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The action wasn't all in the gold mines!
on July 12, 2012
About ten years ago, my wife and I made our first trip as tourists to California. We spent ten days in northern California from San Francisco to the Oregon state line. A couple of those days were spent driving around the Gold Rush towns east of Sacramento. In a local bookstore, we bought some books about the 1849 Gold Rush, and when we returned home, we devoured them, reading about the incredible experiences of tens of thousands of Americans and foreigners who trekked to California. Some of the books mentioned San Francisco and what was happening there during this period, but the books were mostly focused on the gold miners' journeys to California and their efforts to get rich in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.
Cecelia Holland, in her Kindle Single "Vigilante Wars," turns the focus on San Francisco, which, before the 1849 Gold Rush began, was a tiny settlement of fewer than a hundred inhabitants. With the US having just taken possession of California from Mexico, it was pretty much a no-man's land with no real government. In San Francisco, gangs such as the "Hounds" roamed freely, stealing what they wanted and beating up anyone in their way. As a natural consequence, vigilante groups such as the Committee of Vigilance were formed to bring quick justice to violent lawbreakers. Over the next few years, the Committee would come in conflict with the local political forces, often resulting in chaos as public opinion wavered back and forth. With the United States government trying desperately to resolve the slavery issue that was driving the country toward war, the US government could do little to intervene in California's troubles.
"Vigilante Wars" is no dry recitation of facts and figures. Ms. Holland includes glimpses of many of the colorful characters who were influential in building and governing San Francisco during the turbulent years during and after the Gold Rush. Remarkably, two Americans who came to fame during the War Between the States played small roles in early San Francisco history: David Farragut and William Tecumseh Sherman.
There were some great little tidbits about San Francisco during the Gold Rush era. Once the Gold Rush began, the city's population grew exponentially for several years. In the early years, most people lived in wooden shanties and tents, and fires destroyed the fledgling city several times. Prices were rising so fast that it was claimed that it was cheaper to send laundry to China compared to having it done locally. Those are just a couple of the fascinating items about the city.
For anyone with even the slightest interest in the 1849 Gold Rush and the early history of San Francisco, "Vigilante Wars" is a must read.