The Story of San Francisco by Ella M. Sexton

The Mission and Presidio of San Francisco were founded in 1776 by Father Palou, and two little settlements grew up around the fort and at the church. The Presidio was built where it is now, and ships used to anchor in the bay in front of it, though the whalers usually went to Sausalito to get wood from the hills and to fill their water-casks at a large spring. From early Mission times the Spanish name of Yerba Buena was given to that part of San Francisco's peninsula between Black Point and Rincon Point. Ship-captains and sailors soon found out that the cove or bay east of Yerba Buena was the best and least windy place to anchor their vessels, and later on hundreds of ships found a safe harbor there. The name Yerba Buena, or good herb, was given on account of a little creeping vine with sweet-smelling leaves which covered the ground and is still found on the sand-dunes and Presidio hills.

For many years the small settlements made no progress, and the rest of the peninsula was covered with thick woods, where the grizzly bear, wolf, and coyote roamed, while deer were plenty at the Presidio. Then in 1835 Governor Figueroa, the Mexican ruler of California, directed that a new town should be started at Yerba Buena cove. The first street, called the "foundation-street," was laid out from Pine and Kearny streets, as they are called to-day, to North Beach. The first house was built by Captain Richardson on what is now Dupont Street, between Clay and Washington. The next year a trader named Jacob Leese built a store. It was finished on the Fourth of July, and in honor of the day he gave a feast and a fandango, or dance, at which the company danced that night and all the next day. This was the first Fourth celebrated in the place.

Two or three years later a new survey laid out streets between Broadway and California, Montgomery and Powell. A fresh-water lagoon, or lake, was near the present corner of Montgomery and Sacramento, and an Indian temescal, or sweat-house, beside it. The bay came up to Montgomery Street then, with five feet of water at Sansome, and mudflats to the east. During the gold excitement of '49, when hundreds of ships dropped anchor in the bay, many sailors deserted to go to the mines, and some of the old vessels were hauled in on these mud-flats and made into storehouses. All that part of the city east of Montgomery Street is filled or made ground, and when new buildings are to be started wooden piles or cement piers must go down to get a firm foundation.

Until 1846 only about thirty families lived at Yerba Buena. Then a shipload of Mormon emigrants arrived and pitched their tents in the sand-hills. Samuel Brannan, their leader, printed the first newspaper, The California Star, in '47. That year also the first alcalde, or mayor, of the new town, Lieutenant Bartlett, appointed an engineer named O'Farrell to lay out more streets. He surveyed Market Street and mapped down blocks as far west on the sand-dunes as Taylor Street and to Rincon Point or South Beach. He gave the names of such well-known men as Kearny, Stockton, Larkin, Guerrero, and Geary to these streets. Mission Street was the road to the Mission Dolores, and about this time Bartlett ordered that the Presidio, the Mission, and Yerba Buena should be one town and should be called San Francisco.

Then came the gold fever, and nearly every one left town to go to the mines. Many people sold all they had to get money to buy mining tools and food enough to live on till they struck gold. Men started for the mines, leaving their houses and stores alone with no one to care for goods or furniture.

But news of the finding of gold had reached other places, and soon ships from the Atlantic coast, Mexico, and all over the world began sailing into San Francisco Bay. In '49 the first steamer, the California, arrived from New York, and soon five thousand people were in San Francisco, where most of the supplies for the gold-fields had to be bought. Many of the newcomers lived in canvas tents or brush-covered shanties scattered about in the high sand-hills or in the thick chaparral. Some houses were built of adobe bricks, and the two-story frame Parker House was thought to be so fine that it rented for fifteen thousand dollars a month. Some wooden houses were brought out from the East in numbered pieces, like children's blocks, to be put together here, and others thought to be fireproof were of iron plates made in the East.

The first public school was opened in '48 and in the same building church services were held Sundays. The first post-office was in a store at the corner of Washington and Montgomery streets in '49. By 1850 the city had five square miles of land that had been cut down from sand-hills or filled in on the mud-flats. The houses along the city-front were built on piles, and the tide ebbed and flowed under them. Long wharves for the unloading of ships ran out into deep water. At Jackson and Battery streets a ship was used for a storehouse, and after the earth was filled in this stranded vessel was left standing among the houses. On Clay and Sansome streets the old hulk Niantic had a hotel upon her decks, and the first city prison was in the hold of the brig Euphemia.

While most of the miners were steady, hard-working men, honest, and very kind and generous to each other, some drank and gambled their hard-earned gold-dust away with a get of men who were ready to do any wrong thing for money. The gamblers and bad characters grew so troublesome by '51 that the police could do little or nothing with them. Every day some one was robbed, or murdered, and thieves often set fire to houses that they might plunder. As the judges and police could not control these criminals, nearly two hundred good citizens formed a "vigilance committee." It was agreed that bad characters should be told to leave town, and that robbers and murderers should be punished by the committee. Not long after, the vigilance committee hanged four men, and roughs and law-breakers left town for the mines. Men soon learned to keep the laws and do right.

Since almost all the houses in San Francisco were light frames of wood covered with cloth or paper, and since there was no fire department, there were six great fires, each of which nearly burnt up the town. The only way to stop the flames was to pull down houses or to blow them up with gunpowder. But almost before the ashes of one fire had cooled, wooden, cloth and paper buildings would cover whole blocks, to be burned again before long. The fifth great fire, in '51, destroyed a thousand houses and ten million dollars' worth of property in a night. One warehouse containing many barrels of vinegar was saved by covering the roof with blankets dipped in the vinegar, as no water could be had. The iron houses that had been thought fire-proof were of no use. Men who stayed in them found too late that the iron doors swelled with the heat and could not be opened, so that those within were smothered to death.

Then people began to guard against such fires by building new houses of stone or of brick. The sixth great fire destroyed most of the wooden buildings in the business part of the city. After that, with two or three fire companies and engines and better houses, people no longer dreaded the fire-bell. Water was piped into the city from Mountain Lake, and there was plenty for all purposes.


So the city grew larger, until in '53 there were fifty thousand people of all races and countries who called San Francisco home. Chinese and Japanese, the Mexican, African, Pacific Islander, Greek, or Turk, or Malay elbowed crowds of Americans, English, French, and Germans. It was said that any foreigner could find in the city those who spoke his language, and that gold was a word all knew.

The largest yield of gold from the mines was in '53, and the next year was a poor year for the miners. They bought fewer goods in San Francisco, and the storekeepers found business falling off. Too many houses had been built, so rents went down and times were hard for a year or two. In '55 there were many bank failures, and business troubles of all kinds made the people restless, and roughs and murderers carried a strong hand. Then the "law and order party," as the vigilance committee was at that time called, began once more the task of punishing those who robbed or killed. A list of criminal offenders was made out, and such were sent away from the state. One excellent result of the vigilance committee's labors was that a "people's party," as it was called, chose the best men to govern the city, and for years after peace and order were in San Francisco.

In '54 the city was lighted with gas for the first time, at a cost of fifteen dollars a thousand feet. In that year also the mint began to coin money from gold-dust, making five, ten and twenty-dollar pieces. Lone Mountain Cemetery was laid out about this time, and the old Yerba Buena graveyard, where the City Hall now stands, was closed.

San Francisco had, for some years, trouble about titles to property, owing to false or defective land-grants given by the Mexicans. Men tried to take possession of lots they had no real claim to by building a shanty on the ground and squatting there, and the "squatter troubles" between such land thieves and the rightful owners caused lawsuits and shooting affairs. A land commission finally settled these disputes, throwing out all the false claims and giving titles to the proper persons.


The little village of Yerba Buena has now grown to be the largest city on the Pacific coast and one that is known the world over. It is widely and justly celebrated as the centre of great manufacturing and shipping interests, for its fine buildings, its climate, and its beautiful surroundings. San Francisco Bay, the harbor the Franciscans named for their patron saint, is noted for its picturesque scenery. Golden Gate Park, with its thousand acres of trees and lawn and flowers stretching out to the Pacific Ocean, the famous Cliff House, and the Golden Gate, through which so many Argonauts sailed into California, are the most attractive and best known places.