Gold Rush San Francisco

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Gold Rush San Francisco


Dreams of Gold. Before the Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo identified the West Coast, and before Hernando Cortez set foot on lower California, the allure and adventure of California was imagined in a Spanish romance written by Garcia Ordonez de Montalvo. In The Adventures of Esplandian (1510) Montalvo wrote: Know then, that on the right hand of the Indies, there is an island called California, very close to the side of the Terrestrial Paradise. Montalvos California was peopled by Amazonian women warriors. Perhaps most telling of all, Montalvo imagined that in the whole island, there was no metal but gold.

An Overnight Metropolis. In 1840 Richard Henry Dana published his Two Years Before the Mast, a vivid recounting of his journey to California around Cape Horn and his life as a merchant sailor. Dana found California sparsely settled, and the Spaniards, in Danas view, led a primitive life. All that would change on 24 January 1848, when James Marshall and his employer, John A. Sutter, discovered gold particles in the tailrace of a sawmill at Coloma on the American River. Despite the efforts of both men to keep their discovery a secret, word leaked out, and by 1849 the gold rush lured thousands of fortune hunters to California. San Francisco, the port of entry, was transformed practically overnight. The influx of a new population and new wealth fostered San Franciscos development as a cultural capital. By the mid 1850s San Francisco boasted that it published more newspapers than London and more books than all the areas west of the Mississippi put together. Aside from English language papers such as the Alta, the Evening Bulletin, and the Pacific News, newspapers were published in German, Italian, French, Swedish, Spanish, and Chinese. Literary journals also flourished: the Pioneer, the Golden Era, the Hesperian, and the Californian all compared favorably with the Eastern literary journals. San Francisco had also established three public libraries. The change was so marked that when Dana returned to California twenty years later, he was astonished at the thriving metropolis he found there. Of course, with such rapid growth and so much wealth the city did not completely lose its rough-and-tumble frontier atmosphere. Edward Gilbert, editor of the Alta, was killed in a duel, and James Casey, a local politician, shot the editor of the Bulletin after the newspaper exposed him as corrupt. A vigilante committee was organized and shortly thereafter hung Casey.

Early Literary Figures. Most of the literary writing of the period came from the newspapers. Bayard Taylor, a writer for the New York Tribune, was sent by his editor, Horace Greeley, to cover the height of the gold rush. His letters back East were collected as Eldorado, or Adventures in the Path of Empire (1850). Greeley himself reported on San Francisco for his Eastern readers in An Overland Journey, from New York to San Francisco (1860). While Taylor and Greeley returned east, three other important literary figures of the fifties fostered a local literary culture: Dame Shirley (Louise Amelia Knapp Smith Clappe), Old Block (Alonzo Delano), and John Phoenix (George Horatio Derby).

Oh, California

I came from Salem City,
With my washbowl on my knee,
Im going to California,
The gold dust for to see.
It rained all night the day I left,
The weather it was dry,
The sun so hot I froze to death
Oh, brothers, dont you cry!
Oh, California,
Thats the land for me!
Im bound for San Francisco
With my washbowl on my knee.

I jumped aboard the Liza ship
And traveled on the sea,
And everytime I thought of home
I wished it wasnt me!
The vessel reared like any horse
That had of oats a wealth;
I found it wouldnt throw me, so
I thought Id throw myself!

I thought of all the pleasant times
Weve had together here,
I thought I ought to cry a bit,
But couldnt find a tear.
The pilots bread was in my mouth,
The gold dust in my eye,
And though Im going far away,
Dear brothers dont you cry!

I soon shall be in Frisco,
And there Ill look around,
And when I see the gold lumps there,
Ill pick them off the ground.
Ill scrape the mountains clean, my boys,
Ill drain the rivers dry,
A pocketful of rocks bring home
So brothers dont you cry!

Source: Richard E. Lingenteller, Richard A. Dwyer, and David Cohen, Songs of the American West (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968), pp. 2627.

Dame Shirley. Dame Shirley emigrated from New England to San Francisco with her husband in 1849 and recounted, in vivid and elegant letters to her sister, her experience of living in the gold camps of Rich Bar and Indian Bar. She wrote of the darker side of mountain life, including murders, fearful accidents, bloody deaths, a mob, whippings, a hanging, an attempt at suicide, and a fatal duel. Yet by the end of her stay, Clappe found herself reluctant to leave Indian Bar. I like this wild and barbarous life, she wrote to her sister, I look kindly to this existence, which to you seems so sordid and mean. Here, at least, I have been contented. The Shirley Letters (18511852), as they came to be called, so impressed Pioneer publisher Ferdinand Ewer that when Clappe brought them to him, he decided to print them as they were.

Old Block. Daily life among the miners was also the subject of Alonzo Delanos articles in the Pacific News. Delano described greenhorns, gamblers, miners, traders, and others with a combination of realism, pathos, and humor. While newspapers and guidebooks trumpeted big strikes and rich leads, most miners, as Old Block learned firsthand, worked with little success and under miserable conditions. The hardship and black humor of the miners life was vividly symbolized by a stuffed dummy Old Block reported finding in an abandoned mining camp. Tacked to the dummys chest was an epitaph containing a parody of the popular song, O, Susannah: O, Califony! this is the land for me / A pick and a shovel, and lots of bones, / Who would not come, this sight to see? / The golden land of dross and stones! / O, Susannah! dont you cry for me, / Im living dead in Californee! Blocks articles were collected into two books, Pen Knife Sketches; or, Chips of the Old Block (1853), which sold more than fifteen thousand copies in California, and Old Blocks Sketch Book (1856), which was nearly as popular. For Eastern audiences he adopted a more realistic and restrained manner in Life Among the Plains and among the Diggings (1853). He also wrote one of the earliest Western dramas, A Live Woman in the Mines, blending conventional melodrama with local color and Western humor.

John Phoenix. George Horatio Derby was born in Massachusetts but became one of the first of the Far Western humorists. He arrived in San Francisco in 1849, met Jessie Benton Frémont, performed in theatrical productions and wrote satiric sketches. Phoenix created a stir when he temporarily took over editorship of the Democratic newspaper the San Diego Herald. During his brief tenure Phoenix published mock news items, editorials, and advertisements. To make things worse, he then switched the political allegiance of the paper, supporting the Whig candidate for governor. The joke became known all over California, and when the regular editor returned, Phoenix fled back to San Francisco, where he contributed satiric articles to the Pioneer and local newspapers. Phoenix, like Mark Twain after him, became known as both the subject and author of humorous tall tales. One oft-told story recounted the time he stopped a driver of the Golden Eagle Bakery wagon with an order for three golden eagles, baked brown and crisp. In another he asked if he could leave his wife at the Delaware Womens Depository, even though she was from Maryland. His collected sketches were published as the Phoenixiana (1855). While the works of Dame Shirley, Old Block, and John Phoenix are little known today, these pioneer literary figures set the stage for the later flourishing of the San Francisco Circle, a renowned group of writers centered around the increasingly cosmopolitan city: Twain, Bret Harte, Ina Coolbrith, Charles Warren Stoddard, Joaquin Miller, and Ambrose Bierce.

Painting the Gold Rush. Writers were not the only ones to follow the gold trail; painters came too, some hoping to strike it rich, some hoping for commissions and fame in the new city. Most of the painters were not stickers, and after a brief and often rough fling at mining, they would return to the more congenial East; but a few, including George Holbrook Baker, Harrison Eastman, and Charles Christian Nahl, settled and made careers in San Francisco. Baker arrived in the winter of 1849, and after trying his hand at mining, storekeeping, and other commercial ventures, found employment as an illustrator for local periodicals. Eventually he published his own, The Spirit of the Times. Through The Spirit and other journals Bakers illustrations of mining camps and towns did much to shape the national image of the California Gold Rush. Harrison Eastman also had success documenting San Franciscos growth. Arriving in San Francisco in February 1849 he began work as a clerk in the post office. Eastman supplemented his postal salary with earnings from wood engravings and lithographs, illustrating a number of local periodicals. His reputation grew, and he was commissioned to do a wide range of work, from lithographs to portraits to panoramic views of the docks of the city.

Charles Christian Nahl. The most important of the San Francisco pioneer artists was Charles Christian Nahl, a German-born artist who followed the gold fever to San Francisco in 1851. He worked in the mines at the Rough and Ready Camp, northeast of Sacramento, and sketched the lives of the miners. In 1852 he moved to San Francisco, where he found a market for his gold-rush drawings in newspapers, magazines, and books. He illustrated Delanos Pen Knife Sketches; or, Chips of the Old Block and also painted his impressions of gold-camp life. His Saturday Evening in the Mines (circa 1850s) hung in the California State Capitol before being acquired by Stanford University. Nahls masterpiece is Sunday Morning in the Mines (1872), a six-by-nine-foot canvas depicting a drunken brawl, a horserace, the weekly wash, and a small group of miners reading from the Bible. Nahl eventually designed the bear on the California State flag, and when he died in 1878, the San Francisco Evening Bulletin mourned the man of genius whose mining scenes were probably as good as any ever executed here.


Robert E. Spiller and others, Literary History of the United States, third edition (New York: Macmillan, 1973);

J. Golden Taylor and others, A Literary History of the American West (Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1987);

Jeanne Van Nostrand, The First Hundred Years of Painting in California, 17751875 (San Francisco: John Howell Books, 1980);

Franklin Walker, San Franciscos Literary Frontier (New York: Knopf, 1939).