The Urban Forty-Niner

In popular estimation the interest and romance of the Forty-niners center in gold and mines. To the close student, however, the true significance of their lives is to be found even more in the city of San Francisco.

At first practically everybody came to California under the excitement of the gold rush and with the intention of having at least one try at the mines. But though gold was to be found in unprecedented abundance, the getting of it was at best extremely hard work. Men fell sick both in body and spirit. They became discouraged. Extravagance of hope often resulted, by reaction, in an equal exaggeration of despair. The prices of everything were very high. The cost of medical attendance was almost prohibitory. Men sometimes made large daily sums in the placers; but necessary expenses reduced their net income to small wages. Ryan gives this account of an interview with a returning miner: “He readily entered into conversation and informed us that he had passed the summer at the mines where the excessive heat during the day, and the dampness of the ground where the gold washing is performed, together with privation and fatigue, had brought on fever and ague which nearly proved fatal to him. He had frequently given an ounce of gold for the visit of a medical man, and on several occasions had paid two and even three ounces for a single dose of medicine. He showed us a pair of shoes, nearly worn out, for which he had paid twenty-four dollars.” Later Ryan says: “Only such men as can endure the hardship and privation incidental to life in the mines are likely to make fortunes by digging for the ore. I am unequal to the task … I think I could within an hour assemble in this very place from twenty to thirty individuals of my own acquaintance who had all told the same story. They were thoroughly dissatisfied and disgusted with their experiment in the gold country. The truth of the matter is that only traders, speculators, and gamblers make large fortunes.” Only rarely did men of cool enough heads and far enough sight eschew from the very beginning all notion of getting rich quickly in the placers, and deliberately settle down to make their fortunes in other ways.

This conclusion of Ryan’s throws, of course, rather too dark a tone over the picture. The “hardy miner” was a reality, and the life in the placers was, to such as he, profitable and pleasant. However, this point of view had its influence in turning back from the mines a very large proportion of those who first went in. Many of them drifted into mercantile pursuits. Harlan tells us: “During my sojourn in Stockton I mixed freely with the returning and disgusted miners from whom I learned that they were selling their mining implements at ruinously low prices. An idea struck me one day which I immediately acted upon for fear that another might strike in the same place and cause an explosion. The heaven-born idea that had penetrated my cranium was this: start in the mercantile line, purchase the kits and implements of the returning miners at low figures and sell to the greenhorns en route to the mines at California prices.” In this manner innumerable occupations supplying the obvious needs were taken up by many returned miners. A certain proportion drifted to crime or shady devices, but the large majority returned to San Francisco, whence they either went home completely discouraged, or with renewed energy and better-applied ability took hold of the destinies of the new city. Thus another sort of Forty-niner became in his way as significant and strong, as effective and as romantic as his brother, the red-shirted Forty-niner of the diggings.

But in addition to the miners who had made their stakes, who had given up the idea of mining, or who were merely waiting for the winter’s rains to be over to go back again to the diggings, an ever increasing immigration was coming to San Francisco with the sole idea of settling in that place. All classes of men were represented. Many of the big mercantile establishments of the East were sending out their agents. Independent merchants sought the rewards of speculation. Gamblers also perceived opportunities for big killings. Professional politicians and cheap lawyers, largely from the Southern States, unfortunately also saw their chance to obtain standing in a new community, having lost all standing in their own. The result of the mixing of these various chemical elements of society was an extraordinary boiling and bubbling.

When Commander Montgomery hoisted the American flag in 1846, the town of Yerba Buena, as San Francisco was called, had a population of about two hundred. Before the discovery of gold it developed under the influence of American enterprise normally and rationally into a prosperous little town with two hotels, a few private dwellings, and two wharves in the process of construction. Merchants had established themselves with connections in the Eastern States, in Great Britain, and South America. Just before the discovery of gold the population had increased to eight hundred and twelve.

The news of the placers practically emptied the town. It would be curious to know exactly how many human souls and chickens remained after Brannan’s California Star published the authentic news. The commonest necessary activities were utterly neglected, shops were closed and barricaded, merchandise was left rotting on the wharves and the beaches, and the prices of necessities rose to tremendous altitudes. The place looked as a deserted mining-camp does now. The few men left who would work wanted ten or even twenty dollars a day for the commonest labor.

However, the early pioneers were hard-headed citizens. Many of the shopkeepers and merchants, after a short experience of the mines, hurried back to make the inevitable fortune that must come to the middleman in these extraordinary times. Within the first eight weeks of the gold excitement two hundred and fifty thousand dollars in gold dust reached San Francisco, and within: the following eight weeks six hundred thousand dollars more came in. All of this was to purchase supplies at any price for the miners.

This was in the latter days of 1848. In the first part of 1849 the immigrants began to arrive. They had to have places to sleep, things to eat, transportation to the diggings, outfits of various sorts. In the first six months of 1849 ten thousand people piled down upon the little city built to accommodate eight hundred. And the last six months of the year were still more extraordinary, as some thirty thousand more dumped themselves on the chaos of the first immigration. The result can be imagined. The city was mainly of canvas either in the form of tents or of crude canvas and wooden houses. The few substantial buildings stood like rocks in a tossing sea. No attempt, of course, had been made as yet toward public improvements. The streets were ankle-deep in dust or neck-deep in mud. A great smoke of dust hung perpetually over the city, raised by the trade winds of the afternoon. Hundreds of ships lay at anchor in the harbor. They had been deserted by their crews, and, before they could be re-manned, the faster clipper ships, built to control the fluctuating western trade, had displaced them, so that the majority were fated never again to put to sea.

Newcomers landed at first on a flat beach of deep black sand, where they generally left their personal effects for lack of means of transportation. They climbed to a ragged thoroughfare of open sheds and ramshackle buildings, most of them in the course of construction. Beneath crude shelters of all sorts and in great quantities were goods brought in hastily by eager speculators on the high prices. The four hundred deserted ships lying at anchor in the harbor had dumped down on the new community the most ridiculous assortment of necessities and luxuries, such as calico, silk, rich furniture, mirrors, knock-down houses, cases and cases of tobacco, clothing, statuary, mining-implements, provisions, and the like.

The hotels and lodging houses immediately became very numerous. Though they were in reality only overcrowded bunk-houses, the most enormous prices were charged for beds in them. People lay ten or twenty in a single room–in row after row of cots, in bunks, or on the floor. Between the discomfort of hard beds, fleas, and overcrowding, the entire populace spent most of its time on the street or in the saloons and gambling, houses. As some one has pointed out, this custom added greatly to the apparent population of the place. Gambling was the gaudiest, the best-paying, and the most patronized industry. It occupied the largest structures, and it probably imported and installed the first luxuries. Of these resorts the El Dorado became the most famous. It occupied at first a large tent but soon found itself forced to move to better quarters. The rents paid for buildings were enormous. Three thousand dollars a month in advance was charged for a single small store made of rough boards. A two-story frame building on Kearny Street near the Plaza paid its owners a hundred and twenty thousand dollars a year rent. The tent containing the El Dorado gambling saloon was rented for forty thousand dollars a year. The prices sky-rocketed still higher. Miners paid as high as two hundred dollars for an ordinary gold rocker, fifteen or twenty dollars for a pick, the same for a shovel, and so forth. A copper coin was considered a curiosity, a half-dollar was the minimum tip for any small service, twenty-five cents was the smallest coin in circulation, and the least price for which anything could be sold. Bread came to fifty cents a loaf. Good boots were a hundred dollars.

Affairs moved very swiftly. A month was the unit of time. Nobody made bargains for more than a month in advance. Interest was charged on money by the month. Indeed, conditions changed so fast that no man pretended to estimate them beyond thirty days ahead, and to do even that was considered rather a gamble. Real estate joined the parade of advance. Little holes in sand-hills sold for fabulous prices. The sick, destitute, and discouraged were submerged beneath the mounting tide of vigorous optimism that bore on its crest the strong and able members of the community. Every one either was rich or expected soon to be so. Opportunity awaited every man at every corner. Men who knew how to take advantage of fortune’s gifts were assured of immediate high returns. Those with capital were, of course, enabled to take advantage of the opportunities more quickly; but the ingenious mind saw its chances even with nothing to start on.

One man, who landed broke but who possessed two or three dozen old newspapers used as packing, sold them at a dollar and two dollars apiece and so made his start. Another immigrant with a few packages of ordinary tin tacks exchanged them with a man engaged in putting up a canvas house for their exact weight in gold dust. Harlan tells of walking along the shore of Happy Valley and finding it lined with discarded pickle jars and bottles. Remembering the high price of pickles in San Francisco, he gathered up several hundred of them, bought a barrel of cider vinegar from a newly-arrived vessel, collected a lot of cucumbers, and started a bottling works. Before night, he said, he had cleared over three hundred dollars. With this he made a corner in tobacco pipes by which he realized one hundred and fifty dollars in twenty-four hours.

Mail was distributed soon after the arrival of the mail-steamer. The indigent would often sit up a day or so before the expected arrival of the mail-steamer holding places in line at the post-office. They expected no letters but could sell the advantageous positions for high prices when the mail actually arrived. He was a poor-spirited man indeed who by these and many other equally picturesque means could not raise his gold slug in a reasonable time; and, possessed of fifty dollars, he was an independent citizen. He could increase his capital by interest compounded every day, provided he used his wits; or for a brief span of glory he could live with the best of them. A story is told of a new-come traveler offering a small boy fifty cents to carry his valise to the hotel. The urchin looked with contempt at the coin, fished out two fifty-cent pieces, handed them to the owner of the valise, saying “Here’s a dollar; carry it yourself.”

One John A. McGlynn arrived without assets. He appreciated the opportunity for ordinary teaming, and hitching California mules to the only and exceedingly decrepit wagon to be found he started in business. Possessing a monopoly, he charged what he pleased, so that within a short time he had driving for him a New York lawyer, whom he paid a hundred and seventy-five dollars a month. His outfit was magnificent. When somebody joked with him about his legal talent, he replied, “The whole business of a lawyer is to know how to manage mules and asses so as to make them pay.” When within a month plenty of wagons were imported, McGlynn had so well established himself and possessed so much character that he became ex officio the head of the industry. He was evidently a man of great and solid sense and was looked up to as one of the leading citizens.

Every human necessity was crying out for its ordinary conveniences. There were no streets, there were no hotels, there were no lodging-houses, there were no warehouses, there were no stores, there was no water, there was no fuel. Any one who could improvise anything, even a bare substitute, to satisfy any of these needs, was sure of immense returns. In addition, the populace was so busy–so overwhelmingly busy–with its own affairs that it literally could not spare a moment to govern itself. The professional and daring politicians never had a clearer field. They went to extraordinary lengths in all sorts of grafting, in the sale of public real estate, in every “shenanigan” known to skillful low-grade politicians. Only occasionally did they go too far, as when, in addition to voting themselves salaries of six thousand dollars apiece as aldermen, they coolly voted themselves also gold medals to the value of one hundred and fifty dollars apiece “for public and extra services.” Then the determined citizens took an hour off for the council chambers. The medals were cast into the melting-pot.

All writers agree, in their memoirs, that the great impression left on the mind by San Francisco was its extreme busyness. The streets were always crammed full of people running and darting in all directions. It was, indeed, a heterogeneous mixture. Not only did the Caucasian show himself in every extreme of costume, from the most exquisite top-hatted dandy to the red-shirted miner, but there were also to be found all the picturesque and unknown races of the earth, the Chinese, the Chileno, the Moor, the Turk, the Mexican, the Spanish, the Islander, not to speak of ordinary foreigners from Russia, England, France, Belgium, Germany, Italy, and the out-of-the-way corners of Europe. All these people had tremendous affairs to finish in the least possible time. And every once in a while some individual on horseback would sail down the street at full speed, scattering the crowd left and right. If any one remarked that the marauding individual should be shot, the excuse was always offered, “Oh, well, don’t mind him. He’s only drunk,” as if that excused everything. Many of the activities of the day also were picturesque. As there were no warehouses in which to store goods, and as the few structures of the sort charged enormous rentals, it was cheaper to auction off immediately all consignments. These auctions were then, and remained for some years, one of the features of the place. The more pretentious dealers kept brass bands to attract the crowd. The returning miners were numerous enough to patronize both these men and the cheap clothing stores, and having bought themselves new outfits, generally cast the old ones into the middle of the street. Water was exceedingly scarce and in general demand, so that laundry work was high. It was the fashion of these gentry to wear their hair and beards long. They sported red shirts, flashy Chinese scarves around their waists, black belts with silver buckles, six-shooters and bowie-knives, and wide floppy hats.

The business of the day over, the evening was open for relaxation. As the hotels and lodging-houses were nothing but kennels, and very crowded kennels, it followed that the entire population gravitated to the saloons and gambling places. Some of these were established on a very extensive scale. They had not yet attained the magnificence of the Fifties, but it is extraordinary to realize that within so few months and at such a great distance from civilization, the early and enterprising managed to take on the trappings of luxury. Even thus early, plate-glass mirrors, expensive furniture, the gaudy, tremendous oil paintings peculiar to such dives, prism chandeliers, and the like, had made their appearance. Later, as will be seen, these gambling dens presented an aspect of barbaric magnificence, unique and peculiar to the time and place. In 1849, however gorgeous the trappings might have appeared to men long deprived of such things, they were of small importance compared with the games themselves. At times the bets were enormous. Soule tells us that as high as twenty thousand dollars were risked on the turn of one card. The ordinary stake, however, was not so large, from fifty cents to five dollars being about the usual amount. Even at this the gamblers were well able to pay the high rents. Quick action was the word. The tables were always crowded and bystanders many deep waited to lay their stakes. Within a year or so the gambling resorts assumed rather the nature of club-rooms, frequented by every class, many of whom had no intention of gambling. Men met to talk, read the newspapers, write letters, or perhaps take a turn at the tables. But in 1849 the fever of speculation held every man in its grip.

Again it must be noted how wide an epoch can be spanned by a month or two. The year 1849 was but three hundred and sixty-five days long, and yet in that space the community of San Francisco passed through several distinct phases. It grew visibly like the stalk of a century plant.

Of public improvements there were almost none. The few that were undertaken sprang from absolute necessity. The town got through the summer season fairly well, but, as the winter that year proved to be an unusually rainy time, it soon became evident that something must be done. The streets became bottomless pits of mud. It is stated, as plain and sober fact, that in some of the main thoroughfares teams of mules and horses sank actually out of sight and were suffocated. Foot travel was almost impossible unless across some sort of causeway. Lumber was so expensive that it was impossible to use it for the purpose. Fabulous quantities of goods sent in by speculators loaded the market and would sell so low that it was actually cheaper to use bales of them than to use planks. Thus one muddy stretch was paved with bags of Chilean flour, another with tierces of tobacco, while over still another the wayfarers proceeded on the tops of cook stoves. These sank gradually in the soft soil until the tops were almost level with the mud. Of course one of the first acts of the merry jester was to shy the stove lids off into space. The footing especially after dark can be imagined. Crossing a street on these things was a perilous traverse watched with great interest by spectators on either side. Often the hardy adventurer, after teetering for some time, would with a descriptive oath sink to his waist in the slimy mud. If the wayfarer was drunk enough, he then proceeded to pelt his tormentors with missiles of the sticky slime. The good humor of the community saved it from absolute despair. Looked at with cold appraising eye, the conditions were decidedly uncomfortable. In addition there was a grimmer side to the picture. Cholera and intermittent fever came, brought in by ships as well as by overland immigrants, and the death-rate rose by leaps and bounds.

The greater the hardships and obstacles, the higher the spirit of the community rose to meet them. In that winter was born the spirit that has animated San Francisco ever since, and that so nobly and cheerfully met the final great trial of the earthquake and fire of 1906.

About this time an undesirable lot of immigrants began to arrive, especially from the penal colonies of New South Wales. The criminals of the latter class soon became known to the populace as “Sydney Ducks.” They formed a nucleus for an adventurous, idle, pleasure-loving, dissipated set of young sports, who organized themselves into a loose band very much on the order of the East Side gangs in New York or the “hoodlums” in later San Francisco, with the exception, however, that these young men affected the most meticulous nicety in dress. They perfected in the spring of 1849 an organization called the Regulators, announcing that, as there was no regular police force, they would take it upon themselves to protect the weak against the strong and the newcomer against the bunco man. Every Sunday they paraded the streets with bands and banners. Having no business in the world to occupy them, and holding a position unique in the community, the Regulators soon developed into practically a band of cut-throats and robbers, with the object of relieving those too weak to bear alone the weight of wealth. The Regulators, or Hounds, as they soon came to be called, had the great wisdom to avoid the belligerent and resourceful pioneer. They issued from their headquarters, a large tent near the Plaza, every night. Armed with clubs and pistols, they descended upon the settlements of harmless foreigners living near the outskirts, relieved them of what gold dust they possessed, beat them up by way of warning, and returned to headquarters with the consciousness of a duty well done. The victims found it of little use to appeal to the alcalde, for with the best disposition in the world the latter could do nothing without an adequate police force. The ordinary citizen, much too interested in his own affairs, merely took precautions to preserve his own skin, avoided dark and unfrequented alleyways, barricaded his doors and windows, and took the rest out in contemptuous cursing.

Encouraged by this indifference, the Hounds naturally grew bolder and bolder. They considered they had terrorized the rest of the community, and they began to put on airs and swagger in the usual manner of bullies everywhere. On Sunday afternoon of July 15, they made a raid on some California ranchos across the bay, ostensibly as a picnic expedition, returning triumphant and very drunk. For the rest of the afternoon with streaming banners they paraded the streets, discharging firearms and generally shooting up the town. At dark they descended upon the Chilean quarters, tore down the tents, robbed the Chileans, beat many of the men to insensibility, ousted the women, killed a number who had not already fled, and returned to town only the following morning.

This proved to be the last straw. The busy citizens dropped their own affairs for a day and got together in a mass meeting at the Plaza. All work was suspended and all business houses were closed. Probably all the inhabitants in the city with the exception of the Hounds had gathered together. Our old friend, Sam Brannan, possessing the gift of a fiery spirit and an arousing tongue, addressed the meeting. A sum of money was raised for the despoiled foreigners. An organization was effected, and armed posses were sent out to arrest the ringleaders. They had little difficulty. Many left town for foreign parts or for the mines, where they met an end easily predicted. Others were condemned to various punishments. The Hounds were thoroughly broken up in an astonishingly brief time. The real significance of their great career is that they called to the attention of the better class of citizens the necessity for at least a sketchy form of government and a framework of law. Such matters as city revenue were brought up for practically the first time. Gambling-houses were made to pay a license. Real estate, auction sales, and other licenses were also taxed. One of the ships in the harbor was drawn up on shore and was converted into a jail. A district-attorney was elected, with an associate. The whole municipal structure was still about as rudimentary as the streets into which had been thrown armfuls of brush in a rather hopeless attempt to furnish an artificial bottom. It was a beginning, however, and men had at last turned their eyes even momentarily from their private affairs to consider the welfare of this unique society which was in the making.

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