Four views of gold rush San Francisco

Growth and progress were rapid in 1849 San Francisco, with people flooding into the port on their way to the gold fields. Activity and excitement were everywhere. J. L. Tyson, a doctor who got to the city on May 19, 1849 complained that everything was too high-pressure and inconsistent with the normal order, pistols fired in rapid succession in every direction, horses carrying drunken riders raced through the streets, colorful serapes and gaudy trappings flapped in the wind. Everywhere men uttered blasphemous oaths. Gambling prevailed with enormous piles of newly mined gold and previously minted coins piled high on monte and roulette tables while the rents the men who ran these games were able to pay drove property prices up to unbelievable levels. Tyson soon left California.

A San Francisco street 1849

San Francisco’s muddy streets

On June 30th of the same year William F. White arrived. He too noted the hustle and bustle as men rushed to do all manner of business, but commented that there was little talking as everyone had a quiet, off hand way of dealing with things. After only a few days observation, White realized that the immigrants pouring into the city fell into three classes. About ten percent were the politicians who had overstayed their welcome back home and had come to California for a new start, and would later develop into treasury thieves and official plunderers. Another tenth were men who thought they could get gold without working and they spent their days idling around the gambling saloons. The rest, a good eighty percent and therefore the great majority, were men who had the will, were earnest and ambitious, and thus were sure to succeed in California.

Stockton Street 1849

George Payson landed on August 28 and found everything done on a monstrous and perverted scale. Wealth greater than the Indies flowed through such a narrow channel, and colossal power was confined in one-story wood and canvas buildings in an awkward, shambling city. Piles of merchandise, bags, boxes, bales and bundles, filled the stores and ran out into the streets. Fat, swollen buckskin bags bursting with gold dust lay on crude counters like frogs with dropsy while pounds and ounces took the place of dollars and cents.

San Francisco 1849

Bayard Taylor, who arrived about the same time, said that the most striking and noticeable change in the new immigrants was an increase in activity and with it a daring spirit that provoked a rise in recklessness. Then, on his return to the city after only a three-week trip to the interior, Taylor remarked with admiration on the improvements that had taken place in San Francisco. Not only had the city grown greatly but seemed to have actually doubled the number of houses.



  1. Dear Mr. Putnam,
    I would like permission to use the photo, “A San Francisco Street 1849” in a display I am putting together in our Heritage Museum. I am doing a Wells Fargo Exhibit, using the original safe used by the first Agent in Angels Camp, J. C. Scribner. I have his original signature on the safe and am doing a little description of his arrival into San Francisco from around the horn in August, 1849.

    I would be happy to credit you for the photo in the description.

    Thank you,
    Chris Gomez
    Ironstone Heritage Museum
    1894 Six Mile Road
    Murphys, CA 95247

    • Chris, to the best of my knowledge that picture is in public domain. It is, after all, over 160 years old. There are some better pictures and some drawings that depict more of San Francisco than this photo. A lot of them are on my site. Usually only the modern photo’s are a problem. Unless I mention it you are free to use any of the photos. Best of luck on your display. John

  2. I just love reading these stories. Thank you so much.

  3. Harold Grice says

    It is my understanding that to feed this bunch, live animals were driven through the street and slaughtered nearby, that is, in the Slaughterhouse district. Would be interesting to learn how certain part of FISCO derived certain names for different districts.

    • People like their meat fresh, Harold, and they didn’t have refrigeration back during the gold rush. When I was a boy we ate with my grandfather every Sunday. We always had fresh chicken from his hen house. It sure was good. Thanks for writing.

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