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News & Tall Tales. 1800s.


Bridge to the Castle.

Bound for California

Wednesday, January 10, 1849
Weekly Wisconsin,
 Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Life in California -- Desertion of Sailors 
Whiskey, Gold Dust and Dissipation

The following letter from a New York captain, indicates that California is running the race of all rich mining countries. Her inhabitants make money fast, but they throw it away equally fast, and for objects too that degrade and sexualize humanity.

We have been favored with the following extracts from letters from Capt. Spring, commanding the ship Huntress, at San Francisco, directed to her owners in this city. New York Journal of Commerce.

SAN FRANCISCO, September. 21, 1841

I arrived at Monterey on the morning of the 10th inst., exactly 142 days from New York.

My chance round the Cape was very fine, and on the 05th day I took an observation in 2 deg. North latitude, and confidently expected to be at Monterey in 15, or at the most 20 days. I had been within four days run of my port 30 days previous to my arrival, enveloped in fog with light winds and calms. On my arrival I found such a state of things existing as it is not easy to describe. The town (if such it may be called) I found entirely deserted. There were to ten men, and about twice that number of women, left in the place. This was in consequence of the discovery of extensive gold mines on the banks of the river Sacramento, about 24 hours run up the river, where I am now lying.

Almost before I had heard of the news myself my crew had got hold of it, and six of them were off. I found there were no facilities whatever for receiving or landing my cargo at Monterey, and being sure I could not be in a worse predicament here than there, I disembarked the troops and agreed with Gov. Mason to proceed to this place.

On my arrival here, I found very much the same state of things as at Monterey. All the vessels in the harbor were deserted by their crews, in many instances by their officers, and in some by their masters. The facility with which any "individual may, with only ordinary industry, pick up, either in what are called the "dry" or the "wet diggings," $2000 or $3000 worth of pure gold, in one month, is too much temptation for most men.

I have not yet begun to discharge. The only lighter to be had here, suitable for taking out my cargo, belongs to the government, and she is out of repair. The quarter-master has been hard at work ever since I have been in, getting her up on the beach. He has employed several house carpenters who came here from Oahu to the mines at $8 to $10 per per day, to do this work.

Nominally, the price of day labor is $5 or $6, but no men are to be obtained, other than Indians or miserable worn-out men, who cannot go, or else have been to the mines, and returned sick. $50 per month are paid for men to go very short distances about on the coast, will the bargain (if the vessel has any yards) that they shall not go aloft. They are for the most part disbanded volunteers, and a more miserable set cannot be found elsewhere in a hospital. No men can be obtained at any price to work out of the usual hours. The more they are paid, the less willing are they to work. 25 cents a glass for grog, and $1 per meal, are the prices paid here. Gold being plenty, every description of goods is consequently high; $39 to $60 per pair for blankets, such as cost $4 in New York; $5 a pair for shoes, and everything pro rata. The charter of a small craft (formerly a long boat,) decked, is $50 per day. The launch of the Peacock, lost on the bar of the Columbia some years since, arrived here yesterday and was sold before night for $2250 in good clean dust, 20 carats fine, at $10 per ounce. Another, which came in from the river the same day, about a year old, of 13 tons, was sold for $4,000. They ask me $6 to $6.50 per dozen for washing. If I could only supply the place of my clothes by the purchase of new at New York prices, I would throw them overboard instead of having them washed.

I left the ship Isaac Walton, only two years old, at Monterey, without a man on board. No one of your men-of-war dare anchor in any of these waters, as they would lose their crews if they did so. At present, common property safe enough, lying anywhere unwatched, too small to be taken much notice of. There is now some danger in returning from the mines as there are those who prefer to take the gold already washed to their hands, than dig a wash for themselves. The most extravagant stories are told of gold found, and the ease with which it is obtained. I have myself seen pieces weighing one, two and three ounces, and in one instance, a lump perfectly pure, weighing more than ten ounces avoirdupois. It is said (my informant is Gov. Mason, who has been on the ground), that parties are digging many miles apart with equal success, and that for hundreds and hundreds of miles all the previous metals are found in great abundance.

San Francisco.Gold Mining in California, 1871.
Gold Mining in California 
Published by Currier & Ives, 1871

When I asked him how much I might believe of the many apparently exaggerated stories that are told respecting the mines, he replied, you may credit almost anything you hear. Gold is sold here now at $10 the ounce; generally has been selling at $5 the ounce. Indeed I have seen a great deal purchased from the common people at the latter price. Can you wonder that the common sailor overlooks his obligation under such circumstances? I am told from good authority that the custom of those who sell liquor at the mines by glass is, to take from the little bag which the customer holds open, a pinch (as of sand) for one glass of bad, watered whiskey. I tried this experiment, and found I could easily take up $1 worth of dust; at the rate of $16 per ounce. Those who have large thumbs, and understand the business, can easily take up six or eight dollars in the same way. A day or two since, a gentleman with whom I am very well acquainted, from the Sandwich Islands, wanted a man to take his trunk from the beach to his lodgings, and seeing an ideal Negro, apparently a runaway from some vessel, he asked him if he would like the job. The fellow cast at him an indignant glance, and turned away from him without deigning a reply, but after he had gone about five steps, he turned round and approached us, drawing from his bosom a small bag of dust, and said, "Do you think I'll lug trunks when I get that much in one day."" He had more than $100.

Since I commenced this, I have seen an intelligent gentleman from Hartford, Connecticut, who had just come down from the mines. He has been absent from this place two months, and although a man of delicate constitution (he came out for his health,) the net proceeds of his expedition amounted to $1500. He gives me a vivid picture of the existing state of affairs up in the gold region. He thinks more than $2,000,000 worth of gold has been collected there this season, and that it may be safely said the mines are inexhaustible.

As you would suppose, vice of every kind, and in the most horrible forms, prevails here. runaway sailors work a while and collect a quantity of dust, which they spend with the same recklessness that they do so much silver at home. They pay 7 or 8 dollars per bottle for liquor, have a 'spree' from which they come out destitute, and then begin again. A great deal of sickness prevails, and as one after another dies, he is thrown aside with the utmost indifference, without even a covering of earth. There has not, as far as I can learn been any quarreling among the diggers. There is so much room for all to operate, that there seems no necessity for any disturbance.

San Francisco.San Francisco.
Panama City: Viewed across the Water

What will be the result of all this I cannot have any idea. I shall improve every opportunity to inform you how I am getting along. I have seen the last man on board an English brig lying near me, hoist his chest out alone, and scull to shore, abandoning the craft in her fate the captain and mates and all the others having gone before.

THE PILGRIMS AT PANAMA. "A letter in this city, says the Albany Atlas, states that the thousands of adventurers who are now congregated on the Isthmus, wailing passage to San Francisco, are suffering greatly, and have already been compelled to kill their jackasses and mules for food, and pay $100 a week for board. The next steam vessel does not leave Panama till the 15th of February. These new crusaders will at last be compelled to take possession of, and levy contributions upon the cities of the Isthmus." The Evening Post thinks that the Pacific steamers will not dare to stop at Panama, and it gives a sensible reason:

"Neither life nor property on the ship or on the shore would be secure, so desperate would the people have become, as they found their means of living and their health wasting in a wilderness, from which there would be no refuge without money, and hardly with."

Immigration at the Golden Gate: Passenger Ships, Exclusion, and Angel IslandImmigration at the Golden Gate. Immigration to California.
Robert Eric Barde
Perhaps 200,000 immigrants passed through the Angel Island Immigration Station during its lifetime, a tiny number compared to the 17 million who entered through New York's Ellis Island.

Nonetheless, Angel Island's place in the consciousness of Americans on the West Coast is large and out of proportion to the numerical record. Angel Island's Immigration Station was not, as some have called it, the Ellis Island of the West, built to facilitate the processing and entry of those welcomed as new Americans. Its role was less benign: to facilitate the exclusion of Asians, starting with the Chinese, then Japanese, Koreans, Indians, and all other Asians.

The Children of Chinatown: Growing Up Chinese American in San Francisco, 1850-1920Children of Chinatown. 
Wendy Rouse Jorae

Family Skeletons: Exploring the Lives of our Disreputable Ancestors.San Francisco. Family Skeletons.
Simon Fowler, Ruth Paley
Most families have a skeleton. You may have already discovered yours via the grapevine or your own research. Or you may simply be intrigued by the dark side of our past. This popular history explores the behaviour of our disreputable ancestors from the unfortunate to the criminal, and introduces a host of colourful characters including 17th century witches, 18th century 'mollies' and Victorian baby farmers. Thematically arranged by skeleton, the text also describes how society punished and provided for its 'offenders' - as well as the changing attitudes that could ultimately bring acceptance.

Italy on the Pacific: San Francisco's Italian Americans (Italian and Italian American Studies)Italians in San Francisco.
Palgrave Hardcover)
Sebastian Fichera
San Francisco’s Italian immigrant experience is shown to be the polar opposite of Chicago’s. San Francisco’s Italian immigrants are shown as reintegrating into the host society fairly smoothly, whereas the Chicago group’s assimilation process broke down in dramatic ways.

Migration in World History.Migration in World HistoryMigration in World History. 
(Themes in World History) 
Patrick Manning
Drawing on examples from a wide range of geographical regions and thematic areas, noted world historian Patrick Manning guides the reader through trade patterns, including the early Silk Road and maritime trade, effect of migration on empire and industry, earliest human migrations, major language groups, various leading theories around migration.

Russian San Francisco (Images of America)Russian San Francisco. (Images of America)
Lydia B. Zaverukha, Nina Bogdan, Foreward by Ludmila Ershova, PhD.
Even before San Francisco was founded as a city, Russian visitors, explorers, and scientists sailed to the area and made contact with both the indigenous people and representatives of the Spanish government. Although the Russian commercial colony of Fort Ross closed in 1842, the Russian presence in San Francisco continued and the community expanded to include churches, societies, businesses, and newspapers. Some came seeking opportunity, while others were fleeing religious or political persecution.

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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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