San Francisco History

The Annals of San Francisco


IN the "Constitution," the boundary of the State of California is declared to be as follows:—

"Commencing at the point of intersection of the 42d degree of north latitude with the 120th degree of longitude west from Greenwich, and running south on the line of said 120th degree of west longitude, until it intersects the 39th degree of north latitude; thence running in a straight line in a south-easterly direction to the RiverColorado, at a point where it intersects the 35th degree of north latitude; thence down the middle of the channel of said river, to the boundary line between the United States and Mexico, as established by the treaty of May 30th, 1848; thence running west, and along said boundary line to the Pacific Ocean, and extending thereon three English miles; thence running in a north-westerly direction, and following the direction of the Pacific coast to the 42d degree of north latitude; thence on the line of said 42d degree of north latitude to the place of beginning. Also, all the islands, harbors and bays, along and adjacent to the Pacific coast."

Within the above limits, California extends, from south-east to north-west, nearly seven hundred and fifty English miles in length, and, in average breadth, from east to west, about two hundred and fifty. Its superficies, therefore, may be estimated at about 187,500 square miles, or nearly twice the size of Great Britain. The south-eastern part of the country, excepting a narrow belt along the coast, has not yet been explored, and little is known of its character. A great chain of mountains, called by the Spaniards the Sierra Nevada, or Snowy Range, runs nearly through the centre of the southern district. Farther north, this mountain range, which has a probable average height of from eight to ten thousand feet above the sea level, though many of its parts rise much higher, and are covered with perpetual snow, becomes the eastern boundary of the State, and at the extreme northern limit, by various cross ranges, separates it from the territory of Oregon. Eastward of the Sierra Nevada, and between it and the territory of Utah, lies the curious and extensive district called the Great Basin, which has no outlet to the ocean for its waters. This is a wild country that has been hitherto traversed only in one or two great lines, but never thoroughly explored, and which does not seem to have been intended by nature for the abode of any large human population. To the south of the boundary line is situated the Mexican province of Old or Lower California. The Pacific Ocean forms the western limit of the State.

The northern portion of California, to the extent of three fourths of the whole country, naturally falls into two great divisions. One lies on the east, and stretches over the whole of the space mentioned from south to north, comprehending the valleys of the San Joaquin in the south and the Sacramento in the north, together with all the lateral valleys and foothills from the summit elevation of the Sierra Nevada, and extending westward to the watershed that separates the streams which flow into the San Joaquin and Sacramento from those which either flow directly into the Pacific, or into the Bay of San Francisco. The other great division includes the whole country drained by the last named streams; and may also be allowed to embrace the country farther to the south, likewise drained by streams which disembogue directly into the Pacific. As already stated, the extreme south-eastern part of the country supposed to be watered by streams which empty themselves into the Rio Colorado, has not been fully explored, and no proper description can therefore be given of it.

The missions, of which a particular account has been given in preceding chapters, were located in the second mentioned division of country, and excepting only two lying on the northern side of the Bay of San Francisco, were all situated to the south of the entrance to that inlet. A multitude of pleasant, fertile valleys extend from the coast inland a length of from twenty to forty miles; and every main valley, of any extent, had its mission. The hills in this division seldom exceed two thousand feet in height. The whole country is exceedingly diversified and beautiful, and has hitherto been almost wholly devoted to the grazing of innumerable herds of cattle and horses, and also of large flocks of sheep. The tables and statements already given of the possessions of the Fathers in domestic cattle and farm produce, may serve in some measure to show the astonishing fertilitv of the soil, and its capabilities to support a large population, as well as the comparative value of different districts. These tables and statements, however, by no means exhibit the extent of cultivated land. Very far from that. Much of the mission property was neglected, and most of it never turned to the best use of which it was capable. The fertility of the soil indeed is so great, and the genial warmth and general climate so propitious to agriculture, that corn crops and all kinds of grasses, fruits and vegetables show such an increase as if they had been planted in a hot-bed, and manured and watered by rule to the best advantage.

The climate of this division of the country varies considerably, as it might be expected to do when it is considered that the land extends over nearly ten degrees of latitude; but still more it varies from the circumstance of the various districts being more or less subject to particular fogs and winds which prevail along the coast. Towards the extreme south, the fogs and winds alluded to are not felt; but north of Point Conception, about latitude 34º 30', all the coast, extending from half a dozen to a dozen miles inland, is peculiarly exposed to cold, penetrating winds, blowing from the north, north-west and west, and thick wet fogs, which, especially in the summer season, are remarkably disagreeable. These fogs, however, serve one good purpose, as they supply abundant moisture to the crops and herbage, which might otherwise fail for the want of occasional rains in the summer. Properly speaking, there is neither winter nor summer; but the months comprehended under these terms are here called the rainy and the dry seasons. This is the case over the whole country. The rains usually begin about the middle of November, and continue with short occasional dry intervals, (the most charming periods indeed of the year, when the air is balmy. the surface of the earth green and fresh, and all nature, animate and inanimate, rejoices in a holiday,) till the month of May. During the remainder of the year, commonly no rain falls; but its place is supplied along the coast by copious dews and the wet fogs we have alluded to.

The heat in the division of country now before us is never excessive. Below Point Conception, it may be said that eternal summer reigns; and the same high character may be given to all north of that point, which is situated a few miles inland, and not immediately exposed to the piercing winds and fogs of the coast. The atmosphere in these regions is ever mild and agreeable. The temperature is never too high to prevent active exercise out of doors, nor too low to need fires in the houses. There is not much great timber, nor indeed wood of any kind, but the undulating fields teem with rich natural grasses and an exuberance of wild flowers and flowering shrubs. Whole districts are covered with natural oats, which supply provender to innumerable tame and wild creatures, when the herbage is dry, or has partially disappeared in the heat of summer. The climate is also remarkably salubrious; while as if to heap upon this happy land all natural blessings, the fecundity of its living creatures,—human beings as well as the lower animals,—far exceeds what generally occurs elsewhere. The grape, the fig, the orange and the olive grow luxuriantly in these regions, and so too do all other sorts of semi-tropical produce. All varieties of European fruits thrive in great plenty: plums, cherries, peaches, apricots, melons, pomegranates, pears, apples, &c. In the more southern parts, the plantain and banana likewise ripen. Wheat, barley and maize, potatoes, cabbages, turnips and every other kind of vegetable for the table, grow to the utmost perfection, and yield a return the like of which can scarcely be paralleled in any other country. It is believed also that the climate, in particular districts, is admirably adapted for the profitable culture of tobacco, cotton and sugar. In short, there is no vegetable production of any value raised in the temperate zone, and very few peculiar to the torrid, which may not be cultivated to perfection in these finer parts of California.

We have alluded to the prevailing winds and fogs of the coast. These render navigation near the shore dangerous at times, and are themselves very unpleasant to the new comer. It must be admitted that they are some drawback to the otherwise unmingled beauty and agreeableness of the climate. However, in the summer season, when these fogs generally prevail, they usually clear off by noon, leaving the rest of the day with a bright and warm sky. The settler soon gets used to them while, knowing the important part which the fogs play in dropping fatness on the dry earth, he readily learns even to welcome their presence.

There are several excellent harbors along the coast, the chief of which is, of course, the incomparable Bay of San Francisco. San Diego, however, at the extreme south, has likewise an admirable port; while the havens, or roadsteads of Monterey and Santa Barbara, sheltered from all but certain unusual winds, are by no means despicable, but may match with good reputed harbors of many another country. Besides these, there are several other fair anchorage grounds and partially sheltered roadsteads along the coast, of less note; while north of the Bay of San Francisco there are some bays which form excellent occasional harbors of refuge, if not first-rate ports. The Bay of San Francisco itself is so extensive, while the country surrounding it is so fertile, and will one day become so populous, that many more harbors than the one at the city of that name, will hereafter be formed in this moderate sized inland sea. There is ample depth of water around its shores, and sheltered coves enough for the formation of several other harbors, which may almost rival that of the City of San Francisco itself.

The other great division of the country, that lying east of the one just dwelt upon, and west of the Sierra Nevada, has been less thoroughly examined than the coast district, and not so often described; yet enough of it is known to show that it is capable of supporting a vast immigrating population in comfort and plenty. This division comprehends the great valleys of the Sacramento and San Joaquin, with all the smaller side valleys running into them. The Sacramento takes its rise near the extreme northern limit of the State, in the neighborhood of Mount Shasta, which is 14,400 feet in height above the sea level. From thence it flows, in a southerly direction, for nearly three hundred miles, carrying off the waters of numerous streams on both sides till it receives those of the San Joaquin, which have come to meet it from the south-east, for nearly two hundred miles. The united streams then run westward a further distance of sixty or seventy miles, through various arms of the Bay of San Francisco, till they rush through the "Golden Gate," to bury themselves in the Pacific. The Sacramento has already been navigated by steamers for one hundred miles above its junction with the San Joaquin, while the latter has been navigated by the same class of vessels, above the point mentioned for seventy miles.

The great longitudinal valley of these rivers contains an exceedingly fertile soil, fitted to grow any kind of grain, fruits and edible roots. There is much timber in various parts of this great region. Many varieties of the pine tribe are common, most of which grow to an enormous size. But besides pines, the oak especially abounds, as also elm, ash, beech, birch, plane and other kinds of trees. The native fruit trees are not numerous. The number and variety of indigenous herbs are very great. As besides the pines which yield tar and resin, and every size of spar and good timber for ship-building, it is found that hemp and flax grow wild, and thrive exceedingly well in the country, it will be seen that this region contains most of the material elements to make California a great maritime nation. It was in the valley of the Sacramento that a large number of American immigrants had settled previous to the discovery of gold. Portions of the lower districts of both it and the San Joaquin valley are liable to be overflowed by floods which sometimes swell the rivers to a great depth, when storms and meltings of the snow on the Sierra Nevada suddenly gorge all the mountain torrents. At other times, after a long track of dry weather, irrigation would almost seem to be indispensable for profitable farming in several districts; although this, as yet, is considered to be by no means certain. The cold winds and moist fogs of the coast are sometimes wanted in this division, as well to water the parched earth, as to temper the excessive heat of the solar rays, reflected from the sides of the hills in the narrower valleys, and concentrated every where to a high degree. In the great longitudinal valley, and still more in the smaller cross valleys which lie between the former and the Sierra Nevada, the heat in summer is sometimes very dreadful—rising frequently, and that too, day after day, for months together, to 100º and 110º of Fahrenheit. Still, notwithstanding these drawbacks, the soil is so rich and productive, and the climate so extremely dry and healthy, that there is every reason to believe these districts will soon be largely inhabited by an agricultural population. In some parts of the valley of the San Joaquin which are liable to be overflowed by the river floods, it is believed that rice may be profitably cultivated. Meanwhile, there is abundance of deer and smaller game in the forests and plains; the streams and lakes absolutely swarm with the most delicious fish; while geese, ducks, and other wild fowl are exceedingly plentiful.

It is in the cross valleys running up to the summit elevation of the Sierra Nevada that the chief gold placers are situated. The whole country in this quarter, for a length of at least five hundred miles, and an average breadth of perhaps thirty or forty, is highly auriferous. The loose bed of every stream particularly, but also the dry sandy soil of most of the intervening plains, uplands and hills, contains particles of gold; while even the deep seated rocks in many parts are impregnated with the precious metal, and are beginning to be wrought in a scientific manner for its extraction. If some small portion of the auriferous district may already seem to be almost exhausted, yet its whole extent is so great, and so many parts are yet untouched, while all, by the aid of proper scientific appliances, can be made still to render a bountiful reward to the miner, that it may be truly said, generations must pass before the Californian gold regions can be emptied of their treasures, or cease to be profitably wrought. This may be more particularly said of the gold bearing quartz rocks and veins, which in many places are exceedingly numerous and rich.

Nature, as if content to scatter her bounties in this quarter beneath the surface, has not also gifted the soil with exceeding fertility, although there are many beautiful and fertile small spots to be found in the district. In the months of April and May, these places bloom and smell like a well tended garden, from the variety, beauty and perfume of their wild flowers. The mineral riches make it less desirable that these districts should also possess a rich and prolific soil. Still it is in this quarter that those enormous trees chiefly grow which amaze and almost terrify by their prodigious height and bulk, those who have been only used to the puny forests of less favored climes. A common enough height for these trees is three hundred feet, while an equally common diameter may range from fifteen to twenty feet. Many, however, have been found of much larger dimensions. The forests on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada will give an inexhaustible supply of timber for household and most other purposes to which wood is applied in the country.

Besides the gold mines on the west skirts of the Snowy Mountains, there are several others scattered over California; while many other mineral treasures are to be found. There is a valuable mine of quicksilver near San José, and many silver, and silver and lead mines, as well as others of copper and lead are already known in various parts of the country. However, the population up to the time of the rush to the gold regions was too small, and the capital and energy of the owners too limited, to permit these and similar mines to be wrought to advantage. Coal has been discovered in some parts as well as iron. There is excellent stone for building purposes to be had in various places. Sulphur, asphalte and many other valuable mineral substances are also ascertained to exist in different localities. The mineral wealth of the country indeed, though not fully examined, is believed to be far more extensive than what has hitherto appeared, however great it may seem in these times.

To the immigrant from an old settled land, where competition exists in severity, and the means of a bare subsistence are not easily to be had, California offers every inducement to draw him to her country. Here is political and social freedom—a beautiful, pleasant, and healthy climate—a soil rich, and fertile, producing every necessary, and most of the luxuries of life—rivers and bays, abounding with delicious fish; forests and fields, with game of every species—mineral regions, where fortunes may be made on a sudden, and, at all events, where the industrious laborer is sure to provide a moderate competency for himself, in a wonderfully short space of time. Here are towns starting yearly, nay, almost weekly, into existence, whose inhabitants are full of life, energy and hope, determined and certain to prosper; great cities and ports, swelling into magnificence before one's eyes, destined ere long to bear sway over the broad Pacific, by reason of their natural position, their wealth, energy and power. Here labor is honorable, and meets an ample reward; and, here, while the most unbounded ambition, in mining and agricultural, commercial and political pursuits, may gratify its most daring inner wishes, and the patriotic enthusiast foresee a glorious future to this, his adopted country, the peaceful, retiring and contented settler may select a quiet, sunny, cheerful spot for his abode, and beneath unclouded skies and through perpetual summer, among vines, and fig-trees, and flowers, and all bright and pleasant things, pass life happily away.

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

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