A large part of San Francisco’s history, and really America’s history in the mid 1800s was that of urbanization and industrialization. As can be seen in this chart from a report written by the United States Geological Survey, Urban Growth in American Cities, a large percentage of the population moved out of the rural regions of the nation and began conglomerating in larger city centers, such as San Francisco.
As San Francisco became the major port city in California in the early 19th century, much of the Gold Rush began to flow through the city. As is written in the San Francisco Annals 1855, “The mines were continuing to yield large returns, most of which were immediately forwarded to San Francisco, in exchange for new supplies. The bay was filling with shipping from all the ports of the Pacific coast of both Americas.” (Annals 1855)This led to massive growth in the number of citizens in the San Francisco area who now lived and worked, and eventually thrived, in the Bay Area. One of the easiest ways to compare the size of the city and the effect of the timing of the Gold Rush on its population is through artists renditions of the city in 1847 and 1849.
As you can see from these two pictures, in 1847, the harbor looked fairly empty and calm, with only a few building marking the shoreline, but when the same cityscape is drawn in 1849, you can see a rapidly filling harbor, and a city that stretches back into the land with hundreds of buildings. While this isn’t a perfect science, it gives a good general feeling to the size of the San Francisco area. One thing to note is that the difference in size may be slightly misleading due to perspective of the artists view, but it seems a fair assessment that in cataloguing San Francisco in 1847, an artist would attempt to encompass the most forthcoming view of the bay, rather than cutting out more than the one ship shown.
The Journal of Ernest de Massey, a Frenchman sailing into the port in 1849, also categorizes the growth and urbanizing potential of the city. Speaking from aboard his ship on what he sees in the city, de Massey mentions, “The present site could easily hold from three hundred to five hundred thousand inhabitants with ample chance for unlimited expansion southward. No doubt in due season, as wealth and commerce multiply, all the temporary wooden structures will be replaced by stone houses, hotels, palaces and public monuments.” (de Massey, 1849, pg. 14-15) Even from the shoreline, with whispers of what the economy of the city is like and how strong the growth is, the people know that it is following the modern trend of urbanization and isn’t so different from it’s Atlantic port city brethren.
This is very interesting to see from the standpoint of modern thought. As we’ve discussed in class, many times we see the Gold Rush and formation of the West as this sort of wild separate adventure of the white males on the prairie, not following the themes or beliefs of the East Coast. However, as we see in San Francisco, the modern industrial economies still exist almost in lockstep with the rest of the country and the most notable way we see this is in the urbanization of the West Coast through San Francisco.
United States. Department of the Interior. Geological Survey. Urban Growth in American Cities: Glimpses of U.S. Urbanization. By Roger Auch, Janis Taylor, and William Acevedo. Vol. 1252. Circular. 2004. 2.
de Massey, Ernest. A Frenchman in the gold rush; the journal of Ernest de Massey, argonaut of 1849, translated Marguerite Eyer Wilbur, Published California Historical Society, San Francisco, 1827, American Memory: California As I First Saw It.
“FoundSF.” CITY CONDITIONS 1849 –, San Francisco Annals 1855, http://www.foundsf.org/index.php?title=city_conditions_1849.
“FoundSF.” Population 1849, San Francisco Annals 1855, http://www.foundsf.org/index.php?title=population_1849.