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Early History of California

Early History of
San Francisco

"Ranch and Mission Days in Alta California," by Guadalupe Vallejo

"Life in California Before the Gold Discovery,"
by John Bidwell

1846 Lithograph of
Yerba Buena

Yerba Buena Before the Gold Rush

1846 - Gen. Fremont and the Bear Flag Revolt

Capt. Montgomery Ends Indian Slavery

Lt. Bartlett Changes Name of Yerba Buena to San Francisco

First Municipal Elections Held in San Francisco

Sixty-Six Years Ago There Were
Only fifty Dwellings on Site of Metropolis.


The year 1846 for San Francisco was both memorable and eventful. On July 8th of that year the squalid little village then known as Yerba Buena passed forever from Mexican to American rules. At the time of the raising of the American flag at Portsmouth square, or the Plaza, as it was called by its early inhabitants, the population of the town was about 200, and the number of dwellings barely fifty. Following close upon the raising of the flag another historical event took place. It was of nearly equal importance, for by it the American system of town and future local government was imposed upon the people of the newly acquired Mexican territory. This was the first election held under American rule.

Lithograph of Lt. Washington Allen Bartlett - First Alcalde of San FranciscoAfter the raising of the flag in Yerba Buena, the new government, under Commodore John D. Sloat, moved forward without friction. In order to provide temporary officers until the people of the little hamlet should proceed regularly to an election, on August 14, 1846, Lieutenant Washington A. Bartlett was appointed Alcalde. He belonged to a prominent family in New York city, one of whom was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Lieutenant Bartlett had been appointed to the Navy by President Jackson, had seen considerable service, was well read in legal as well as naval matters, and above all, spoke the Spanish language fluently. So far as any official or other record shows, he appointed Erasmus A. Burnham to serve as Sheriff and chief constable of the jurisdiction of San Francisco in Yerba Buena.


The first municipal election held in this city took place on Tuesday, September 15, 1846. The polls were opened at the Plaza at 11 A.M. and were closed at 2 P.M. The Custom-house, known as the "Old Adobe," was used for the election booth. The following account appeared in volume 1, No. 7 of the Californian, published at Monterey, Saturday, September 26, 1846, there being no paper published in Yerba Buena:

"Election--San Francisco district--Held at Yerba Buena, September 15, 1846, for municipal officers. All the voters of the district assembled at Yerba Buena, agreeable to proclamation. W.A. Bartlett, Esq., as Alcalde under John B. Montgomery,Photograph of William Heath Davis - Early San Francisco Pioneer Commander Northern district of Upper California, presided at the election. Previous to the opening of the polls the people were requested to nominate and select four gentlemen as inspectors of election. Don Francisco de Haro, Don Francisco Guerrero, W.H. Davis and Frank Ward, Esqs., were elected viva voce, and duly sworn in by the presiding officer. Total number of votes polled were ninety-six."


In that little community every man's mental caliber, social position and business capacity was known absolutely, and not only in the village, but down the coast as far as San Diego. It was a genuine go-as-you-please affair, and the result was accepted with universal satisfaction by the whole community. The question of salaries did not enter into any of the calculations, for in those flush days a foreign merchant or a native stock raiser could make more money on a single venture than the united salaries of every officer in the municipality would amount to in five years. The question of nationality did not yet appear to cut much of a figure, either. For the leading office, two Americans and one Englishman were the only candidates. These were Washington A. Bartlett, Robert T. Ridley and John Henry Brown. For the next position the contest lay chiefly between the prominent native families of De Haro and Noe. Among the unsuccessful candidates for this latter office was John Sullivan, later one of the well known men of San Francisco. For Treasurer, a Scotchman and a German had the only struggle, in which the former won. For Sindico or Collector of Taxes, a Dane easily captured the price from an English competitor. In fact, he received the largest number of votes cast for any single candidate on that day.


After the poll was announced, says the Californian, the inspectors in making their returns to the commander of the district, addressed a letter to him that Mr. Bartlett had received the popular votes of the district to be continued in office, at least for the present, and in case there was any difficulty in his remaining in the performance of his duties the office of civil magistrate for the district was still intact, and they requested that it be provided for by the said commander of the district. This precaution was taken in case any question should arise as to the qualification of Mr. Bartlett, owing to his being also an office of the United States Navy. It was never disputed, however, during the whole term of his office.

Some idea of the peculiar fitness of Alcalde Bartlett may have gained from two or three events which arose during his brief term of office. Once in the winter months of 1846 a combination of speculators was formed to corner bread stuffs and thus compel the needy poor to pay famine prices. The Alcalde immediately secured control quantity of flour and bound his agent, the importer, to deliver it only in single barrels, and at a fixed low price so any comer until each family should be supplied.

The second occasion for his prompt action arose when he first received the terrible news of the disaster to the Donner party. The people were called together; Bartlett collected as much provisions and clothing as possible, raised money rapidly and lost not a moment in sending forward supplies to relieve the wretched survivors.

Before his appointment for some years one of the most powerful mercantile houses on this Coast was the Hudson Bay Company, which kept a branch in Yerba Buena. So long as the country was under Mexican rule no public or private interest was able to stand against this powerful corporation, backed as it was by the whole power of the home Government. After Alcalde Bartlett had given this little community some evidence of his capacity for leadership a civil suit was brought against the Hudson Bay company. The plaintiff for many years had tried to obtain some relief in Mexican courts, but no Judge was found who dared to oppose the British influence. At last he obtained a hearing in court under the new American rule. A jury was promptly summoned, evidence was secured, the verdict went for the plaintiff, was approved by Bartlett, and the defendant corporation paid the money to prevent the issuance of execution papers.


A portrait of Bartlett shows him to be a gallant-looking man of his period. He must not be confused with the Washington Bartlett of a later date, sometime Mayor of San Francisco and subsequently Governor of California, during which term of office his death occurred. After leaving the Coast about 1850 the life of Washington Allen Bartlett was full of trouble for the gallant officer. It cannot be recorded here, but the end came in complete vindication. Of his later family life nothing occurred that gave the country more genuine surprise than the marriage of his daughter to Senor Oviedo, a Cuban multi-millionaire, about 1857. It was a rare prize to land in those early days. Diamonds of princely value were lavished on the fair bride, the newspapers had a sensation, while a clever skit by Edmund C. Stedmen, "The Diamond Ball," made the hit of the season.

Don Jose Jesus de Noe, the successful candidate for the second municipal office, was a native of Mexico. He came to California in 1835, married here and lived the life of a prosperous ranchero until the discovery of gold. Although he obtained two valuable grants of land, his last years were full of trouble. he was too easy-going to meet the demands of the flush times, and long before his death in 1855 the old official was quite poor. A land litigation carried on in recent years by some of his descendants has had but scant success.

John Rose, the first Town Treasurer, came from Scotland to San Blas [in Mexico] in 1839. He was a carpenter, and after wandering up and down the Mexican coast for some years settled permanently in California in 1843. From this time he led a busy life, but unlike his thrifty race, he failed to profit greatly by his unequaled opportunities.

Pedro T. Sherreback, the last of the above list of municipal officers, was, by birth, a Dane. He came to this place in 1840 and at once engaged in business as a trader. He soon was naturalized under Mexican law and held various minor positions until the first election, when his personal popularity won him his victory. His wife was the sister of John Sullivan, who was one of the candidates, but who got one vote only, which doubtless was cast by one of his competitors. Sherreback was claimant for a large slice of San Francisco realty, embracing the area now bounded by the bay, Bush, Fourth and Folsom streets. Not much prominence was given to this claim until early in the [eighteen] sixties. The late Judge Ogden Hoffman of the United States District Court left for the East by steamer. Before going to the Mail dock he opened court quietly, handed the clerk an opinion, said good-by, and in two hours was outside the Golden Gate, free from reporters, lawyers or claimants. When the decision was read it was found that the claim of Sherreback was confirmed. today the property is worth millions, but little ever found lodging place in the claimant's pocket or bank.

William Heath Davis came to California in 1831. He returned in 1839, and during the next decade was one of the most prominent merchant traders in Yerba Buena. He was the last of the very early pioneers of California, and his death took place in April, 1909. Francisco Guerrero was murdered at his home near the Mission in 1851. Another Francisco de Haro was a prominent citizen, and held many offices under Mexican rule. He and his compatriot have given their names to streets in San Francisco. The last, Frank Ward, came to California in 1846. He made and lost fortunes, attempted to commit suicide in 1853, failed, left the State, returned about 1870, married a wealthy widow once more started East and on this trip completed his adventurous and strangely varied life by jumping overboard and drowning.

San Francisco Chronicle
Sunday, November 3, 1912

Author Robert Ernest Cowan, 1862-1942, was a great collector of Californiana. His collection was so important that it was purchased in 1897 by railroad magnate Collis P. Huntington and given to the University of California. What is now known as the Robert Ernest Cowan collection is housed at the Bancroft Library.

In addition to his passion for original documents related to the history of early California, Cowan published "The Spanish Press in California" in 1902; "Bibliography of the Chinese Question in the United States," 1909; "A bibliography of the History of California and the Pacific West, 1510-1906" in 1914; "A Bibliography of the Spanish Press in California" in 1919; "Forgotten Characters of old San Francisco," 1938, and "Booksellers of Early San Francisco," posthumously in 1953.

He was a frequent contributor to historical publications, including quarterlies of the California Historical Society and Society of California Pioneers. He was inducted into the Society of California Pioneers as an honorary member in 1928.

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