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San Francisco

The main focus of this site is stories of captains, ships and passengers sailing into San Francisco during the early days of the Gold Rush. Because stories are throughout the site on passenger lists and in news sections, this particular page will not be lengthy.

San Francisco Bay had provided sheltered waters to Native Americans in reed canoes, whalers, fur traders and explorers for centuries before the rush of gold seekers began arriving on ships from around the world.

November 11, 1848, Californian


Forty thousand dollars will be paid for the apprehension and delivery to me of Deserters from the Squadron in the following sums, viz:

For the first four deserters who have left any ship or ships of the Squadron since the 4th day of July last, ($2000) two thousand dollars, or $500 each.

For each and every deserter apprehended and delivered over as above, (the first four excepted, ($200,) two hundred dollars each.

The above reward will be paid in silver dollars immediately on the delivery of any deserter as aforesaid, on board either of the ships of the Squadron.

Commander in chief, 
U. S. Naval Forces 
Pacific Ocean
Flag Ship Ohio 
Monterey, October 18, 1848

April 28, 1849, Placer Times, Sacramento City, California

Latest from the States!
The Gold Discoveries -- Intense excitement.

First Shipload of Gold

By the ocean steamer Oregonwhich arrived at San Francisco on the 1st inst., we have later news from the United States and Europe. The Oregon is the second of the line of steam ships intended to ply regularly between the Isthmus and this coast, and her dates are to February 6th. She brings two hundred and fifty passengers, and reports an increasing crowd at Panama, awaiting conveyance to this country, to which thousands are flocking from every state in the Union, and from every port on the South American coast. Indeed, language would fail to convey to the minds of our readers an accurate idea of the astonishing excitement created by the gold discoveries in this country, and in the attempt to transmit to paper, we find the pen inadequate to the task.

The newspapers are burdened with wonderful stories of the wide spreading enthusiasm, and not only has it ravaged the Union from North to South, but even Europe old war harassed Europe has caught the infection, and the strong arm of revolution has become seemingly paralyzed, and stilled in its mighty effort to burst the chains of bondage, by the reported wealth, and "fortunes for the millions," laid open in the "afar off" territory of California. We subjoin a compendium from N. Y. papers of February, showing the workings of the mania in the different states, and also its effect in England, at last accounts:

"A gentleman who has just returned from an extended tour through the West informs us that the excitement in that region is even stronger than here, and that an immense number are preparing to emigrate in the Spring. There is scarcely a village that will not send out its representatives, and during the coming Summer the passes of the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra de los Mimbres, will be threaded by giant caravans, on their way to the new Cipango, whose wonders exceeds that which dazzled the mind of Columbus."

There is a general golden movement throughout N. Y. State, says the Tribune, and to judge from the notices of company organizations, the emigration this year will be immense. A company of thirty, with a capital stock of $30,000 from Utica. Another at Albany, composed of 109 share holders shares $300. At Buffalo, the "California Overland Association" set out on the 20th to embark at New York for Vera Cruz, and proceed thence by way of the city of Mexico to San Blas or Mazatlan. At Hudson, (Columbia Co) another large company is organized. In every county preparations are being made to form companies and "forward march." In Massachusetts the "fever" has created an extraordinary excitement. A number of vessels had already sailed and upwards of forty more were preparing to sail for California, from the ports of Boston, Salem, Nantucket. &c., &c. Companies are making up all over the State. At New Bedford 11 vessels are up for the gold region; the ship Magnolia, an old cruiser on this coast, is among the number with several lady passengers.

Many are on their way hither, from Connecticut both by land and water. A company have gone to Tampico. thence they go through the country, calculating to strike the new diggings on the Rio Gila. Three hundred persons in the vicinity of Hartford are contemplating to form and go. Expeditions are in progress all over Pennsylvania. The brig Oniota sailed for San Francisco, from Philadelphia, carrying with her a small steamboat to run on some of the waters of the Gold region.

California Gold Rush.

Maryland also sends an abundant representation to the Mines. A recruiting station has been opened at Baltimore, to fill up the Rifle Regiment for Oregon and California service. The recruits will start immediately for the Jefferson (Missouri) Barracks, where they will join the Regiment under command of Col W. W. Loring, and proceed as soon as possible to California. The Odd-Fellows have also sent their Delegation to the Mines. The U. States Grand Lodge, at its last session in Baltimore appointed Capt V. Fraser, of the Revenue Service, Special Deputy Grand Sire for California, Oregon, Sandwich Islands, and ports in the Pacific. Capt. F. goes out with full authority to grant dispensations for Grand Subordinate Lodges and Encampments. An expedition is projected from Vicksburg, Miss. to go by the Fort Smith route, starting on the 1st of April. The fever is raging in lowa. Companies are forming all over the State. They expect to go by land and to start in the Spring. Wisconsin also has the contagion. The first party from Racine left a fortnight since; a number are making preparations in the vicinity of Watertown, and a company of 50 is projected at Fond du Lac, to leave in March. In Illinois, the Peoria Pioneers have elected Thos. Phillips their Captain. Indiana has formed several companies. Three of these have completed arrangements, and will start from South Bend in the Spring. Another party of Cincinnatians left ten days since for California, via this city. The Wolverine Rangers is the title of a California company at Marshall, Michigan to start in a month or two. Canada even, has not escaped the contagion. The Montreal Courier says that many citizens at that place are on the point of departure, and there are other movements of the same kind in various localities.

Storm around the Horn.

To which is added a list of the companies forming, presenting a variety of inducements to the adventurer. The Tribune publishes the names of over 5000 persons already en route for California, and says the total number of vessels sailed for intermediate ports, or for San Francisco direct, up to January 20, is 103.

In the Congress of the United States, interminable debates on the slavery question continued the order of the day. It is thought a bill would be passed extending the Revenue Laws to California, but there is yet no prospect of a government organization for this territory . . .

We saw yesterday a half-eagle, coined at the Philadelphia Mint, from a late deposit of California gold dust. It had the true ring and lustre, and bore, as a distinctive mark, the letters 'CAL.' over the head of the eagle.

The leader in the Courier and Enquirer, today, recommends the establishment by Congress of martial law in California, as a preliminary government, to be maintained by an adequate force, under extraordinary pay and emoluments . . .

A New Pacific Line. 

Messrs. Allen & Paxson of this city have determined to establish another line of steamers on the Pacific, between San Francisco and Panama. The propeller Hartford, which they have placed on the line, will leave this city about the 1st of February. She was built at Philadelphia about three months ago, and will accommodate 75 cabin passengers. The steamer Senator is also about to leave for the purpose of running between the same ports. Our foreign intelligence is of but little moment . . .

Relative to the Gold excitement in England, we append the following from the Tribune. The California, fever rages in England quite as violently an it has done here. Great numbers of vessels were up for the Gold Region some carrying passengers to Chagres, others to Galveston, &c rates ranging from 25 upward. All sorts of schemes for raising companies and capital are advertised. One of the companies alone proposes to raise a capital of 600,000 reserving half to be taken in the United States.

Saturday, December 28, 1850, The Transcript, Sacramento City, California

Early Pioneers and Modern Pioneers.

San Francisco Bay. 1850.

It is interesting to a Californian to turn over the pages of history, and read the record of the first settlements in America, and contrast the manner of colonizing the eastern shore of this continent, near two hundred and fifty years ago, with the present state of things on the Pacific. We read that the London Company, after its incorporation in 1606, dispatched to America three ships, having on board one hundred and five persons, destined to begin a settlement in South Virginia. Some of them were allured by curiosity, some by the prospect of gain to visit a new country, said to be inhabited by a new race of kings, and to abound in silver and, gold. On the thirteenth of May, they landed and commenced the place Jamestown . . . "Emigrants continued to arrive frequently from England, but nearly all were men, who came for the purpose of making wealth, and intended eventually to return . . .

Jeu des habitans de Californie, 1822
(Native women, men, playing game.)
Natives of California playing game.

The first settlers of California encountered many hardships, but by the close of the first year, they had more comforts at their command than the early settlers of Virginia could obtain twenty-five years after their landing on the shores of the Atlantic. The hostile Indians have never caused our people any serious alarm. The diseases of a "hot, damp climate," do not make such destruction among the pioneers of California as they did among our ancestors who settled in Virginia. This suggests an important fact. In the settlement of any new place, disease is a serious obstacle, and hence the country is apt to get the reputation of being unhealthy. Virginia is now considered to possess a salubrious, healthy climate; whereas, 250 years ago, 50 died in four months out of a population of 105; and it appears that it was years "before this degree of mortality was greatly diminished.

San Francisco Lithographer, African American Artist Grafton Tyler Brown.

Grafton Tyler Brown was a cartographer, lithographer, and painter, widely considered the first professional African American artist in California. Born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in 1841, Brown learned lithography in Philadelphia and then became part of a cohort of African Americans who sought better economic and social opportunities in the West during the 1850s. Brown migrated to San Francisco in the mid-1850s, where he found work as a lithographer at Kuchel and Dresel. He bought the business in 1867 and renamed it G.T. Brown & Co., continuing his efforts to document the gold rush towns and other Bay Area settlements. Brown sold his business in 1872 in order to devote his time to traveling and painting.

No such alarming mortality has ever attended the settlement of any portion of California, although it is known that the larger share of the people now in the State have slept in the open air for weeks in succession. The inference is, that when things become settled, when our buildings are all up, roads opened, farms laid out and cultivated, and the habits of the people become regular, this will be a more healthy country than Virginia. The pure mountain air that constantly circulates through our valleys the foaming streams that in countless numbers dash down the western slope of the Sierra Nevada the rolling table lands, arid fertile valleys, the mild, salubrious climate, in which flowers may bloom almost the entire year all indicate this land as the abode of health and comfort. The first settlers of Virginia could not live, except by the assistance and protection of their friends in the- mother country.

Those of California come here as the best means of assisting their friends and families which they left behind them. The early emigrants to Virginia were newly all men, " who came for the purpose of making wealth, and intended eventually to return to England." Here is a striking similarity between them and the present population of California. But our people have different notions from their ancestors in regard to supplying the deficiency in the number of females. A cargo of girls would not be bought up for wives, by the "young planters " of California. A "desirable attachment to the country cannot be produced in that way. Our bachelor people are sufficiently in love with California already, and as soon as proper arrangements can be effected, they intend making a visit to their old homes, to wed their old sweethearts; and then to return again to the land of gold and plenty, wherein their first efforts were crowned with success.

Merchants were the money-makers in the early days, far exceeding the fortune (or misfortunes) experienced by gold miners.

The characters and their schemes were well known and well publicized. Land-grabbing was the fashion and many a man laid claim to waterfront land. San Francisco's muddy shoreline, which originally went for $50 a lot shortly reached $1 million.

Little Known Tales in California History. Alton Pryor.

Each street ended in a wharf, and the owner of said wharf exacted huge tolls from passengers, drays, wagons and all vessels, from the ships to the lighters who help unload the cargo. The cargo was also taxed. A toll was put on anything that could be weighed or measured.

Wharfage alone cost medium-sized ships $100 a day and larger ships $200. By the Fall of 1850, about six thousand feet of pier space, extending into the bay like the fingers of two large hands and costing about one million dollars, had been constructed.

San Francisco Bay Nautical Chart. 1850.

The wharves were crowded from morning through night with drays, wagons, horses, sailors, miners, and merchants. Some wharves were developed to such an extent that by 1851-52, they were small cities of stores, shops, and storeships lining the waterfront.

San Francisco also had its share of savory characters, so much so that in 1851 the first Vigilance Committee was established. It was not well-organized and by 1856, another Committee was established in the style of a military organization. In addition to a police force, it had a "navy" under the command of Captain Edgar Wakeman, a character in his own right. His watchful eye, and willingness to act, earned him the title "Emperor of the Port."

Richard Henry Dana discussing San Francisco in a post-script for the 1859 edition of Two Years Before The MastDana Two Years Before the Mast.:

San Francisco. 1850s.

I might perhaps say quite-every American in California had read it; for when California "broke out," as the phrase is, in 1848, and so large a portion of the Anglo-Saxon race flocked to it, there was no book upon California but mine. Many who were on the coast at the time the book refers to, and afterward read it, and remembered the Pilgrim and Alert, thought they also remembered me. But perhaps more did remember me than I was inclined at first to believe, for the novelty of a collegian coming out before the mast had drawn more attention to me than I was aware of at the time.

Late in the afternoon, as there were vespers at the Roman Catholic churches, I went to that of Notre Dame des Victoires. The congregation was French, and a sermon in French was preached by an abbe; the music was excellent, all things airy and tasteful and making one feel as if in one of the chapels in Paris. The Cathedral of St. Mary, which I afterward visited, where the Irish attend, was a contrast indeed, and more like one of our stifling Irish Catholic churches in Boston or New York, with intelligence in so small a proportion to the number of faces.

During the three Sundays I was in San Francisco, I visited three of the Episcopal churches, and the Congregational, a Chinese Mission Chapel, and on the Sabbath (Saturday) a Jewish synagogue. The Jews are a wealthy and powerful class here. The Chinese, too, are numerous, and do a great part of the manual labor and small shop-keeping, and have some wealthy mercantile houses.

Limantour and The Battle of the "Bulkhead."

October 4, 1894, San Francisco Call, San Francisco, California, U.S.A.


Grave Charges Against Steamboat Men.
A Big Price Paid for the Drug at Honolulu-
A Remnant of the Emerald Gang at Work.

Seal Point. Bay of San Francisco. 1888.
Seal Point
Bay of San Francisco, 1888

When the trial of the Emerald smugglers closed a few months ago the local representatives of the Government, the District Attorney, the Special Agent of the Treasury and the Collector of the port rejoiced and were exceedingly glad, for they believed that they had broken up one of the strongest rings that ever existed on this coast.

But the heavy burden of punishment laid upon the unhappy trio now in San Quentin did not daunt their confederates in crime. While the prisoners were before the bar battling for liberty, their associates were at work in this city, in Victoria and in Honolulu buying, smuggling and selling the drug.

Vessels as fleet as the Emerald were passing through the Golden Gate at night bearing a forbidden cargo to be sold in Chinatown or shipped to the Hawaiian Islands.

The Collector of the Port was not long in ignorance of the fact that the remnant of the ring was working as hard as ever. The manufacture and exportation of opium at Victoria did not cease. The revenue officers still found the drug in Chinatown and news came from Honolulu that it was being sold there to the victims of the pipe and syringes.

The Hawaiian laws absolutely prohibit the importation and sale of opium, yet it is a well known fact it can be procured with little difficulty by all who want it. The opium cooked in California and known here as domestic opium costs in this city about $4 a pound. It sells in the Hawaiian republic at $18 a pound.

The opium made in Victoria is sold in Honolulu for $24 a pound and the Simon pure article from, Hong Kong sells for $28 a pound. Therefore it pays

The drug that is taken from Victoria to Honolulu first comes to this city and here placed on a vessel bound to Honolulu, where it falls into the hands of the ring, who find away to sell it to the natives.

Collector Wise believes, and has in his possession facts that warrant his belief, that the opium is taken from this city to the Islands on one of the steamers, and believes that trusted employes of the steamship company are members of of or are in the employ of the ring.

The Collector, convinced that the employes of the company are smuggling, but being unable to procure the proper kind of evidence against them, wrote to the agent of the company on Monday stating the facts in his possession, and urging the removal of suspects. He stated last night that he had received no reply to the letter, and that he did not care to discuss the matter.

San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf 
(Images of America)
San Francisco.

Lighthouses of the Bay Area (Images of America)San Francisco.

finding gold in a stream 
California Gold Rush

Italians of the Bay Area: The Photographs of Gino Sbrana (Images of America)San Francisco.

The Golden Crucible: An Introduction to the History of American California, 1850-1905
Blake Ross
First Prize James D. Phelan Historical Essay Contest held under the auspices of the San Francisco Branch, League of American Pen Women.

From the Introduction: The Golden Crucible is well named, because, first of all, in the minds of the people, California is regarded as the Golden State. It was not the actual discovery by Cabrillo that awakened wonder, but the discovery of gold by Marshall.

The Palace Hotel (below), built in 1875, envisioned by William Chapman Ralston and William Sharon, was reputedly the largest, most luxurious and costly hotel in the world. The San Francisco Palace Hotel was designed as the American counterpart to the grand hotels of Europe. On October 2, 1875, the Palace Hotel officially opened.

Garden Court. Palace Hotel.

Originally built by architect John P. Gaynor, the majestic San Francisco building hailed 7,000 windows, 14-foot high ceilings and an unprecedented opulence. Today's Garden Court was conceived of as the hotel's carriage entrance - a gateway to the splendors and remarkable innovations within. The hydraulic elevators - an engineering marvel for the time - were dubbed "rising rooms." In each of the lavish guest rooms, an electronic call button allowed guests to "ring" for anything they desired and air conditioning was a standard feature.

San Francisco Bay Area, Golden Memories 
(Voices of America), Steven Friedman

San Francisco 1800s.San Francisco Street Scene

San Francisco, the flamboyant and cosmopolitan city by the bay and its neighboring municipalities, was born to tell stories. Ranging in ages from 68 to 91, the narrators reflect the ethnic and religious diversity of a metropolis that has been a pioneer of several social, political, and cultural movements. They also stretch across both ends of the economic spectrum. A Japanese-American woman describes the harsh humiliation of internment during World War II, while an Irish Catholic man fondly remembers being a paperboy in the same neighborhood for ten years. More than 80 photographs from the narrators and collections of local libraries, museums, and historical societies.

The Project

Maritime Nations, Sea Captains, Ships, Merchants, Merchandise, Passengers and VIPs sailing into San Francisco during the 1800s.


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Sources: As noted on entries and through research centers including National Archives, San Bruno, California; San Francisco Main Library History Collection; Maritime Library, San Francisco, California.

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