AM: We’ve already talked about a lot of things on this podcast. But . Remember when we started this project, there was a very special and very specific topic we agreed to discuss? Today is the day.
SO: I have no idea what you’re talking about.
AM: Evasion tactics will not work.
SO: I really have no idea what you’re talking about.
AM: Today, we finally talk about that ultimate question we get as park guides at San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park.
SO: Do you mean “Hi Ranger! Why did Michel Foucault say that ships are the heterotopia par excellence?”
AM: You know exactly what I mean.
SO: [Sighs] I guess I do.
AM: Today, we face the question: “Where’s the bathroom?”
AM: Alright. So, we’re not actually concerned with where the restrooms in the park are.
SO: Too bad. That wouldn’t have taken much research.
AM: [Laughs] true. But we are going to get a bit into sanitation, hygiene, and public health. The idea of this podcast came to us six months ago as shelter-in-place began in San Francisco and we were trying to figure out what engaging with the public would look like without sharing a physical space. So...we turned to research.
SO: And the books we stuck our noses in taught us so much about parts of San Francisco and Chinatown’s history that we knew very little about. Like David K. Randall’s Black Death at the Golden Gate, where we learned that an ancient disease which wiped out a third of Europe landed on San Francisco’s shores just over a century ago.
AM: Aaaand if not for the courage of a fearless crew, San Francisco would be lost? SO: Mmm, kind of, but let’s leave the fictional ships at bay.
AM: San Francisco Bay?
SO: Oh, my god. Stop. We have to start this episode!
AM : [laughs] Okay, okay. But first, a bathroom break?
SO : This podcast is over. AM: Oh, no. Please no. I’m sorry!
AM: [laughs] Okay, fine! All teasing aside, we were coping with a pandemic that had no cure, no clear-cut symptoms, and the news and recommendations seemed to change constantly. Personally, it was overwhelming.
SO: And while the COVID-19 outbreak bears many resemblances to the flu epidemic of 1918 to 1919, our attention was drawn to the similarities it also has with the bubonic plague outbreaks in San Francisco at the turn of the twentieth century.
AM: In our previous episodes, we’ve talked about the opening of trade with Asia, immigration, exclusion laws, sensationalist newspapers and “yellow journalism”, Chinatown, and Angel Island. And in researching this episode, we saw these various threads converge…are you ready to get started?
SO: Am I ever? [ AM laughs]
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AM: Before we can really begin to talk about the bubonic plague’s effect on San Francisco at the turn of the 20th century, I think we need to do some traveling. The bubonic plague devastated Europe from 1347 to 1352 under the guise of the Black Death. Entering Europe through trade, the Black Death was carried by rats between ships sailing from the Black Sea.
SO: Was it known as the Black Death because it was associated with the Black Sea?
AM: That’s a good guess, but as far as I can tell, no. It was called the Black Death because if someone had it, the sores that appeared on their skin, and the surrounding area, often turned black.
SO: I was asking because fear of having such a disease come over from the sea was very real and dangerous. [AM: Mhm] And fear of a disease can quickly become fear of the people you associate with that disease. [AM: Mmm] Did you know that Angel Island was originally set up as a quarantine zone before it became the major immigration station?
AM: I did! We talk a lot about the Chinese people who immigrated through Angel Island, but so many different nationalities were processed through the station. Other immigrants came from the Punjab, Russia, the Philippines, Portugal, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, and around Latin America as well.
SO: Not for nothing was Angel Island known as the “Ellis Island of the West” -- referring to the immigration station across the country, in New York Harbor, within sight of our nation’s most well-known monument to liberty and welcome. The Statue of Liberty was dedicated on October 28, 1886. In 1903, a plaque bearing Emma Lazarus’ poem, “The New Colossus” was affixed to its pedestal, proclaiming the following words:
"Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
AM: But fire and fear burned through immigrant and racially diverse neighborhoods throughout the United States, even after the Statue of Liberty raised her torch and lit the way for the huddled masses to seek better lives. The year before she began welcoming immigrants through this golden door, Chinese communities throughout the western United States were targeted brutally and violently. In 1887, arson burned San Jose’s Chinatown. According to Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans by Jean Pfaelzer,
“with superhuman efforts” the city’s Alert Hose Fire Company “saved the ground on which Chinatown was located and prevented the spread of the fire to surrounding buildings”. The Chinese buildings burned, it said, because the firemen found “poor hose” and “low water pressure.” Even aided by the mayor and some city councilmen, the Chinese fire brigade was unable to check the flames because someone had drained the Chinese water tank. It was not by chance that during the two weeks preceding the blaze prominent white property owners in Chinatown had added heavily to their fire insurance.
SO: And just a few, short years later, in 1899, fire was used to, quote-unquote, cleanse Honolulu’s Chinatown of the bubonic plague. Hawaii had been designated a United States territory the year before. This was the first time in recorded history that bubonic plague had reached the islands.
AM: The first reported person to suffer from bubonic plague in Honolulu was a forty-year-old bookkeeper named Yuk Hoy. In early December 1899, he was brought to Dr. Li Khai Fai and his wife, Dr. Kong Tai Heong, by another man living in the same boarding house. Drs. Li and Kong had graduated from the Canton Medical School and settled in Hawaii just a few years before. They had both cared for victims of the bubonic plague which had just ravaged Hong Kong. When Yuk Hoy was delivered to their office, their worst fears were realized.
SO: They contacted the Honolulu Board of Health, despite the mistrust between the Chinese immigrant population of Honolulu and the newly installed, primarily white American government. Within five days, seven plague victims were found in Honolulu. Six of them were Chinese. The Board of Health ordered a five-day quarantine of Chinatown and enforced it with armed guards.
AM: And just as the quarantine was set to end, more victims began appearing, both inside and around Chinatown. The Board of Health, in desperation and without scientific proof or warning to the residents of Chinatown, turned to fire to stop the outbreak. On the last day of the nineteenth century, the Board of Health used controlled burns to, quote-unquote, “cleanse” two buildings of the plague and unhouse over seventy Chinese residents.
SO: And roughly three weeks later, the controlled burns got out of control. Winds caught the flames and residents of Chinatown were initially barred from breaking the quarantine boundary and fleeing the burning neighborhood. By the time the fire was controlled, commercial, religious, and residential buildings were destroyed, and eight thousand people--mostly Chinese, Japanese, and native Hawaiians-- had lost their homes.
AM: Is it any surprise that the residents of San Francisco’s Chinatown reacted with fear and outrage when they woke up the morning of March 7, 1900, to their own police-enforced quarantine?
SO: Strangely, this public health measure snaked the boundaries of Chinatown to exclude white-owned businesses from the forced quarantine. [AM: Hymn] However, businesses outside Chinatown who employed Chinese residents--mostly hotels, restaurants, and private families--were furious at the loss of their servants. The Chronicle even reported, quote, “The Chinese were not the only people to suffer. The white employers of the Chinese awoke to find that there was nobody on hand to prepare breakfast.”
AM: Do I detect a note of sarcasm in that report?
SO: It does seem a little tongue-in-cheek, but the outrage was real...and misplaced. And with the Bulletin , the Call , and the Chronicle calling the plague “fake”, it was not long before public officials bowed to public pressure and the gerrymandered quarantine was lifted.
AM: I think it’s time to remember the people involved and let’s start by talking about Wong Chut King.
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AM: Wong Chut King’s life in San Francisco was typical of the Chinese experience at the time. He was a laborer living in a residential hotel in Chinatown. He didn’t have a bed, let alone a room to claim as his own, and the majority of the money he made was sent back to his wife and family in China.
SO: It’s a very familiar story. And, as we discussed last episode, men like him, living in a “bachelor society”, would seek companionship and sex almost exclusively in brothels on the Barbary Coast.
AM: It’s important to remember that, because when Wong Chut King noticed large painful bumps around his groin in early February 1900, his first thought was not that he had contracted a disease that devastated Europe and killed over 25 million people in the fourteenth century -- or even one that, more recently in the 1890s, terrorized port cities around the world, especially Hong Kong. He believed the lumps were probably symptoms of a sexually transmitted infection. So did the Chinese holistic medicine practitioner he went to, who treated him for an STI and sent him home.
SO: Wong Chut King’s life may have been typical, but his death on the afternoon of March 6, 1900 cemented his place in the history books. [AM: Mmm] Later that evening, a city health officer making rounds at a coffin shop discovered the lumps on his body. The Board of Health called an emergency meeting. By morning, Chinatown had been roped off.
AM: As we discussed earlier, this sudden quarantine was contentious -- especially since no one was sure why it was in place. Wong Chut King, so far, was one known victim, but not many knew about him… yet. If the plague had indeed reached the mainland United States, officials from the mayor to the governor preferred to cover it up. The economies and reputations of San Francisco and California depended on it.
SO: There was one person in the city who could have definitively said the plague had arrived, because he had identified it in Wong Chut King’s body. This was the head of the Marine Hospital Service in San Francisco: the bacteriologist Joseph Kinyoun.
AM: The Marine Hospital Service was originally founded in 1798 for the care of ill and disabled seamen. By the late 19th century, it was not only overseeing hospitals at ports; it was also monitoring and gatekeeping diseases that might spread through them. Earlier in his career, on Staten Island, Joseph Kinyoun established the laboratory that has since become the National Institute of Health. In 1899, he was put in charge of the quarantine station on Angel Island – and now, he was suddenly in charge of stopping the bubonic plague.
SO: Which was not an easy task, [AM: No] considering how little even scientists knew then about how exactly it spread, much less how to treat it. They knew the bacterium that caused it -- but not, as we now know, that this was spread by fleas that live on small animals, like squirrels or rats. Today, the infection is fairly easy to fight. You just need some antibiotics.
AM: Does that mean, of all the things that could still happen this year, I am prepared for the bubonic plague?
SO: I’d like to think it’s as easy as that! Which it wasn’t, 120 years ago, when there was no such thing as antibiotics. For that moment -- tell me if you’ve heard this in a year that isn’t 1900 -- isolation and quarantine was the closest thing officials could think of as an immediate response.
AM: Huh. Yet, that wasn’t necessarily a response influenced only by hard science. I mean, the mayor at this time was James D. Phelan, the politician who ran with the slogan, “Keep California White.”
SO: Right. Phelan proclaimed that this first quarantine was justified as a defense against, quote, the “Asiatic infection to which San Francisco is constantly exposed.” He further called the Chinese “a menace to public health.”
AM: Kinyoun, with his considerable scientific prowess, was not immune to similar views. As David Randall, the author of Black Death at the Golden Gate , put it: “For all of his achievements in understanding the human body at a cellular level, [Kinyoun] was never quite capable of ignoring the outer shell of race.”
SO: Ultimately, he pushed for further quarantine and house-to-house inspections of Chinatown -- which made him clash again with officials who denied the possibility and gravity of the plague, as well as the people living in Chinatown. Kinyoun told his boss, the Surgeon General Walter Wyman, that he anticipated residents would flee.
AM: Upon the Surgeon General’s recommendation, President McKinley authorized the Marine Hospital Service to implement regulations, already contained within the Act of 1890, which strictly controlled the movement of people to prevent the spread of disease across state lines.
SO: Soon agents had orders to inspect all ships and trains leaving California, “ensure no Asians were on board” and “detain any Chinese or Japanese passengers regardless of their health.” The Marine Hospital Service was also allowed to refuse ticket sales for out-of-state transportation.
AM: And for those who did remain in Chinatown, another of Kinyoun’s measures did not go over well. Remember Ng Poon Chew?
SO: The author, and newspaper editor who was also called the Chinese Mark Twain?
AM: The very same! Pretty soon, Kinyoun and the Marine Hospital Service began offering an inoculation called the Haffkine serum or vaccine. The Haffkine serum was a prophylactic. It couldn’t cure the bubonic plague, but it could help prevent getting it. The inoculation used heat-killed bacteria, so there was basically no risk of contracting the plague from the treatment, but the side effects were terribly unpleasant.
SO: Interesting… but what does this have to do with Ng Poon Chew?
AM: [laughs] I’m getting there! The Haffkine serum wasn’t very popular with any of the public, but especially not with the residents of Chinatown who Kinyoun wanted to give it to, even if by force. In an effort to garner cooperation, public health officials asked the editor of the popular Chung Sai Yat Po, the Chinese Western Daily, to publicly take the inoculation. Ng Poon Chew agreed...and pretty quickly regretted it.
SO: Did he get sick?
AM: Not physically, as far as I can tell. But his office was surrounded by an angry mob, forcing him to hide in his home in Oakland for a few days. His newspaper was also boycotted and he lost roughly fifty percent of his readership. Sensing where his readership’s sentiment lay, Ng Poon Chew did not publicly support the inoculation drive again. He even called the vaccination, quote, “a form of modern torture”, end-quote.
SO: His newspaper, the Chinese Western Daily, published this poem on June 7, 1900:
”Officials, gentlemen, business people, laborers and merchants alike, are all people amidst trial and tribulation, stranded like caged birds, struggling for life like fish out of water. In all matters take care to preserve Chinatown; at all times protect and guard your neighbors.”
AM: The efforts to engage the Chinese community were erratic at best during Kinyoun’s time. He likely saw Ng Poon Chew’s about-face as treasonous, rather than in support of the only community supporting him. Now, Kinyoun’s speedy identification of the plague bacterium and his tenacious debates with city and state health officials likely slowed its spread by continuing to turn people’s attention to it. But his own racial biases were on display in his outreach--or lack thereof--to the community most directly affected by the initial wave of the plague.
SO: When a critic said of Kinyoun, “A real doctor was someone who practiced with patients, not microscopes”, that critic was questioning the legitimacy of bacteriology as a science. But it also hints at Kinyoun’s weakness. The Marine Hospital Service eventually replaced him. Of his successors, it was a surgeon named Rupert Blue who took a warmer, people-centered approach. Blue’s readiness to work with communities signaled a changing of the tides.
AM: For everyone’s sake, I sure hope so. But before we get into this, let’s talk a little bit about the popular racist public health theories and ordinances in place in San Francisco.
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SO: Asian people were thought to be carriers of the bubonic plague, whether because of their “foreign habits” or their supposedly different biology. There was even this notion that they were more susceptible to it because Asian diets center around rice, unlike European diets around meat.
AM: The Surgeon General of the Navy at the time, W.K. Reypen, said the plague was a “disease peculiar to the Orient.” An editorial for the San Francisco Call said, “Occidental races are but little subject to it.”
SO: But, you know, looking at a disease in such narrow terms –
AM: -- and forgetting that the Black Plague devastated western Europe –
SO: -- informs the way you understand that disease, and how you can solve it or not.
AM: Exactly. And the quarantine of Chinatown was not the first discriminatory public health measure used in San Francisco. The Sanitary Ordinance, or Cubic Air Ordinance, was a local law put in place in 1870 which required a building to have at least 500 cubic feet of air for each adult residing within it. This law was considered discriminatory to Chinese residents who often lived in closer, more cramped quarters than their white counterparts.
SO : If arrested for violating the Sanitary Ordinance, Chinese people would protest by refusing to pay the fine and would be arrested for it. While jailed, they were subject to another discriminatory regulation, the Queue Ordinance. The Queue Ordinance required all men imprisoned at the city jail to have their heads shaved down to an inch of hair.
AM : This was during the several hundred-year period when Chinese men wore their hair in long braids, or queues. Requiring men to cut off their queues was forcing them to commit an “act of disgrace”. The quarantine also wouldn’t be the last discriminatory measure, as the travel restrictions we mentioned earlier suggest.
SO : Thankfully, things got done a bit differently after one of your favorite historical figures, Rupert Blue, entered the picture in 1903.
AM : Rupert Blue! Like Kinyoun, Blue was a gifted medical officer. Blue was not a bacteriologist and some would argue that Kinyoun was a far more gifted physician. However, what Blue lacked in scientific acumen, he made up for community-mindedness. We could even point to the fact that Kinyoun resided on Angel Island and Blue lived in the city.
SO : True. Rupert Blue arrived with two missions: He had to keep tracking cases, and – since the disease was attributed to the conditions Chinese lived in -- he had to launch a sanitation campaign in Chinatown. He set up an office and laboratory off Portsmouth Square, so he worked on the ground within the neighborhood itself. This enabled him to develop more personal connections with residents who had been previously skeptical of white doctors.
AM : Perhaps most importantly, Blue hired full-time an interpreter, Wong Chung, who was a secretary with the Chinese Six Companies. Wong proved to be more than an interpreter: he helped Blue enter doors previously closed to federal doctors, and helped him identify plague cases that would have been hidden from them. Blue was soon praised by the Chinese Six Companies for his, quote-unquote, “pleasant and courteous manner”, sincere in wanting to help, unlike Kinyoun who was seen as a “wolf doctor.”
SO : And Wong also answered Blue’s questions about Chinese culture. This was pretty significant, given that, for example, doctors didn’t understand why the Chinese protested autopsies of people who’d died of plague. That’s because they believe mutilating the body dooms the dead to remain on earth as ghosts, never reaching the afterlife.
AM : And when Blue temporarily left his post at San Francisco, Wong continued to track cases for the Marine Hospital Service. He kept finding proof there was a plague, even when many continued to say there was not.
SO : In a way, doing this was like a double-edged sword for Wong. If he identified more cases, doctors could get information to help control and end the epidemic. At the same time, discovering more cases could spur politicians to just burn Chinatown to the ground. [AM: Mm] I don’t imagine it was easy for him to keep at it, all the while being mistrusted by some Chinese for working so closely with white people, yet still also looked down on for not being white.
AM : I sense Wong Chung is a rabbit hole you want to jump into. [SO: Mmm] I do too, but let’s do some time-hopping here instead. The plague first reached San Francisco in 1900. Joseph Kinyoun dealt with that initial wave, and the initial denials from the city and state. An independent out-of-state commission verified the existence of plague in 1901. Rupert Blue arrived in 1903; and thanks to his sanitation campaign, death rates went down and the city was declared plague-free two years later. And then…
SO : And then?
AM : The Great Earthquake and Fires of 1906 happened.
SO : Well, that’s always a dramatic turning point.
AM : And just when you think things couldn’t get any worse with an event known henceforth in history as The Great Earthquake and Fires , guess what else came in its aftermath?
SO : Oh, 2020 has prepared me for that: a second wave of the bubonic plague.
AM : [AM chuckles] The refugee shacks and ruins throughout San Francisco had provided the perfect nesting place for rats, and the rat population grew across the city. The first 25 new cases in 1907 emerged from seemingly every neighborhood. Among them, only one person was Chinese. Only that person lived in Chinatown. And by the time Rupert Blue returned to fight the plague again, most of the dead were white. And so what is clear now became clear then.
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SO : Since antiquity, Persian physicians and Byzantine historians had actually noticed a link between the deaths of rats and the arrival of plague. Yet it was only in 1898 when a French researcher in Saigon, Paul-Louis Simond, finally demonstrated that it was fleas that carried bacteria from rat to rat and rat to human. But his findings didn’t immediately take hold -- uncontained urine and feces were still thought to be the vectors of the disease.
AM : Hence Blue’s previous effort to sanitize Chinatown -- which, in a way, helped spare the neighborhood from this second wave. This time, Blue acted on Simond’s findings. Instead of drawing up quarantine zones, he mapped out districts to send teams of ratcatchers to. They brought rats to a lab, tossed them in boiling water to kill the fleas, studied them, systematically numbering each rat they caught and labeling where they caught it.
SO : Blue again embraced outreach, enlisting the whole city’s residents to help. His team distributed a primer called “How to Catch Rats.” He participated in meetings with the public as well as physicians, and -- can you believe this? -- eventually, a Citizen’s Health Committee offered rewards for every male and female rat that could be captured and killed.
AM : 25 cents for every male and 50 cents for every female! Newspapers, which, well, had a spotty record spreading information about the plague, got in on the act by publishing how-tos on keeping the home rat-free.
SO : And, in the end, this all worked. In 1909, Rupert Blue was honored at the Fairmont Hotel for eradicating the plague from San Francisco.
AM : It wasn’t a clean-cut happy ending. Even as San Francisco was rid of rats, fleas that had made their way onto squirrels had begun infecting people in the East Bay and beyond. One difference was, back then these areas then were nowhere near as densely populated and made up mostly of untouched land.
SO : There would also be further outbreaks of the bubonic plague in the U.S., particularly New Orleans in 1913 and Los Angeles from 1924 to 1925. But San Francisco would not face a similar epidemic again.
AM : I sure hope we keep up that record! [SO laughs]
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AM : Alright. We have been talking a lot about Chinatown. Over the course of this series, we’ve mentioned how it formed around Portsmouth Square as a point of arrival for early gold-seekers; a hub of mining support businesses; and a bachelor society that added to the brothels on the Barbary Coast. But there’s always another lens for understanding why Chinatown is where it is, why it was the way it was at a particular time period, how it came to be.
SO : During this time, the Chinese were literally boxed into Chinatown because officials wanted them to stay there.
AM : And for this episode, we had a chance to speak with Dr. Charlotte Brooks. In addition to being a professor at the City University of New York, she is a recognized scholar of race, immigration, and urban history. Charlotte is also on the committee for the History & Perspectives journal published by the Chinese Historical Society of America, whose museum is right here in Chinatown.
SO : She wrote the book Alien Neighbors, Foreign Friends: Asian Americans, Housing, and the Transformation of Urban California . She begins it by saying that San Francisco’s Chinatown was the first racially segregated neighborhood in the United States. Here are excerpts from our interview, where we asked her why she said that.
CB : You know, that segregation has been most acutely felt by Black Americans. And there was a long-time argument that segregated neighborhoods somehow emerged naturally and historians have really dismantled that and shown that they were a product of policy. They were product of landlords and homeowners, but, you know, white supremacy helped shape local and then federal policy. You know, I grew up in California, California looked very different racially, ethnically than a lot of other parts of the country. That was, you know, that was really where I started with the book, um, to sort of talk about segregation as something that developed differently , reflected a different kind of racial geography depending on, you know, the part of the country. The Chinese, of course, you know they come to San Francisco in the Gold Rush era and they are living in many parts of the city initially. And then these businesses that are clustering around Portsmouth square, and they get pushed in and pushed in by violence. Unlike a lot of the cities to which black Americans go in the...in the 20th century, San Francisco is really pretty early in its development. It's starting to grow and spread. And so as the city becomes also sort of more of a family city and less of a frontier city, the white residents move in and move out of this area, which is billed as part of the city.
And it is astounding that the Chinese and Chinese American population was able--given the kind of racial hatred and the violence they faced--that they were able to hang on so long. And there were a lot of attempts by the local government to evict them. There were ordinances in one of California's constitutions. The constitution has a sec, a section titled Chinese and basically bars them from living in cities, but it was unenforceable, unconstitutional based on the American constitution. And Chinese American leaders, the Chinese merchants and the Chinese Six Companies were kind of at the forefront of fighting these different local attempts to get rid of the Chinese. And a number of the organizations that made up the Six Companies eventually owned some property. So they had some property rights, but yeah, there's this ongoing attempt to remove the Chinese.
AM : The views and measures taken towards this community during the first bubonic plague outbreak could be taken as one more attempt.
SO : Just take the stance of the then-mayor, James Phelan, who had justified the quarantine to guard against, quote, the “Asiatic infection.” Phelan further went on to say, quote, “I desire to say that [the Chinese] are fortunate, with the unclean bits of their coolies and their filthy hovels, to be permitted to remain within the corporate limits of any American city.”
AM : Here’s Charlotte again:
CB : There's a special kind of racial odium attached to the Chinese, um, that reflects this need to find a scapegoat for these issues and problems that you see in ports around the world.
What I mean is that Chinatown becomes this center of prostitution and it's not. Some of it is Chinese prostitution, but a lot of it is not involving Chinese women. It's that, as San Francisco grows into a metropolis and a more of a family community, prostitution remains, but it's pushed into areas that are considered undesirable and reflecting of immorality. And so Chinatown becomes synonymous with it and other sort of vice industries, because that's where essentially law enforcement pushes those industries. Right? You know, if you, if you look at the bubonic plague, and then you look at the epidemic of bubonic plague that broke out after the earthquake in 1907 , most of the people affected by that are white in San Francisco. There was no racialization of it. It just worked so well in 1900.
SO : Given all this, I think we can definitely say race, ethnicity, and disease are intertwined -- just not in the ways people like James Phelan or Joseph Kinyoun perceived it.
AM : And while we talked briefly about how encampments following the great fire and earthquake also provided shelter for rats and fleas, talking with Charlotte helped us see how other diseases--like racism, xenophobia, and white supremacy--were spread or fed by inequality in housing.
CB : If you shove people into a tiny area that dates really to the Gold Rush period, right? This is a neighborhood by 1900 that has been around, old wooden buildings, um, you don't have concrete basements, uh , the drainage isn't good. Uh , it's owned by absentee landlords. Most of them white, most of them who make a lot of money off of these tenants who have nowhere else to live. You're going to get poor living conditions. You see that across the country in urban areas. Other historians have talked a little bit about this as well, that political corruption and police corruption enables poor conditions to flourish. That police took payoffs and Board of Health agents took payoffs not to pay attention to what was happening in Chinatown. And I mean, we know that the Chinese merchants in Chinatown ended up helping to finance security for the district through a kind of a private security force by the 1910s. So Chinatown is not getting public services. And white landlords make a lot of money, um, keeping up these conditions and not responding to their tenants' dissatisfaction. There's is sort of a whole, is the assumption that they don't want good conditions. They don't need good conditions. There's no political benefit to giving them good conditions. And in fact, there's a political benefit to ignoring the conditions under which they live.
SO : The plague outbreak of the early 1900s was not the first public health crisis to showcase how racial and socioeconomic inequalities impact people’s lives and health. Nor would it be the last. Just a few short years later, the influenza epidemic would show it again.
AM: As we’ve talked about in previous episodes, the stereotyping of the Chinese and Chinatown as a people and a place of vice and disease began well before the bubonic plague was discovered on San Francisco’s shores. In the following excerpts, Charlotte talks to us about how useful this scapegoating was to the protection of white supremacy and racist ideals. And also how the community of Chinatown worked against it with the only legal recourse they had available to them--the court system.
CB: I'm writing another book about this Chinese American family and the father of this family arriving in San Francisco in the 1880s in the midst of a smallpox epidemic, um, which was a problem in ports around the world. The coverage in the press of the, of the ship that this man was on--in which I think three or four people had smallpox--was, um, something like “Smallpox Consignment Arrives From Asia.” As if these, these Chinese immigrants were not even human beings, they're just a disease, right? They're just, they just represent the smallpox. That’s the exact kind of language, um, of pestilence and disease that is attached to the Chinese in the 1870s, 1880s. Um, and actually, you know, reflects that a lot of the, um, prevalent ideas about China itself at that time, you know, a lot of Western traders and missionaries--missionaries in particular, who did not actually do very well in terms of trying to proselytize among the Chinese, they did not get many converts. They have to justify why they're in China. So they portrayed the Chinese as depraved and diseased. And you see all this stew of ideas together with this, um, you know, deep-seated white supremacy and with the residential segregation that had already taken hold. It just, it sort of layers one on top of the other, these different ideas.
Under California's first state constitution in 1850, free Blacks and Native Americans are basically given this distinct status where they can't testify against whites in a court. They can't vote. They're basically non-citizens. Chinese aren't named, but that status is extended to them in this, in this 1854 court case. However, the 1868 14th amendment is really crucial, because it guarantees equal protection under the law, right? So it wipes away those kinds of prohibitions.
Chinese can testify against whites in a court after that point. Not that they're going to be believed for example, but you know, they do have those rights. And in fact, one of the things that happens is that, um, the Chinese Six Companies and other Chinese in San Francisco, they use the courts to challenge unfair immigration laws. They use them. You know there are all these writs of habeas corpus to allow people to land after the 1882 Exclusion Act. So the reason they've relied so heavily on the courts is that, beginning in the 1870s and encoded in the 1882 exclusion law was the fact that Chinese could not become naturalized American citizens. So they couldn't follow the route that other immigrants followed when they were harassed and attacked. They could not become American citizens, because of their race. They could not vote, right? So the court was really what they have.
And over time Congress and the federal courts make it really difficult for the Chinese to challenge immigration law, right. That keeps them out. It really makes it difficult for people trying to land by the turn of the century and after to challenge immigration officials' decisions. Those are final. But the Chinese are able to challenge other things that are outside of immigration and the local government, San Francisco, does all these things like you mentioned the cutting off of the queue that would make it really impossible for this man to return to China and not face political persecution. Um, there are the square cubic footage ordinances. Under some of these ordinances, you can't use the shoulder poles to carry bundles--something only the Chinese did. You can't operate a laundry. in a wooden building, it's aimed specifically at the Chinese. And the, you know, the merchants, in particular, challenge all these ordinances, which are found to violate the 14th amendment. So we think about, you know, those California laws, but in fact, the Constitution and the 14th amendment do prove incredibly valuable.
SO: Talking with Charlotte was enlightening, to say the least. There’s a big part of me that always wants to find the line--follow the timeline. But -- now it’s my turn with maritime metaphors [AM: Hm]-- I’m learning if you focus on journeys from one port to another, if you only focus on those ports, you miss the waves and storms and trials that turn a sailor into a seafarer.
AM : I get that. When we brought up the transformation we saw of Chinese immigration from primarily sojourners to largely settlers, Charlotte helped us see that it wasn’t a singular, linear journey that brought about this population change. She reiterated how important understanding the complications is to telling the facts and not getting swept up in a pretty fiction.
CB : I think it is partly Chinese over time going from being sojourners to settlers. But I think also it's different groups of people and how they imagine their lives in America: whether they're going to be there permanently, whether they're going to go back and forth or leave.
I think what you see especially is after the turn of the century, the formation of a second generation, that desperately want to stay in the United States, but don't really see their future as being one of many opportunities in the United States. At the same time, this is a time in China where you have this emergence of a new kind of, um...This, uh, attempt to sort of try to modernize--however we define that--to, to challenge the, um, American policies.
I think it's, it's all these different currents. You have, you know, growing number of families, growing number of Chinese Americans born on U.S. soil, who are citizens. Growing number of women in these merchant families, uh, merchants' wives, essentially, who are, you know, they they've come from a China that's changing. And also, people investing in property through Chinese-owned corporations, buying property. This is before that becomes illegal in 1913 for so-called “aliens ineligible for citizenship.” So it's a really complicated, I think, phenomenon.
AM : We’ve said it before and it’s fairly obvious that the bulk of our research has been centered around Chinatown. And through the lens of that neighborhood, we’ve been able to study so many movements and events in San Francisco’s early history.
SO : Yet I wouldn’t limit the relevance of what we’ve been talking about in this episode to San Francisco. Walter Wyman, the third Surgeon General of the United States and both Kinyoun and Blue’s boss, said,
“All the world has become one neighborhood, as far as relates to distances. In no manner has this been better shown than in the warfare against contagion…[which is] bringing the nations together as one family in the struggle against these foes of mankind.”
AM : Do you think we were successful against these foes of humankind?
SO : Well, that depends on how you calculate success. We have a cure for the plague now.
AM : Thanks, science! [SO laughs] The bubonic plague outbreaks certainly made the city and its people think critically about not only disease mitigation, but prevention. The Board of Health was expanded into what is today the Department of Public Health, which strives not only to slow the spread of contagious disease, but prevent large-scale outbreaks and promote physical, mental, and emotional health.
SO : And before the outbreaks, San Francisco had never run a major sanitation campaign. This reflects the relative newness of the idea of sanitation and hygiene -- It was only in the mid to late 1800s when American public health officials began pushing for regular bathing, clean sources of water, and toilets. Remember, uncontained urine and feces were thought to be the cause of plague.
AM : That’s right. Does this mean you’ve made your peace with the question “Where’s the bathroom”?
SO : I’m just glad I can tell you where ours is. [AM laughs]
AM : Over the past few episodes, we’ve focused on the hurdles and hardships that Chinese people faced once they arrived in San Francisco. Plagues, fires, earthquakes, and a legal system bent on excluding them. Faced with even one of those, I don’t know if I’d have it in me to stay.
SO : I get that. But somewhere between the first journeys to Gold Mountain in 1849 to rebuilding their community after the earthquake and fires of 1906, Chinese Americans made a permanent home here. To put it very simply, some sojourners did become settlers. Second generations grew up knowing America as their first country. And I think, when you call a place your home, you make the decision to put in the effort, the fight to make it better.
AM : That fight has continued for generations more -- but, for now, I think we’re wrapping up our episodes that focus on the early Chinese American experience in San Francisco. Essential as it is to Asian American history, it is only one part of it, and it’s time we start exploring more stories.
SO : We definitely will… starting next episode.
AM : Looking forward to it. Till then, as a good park ranger, I ask you: please keep away from the wildlife. Don’t go near the rats.
SO : Or the squirrels! They’re still out there.
Episode music: “Pavement Hack”, “Tyrano Theme” and “Stakes and Things” by Blue Dot Sessions. Licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC.
But she did end up going to live in a little cottage beside Donaldina Cameron's cottage in Palo Alto, and they passed their laterly years together. And Tien was there when Donaldina passed away at the age of 99 in 1968. One of the most touching things that I did as part of my research was to go to Los Angeles and visit a graveyard. And there, sure enough, in the Cameron family plot, was Tien Fuh Wu's marker, very close to Donaldina Cameron's marker. And that, to me, was a, uh, symbol of, of how close they were and how much respect they had for each other. [Audio break] AM: Can I confess something? SO: Um, I mean, you know we’re recording, right? AM: [laughs] Haha, I do. The confession is, I’ve gone down my own rabbit hole. SO: Oh, White Rabbit! It’s so nice to see you! AM: Hehe, I really hope that this isn’t a path to Wonderland, but Julia did encourage me to figure out where the term “yellow journalism” came from. SO: The term for reporting that plays up sensationalism and scandal? AM: Yes! So I originally thought, given the use of “yellow” to propagate negative stereotypes of Asian people, that the term “yellow journalism” originated around this same racist practice. SO: And it doesn’t? AM: You know, I don’t think we can ever be totally sure. But the sources I’ve read trace it back to a publishing fight over a New York World cartoon character known as the Yellow Kid. This cartoon was originally published in 1895. And, as far as I can tell, he was called the Yellow Kid because of the color of his nightshirt, not his skin. SO: But 1895? That would have been during the time of the Chinese exclusion acts. AM: Very true. Societal norms would have absolutely played into this. You know who also played a role? William Randolph Hearst. SO: Oh, another family name from the Gold Rush! Has he been in every episode so far? AM: It’s very possible! He hired the Yellow Kid cartoonist away from Joseph Pulitzer and Pulitzer was, unsurprisingly, displeased. They competed viciously for years to steal each other’s readership, using sensationalistic reporting and flashy headlines over fact-driven scholarship. SO: Right. I remember Hearst was even quoted as saying, “You furnish the pictures, I’ll provide the war!” Anyway, Julia helped us connect the dots between yellow journalism and the Cameron House. Let’s listen to a bit more of the interview. AM: One of the things I enjoyed most about your work is the comparing and contrasting of Chinese-language newspapers with the English-language newspapers, especially those run by Mr. Hearst. JFS: Yes. Yes. It was so eye-opening to learn more about the Chinese press. To my delight as a storyteller, it turned out that one of the editors of a very important new Chinese-language newspaper in Chinatown was closely associated with the home for many, many years.
His name was Ng Poon Chew. He was a Presbyterian clergyman who realized that he could probably be more effective in advocating for civil rights for the Chinese people in San Francisco as a journalist so he started his newspaper. He ended up marrying a woman who had been a resident at the home, and they had a number of children, and they were big supporters for many, many years of the home and of the fight against sex trafficking.
Ng Poon Chew was an advocate for women's rights. He was an advocate for Chinese civil rights. He paid very close attention to the waves of restrictions and laws that were being passed against the Chinese starting with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. And that was continued in various forms through much of his time when he was an editor. Whereas the Hearst newspapers were, for the most part, anti-Chinese. The term “yellow journalism” certainly applied to the Hearst newspaper chain at that point. It was inflammatory. It was racist. It was very much on the side of seeing the Chinese in San Francisco as a threat. AM: I recall Ng Poon Chew's speech in which he put forth that the most yellow journalism was practiced by white newspapers. [JFS: Mhm] and that was such powerful rhetoric. JFS: It was. And he was so witty. He was known as the Chinese Mark Twain. [SO: Mhm] So I think he used that term when he had a very big speech in New York and it went over very well. SO: So… all that said… can I read from an old newspaper again? AM: Um... SO: What?!? We are talking about old newspapers! I have to read from an old newspaper! AM: Well... SO: What!?!?! AM: You know I’m just teasing you. Please share with me! SO: Are you? AM: I don’t know actually. [laughs] SO: Um, I will read it anyway, because I cannot be stopped. [AM laughs out loud] So, this article is from the San Francisco Call -- one of the papers that William Randolph Hearst would own, but not at the time of this writing in 1897. It reports the death of Margaret Culbertson, the first superintendent of the Presbyterian Mission House. The main title is “She Gave Her Life to God.” Here are a few lines: “Miss Culbertson died a martyr to the cause which had absorbed the labors of her lifetime...Brutality begets brutality, and some of the girls brought into the mission from the dens of Chinatown behave more like wild beasts than human beings...The gentle matron of the Presbyterian Home never knew fear, and in time was always able to subdue the most ferocious of the kicking, howling slave girls. One day, however, about five years ago, an especially troublesome slave girl was rescued. Miss Culbertson on approaching her received a kick which caused an internal injury from which she never recovered. The cause of her illness was a tender subject...she never liked even her intimate friends to think that one of her girls, who were so devoted to her as a rule, could have been the cause of the intense suffering which she has endured so frequently and so heroically.” [audio break] AM: What were we just saying about sensationalistic reporting? SO: Uh, it makes me wonder how Ng Poon Chew’s newspaper would have written an obituary. AM: Mmm. The Chung Sai Yat Po , the Chinese-Western Daily, had not been founded yet. It ran from 1900 to 1951. But, yeah, just imagine if the city’s first Chinese-language daily newspaper could have existed earlier. SO: Yeah, and not just the city’s! It was the first of its kind to be printed outside of China. But back to that article. AM: It’s really a lens into the time it was written, isn’t it? [SO: Mhm] The language used to describe the girls -- “ferocious”, “howling”, “wild beasts” -- reinforces negative stereotypes about people of another culture and race. In contrast, there’s the emphasis on the nobility and martyrdom of the Christian white woman, who devoted her life to rescuing these girls into better lives. SO: Another piece in the San Francisco Call takes the rhetoric farther. Reiterating that Margaret Culbertson died after getting kicked five years earlier, the writer says: “It is not the individual girl, however, but the system in which she was trained that we should blame for the offense. The memory of it should furnish another keen incentive for efforts to prevent Chinese iniquities from gaining a foothold on these shores. If the Mongols are to permanently remain in the midst of our civilization they must be made to amend their ideas about woman slavery. It is no ordinary philanthropy which can devote itself self-sacrificingly to an inferior race...as Miss Culbertson did.” AM: I am trying to say something else aside from “Wow.” SO: Right? But here’s the thing. Despite what the newspapers suggest, women and girls didn’t always need “rescuing.” According to both Unbound Feet and The White Devil’s Daughters, over the decades, they came to the Mission Home for a variety of reasons. Some prostitutes sought protection as they tried to marry suitors of their choice. Others sought temporary refuge to escape abusive marriages or arranged ones. Still others tried to gain leverage in polygynous marriages where one man has several wives. AM: And they also had various reasons for leaving the Mission Home. [SO: MH] Many moved on to new lives as they married Chinese Christians. And some -- particularly those who were assigned by court order to the home -- chose to go back to China under Christian escort. Some chose to return to their former status. And -- keeping in mind that mission homes started out as institutions for both fighting social problems and finding converts to Christianity – many girls and women did not convert. Nor did they embrace the Victorian ideals of womanhood and Christian home life that they were taught, or even pressured, to adopt. SO: Pressured to adopt? I feel like that leads us into another gray area. Or an entirely separate episode. AM: Why don’t we, for now, stay with a gray area we’ve already discussed in an episode? Because I think it’s time to talk about paper children again. [Audio break/music cue] AM: The term “paper children” refers to the Chinese men and women who assumed false identities to enter the country under exclusionary immigration laws. Last time, we talked about how many possible paper children stories there can be. Today, we’ve already heard one more through Tien Fuh Wu. Come the 1930s, two more paper children came into the limelight, as the fight against human trafficking in Chinatown won a landmark victory. SO: You’re referring to the 1935 trials, right? Those saw three women go up against the persons who enslaved them? AM: Yes. The trials were heavily publicized in the press. SO: And how! -- the newspapers called the story the “Trampled Blossoms” or “Broken Blossoms” trials. The “broken blossoms” meaning the plaintiffs, Jeung Gwai Ying, Wong So, and Quan Gow Sheung. AM: Let’s not even get into what that kind of headline suggests… Jeung Gwai Ying was this trial’s star witness; her escape to the Presbyterian Mission Home in 1933 set in motion the investigations that led them to court. Jeung had sailed to the U.S. from Hong Kong, ostensibly to reunite with her father and sister. But she, in fact, had come with false papers and a ticket provided by Wong See Duck. Wong See Duck was a wealthy merchant in San Francisco who headed a trafficking ring all along the West Coast. Remember, last episode, we talked about the Pacific Mail Steamship Company as a main travel line between California and Asia? SO: Yes. AM: In the 1920s, it became the Dollar Steamship Company. [SO: Right] Mr. and Mrs. Robert Dollar were supporters of the Mission Home. Ironically, like many women who took refuge there, Jeung Gwai Ying was smuggled into the U.S. on one of the company’s ships. She was a passenger on the S.S. President Cleveland -- previously named Golden State . SO: Jeung Gwai Ying arrived in Seattle in July 1933. There, she passed interrogation and met up with her supposed family, who, in fact, were part of the ring. They brought her to Wong See Duck in Oakland; she came to live in his household in San Francisco while he looked for a buyer for her. AM: This is how Jeung Gwai Ying described her story to officials: A lady. . . came to see my mother. She told my mother that she wanted me to come to the United States to work, and that if I would like to become a prostitute I could be wealthy within a year or so. . .There was no work in China, so I thought I would take a chance and come to get a position here. They told me that I didn’t have to become a prostitute if I didn’t want to, that I could get a job. My mother didn’t want me to come, but our family is very poor. SO: But she wasn’t able to seek another job once she reached San Francisco. Wong See Duck threatened to hurt and kill her if she refused to prostitute herself. Owned by two women who made sure she looked appealing to men in America, she commanded $25 a night -- $21 of which went to her owners. The average garment-maker in Chinatown then earned $30 a month. AM: This is what Jeung said of what happened next: I told one of my customers that I couldn’t stand that kind of life, and he told me there was a Home I could go to where they could not reach me. I waited my chance, and when I was sent out to have my hair done at 4:30 pm at a place about two houses from my apartment—I had been told that I was to be sent to the country at 5 o’clock. . .I went to the beauty parlor and told the girl to curl the ends of my hair only; then I left the beauty parlor and asked a child on the street where the Mission was. I was taken to a Mission on Washington Street and from there I was brought to Miss Cameron’s Home. SO: Donaldina Cameron and the Mission Home helped her report her story to the legal and immigration authorities; Jeung Gwai Ying did not speak any English, so Tien Fuh Wu translated for her during the months of investigation. Finally, a breakthrough came when an official, searching through hundreds of immigration photographs, spotted a photo of a man named Leong Chong Po. Jeung Gwai Ying identified him as the man who trafficked her, and Donaldina and Tien recognized him as a rumored member of criminal tongs. This man, of course, was Wong See Duck. AM: Wong See Duck himself was a paper son. He arrived in San Francisco aboard the SS Asia in 1908, and was interrogated at the Pacific Mail detention shed near Pier 40. There, he passed himself off as Leong Chong Po, or Leong Foo, whose father owned Yee Chong & Company in Chinatown. Later, it was this merchant status that enabled Wong See Duck to travel back and forth between China, and build his criminal network. SO: It took a great effort for Jeung Gwai Ying to testify against him -- considering that she had just given birth. AM: She was actually pregnant when she escaped to the Mission House. [SO: Mhm] And her baby boy was cared for by the Mission House throughout the trial. SO: Unfortunately, she didn’t do that well on the stand, and the trial ended with a hung jury. What she did do was identify another enslaved woman who she had met at Wong See Duck’s apartment, whose story was similar to hers. This woman, Wong So, became the star witness at a second “Broken Blossoms” trial. There, the jury unanimously found Wong See Duck, his wife, and two other female traffickers guilty. They were all jailed and deported. As was Wong So, because she still had come with false papers. Gwai Ying and the third plaintiff had infants, so they were allowed to remain in the US. AM: Wong See Duck, his wife, the other female traffickers, and Wong So were deported and went back to China on the SS President Lincoln and the SS President Coolidge . Again, both also ocean liners for what was originally the Pacific Mail Steamship Company. [outro music] SO: Do you feel like everything can just all connect together like a glorious network of rabbit holes? AM: [chuckles] I do! It’s like what Julia Flynn Siler said, at the very beginning-- depending on how and where you stop to look at things, any boat, any building, can quite possibly tell a hidden history of the city. I still can’t believe how much history was contained within the walls of 920 Sacramento Street. SO: I know. And we really only got a brief glimpse into all that The White Devil’s Daughters addresses. AM: That’s true. We didn’t even get to how they handled the bubonic plague outbreak in San Francisco ... SO: The what?! AM: I think we have our next episode. [outro music ends] SO: Our last two episodes have featured a few stories about passengers and vessels of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, the Dollar Steamship Company, and American President Lines. For more resources on these shipping companies, visit the Maritime Research Center page on our park’s website.
Episode music: “Leadin” and “Vengeful” by Blue Dot Sessions. Licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC.
Episode music: “Our Fingers Cold”, “Snowcrop”, “Slate Tracker” and “A Rush of Clear Water” by Blue Dot Sessions. Licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC.
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!
Episode music: “Clementine” from the W.P.A. California Folk Music Project, Library of Congress; “Romance del Conde Olinos” performed by Joaquín Díaz; and “Xinnian Hao Ya” by EZY Mandarin.
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.
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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!
Episode music: “Turning to You” and “When We Set Out” by Blue Dot Sessions. Licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC.