San Francisco History



I have heard and seen many times in print, reports of those who first discovered gold dust in California. In regard to the first person who discovered it, I do not wish to say, as several claimed the honor; but, I well remember who brought the first gold dust to the city. It was brought by a man belonging to Oregon, by the name of Bennett, in the month of October, 1847. Mr. Bennett arrived in the city of Yerba Buena, and came to Brown's Hotel, and inquired if he could be accommodated for a few days. He was a tall spare man, with light hair, inclined to be sandy. In conversation, he informed me that he was from Oregon, and that his business in the city was to try to find some person who had a cash capital of about one thousand dollars. I informed him that there were persons in the house who had that amount or more. He wished me to give him an introduction, as he could make a good thing for them and himself. The next day I introduced him to George McDougal. After the introduction I was going to leave the room, when McDougal called me back, and said if there was anything to be made I should have an interest with them. Bennett then took from his pocket an old fashioned English snuff-box, about the size of a ten cent blacking-box, and observed to McDougal, that if he was willing to spend his money for the purchase of red and blue blankets, that he could obtain for him any amount of that kind of metal, (showing him at the same time what the box contained) but McDougal thought it was a put up job to get money out of him, and he informed Bennett that it would pay him better to try some one else. The next one I thought of was Major Humphries. He had been a miner for many years before he came to California. He informed me that he had worked in the Galena Mines, and had been very lucky and was well off when he arrived in California. He and Bennett had several conversations together; but I never knew what was said, as Major Humphries was a man who kept his business to himself. Two days after the introduction of Humphries to Bennett, Humphries inquired if I knew what had become of a carpenter, who was known by the name of ''The devil take the hindmost one.'' The man's real name was Spencer, he lived with another carpenter by the name of Foster, who was a brother-in-law to a man named Nie. Humphries got these two carpenters to make him a machine, at the time they did not know for what purpose it was intended; but made it after Humphries orders; and we did not see or hear from Humphries again for many months. He then informed us that he had made the machine to use at the mines as a gold-washer, and it answered the purpose better than he expected. It was understood that the gold-washer, made by Foster and Spencer was the first ever used in this country. It was finished by the middle of November, 1847. After stopping in Yerba Buena three or four days, Bennett left for Monterey, and I did not see anything more of him until the early part of the winter of 1848. He then gave me twenty-seven pounds of dust to keep for him, and he remained at the hotel until the spring of 1849. He informed me that after he left Yerba Buena in 1847, he went to Monterey to see Thomas O. Larkin; but he was fearful that he might meet with bad treatment, as he had in Yerba Buena, so he returned to the mines. The last time I saw Bennett was early in the Fall of 1849. He had returned to the city for the purpose of taking a passage to Oregon, and from what he then told me he must have taken with him about two hundred pounds in gold dust. Some time after his arrival at home, I received a letter, saying that all was well. He also informed me that he had made up his mind to build a large hotel, and whenever I felt tired of California to come up to Oregon and take charge of his hotel. The last account I heard from him was at the time the Indians became troublesome in that section of the country. He was appointed captain of a company, and in a battle with the Indians he was killed. Mr. Bennett was considered by his neighbors and all persons acquainted with him, as an upright, honest citizen, and was much respected. I have made mention before of Dr. Sample. There is one thing I forgot to mention in regard to him. Dr. Sample carried many valuable documents for the American Government from Monterey to Yerba Buena. On one of these trips his horse gave out, and the only one he could obtain was a small sized pony. The Doctor found out that the pony was not able to travel with any speed, and as he was much afraid it would give out and leave him to go on foot the rest of the way, he contrived a new way of using the spurs. The usual way of wearing them was on the heel of the foot; but, the Doctor fastened them on the calves of his legs, as that was the only way he could use them as he was over seven feet in height. It was late in the evening when the Doctor arrived in the city and came to the hotel, and when he called me out, I inquired how he got here. He then told me about the spurs, and said that whenever he came to heavy ground or up-hill, that he would walk without getting off his saddle, as the pony was so small he could easily walk between his legs. This incident happened during the Mexican war in 1846.

George McDougal and Benjamin Lippincott entered into partnership in the livery business, and found it to be very profitable. They shared the same room in the hotel. The room faced on the verandah, and contained a large sized window, which was easy of access from the outside. One day while the two gentlemen were at dinner, a writing-desk was taken from under the bed, containing about sixteen hundred dollars in Mexican gold coin. This robbery was not discovered until late in the evening, when McDougal went to get some money to pay out, and found the desk and money gone. Suspicion was very strong against certain parties. Every man in the city turned out to search for the money. They met a Spaniard coming from the Mission, who informed them that he had seen a man in the sand hills, (at the same time pointing to a small tree in the distance,) whom he said appeared to be very busy about something, and he afterwards saw him run towards the bay. On going where the Spaniard directed them, they worked hard digging around in the sand for about half an hour, when Purser Whatmore found the desk containing all the money. I do not think it best to mention here the name of the person or persons who stole the money; but will merely say that in 1848 a man died in the City Hotel, and on his death-bed he confessed to the robbery; telling at the same time who his accomplices were. As we are mentioning some of the things that happened during the early days of this city, I thought it would not be out of place to mention this as the first robbery committed that was made public.

On the first of October, in 1847, I called on Captain Leidsoff to pay him five hundred dollars for the first payment of my second year's rent for the hotel. This amount was for three months in advance; but he would not accept the payment unless I would agree to pay him three thousand dollars per year. When I took the house, the verbal agreement was for five years, at the rate of two thousand dollars per year. I thought the last requirement an imposition, and so, on the 28th day of October, 1847, I closed the house. At the time I bought my furniture I thought I was paying a high price for it, and Leidsoff made me an offer to take the furniture and the house at first cost; but, I found out that I could make fifty per cent on first cost by retailing them to different parties. There were then many families in the city, and it was very difficult to obtain good furniture. The only thing I sold to Leidsoff was a cooking range, for which he paid me two hundred and fifty dollars. I bought it in the first place of Stephen Harris, who arrived here in Stevenson's Regiment, for the sum of one hundred dollars. On the last of October I took up my board and lodgings with Alfred J. Ellis, who kept a hotel, near where now stands the Old Pioneer Hall. A few days after taking up my quarters in Mr. Ellis' house, an incident occurred, which I will relate here: One night we had a very heavy rain and wind-storm, and on the side of the house there was a well twenty-three feet deep. The storm was so heavy that it was next to impossible to hear anything. Between twelve and one o'clock that night Ellis came to my room and called me, saying that there was a man in the well. People would often come to the house late at night and inquire for me, and I thought at the time Ellis called me that it was only a ruse on the part of some person to get me up, so I took my time. Another man, by the name of Griffin was called at the same time, he was also boarding in the house. When I reached the bar-room, I found that they had got the man out of the well, and it proved to be George, a ship-carpenter, who belonged to Saucelito. Ellis gave him a couple of drinks, when George observed that the other fellow made a terrible grunting when he fell on him. There was not much notice taken of his remark, as he was a very hard drinker and was usually ''two sheets in the wind'' when he left town. Things went on as usual for about four days, when the water became too bad to be used for drinking purposes. It was even too bad for washing, so Ellis got some men to clean the well. When part of the water was out, a man's hair was seen floating on the water, and it was found that there was really a person there. When the man was taken from the water it proved to be a Russian sailor, belonging to a vessel which came here after wheat. There had been a large reward offered to anyone who would bring the above mentioned sailor on board the vessel, as it was supposed he had run away. When it became generally known that a dead body had been taken from the well, there was the greatest time I ever saw. Most of the citizens had been to Ellis' saloon and had drank the water. With some of them it went very hard; Captain John Patey laid in bed for two days, also Robert A. Parker, and many others were very sick.

I will mention one more incident that occurred about this time, which may be of some interest. A whale ship arrived in port having on board a sailor who had broken his leg, and as the captain did not know how to get along with him, he concluded to leave him in the city. The doctor wanted to amputate his leg; but the man objected to it, until he found it had to be done in order to save his life. The doctor's name was Fewraguard; he was a Frenchman, and was considered to be a very skillful surgeon. In the month of September, 1847, Captain Fulsom called on me to assist during the operation, previous to this I had thought I was equal to any task or emergency; especially, where nerve power was required, as I have seen men shot down, and even cut to pieces, and until this time I never realized that it was possible for me to be so tender-hearted. My part during the operation was to hold the man's arms over my shoulders, clasping his hand with both mine. When I felt the cold perspiration on his hand I fainted, and had to be taken out of the room. I never fainted before nor since. I do not think it was much over a minute from the time the operation commenced before the leg was cut off, so quickly was it done. The man remained in the city until he recovered. Captain Fulsom made up a purse for him, with which he purchased a wooden leg, and got him a passage to the Eastern States. This was probably the first surgical operation ever performed in the city of San Francisco.

A vessel arrived here in the summer of 1846, called the ''Don Quixet.'' She was owned by the Sandwich Island Government, and carried two guns. Commodore John Patey was in command; Southard was chief officer; and James Gleason was captain's clerk. The balance of the crew were natives of the Island. The vessel was bark rigged. On the 28th day of November, 1847, I made a bargain with a Mr. Mitchner for the purchase of a place called Yeaty, near Honolulu. I was to pay off a mortgage on the property, and give him two fifty vara lots, and two hundred dollars in cash if the title suited. On my arrival at the Islands I found the place fully as good as I expected. I then called on Mr. Bastard, a lawyer who was from Truro, Cornwall in England. He advised me to have nothing to do with the place, as I could not legally hold it without marrying a native. I had taken what money I had to the Islands, fully expecting to remain there. Shortly after my arrival I met a gentleman by the name of Post, who had been to San Francisco in '47 and was a confidential clerk of General Williams, who was keeping a wholesale dry-goods store. I told him I had something over eight thousand dollars which I should like to invest in dry-goods. He informed me that they were over-stocked in clothing, and that if I wished to lay out my money in that way, I could get goods at very low prices. I purchased of them to the amount of over eight thousand dollars, and took passage in a Spanish bark, the owner of which was named Luca, and arrived in San Francisco on the second day of January, 1848. On my arrival Robert A Parker looked at my invoices and made me an offer of one hundred per cent on first cost, he also agreed to pay all duties and freight charges. I took up with his offer. This transaction was the starting point of the building of the Parker House, where now stands the Old City Hall. After my return from the Islands, Captain Leidsoff sent for me and made me a very liberal proposition. He wanted me to take a lease of the City Hotel. When I asked Parker what he thought about taking the hotel, he said he did not wish me to have anything more to do with it, and if I was willing to put in what money I had, he would find the balance, and we would build a large hotel in partnership. Parker had a piece of land and the balance of a fifty vara lot, which we leased from Southard and James Gleason. A short time afterwards we purchased the whole of the land. We then got Stephen Harris, a carpenter, to make out a bill of lumber, and to take charge of the building. In those days it was not such an easy thing to get lumber, although, prior to the interest in the mines, it was cheaper than it is now. Lumber was got out by what they called pit sawing, and we had about ten pits at work getting lumber out for this house. We first commenced in Febuary, 1848. Most of the lumber was got out on the Widow Reed's place. She was a sister of Francisco Sanchez. Mrs. Reed's second husband was a man known throughout the country as ''Three fingered Jack, the desperado.'' I might as well give right here a little of his history, as I have seen his name often in print; but have never seen anything particular concerning him. Three fingered Jack arrived in this country as a Mexican soldier. He was here when I first came to the country, and married to Widow Reed. The worst thing I knew him to do happened shortly after the hoisting of the Bear Flag; Jack and two Californians met a man in the woods who was an American, by the name of Haskell. He was murdered by the desperadoes, in the most horrible manner. No Indians could possibly contrive a more torturous death. The man murdered was without any weapons of defense, and was of a most quiet and harmless disposition. He was taken and tied to a tree, so that he could not move hand or foot, and pieces of flesh, which were cut from his body were found on the ground. Three fingered Jack murdered another man for money; but not in so barbarous a way. There were many other depredations committed by him; but none so cruel and heartless as those above mentioned. There were several citizens in the city who threatened to shoot him on sight, but he got knowledge of the fact, somehow. He then claimed the protection of the United States and it was granted him by Major Hardy, who always after sent an armed guard to accompany him whenever he wished to go anywhere. Three fingered Jack left here a short time prior to the starting of the gold mines. I heard of him afterwards as being one of a gang of desperadoes. I have always believed he was the real cause of the shooting of the twin brothers, sons of Francisco D. Haro, although the blame rested on General Fremont. At the time we undertook to build the Parker House it was no easy task as it would be now-a-days, as there were many obstacles to encounter. In the first place, everything had to be done by hand, and the greatest difficulty we found, was in keeping the pit sawyers at work, as most of them were runaway sailors, and as soon as they could obtain money they were bound to go on a spree. I will here make mention of one instance: There was a portion of the frame lumber which the carpenter wanted very much, and I had promised the men to bring them over on my next trip a barrel of whiskey. On my arrival I found all the men down to the landing waiting for me. They had a load of lumber for me on shore. I had acquainted Parker with what I had promised the men; but, he thought it best to wait another trip, in order that they might get out the balance of the framing lumber before I took any whiskey over, and to tell them, that I had quite forgotten it. I took with me all the other articles which they had ordered, and I told them that I had on board everything they had ordered except the whiskey, and that I would bring that, without fail on my next trip; but that did not suit at all. They said they had to get that barrel of whiskey, or else I could not have one stick of the lumber. I begged very hard for the lumber, promising them that I would surely return with the whiskey on the day following; but, all of my arguments were of no avail. I had to send two men back with the boat to San Francisco for the whiskey. As soon as I sent the boat away they all turned in and loaded the scow with lumber, and it was done in quick time. On the arrival of the boat with the whiskey they all had a good time for the balance of that week, and I could get no more lumber from them for over ten days. Another person got out lumber for us at the Court of Madera, by the name of James Murphy, a brother of Santa Clara Murphy. This man we could depend on, but it was a bad place to go to, as we could not put on board a full cargo, on account of there not being enough water to float the scow.

When runaway sailors once reached the shelter of the woods they were perfectly safe, as no person dared to go after them, for if they did, they never would return alive. The scow we used was built at Saucelito for the purpose of bringing down brick from the yard near the Old Mission. Robert A. Parker was the owner of the saw, and he also had an interest in the brick-yard. We had got the lumber for the frame of the building all out, also the flooring and weather-boarding when the gold fever started; and the only thing we could then do was to pile up the frame and let things come to a standstill, as every man left for the mines. At this time carpenters wages was three dollars per day. About this time William A. Leidsoff was taken very sick, and in a few days he died, and the City Hotel was closed. I took the gold fever with the rest, got a tent made, and was fully determined to leave for the gold mines; but Parker thought I had better stop, and he would try and lease the City Hotel for one year. William D. M. Howard was administrator for the Leidsoff estate, and Parker leased the hotel for me, for one year, for two thousand dollars, to commence on the first day of January, 1848. Up to that time I had all I could do to get the lumber over for the Parker House. It took me several days to get the City Hotel in order; but we had to open by the Fourth of July, and that Fourth was a good one. Every person had plenty of money and the Fourth was kept up for two days. On the evening of both days, there was a ball and a grand supper. I have mentioned prior to this, the place where the Declaration of Independence was first read. There was one incident happened about this time, which I will mention, as it might have been of a serious nature, in which case the pleasure of our Fourth would have been spoiled: A ship laying in the harbor by the name of ''Vandelia,'' fired a salute, and as they wanted to make as loud a report as possible they put in a double charge of powder. On firing the last salute the discharge from the gun, in which a large quantity of oakum had been placed for wadding, struck the shutter of the City Hotel and went clear through the frame work, which was an inch and a quarter thick; also making a dent in the adobe wall. Not two minutes prior to the firing of the salute fifty persons were standing right where it struck the shutter, and it was a miracle no one was hurt. When gold dust was first brought to Yerba Buena I had no idea of what its real value was, and most people had an idea that gold dust would depreciate in value, judging from the quantity which was brought to the city; consequently, I would pay out the gold dust as fast as possible, fearing I might lose by keeping it; selling it often at the rate of ten to twelve dollars per ounce. Cash seemed to be money, but gold dust was looked at more in the light of merchandise. I have often purchased it for six dollars per ounce. In the Fall of 1847 the miners began to come to Yerba Buena for the purpose of spending the winter, and they continued to come until the latter part of December. In those days there were no towns or houses at the mines, and the only place that afforded any shelter was at Sutter's Fort, which afforded room for only a small number, however, I think I can say with safety, that there were that winter between eighty and ninety boarding and lodging at the City Hotel. At the commencement of the winter the miners would pass the time away by playing billiards; but they soon tired of that, and wished me to take the billiard-table out and turn it into a gambling saloon. They said they would pay me two hundred dollars per day; or pay five dollars an hour after six o'clock up to twelve at night; later than that, they would pay ten dollars per hour. The size of this room was thirty feet by twenty-four. I got eight tables made for this room, and before the tables were finished they were all taken. One man was so afraid he would not be able to obtain one that he gave me one hundred dollars in advance to secure one. When it was in full blast, we found that there were not tables enough to accommodate all who wished to join in the games. I could have rented, in the same room a dozen tables; but the room was not large enough. I had three more tables made and placed them in an adjoining room. All three rooms were used for gambling purposes; such games as Monte, Faro, Rolette and others being played. Most of these tables were spoken for in advance; sometimes they were engaged by the week, and I could then have rented as many more if I had had room for them. There were two other rooms used for gambling purposes, in the back of the hotel. I remember one instance where a gambler gave five hundred dollars premium for a room with a lease on it for three months. I feel almost ashamed to put in print some of the things which happened in those early days, as they seem almost incredible, and still it is the truth.

At this time gold dust was only worth eight dollars per ounce, and the gamblers would not play for it. Those having no coin were obliged to come to the bar and sell the dust for eight dollars per ounce; and when I was short of cash I would only pay six dollars per ounce. All persons that were boarding in the hotel, also, those running bar bills, on making payments we would buy their gold dust at the rate of eight dollars per ounce. The first shipment which I made was with Captain Newell, of the schooner Honolulu, which was going to the Sandwich Islands for goods. I remember giving Newell twenty pounds of gold dust in bottles, with which to purchase goods for me, and he was to sell the balance of the dust and bring back what cash remained after purchasing the goods. The next was Captain John Young, who, later on had charge of the Alameda Quicksilver Mines. He had a charter for Mazatlan. He had only half a cargo. I gave him a gallon pickle bottle full of gold dust; just how much it weighed I could not tell. On his return I received a large amount of coin, more than the first cost of the gold dust; also, all the goods I had sent for. Commodore John Patey would take gold dust for me on every trip, and would return to me such goods as I would order from him, and the balance in money. These Captains would charge me ten per cent on all money they brought back, and also ten per cent and freight for all the goods they purchased for me.

In order to show you how easy it was in those early days to make money, I will relate here a circumstance in connection with one of my largest trades: In the latter part of the summer of 1848, a bark arrived in port, of which George Gould was the Captain, Super-Cargo and Owner. At the time of his arrival, I went on board his vessel to see if I could purchase any bottled ale. All the liquor he had on board, of service to me, was two hundred boxes of Holland gin and sixty baskets of champagne. The Captain informed me if I would purchase his whole cargo, that he would leave within ten days for Honolulu, as he knew he could there obtain all the ale I required. I then told him if the price suited I would purchase it, and to bring me a list of the things he had on board when he came on shore, and to name the lowest prices he would take; I would then look it over and give him an answer at five o'clock the next morning. On coming ashore I spoke to Parker about it, and he thought a cargo of ale would be too much for this market, and that if I made a trade with Captain Gould he would give Gould a half cargo, and the balance he could fill up for me. The next morning, at five o'clock I went on board of Gould's vessel and informed him that I would take the whole cargo at his figures, if he would agree to fulfill his contract, to deliver me on shore English ale at six dollars per dozen. This he agreed to do. When I arrived on shore the first man I met was George McDougal, who inquired where I had been so early in the morning. I told him I had been on board George Gould's vessel, and had bought out his cargo. He made me an offer of ten thousand dollars for my morning's work. I refused the offer and he then wanted to know what I would take. I told him I would take the ten thousand, also, the boxes of gin and champagne, and would pay my own duties on them, and he could take the remainder of the cargo. He looked over the list of goods and then went on board and said it was a bargain. At this time McDougal had a store ship on the Sacramento river, and was doing a very extensive business. The cargo consisted of barrel liquors, mens' clothing, heavy boots and shoes, and many other things used by miners. In the summer of '48 we found out that Colonel Stevenson's company was going to be disbanded, and Parker thought it would be a good idea to employ all the carpenters we could obtain, and pay them twelve dollars per day. The head carpenter, Stephen Harris had gone to the mines, and we wrote him of our intention and wished him to return and again take charge of the building of the Parker House, and we would pay him twenty dollars per day for his services. We obtained some fifteen carpenters and eight laborers at the rate of eight dollars per day, with the understanding that they would remain with us for one month. In that way we could get the building under pretty good headway. The payments were to be made in coin or gold dust, at the rate of ten dollars per ounce; the balance was to be paid at the same rate. The building went along finely as we had no less than sixteen carpenters at work. We employed all the men we could obtain. Several of the carpenters whom we employed are now living, I know of two residing in this city. The next thing we had to contend with, was to provide a sufficient number of bricklayers and plasterers, and the only ones we could obtain were Mr. Trickle and his son Fred. The father we paid twenty dollars per day, and the son sixteen dollars. Before the house was completed there was such a demand for carpenters that we had to raise the wages of the men. Stephen Harris had twenty-five dollars per day, and the balance of the men fifteen dollars per day. It would be impossible to estimate the cost of the Parker House. I had to raise about three thousand dollars every week, for labor alone. This amount was all paid from the profits of the Old City Hotel.

I am almost afraid you will hardly believe that in those days money could be made so easily, and in so short a time. In the bar-room alone, they were taking from two thousand five hundred to over three thousand dollars every day. There were also ten gambling tables, which would each pay from seventy to one hundred dollars per day. At the commencement of my taking gold dust, I thought it would be to my advantage to send it away; I did not expect it was going to bring me over twelve dollars per ounce; but, to my great surprise, I did not ship any that brought less than sixteen dollars per ounce; and often more than that amount. You can see by this, that the first cost of goods was really nothing, as my cash returns were over and above first cost. A basket of champagne wine was sold in the bar for one hundred and twenty dollars. The only thing which would buy these wines was gold coin. In that way I could purchase it for from twenty-four to thirty dollars per basket. Most merchants, in purchasing a cargo of goods, found it a very difficult task to raise the cash for the paymen of duties, and I was offered a good chance to purchase such goods as I wanted, at my own figures, if I would pay for them in coin, by a gentleman, who was one of the wealthiest merchants in this city. He could not raise the cash to pay the duties on goods, which he had purchased. He sold me dust at ten dollars per ounce, and for the balance he deposited gold dust, at ten dollars per ounce; and when the time came for him to redeem the dust, he could not do so; consequently, it was sold at public auction for ten dollars and twenty-five cents per ounce. Mr. Shalabie, from the Sandwich Islands, was the purchaser. This same merchant must have had, at the same time in his possession, not less than five hundred pounds of gold dust.

I had a great advantage over most persons in obtaining coin. During the latter part of the summer, a great many persons came to the city, all of whom had coin, and we accommodated as many as we possibly could at the hotel. The only money they had was coin, and I think I may say, that one-half of the cash which was brought here by the passengers was spent in the hotel. I was well acquainted with the captains with whom I had dealings, and had full confidence in their honesty; and felt quite sure that I ran no risk in trusting them with the gold dust; the percentage, aside from the freight, was ten per cent on the cash returns, and ten per cent on the goods purchased.

Source: Brown, John H. Reminiscences and Incidents of "The Early Days" of San Francisco. 1886: San Francisco, CA. Reprinted, 1933: San Francisco.  Library of Congress, "California as I Saw It:" First-Person Narratives of California's Early Years, 1849-1900.


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