Cosmopolitan San Francisco in 1855

Beginning in 1849, the lure of gold made San Francisco into an “instant city,” and a cosmopolitan one at that, with more than half of its population born somewhere other than the United States.

This quality almost certainly added to its mystery and exceptionalism, while also shaping both the need and the contours of its version of “white supremacy.”   For many accustomed to life amidst a more racially and culturally homogenous population, assumptions of racial difference and fitness proved invaluable tools in an almost natural effort to grapple with newness by “rationally” organizing daily, multiracial interactions marked by difference.   At the same time, life in San Francisco helped to further solidify such assumptions, providing a detailed observer with an avalanche of new “evidence” and expertise.

One early account ( from the The Annals of San Francisco, published in 1855) communicates the combination of exoticism and informed certainty that could result:

The every-day aspect of the plaza and streets was of the most curious and interesting kind. Take the plaza, on a fine day, for a picture of the people. All races were represented. There were hordes of long pig-tailed, blear-eyed, rank-smelling Chinese, with their yellow faces and blue garbs; single dandy black fellows, of nearly as bad an odor, who strutted as only the negro can strut, in holiday clothes and clean white shirt; a few diminutive fiery-eyes Malays, from the western archipelago, and some handsome Kanakas from the Sandwich Islands; jet-black, straight-featured, Abyssinians; hideously tattooed New Zealanders; Feejee sailors and even the secluded Japanese, short, thick, clumsy, ever-bowing, jacketed fellows; the people of the many races of Hindoo land; Russians with furs and sables; a stray, turbaned, stately Turk or two, and occasionally a half naked shivering Indian…

[The] multitudes of the Spanish race from every country of the Americas, partly pure, partly crossed with red blood—Chilians, Peruvians and Mexicans, all with different shades of the same swarthy complexion, black-eyed and well-featured, proud of their beards and moustaches, their grease, dirt, and eternal gaudy serapes or darker cloaks; Spaniards from the mother country, more dignified, polite and pompous than even their old colonial brethren; “greasers,” too, like them; great numbers of tall, goat-chinned, smooth-cheeked, oily-locked, lank-visaged, tobacco-chewing, large-limbed and featured, rough, care-worn, careless Americans from every State of the Union, dressed independently in every variety of garb, not caring a fig what people thought of them, but determined to “do the thing handsomely,” and “go ahead”…

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