorado,” a gambling saloon, which adjoined the Parker House on the right, at the corner of Washington street, and which was only a canvas tent of moderate size, brought at the rate of forty thousand dollars per annum. At another corner of the plaza a small building, which might have made a stable for half-a-dozen horses, was possessed by Wright & Co., brokers, under the name of the Miners’ Bank, at a rent of seventy-five thousand dollars. The United States Hotel paid thirty-six thousand dollars; a mercantile establishment, for a one-story building, of twenty feet front, paid forty thousand dollars, and seven thousand dollars per month was paid for the Custom House. The interest of borrowed money was rated by the same scale. From eight to fifteen per cent. per month, with the addition of real security, was regularly given, in advance, for the use of money. And people paid these enormous wages, rents and interests; and still made fortunes to themselves! Real estate, that but a few years before was of little more worth than an old song, now brought amazing prices. From plain twelve dollars for fifty-vara lots, prices gradually rose to hundreds, thousands and tens of thousands of dollars; so that large holders of such properties became on a sudden millionnaires. Shippers in foreign countries realized large fortunes at first by their ventures to California; and if, ere long, the expenses were so heavy and the wholesale prices of goods, by excessive supply and competition, dwindled so low that sometimes they would not pay landing or storage charges, why, still the commission agents of San Francisco, and the host of interior merchants, shopkeepers and other retail dealers, were doing a thriving business, and accumulating large sums. The holder of every office in the State and municipality was paid generously. There was no niggardliness in such things. A religious body, whose clergymen are seldom in the habit of receiving extravagant salaries, took the support of their minister on themselves, and voted him the princely allowance of ten thousand dollars per annum! Clerks and underlings were treated in the same handsome manner. The great sums, forming the total of such wages, salaries and profits, were always rapidly passing from hand to hand, and came and went, and finally disappeared in gambling-saloons and billiard rooms, at bars and in brothels, in land-jobbing, building and mercantile speculations, in every kind of personal profusion, extravagance and debauchery.

The main-spring of all this bustle and money-making trade was the gold mining. Consider, therefore, the mightily enhanced prices of every article at the diggings! Gold dust paid for all foreign supplies, and filled the pockets of every active and shrewd man besides. Millions’ worth of pure gold, in lumps and dust, reached San Francisco every month. The greater portion was forwarded to the Atlantic States and other distant quarters in payment of supplies; but, in the transit, much was appropriated and retained, as currency, among the ever plotting, restless and “wide-awake” people of San Francisco. Future generations will see California a rich and prosperous country independently altogether of her mineral wealth; but in those early days it was the placers alone that made, and which are still making it what it appears. All honor then to the sturdy and independent digger, whose labors are peopling the country, cultivating the fields, building cities, making roads, covering the ocean and the bays and the rivers of the land with steamers and great ships, and conferring riches and happiness not only on the growing population of California itself, that shall hereafter be numbered by millions instead of the present hundreds of thousands, but also on millions of industrious workmen in every quarter of the world!

While labor was so well paid at this period, in San Francisco, it is a melancholy fact that there was much destitution, sickness, and even death by want and exposure in the place. Many of the immigrants had landed in a sickly and emaciated state, ill of scurvy and other diseases which their long voyage and hardships had produced; and such people could not work. Others had miscalculated their own powers and inclinations, and the nature of the country they had come to, and were either ashamed or unable to perform honest labor; while perhaps they were too timid or upright to speculate in the variety of strange and often cunning ways by which other adventurers made a living and fortune. Disappointed diggers, returning from the mines with broken constitutions, swelled the destitute population. They probably lived in miserable habitations, sleeping often upon the bare earth. Around them were bustle and lucrative pursuits, while they alone seemed neglected. Then they lost heart, pined, took sick and died, cursing the country and its gold, and the foolish fancies, that had led them to it. Many committed suicide in the utter prostration of physical strength, in feebleness or disease of mind and absolute despair. Public meetings were held to consider the destitute situation of the poor—(strange word for such a country! yet San Francisco had its full share of the class),—and large sums were raised for their support. The Orders of Free Masons and Odd-Fellows, nobly did their part in the charitable work, and were the principal means by which now, and at a later period, hundreds of suffering beings were saved from a miserable end, or their remains decently interred after death.

San Francisco was like the scene of a great battle. There were victorious warriors braving and flaunting on all sides, while hope swelled the breast of every unwounded soldier. But, unheeded amid the crash and confusion of the strife, lay the wounded and dying, who had failed or been suddenly struck down in the mêlée. As in the case of other battles, there were likewise secret bands of unmanly ruffians, who attacked and plundered all sides alike. These were the thieves, burglars and murderers of the community, the “hounds” of recent times and their legitimate successors,—a large and fearful class indeed,—daily increasing in numbers, boldness and extent of depredation and crime. To their wickedness were afterwards ascribed, some of the extensive conflagrations which so repeatedly laid waste the most valuable portions of the growing town; and under cover of the alarm and confusion produced by which events, robberies could be carried on with impunity. What mattered it though millions’ worth of property were consumed to enable the fire-raising villain to steal a few thousand dollars? He had still the few thousand dollars, and the universe might go to blazes for aught that he cared. In this manner, doubtless reasoned the “Sydney coves,” and the other desperate and criminal adventurers with which the town was now infested. The “Vigilance Committee” had not yet arisen to terrify the wretches into good behavior.

The every-day aspect of the plaza and streets was of the most curious and interesting kind. Take the plaza, on a fine day, for a picture of the people. All races were represented. There were hordes of long pig-tailed, blear-eyed, rank-smelling Chinese, with their yellow faces and blue garbs; single dandy black fellows, of nearly as bad an odor, who strutted as only the negro can strut, in holiday clothes and clean white shirt; a few diminutive fiery-eyed Malays, from the western archipelago, and some handsome Kanakas from the Sandwich Islands; jet-black, straight featured, Abyssinians; hideously tattooed New Zealanders; Feejee sailors and even the secluded Japanese, short, thick, clumsy, ever-bowing, jacketed fellows; the people of the many races of Hindoo land; Russians with furs and sables; a stray, turbaned, stately Turk or two, and occasionally a half naked shivering Indian; multitudes of the Spanish race from every country of the Americas, partly pure, partly crossed with red blood,—Chilians, Peruvians and Mexicans, all with different shades of the same swarthy complexion, black-eyed and well-featured, proud of their beards and moustaches, their grease, dirt, and eternal gaudy serapes or darker cloaks; Spaniards from the mother country, more dignified, polite and pompous than even their old colonial brethren; “greasers,” too, like them; great numbers of tall, goat-chinned, smoothcheeked, oily-locked, lank-visaged, tobacco-chewing, large-limbed and featured, rough, care-worn, careless Americans from every State of the Union, dressed independently in every variety of garb, not caring a fig what people thought of them, but determined to “do the thing handsomely,” and “go ahead;“ fat, conceited, comfortable Englishmen, who pretended to compete in shrewdness with the subtle Yankee—as if it were not the “manifest destiny” of Jonathan, every where, but especially on his own ground, to outshine John! Then there were bands of gay, easy-principled, philosophical Germans, Italians and Frenchmen of every cut and figure, their faces covered with hair, and with strange habiliments on their persons, and among whom might be particularly remarked numbers of thick-lipped, hook-nosed, ox-eyed, cunning, oily Jews. Among this vast motley crowd scarcely could two hats be found alike in material, size and shape; scarcely could two men be found otherwise dressed alike. The long-legged boot, with every variety of colored top, the buckled-up trousers, serapes or cloaks, pea-jackets and broad-brimmed or slouched hats and glazed caps, were perhaps the commonest articles of dress. The fortunate miner with his dirty garments and hirsute face, could be readily distingulshed from all others. He cared not to dress or cleanse himself properly, till the bars and gambling saloons had been duly visited, and his hard won gains were spent. Then did he shake, shave and wash himselfand start again for the golden placers.

The eye was delighted with the varieties of costume, and more readily distinguished the wearers; while the ear was only confounded with the babble of unknown, and to it harsh, guttural and meaningless sounds which flowed from every mouth, and where all alike talked loudly, and many furiously gesticulated. Thus the people passed in pairs or in crowds—they loitered, stood still, and moved on again, while other parties jostled beside and around them. A horse or a bullock breaking loose would dash along the way, and make a momentary struggle and flight; but soon again the scene resumed its old appearance. On two, if not three sides of the plaza, were the open doors of the “hells” of San Francisco, where gamblers, and others for amusement, passed out and in during the whole day. On the other portions stood hotels, stores and offices, the custom-house and courts of law, all thronged with numerous visitors. The little open space which was left by the crowds we have been describing, was occupied by a multitude of nondescript objects, by horses, mules and oxen dragging burdens along, by cars and carriages of various kinds, boys at play, stalls with sweetmeats, newspapers, prints, toys and other trifling articles of merchandise. At times a few Californians or some foreigners would appear on prancing steeds, the horses caparisoned with gaudy harness and brightly-colored saddle-cloths, while little bells jingled as they moved along. The riders wore strange leathern aprons before the legs, huge spurs on the heels, and perhaps had a cloak picturesquely thrown across their shoulders. Occasionally, too, even at this early period, the crowds would make way for the passage of a richly dressed woman, sweeping along, apparently proud of being recognized as one of frail character, or several together of the same class, mounted on spirited horses, and dashing furiously by, dressed in long riding skirts, or what was quite as common, in male attire.

The Post Office, corner of Pike and Clay streets.We cannot leave this part of our subject without alluding to the scenes that daily occurred at the post-office, which was situated at the corner of Pike and Clay streets. Every body, of course, was anxiously expecting letters from home; and every body hastened to look after them. The post-office was but a small building, and could neither accommodate many assistants and clerks inside, nor afford much standing-room to make inquiries without. When, therefore, soon after the arrival of the mail from the Atlantic States, which occurred but once a month, people came for their wished-for letters, exhibitions of an interesting character were sure to transpire. To avoid riots and confusion, several regular lines were formed from the delivery windows, at the end of which applicants for letters took places as they arrived. So anxious were many to receive their epistles, that they posted themselves in the evening of one day to be early at the window on the morning of the next, standing all night in the mud, with a heavy rain pouring down upon their heads. The lines extended a great distance down Clay street to the plaza, and along Pike street, even across Sacramento street to the tents among the chapparel. Hours therefore, would elapse, before it came to one’s turn to reach the window. To save such delay, sometimes people would employ and handsomely pay others to preserve places for them, which they would occupy, in room of their assistants, when they were approaching the loop-holes where the delivery clerks stood. Ten and twenty dollars were often paid for accommodation in this way. Indeed, many clever persons made large sums regularly by such work, by securing good places in the line early, never intending to seek letters for themselves, but only to sell their right of position to some richer man who was in haste, and regarded more his time than money. Some of these eager applicants had not heard from their far distant homes for many long months, and their anxious solicitude was even painful. It was therefore exceedingly distressing to mark the despondency with which many would turn away upon hearing from the delivery clerks the oft-repeated and much-dreaded sentence, “There is nothing here for you.” On the other hand, it was equally pleasing to observe the cheerful and triumphant smile, not unfrequently accompanied with a loud exclamation of joy, that would light up the countenance of the successful applicant, who hastens from the window, and as soon as he can force a passage through the crowd, tears open and commences to read the more than welcome letter, every word of which awakens in his mind some tender reminiscence. He is now communing with the dearest idols of his heart. He knows no feelings but those of kindness and affection. The lines upon which his eyes are riveted, were written perhaps by an absent wife, and they have made him already a better man than he was an hour before. She is describing the sadness of the solitude his absence has occasioned, and urging him with all a true woman’s fondness, to hasten back to the home which needs but his presence to be one of unmingled happiness. She tells him of their innocent children—of their improving loveliness—and how she has taught them in their daily prayers to lisp their absent father’s name. Look close into the reader’s face, and the nature of his emotions will not be mistaken. There is an unusual twitching of the muscles of the mouth, a growing dimness of the eyes, and tears are rapidly tracing down the furrows of his sunburnt cheeks. He is too much absorbed in his interesting occupation to know or care that he is an object of curious observation. What matters it to him what others think of his apparent weakness? It is a weakness of which he need not be ashamed. He at length carefully folds the paper and carries it to his comfortless abode, where he reads it over and over again, until by constant handling, and the tears that fall upon it, its characters become illegible. That night does not find him in the gambling-house, nor elsewhere in search of amusement; but in his own wretched chamber, he is silently communing in spirit with the loved ones at home. Such scenes were of hourly occurrence, and tended to exhibit the better portion of human nature, which neither the thirst for gold nor feverish excitement of the place could entirely destroy.

The Presidio of San Francisco.Turning from these busy scenes and ascending a neighboring height, the wearied spectator beheld one of the most peaceful prospects and pleasant sights of the world. It was winter by the calendar; but the winters of California are the springs and early summers of less favored lands in northern latitudes. Beneath was the little pandemonium he had left, where the devil-inspired worshippers of mammon burrowed in, and out, and about, holes and huts of canvas and wood; but the noise of whose never-ceasing labors reached not his ears. Beyond the narrow limits of the town were the calm waters of the bay, on which floated, swanlike, hundreds of trim and well-proportioned ships, all motionless, and deserted by their crews. Farther out was the high lying island of Yerba Buena, green to the summit. Beyond it lay the mountains of Contra Costa, likewise arrayed in verdant robes, on the very tops of which flourished groups of huge redwood trees; while far in the distance towered the gray head of Monte Diablo. The eye wandered to the northern and southern extremities of the bay, and still gazed on green hills, smooth waters and picturesque islands. It turned oceanward, and saw the Golden Gate studded with deep laden ships inward bound. The grand northern shores of the strait rose boldly and brokenly to the height of nearly three thousand feet, while the lower coast opposite was equally beautiful from the freshness of its fields and bushes, in the midst of which, and in the most beautiful spot embraced in the entire view, quietly nestles the presidio, now the solitary habitation of a small detachment of United States soldiery. The great Pacific might be dimly seen beneath the dense veil of mist that hung miles out at sea opposite the Gate. To the west and south-west the spectator next looked, and admired the Blue Mountain and the Pass that sheltered the quiet valley of the mission, and the long ridges of the Sierra San Bruno, their green color sinking into a faint blue as they were seen more distantly. Overhead was a sky as blue and as beautiful as imagination could picture; the air was fresh and balmy; the earth beneath one’s feet, soft and fragrant with new herbage and flowering shrubs; while the life-giving sun shed over all its own radiance and joy. All was clear and sharp-defined; all was tranquil and motionless, except the flight of innumerable white and gray-winged gulls, that soared and fluttered among the deserted shipping in the cove before the town.

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

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