"The Barbary Coast" is a gritty but fascinating background book on the social and political history of San Francisco. No major city in America ever had such a pedigree of chaos--going from a small coastal village of about 800 souls--called Yueba Buena under the Mexican flag---to a metropolis that exploded with teeming humanity after the discovery of gold in the Sacramento River area about 100 miles away from the Bay Area.
From 1848 onwards a whole city burst forth with tens of thousands of men out to make it rich either in gold strikes or in gambling, shopkeeping or pimping, banking or strong-arm robbery. In the first three years of San Francisco's s existence, much of the city was burned to the ground several times (often by arsonists, sometimes by accident.) Great houses built on steep hillsides and little shanty neighborhoods alike went up in flames. Every time the city rebuilt itself again starting almost before the smouldering wreckage of whole neighborhoods of canvas hovels brick-and-mortar businesses had to be pulled down and carted off. Many of the short-lived enterprises were built from wood pulled out of merchant ships that had been abandoned by their crews "en masse" to go to the where the gold was reported to be. One of the larger cast-off "hulks" was used as the city's only jail house.
It was a frontier city indeed, with all the hazards and potential that came with being so isolated and having hordes of mostly young men coming not only from from "Back East" but from China, France, Chile, Britain and her colonies, Mexico, et al, to make individual fortunes. Most of the men never got their personal El Dorado needless to say. Many died without their families knowing what became of them. Others barely made it home with the clothes on their backs. Some miners made their fortunes in back-breaking labor panning and digging along the Sacramento and Feather Rivers only to lose the precious gain in the gambling dens of the city. According to Asbury:
"Once their gold was exhausted, the spendthrift miners hurried back to the gold-fields, supported by a sublime faith that they would immediately make another rich find and so start anew the same vicious circle. Even those who hadn't enough left to furnish outfits or to pay their transportation to the diggings didn't lose hope entirely. Scorning to degrade themselves, as they thought, by performing ordinary labor, they diligently prospected the city streets, the vacant lots, and the sand-hills behind the town; many religiously panned the daily sweepings from stores, hotels, saloons, brothels, and gambling houses, which occasionally yielded a few ounces of gold dust."
The Mexican War had just ended before the famous Gold Strike at Sutter's Mill in January 1848. Many of the earliest "49ers" and "Argonauts" as they called themselves were back-east Americans who were pumped up with a sense of entitlement to all of California. They braved cholera via the wagon trains or malaria via the Panamanian Isthmus to get there. The new city had been a military outpost and cattle stockyard called "Yueba Buena" before 1848, settled by the missionaries and soldiers of the Spanish Empire in 1776 and later by the ranchers and merchants of Mexico (Of course the Bay Area was settled by Native-Americans long before that.) All of that legacy was stripped away by the gold fever of men rushing from the East to claim their new chunk of the USA.
Young white American criminals called "Hounds" attacked and murdered Hispanic and Chinese settlers in their respective little tent camps along the bay sides and the Pacific. After some of them were driven from town, new gangs took their place, mainly expatriate Australian ex-cons known as the "Sydney Ducks". These were non-gold seeking Aussies who congregated in a part of the city that was called "Sydney Town" before it was "The Barbary Coast". They were accused of setting fires in the city when the wind was blowing away from their neighborhood in order to go in arson-related crime sprees of homes and businesses.
Twice (in 1851 and 1856) the city was in such an uproar that the business men and other citizens formed "Vigilante Committees". They superseded what passed for due process of law among the often crooked politicians who modeled themselves after the Tammany Hall political machine that ran New York City at the same time. "Justice" came for many very fast and at the end of a hangman's noose for returning "Hounds", "Ducks" and any other criminal caught and tried by a quickly convened jury.
Other scofflaws charged with lesser offenses were lucky and got off with jail or banishment. Some innocent men who happened to look like wanted fugitives barely escaped capital punishment when the real criminals were found; many others suffered on thumped-up charges, especially Irish-Catholics, blacks and Chinese emigrants.
Saloons, gambling dens and houses of prostitution proliferated. The latter were quite popular and very expensive. Ashbury estimates that by the end of 1849, out of a population of between 20,000 and 25,000, only about 300 were women and an estimated almost two-thirds of those were prostitutes. While prostitution was legal in San Francisco until 1914, the "parlors", "houses" and low class "cribs" where women worked were also unregulated. Some women did quite well in the early days of the city, but most suffered the fate one associates with the modern sex trafficking trade in parts of North America, Asia and the Arab World.
One of the sadder chapters of the city were the large number of Chinese women imported in the 1860's and 70's to be de facto slaves to the Chinatown crime rings that ran the prostitution and opium dens in that part of the city. "The Slaves of Chinatown" were often taken right off a ship and given "contracts" by their employers which gave them little money and would add time onto their indentured tenure for any illness they suffered. Women of all races plying the oldest profession on the streets fared little better. Church organizations tried to stop some of the street activity but they were thwarted by the lack of other available employment for women and the graft that the police and City Hall officals for keeping the brothels open during periodic "reform campaigns".
Dens of gambling and drinking and a few bawdy theaters like the famous Bella Union were among the first structures in the city to be built of brick and mortar. Many men and not a few women made fortunes from the wide-open practices of vice that created "The Barbary Coast", which hugged the northern shore of the city just above the downtown area and the nearby piers. While other areas had their share of vice joints, The Barbary Coast was the civic epicenter of adult entertainment on the West Coast for decades after the gold ran out.
The forces of human greed enterprising corruption in the city far outstripped the foundations of reliable law and order needed to contain it. Within a few years, San Francisco was the 10th largest city in America and easily the largest west of St. Louis.