From the small Spanish & Mexican settlement of Yerba Buena to the wild American city at the center of the Gold Rush,

San Francisco experienced huge global population growth in a short amount of time,

with building booms, deserted ships, heavy rains, and great fires.

By 1853 it was becoming a bit more civilized.



2 missionaries from the Roman Catholic Church – Francisco Palóu (a companion of Junipero Serra) and Benito Cambón – chose a fertile tract of land about 2 miles inland.

There they founded Mission Dolores with a purpose of civilizing and christianizing the native Ohlone and bringing settlers to Alta (Upper) California.


At the same time Mexican settlers constructed a few houses in present San Francisco, naming it Yerba Buena for the “good herb” that was found in abundance on the hillsides.


The Presidio was also constructed for government purposes. It was located about 3 miles west of the town, near the bay.


During the Mexican-American War,

Captain John B. Montgomery from the USS Portsmouth

hoisted the American Flag in what would become

Portsmouth Square.

In 1847  the city was renamed from Yerba Buena to San Francisco.

California Statehood: 1850


In 1848 there were about 1000 inhabitants of San Francisco.

The Gold Rush began in 1848 when gold was found by James W. Marshall at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, California.

Adventurers from all nations, and merchandise of all kinds began to pour into the town, on the way to the mining region.

They were mostly men, but some women started arriving as well.

By 1849 there were 100,000 inhabitants.

Why Did They Come?
How Did They Arrive?

Ships were abandoned as people headed to the mines. Some became buildings. Some are still buried in Yerba Buena Cove!

Although gambling and drinking houses were very common, there were also theaters and some people started to attend concerts, balls, dinner parties and military suppers.


San Francisco needed a way to accommodate all the ships that were arriving.

 from 13 vessels in 1848 to 775 in 1850!

In the spring of 1848, the old Central or Long Wharf was built 800 feet into the Bay. After 1850 it was extended 2,000 feet and the Pacific mail steamers and other large vessels anchored there. Central or Long Wharf is now Commercial Street.


San Francisco in 1849 had only dirt streets and a couple of sidewalks. The streets’ primitive condition didn’t matter much when the weather was dry, although blowing dust and sand was a constant irritant.

But the winter of 1849-50 was one of extraordinary rain. The rains commenced on the 2nd of November, and continued almost daily for some time. The streets became next to impassable. The mud was as deep as 5 feet. There was no street lighting. People fell into the mud or became stuck, animals died, and any manner of material was used in an attempt to fill the area.

Read About The Rains

In the course of the year 1850, the principal streets were graded and laid with planks. Commercial street, from Montgomery to Kearny, was first completed. Anticipating another winter like the past, the preparation of the streets was hastened as the autumn advanced, and when the season for rain arrived, the chief thoroughfares were effectually covered with wood.

The winter, however, brought but little rain, and the fires of May and June following, destroyed a large portion of the costly expenditure, which had added largely to the debt of the city.


San Francisco had 6 Major Fires in 18 months:

24 December 1849, 4 May 1850, 14 June 1850, 17 September 1850, 4 May 1851, and 22 June 1851.

Rebuilding occurred rapidly after each fire, but destroyed again in the next fire.

4 May 1851

Of all the conflagrations that have visited the city with ruin and devastation, that of May 1851, was by far the most important, both in regard to the loss of property and the loss of life All night the fire continued to rage and to spread, until the morning rose on a city in ruins. The very heart of the city, the centre of trade and business, was eaten out, leaving little else than the sparsely built outskirts.

22 June 1851

Among the larger buildings destroyed were the City Hall, on the corner of Pacific and Kearny streets, the City Hospital, the Presbyterian church in Stockton street, the Alta California printing office, and the Jenny Lind Theatre.

After this last fire, they finally realized that brick buildings were necessary to prevent future loss.

In another fire from 9 November 1852 the devastation was not as great

The extraordinary energies of the people were fully developed by these ruinous visitations. In a surprisingly brief period the burnt district was covered with new edifices, many of which were really fire-proof. The efficacy of such buildings was fully tested in the last fire, which occurred on the ninth of November, 1852, But for the intervention of the brick walls which hemmed it in towards Montgomery and Washington streets, this would have proved as destructive as the former fires.

A Cholera Epidemic followed

OCT-DEC 1850


What Does Sarah Say About the streets?

The streets are as dirty, dusty and dangerous as ever, being full of steps up and steps down and holes innumerable, whereby folks, unless they ever keep their eyes on the ground, run great risk of breaking their limbs.

What Does Sarah say about the stores?

A very fine bookstore presented itself and he proposed we should enter. It was as fine looking and handsome an establishment as any at home.

Go To Journal
Go To San Francisco