Gold Rush Families: San Francisco through Letters and Stories
By Chris Gordon, Library and Information Sciences Master's Program, Simmons University
Historic Documents Department Intern, Maritime Research Center
Both the Christy family papers and the Humphrey Anthony papers include, in part or in whole, correspondence between family members regarding California in 1850. Sickness, gambling and the rough justice of San Francisco are touched upon by both Humphrey Anthony and James Christy though both men also write of their hope in finding gold, provided their health holds up.
While each writer only mentions gambling a single time, their descriptions are almost identical, as you can see in the transcriptions below. Both men were struck at the shear amount of wealth being gambled away and the quality of the gambling halls compared to other buildings.
"no language can describe, no toung [sic] can tell the depravity and degraded state of society here. Humanity shudders at the sight…I saw one of the best looking buildings which is a long hall with a barroom at each end with a great number of tables all used for gambling. I believe there was more money (possible?) on those tables than they have got in all the banks in N—Bedford."
HDC0005 (SAFR 14022), folder 2: From page 5 of a personal letter, written by James Christy to Elizabeth Hipple, Christy's future wife, on 1 April 1850 from San Francisco:
"Gambling is carried on at a great rate. I could go in a gambling house and see as much gold as our vessel could carry. They gambling all day on Sunday….Places of worship are very scarce."
Health is an often-reoccurring theme with the writers mentioning their own and others several times in a single letter. There is a realization that both men speak to that death is likely to come from illness so far away from civilization and the only bar to their success in California is their own wellness.
". . . there is no building here that will keep out the damp stinking air and water in the rainy season. Look at the streets or mud paths knee deep with water & mud & filth. It rains here since we have been here about half the time with hail and gales of wind & cold."
andHDC0079 (SAFR 14021): From page 2 of a personal letter, written by Humphrey Anthony to his wife on 14 March 1850 from San Francisco:
"I expect to go to the mines in a week or 10 days but the snow lays all over the mountains in sight of us we have frosty nights here."
HDC0079 (SAFR 14021): From page 3 of a personal letter, written by Humphrey Anthony to his wife on 14 March 1850 from San Francisco, concerning Anthony's family land in the context of health:
"I do not know how to advise you but if I was there I would take up that deed and &give him a mortgage for his security. This is to make him &you secure in case my life should not be spared to return home. For I believe a great many here will not return home. For all those that I have seen are more exposed to the changes of the weather than they are at home, we have not had any rain for 2 or 3 days but some part of the day it is very warm and in an hour's time cold enough to freeze."
HDC0079 (SAFR 14021): From page 1 of a personal letter, written by Humphrey Anthony to his wife on 29 March 1850 from San Francisco:
"Some give glowing accounts from the mines others awfull [sic] story. I can put no dependence on what I hear. But one thing is certain that is those that goes to the mines and gits [sic] anything has to work for it. & no mistake one half that goes up to the mines is sick &many dey[sic] as well as at this place the most of the cause is from exposier [sic]."
"This is a bad place for a sick person."
With no official law in the gold fields, miners took the law in their own hands. Anthony writes of the surprising lack of crime and relative safety of miners and their belongings but does mention that when justice was needed, it came swift at the hands of the mob. The Christy family papers expands on this with the Christy family genealogist relating a story from James Christy of his time on the Vigilante Committee where he acted as a sometime hangman for those the Committee deemed a necessary recipient of justice.
"I have not seen anyone carry armes [sic] they say all is safe—they say at the mines they leave their tents all a lone & put their gold out to dry in pans & leave all for the day &nobody troubles any thing…if any one is caught a violating those rules he don't have to undergo much of a trial but the people that makes the rules quick executes the judgement—sometimes almost without mercy."
"It was during the turbulent days of the 1850s and 60 that the Vigilante Committee played an active part in bringing law and order to San Francisco. If this committee found a ruffian guilty of a serious crime and decided he should be hung, the second story balcony of a building facing Portsmouth Square provided the place from which he was dropped off with a rope around his neck. If he resisted, he was forcibly carried up the stairway to the building balcony. Because James Christy was strong and powerful, he was often assigned the job of clamping a leg of the villain under each arm and thus aided in carrying the objector to the balcony."
Regardless of the dangers of sickness or exposure, both Anthony and Christy express their hope and general affection for the promise of San Francisco and the gold fields.
HDC0079 (SAFR 14021): From page 2 of a personal letter, written by Humphrey Anthony to his wife on 31 March 1850 from San Francisco:
"I came here to see the world to take comfort & git [sic] gold. I have seen some of the world but expect to see more if I live & as for the gold I shall git [sic] some of that if I have my health so you must not think I am down hearted or discouraged from what I have written."
HDC0005 (SAFR 14022), folder 2: From page 6 of a personal letter, written by James Christy to Elizabeth Hipple, Christy's future wife, on 1 April 1850 from San Francisco:
"I like this place very much if my health and strength lasts I think I will do well."
Colorful Christy Family
While the Humphrey Anthony papers contain only three letters from Mr. Anthony, the Christy family papers contain a short genealogical history of the family, of which transcribed below are several accounts of some of the more interesting Christy ancestors.
HDC0004 (SAFR 14021), folder 3: from page 2 of the Christy family genealogy, undated, regarding James Christy's grandfather:
"Under the feudal system, this Irishman was one of numerous farm tenants or a landed English lord. This lord was must unjust and oppressive to his tenants. Christy led a protesting group of tenants on an occasion when violent action resulted in the sudden demise of the lord. To escape the consequences Christy was hidden in an apple barrel, placed aboard a sailing vessel, and subsequently landed in the United States."
HDC0004 (SAFR 14021), folder 3: from page 4 of the Christy family genealogy, undated:
One nearly unbelievable story related to the genealogy writer by Robert F. Christy chronicles Robert's survival of two shipwrecks and a remote island of cannibals. Robert sailed aboard the Great Eastern steamship on its maiden voyage to England. The Great Eastern sank in a storm and Robert ". . . was cast upon the deck of a passing sailing vessel." bound for Australia. "In the south Pacific the sailing boat ran into a gale and was driven upon a cannibal island and wrecked." With seven other survivors Robert was held captive while the cannibals ate six of the survivors. "One day these two who soon would have their turn to be feasted upon, saw a sail on the horizon. Somehow they managed to escape their bonds, seize an outrigger canoe and make for this vessel. They finally gained the attention of the ship and were rescued." This third ship brought Robert to the port of Said where he traveled overland to England via Jerusalem.
Note from the Archivist:
Finding aids for these collections are available at the Online Archives of California.
Last updated: May 9, 2016