Picturing the First Boom: Images of Gold Rush San Francisco

This daguerreotype shows San Francisco's main anchorage in 1851. Yerba Buena Island is at the right. (Library of Congress)

Between 1848 and 1852, San Francisco exploded from a town of just over 800 people to a port city of about 35,000 people. Among those who flocked to the city, which served as immigrants’ main gateway to newly discovered gold fields in the Sierra Nevada foothills, were illustrators, photographers and mapmakers, who documented the city’s shockingly quick rise.

Jean Jacques Vioget's 1839 map of San Francisco. (Bancroft Library)
Jean Jacques Vioget’s 1839 map of San Francisco. (Bancroft Library)

Above: Jean Jacques Vioget, a French-born ship’s captain who arrived on San Francisco Bay in 1837, was among the first to settle in the village of Yerba Buena. In 1839, Mexican officials hired Vioget to survey and map the settlement. The area he laid out is roughly bounded by today’s Pacific Avenue to the north, Washington Street to the south, Grant Avenue to the west and Montgomery Street to the east. The map is oriented with west at the top; the bay would be below the map’s bottom border.

Courtesy Library of Congress
(Library of Congress)

Above: San Francisco’s Portsmouth Square, also known as the Plaza, seen in a daguerrotype dated 1851. The view is toward the west, with the pictured buildings along Dupont Street (now Grant Avenue) and the heights later dubbed Nob Hill. The image was credited to a dentist named S.C. McIntyre. (Wikimedia Commons/Library of Congress)

(Bancroft Library) (Courtesy Bancroft Library)

Above: Hundreds of ships arrived in San Francisco during the Gold Rush, and many were abandoned as crews deserted to go to the gold fields. Some of the ships, like the whaling ship Niantic, were hauled ashore and incorporated into the city’s earliest waterfront neighborhoods. The Niantic, shown here in a lithograph by wandering memoirist Frank Marryat, was pressed into service as a hotel near the corner of Clay and Sansome streets. The ship/hotel was destroyed during a fire that swept much of downtown in May 1851. (See: Niantic: Buried Gold Rush Ship.)

(Frank Marryat/Library of Congress)
(Frank Marryat/Library of Congress)

Above: A Frank Marryat view of San Francisco looking east across the city toward the bay. Yerba Buena Island is pictured at the left, with Mount Diablo visible in the distance at center.

A view of San Francisco from Yerba Buena Island. (W.H. Dougal/David Rumsey Historical Map Collection)
A view of San Francisco from Yerba Buena Island. (W.H. Dougal/David Rumsey Historical Map Collection)

Above: And here’s what the rapidly growing city looked like from the shore of Yerba Buena Island in 1852.

Wood engraving by F. Hickock. Courtesy Library of Congress
(F. Hickock/Library of Congress)

Above: This engraving, published in Frank Leslie’s illustrated newspaper in June 1856, shows a Chinese settlement on the fringe of San Francisco. In 1852, about 20,000 Chinese immigrants registered at San Francisco customs houses — most intending to travel inland to the gold fields. California imposed a Foreign Miners Tax that May; the levy of $3 a month was explicitly directed at Chinese miners. Violence increased soon after 200 Chinese miners were robbed and four murdered at Rich Gulch that year, according to the Daily Alta California.

Lithograph on blue paper by Quirot & Co. Courtesy Library of Congress
Lithograph on blue paper by Quirot & Co. (Library of Congress)

Above: An early 1850s image of Mission Dolores, which despite San Francisco’s rapid growth still lay well beyond the city’s borders.

San Francisco in 1857
San Francisco in 1857. (David Rumsey Historical Map Collection)

Above: An 1857 map of San Francisco demonstrates the city’s rapid growth.

(A. Nahl/Library of Congress)
(A. Nahl/Library of Congress)

Above: This is one of several line engravings created by A. Nahl in 1856 showing workers at the San Francisco Mint, built just two years prior. Workers produced $4,084,207 worth of gold coins in 1854 alone, according to the U.S. Mint. The new mint quickly outgrew the small brick building and moved to new headquarters at Fifth and Mission streets — today’s “Old Mint” — in 1874.

Courtesy the Library of Congress
(A. Nahl/Library of Congress)

Above: Women worked at mints throughout the United States during the mid-1850s. By 1860, women at the Philadelphia Mint earned 11 cents an hour and often worked 10 hours a day. San Francisco’s mint was originally a branch of the Philadelphia Mint.

Picturing the First Boom: Images of Gold Rush San Francisco 7 January,2015Lisa Pickoff-White


Lisa Pickoff-White

Lisa Pickoff-White is KQED’s data reporter. Lisa specializes in simplifying complex topics and bringing them to life through compelling visuals, including photography and data visualizations. She previously has worked at the Center for Investigative Reporting and other national outlets. Her work has been honored with awards from the Online News Association, Investigative Reporters and Editors, the Society of Professional Journalists and SXSW Interactive.  Follow: @pickoffwhite Email: lpickoffwhite@kqed.org


Dan Brekke

Dan Brekke is a blogger, reporter and editor for KQED News, responsible for online breaking news coverage of topics ranging from California water issues to the Bay Area’s transportation challenges. In a newsroom career that began in Chicago in 1972, Dan has worked as a city and foreign/national editor for The San Francisco Examiner, editor at Wired News, deputy editor at Wired magazine, managing editor at TechTV as well as for several Web startups.

Since joining KQED in 2007, Dan has reported, edited and produced both radio and online features and breaking news pieces. He has shared in two Society of Professional Journalists Norcal Excellence in Journalism awards — for his 2012 reporting on a KQED Science series on water and power in California, and in 2014, for KQED’s comprehensive reporting on the south Napa earthquake.

In addition to his 44 years of on-the-job education, Dan is a lifelong student of history and is still pursuing an undergraduate degree.

Email Dan at: dbrekke@kqed.org

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