San Francisco History

The Annals of San Francisco



THE arrivals by sea at San Francisco were not so numerous in 1851 as during the preceding year. The tide of immigration was slackening, only to roll in its much greater numbers the following season. During 1851, upwards of 27,000 persons arrived by sea. Of these rather more than one-half came by steamers from the ports on or near the Isthmus. The ordinary population of the city was increasing, though more slowly than before. At the close of this year the total number probably exceeded thirty thousand. Females were very few in proportion to the whole number of inhabitants, although they were beginning to increase more rapidly. A very large proportion of the female population continued to be of loose character. The Chinese now began to arrive in considerable bands, and occasionally a few of their females. Great numbers of French and Germans, of both sexes, as well as other foreigners, made their appearance. The immigrants generally were of the mining and agricultural classes, although a fair number of them ultimately settled in San Francisco. An extensive immigration continued among the various districts and towns of the country, and the population of all was constantly changing. Fewer fortunate miners now paid visits to the city for the sake of mere recreation, since the rising towns of the interior, particularly Sacramento and Stockton, the capitals of the northern and southern mines respectively, offered all the attractions of dissipation closer at hand. Yet in one way or another, at least one half of the entire population of the State passed through, or visited San Francisco. The ocean steamers carried away more people from the port than they brought. There was the usual large land immigration into the State, and, on the whole, the general population of the country was considerably increased.

East side of Portsmouth Square, Spring of 1850.In San Francisco material improvements were taking place. At Clark’s Point, on the northern extremity of the city, huge precipitous rocks were quarried and removed, and the solid hill deeply excavated, whereby much new and valuable space was gained for building operations. New streets were graded, planked and built upon, and new and finer houses every where erected. In the southern districts, the “steam-paddy” had been set to work, and was rapidly cutting away the numerous sand hills that lay between the plaza and “Happy Valley.” The rubbish was conveyed by temporary rails along the streets, and emptied into the bay at those parts where already roads were laid out and houses built on piles. Sansome and Battery, with the intersecting streets to a considerable distance, were gradually filled up, and firm foundations given for the substantial brick and stone houses that were beginning to be erected there. The town continued to move eastward, and new streets were formed upon piles farther out into the bay, across which the piers and wharves were shooting like the first slender lines of ice before the sheet of water hardens into a solid mass. Closer and thicker the lines ran, as house after house was reared on innumerable piles, while the steam-paddy and railway wagons, and horse-carts without number, were incessantly bearing hills of sand piecemeal to fill up the hollows, and drive the sea far away from the original beach. Where once ships of a thousand tons floated there now rose great tenements of brick and mortar securely founded in the solid earth. Portions of the loose sand were insensibly washed off by the tides from the first places where it was deposited, and the bay was slowly becoming shallower to a considerable distance from shore. As the wharves were pushed farther out, the shipping found less convenient anchorage, and were exposed to occasional strong tides and gales. The character of the port was perhaps changing somewhat for the worse, although the necessities of the town so far urgently required an extension across the bay.

New World Market, corner of Commercial and Leidesdorff streets.The fires of 1850 and 1851, while they destroyed much valuable property, led in the end to a very superior kind of building, and may thus be said to have done some permanent good. They have stamped a wonderfully grand character upon the architecture of the place. What at first were called and believed to be fire-proof houses were becoming numerous, when successive conflagrations came and removed them all. Other houses were built of a still more substantial kind, and these were destroyed by fire in turn. At last, some buildings were erected that surely were proof against the most intense heat and flame; and upon their models all the later structures of pretension have been formed. While in certain respects these buildings assume the proportions and grandeur of palaces, in others they appear heavy and gloomy like the veriest prisons. The walls are enormously thick, and the windows deeply sunk in them, showing often at first sight only narrow, dark cavities. When the ponderous wrought iron shutters and doors are closed on the outside the resemblance to a jail is complete. It is believed that no fire from without can seriously affect such buildings, although they may be subject to internal conflagration. While improved houses were rising in the centre and business portion of the town, superior buildings of frame were replacing in the outskirts and suburbs the old habitations, or such as were destroyed by fire. The new plank road to the mission had opened up a large and valuable tract of building ground, and neat and substantial wooden houses were being erected along the whole way.

In the vicinity of the town, wherever a tiny fertilizing stream of water ran among the sand hills, at the mission and the presidio, numerous flower and kitchen gardens and small farms were laid out, which yielded large supplies of the more necessary or prized vegetables. In 1849, the announcement of a real cabbage at dinner would have set half the population frantic with strangely stirred appetites; now, the many cultivated spots named, daily furnished numerous loaded carts of all kinds of fresh vegetables to the city markets. Potatoes were no longer a rarity; turnips could be had for money—and at a moderate price, too. The markets made pleasant morning sights. Besides a profusion of vegetables and fruits, they were largely supplied with noble fish and game of all descriptions from the ocean, the bay and the interior. Salmon of huge dimensions, and vast quantities of like delicious fish, whole cart loads of geese, ducks, quails, and other wild fowl, innumerable quarters of bear, elk, antelope, deer, and smaller game, loaded the stalls of the dealers. Mutton was perhaps not so plentiful, but excellent beef was in abundance. Times had changed with San Francisco. The hardships and semi-starvation of 1849 were forgotten in these ample supplies of exquisite food. The epicure might traverse the globe, and have no finer living than what this city yielded; the glutton would here find both eye and palate satiated. But two years had sufficed to this astonishing change.

The fires that cleared the ground and rendered necessary new building operations, and the improved style of house structures, gave constant employment to every body who could and would work. Wages therefore continued high, and the poorest of the laboring classes were enjoying the incomes of merchants and professional men of other countries. The general improvements in the aspect of the town and social character of the people, noticed in the review of 1850, were still going on. New “Expresses” were hurrying to all points, stage coaches, mails and noble steamers communicated with the most distant quarters. Additional manufactories and stores, additional newspapers, theatres, public institutions, benevolent, useful and agreeable associations, were being constantly established. Schools and churches were springing up on all sides. A certain class largely patronized the last, though it must be admitted that very many, particularly foreigners, never entered them. The old life and bustle continued, though matters were now systematized, and offered less show and confusion. In 1849, San Francisco was like a great ant-hill, when its busy creatures happen to be disturbed, and when all were visible, hurrying to and fro, out and in, backwards and forwards, apparently in the most admirable confusion and cross purposes, as if every one were engaged in some life and death struggle. In 1851, the city was like the same ant-hill when the cause of fright had been removed and order restored. The old tenants were still as busy as ever, but there was method now in their actions. Some were closely engaged in the interior—the cells or houses of the place—and made no show. Outside lines of other eager workers ran here and there, without jostling or confusion, all filled with the thought of what they had to do, and doing it well and quickly. There was no sauntering, no idleness, no dreaming. All was practical and real; all energy, perseverance and success. In business and in pleasure, the San Franciscans were fast folk; none were faster in the world. Their rents, interest on money, doings and profits, were all calculated monthly. A month with them was considered equal to a year with other people. In the former short time, men did such deeds, and saw, felt, thought, suffered and enjoyed, as much as would have lasted over a twelvemonth in other lands. But then these were really men—giants rather, the very choice of the cleverest, most adventurous and hard-working people of America and Europe. California was a hot-bed that brought humanity to a rapid, monstrous maturity, like the mammoth vegetables for which it is so celebrated.

The city was settling fast into the condition in which it now is. The characteristics of a Spanish or Mexican town had nearly all disappeared. The barbarous magnificence of an old Californian rider was now seldom seen. The jingling, gaudy trappings of the horse, the clumsy stirrups and leathern aprons, the constant lasso and the reckless rider, had given place to the plain, useful harness of the American and his more moderate, though still dashing riding. Superb carriages now thronged the streets, and handsome omnibuses regularly plied between the plaza and the mission. People now, instead of being “every thing by turns and nothing long,” more steadily confined themselves to one proper business. The old stores, where so recently all things “from a needle to an anchor” could be obtained, were nearly extinct; and separate classes of retail shops and wholesale warehouses were now the order of business. Gold dust as a currency had long given place to coin. Two years before, the buyer would carelessly tumble out a heap of “dust” in payment, while the seller would have his weights and scales ready for it as a matter of course. A little lump less or more to the quantity was of no consequence to either party. All that loose, stylish kind of thing was now changed. Coin was plentiful, and its fair worth was generally looked for. People found it somewhat more difficult to accumulate wealth, and were less foolishly lavish of their means, although they still always spent them most extravagantly. Specimens of nearly all the coinage of the civilized world were in constant circulation. Approximate values were bestowed upon the pieces, and if any thing like the mark, they readily passed current. The English shilling, the American quarter-dollar, the French franc, the Mexican double-real were all of the same value; so likewise were the English crown, the French five-franc piece, and the American or Mexican dollar. It did not matter although some were twenty-five per cent. more worth than others. Four single francs were quite as good as the English five-shilling piece. The smaller silver coins of whatever denomination and of every country were all alike bits, and passed for the same value. As for copper money, it was, of course, never seen. A bit was the lowest denomination of money, and very little of any thing would it buy. Besides the coins mentioned, there were Indian rupees, Dutch and German florins and guilders, the many coinages of South America, and in fact every known piece of money that circulated in Europe, and in many other parts of the world. The deficiency in the American proper coinage was thus amply made up, especially so far as silver money was concerned. In gold there was a less variety of foreign coin, although many European pieces of that metal were in circulation. The fifty dollar gold pieces called “slugs,” and the twenty and ten dollar pieces, issued by the United States Assay Office, in San Francisco, served all the purposes of a regular standard coinage. Before, and shortly after the establishment of the assay office, large quantities of gold currency were supplied by about a dozen different private parties; but as these coinages were generally of less intrinsic worth, in purity and weight of metal, than their nominal value, they soon fell into disrepute and were gradually withdrawn from circulation. Some of them were very neatly executed, and stray specimens may still be occasionally found by the curious.

Formerly, that is, only two years before, the San Franciscans were careless in personal appearance, and rude in manners. Now, they dressed richly and extravagantly, and assumed the polished airs of gentlemen. A striking change was observable every where, and in every thing. The houses were growing magnificent, and their tenants fashionable. Perhaps this fashion was not quite à la mode de Paris, but rather sui generis. Balls and convivial parties of the most brilliant character were constantly taking place. The great number of flaunting women of pleasure, particularly the French, mightily encouraged this universal holiday, and gave ease, taste, and sprightly elegance to the manners of the town. There is perhaps no place in the world where money is so little regarded as in San Francisco. A man spends there like a prince, as he gains like one. The “almighty dollar” to him appears of less worth than a shilling does to people in England or in our Eastern States. At these balls, and at all public and private entertainments, immense sums were squandered. Trade might be dull, bad, ruinous—rents might rise or fall, and people be really insolvent—still they spent money on all sides. Business losses generally fell on distant correspondents, and the half-burned and supposed bankrupt and ruined city showed still the same brilliant bustle; and its inhabitants still pursued the same expensive round of amusements. Gold must come from the placers, and San Francisco never could in a certain sense be poor. The riches of the Californian mines on the one side, and the luxuries and conveniences of all countries in the world on the other, met in San Francisco. It would be hard indeed for its hot-blooded and venturous population if they did not make the treasures within their grasp minister to every enjoyment that youth and sanguine constitutions could crave.

Ever since the first great immigration many of the inhabitants carried some weapon of defence secretly about them. During the disturbed times in the early part of 1851, when nobody was safe from the assaults of desperadoes even in the public street or in his own dwelling, the practice of wearing deadly weapons became still more common. These were often used—though not so much against the robber and assassin, as upon the old friend and acquaintance, or the stranger, when drink and scandal, time and circumstance had converted them into supposed enemies. The number of duels, and especially of sudden personal affrays, was fearfully great. The general population of San Francisco—with shame it must be confessed, in those days, as is still the case to a considerable extent—drank largely of intoxicating liquors. A great many tippled at times, and quite as many swore lustily. They are an adventurous people, and their enjoyments are all of an exciting kind. They are bold and reckless from the style of the place and the nature both of business and amusement. New-comers fall naturally into the same character. It may therefore be imagined that personal rencontres frequently occur among such a population. In 1851 these were constantly happening. One man perhaps called another a “liar,” and straightway revolvers were produced on both sides. Repeated shots were hastily fired, with sometimes as much damage to the by-standers as to the half-drunken quarrellers themselves. Some scenes of a most savage and atrocious description, ending occasionally in death, took place between parties who were reputed to be of the first class of citizens. Among the lower American orders, and in all classes of foreigners, down to the vilest “greasers,” the same violent spirit of personal revenge and deadly outrage was common. On the slightest occasion, at a look or touch, an oath, a single word of offence, the bowie-knife leaped from its sheath, and the loaded revolver from the breast pocket or the secret case, and death or severe wounds quickly closed the scene. The spectators often shared in the same wild feelings, and did not always seek to interfere. The law was powerless to prevent such personal conflicts. Men thought as little of their blood and lives as of their money, and to gratify high swelling passion would madly waste them all alike.

One considerable cause of personal disputes and bloodshed was the uncertainty of legal titles to property, which encouraged squatterism. Owing to recent conflicting decisions by the courts of law it almost appeared that the only, or the best title to real estate was actual possession. A great many people made a practice of settling down upon any vacant lot they fancied, and perhaps in the course of a night would fence it in and erect some small house on the ground. When daylight and the proprietor came, the intruder defied ejection. To seek redress from the tribunals whose judgments had led to these encroachments was only ridiculous; so the parties generally fought it out among themselves, with the aid of friends and long purses to hire help, until both suffered considerably in the battle. The effect of these conflicting legal decisions on the titles to real estate had otherwise a very prejudicial effect. They hindered the immediate and permanent improvement of property, since no man would expend large sums in that way when his title to the ground was in jeopardy. Lenders, already alarmed at the foolish proposals of usury bills in the Legislature, became shy in advancing money on the security of many properties; the value of real estate fell considerably; in some instances no price whatever could be obtained where the title was disputed; and all was painful doubt on the subject. In 1850, real estate in the city was assessed at the value of $16,849,024; while, in 1851, it was only $10,518,273; and this was notwithstanding the vast improvements that had taken place in the interval. In the end, certain acts passed by the State, which confirmed sales of the beach and water lots by the city and sanctioned its title to those lots still unsold, and also later and more satisfactory decisions of the Supreme Court in the matter of titles, helped to re-establish confidence on the subject, and secure the old owner in his property against the mere squatter.

The commerce and imports of San Francisco were very great during 1851—too great indeed for a profitable trade. The fall in the prices of nearly all kinds of merchandise which lasted over a great part of 1850, continued during the following year. Matters were perhaps not quite so bad as when, in the spring of 1850, chests of tobacco were used to pave the streets or make a solid foundation for houses, and when nearly every article of merchandise went a-begging for a buyer, and not finding one was cast aside to rot, or used to fill up mud-holes; but still, in 1851, most kinds of goods were a dead loss to the owner. In the palmy days of ‘48 and ‘49, all were purchasers, at any price: now every body sought to sell, at no matter what sacrifice. In ‘49 a dollar was paid for a pill, and the same sum for an egg; a hundred dollars for a pair of boots, and twice that sum for a decent suit of clothes; a single rough brick cost a dime, and a plank some twenty feet long was cheap at ten dollars. At one period of that wondrous year, common iron tacks of the smallest size, sold for their weight in gold; and for a long period were in request at from five to ten dollars an ounce. But in ‘51, bales of valuable goods were sometimes not worth their storage. There happened to be no plaster walls in ‘49, and small tacks,—of which there was only a very meagre quantity in the country,—were in extreme demand for fastening the usual muslin coverings to the wooden partitions of houses. Hence the apparently extravagant sum that was given. Every thing that was useful and really needed in those earlier days commanded the most astonishing prices. The supply was limited and the demand great, while money was suddenly plentyful. But in 1851, the stock of all kinds of goods was greatly over-proportioned to the natural demand of the place. The population of the city and country generally, although numbering only about a quarter of a million persons, yet being nearly all in the prime of life, rich and careless, and with large appetites, consumed and wasted the goods and provisions that would have satisfied an ordinary population of perhaps a million of people. Still the imports into San Francisco were far ahead of the most extravagant demands and consumption of the ravenous, wasteful people of California. For any article actually required, and of which there might be but a scanty stock in the market, noble rates were still given; but as the supply of most goods was immense, prices fell accordingly. The auctioneers, whose business and importance daily increased, rattled away shiploads of merchandise at often nominal prices. Extravagance and waste did their best, but they could not destroy every thing. Enormous losses were sustained during 1850, and especially in 1851, by foreign shippers. The commercial people in San Francisco generally acted as agents on commission for others, and did not often import as merchants on their own account. The losses therefore on merchandise did not so very much affect individual citizens, while to the general public it was a positive gain to have an unlimited supply of goods at low prices.

In the ordinary recreations of the city a change was gradually taking place. The gambling-saloons, though still very many, were becoming fewer, while billiard-rooms and drinking-bars or saloons for refreshment and conversation, were increasing in number, in size and handsome style. There is no place in the world with so many billiard-tables in it in proportion to the population, as San Francisco; and but few places, if any, with more drinking-houses. In such quarters, in 1851, a large proportion of the inhabitants usually spent their evenings. Other crowds nightly filled the large and beautiful theatres that were now erected. Balls, masquerades and concerts, gambling-saloons, visits to frail women,—who always have been very numerous and gay in San Francisco,—and an occasional lecture, filled up the measure of evening amusement. Gayety and personal dissipation were then, as they are now, characteristic features of the city. Nor were these things confined to the upper and richer classes. Labor was paid so highly that all orders of the people had money at command to squander in amusements. During the day, and particularly on Sundays, the “swells” of both the highest and the lowest rank, cantered to the presidio or the mission, or scampered among the sand-hills behind the town, or crossed the bay in the small steamers to Contra Costa, or formed pic-nic excursions to the fort, or the outer telegraph hill, or on the sea-shore, or somewhere among the lonely and picturesque valleys among the hills. San Francisco was certainly a great city; and its people had great notions their deeds of business and amusement were all great in their way.

The large admixture of foreign races, particularly the light-hearted, theatre-loving French, the musical Germans, and the laughter-loving, idle, dancing Hispano-Americans, tended to give a pleasant, gay aspect to the city. The grave national character of United States men was converted into levity and cheerfulness by the example and sympathy of their merry neighbors. It may be said, at the same time, that the foreign population were generally an orderly, obedient and useful class of the community. The Chinese might here perhaps form an exception. They are an exclusive race, and mingle but little save with their own people. They were now beginning to arrive in considerable numbers, bringing with them a number of their women, who are among the fllthiest and most abandoned of their sex. They, as well as most of the foreign races, generally dwelt together in particular localities, which gave these quarters a distinctive appearance from the rest of the town. The Chinese and the free negroes, of whom there was now a goodly sprinkling, were “the hewers of wood and the drawers of water” of the place; and performed washing and women’s business, and such menial offices as American white males would scorn to do for any remuneration. The “greasers,” too, who are verily “of the earth, earthy,” helped the “celestials” and the black fellows, or infernals, in their dirty work.

In various parts of this book, we have dwelt so fully on the state of crime and public morals during 1851, that it is unnecessary to say much more on the subject in this general chapter. The extraordinary action of the Vigilance Committee, proved most salutary to the best interests of the community. After a few hangings, which were signalized by scenes of the most terrible and impressive nature, the social state of the city was much improved; and people could venture to appear at dark in the streets, or to dwell alone in poorly defended houses, without dread of the assassin, the burglar, or the incendiary. Crime was now principally confined to petty thefts, for which the “chain-gang” was an excellent punishment; while cases of bloodshed,—and they were frightfully many,—arose chiefly from the rampant, unregulated passions of the people, who thought and called themselves, as they were reckoned by others, respectable men and good citizens.

The financial affairs of the city, which had long been in a very confused and ruinous state, were, towards the close of 1851, much simplified and improved. The general improvidence and corruption of a long series of municipal authorities, from the day when the American flag was first hoisted on the plaza, had squandered or jobbed away many of the most valuable portions of the real estate belonging to the corporation. But the funding of the floating debt, and perhaps the increasing purity, or dread of being found out, on the part of recent officials, with other causes, tended gradually to raise the credit of the city. The next great blow which fell upon the municipal funds was the noted matter of the “Peter Smith” sales, which shall be duly chronicled among the events of 1852.

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

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