San Francisco History

The Annals of San Francisco


DURING the early years of the existence of Yerba Buena, little occurs worthy of notice. The place continued merely a village; and its history for some years subsequent to 1841, would be simply a record of the private business transactions of the Hudson’s Bay Company, whose agents and people formed nearly the entire settlement. Even so lately as 1844, Yerba Buena contained only about a dozen houses, and its permanent population did not exceed fifty persons. In 1846 the Hudson’s Bay Company disposed of their property, and removed from the place. After that period it began gradually to increase in importance and population. The progress of political events during which the country passed into American hands, was, as might have been anticipated, the chief cause of the rapid strides onward which the place now began to take.

By mid-summer of 1846, the population numbered upwards of two hundred, and the buildings of all kinds had increased to nearly fifty. From this date the place advanced with wonderful rapidity. On the first April of the following year, it contained seventy-nine buildings, viz.:—twenty-two shanties, thirty-one frame-houses, and twenty-six adobe buildings. In the course of the subsequent five months, seventy-eight new tenements were erected, viz.:—forty-seven of frame, eleven of adobe, and twenty shanties. About this time the permanent population had increased to nearly five hundred. By the end of April, 1848, about the time when the “rush” to the “diggings” commenced, the town contained nearly two hundred buildings, viz.:—one hundred and thirty-five finished dwelling-houses, ten unfinished houses of the same class, twelve stores and warehouses, and thirty-five shanties. At this last date the population numbered about a thousand individuals, composed almost entirely of people from the United States or from European countries. Every day was bringing new immigrants, and every week additional houses were erected.

Three kinds of buildings generally appear early in the progress of American settlements:—the church, tavern and printing-office. The last was established so early as January, 1847, when the population was little more than three hundred; and, on the 7th of that month the first number of the “California Star” appeared. This paper was published by Mr. Samuel Brannan, and edited by Dr. E. P. Jones. It was a small sheet of four pages, about fifteen inches by twelve of type, and appeared every Saturday. It was a neat production—type, matter and arrangement being of excellent quality. A passage in the prospectus gave notice that “it will eschew with the greatest caution every thing that tends to the propagation of sectarian dogmas.” This clause may have been inserted in consequence of the publisher having but recently been prominently connected with a certain religious sect, and with a view to assure the public that it was no part of his intention to make the “Star” the medium of promulgating its peculiar sectarian tenets.

The Californian,” also a weekly newspaper, of still smaller dimensions, and of much inferior typographical pretension, had previously appeared at Monterey, where its first number was issued on the 15th August, 1846, by Messrs. Colton & Semple, by whom also it was edited. Commodore R. F. Stockton, however, was the originator of this publication. This was the first newspaper in the English, or indeed, in any language, which was published in California. For the sake of the natives, the editors gave a portion of the contents in Spanish; but the greater part from the beginning, and soon the whole of it, was printed in English. The publishers seem to have been reduced to considerable difficulty in getting out their paper. In one of the impressions they give this explanatory and apologetic note for its rude appearance. We copy literally: —

“OUR ALPHABET.—Our type is a spanish font picked up here in a cloister, and has no VV’s [W’s] in it, as there is none in the spanish alphabet. I have sent to the sandvvich Islands for this letter, in the mean time vve must use tvvo V’s. Our paper at present is that used for vvrapping segars; in due time vve vvill have something better: our object is to establise a press in California, and this vve shall in all probability be able to accomplish. The absence of my partner for the last three months and my buties as Alcaldd here have dedrived our little paper of some of those attentions vvhich I hope it vvill hereafter receive.

The printer is responsible for a few errors in the above extract; but the editor seems also blameable for the rapid changes from singular to plural and back again. It will be noticed from the date of the first number of the “Californian,” that it was issued immediately after the capture of Sonoma and the first hoisting of the American flag in the northern towns of California; and no doubt these events hastened its appearance. In the prospectus the editor says: “We shall maintain an entire and utter severance of all political connection with Mexico. We renounce at once and forever all fealty to her laws, all obedience to her mandates. * * * We shall advocate a territorial relation of California to the United States, till the number of her inhabitants is such that she can be admitted a member of that glorious confederacy. * * * We shall support the present measures of the commander-in-chief of the American squadron on the coast, so far as they conduce to the public tranquillity, the organization of a free representative government, and our alliance with the United States. * * * We shall go for California—for all her interests, social, civil, and religious—encouraging every thing that promotes these; resisting every thing that can do them harm.” Thus, every thing was showing that the Americans were resolved, at whatever cost, to keep the country, and make it their own. Meanwhile, San Francisco was rising into such importance as to make it a much superior place for publication to Monterey; and accordingly on the 22d day of May, 1847, Mr. Robert Semple, who seems now to have been the sole publisher of the “Californian,” issued the first number of the second volume of that paper at the former town, much enlarged and every way improved. This therefore was the second newspaper established in our city, at a time when the permanent population did not exceed four hundred.

From the columns of these early papers we extract much curious information regarding the number and elements of the population of San Francisco in the latter part of June, 1847. The following table shows the total number of inhabitants, the sex and age of the whites, and the sex of the Indians, Sandwich Islanders, and negroes; excluding the officers and soldiers of the detachment of New York volunteers stationed there at the time:—
White. Males. Females. Total.
Under 5 years of age 28 23 51
Over 5 and under 10 years 18 14 32
Over 10 and under 15 years 10 14 24
Over 15 and under 20 years 11 11 22
Over 20 and under 25 years 29 15 44
Over 25 and under 30 years 54 19 73
Over 30 and under 40 years 61 19 80
Over 40 and under 50 years 20 10 30
Over 50 and under 60 years 12 3 15
Over 60 and under 70 years 2 2
Over 70 and under 80 years 2 2
Total whites 247 128 375
Indians (of different ages) 26 8 34
Sandwich Islanders (of different ages) 39 1 40
Negroes (of different ages) 9 1 10
TOTAL 321 138 459

From this table it will be seen that upwards of four-fifths of the whole population were under forty years of age; while more than one-half were between twenty and forty—the prime of life. Under twenty, the sexes were nearly equal in number; but above that age, the vast majority were males. These circumstances must be borne in mind when the reader considers the restless enterprise, energy and capability exhibited by the comparatively small population of the town. We have already alluded to the mixture of foreigners who settled in San Francisco. We now give the birth-places of the above white population:—

Born in the United States, 228; in California, 38; other Mexican departments, 2; Canada, 5; Chili, 2; England, 22; France, 3; Germany, 27; Ireland, 14; Scotland, 14; Switzerland, 6; at sea, 4; Denmark, Malta, New Holland, New Zealand, Peru, Poland, Russia, Sandwich Islands, Sweden and West Indies, one each.

San Francisco, from the Bay, in 1847.As of the number stated to have been born in California, eight were children of immigrant parents, it will be seen that the total population of Spanish or Mexican descent was only thirty-two. Three-fifths of the total inhabitants were of direct American origin; and perhaps one-fifth more was composed of people who had previously settled or lived in the United States. The Americans, however, as may be supposed, were from every State in the Union, and were often as different from each other in personal characteristics, as if they had been so many foreigners of separate countries.

The number who could read and write was two hundred and seventy-three; those who could read, but not write, were thirteen; while those who could neither read nor write, were eighty-nine.

From these statements it appears that the number who could neither read nor write bore a near relation to the number of inhabitants under ten years of age. At that period, it may be mentioned, there was only one school in the place, and no proper facilities were as yet given for bestowing a suitable education upon the young.

The occupations or professions of the white males were as follows:—1 minister; 3 doctors; 3 lawyers ; 2 surveyors ; 1 school-teacher; 11 agriculturalists; 7 bakers; 6 blacksmiths; 1 brewer; 6 brick-makers; 7 butchers; 2 cabinet makers; 26 carpenters ; 1 cigar-maker; 13 clerks; 3 coopers; 1 gardener; 5 grocers ; 2 gunsmiths; 3 hotel-keepers; 20 laborers; 4 masons; 11 merchants; 1 miner; 1 morocco-case maker; 6 inland navigators; 1 ocean navigator; 1 painter; 6 printers; 1 saddler; 4 shoemakers; 1 silversmith; 4 tailors ; 2 tanners; 1 watchmaker; 1 weaver.

The places in which the inhabitants conducted their business, were as follows, viz.:—shops, 1 apothecary, 2 blacksmith, 3 butcher, 1 cabinet maker, 2 carpenter, 1 cigar-maker, 2 cooper, 1 gun-smith, 1 shoemaker, 2 tailor, and 1 watchmaker; 8 stores; 7 groceries; 2 hotels; 1 wind-mill; 1 horse-mill; 2 printing-offices; and 3 bakeries.

The Indians, Sandwich Islanders, and negroes, who formed nearly one-fifth of the population, were mostly employed as servants and porters. Many of the Sandwich Islanders were engaged in navigating the bay, and were very expert boatmen.

On the 30th of January, 1847, the following important “ordinance” appeared in the “California Star.”


“WHEREAS, the local name of Yerba Buena, as applied to the settlement or town of San Francisco, is unknown beyond the district; and has been applied from the local name of the cove, on which the town is built: Therefore, to prevent confusion and mistakes in public documents, and that the town may have the advantage of the name given on the public map,

“IT IS HEREBY ORDAINED, that the name of SAN FRANCISCO shall hereafter be used in all official communications and public documents, or records appertaining to the town.

Chief Magistrate.

“Published by order,
“J. G. T. DUNLEAVY, Municipal Clerk.”

Mr. Bartlett was the first alcalde of San Francisco under the American flag. He was a lieutenant in the United States navy; and on being subsequently ordered to his ship, Mr. Edwin Bryant was appointed in his place, and sworn into office on the 22d day of February, 1847. This gentleman had travelled the previous year across the country from Independence, Mo., to the Pacific, and had subsequently joined Col. Fremont as a volunteer in the reduction of California. Shortly afterwards, he published in New York an interesting account of his travels under the title, “What I saw in California.” Before Mr. Bryant’s appointment to the chief-magistracy, Mr. George Hyde had acted for a short time as temporary alcalde.

Under the laws of Mexico, an alcalde had the entire control of municipal affairs, and administered justice pretty much according to his own ideas of the subject; without being tied down to precedents and formal principles of law. He could make grants of building-lots within the town boundaries to intending settlers; and really in general, his right of administration (except in cases of importance, either civil or criminal), seems to have been only limited by his power to carry his decrees into effect. When the Americans seized the country, and until peace should be declared or a formal constitution adopted, they were obliged to make use of the existing machinery of local government and the customary laws that regulated it. They accordingly every where appointed alcaldes, or chief-magistrates of towns and districts (it was of little consequence that they were not lawyers, but only ministers, doctors, adventurers, men of business, or of pleasure, and the like), and instructed them to dispense justice in the best manner they could, paying always as much regard as possible to the national laws of Mexico and the provincial customs of California.

The laws of Mexico reserved to the governor of a province the disposal of lands in towns within a certain number of feet below high-water mark. By this time, from the number of ships arriving in the Bay of San Francisco, it was becoming absolutely necessary that proper facilities should be given for the discharge and the reception of cargoes, and that wharves and other landing-places should be built across the great mud flat close upon the beach at the town, and extended to deep water, so that vessels could lie alongside. Upon the application therefore of the alcalde, Mr. Bryant, the then governor of California, General Kearny, in anticipation that the country was ultimately to become American, formerly renounced, on the 10th of March, 1847, in favor of the municipal authorities, the beach and water property lying between the points known as the Rincon and Fort Montgomery, upon the conditions stated in his decree. An extended survey and plan of the town had been previously commenced by Mr. Jasper O’Farrell, under the instructions of the former alcalde, Mr. Bartlett, and were now continued so as to embrace the beach and water property. When this survey was completed, the shore lots, as distinguished from those on the beach, were disposed of by private sale to applicants at a fixed price put on them by the alcalde, agreeably to the Mexican customs. The plan of the city, as surveyed and mapped out by Mr. O’Farrell, fronted the cove, and included the Telegraph Hill and the Rincon. It extended about three quarters of a mile from north to south, and two miles from east to west, and embraced about one and a half square miles. As the disposal of the beach and water lots was a great event in the history of San Francisco, we give a copy of the advertisement announcing the sale, and which was published in the “California Star,” of the town, and in the “Californian,” of Monterey, in conformity with the governor’s decree: —


“By the following decree of His Excellency, General S. W. Kearny, Governor of California, all the right, title and interest of the United States, and of the Territory of California, to the BEACH AND WATER lots on the east front of the town of San Francisco, have been granted, conveyed, and released, to the people or corporate authorities of said town:—


‘I, Brigadier-General S. W. Kearny, Governor of California, by virtue of authority in me vested by the President of the United States of America, do hereby grant, convey, and release unto the town of San Francisco, the people, or corporate authorities thereof, all the right, title, and interest of the Government of the United States, and of the Territory of California, in and to the beach and water Iots on the east front of said town of San Francisco, included between the points known as the Rincon and Fort Montgomery, except such lots as may be selected for the use of the United States Government by the senior officers of the army and navy now there: PROVIDED, the said ground hereby ceded shill be divided into lots, and sold by public auction to the highest bidder, after three months notice previously given; the proceeds of said sale to be for the benefit of the town of San Francisco.

‘Given at Monterey, capital of California, this 10th day of March, 1847, and the 71st year of the independence of the United States.

Brigadier-General and Governor of California.’

“In pursuance of and in compliance with the conditions of the foregoing decree, all the ungranted tract of ground on the east front of the town of San Francisco, lying and situated between Fort Montgomery and the Rincon, and known as the water and beach lots (the reservations by the general and town governments excepted), will be surveyed, and divided into convenient building lots for warehouses and stores, and offered at public sale to the highest bidder on Tuesday, the 29th day of June next, at ten o’clock, A. M.  A plan of lots in connection with a general map of the town will be made out and exhibited on or before the day of sale.

“Terms of sale, one fourth cash,—one fourth in six months,—one fourth in twelve months,—and one fourth in eighteen months, the purchaser giving approved security bearing an interest of ten per cent. per annum from the day of sale.

“Other conditions will be made known on or before the day of sale.

“The site of the town of San Francisco is known to all navigators and mercantile men acquainted with the subject, to be the most commanding commercial position on the entire eastern coast of the Pacific Ocean, and the town itself is, no doubt, destined to become the commercial EMPORIUM of the western side of the American continent. The property offered for sale is the most valuable in, or belonging to the town, and the acquisition of it is an object of deep interest to all mercantile houses in California and elsewhere engaged in
the commerce of the Pacific.

Alcalde, or Chief Magistrate, Town and District of San Francisco.
“San Francisco, Upper Calffornia, March 16th, 1847.”

This great sale was subsequently postponed to Tuesday, the 20th of July following, by order of Mr. George Hyde, who was then alcalde of the town. On the day last named the sale took place, and lasted for three successive days. The lots were all contained between the limits of low and high-water mark; and four-fifths of them were entirely covered with water at flood tide. The size of the lots was sixteen and a half varas in width of front, and fifty varas deep. A vara is a Spanish yard, and is equal to about thirty-three and one- third inches of English measure. There were about four hundred and fifty of these lots in all, of which number two hundred were disposed of at the public sale above mentioned. The attendance of buyers was pretty fair; and the prices given were very considerable (ranging from fifty to one hundred dollars), considering the population and circumstances at the time. The price of some of the same lots now would somewhat astonish the projectors of the town extension of those days.

Curiously enough, we were in the act of finishing the last sentence, when we were informed of the prices obtained by the municipal authorities for other water lots which they were at this time (26th December, 1853) disposing of likewise at public auction. These last lots were situated much farther out in the bay, at places always covered with many feet of water, and measured less than one-half the size of the old ones, being only twenty-five feet in front by fifty-nine feet nine inches back. Yet they brought prices varying from eight to sixteen thousand dollars! Four small sized building blocks alone produced, in all, the enormous sum of $1,200,000; thereby restoring the injured credit of the city. Such is one contrast between 1847 and 1853 at San Francisco!

But the principal part of the town was laid out in lots of fifty varas square; six of them making a building block, bounded on the four sides by streets. In August, 1847, there had been about seven hundred of this description of lots surveyed, of which number nearly four hundred and fifty had been applied for and disposed of by the alcalde at a fixed price, which now seems to have been merely nominal. This price was twelve dollars per lot, and when the office fees for deed and recording (three dollars and sixty-two and a half cents) were added, the total cost was less than sixteen dollars. The conditions of sale were that the buyer should fence in the ground, and build a house upon it within one year; failing which, the lot and improvements were to revert to the town.

The south-eastern portion of the town was laid out in lots of one hundred varas square, six of which also formed a building block, bounded by regular streets at the four sides. The part of the town formed by these last lots was supposed to be the least valuable, and the lots themselves were expected to be the last taken up and improved by purchasers. The price established by law for these lots, which were four times the size of the fifty vara ones, was only twenty-five dollars each, and when the deed and recording fees were added (three dollars and sixty-two and a half cents), the total cost was under twenty-nine dollars. In August, 1847, about one hundred and thirty lots of this description were surveyed and laid out, of which number about seventy had been sold. The conditions of the sale were similar to those applicable to the fifty vara lots.

The proceeds of all these sales made up a considerable sum, and saved the necessity of levying municipal taxes for a short time. Real estate has advanced so rapidly in value since those days, that it would only be ridiculous to compare the prices obtainable now with those fixed by the alcalde in 1847. In many cases, however, an immense sum has been actually expended in first bringing the ground into building condition.

In Mr. O’Farrell’s plan, the streets are all regularly laid out at right angles with each other, and are seventy-five and eighty feet wide. One, however, is one hundred and ten feet in width. The streets in the oldest part of the town—that portion surveyed by Capt. Juan Vioget, as stated in the previous chapter—are only about sixty feet broad.

There was at one time a municipal regulation, by which individuals were prevented from purchasing and holding more than a single fifty or one hundred vara lot. The object of this appears to have been to exclude speculators from jobbing in the lots, and to insure their speedy improvement by the real owner. By procuring lots, however, in the names of third parties, speculators soon contrived to evade this regulation, and thus a few individuals became possessed of a large portion of the extension of the town. The alcalde and town council therefore, shortly afterwards, did away with this restriction upon purchasers.

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

Return to San Francisco Genealogy
Public Commons License