Tag Archives: california

San Francisco in the 1850s

A traveler arriving by boat to San Francisco in the 1850s would have been greeted by a weird sight: hundreds of square-rigged vessels drifting empty in the bay, abandoned by would-be gold hunters who had no further use for them.

San Francisco was discovered by the Spanish in 1769. A desolate area of sand dunes and hills, for nearly a century it boasted little more than a chapel and a few huts. In 1848 its population was around 500. In that year, gold was discovered at nearby Sutter’s Mill, and by 1850, the sleepy village had exploded into a boomtown of 30,000 people.

The area was a natural port. The first prospectors to arrive lay planks between the wharves to serve as makeshift bridges; these soon became city streets. Beyond the wharves lay hundreds of tents and shacks constructed from boards ripped from abandoned boats. The buildings were connected by swampy dirt roads and hastily-constructed sidewalks made of flour sacks, old stoves, tobacco boxes, and in one instance, a grand piano.

By 1853 this shantytown was one of the biggest cities in the nation, with 46 gambling halls, 144 taverns and 537 places that sold liquor. Rowdy young men roamed the streets, looking to spend their gold as fast as they found it. Fortunes were made by those who sold goods and services to the miners; eggs went for a dollar apiece, a pound of butter for six dollars, a pair of boots for a hundred. Many of the newly-rich moved directly from shacks into mansions.

Ninety-two percent of the population were men between fifteen and forty-four years of age. The mere rumor of a female arriving in town could cause the saloons to empty and a crowd to gather at the docks. With only one woman to every dozen men, brothels flourished; the going rate was 100 dollars a night, roughly the price of a house.

Violence in the city was rampant; although a police system was put in place, disputes over land were most often settled by force. Mob rule prevailed, and vigilante groups defied public authority, intimidating or even abducting and imprisoning those foolish enough to serve as public officials. The murder rate hovered at about five murders every six days. It was a particularly dangerous place for new arrivals from Australia; viewed by the locals as rabble from a penal colony, they were often accused of crimes and hanged without the benefit of a trial.

Despite these wild-west tendencies, from the beginning San Francisco also had a strong progressive element. The opportunity for adventure and sudden wealth drew not only capitalists and criminals, but intellectuals as well. By 1853 the city supported a dozen newspapers and a strong community of writers, and was home to more college graduates than any other city in the United States. It quickly became the most cultured city on the West Coast, with many of the roughest-hewn gold prospectors also avid theatergoers. From its earliest days, San Francisco was tolerant, even fascinated, by anything different; then, as today, the city balanced peril with progressiveness, crime with culture.

(Chang 34-36)

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The Tulsa Race Riot

The late 1910s witnessed a wave of white-on-black racial violence throughout the American West. Major race riots included those in Houston (1917), East St. Louis (1917), Chicago (1919), Elaine, Arkansas (1919) and Omaha, Nebraska (1919).

The last and worst of this wave of racial violence erupted in Tulsa, Oklahoma on May 31, 1921. Tulsa was at that time a rapidly growing city, mostly white but with a sizeable and prosperous black population; the city was tightly segregated, and the homes and businesses of black middle-class families were centered in an area called Greenwood.

The incident began when a black man named Dick Rowland was falsely accused by some white men of having made advances upon a white girl. Rowland was arrested and locked in a courthouse jail; that afternoon, a white newspaper announced in bold headlines that there would be a lynching that night.

A group of Greenwood’s leading citizens and property owners decided to intervene. At dusk, about two dozen got their guns and drove to the courthouse. Already a white mob of several hundred was assembled. Approaching the sheriff, the Greenwood men offered their services; the sheriff informed them that he had already contacted the National Guard, and that the situation was under control. The men, convinced for the moment, got in their cars and returned to Greenwood.

Meanwhile, the white mob was growing. At some point, part of the mob tried to break into the National Guard armory to seize guns and ammunition; the Guard held them off but failed to disperse them. News of the escalation reached Greenwood; this time, from 50 to 75 men assembled and returned to the courthouse.

No one knows who fired the first shot, but someone did, and a riot broke out. The Greenwood men, outnumbered 75 to 3,000, managed to fight their way out of downtown and back toward their own neighborhood. The white mob followed them; fighting continued all night, and sometime the next morning, Greenwood began to burn. In broad daylight, as their homes and businesses went up in flames, as many as 6,000 blacks were rounded up and force-marched to internment centers.

The destruction continued all day. White newspaper photographers followed the mob and took pictures of the burning buildings. The National Guard did nothing to stop the violence; the whites freely continued destroying property as they chose.

The number of deaths due to the violence was never accurately established. Estimates range from 30 to 300 persons dead; perhaps half of these were white men. More than 1,000 homes and businesses in Greenwood were destroyed; black Tulsa lay in ruins. White officials at the city and state levels openly blamed the riot on the small group of black men who had arrived downtown with guns. Many black families left the city, never to return.

The violence in Tulsa began a panic in Los Angeles, when rumors of a Klan riot began to circulate; reportedly, black Los Angeles had been scheduled for the “Tulsa treatment” on July 4.

But it didn’t happen. Los Angeles was a very different place from Tulsa, Oklahoma. Tulsa was a southern-style city, and Greenwood was the kind of all-black neighborhood that didn’t exist in the cities of the West Coast. In places like Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle, blacks lived and worked in mixed neighborhoods, interspersed with whites, Mexicans, and Asians. There would be no way to attack the “black district” without destroying the property of many non-blacks. This diversity could not, of course, prevent violence on an individual basis, but it may explain why the cities of the West Coast escaped the race riots so prevalent during this period.

(Flamming 130-133)


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Biddy Mason

Biddy Mason was born in Georgia. A slave, she was purchased by aspiring cotton planter Robert Smith, and brought to the cotton frontier of Mississippi.

Smith’s efforts at growing cotton were unsuccessful;¬† he didn’t even manage to acquire his own land. So when the Latter-day Saints decided to build their new Zion at Salt Lake City, Smith and his wife, who had recently converted to Mormonism, decided to emigrate. By the end of 1848, Biddy Mason found herself living in Utah.

The next year she was uprooted again, this time to California. In the wake of the Gold Rush, Mormon leaders had seen fit to establish an outpost in the hills around San Bernardino, where they hoped to successfully raise cattle. The perpetually-struggling Robert Smith volunteered to join the San Bernardino colony.

By the time Biddy Mason arrived in California, it had joined the Union as a free state. Although the state constitution was not clear on the legalities, free blacks and white abolitionists in California were actively taking steps to free the slaves brought to the new state. Among such local activists were a family by the name of Owens.

Robert Owens had once been a slave in Texas. He had managed to purchase his own freedom and then that of his wife; together they had worked to purchase the freedom of their three children. Then Owens had moved his family to the sleepy little town of Los Angeles, California, where he established successful livery stable and cattle business. After the Mormons moved to the area, the Owens family became acquainted with Biddy Mason, who was still being held in slavery by Robert Smith.

Sometime in the mid-1850s, Robert Smith had a disagreement with the Mormon leadership, who then took him to court and successfully sued him for the possession of his land and cattle. Disgruntled, Smith decided to leave California for a new start in the slave state of Texas. He intended to take with him his few remaining possessions, including his slave, Biddy Mason.

The Owens family, with the help of sympathetic neighbors and the county sheriff, acted quickly. The Smith family and their slaves were already camped outside Los Angeles, preparing for the trip to Texas, when the authorities showed up and took the slaves and their children into protective custody.

The judge at the trial happened to be a southerner and former slave owner, Benjamin Hayes. Nevertheless, Hayes ruled that, because California was a free state, Smith did not have the right to make Biddy and the other slaves leave. They were, by California law, “forever free.”

After gaining her freedom in 1856, Biddy Mason stayed in Los Angeles. She and her daughters moved in with the Owens family; one of her daughters married an Owens son, and Mason soon became a grandmother. She worked as a domestic and became known as a dependable midwife. Then in 1859 a successful local physician offered her a job as his assistant, for the excellent wage of $2.50 per hour.

Mason¬† saved her money, invested in real estate, then eventually built a home which became a place of meeting for the city’s several dozen black citizens.

As the value of her properties grew, she became a wealthy woman and a notable humanitarian. She founded a day-care center, visited prisoners in jail, and aided the poor and homeless. In 1872 she helped local black Methodists establish the First African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Perhaps most importantly, she became a leader in the black community and served as a role model and an inspiration for others – a slave woman who had found freedom and prosperity in the American West.

(Flamming 21-59)


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Early Mail Service in the West

In the years between the California Gold Rush of 1849 and the beginning of the Civil War, only about 2 percent of the entire population of the United States lived in the West and Southwest; two-thirds of those lived in California.

If you lived in California during that period, to get a letter in the mail could take forever. Homesick young men who were separated from their families and working in the gold fields could wait from three or four weeks to six months for news from home, by which time, of course, the news could be hopelessly out of date.

Most letters coming from the East would travel in wagons along a meandering, 2700-mile-long trail called the Butterfield Overland Mail Company Route. It went southwest from St. Louis, meandered down to El Paso, then up through California to San Francisco; it was more commonly known as the Oxbow Route. Other letters went by steamships down the Atlantic coast to Panama, crossed the isthmus by mule train or railroad, and then traveled up the Pacific coast. Another route went around Cape Horn; this method could take six months, depending on the weather.

Letters were delivered to the miners by entrepreneurial independent mail contractors. These operations were nothing more than a man, his mule, and a 100-pound sack of mail. The amateur mailman would pick up the mail from the post office in Sacramento or San Francisco, and then ride through the country from one mining operation to another searching for the recipients of the letters. Grateful miners would pay for the letters in gold dust, sometimes as much as an ounce per letter; the equivalent today would be more than $300 per letter. (One of these entrepreneurs, Alexander H. Todd, accumulated $250,000 worth of gold dust in this way; in today’s value, over $4.5 million.)

Other miners, impatient for news, would leave their holdings in the hills and come down to the cities to wait for the arrival of the mail steamers. They would wait in line at the Post Office for days, or pay other men to wait for them. Some would pay quantities of gold dust for better places in line, and some opportunists would stand in line even if they weren’t expecting mail, just so they could sell their spot.

Because mail delivery was so sketchy, alternative methods were tried. Two men, George Chorpenning and Absolom Woodward, contracted with the US Postal Service to haul mail from Sacramento to Salt Lake City on mules; Woodward was killed en route by Indians, and Chorpenning completed the trip, then spent the rest of his life petitioning Congress for compensation. Then the government tried camels; seventy-five were purchased in Saudi Arabia for the purpose. But the rocky terrain proved too hard on their hooves, and westerners could not get the hang of working with the unfamiliar beasts. The camels terrified horses and mules; just the smell of a camel could cause a stampede. Some of the camels wandered off into the wilderness, never to be seen again; the rest were eventually sold to circuses.

During the same period, virtually all overland freight service in the US was provided by a company called Russell, Majors & Waddell. They were famous, the FedEx of their day. Goods were shipped by them on miles-long trains of Conestoga wagons pulled by oxen. In the spring of 1860, inspired by a spectacular feat of horsemanship, the company decided to get into the mail delivery game.

A decade earlier, a horseman named Francis Xavier Aubery had completed a series of heroic one-man cross country rides that made him famous in his day. Using a relay of horses, he was able to make the trip from Santa Fe to Independence in less than two weeks; his fastest trip took only five days and thirteen hours. It was a trip that normally took two or three months. The feat, which he performed on a thousand-dollar bet, nearly killed him, and he slept for twenty hours after his arrival.

In 1860, Russell, Majors & Waddell became convinced that expert riders on good horses could replicate Aubery’s feat and provide high-speed mail delivery to the West. Their plan was to use a relay system and deliver the mail day or night, in all weather, in ten days or less. They established a subsidiary business for this purpose, calling it the Central Overland California & Pike’s Peak Express Company. We remember it today as the Pony Express.

Although men wagered that the feat was impossible, the Pony Express was miraculously successful in its mission. Riders would change every one hundred miles, handing off the twenty-pound “mochila” full of letters to the next rider, who would resume the trip. It cost five dollars to send a letter by this method.

The Pony Express operated for about eighteen months, until the fall of 1861, when the Civil War and the completion of the transcontinental telegraph made the whole venture, and the whole problem of mail delivery in the West, suddenly a thing of the past.

(Corbett 17-36)

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