San Francisco History

The Annals of San Francisco



JUNE 14th.—Scarcely had the citizens time to breathe after their recent exertions at the fire of the 4th of May, and the labors which followed in erecting new buildings in room of those destroyed, when again the terrible cry of fire rang in their ears. This was the third conflagration to which the city had been subjected, and its ravages exceeded even those of the two previous great fires united, being estimated at nearly five millions’ worth of property. These successive losses would surely have broken the spirit of any people but Americans, and for a time indeed sank even theirs. But in proportion to the unusual depression was the almost immediate reaction, and the ruined citizens began forthwith to lay the foundations of new fortunes instead of those so cruelly destroyed. The fire, which arose from some defect in the chimney of the house where it broke out, began about eight o’clock in the morning, in a bakery, which was in a small wooden back building, between Sacramento and Clay streets, and in the rear of the Merchants’ Hotel. The wind was high at the time, and the flames soon spread on all sides. In a few hours, the whole space situated between Clay, California and Kearny streets, down to the edge of the water, was one mass of flame; and, with few exceptions, all the buildings and goods lying within these extensive bounds, were totally consumed. The individual losses were very severe; and these occurring so shortly after the two preceding great fires, had the effect of reducing many citizens, previously wealthy, to poverty. But as the spider, whose web is again and again destroyed, will continue to spin new ones while an atom of material or a spark of life remains in its body, so did the inhabitants set themselves industriously to work to rear new houses and a new town. In the space of a few weeks the burned districts were covered over with other buildings, many of which were erected of far more substantial materials than before. Sad experience had taught the people that although the cost of fire-proof, brick structures was much greater at first than the old wooden ones, yet in the end, they were cheaper and better. From this time forward, we therefore begin to notice, that the street architecture gradually assumed a new and grander appearance. This was one good consequence of the repeated fires; while another was the immediate formation and organization of numerous hook and ladder, engine and hose companies. Many municipal ordinances regarding these companies and the establishment and completion of wells and reservoirs in various parts of the city, were likewise the result of these successive disasters.

During all this month, the community was kept in a state of excessive excitement, arising from certain extraordinary proceedings on the part of the Common Council. The members had not been long in office, when they nearly unanimously passed an ordinance providing for the payment of certain salaries to themselves and the chief municipal officers. The mayor, recorder, and some others, were to be paid annually the sum of ten thousand dollars, while the sixteen principal and assistant aldermen were each to receive six thousand. The salaries of the municipal officials were perhaps not more than were necessary at the period, since these gentlemen had really much work to do, while all their time was supposed to be passed in the service of the city; but it was considered by the citizens generally, that to bestow six thousand dollars a year upon sixteen private persons, for only two evening meetings in each week, was extravagant and ridiculous. As one of the speakers at a subsequent public meeting said, people in foreign countries, when they heard of such a thing, would be apt to call it “a California lie.” More especially the proposed aldermanic allowance seemed monstrous and unjust, from the fact that the city was then much embarrassed in pecuniary affairs, and that certain most obnoxious and heavy taxes were proposed to be laid upon the inhabitants.

Many public meetings of the citizens were held on the subject, at which resolutions strongly condemnatory of the council’s proceedings were passed. One of these meetings took place on the plaza on the evening of the 5th of June, and was the largest that had ever assembled in San Francisco for any purpose. From three to four thousand people attended. General John Wilson was appointed president. After some introductory discussion, several resolutions were adopted by acclamation, the essence of which was this,—that we “instruct our mayor and common council to abandon the scheme of high salaries, and to remodel the schedule of oppressive taxation, as shadowed forth by their recent action; and unless they are willing to do so, to resign and give place to more patriotic and efficient men.” A committee of twenty-five were then appointed to wait on the council and present a copy of the resolutions, and to request an answer to the same. The gentlemen composing the committee were Messrs. Wilson, Folsom, Crane, Post, Stoutenburg, Howard, Cooke, Kelly, Yale, Syme, Retan, Robinson, Courson, Robertson, Dunbar, Leonard, Minor, Parcells, Osborne, Wells, Duff, Parlon, Wakeman and Meacham.

The committee named, accordingly, through their chairman, Captain J. L. Folsom, presented the resolutions to the council. These the aldermen, who appeared determined to carry matters through with a high hand, received very coldly, and ordered them to lie indefinitely on the table. This not being deemed a sufficient answer by the committee, another “mass” and “indignation meeting” was called by them for the evening of 12th June; which was held on the plaza and was very numerously attended. Again General Wilson filled the chair. The report of the committee having been read, and the supposed “insolence of office” duly animadverted upon, the meeting, considering the “disrespect and insult” which their former representatives had met with, unanimously reappointed them as a committee, with power to increase their number to five hundred, and instructed them again to present the old resolutions to the council in such form as they should think fit. The committee thus fortified, afterwards chose the additional members, and fixed the evening of the 14th, when they should all march in procession to the place of meeting of the common council, and there again submit the “sovereign will” of the people to the aldermen, and require their prompt obedience to the same. On that day the great conflagration just noticed took place; and farther action on the subject of the high salaries and obnoxious taxation ordinances was indefinitely postponed. Popular excitement took a new direction in consequence of the fire; and, excepting in the columns of the Herald newspaper, and among a few testy individuals, little more was said on the matter till some months afterwards, when the question was revived. The previous meetings, however, had the effect of causing the obnoxious license ordinance to be withdrawn for a time. In the end, the salaries of both the municipal officers and the common council were reduced, the latter being ultimately fixed at four thousand dollars.

It is due to Col. Geary, mayor of the city, to observe, that from the beginning he opposed the payment of salaries to the members of the Boards of Aldermen, and at last vetoed the bill allowing them four thousand dollars each. His message, on returning the ordinance, unapproved, was a highly creditable document. After declaring that the ordinance in question was in direct opposition to the wishes of the people, whose will had been made known to the aldermen in the most emphatic manner, which he averred it was the duty of the latter to obey, he uses the following language:—

“Another view which presents itself with great force to my mind, in interpreting the executive right to arrest the ordinance in question, is that of expediency. With great unanimity a financial measure has been adopted to provide for the immediate payment of the city’s indebtedness, by means of a loan of half a million of dollars. It is of the greatest importance to the interests of the city, that that measure should be made to succeed at the earliest possible moment. In my deliberate judgment its success would be injuriously impeded, if not entirely defeated, by associating with the proposition for a loan, an ordinance to appropriate so large a proportion of the amount demanded as sixty-four thousand dollars, to the payment of a class of officers whose services are usually rendered without any other remuneration than the honor conferred by their fellow-citizens, and their participation in the general good which it is their province and duty to promote. It could not fail to weaken our public credit to show a purpose to use it for the payment of salaries never contemplated by the people, especially in view of the admitted necessity for the practice of the most rigid economy, in order to complete by means of all the resources and credit we possess the public works in progress or in contemplation. With scarcely a dollar m the public treasury—without the means of discharging even the interest falling due for the scrip already issued—the city credit impaired, and general bankruptcy staring us in the face, retrenchment should be the order of the day, rather than the opening up of new modes of making enormous and heretofore unknown expenditures.”

This act of the mayor was universally and heartily applauded by the people, and received the highest commendation of the entire press; while, on the other hand, it received the severest censures of the aldermen themselves, who not only passed the ordinance by a legal number of votes despite the mayor’s veto, but for a long time refused to grant a salary to his honor. The sudden and angry burst of popular feeling on this subject led, the following year, to a provision in the new charter, then granted by the Legislature to the city, which declared that henceforward the members of the Common Council should not be entitled to any compensation for their services.

JULY 1st.—From the shipping lists published in the daily newspapers, it appears that about this time there were five hundred and twenty-six vessels lying in the port, the greater number of which were ships and barques, the remainder being brigs and schooners. Besides these, there were at least one hundred large square-rigged vessels lying at Benicia, Sacramento, and Stockton. Long before this time many of the old seamen who had deserted their ships had returned from the mines, and there was no difficulty in procuring crews for departing vessels, upon paying them the ordinary high wages of the time.

JULY 4th.—Another grand celebration of independence-day. This was particularly distinguished by the erection on the plaza of a magnificent flagstaff, or liberty-pole, which Messrs. S. Coffin and. W. W. Chapman, on behalf of the citizens of Portland, Oregon, had presented to the citizens of San Francisco, and which was received by the mayor, Col. J. W. Geary. The length of this pole is one hundred and eleven feet. It is one foot in diameter at the bottom, tapering regularly to about three inches at the other end, and is as straight as an arrow. This is perhaps the longest and most faultlessly straight pole that is known, although the presenters apologized that no longer one had been sent, on account of the inconvenience of shipping a stick of larger dimensions. The old pole which used to stand on the plaza from Mexican days, and upon which the first American flag was hoisted, had been removed on the 7th of June preceding, and was erected in front of the custom-house, at the corner of Montgomery and California streets.

Custom-house, at the corner of Montgomery and California streets.The custom-house, occupied by Col. James Collier, then collector of the port, was a new four-story brick building, and the most imposing edifice in the city. It was destroyed by fire on the 4th of May, 1851, as was also the old liberty-pole.

JULY 15th.—General Bennet Riley, late military governor of the territory, left San Francisco for the Eastern States. Prior to his departure a letter was addressed him, signed by the mayor and numerous influential citizens, tendering him a public dinner, and complimenting him for the satisfactory manner in which he had performed his duties as governor of the country. Previous arrangements, however, prevented the general from accepting this invitation, in declining which he uses the following language:—“Both in my official and social relations with the people of California, I have ever been treated with the utmost indulgence and kindness. I can never cease to feel a lively interest in their happiness and prosperity, and I now leave them with feelings of deep regret. If California, by her mineral wealth, and the unexampled increase of her population and commerce, has attracted the attention of the world, her dignified course in the peculiar and trying position in which she has been placed, equally challenge universal admiration.”

AUGUST.—Organization of the “Society of California Pioneers.” The objects of this society were declared, in the words of the constitution, to be “to cultivate the social virtues of its members, to collect and preserve information connected with the early settlement and conquest of the country, and to perpetuate the memory of those whose sagacity, enterprise, and love of independence, induced them to settle in the wilderness, and become the germ of a new State.” The society “shall be composed of native Californians; foreigners residing in California previous to the conquest; and natives of other States and other countries, if citizens of the United States, resident here prior to January 1st, 1849, and their male descendants, who shall constitute the first class; and citizens of the old States of the Federal Government who shall have resided in California prior to January 1st, 1850, and their male descendants, who shall constitute the second class; and honorary members, who may be admitted in accordance with what may be prescribed in the by-laws.” The admission fees, which are now (1854) ten dollars, and a monthly subscription of a dollar, payable half-yearly in advance, “and all funds arising therefrom or by donation, shall be safely invested, and the income arising therefrom shall be appropriated to charitable purposes, exclusively for the use and benefit of the widows and orphans of pioneer immigrants, members of this society.” A list of the members in April, 1854, with the dates of their respective arrivals in California, their present residences, and the office-bearers of that year, appear in the Appendix. Here we may only name the first office-bearers of the society. They were as follows:—

William D. M. Howard.

Jacob R. Snyder,
Samuel Brannan,
G. Frank Lemon.

Recording Secretary.
Joseph L. Folsom.

Assistant Recording Secretary.
J. C. L. Wadsworth.

Corresponding Secretary.
Edwin Bryant.

Talbot H. Green.

Assistant Corresponding Secretaries.
W. C. Parker,
A. J. Grayson.

Board of Directors.
James C. Ward,
H. W. Halleck,
J. Mead Huxley,
James C. Low,
J. D. Stevenson,
R. M. Sherman,
Samuel Kyburn,
James Hall,
Henry Gerke,
G. K. Winner,
Robert Wells,
G. W. Vincent,
H. A. Schoolcraft,
J. B. Frisbie,
R. A. Parker,
William Blackburn,
John Wilson,
W. H. Davis.

Sacramento City.AUGUST 15th.—The city was thrown into a state of excitement by news of serious riots having occurred at Sacramento City on the preceding day. It seems that a great portion of the land covering that city and vicinity is held by grants from Capt. John A. Sutter, who claimed under an old Spanish title. Much of this land had been squatted upon by parties who denied the legality of Sutter’s grants, and who claimed a right to the property as pre-emptionists or settlers. The holders of titles from Sutter appealed to the courts, and decisions were given in their favor; but upon attempting to possess themselves of their appropriated property they were forcibly resisted by the squatters. On the 13th instant, several of these latter were arrested for resisting the officers of the law and the process of the court, and in default of bail, two of them were held in custody on board the prison brig. On the day following an armed body of squatters repaired to the brig to release their companions, where they were met by the mayor, sheriff, and a posse, who drove them back a considerable distance into the city, when they turned and fired upon the legal authorities, who immediately returned the fire with guns and pistols. Of the latter, Mr. Woodland, city assessor, was killed, and Mayor Bigelow, Mr. Harper, assistant postmaster, and several others were wounded. Mahloney, the leader of the squatters, was shot dead from his horse. Several others of the same party were killed, and a number severely wounded. On the same day, other disturbances occurred at Brighton, six miles south of the city, when Sheriff Joseph McKinney was killed, and several of his posse were wounded; three of the squatters were also killed, and a number taken prisoners. Immediately upon receiving intelligence of these lamentable occurrences Mayor Geary issued a proclamation, calling upon “the citizens of San Francisco to meet at the earliest possible period, form companies, and hold themselves in readiness to answer such calls as may necessarily be made upon them.” Soon the “California Guard,” Captain Howard, numbering eighty men, and “Protection Fire Company, No. 2,” Captain McCormick, between forty and fifty men, properly equipped and armed with muskets, reported themselves ready for service. This force, under the command of Col. Geary, departed at 12 o’clock for the scene of the riots in the steamboat Senator, which, with characteristic decision, promptness, and public spirit, had been placed at their disposal by Mr. Charles Minturn. Their departure was witnessed and loudly cheered by a great multitude of citizens, who had hastily gathered upon the wharves. They arrived at Sacramento about 11 o’clock in the evening. In the mean time order was partially restored, and happily their actual services were not required. They were kindly received by the authorities and citizens, and hospitably entertained until the 17th instant, when they returned to their homes. Before leaving Sacramento they were presented with highly complimentary and laudatory resolutions and votes of thanks from the Boards of Aldermen and Military Department of the State for the tender of their ready and efficient aid. This prompt action on the part of the mayor and citizens of San Francisco, doubtless, had a tendency not only to assist in preserving the restored peace of their sister city, but to prevent the occurrence of similar disturbances in other portions of the State. Be this as it may, it was deserving of the praise it received, and was an example worthy of being followed.

Emigrant Train.AUGUST 21st.—Mayor Geary published a brief address to the citizens in all the morning papers, informing them that news had been received of the “destitution, distress, and extreme suffering of the immigrants to California by the overland route;“ and that a committee had been selected for the purpose of calling upon them during the day for means of relief for the sufferers. The committee consisted of John W. Geary, E. E. Dunbar, E. C. Kemble, Talbot H. Green, Henry M. Naglee, W. H. Parker, Wm. Sharron, and David C. Broderick. It was also stated by J. Neely Johnson, Esq., Agent for the Sacramento Relief Association, who had recently returned from an expedition of relief to the immigrants, that “it was supposed that 60,000 emigrants started across the plains by the Northern, or ‘Southern Pass’ route. On the 18th June, 39,000 had been registered at Fort Laramie. Of this entire number probably 20,000 had arrived. Of the remaining number, 10,000 would probably arrive this side of the Desert, without teams, money, or provisions; 10,000 more with their teams so much worn down as to require additional assistance to enable them to cross the mountains.” Mr. Johnson described the condition of some whom he had met on his expedition as destitute, sick, and wretched in the extreme, and showed the necessity of speedy means being taken to save the immigrants from starving, or otherwise fearfully perishing before they could terminate their journey. These appeals were promptly responded to by the citizens. Before night the committee had collected an immense quantity of provisions, and about $6000 in cash, which was forwarded without delay to meet the wants of the sufferers.

AUGUST 28th.—A novel and interesting ceremony took place this afternoon in Portsmouth Square. Mayor Geary, Vice-Consul Frederick A. Woodworth, Rev. Albert Williams, and other members of a committee appointed for the purpose, assembled on the platform, to present the Chinese residents with certain religious tracts, papers, and books, printed in Chinese characters. The “China boys,” as they are pleased to be called, having formed themselves in procession, marched to the square, and arranged themselves in a circle upon the platform. They were clothed richly in their native costume, and made a fine and pleasing appearance. Here the presentation took place, and addresses were made by each of the gentlemen above named, which were interpreted by As-sing, one of the Chinese. The mayor, on this occasion, extended to them an invitation to take part in the funeral ceremonies that were to occur on the following day.

AUGUST 29th.—The death of President Taylor was commemorated by a funeral procession. The milltary and fire companies, Masonic and Odd-Fellows’ Lodges, a variety of benevolent and other associations, the clergy, officers of the army and navy, consuls and representatives of foreign governments, the councils and various municipal and State officers, a great number of private citizens, and a large company of Chinese residents, took part in the imposing ceremonies. Hon. John B. Weller acted as Grand Marshal. The procession moved through the streets to Portsmouth Square, where an appropriate prayer was made by Rev. Augustus Fitch, and an eloquent eulogy pronounced by Hon. Elcan Heydenfeldt. On the following day the Chinese, who henceforward took considerable interest in public affairs, where any ceremony of a festival or imposing nature was concerned, presented the mayor with the following document, written in Chinese characters:—

San Francisco, August 30th, 1850.
To HON. JOHN W. GEARY, Mayor of the City of San Francisco:—

“SIR:—The “China Boys” wish to thank you for the kind mark of attention you bestowed upon them in extending to them an invitation to join with the citizens of San Francisco in doing honor to the memory of the late President of the United States, General Zachary Taylor. The China Boys feel proud of the distinction you have shown them, and will always endeavor to merit your good opinion and the good opinion of the citizens of their adopted country. The China Boys are fully sensible of the great loss this country has sustained in the death of its chieftain and ruler, and mourn with you in sorrow. Strangers as they are among you, they kindly appreciate the many kindnesses received at your hands, and again beg leave, with grateful hearts, to thank you.

In behalf of the China Boys.”

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

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