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How The Gold Rush Created San Francisco

Gold Rush San Francisco
San Francisco c1855, during Gold Rush

On May 12, 1848, Mormon pioneer and businessman Samuel Brannan walked onto Portsmouth Square, shouting “Gold! Gold from the American River!”, while holding aloft a phial full of gold flakes. He hadn’t discovered the gold and he never attempted mining it, but it fired the starting gun for the great California Gold Rush. He owned a newspaper (the only one in San Francisco at the time), but the reason Brannon was choosing to announce the find in this way, instead of with a banner headline in his own publication, was that all the staff had left in a rush to find gold themselves!

And the reason for his need to publicize the discovery of gold in the Sierra was not from a desire to “get the story out there” – it was because he’d spent the previous week buying every single pick, shovel and pan that he could lay his hands on. He paid twenty cents apiece and then sold them for $15 each. In barely two months he’d made a staggering $36,000 and given rise to the phrase “during a Gold Rush, sell shovels”.

San Francisco went from being a sleepy settlement, on a windswept and inhospitable peninsula, of a few hundred people to a rough-tough frontier-port of twenty-five thousand by the end of the very same year. The Gold Rush had enormous, incalculable, effects on San Francisco and California, the ramifications of which are still being felt to this day, so it’s very important to properly examine it and separate it from the foundational myth.

San Francisco Before the Gold Rush

The first thing to note is that in 1848 San Francisco had only just become San Francisco, having been renamed from Yerba Buena only the year before. Going back further, the Ohlone people, numbering around twenty thousand, occupied more or less the entire Bay area down to Monterey and lived a fruitful life of hunting, gathering and harvesting (you can sample some of their food at Ohlone Café, it’s delicious).

Unfortunately for them various European nations were casting covetous eyes at the Californian coast, though. The Spanish had conquered Mexico back in the sixteenth century and had claimed the whole western part of what’s now the United States in 1542, but they didn’t colonize the region until the Portolá Expedition in 1769. In 1776 the Spanish established the Presidio of San Francisco (a military fort) on the southern side of the Bay entrance and, a few miles to the southeast, the Mission San Francisco de Asís.

These were the dog days of the Spanish Empire and, after a long, drawn-out war, Mexico gained its independence in 1821. The following year a Brit, by the name of William Richardson, arrived on the whaling ship Orion. He fell in love with the daughter of the Mexican commandante at the Presidio, while dancing at a fiesta, and promptly left the sea and married her.

In 1835 Richardson built the first house of what would become San Francisco, near what’s now Portsmouth Square. He named the new settlement Yerba Buena, after a plant that grows on the West Coast and was abundant in the area.

Over the following years the settlement grew slowly, still, by 1846, when the Mexican-American War broke out, the population was barely two hundred souls. Within a couple of months of war being declared the U.S. has captured Yerba Buena without a shot being fired and a few days after that Brannan arrived on a ship with 240 other Mormons, doubling the population at a stroke.

The next significant event, in retrospect, was that on January 30 of the following year, Lieutenant Washington Bartlett, military commander of the town, proclaimed a name change – to San Francisco.

All that remained was for Mexico and the United States to end the war, which they did on February 2, 1848, when the Mexican Government sold California to the U.S., along with what would become eight other U. S. states, for the sum total of $15 million. It was a fabulous deal, and made even better by the fact that gold had just then been discovered near Coloma.

Dawn of a New Era

A lot had happened to San Francisco in a short time – birth, war, a new name, a new owner – but much, much bigger change was afoot. Since gold had been discovered in Santa Clarita, north of Los Angeles, in 1842, a belief had grown that California was rich in minerals.

That was to be borne out when James Marshall found some shiny flakes of metal in the American River while building a lumber mill at Sutter’s Mill, in the mountains about forty-five miles northeast of Sacramento. Marshall told John Sutter, his employer, of the find and they quietly tested the metal, finding that it was pure gold.

They tried to keep the find secret, but within weeks rumors had begun to circulate around California of the discovery. This was confirmed for Brannan when a couple of Sutter’s employees paid for goods at a store he had recently opened in Sacramento using gold dust. When Brannan made his announcement in San Francisco a couple of weeks later literally a third of the town upped and left for the Gold Country.

The first East Coast newspaper to report on the discovery of gold was the New York Herald, on August 19, 1848, and on December 5 President James Polk confirmed it in an address to Congress. It led to one of the largest – and most sudden – voluntary migrations in history. Within a year it’s estimated that ninety thousand people, often known as ‘Argonauts’, arrived in California to make their fortune – the Forty-Niners. Forty thousand of them arrived by ship in San Francisco and this huge influx of people had a predictably dramatic effect on the town. 

There were two ways to get to Sutter’s Mill, overland, which would take around six months from the East Coast, or by sea, via San Francisco. Even the name of the entrance to the Bay seemed perfect – the Golden Gate. The strait had been named such only a few years before, by John Frémont, in honor of the Golden Horn of the Bosporus, in Turkey. He imagined Yerba Buena becoming the entrepot for rich cargoes coming from the Orient, like Istanbul. Now it seemed as if it was destiny.

The fastest way to get to ‘the mother lode’ from the East Coast was to take a ship to Panama, cross the isthmus by mule and canoe, and then pick up a second ship and sail up the Pacific Coast to San Francisco, or you could take a ship round Cape Horn. In time Argonauts came from all around the Pacific Rim and all over the world. The effects of the Gold Rush on San Francisco were so dramatic, nothing like it had ever been seen before.

San Francisco Becomes Boomtown

The first ship to bring prospectors was the brand-new steamship SS California. She arrived on February 28, 1849, and her crew promptly deserted with the passengers to find gold (only the engineer remained – mainly because he’d been chained to the engine). It took the captain more than two months to get another crew to sail back to Panama, but many other ships were just left at the quayside and within months it was obvious that the vast majority were never going to take to the High Seas again.

549 ships sailed through the Golden Gate between April and December 1849 – forty-five on a single day. Nearly all of them were abandoned by their crews in Yerba Buena Cove.

The Niantic is a perfect case in point. A whaling ship, working in the waters off the East Coast of South America, she put into port in Peru in March 1849. The captain there received orders to take some cargo to Panama, where he would pick up passengers bound for San Francisco. In Panama he sold the cargo to buy lumber, which was used to build new cabins for the passengers, who paid from $150 to $250 each for the voyage North (making a total of nearly $40,000).

The Niantic dropped anchor at Yerba Buena Cove on July 5. Immediately five of the crew deserted. The next day another twelve followed. Within a week the only crew left, other than the captain, were the first and second mates – who happened to be the captain’s sons. The last entry in the ship’s log was July 12. After that the ship was floated into shallower waters and beached, where it became a hotel, apparently one of the finest in the city.

In 1972 the Transamerica Pyramid, one of the most recognizable buildings in the city, rose on its bones.

Why did San Francisco become the dominant port, instead of Benicia for example, which was much closer to the gold fields? Luck and location – when the first ships sailed around Black Point the small town of San Francisco was the only one they could see, so they stopped there and every ship after that simply followed (since the vast majority of the crews had never been to the Bay Area before, it’s hardly surprising). Within weeks the ghost-town that the passengers on the SS California had found had grown many times over. 

Many of the effects on the town were negative. James Tyson, one of the few doctors in San Francisco, wrote that the city was a “nasty, dirty, slushy, rainy, sand-hilly place”. A French visitor was suitably unimpressed, saying: “This is not a town, it is a quagmire”.

There were few permanent buildings, so a tent city rapidly sprang up and, just as quickly, ships that were beached or had been scuttled in the shallow waters of the cove were turned into warehouses, hotels, restaurants, saloons and stores. The city’s first jail was a ship. Using ships in this way was a cheaper and quicker way of creating buildings – and at least the ship would have some value to the captain or owners, it had none as a sea-going vessel. Many buildings of this era were built using the timber from abandoned ships, as lumber was hard to find in San Francisco.

Looked at from the perspective of today, when everyone’s concerned about the cost of living, it’s worth (pun intended) thinking about the insane inflation in San Francisco at that time. Property prices doubled weekly and the price of everything else sky-rocketed accordingly. Just ordering an omelet in a tent by the water would set you back nearly $60 in today’s money. Although they could have claimed it was farm-to-plate, it certainly wouldn’t have been cordon-bleu. 

Of course, the intention of the forty-niners was to prospect for gold in the mountains, but many, like Brannan, found easier ways to get rich in San Francisco itself. As one settler wrote:

Everyone must do something, it matters but very little what it is, if they stick to it, they are bound to make money.

Accordingly, many fortunes were made in that time, the vast majority not from mining for gold. San Francisco was the original boomtown. It’s said that a farmer made the equivalent of $250,000 in 1849 just from selling onions.

In such a ramshackle place it’s hardly surprising that disease was rife. There were cholera outbreaks in 1850, 1852 and 1854, killing up to 15% of the population, and the city experienced regular bouts of dysentery, which was unsurprising when you consider that the most common water sources were shallow seep-hole wells. There were no less than seven major fires, one of which wiped out a quarter of the city. It’s estimated that up to one in five of the Forty-Niners were dead within six months.

But still more ships arrived in the port every day, disgorging more people. By 1850 the population of San Francisco was 25,000, a twenty-five-fold increase in just ten months. That year it’s estimated that another forty thousand Argonauts came. About two-thirds were American, the rest were from Latin America, Europe, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Hawaii, Japan and China. San Francisco was almost certainly the most multi-cultural place in the world at the time and that there had ever been.

It would be nice to imagine that this brave new experiment became a shining example of how different cultures can come together and live in peace and harmony. You won’t be shocked to learn that this wasn’t, unfortunately, the case.

San Francisco, c1851, during Gold Rush
San Francisco, c1851

Corruption, Conflict & Crime

In a city that grew so fast it’s hardly surprising that the city government was weak, which correspondingly led to a lot of disputes, often violent, a lot of corruption and a lot of crime. Partly that was due to the nature of the people that are drawn to a Gold Rush. One doesn’t want to make too many generalizations, but the one thing you can say with absolute certainty about the Argonauts is that they were ambitious, driven, determined people. There’s no way that they would have traveled the distances they had and put up with the hardships and risks that they did, without that being true.

Another interesting feature of the Forty-Niners is that they were nearly all men. Perhaps, considering the era that the Gold Rush took place in that isn’t surprising, but what is note-worthy is the scale of the disparity. Of the forty thousand people who arrived 1849 only seven hundred were women. The lack of females in San Francisco undoubtedly played a part in the men’s behavior and led to a booming trade in prostitution.

The captain of SS California said of his passengers that they were:

The scum of creation, black legs, gamblers, thieves, runners and drunkards.

Captain Cleveland Forbes

A noted historian described San Francisco at the time as being:

full of sinister-looking men and brazen-faced females (who) were always ready for revelry or black crime.

Hubert Bancroft

Neither, it seems, had a high opinion of the type of people that were moving here.

Maybe they were right. The murder rate of Gold Rush era San Francisco was five times that of today, but that was better than the mining towns, where you were fifty times more likely to die a violent death. Rising crime is a nightly staple on the news at the moment, so it’s useful to get some historical perspective – maybe it’s not that bad?

It didn’t take long for crime to get organized. The first big gang to form was known as the Hounds. Many members were from New York City and had fought in the recently ended Mexican-American War. Once they were discharged they banded together as a kind of militia, running protection rackets, with a particular focus on non-white immigrants, and gambling tents on Kearny Street and Clarke’s Point (now the Embarcadero).

However, after a series of particularly brutal murders, in July 1849, Brannan and several other prominent citizens got together and deputized a couple of hundred “concerned” citizens to confront them. Most of the gang fled.

The next gang to form were the Sydney Ducks, whose members arrived on several ships from the British penal colony in late 1849 (although many were originally from Ireland). They were such a large gang that they were able to totally take-over the neighborhood around Pacific Street and Battery, which became known as Sydney Town. A reporter described it thus:

The upper part of Pacific Street, after dark, is crowded by thieves, gamblers, low women, drunken sailors, and similar characters… Unsuspecting sailors and miners are entrapped by the dexterous thieves and swindlers that are always on the lookout, into these dens, where they are filled with liquor – drugged if necessary, until insensibility coming upon them, they fall an easy victim to their tempters.

The San Francisco Herald, 1851

Between 1849 and 1851 the Sydney Ducks started at least six major fires. Eventually the city grew so fed-up with them that a Vigilance Committee was formed and two of the Ducks, Samuel Whittaker and Robert McKenzie, were arrested, summarily tried and hung on Portsmouth Square. After that most of the gang rapidly left the city.

Nevertheless, crime didn’t disappear, although it was more confined to Sydney Town, which later became known as Barbary Coast in the 1860’s. The term ‘vigilante’ was coined in San Francisco at this time to describe members of the committee.

By the mid-1850’s the biggest problem in terms of crime was civic corruption. A State Senator called David Broderick controlled the nominations to all the public positions, such as tax collector, alderman, sheriff, district attorney etc. Election to these offices was possible only if the candidate agreed to share the fruits of their office – salaries or a portion of the fees – with Broderick. The systematic looting of the city coffers created a financial crisis in San Francisco, which came to a head in 1856.

A crusading newspaperman by the name of James King had published a series of articles about the graft at City Hall and so earned the enmity of Broderick’s friends. One of them, James Casey, shot King outside his offices in May of that year. Within two hours a mob ten thousand strong had appeared in front of the jail (once again led by Brannan), where Casey was being held, demanding his release into their tender hands. The completely outnumbered guards immediately complied.

Within six days King died and before his funeral was even over the second Vigilance Committee had tried and sentenced Casey to death. He was hung from a building overlooking the wharf, along with Charles Cora, who’d shot and killed a U.S. Marshall, after he insulted Cora’s wife at the theatre (Belle Cora, his wife, owned one of the finest brothels in San Francisco at the time).

San Francisco lynching in Gold Rush era
Execution of James Casey and Charles Cora, 1856

There wasn’t a single murder for the following two months and almost no robberies so, in August 1856, the Vigilance Committee voluntarily disbanded. Obviously crime didn’t go away though: Belle Cora herself continued running her house of ill-repute until 1862, when she died of pneumonia and was buried next to her husband.

Even at the time the Vigilance Committees were controversial. No less a figure than William Sherman, who was a bank manager in San Francisco during this period and went on to become a famous general for the Union Army during the U.S. Civil War, wrote:

As [the vigilantes] controlled the press, they wrote their own history, and the world generally gives them the credit of having purged San Francisco of rowdies and roughs; but their success has given great stimulus to a dangerous principle, that would at any time justify the mob in seizing all the power of government; and who is to say that the Vigilance Committee may not be composed of the worst, instead of the best, elements of a community?

Later in life, when recalling a time that he was selling a property in San Francisco during those years, he said:

I can handle a hundred thousand men in battle, and take the City of the Sun, but am afraid to manage a lot in the swamp of San Francisco.

As the century drew to a close much of the criminal activity, especially prostitution and gambling, became concentrated in the Barbary Coast and Maiden Lane neighborhoods.

Gold Rush era crime is an important element of our Notorious SF: Ghost & Crime tour.

Further Effects of the Gold Rush on San Francisco

In 1851 gold was discovered in Northern California, at Yreka. Later, in the 1860’s, there was a Silver Rush known as the Comstock Lode which, although it was located in Nevada, had a big impact on San Francisco. Nob Hill (which we visit on our SF in a Day tour) was developed by four immigrant Irishmen, who became known as ‘the Bonanza Kings’ or ‘the Silver Kings’. And that was one of the key impacts of the Gold and Silver Rushes – although much of the money was carried or sent out of California a lot of it was spent here, especially in San Francisco.

Miners would typically pay for all manner of purchases with gold dust – food, equipment, lodgings, as well as entertainment, such as traveling theatres, gambling, drinking and prostitution. Of course, these vendors would then use the gold to purchase other things, and so the cycle went on, with most of the gold leaving California to purchase goods to be brought here. San Francisco grew, developed and became more mature, even as the Gold Rush receded into the distance. 

By 1860 Yerba Buena Cove had been filled and the waterfront was taking on the shape that it has to this day. The tents had disappeared, to be replaced by wide boulevards and increasingly grand stone and brick buildings and the city was expanding in all directions.

In 1870 the population of San Francisco passed 150,000 inhabitants and it was one of the largest, richest and most famous cities in the world (by comparison Los Angeles had less than five thousand inhabitants at the time and few people outside of Southern California had ever heard of it).

Gradually it became known by a new name, ‘the Paris of the West’, and the “nasty, dirty, sand-hilly” San Francisco of Tyson’s day had disappeared into the history books (although it is still rainy).


California is known as the Golden State, for obvious reasons, and really the California Dream – find gold and get rich, baby! – is the progenitor of the Hollywood Dream Factory. Long before visitors would arrive in Los Angeles hoping to “make it in the movies” the Argonauts came to San Francisco, determined to make their fortune. After gold came silver and then black gold, oil. Moving Picture production was the original tech boom, but now it’s Internet start-ups that are luring the new generation of Forty-Niners.

There’s always a new rush, but essentially the same dream. Reinvention has become a core component in the lure of California for immigrants, both from other states in the U.S. and abroad. It doesn’t matter what you were before, in Cali you can become whatever you desire – if you want it enough.

Needless to say there were many negative effects “Westwards the star of empire takes its way – to fill the coffers of the overrich, who have no thought of the morrow” author and environmentalist Chandler Watson wrote in 1920. The environmental destruction wrought due to the Gold Rush has been immense, and its effects will be felt for thousands of years. The oak and redwood forests of San Francisco, which were home to grizzly bears and otters are, of course, long gone and higher levels of mercury than are safe still leak into the Bay.

Nevertheless, it’s no coincidence that the modern U.S. environmental movement started in California, The Sierra Club was founded in San Francisco in 1892, by John Muir, whose name has been given to the National Park just north of the Golden Gate (which is home to the tallest trees in the world). California now has the toughest environmental protections in the U.S., largely because we’ve seen the damage that unrestricted mineral extraction can do to nature.

The physical impact of the Gold Rush on San Francisco is obvious. The Financial District has literally been built on it, beneath its streets is a veritable graveyard of Gold Rush era ships. A ship-wrecker of that time estimated in his old age that at least a hundred ships are buried under downtown SF. 

The fortunes that were being made here played a huge part in the development of the city. In those days millionaires (a million dollars was still a lot of money back then!) didn’t have shell companies in tax havens on tiny islands in the Caribbean, their money followed them and was invested in projects where they lived.

Accordingly, enormous sums were invested in developing the city and surrounding area and building the cable car lines. Many of today’s biggest companies, such as Wells Fargo, Levi Strauss and, of course, Ghirardelli’s, have their roots in the city at that time. Quite simply the Gold Rush made modern San Francisco, good, bad and indifferent.

Final Thoughts on the Gold Rush

And what of old Sam Brannan, the man who started it all, the first millionaire of the Gold Rush? He died at the age of seventy years old, alone and penniless of course. In a total reversal of his fortunes he didn’t even leave enough money for his own funeral. His body lay unclaimed for an entire year at the morgue in Southern California, before being noticed by chance by someone that knew him and buried with just a simple cross.

Where? Escondido – a name that literally means Hidden Place.

If you have any feedback on How the Gold Rush Created San Francisco please email us or reach out on social media, we’d love to hear from you.

– By Damien Blackshaw (Twitter)

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