Message Area
lblHidCurrentSponsorAdIndex =

  < Back to Table Of Contents  < Back to Topic: Local Histories, Pictures & Event Archives

article number 211
article date 02-21-2013
copyright 2013 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
The Gold Rush Is On … Personal Accounts of the California Gold Rush
by John Hawgood

From the 1967 book, America’s Western Frontiers.

On March 15 the daily Californian, San Francisco’s first newspaper, had an item at the bottom of the third column of the second page which read:

“In the newlymade raceway of the Saw Mill recently erected by Captain Sutter on the American Fork, gold has been found in considerable quantities. One person brought thirty dollars worth to New Helvetia, gathered there in a short time. California, no doubt, is rich in mineral wealth; great chances here for scientific capitalists. Gold has been found in almost every part of the country.

Nobody paid much attention, even in San Francisco, to this obscure item, but an era had ended on the shores of the Pacific and a new age had begun, just as assuredly as at the Hofburg and at Versailles, in Frankfurt and in Prague. Not until early in May, when Sam Brannan, a recusant Mormon elder who had led a shipload of Saints round Cape Horn to California the previous year, ran through the streets of San Francisco (still, despite its grand new name, a tiny village of several hundred inhabitants on Yerba Buena Cove) flourishing in his hand a bottle of dust that glinted in the sun and shouting “Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!” did even a local gold rush begin. It was to take another half-year for the East and the outside world to realize the extent and importance of the gold discoveries initiated by James Marshall.

A half-hearted attempt on the part of its first discoverers and their immediate associates to keep the gold mining secret was ended by Brannan. (He had taken the gold dust in trade from a thirsty and garrulous miner at his general store at Sutter’s Fort, on the Sacramento.)

Sutter’s Mill in 1848.

Within a month of his action, San Francisco was emptied of its able-bodied men and boys; its two newspapers (one recently transferred from Monterey) ceased publication, and the furniture of its only hotel (the owner of which, former U. S. Vice-Consul William Leidesdorff, had recently died) was put up for auction; the complete crews of most merchant vessels in the harbor deserted, and naval vessels had to put out to sea to avoid a similar fate. The American army of occupation soon consisted only of officers. The military governor had to cook his own dinner. (His adjutant had gone out on horseback to head off enlisted men escaping inland toward the mines.) James Marshall and Sam Brannan had really started something.

It had not been until 1842 that the U. S. government first openly showed its intention to secure California by force if necessary. Less than four years later California was American-occupied territory, and seven years later it was the most desirab1e place on earth for millions of people, hundreds of thousands of whom faced every imaginable hardship to reach the El Dorado it had become. A sleepy Mexican province, with a population of less than 15,000 in 1845, was to become by 1850 a state of the American Union, humming with every kind of human activity and enterprise—but with the pick and shovel, the pan and sluice, the “Long-Tom” and the flume dominating the scene—and boasting a population of close on a hundred thousand.

Another quarter-million at least were converging on California from all parts of the world—from China, Chile, the Antipodes and the Cape of Good Hope, and, possibly from Samarkand, Timbucktu and Kamchatka, from Madagascar and Sarawak. The great gold rush was on.


The 1848 gold rush was a local one. This is how (in the words of Walter Colton) it happened in Monterey:

“June 20, 1848 . . . My messenger has returned with specimens of gold; he dismounted in a sea of upturned faces. As he drew forth the yellow lumps from his pockets, and passed them around among the eager crowd, the doubts, which had lingered till now, fled … The excitement produced was intense; and many were soon busy in their hasty preparations for a departure to the mines.

“The family who had kept house for me caught the moving infection. Husband and wife were both packing up; the blacksmith dropped his hammer, the carpenter his plane, the mason his trowel, the farmer his sickle, the baker his loaf, and the tapster his bottle. All were off for the mines, some on carts, some on horses, and some on crutches, and one went in a litter. . .

From San Francisco, Thomas Larkin, the American consul, wrote to the Secretary of State in Washington, on June 18, 1848:

“Three fourths of the houses in the town on the Bay of San Francisco are deserted . . . every blacksmith, carpenter and lawyer is leaving; brick-yards, saw-mills and ranches are left perfectly alone. A large part of the volunteers at San Francisco and Sonoma have deserted … vessels are losing their crews … both our newspapers are discontinued … San Francisco has not a justice of the peace left … Every bowl, tray, warming pan and pigin has gone to the mines. Everything in short that has a scoop in it that will hold sand and water. All the iron has been worked up into crow-bars, pick axes and spades …

The story was the same in Sonoma, San Jose, and Santa Cruz. The fever was somewhat slower to reach San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, and San Diego, but well before the end of the year these little towns had emptied of their folk too, and migrant miners had begun to come up out of Mexico.

John Charles Frémont, leading the remnants of his disastrous fourth expedition by the southern route from Santa Fe to begin a new life on the property he had purchased, through the agency of Thomas Larkin, in California, met on the Gila River, in February 1849: “A large party of Mexicans from Sonora, several hundred in number … From them was received the news of the discovery of gold in California, and this large party were on their way to California to hunt for Gold.”

Frémont persuaded the Sonorans to go with him to his Mariposa grant, for which he had paid Larkin $3,000. According to Jessie Frémont (with, in this case, pardonable exaggeration) it proved to be “the richest gold-bearing estate in the country. Soon the bags of gold, in lumps, in dust, in rich bits of rock, began to accumulate in inconvenient quantities,” filling up all the drawers and cupboards (when taken to Monterey) of the house the Frémonts shared with Señora Alvarado.

It will be noted that the news of the gold discoveries had not yet reached Santa Fe when Frémont left that city in January 1849 after the failure of the fourth expedition. It had reached the East Coast a little earlier, but the extent of the discoveries was not fully realized until President Polk, in his annual Message in December, 1848, published a glowing account of them, based upon the special report of Colonel Mason, the military governor of California, and on other information received through official channels:

“It was known that mines of the precious metals existed to a considerable extent in California at the time of its acquisition. Recent discoveries render it probable that these mines are more extensive and valuable than was anticipated. The accounts of the abundance of gold in that territory are of such an extraordinary character as would scarcely command belief, were they not corroborated by the authentic reports of officers in the public service, who have visited the mineral district, and derived the facts which they detail from personal observation.

“Reluctant to credit the reports in general circulation as to the quantity of gold, the officer commanding our forces in California visited the mineral district in July last, for the purpose of obtaining accurate information on the subject. His report to the War Department of the result of his examination, and the facts obtained on the spot, is herewith laid before Congress. When he visited the country, there were about four thousand persons engaged in collecting gold. There is every reason to believe that the number of persons so employed has since been augmented. The explorations already made, warrant the belief that the supply is very large, and that gold is found in various places in extensive districts of country.


“Information received from officers of the navy, and other sources, though not so full and minute, confirm the accounts of the commander of our military force in California. It appears also, from these reports, that mines of quicksilver are found in the vicinity of the gold region. One of them is now being worked, and is believed to be among the most productive in the world.

“The effects produced by the discovery of these rich mineral deposits, and the success which has attended the labours of those who have resorted to them, have produced a surprising change in the state of affairs in California. Labour commands a most exorbitant price, and all other pursuits but that of searching for the precious metals are abandoned.

“Nearly the whole of the male population of the country have gone to the gold district. Ships arriving on the coast are deserted by their crews, and their voyages suspended for want of sailors. Our commanding officer there entertains apprehensions that soldiers cannot be kept in the public service without a large increase of pay. Desertions in his command have become frequent, and he recommends that those who shall withstand the strong temptations, and remain faithful, should be rewarded.

“This abundance of gold, and the all-engrossing pursuit of it, have already caused in California an unprecedented rise in the price of the necessaries of life.

Beach of Yerba Buena Cove, winter 1849-50. From F. Soule: Annals of San Francisco (1856).

Colonel Mason’s own account, dated August 17, 1848, told of his visit in June “twenty five miles up the American Fork, to a point now known as the Lower Mines or Mormon Diggins [sic]”:

“The hill sides were thickly strewn with canvas tents and bush arbours; a store was erected, and several boarding shanties in operation. The day was intensely hot, yet about two hundred men were at work in the full glare of the sun, washing for gold—some with tin pans, some with close woven Indian baskets, but the greater part had a rude machine, known as the cradle.

“This is on rockers, six or eight feet long, open at the foot, and at its head has a coarse grate or sieve; the bottom is rounded, with small cleets nailed across. Four men are required to work this machine; one digs the ground in the bank close by the stream; another carries it to the cradle and empties it on the grate; a third gives a violent rocking motion to the machine; whilst a fourth dashes on water from the stream itself. The sieve keeps the coarse stones from entering the cradle, the current of water washes off the earthy matter, and the gravel is gradually carried out at the foot of the machine, leaving the gold mixed with a heavy fine black sand above the first cleets.

“The sand and gold mixed together are then drawn off through augur holes into a pan below, are dried in the sun, and afterwards separated by blowing off the sand. A party of four men thus employed, at the lower mines, averaged $100 a day. The Indians, and those who have nothing but pans, or willow baskets, gradually wash out the earth, and separate the gravel by hand, leaving nothing but the gold mixed with sand, which is separated in the manner before described. The gold in the lower mines is in fine bright scales, of which I send several specimens.

Frémont also printed a letter written by a naval officer on the U. S. Dale and published in the New York Courier and Enquirer: Dated San Jose, Lower California, November 17, 1848, the letter mentioned some of the results of several more months of the local California gold rush:

“The rancheros have left their farms, and unless supplies are sent into the country there must be a famine. I saw a man who paid six hundred dollars for a barrel of flour.

How the California mines are worked, by C. Nahl.

“Every thing in the shape of goods and provisions commands the highest prices at the mines, payable in gold—which has been sold at the mines for five dollars per ounce, Troy weight, and in some cases for even less. At San Francisco and Monterey it sells for from ten to twelve dollars in trade.

“A vessel sailed a short time before our arrival at Monterey, for Mazatlan, with twelve hundred pounds of this gold, which I found upon our arrival sold for over sixteen dollars per ounce, avoirdupois weight. The gentleman who owns this gold came out to this country in January, 1847, in one of the store-ships chartered in Boston, to bring out provisions for the squadron; he brought out with him between four and five thousand dollars worth of goods, which he bought at auction for a venture. He located in San Francisco, and in August of the same year, he told me that with the goods he brought out, and his purchase of two lots, he was worth thirty thousand dollars.

“Lots bought originally for fifteen dollars are now worth five or six thousand dollars; all of this took place before the discovery of the mines. This gold has been assayed and found to be twenty-three and a half carats fine—pure virgin gold. The largest piece found weighs twenty-five pounds, in one solid block; the next weighs seven pounds, and so on, down to fine black sand.


A ship sailed from Boston for San Francisco the day after Polk’s Message was published, and thus had the technical honor of carrying the first of the “Argonauts” around the Horn. Three weeks later people were on their way to the mines of California by the “short” sea route via Panama, and in 1849 over 6,000 (including members of John Augustus Sutter’s own family) used this difficult and fever-ridden route. One of these trans-Isthmian forty-niners, a man named Collis P. Huntington, paused at Panama City to open a store and earn the first installment of what was to become one of the greatest fortunes to be earned by a California resident during the next half-century. He was later to move on to Sacramento and become the biggest of the fabulous Big Four.

Meanwhile, people were pouring around the Horn and overland, by every established trail, and a few novel ones, to the mines. The California, the first steamship to open William H. Aspinwall’s Pacific Steamship Navigation Company’s “regular” service, left New York on October 6, 1848, before the gold fever had really started, and reached San Francisco on February 28, 1849, to find it in full swing. This ship carried Jessie Frémont to a dramatic reunion with her “lost” husband (at Chagres, to which she had traveled overland from Panama, she had been told that he had probably not survived his fourth expedition) and hers is one of the most vivid descriptions of the sea and Isthmian route in 1849.

The California had a royal reception at the Golden Gate and at Yerba Buena Cove, where “A few low houses, and many tents, such as they were, covered the base of some of the wind-swept treeless hills, over which the June fog rolled its chilling mist. Deserted ships of all sorts were swinging with the tide.” The California itself was almost immediately to lose nearly its entire crew.

By early 1849 from 4,000 to 5,000 persons (nearly all of them men) had reached the mines from outside California. By the end of 1849 the figures had reached between 40,000 and 50,000 including many foreigners. By the middle of 1850 there were at least 20,000 foreigners in California out of a population of around 100,000. Of these 100,000, only about eight in a hundred were women.

Not all of these women were housewives. “The miners came in ‘49, the whores in ‘51,” runs the ribald old song, but even by 1851 resolute, literate (as will be seen), and respectable women were coming around the Horn, across the Isthmus, and along the overland trails to upstage and outnumber the “soiled doves” of the cribs and honky-tonks. Mrs. Megquier, Mrs. Clappe (“Dame Shirley”), and Mrs. Sarah Royce were notable among this later group.


California’s population explosion by immigration was phenomenal; indeed, considering the short time in which it occurred, it can hardly be said to have been matched in recorded statistical history. Before the end of 1852—the peak year of the California gold boom—the state had a quarter of a million inhabitants (or over fifteen times as many as at the beginning of 1848), and by the census of 1860 the figures had risen to 380,000 (or half as many again). By 1860, the population of Oregon had crept up to only 52,000 (from a population approximating that of California in 1848), and that of Utah, despite the Mormon Church’s tremendous efforts to colonize and settle its chosen land, to just over 40,000. The increase in each of these rich and attractive territories was thus only fourfold in the twelve years, whereas California’s was nearly thirty-fold.

Not all of the California immigrants became miners, and of those who went to the mines, many ceased to remain there. By the end of 1848 there were approximately only 5,000 men at the mines, by the end of 1849 about 40,000, by the end of 1850 about 50,000, by the end of 1852 certainly 100,000. Even in 1860, when the bonanza days were long over, fully 82,573 men stated “miner” as their occupation in the U. S. Census returns. Of the 35,000 Chinese in California in 1860, perhaps three-quarters were still living in the mining counties and “reworking placer ground sold to them or abandoned to them by discouraged white men … It is entirely possible that by the close of the decade of the fifties one quarter of the working miners may have been Chinese.”

The mining population of California did not fall spectacularly after the early gold rushes—unlike those in so many other states and territories—because the mines remained rich, even though the gold was becoming harder and more expensive to get year by year. At the height of the boom, in 1852, over $81 million in gold came out of California mines; in 1853—54 the “take” was down to just under $70 million each year; between 1865 and 1885 the yearly figures fluctuated between $15 million and $20 million, and the lowest figure of any year up to 1900 was just over $11 million.

California thus entered the twentieth century still very much the Golden State, with a half-century’s production of that precious metal totaling over $1,300,000,000, or an average of $26 million a year. These are heady figures, and that thirteen hundred million dollars have played no inconsiderable part in swaying the destinies of both America and the world ever since.

Hydraulic mining at French Corral, California.

Parlayed into much greater sums by astute financial manipulators like Collis and Henry Huntington, Leland Stanford and George Hearst, this capital has created “empires” for them or their families matching those of the Caesars of old; their hard-bitten faces have launched a thousand ships and woven—and unwoven—a hundred thousand miles of railroad. They have founded universities, created great research libraries, assembled fabulous collections of Old Masters, piled newspaper upon newspaper, bought presidents, sold senators, purchased crown jewels for their wives and crown princes for their daughters, and built themselves palaces to live in and mausoleums to lie dead in, which rival (or at least mimic) Knossos, Tivoli, Helicarnassus, and the Taj Mahal.

Hardly any of the great California millionaires of the half-century after 1848 had actually worked in the mines: four of the greatest fortunes were made by men who supplied the miners with goods and who, with unnecessary denigration, have been labeled the “four grocers of Sacramento.” Everything began with Sutter’s roving enterprise, Marshall’s discovery in the tailrace, Sam Brannan’s town cry, Colonel Mason’s report, and President Polk’s Message. “Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River” (and from all the other places where men, encouraged and emboldened by this discovery, sought for and found precious metals and other riches throughout the American Far West) built Nob Hill, bought The Blue Boy, and reassembled a Spanish monastery stone by stone— but with all modern conveniences added, including a carved and paneled elevator for the tycoon, and gold-plated waste pipes for his mistress’ bathroom on a high hill overlooking the coast of California.

But not every California (or Nevada, Colorado, or Arizona) millionaire, or his heir, was like Dorothy Parker’s “wealthy son of a bitch.” The astronomical vulgarity of San Simeon and the poor (but at least pious) taste of the Stanford Memorial Chapel are canceled out by the restraint with which are displayed the wonders of Henry Huntington’s San Marino, the tomes of Adolf Sutro, the treasure houses of the De Youngs, and the gifts and foundations of many other equally public-spirited and even more publicity-shy California plutocrats. Not all their gold came out of the South Fork of the American River, but there a page of history was turned to disclose many leaves of gold that would follow after.

Not every gold-rush merchant became rich. One moderately successful member of that profession, Stephen Chapin Davis, on his second venture in California (the first, in 1850-51, was a total failure, but he fell in love with the country and returned there in 1852), amassed 190 ounces of gold dust and a check for $350 as “the result of my two years labor” before he finally returned home to Nashua, New Hampshire, in 1854. The gold dust he guarded with his Colt revolver and a fierce dog while in California, and “slept with my money under me” when crossing the steamy Isthmus of Panama (on board ship the pursers took charge of it, at a commission of one percent of its value on each voyage).

Once in New York: “We went down to Wall St. to sell our dust … I had 170 oz’s which I sold at 17.60 … I took a check on Gilbert & Sons, of Boston, for $2,900, Ward [his more cautious companion] taking all his in cash.” Davis’ earnings thus amounted to less than $1,500 a year, and the cost of his outward passage had to be deducted from that. His return trip was paid for in gold dust out of the 190 ounces he had started back with. Davis died in 1856 at the age of twenty-four after another mercantile adventure, in which he sold 86 barrels of New Hampshire apples in Liverpool, England, at a profit of nearly 900 per cent (far better than he had ever done with California’s gold, and netting him and his partner nearly $5,000 each) was certainly a more typical gold rush merchant, in his ups and downs of fortune, than Collis P. Huntington, who died in 1900 a multi-millionaire.

River mining, by C. Nahl.

Possession or lack of business ability was a big factor in the success or failure of a gold-rush merchant, but whether a miner struck it rich or not seems to have been sheer luck. Even the most skilled tin or lead miner from the Middle West or from Europe, or the most experienced and hard-working silver miner from Mexico, tended to do no better than the merest greenhorn straight from college, plow, or office. Charles Pancoast, the Quaker forty-niner who stuck to mining (with a little ranching and shop-keeping on the side) for five years until in 1854 he returned to Philadelphia and the drug business for which he had been trained, records his own lack of success:

“My loss of $1,600 in the turning of the Stanislaus; the high cost of living without production on the Merced; and now the loss of my Mules, with other expenses, had so reduced my capital that after paying my passage from San Francisco [to try his luck afresh at Trinity River, in northern California] I had now about ten dollars. My continued misfortunes and the prospect before me were enough to crush the spirits of almost any man; but Youth, Health, Spunk, Energy and Perseverance are not readily subdued.

He also recounts the remarkable good fortune of another:

“We then went out prospecting to Mt. Ophir, and reached a point where we could see the Yosemite Valley; but as it was reputed to have no Gold in it we did not regard it as worthy of our attention. We had no luck the first day; but as we were returning I found an abandoned Claim with a good show of Gold, and the next day we carried our clumsy heavy rocker up a high mountain to these Diggings.

“We left our Tent where it was and climbed this Mountain, averaging $12.00 to $16.00 each per day. In front of our Tent was a small boulder, that we were in the habit of using as a seat. One Sunday a young Miner who was making us a friendly visit remarked, “This stone has Gold in it; I see a speck.” He washed off the dirt and we could see another speck or two. He asked if he might have the stone and we answered in the affirmative. He then went up to a speculative Store Keeper on the Flat [Big Oak Flat] and brought him down to look at it. The Store Keeper gave him $200 for it, broke it up, and obtained $3,000 worth of Gold—a prize we lost from our ignorance.

Tales like these, both true and false—and Charles Pancoast was a particularly reliable narrator, though, when he set down his reminiscences many years later, his memory often played him false on place names and dates—have been preserved by innumerable forty-niners and by those who followed them in search of “the elephant” in later years. One example of such late-comers was the Englishman J. D. Borthwick, who was not only a skilled observer but also a gifted artist. His book Three Years in California, illustrated by himself, appeared as early as 1857.’ Almost casually he states:

“In May 1851 I happened to be residing in New York, and was seized with the California fever. My preparations were very soon made and a day or two afterwards I found myself on a small barque about to sail for Chagres with a load of California emigrants. By the time he had arrived at the mines, after sundry adventures, many of the diggings had been “worked out” by the crude methods then still employed, but “every place in the mines had its tradition of Wonderful events which had occurred in the olden times; that is to say, as far back as ‘49—for three years in such a fast country were equal to a century.”

Monte in the mines, by J. D. Borthwick. From his “Three Years in California”, 1857.

Without exaggeration, Borthwick remarked: “Certainly no country ever so rapidly advanced to so high a position as California; but it is equally true that no country ever commenced its career with such effective population, or with the same elements of wealth to work upon … the attractions offered by California were such as to draw to it a complete ready-made population of active and capable men, of every trade and profession.”

When Sir Richard Burton reached California overland via Salt Lake City in 1860, he found “At Sacramento—the newer name for New Helvetia—a capital mass of shops and stores, groggeries and hotels,” but it was San Francisco, the El Dorado of the West, where “a tolerable opera, a superior supper, and the society of friends made the arrival exceptionally comfortable,” and where “Mr. Consul Booker placed my name on the lists of the Union Club, which was a superior institution to that of Leamington,” that most aroused his admiration.

A generation later, James Bryce found San Francisco equally impressive and very much larger. But the most dramatic account of the mushroom growth of that metropolis under the stimulus of the gold rush was recorded by that “pioneer of pioneers,” Richard Henry Dana. To the 1869 edition of his classic, Two Years before the Mast, first published in 1840, he added an appendix entitled “Twenty-four Years After.” Here are its opening paragraphs:

“It was in the winter of 1835—6 that the ship Alert, in the prosecution of her voyage for hides on the remote and almost unknown coast of California, floated into the vast solitude of the Bay of San Francisco. All around was the stillness of nature. One vessel, a Russian, lay at anchor there, but during our whole stay not a sail came or went. Our trade was with remote missions, which sent hides to us in launches manned by their Indians. Our anchorage was between a small island, called Yerba Buena, and a gravel beach in a little bight or cove of the same name, formed by two small projecting points. Beyond, to the westward of the landing-place, were dreary sand-hills, with little grass to be seen, and few trees, and beyond them higher hills, steep and barren, their sides gullied by the rains.

“Some five or six miles beyond the landing-place, to the right, was a ruinous presidio, and some three or four miles to the left was the Mission of Dolores, as ruinous as the presidio, almost deserted, with but few Indians attached to it, and but little property in cattle. Over a region far beyond our sight there were no other human habitations, except that an enterprising Yankee, years in advance of his time, had put up, on the rising ground above the landing, a shanty of rough boards, where he carried on a very small retail trade between the hide ships and the Indians.

“Vast banks of fog, invading us from the North Pacific, drove in through the entrance, and covered the whole bay; and when they disappeared we saw a few well-wooded islands, the sand-hills on the west, the grassy and wooded slopes on the east, and the vast stretch of the bay to the southward, where we were told lay the Missions of Santa Clara and San José, and still longer stretches to the northward and north-eastward, where we understood smaller bays spread out, and large rivers poured in their tributes of waters.

“There were no settlements on these bays or rivers, and the few ranchos and missions were remote and widely separated. Not only the neighbourhood of our anchorage, but the entire region of the great bay was a solitude. On the whole coast of California there was not a lighthouse, a beacon, or a buoy; and the charts were made up from old and disconnected surveys by British, Russian, and Mexican voyagers. Birds of prey and passage swooped and dived about us, wild beasts ranged through the oak groves, and as we slowly floated out of the harbour with the tide, herds of deer came to the water’s edge, on the northerly side of the entrance, to gaze at the strange spectacle.

(James Bryce continues with the contrast of 20 years later.)

“On the evening of Saturday, the 13th of August 1859, the superb steamship Golden Gate, gay with crowds of passengers, and lighting the sea for miles around with the glare of her signal lights of red, green, and white, and brilliant with lighted saloons and staterooms, bound up from the Isthmus of Panama, neared the entrance to San Francisco, the great centre of a world-wide commerce. Miles out at sea, on the desolate rocks of the Farallones, gleamed the powerful rays of one of the most costly and effective lighthouses in the world.

San Francisco, 1854. From F. Soule: Annals of San Francisco (1856).

“As we drew in through the Golden Gate, another lighthouse met our eyes, and in the clear moonlight of the unbroken Californian summer we saw, on the right, a large fortification, protecting the narrow entrance, and just before us the little island of Alcatraz confronted us—one entire fortress. We bore round the point towards the old anchoring-ground of the hide ships, and there, covering the sand-hills and the valleys, stretching from the water’s edge to the base of the great hills, and from the old presidio to the mission, flickering all over with the lamps of its streets and houses, lay a city of one hundred thousand inhabitants.

“Clocks tolled the hour of midnight from its steeples, but the city was alive from the salute of our guns, spreading the news that the fortnightly steamer had come, bringing mails and passengers from the Atlantic world. Clipper ships of the largest size lay at anchor in the stream, or were girt to the wharves; and capacious high-pressure steamers, as large and showy as those of the Hudson or Mississippi, bodies of dazzling light, awaited the delivery of our mails, to take their cruises up the bay, stopping at Benicia and the United States Naval Station, and then up the great tributaries—the Sacramento, San Joaquin, and Feather rivers—to the far inland cities of Sacramento, Stockton, and Marysville.

“The dock into which we drew, and the streets about it, were densely crowded with express-wagons and hand-carts to take luggage, coaches and cabs to take passengers; and with men—some looking out for friends among our hundreds of passengers, agents of the press, and a greater multitude eager for newspapers and verbal intelligence from the great Atlantic and European world.

“Through this crowd I made my way, along the well-built and well-lighted streets, as alive as by day, where boys in high-keyed voices were already crying the latest New York papers; and between one and two o’clock in the morning found myself comfortably abed in a commodious room in the Oriental Hotel, which stood, as well as I could learn, on the filled-up cove, and not far from the spot where we used to beach our boats from the Alert.

“Sunday, August 14th. When I awoke in the morning, and looked from my windows over the city of San Francisco, with its storehouses, towers, and steeples; its court-houses, theatres, and hospitals; its daily journals; its well-filled professions; its fortresses and lighthouses; its wharves and harbour, with their thousand-ton clipper ships, more in number than London or Liverpool sheltered that day; itself one of the capitals of the American Republic, and the sole emporium of a new world, the awakened Pacific; when I looked across the bay to the eastward, and beheld a beautiful town on the fertile, wooded shores of the Contra Costa; and steamers, large and small, the ferry boats to the Contra Costa, and capacious freighters and passenger-carriers to all parts of the great bay and its tributaries, with lines of their smoke in the horizon—when I saw all these things, and reflected on what I once was and saw here, and what now surrounded me, I could scarcely keep my hold on reality at all, or the genuineness of anything, and seemed to myself like one who had moved in “worlds not realised.”

Modern 1967 California map shows establishment dates of coastal towns.
< Back to Top of Page