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Very Important Passengers: San Francisco 1800s

Henry Meiggs, born July 7, 1811, in Catskill, New York, was the second son of a family of nine children. He worked as a youth at the lumber trade in Catskill, Boston and New York. He suffered business losses, and when word of the discovery of Gold reached the East, Meiggs loaded the Albany with lumber and sailed around Cape Horn for San Francisco, arriving on January 11, 1849. He sold the cargo at a huge profit and entered the California lumber business, forming the California Lumber Manufacturing Company, later known as the Mendocino Lumber Company, located in Mendocino County.

Meiggs Wharf was built in the vicinity of Powell Street to accommodate his lumber schooners, which began sailing down the coast after July 1852. It was the longest pier on the City front and projected about 2,000 feet from dry land out into the harbor. (Part of this site today is occupied by Fisherman's Wharf, PIER 39 and Pier 45.)

Meiggs became a prominent in City politics and business, until, due to his larcenous financial practices, he outfitted the brig American and on October 6, 1854, sailed away with his family, including his brother, who was then City Controller. He left many people high and dry, and left everything he owned, including his wharf, his city lots, and his beautiful home on Telegraph Hill.

The story is that he left a "fire burning in the hearth and the birds singing in their cages," and told people they were going for a cruise on the Bay. 

Meiggs Wharf from Russian Hill, San Francisco. 1866.

Henry Meiggs, born July 7, 1811, in Catskill, New York, was the second son of a family of nine children. He worked as a youth at the lumber trade in Catskill, Boston and New York. He suffered business losses, and when word of the discovery of Gold reached the East, Meiggs loaded the Albany with lumber and sailed around Cape Horn for San Francisco, arriving on January 11, 1849. He sold the cargo at a huge profit and entered the California lumber business, forming the California Lumber Manufacturing Company, later known as the Mendocino Lumber Company, located in Mendocino County.

January 31, 1855, New York Daily Times, New York City

FROM TAHITI.
Meiggs Turned Up.

"By the arrival of the French corvette La Mossele, Commodore Page, 48 days from Tahiti, we learn that the bark AmericaCaptain Seaman, hence (with the Meiggs family on board,) arrived at that port, and sailed November 21?destination unknown. There were several men-of-war in port. There was no news of consequence. Com. Page, former Governor of Tahiti and the French ports in the Pacific, was relieved by Monsieur Da Bough, Captain in the Imperial Navy, who is the newly appointed Governor of the French Ports in the Pacific Ocean. Several other vessels were in port?names not recollected. The LaMosselle carries 20 guns and 194 men.

List of Officers of the "Mosselle" Commandant Lieut. Bellard. Passed Midshipmen: Messrs. De Moreh de la Marek, Guerlin Driverrer, De Barthron and Savy. Purser Mr. Giffon du Bellsy. Surgeon (First class) Mr. La Ciera. Surgon (Third class) Mr. Ducret. Midshipmen Messrs De Launay, Bertrand Gautier, Henrais Fourrieur. Acting Midshipman Debreull. Commodore's Staff? Commodore Pars (Pare) (Chief of Division) late Imperial Commissioner at the Society Islands. Flag Lieutenant Libus, Demaur. Aide-de-Camp Passed Midshipman Brioh."

April 23, 1855, Daily Argus and Democrat

Meiggs, the Swindler, Turned Up

"A correspondent of the Placer Times and Transcript, writing from Tolcahuana, Chili, under date of January 13, furnishes accurate information of the arrival of Meiggs, the forger, his family and suite, at that port; on the day previous. The bark America, upon which they arrived, was reported last from Tahiti, looking for freight, and is said to have been put up for sale. She had her papers, which were deposited in the office of the United States Consul, the registry bearing the date of the 18th Sept., 1854, and numbered 94.

The United States' Consul immediately addressed a letter to our Minister at Santiago, informing him of Meiggs' arrival, and requesting advice and instruction. In the absence of any treaty with Chili providing for the surrender of fugitives from justice, there could, of course, be nothing done, unless it should be a resort to abduction, which it was not to be presumed would be attempted.

The America was reported to be under the command of Captain Jacob Cousins, although we believe she cleared with Victor Seaman as master. Captain Seaman returned to this city on Saturday last, as passenger on board the John L. Stephens.

Since his arrival, the town has been all agog with rumors of this conditions, appearance, doings and intentions of Meiggs and his party. These reports are all second-hand, and of course deserve no particular credence. It is said that Meiggs was very much distressed on his passage that his health gradually failed him, and that he begged to be put ashore anywhere. All the while, however, no one on board knew that he had been guilty of the crime which has rendered his name infamous. On arriving at Talcahuana, the America was boarded almost as son as she dropped anchor, by Charles Minturn; and Meiggs, who hoped to have reached a country where his misdeed were unknown was appalled at so unexpected an apparition. (Mr. Minturn, it will be remembered, is establishing a line of steamers on the coast of Chili.)

Recovering, however, Meiggs took Mr. Minturn aside, and begged of him, for the sake of his wife, whose heart it would break, not to reveal the fatal secret, as all on board except two were ignorant of it. What Mr. Minturn did, we are not advised; but the fact was already known on shore, a newspaper from San Francisco having previously reached that out-of-the-way place.

The most remarkable part of the story is that Meiggs had taken away but between $5,000 and $6,000; and that which will strike the public as more remarkable still, is contained in the query "What is Capt. Seaman doing in San Francisco?"

Meiggs ended his career as a successful railroad builder in South America. He paid off most of the debts he left behind, but he never returned to San Francisco. He died in Lima, Peru, in 1877, a rich and famous man.


Henry Meiggs Yankee Pizarro, Stewart Watt

The illicit adventures of an American on foreign soil. Henry Meiggs, the hero in this novel is one of a type that has become familiar in American history: the man who wanted power and millions and was not much concerned about his means of getting them.

His story has freshness because little attention has been paid him and because of the Latin-American scene of his activities. Many Americans have gone abroad and played roles of significance in the life of other nations; Meiggs was daring in the scope of his ideas. His place in the history of both Chile and Peru is of considerable importance. The economic and political developments in those countries in the period 1855-1880, during most of which Meiggs was quite prominent in one or both, were of the first importance in their later history.

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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, various Maritime Museums around the world.

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