SO: True. There’s just so much to learn and studying history doesn’t happen in a vacuum. AM: True. SO: So when we started this project, our minds were understandably preoccupied with questions of contagious diseases. AM: And, naturally, one of the topics which caught our attention was the Bubonic Plague of 1900-1904, which reached San Francisco through ships coming from the Pacific. The plague also became racialized and politicized as a disease brought about by Chinese immigration. There was considerable room for maritime-related interpretation -- and for an exploration of how and why that plague has parallels with the COVID-19 pandemic today. SO: As Anne said, we felt we needed to learn as much on the subject and understand its nuances as much as we could. Research sent us farther down--as we're fond of saying on this podcast [AM laughs]--more and more rabbit holes. Then we discovered that understanding anything about the plague meant understanding layer upon layer of San Francisco's history. This dates all the way back before the Gold Rush, to the vision of the Golden Gate as a, quote-unquote, “gateway to trade with the Orient.” AM: We then realized that the plague, the Gold Rush -- and so many other things we'd discovered in between -- were also related to two maritime topics we had each independently been studying. One was sexual slavery in Chinatown and the Barbary Coast. The other was debt peonage among the so-called, quote-unquote “China Gang” on ships like the Star of Alaska, which is called in our park by its original name, Balclutha. The narrative and thematic focus of our podcast came to take shape significantly around the Chinese-American experience. SO: Yet, as we began working on all these topics, parsing their relationship with the present and forming the framework for this series, our attention--and, I think it’s safe to say, the country’s attention--was turned again. AM: With the wrongful deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor--among so many, many other Black lives lost this year and before-- the nation’s focus as well as our own shifted and we want to address the movement for justice and the protection and respect of Black lives. SO: So while we start this podcast with some focus on the Chinese-American experience, that won’t be the only one we’re sharing. After all, there is never a single story -- especially not when talking about history. AM: We hope that in continuing this work and thinking critically about the stories we tell and the stories which have always been told to us, we will spark curiosity, ignite discussion, and normalize questioning personal bias. We hope we will all reconsider how these biases frame not only the way we look at history, but also the history we choose to look at. SO: Or the history that we are told to look at. AM: Or the history we don’t realize we’re looking at. SO: I think we can hash that out as episodes go along. AM: I think you’re right. SO: But, for our listeners out there...if you’re still with us [AM chuckles] -- you’ll now hear the first episode in our series, Better Lives, Bitter Lies. This was originally recorded in April 2020 and it takes the first steps into questioning the narratives we know. AM: We hope you enjoy it!
AM: Hi, Sabrina! SO: Hi, Anne! What have we got going on today? AM: Well, I thought we could talk about the most common question we get as park guides at San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park. SO: Do you mean besides “Where’s the bathroom?” AM: [laughs] For the purposes of this podcast, yes… SO: Well, since Hyde Street Pier is located on the edge of the San Francisco Bay, it has to be about the bridge. AM: Which bridge? SO: That’s a good point! You can see both the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge from our park when the weather’s good…. But very few visitors ask me first about the Bay Bridge. They want to know about the beautiful, bright orange gateway to the west-- the Golden Gate. AM: Given how foggy San Francisco can get, I usually get questions about when and if the fog will lift and if we can normally see the bridge. SO: Reality check -- not always! AM: But I love when people ask why it’s called the Golden Gate Bridge. SO: You do? AM: I do! Because I got it wrong the first time! I thought it had to do with the color of the bridge or the way it’s illuminated at sunset. SO: I thought that, too! But that’s not the case, right? AM: Nope! Though the color of the bridge--Golden Gate Bridge International Orange--is now so famous that it has its own color coordinates. The Golden Gate Bridge is actually named for the strait that it crosses--the Golden Gate! SO: Are you ready to have your mind blown even more? AM: Always.
[audio pause/music cue]
SO: So we have the Golden Gate Strait, right, and then the Bridge. I’m sure we’ve both heard of the Golden State Warriors. What else comes into your mind when you think of gold and San Francisco? AM: The Gold Rush! Is that how the strait got its name? [Mmmm.] Because it was the gate ships sailed through for people to reach the gold fields? SO: That’s certainly one way of seeing it. Or how people also got to see it. But believe it or not, no. The explorer John C. Fremont named the strait in 1846. That’s two years before gold was famously discovered in Northern California. AM: John C. Fremont...The “Pathfinder”? [Mhm] Besides being an educator, presidential candidate, one-time military governor of California, he was the United States explorer who led surveying expeditions to the west coast between 1838 and 1854, right? [Mhm] I’ve heard that his expeditions are responsible for the majority of the early federal mapping of the territory between the Mississippi River Valley and the Pacific Ocean. And his published reports certainly seemed to capture imaginations back east. SO: Yes! And speaking of east -- Fremont had an idea of something even farther “West” than Oregon or California. Considering their natural resources, considering their geography, Fremont saw the West Coast’s potential for trading with China and East India -- in other words, Asia, or what’s been traditionally viewed in Europe and America as “the East.” That brings us back to the naming of the strait.
SO: Fremont specifically said it’s “a golden gate to trade with the Orient.” But he didn’t just name it in plain English. AM: Of course not. SO: Nope. He used the Greek term “Chrysopylae”, which means just that: golden gate. He based it on the name of another famous harbor: the Chrysoceras in ancient Byzantium. Otherwise known as the Golden Horn of the Bosphorus strait in modern-day Istanbul. AM: Wow! SO: Yeah! And I’m going to go on and on here, because I find this whole concept of “Chrysos” and gold and their mythical connotations fascinating. And it seemed to be on Fremont’s mind too. Later, he supported the idea of a Pacific railroad connecting the east and west coasts. This was related to a vision of building up the U.S. as an economic power. Goods from Asia didn’t need to go through Europe to get to America. America would be at the center between Asia and Europe instead. [AM: Huh!] Here’s what he said to the newspaper National Intelligencer in 1854. With a railroad, to quote “the golden vein which runs through the history of the world, will follow the iron track to San Francisco, and the Asiatic trade will finally fall into its last and permanent road, when the ancient and the modern Chryse throw open their gates to the thoroughfare of the world.”
[audio pause/music cue]
AM: You’ve had too much time to read during shelter-in-place, haven’t you? SO: Well. Haven’t you? AM: Touché. I’ve tried to keep to historical texts, but the same event and person can be portrayed in so many different ways. It becomes so hard to tell what actually happened and what makes a tidy narrative. In fact, I’m guilty of sculpting a tidy narrative within this conversation. I talked about John C. Fremont’s heralded roles and the popularity he gained from his expeditions, but what about his infamy? SO: Hm Fremont supported the Bear Flag Republic, he was appointed military governor of California by Stockton and refused to give up the post when General Stephen Kearny arrived in California with orders from Washington to establish a government. Fremont was eventually arrested, sent to Washington, D.C., and between 1847 and 1848 was court-martialed for, quote, “mutiny, disobedience, and conduct prejudicial to military discipline”. SO: I don’t think that was a path he ever thought he would find himself on! AM: I certainly hope not! Of course, that isn’t the end of his story. President Polk set aside his penalty for court-martial and Fremont returned to California in time to profit from the Gold Rush. In 1850, he would go on to become one of the first two U.S. senators of California [Huh!]; lead an expedition into Utah Territory between 1853 and 1854, and even be nominated for the presidency in 1856! SO: And to bring his story back closer to home, in the 1860s, John and his wife, Jessie Benton Fremont, actually LIVED above the Golden Gate strait. [Wow!] In fact, they lived just above where our park is now, on the land by Muni Pier known then as Black Point. Jessie wrote with great fondness of this residence, saying that she loved it so much she “had joy even in the tolling of the fogbell”. AM: Which, if the fog was anything like it is today, must have been heard at any time of day or night! How long did the Fremonts live on their farm in Black Point? SO: Um, they got the property in about 1860, but by the end of 1863, the military took over Black Point to build more fortifications for the Civil War. This paved the way for Black Point becoming part of what is now Upper Fort Mason. AM: Black Point Cove, of course, would become known as Aquatic Park Cove in the 1930s, when the park was built around it. SO: My favorite topic! But, as much as I would love to say that Aquatic Park was the defining construction project of that decade, I can’t. [AM: Hm!] So many of San Francisco’s iconic structures were built then. Coit Tower. The Bay Bridge. And we come right back to the most iconic of all.
[audio pause/music cue]
AM: Construction for the Golden Gate Bridge began in 1933, but the idea was conceived as early as 1916. The City formally launched a feasibility study in 1919, and the 1920s then saw a lot of consulting, reviewing proposals, securing funds, getting permissions -- as well as earning support. Today, it’s easy to think that the Golden Gate Bridge was always just so popular and beloved, but there was quite the opposition. SO: Yeah! People were concerned it was too expensive, too risky, too undoable. AM: And people worried about what it might do. For example, we’ve mentioned the military presence along the coast. The Navy feared ships would crash into the bridge and block the bay’s entrance, or maybe enemies would sabotage the bridge. Ferry companies worried the bridge would harm their business -- and they were right. As we know from the history of Eureka in our park, [Mhm] both the Golden Gate and Bay bridges signaled the beginning of the end of ferries filling the bay. And there were groups that opposed the bridge, worried about environmental damage, or that the bridge would ruin the strait’s natural beauty. SO: Wait, wait. Speaking of natural beauty, earlier you mentioned that the bridge’s color, International Orange, has its own color coordinates. Can you go further into that color choice? AM: Absolutely! Color choice was definitely a big part of the planning process. See, up to that point, bridges tended to be black, gray, or silver. That would have been the conventional choice… and would have made the bridge disappear in the fog. The Navy wanted the bridge to be yellow and black [SO laughs] so it would be easier to see by passing ships. The Army Air Corps wanted it red and white to be noticeable from the air. SO: So, you’re saying we could have had the Candy Cane Bridge?! [AM laughs] Is that better than the Bumblebee Bridge? You know, the Silver Strait Bridge has a ring to it... AM: But the people, the locals, were having none of that grayscale business for this bridge. They wanted aesthetics to match the sea, the hills, the light. The towers had been built first; the primer painted on the steel was red; and they loved how the red looked. So they wrote as much to the consulting architect, Irving Morrow, who had noticed the red primer, and understood everyone’s concern. Morrow completely believed the bridge was going to be, quote, “one of the greatest monuments of all time.” He didn’t want the wrong color to undermine its form, size, or scale. Ultimately, Morrow chose what he then called orange vermillion, or red lead. As we can now see -- no matter if it’s a clear or foggy day -- this shade looks beautiful with the blue, green, and gray all around it. SO: So the name Golden Gate didn’t really figure in the color choice. Not that a literal golden bridge would have looked good. AM: No. But in the right light, like the strait itself, the bridge looks golden, anyway. SO: Literally and figuratively. Can I read from an old newspaper again? AM: Please do! SO: This is from the San Francisco Chronicle the day before the bridge opened in 1937. There were city-wide celebrations, and the writer describes all that excitement: bands, parades, dancing, singing, souvenir hawking, fiesta and fireworks way into the evening. Then he closes with these lines:
“And out at the Golden Gate, that huge and beautiful thing stood alone and dreamed. Dreamed and hummed strange melodies to herself, sang strange songs to the darkening waters of the Golden Gate, to the green-clad hills of old Marin. Held mystic conversation with the gulls about her head, those gulls that were there when Vizcaino came, when Drake sailed past, when De Ayala danced through the Gate in the tiny San Carlos. Alone, and for the last time, she dreamed, that glowing, vibrant thing of beauty and strength. Like a bride she was on her marriage eve. Today the Golden Gate Bridge will begin to live.” (SF Chronicle, May 27, 1937) AM: I don’t know what else John Fremont was thinking when he named the strait, but if you ask me, all that romanticism fits right in with a name like “Chrysopylae.” SO: It certainly paints a pretty picture. I don’t know though if personifying the Golden Gate as a bride who will only begin to live once married would fly today… AM: That’s true! So much of our job is turning today’s lens on the history we can see in the objects, places, and people that make up our park. I don’t know about you, but this conversation has brought so many more questions to my mind. SO: Like, how many people took advantage of Fremont’s golden vein? AM: And did the Golden Gate really hold the key to better lives? SO: Who really made money in the Gold Rush? AM: How did San Francisco care for all of these hopefuls? SO: How did it fail? AM: All these questions spring from the idea of a golden land, of greater opportunity on the other side of a journey, and there are so many topics in the history of San Francisco and its waterfront that we can look at through this lens. SO: Absolutely! But I hope, looking through today’s lens, we’re not just going to discover that when people look at the golden gate, they see their dream of a better life reflected back as a bitter lie. AM: I think it’s safe to say that nothing is black and white. That’s why we should keep revisiting the myths! SO: Nothing is black and white...just shades of international orange. AM: [Laughs] aaaaand we’ve found our way back to the Golden Gate. SO: Well. People. Always. Do. For my final newspaper excerpt for today -- AM: Promise? SO: I promise. 26.2 million people visited San Francisco in 2019. Even if only a quarter of them were international tourists -- I can’t even begin to imagine how many of them came here just to see the bridge. AM: And Alcatraz! Imagine if we started talking about visitors asking “How do we get to Alcatraz?” SO: [Laughs} Do they really want to know? AM: Come to think of it, we could probably have a whole historical analysis related to “Where’s the bathroom?” SO: Oh no. AM: Oh yes. SO: Well, you can save that for another episode. AM: You got it!
AM: You’ve just gotten a glimpse into a new project we’re excited to bring to your virtual park. “Better Lives, Bitter Lies” is a podcast series focusing on the role of propaganda, trickery, and misinformation in bringing people to the San Francisco Bay in search of better lives since 1849. These discussions are not meant to be comprehensive pictures of historical events, but rather to spark curiosity, discussion, and further exploration. Keep an eye out for our next episode!
Oh my darling, oh my darling Oh my darling, Clementine You are lost and gone forever Dreadful sorry, Clementine
SO: Hi Anne!
AM: Hi Sabrina! What have we got going today?
SO: Well, in our last episode, we talked about the misconception that the Gold Rush inspired the Golden Gate Bridge’s name. Today, I thought we could talk more deeply about the Gold Rush itself, and the people who sailed through the gate for it… which leads me to my first question. Were you watching Huckleberry Hound when I got here?
AM: [laughs] I was not watching Huckleberry Hound! I was listening to the song he sings, “Oh My Darling Clementine”? [SO: hm] Growing up, most of what I knew about the Gold Rush came from it – like the bit about “the miner, forty-niner.” Now, the song has made me see the Gold Rush in a whole new light. Plus, it has an interesting history.
SO: Was it written during the Gold Rush?
AM: The song as we know it, no. The lyrics were written in 1884, some 30 years after gold mining peaked in California. But it’s said that the melody comes from an older ballad that Mexican miners made popular. And the story in that ballad is a Spanish romance dating back to the Middle Ages.
SO: That sounds like a research rabbit hole I would so jump into. And I thought I was the one who came here ready to share songs!
AM: More songs about the Gold Rush?
SO: To be precise, they’re called Songs of Gold Mountain.
AM: Gold Mountain. That sounds like a rabbit hole I have jumped into.
SO: Maybe we should take this one song at a time. Shall we start with Clementine? Break music In a canyon, in a cavern Excavating for a mine Lived [Possibly dwelt?] a miner, forty-niner And his daughter, Clementine. Ruby lips above the water Blowing bubbles, soft and fine Alas for me, I was no swimmer So I lost my Clementine AM: Clementine drowned in a river. I never realized the lyrics were so tragic.
SO: Or so rich in detail for talking about the Gold Rush.
AM: Right? The part about the “miner, forty-niner” is just one jumping point. Today, we refer to all those who came to California in search of gold as 49ers. That’s because 1849 was when the majority of people from all over California, the U.S, and the world started leaving their homes, trying to strike it rich.
SO: Those verses also speak to how they did that. If Clementine and her father were living “in a cavern, in a canyon” and he was doing excavations -- he likely wasn’t one of the first miners to arrive in gold country. If he was, he would have been panning for gold in a river or a stream.
AM: Right! That’s how individual fortune-seekers started, before larger mining operations took over. They put a mixture of river sediment and water in a shallow pan. They swirled the pan so the water and lighter particles spilled out, which left behind heavier gold flakes. Nuggets, if you were so lucky.
SO: It sounds simple, right? If that’s all you had to do -- or thought you had to do -- I understand how people caught gold fever. As you know, James Marshall, the guy who essentially kicked off the Gold Rush, he found flakes simply by seeing them in a river.
AM: Yes. James Marshall was a carpenter from New Jersey. Did you know that? [SO: Nope.] In 1848, he was building a sawmill near the American River, at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains, for the Swiss rancher John Sutter. This was some 130 miles northeast of San Francisco. On January 24th, Marshall saw flakes glittering in the water. He thought they were gold, but he wasn’t sure. So he scooped them into a rag, then took the shining dust to his boss at Sutter’s Fort. Once Sutter confirmed it, they tried to keep it under wraps, but failed. Dramatically. [SO chuckles] A sawmill worker told Samuel Brannan, a store owner in Sutter’s Fort and the founder of San Francisco’s first newspaper, the California Star [SO: mhm]...and, well...remember that vial of gold at the park’s Visitor Center?
SO: The one that’s actually filled with liquid and lit up like gold, yes.
AM: Brannan filled a bottle like that with real gold. When he got back to San Francisco, he stepped off the ferry shouting “Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!” In the next seven months, 75% of San Francisco’s male residents had gone up to Sutter’s Creek. There were 4,000 miners in the area by August 1848. That’s months before President James Polk himself confirmed the abundance of gold, triggering the full-blown rush of ‘49. Ironically, Marshall never struck it rich himself. After his discovery, workers largely abandoned Marshall and Sutter to seek their own fortunes and the sawmill ultimately failed. Marshall was said to carry a great deal of bitterness for the rest of his life. And they were far from the only ones who hoped to find their fortunes in rivers of gold and never came close to their dreams.
SO: I guess it just wasn’t easy, even at the start. The best panner could only clear about 50 pans in a 12-hour work day. This is how one of Marshall’s workers, a member of the Mormon Battalion named Henry William Bigler, describes a few days of panning in his diary. It’s just after Marshall’s discovery on January 24: Sunday, January 30th- clean I has been all the last week. Our metal has been [tried] and proves to be [gold] it is thought to be rich we have pict up more than a hundred dollars worth last week. Sunday, February 6th - the weather has been clean and warm the past week. Today myself & Mr. Bargen went over the creek to look for gold. I found $6 worth. Saturday, February 12th - this afternoon I did not work being tired not very well. I took the gun & went a long way down the creek to hunt for ducks. So there’s a lesson for you, Anne. When you hit a wall at work, go hunt for ducks.
AM: [laughs] Hunting for ducks. I like it better than “gone fishing”!
SO: Do you think we can get a sign for the office?
AM: Sooo, to go back to a question from last episode...and as a side note, yes I hope so. [SO laughs]--who really made money in the Gold Rush? Early miners did. From 1849 to 1852 -- when the Rush peaked -- they found $207 million worth of gold. That’s about $644 million today. [Hm] But as surface gold ran out, larger-scale mining companies, which had the tools and equipment to get gold underground, ran in. By 1855, when the Gold Rush ended, individual miners were earning not from their discoveries but from wages working for these companies.
SO: And speaking of large companies, we know who else struck it rich: merchants -- and they weren’t even looking for gold! A man named Levi Strauss saw workers needed durable clothes, so he made pants which became Levi’s pants. Henry Wells and William Fargo saw the people could use banking services -- they founded Wells Fargo. And attorneys like Frederick Billings also made their fortunes offering legal services.
AM: And Samuel Brannan -- remember him? [SO: mhm] -- he was California’s first millionaire. He accomplished that by buying and reselling prospecting equipment. His store sold $5,000 per day to miners, or $155,000 per day by today’s standards.
SO: I bet Amazon can do that. But anyway...I’ve always associated the Hearst family with major mining operations. But I assumed they made their fortune with the Gold Rush. Turns out it was mostly silver ore, later on, in Utah. Still, George Hearst came to California in 1850 for gold at Sutter’s Fort. He found some small success in prospecting, and combined that income with running a general store, raising livestock, and farming. [AM: Wow.] His only son, William Randolph, was born here and he would become the publishing giant who owned the San Francisco Examiner, among other things.
AM: It seems relatively few found the fortunes they sought in the gold rush…
SO: Maybe even fewer in the ways they expected...
AM: But perhaps the more enduring legacy of the discovery at Sutter’s Mill was that so many more cultures, personalities, and identities became part of California.
SO: You know, given that, maybe there’s another answer to “Who won the Gold Rush?”
AM: Oh, yeah? Who?
SO: San Francisco.
SO: Until the Gold Rush, San Francisco was just this quiet, if strategic, trading post for ships visiting the bay. In fact, it didn’t even have the name San Francisco till 1847. This happened amidst the Mexican-American War, as the U.S. claimed California for America. Before that, it was called Yerba Buena -- and this only referred to the settlement around present-day Portsmouth Square in Chinatown. Following the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Fort, San Francisco’s population BOOMED with fortune seekers. People came from elsewhere in California, Oregon, the East Coast of America -- not to mention Europe, Russia, Hawaii, Mexico, Chile, Peru, China, it can go on and on. [AM: Wow.] In 1850 alone, the population of San Francisco went from 18,000 to over 90,000. That’s a 500% increase in a single year.
AM: Wow. It did have the perfect location. While people had made the journey west over land, traveling by sea was still the fastest way to California from the east coast. And just as small mining towns spread through the region, supporting miners with shops, laundries, saloons, and other businesses, it made sense that the port town would become a new metropolis. In fact, the Gold Rush boom helped fast-track California into statehood. It makes me wonder: what if the Gold Rush hadn’t happened to San Francisco?
SO: What if? Did you know that James W. Marshall wasn’t the first person to discover gold in what is today California?
AM: NO! Tell me more.
SO: I didn’t know till working on this episode either! But rumors of gold in California circulated as early as the 1810s. And in 1842, a rancher, Don Francisco Lopez, found gold in Santa Clarita Valley, near Los Angeles. That story’s become a fairytale in itself. Supposedly, Lopez fell asleep beneath a magnificent oak tree and dreamt he was in a pool of liquid gold. [AM: Hmm] When he woke up, hungry, he saw a wild onion growing nearby. He dug it out… and, lo and behold, there was gold on its roots! It’s more likely Lopez was looking for gold, knowing tales of secret mines found by native Indians and Spanish friars, but the point is: there was a mini-gold rush before the Gold Rush. Between 1842 and 1847, hundreds of hopefuls tried their luck and found an average of 260 pounds of the metal each year. By 1847, it seemed that the area had been mined out, so attention soon turned to the sensationalized discovery farther north in the Sacramento Valley. [music break]
AM: And so it was that the world came to San Francisco. The people who came to seek gold in California were called argonauts after the myth of Jason and the search for the golden fleece. [SO: mmhmm] In order to retrieve the fleece of a golden-woolled winged ram, Jason sailed the ship Argo from--I’m going to mess up these Greek islands--Iolchos to Colchis. His crew became known as the Argonauts.
SO: But, unlike Argo, which was christened by Poseidon and placed in the stars after her successful journey, the ships which brought miners to California had a far more, let’s say, earthbound fate.
AM: [laughs] That’s true! To tell us more about those ships and their enduring legacy in San Francisco, we’ve invited Richard Everett, the former curator of exhibits at San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park. Here are excerpts from our conversation.
SO: He spoke with us about how Gold Rush ships came to figuratively and literally form some of the foundation of the San Francisco we see today.
AM: Here are excerpts from our conversation:
AM: Could you tell us where the ships for the Gold Rush came from?
RE: In 1849 and 50, up to 1000 ships came to San Francisco…. 75% were from North American ports, a third of those from New York, 18% were from Central America and 7% were from Europe. I must add that of the 18% coming from Central America they would be ships largely from European ports that were trading on the West Coast of South America. Almost all the ships from the East Coast would stop in Valparaiso, Chile. The Chileans had been hard-rock mining for years for the Europeans, years and years and years, their talents and skills at drilling into hard granite and all were in great demand in the Sierras for looking for gold and they came up on spec to see how much money they could make, uh, hard-rock mining up in California. They had a whole neighborhood along there the Gold Rush waterfront. Aboard all these ships coming to San Francisco during the Gold Rush beginning, um heck, even in ‘48, ‘49 were many Chinese. The Chinese were seeking labor in large ways all over the world from Cuba to South America. They were already out there,when news of the Gold Rush hit. Um, many, many Chinese coming in, uh, to San Francisco from--as we said--all over the world, different ports, but primarily from Canton in China. There are fascinating, uh, newspaper ads for such-and-such a ship arriving from Canton all through ‘49 and ‘50 listing all the wonderful amazing cargoes that were for sale that these ships carried on board. The cargoes from all over the world and people created a great need for mercantile activity and how to sell these cargoes. There was so few buildings and so little wood in SF, ships like Niantic made a great convenient warehouse and also a business model for other store-ships, like the Apollo and the Gen. Harrison that were operated in the same manner.
SO: Am I right in remembering that among the supplies they sold there were picks and other equipment for Gold Rush Miners?
RE: You are exactly right, Sabrina. [chuckles] The Gold Rush was about getting gold, and so the miners, of course, everyone knew that they would need pickaxes and pans for sifting the gold and shovels and Niantic had quite a bunch of these things on board. Remember, she was a whaler caught midstream by the Gold Rush and came rushing up here with people on board. Some of the 250 passengers might have had some of these things with them so they were found with the ship, but more likely they were cargoes from other ships bringing in hardware for the miners.
AM: And so, our next question is, why are there ships buried under San Francisco?
RE: Why are there ships... [chuckles] Everyone wants to know that and it’s, uh, very interesting, of course! One thing you need to know is that one of the important dates in SF’s history is the May 3rd 1851 fire. One of six or seven fires that plagued SF in its early years during the Gold Rush. This was the most devastating fire. It started the night of May 3rd and burned all the next day, May 4th. It took out over 2,000 buildings as I recall, and this fire also, since the piers extended out from the city and the city extended out into the piers, it obliterated, burned up many of these ships and the piers as well as the buildings along the waterfront. And so, after the fire you have this giant mass of wreckage of blackened ships poking out of the mud everywhere. And many people already had their eyes on gaining land in San Francisco. This was the perfect opportunity to push the sand hills and cart them down to the edge fill the cove in out to deeper water, obliterating the cove and burying the remains of all those ships.
AM: When looking for evidence of buried ships, we don’t even have to leave the park. In addition to a display in the Visitor Center of artifacts found during the excavation of buried ships in what is today San Francisco’s Financial District, there is a sizable piece of the Niantic on display in the Maritime Museum. Here, Richard tells us more about the history of the Niantic and her different jobs in Gold Rush California.
RE: The Niantic was a ship originally built for the China trade carrying teacups and porcelains and silks and teas between NY and Canton. She did that for quite a few years and was one of the last ships to get out before the Opium War took hold and the Chinese closed the port. Well, she gets back to New York and she’s bought by new people and turned into a whaler for the Pacific. And the new captain, Captain Henry Cleveland, finds himself approached at a port in Peru by some merchants who wanted to appropriate his ship and purchase it...its services to get 49ers. And that’s how the NIantic got up to San Francisco from Peru as a former whaler and then as a passenger ship, hauls herself on shore, was repurposed into those three different uses--the warehouse, the saloon, and the hotel.
AM: The Niantic stands out as an example of versatility and adaptability. In researching this episode, we’ve discovered that not only was there not just one path to success in SF, but no path was guaranteed or straightforward...of course, if you want to go anywhere in San Francisco, you’re going to have to navigate the hills. Here, Richard talks a little more about the role the Gold Rush had in shaping the San Francisco and California we see today.
RE: The biggest impact the Gold Rush had was jumpstarting San Francisco into a city… with a massive economy, businesses and railroads need to be built out here…it turned San Francisco into a world port overnight and it just kept going with great impact over the rest of the world. The development of California basically begins in spades, with the development of San Francisco.
AM: I mean, the truth of it is the Gold Rush jumpstarts the development, but so many other trades and businesses come into SF that really change it into what we know it as today. None of our ships that are still in the water were directly associated with the Gold Rush, but they wouldn’t be in San Francisco without it.
RE: Your words really help, Anne. It’s one of the biggest impacts, probably overall, is the impact of so many different people from all over the world coming here and deciding to stay. And so, beginning with the Gold Rush, you have...some people have said it was the first collection of so many people from all of the world to ever occur in one place at one time.
[Audio pause / music break]
AM: Okay, we’ve talked about caverns and lost loves, buried ships and booming towns. Now can we talk about Gold Mountain?
SO: Gold Mountain sounds so mythical, right? It could certainly fit in with lost loves and buried ships. But we’ve been talking about Gold Mountain the entire time. [AM: Huh.] Gold Mountain, or Gum Saan, was how the Chinese referred to California once word of gold made its way past the Golden Gate and across the Pacific. I’ve always wondered what they must have thought, coming here--with all that ocean between them--to this faraway, unseen place of riches.
AM: You’re not the only one! In creating the “Ancestors in America” PBS series, the documentary creators used --among other things--third person accounts, newspaper clippings, and census records to reconstruct the perspective of a Chinese laborer traveling to Gold Mountain.
AM: He may have said something along the lines of “All the world has gone to California for the Gold Rush. We Chinese, too. I do not fear slavery as has happened to others. I will not be whipped like they were on the ships or herded like so many pigs in its hold. No. I go as a free man, with a ticket on credit. And I will surely pay it back. Others from our village are already there. They will greet me. I will not be alone... “I will do my best remembering who waits for me. Returning joyously with the gold. With a family. For the village. We leave now for Gold Mountain.”
SO: That sounds so inspiring, if I may say so. [AM: Mhmm] And I guess many did follow the call. Because by 1851, Chinese laborers made up one-fifth of the workers in the mines. Besides the promise of the fortunes of Gum Saan, many came to America seeking any opportunity greater than the flood-ravaged fields of a country still reeling from the First Opium War. After the gold ran out, they stayed behind -- partly because it was difficult to get back home, partly because they pursued the work opportunities they had here. And others kept following, too. That’s how Chinese laborers became a major force in the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. By the time that was completed in 1869, Chinese made up over 90 percent of the Central Pacific Rail’s workforce.
AM: And that was due in no small part to the Burlingame-Seward Treaty of 1868, which established formal friendly relations between China and the United States and gave China the status of, quote, “most favored nation” in trade with the US. On paper, equality was established between the nations. This lent towards freer immigration and the protection of Chinese citizens in the United States, as well as the steady flow of migrant workers for US businesses. But, as you know, legislation and reality wouldn’t be so friendly.
SO: Last episode, we talked a lot about John Fremont, who named the Golden Gate Strait as the golden gate for trade with the Orient. It seems like his prediction was correct. With the railroad and the treaty connecting continents, the golden vein through the golden gate finally fell into place.
AM: And it wouldn’t have been possible without the cooperation and contributions of the Chinese on both sides of the Pacific Ocean.
SO: But let's never forget, it's not like California was just there for Americans, Europeans or Asians to live and work in.
AM: That’s true.
SO: Native American tribes who had thrived in what is today California suffered violence, disease, outright genocide. They lost freedom, property, and opportunity with the influx of foreign settlers. Going back to Sutter’s Mill -- John Sutter, who was born Johann Suter, was a Swiss shop owner who left his debts, country, and family to pursue fortune in the United States. After arriving in California in 1841, he converted to Catholicism and became a Mexican citizen. This was to convince the Mexican provincial governor to grant him nearly 50,000 acres, which became known as Nueva Helvetia. But, of course, this land wasn’t unoccupied.
AM: Of course not. Initially, it seems Sutter carried on friendly relations with the Nisenan people--the terms of his land grant required it--but over time, he was said to treat them as militia and laborers, interfere with tribal marriage customs, and he was accused by another Swiss in his employ, Heinrich Lienhard, of molesting Native American girls. He was brutal and violent. A visitor to Sutter’s ranch, James Clyman of Virginia, recalled that Sutter kept, quote, “600 to 800 [Native Americans] in a complete state of Slavery and as I had the mortification of seeing them dine I may give a short description. 10 or 15 troughs 3 or 4 feet long were brought out of the cook room and seated in the broiling sun. All the labourers great and small ran to the troughs like so many pigs and fed themselves with their hands as long as the troughs contained even a moisture.”
SO: As if that wasn’t enough, if they weren’t technically enslaved, the Natives were paid in currency which was only recognized at the store on Sutter’s property. [AM: Wow.] With the discovery of gold there, miners overwhelmed the Sacramento Valley. Disease, brutality, and loss beset the local tribes. By 1870, only 30,000 native people were estimated to remain in the state of California, most without access to their ancestral land.
AM: And all that so other people could have stronger claims to new lands and new lives to call their own.
SO: My heart hurts now. [AM: Mhmm] But, that history keeps repeating itself. Anytime, anywhere, any civilization, but also, right here in San Francisco, in California.
AM: Yeah... we need not look farther than Gold Mountain again. Immigrants from different places are targeted and abused in their new countries, but the Chinese bore the brunt of it during and after the Gold Rush, as they were seen as competition for money and jobs. Just take this account from the journalist Samuel Bowles’ book, “Our New West”, published in 1869: “To abuse a Chinaman; to rob him; to kick and cuff him; even to kill him, have been things not only done with impunity... but even with vain glory… Had the Chinaman a good claim, original or improved, he was ordered to ‘move on,’--it belonged to someone else. Had he hoarded a pile, he was ordered to disgorge; and, if he resisted, he was killed... they have been wantonly assaulted and shot down or stabbed by bad men, as sportsmen would surprise and shoot their game in the woods. There was no risk in such barbarity; if [he] survived to tell the tale, the law would not hear him or believe him. Nobody was so low, so miserable, that he did not despise the Chinaman.”
SO: Do you think Clementine, or her father, or the guy in love with her -- what do you think their relations with the Native Americans or Chinese were like? I mean, I know what society at large was like, but I always want to think there are individuals who don’t just fall into those lines.
AM: That’s true. But also hard to say. By the time the song as we know it was written, in 1884, all the anti-Chinese sentiment had already come to a head with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Like the PBS documentary, we can only reconstruct potential thoughts from the texts we do have.
[Audio break] Then the miner, forty-niner Soon began to droop and pine Thought he oughter join his daughter So he's with his Clementine.
Oh, my darling, oh, my darling Oh, my darling Clementine You are lost and gone forever Dreadful sorry, Clementine. [End of Audio Break]
SO: This has all gone so much darker than Huckleberry Hound.
AM: It was one of the realities of the Gold Rush, though. People separated from their families -- and they often strove to reunite with them. Not in the way it goes in “Clementine,” of course. Or so I hope.
SO: True. There was this distinction, at least where Gold Mountain was concerned. Many of its seekers considered themselves sojourners, not settlers. The idea was that they weren’t moving to Gold Mountain to live there forever; they just wanted to earn enough to send home, then eventually return home. The flip side is this helped contribute to the idea that these people, who had mined gold, built railroads, worked fields, and done so much other work for California and the US, were not quote-unquote “real” Americans.
AM: But, of course, there were settlers, too. And where others would have wanted to reunite with their families back in Asia, these settlers wanted to bring their families over here, to their new home.
SO: I can imagine. It must have been so lonely, both sides of the ocean. There wasn’t email, Zoom, or a dependable international mail system. [AM: mhm] How did they keep a sense of home? How did they keep in touch?
AM: Unfortunately, there are very few letters in the public domain between Chinese miners and their families. The creators of the PBS “Ancestors in America” documentary series I mentioned earlier [SO: Mhm] combined research history with storytelling to bring to light the point of view of a Chinese man who had left his family behind to work in gold rush-era California. If you wouldn’t mind, I’d love to share one more excerpt.
SO: Oh, I love excerpts! Go ahead. But only if I get to share something after.
AM: [laughs] Deal. “You know how we send money home? First, you look for a letter-writer on the street or in the Chinese store. Tell him to write only good things. Nothing bad happened. Then give the letter and money to the head man at the Chinese store here who does business with the Chinese store in our village. Chinese merchants all know each other from business, even across the ocean. Somebody knows our family there. Somebody will read the letter to our family. And if we do not send money, our family tells them to find our kinsman here to scold us. Their letter to us, last words always say, ‘When are you coming home?’”
SO: Wow. That’s...Well, the piece I actually wanted to share is a Cantonese folk song. It represents the perspective of a wife left behind in Guangdong during the New Year, which is a time of reunions. In English, the title translates to “Laments of the Wife of a Gold Mountain Man”. She says this: So comes the New Year; Still I must wait for you. Red paper coins decorate houses everywhere; New Year scrolls proclaim good fortunes. Images of the Three Immortals of Happiness, Longevity, and Prosperity grace the front door. All over the place, thousands of flowers are sweet and candles bright. Families are together as husband and wife unite. In abundance, chicken and pork are prepared; Loud firecrackers burst off clouds of smoke. And for me A time for reunion means a solitary retreat. The taste of honey now is not at all sweet.
AM: We began this whole conversation talking about songs and verses and there’s this underlying idea of how history runs through them. Did you know, when you found that Cantonese folk song, that the melody in “Oh My Darling Clementine” is now used in a Chinese New Year children’s song?
SO: No, I did not!
AM: It seems that adaptation is fairly recent. “Clementine” has had so many in so many languages since Bing Crosby and Huckleberry Hound. So the miner’s ballad might have nothing to do with it. I mean, the song itself basically keeps saying, “We are singing, we are dancing, happy new year to you all!”
SO: That sounds hopeful and innocent.
SO: So far from the tragedy of Clementine or of separated Gold Mountain families -- or, for that matter, the original lovers in the Spanish ballad. According to the research rabbit hole I did get into, they couldn’t marry because of, guess what? Exclusionary laws about royal blood.
AM: How surprising. It’s the exact same melody, with the exact same space for words, but because of the circumstances, the stories and emotions are different. Songs could be reversed that way. It also makes me think, what if Clementine had been left behind? What if she couldn’t follow her father to the cavern in the canyon? Would “Oh My Darling” have been a song about Clementine missing her father instead?
SO: It’s funny you mention that. Another Cantonese folk song around the Chinese New Year seems to be from the point of view of a child whose father has gone to Gold Mountain.
AM: Oh, dear. I both want to hear this and am not sure I’m emotionally prepared.
SO: It’s a hopeful one this time.
SO: Swallows and magpies, flying in glee: Greetings for New Year. Daddy has gone to Gold Mountain To earn money. He will earn gold and silver, Ten thousand taels. When he returns, We will buy a lot of land.
AM: [chuckles] You’re right. That was hopeful! And it makes me wonder--how easy was it for Chinese families to be reunited in California?
SO: Hold that thought again, I think we have our next episode.
[Outro music, “Xiannan Hao Ya”]
SO: You’ve just gotten a glimpse into a new project we’re excited to bring to your virtual park. “Better Lives, Bitter Lies” is a podcast series focusing on the role of propaganda, trickery, and misinformation in bringing people to the San Francisco Bay in search of better lives since 1849. These discussions are not meant to be comprehensive pictures of historical events, but rather to spark curiosity, discussion, and further exploration. Keep an eye out for our next episode!