Ulysses Grant in gold rush California

Arriving at last in San Francisco after an arduous and deadly trek across Panama, Ulysses S. Grant spent several days in the city where he observed the steamships that arrived every afternoon from Sacramento or Stockton filled with miners, gold in their pockets, looking for a good time. The waterfront teemed with men of good character and glib tongues who were more than willing to show these miners the places to go for that good time in return for drinks and a meal. California could be a shock for someone who had spent his savings to cross the continent by wagon or paid even more for a steamer to Panama and a second steamer here. Whatever money was left was quickly eroded by prices many times higher than in the east. Often men were forced to find work before they’d ever had a chance to dip a gold pan in a cold mountain stream.

Grant’s unit was soon moved to the Benicia Barracks along the Carquinez straight between San Pablo Bay, the large bay just north of San Francisco Bay, and the Suisun Bay, into which flowed both major rivers of gold rush transportation, the Sacramento and the San Joaquin. Established in 1847 as a home for the 2nd Infantry and the 3rd Artillery Regiments the area now held the first supply depot in the west and had recently been renamed the Benicia Arsenal. It remained in operation until the 1960s.

Benicia Barracks, 1850

From Benicia Grant was shipped north to the Columbia Barracks next to the Hudson Bay Company’s Fort Vancouver along the Columbia River in the Oregon Territory. The fort had been built in 1824 by the fur trading company as it’s western outpost and was linked by a chain of forts across Canada all the way to the headquarters at York Factory along the Hudson Bay. Here Grant noted how vulnerable the local tribes were to measles and small pox, treating themselves in traditional fashion by a hot sweat bath in a specially made lodge followed by a dip in ice cold water. Invariably those stricken quickly died. But when a doctor at the fort set up a special hospital for them and treated their illness in a more scientific manner almost every one recovered.

Fort Vancouver 1845

In July 1853 Lt. Grant was promoted to Captain and placed in charge of a company headquartered at Humboldt Bay. It was here, in the northwest of California that the logging operations that supplied the massive building going on in San Francisco and other Gold Rush towns was undertaken. The towering redwood trees were felled, sawn into planks and shipped south on a number of lumber schooners, but in order for Grant to get there he had to sail first to San Francisco then take one of those schooners north to his new command. While in San Francisco again he notes in his journal the large number of eating, drinking and gambling houses located along the waterfront, now mostly abandoned piers in areas that may have been partly filled in with sand from the nearby dunes. Grant points out that there are places where the walks are broken and a man with perhaps too much to drink might fall through and drown without anyone the wiser for it. Whatever happened to Grant during this stay in the city we may never know, but not long after his arrival at Humboldt Bay he resigned his commission rather than face trial for what was likely an alcohol related offense. He soon returned to the east.

Fort Humboldt


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