May 2, 2021

In the Library: The Sydney Ducks and Gold Rush California

The California Historical Society’s vast archive is open to the public through the North Baker Research Library. For many Californians this is a chance to study unique materials that document the people, places, and events that make up the nation’s most populous, and third-largest, state. But Californians are not our only patrons. Researchers from across the United States and overseas regularly contact the archives, finding stories and seeking connections to California.

When gold was discovered in 1848, people seeking economic opportunity from the East Coast, as well as France, Chile, Mexico, the West Indies, China and other places, rushed in. Thousands also arrived by boat from Sydney, Australia — at the time still a colony of Britain. Ben Mountford, Senior Lecturer in History at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne and most recently co-editor of A Global History of Gold Rushes (University of California Press, 2018), visited the archives in 2017. Here he writes about what he discovered.

*While not open for in-person research yet, we hope to be soon! Check our website for the latest updates about the reopening of the North Baker Research Library

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In the Library: The Sydney Ducks and Gold Rush California

Over the last several years, I’ve been one of the many lucky researchers scattered across the globe who have had the opportunity to engage with the library team at the California Historical Society and to access the Society’s wonderful historical collections. After an extended correspondence with Frances Kaplan, the Library’s Reference and Outreach Librarian, in late 2017 I made the long journey from Australia to San Francisco to finally visit the CHS in person. My research topic was the global history of the nineteenth century gold rushes, which of course had begun with the first great rush to California. Wandering into the Society library and through its rich collections relating to the California gold rush was a great privilege. Then, and in the period since, I have benefitted enormously from the generosity and expertise of the CHS library team.

But Australians looking for the gold rush were not always so welcome in San Francisco.

Word of the California gold discoveries arrived in Sydney in December 1848. With the Australian press and many leading figures in colonial society anxious to dampen enthusiasm among the labouring classes, the initial response came mainly from Australian merchants. Keen to find new opportunities at a time when colonial markets were dull, they loaded up ships packed with everything the growing California population might need. With an expected voyage time to San Francisco of three to four months (one ship, the Eleanor Lancaster, made it in just 71 days) eastern Australia seemed well placed to service the gold rush. But by mid-1849, after numerous accounts of California’s riches (including President Polk’s famous State of the Union speech) had floated into Sydney, the export of goldseekers had begun in earnest. By the end of the year some forty-eight ships had left Sydney (the key Australian port of departure) for California, along with smaller numbers heading direct from Hobart, Adelaide and Melbourne.

All-in-all an estimated 8,000-11,000 people made their way from Britain’s Australian colonies to California during the gold rush. As a group, they tended to be older, more Irish and more likely to be travelling as families than was typical of most gold rush immigrant groups. While some did well, others at least learned a lot about mining, not least Edward Hammond Hargraves who was eventually credited with the gold discovery near Bathurst in New South Wales that kicked off the Australian rushes in 1851. A significant number appear to have taken up work in San Francisco – as tradespeople, waiters, boarding house keepers and in other businesses. Others still devoted themselves to more nefarious trades. Soon Sydney Valley, or Sydney Town, running from the slopes of Telegraph Hill to the lower end of Pacific and Broadway near Clark’s Point, had developed into one of the most infamous parts of San Francisco and the Sydney Ducks, or Sydney Coves, into one of California’s most notorious immigrant groups.

Australia’s convict heritage naturally raised concerns about Sydney Town and the character of those rushing from across the Pacific. “There exists a very strong feeling here against Sydney people”, the Sydney Morning Herald’s California correspondent, Thomas Hinigan, wrote home in mid-1850, “all arriving … being looked upon … as nothing better than convicts”. “The name of Sydney”, his editor soon lamented, “appears to stink in the nostrils of the Californian people”.

While respectable arrivals from Britain’s Australian colonies resented being associated with criminal behaviour – few denied the unpleasant scent that hung over parts of Sydney Town. In June of 1851, frustrated at the impunity with which crime seemed to be carried out in the city, the San Francisco Committee of Vigilance came together determined to enforce law and order and with a particular determination to bring to an end the activities of the Sydney Ducks.

The CHS collection contains a number of important records relating to the history of Australians and crime and the struggle for order in gold rush California.

Preamble and resolutions read and adopted at the mass meeting held in the town of Sonora, on Sunday, July 21, 1850, Vault B-013, California Historical Society

One of the earliest is a broadside showing the “Preamble and Resolutions Read and Adopted” at a Mass Meeting held at Sonora on July 21, 1850. There a “committee to whom was referred the duty of drafting certain resolutions, in regard to the protection of the lives and property of the American citizens of Tuolumne county”, had put forward several resolutions regarding the regulation and exclusion of foreigners. In their preamble, they targeted three groups of incoming migrants:

Whereas, the lives and property of the American citizens are now in danger, from the bands of lawless marauders of every clime, class and creed under the canopy of heaven, and scarcely a day passes but we hear of the commission of the most horrible murders and robberies; and as we have now in our midst the Peons of Mexico, the renegades of South America, and the convicts of the British Empire …

In San Francisco, frustration had been mounting at the impunity with which the Sydney Ducks seemed to be able to conduct their criminal activities – and reached boiling point after their suspected involvement in the devastating inferno which swept the city on the night of May 3-4, 1851. A week later, when another vessel arrived from Sydney, the Daily Alta California warned:

Some of the passengers on this vessel have their heads shaved, proving their infamous characters. They have evidently been smuggled away from Australia and smuggled into our community … It seems certain that an organised band of ruffians has determined to burn the cities of the State, and a goodly set of scamps have been landed here to assist in the transaction.

San Francisco’s fifth great fire, and the incredible destruction it caused, is well-documented in the CHS’s collections.

Frank B. Calas, Jr. lettersheet San Francisco, Calif., to his parents ALS, 1851 May 14; MS 287, California Historical Society

One illustrated lettersheet in the California Lettersheet Collection features a vivid “map of the burnt district” along with an account from one Frank B. Calas Jr., sent home to his parents. Having just turned in on the night of May 3, Calas heard the cry of “fire”. Rushing to window, he saw the blaze beginning:

We dressed rapidly, went downstairs & had things ready to pack in about half an hour. The heat was so intense that our building began to catch. We were obliged to hang blankets on the outside & wet them down. The wind happening to be in an opposite direction, the fire spread towards the lower portion of the City, & destroyed more property than any previous fire, & I do not think, 12,000,000 dollars, at all too much to cover the losses … It was the most splendid & at the same time the most awful sight I ever witnessed – & I have seen a few fires – many lives were lost, – how many it will be impossible to tell.

A few days earlier, a Vermont native by the name of Daniel Davis had written home to his sister Harriet from Marysville – giving his own account of the San Francisco fire. “San Francisco”, Davis lamented, “is again in ashes.”

The ruin is if possible more complete than any previous fire. Oh, it is horrible to think of San Francisco is a doomed city. This is the fourth time that it has been almost wholly destroyed within the short space of one year. The 3 – 4 & 5 story brick & iron (supposed to be fireproof) buildings crumbled & wilted before the devouring element like a piece of brown paper. The loss of property at any of the previous fires was trifling compared to this … I am of course thrown out of business, received notice this morning to bring in my bill. I do not know what I shall now do. May conclude to go home to the States. California is a doomed country – Men from San Francisco are passing through this place on their way to the mines by thousands almost. Every hotel is crammed full many a man is now on his way to the mines with his pick & shovel on his shoulder that one week ago was worth thousands. Such is life in California …[1]

Alongside accounts of the destruction, the CHS also holds records of the resilience of the San Francisco community – and the speed with which people rebuilt in the wake of the fire. “The immense amount of merchandise destroyed”, one Charles Brewster informed his father in Boston, “has caused everything to advance & many will more than make up their loss on the profit of goods yet to arrive. Hundreds of Buildings are erected & in process of erection & in a few months San Francisco will be herself again. Many of the Buildings are temporary & will give way to Brick structures as soon as the parties can obtain the necessary material.”[2]

One of the most important of the CHS’s collection items in terms of the Sydney Ducks and their involvement in the fires is a rare lithograph entitled “The Times”, published by Justh Quirot & Co.

The times!!!, before 1851 August 04; California lettersheet collection, Baird 272, Kemble Spec Col 09; Box 2, folder 22, California Historical Society

To the center of the image lies an arsonist, a flaming torch in hand, standing in a pile of wood shavings and with a packet of matches by his feet. To his right (our left) stand the symbols of official authority and justice – which have evidently failed to bring him to heel. Behind a corrupt and disinterested police and judiciary, lies a strawbail courthouse and the state prison: “For the relief of vagabonds. Prisoners supplied with every luxury & allowed to carry the keys of their cells”. To his left (our right) two stout men stand ready to seize the arsonist and to lead him – through the assembled people – to trial by the Committee of Vigilance and ultimately to the gallows waiting by the waterfront. Out on the water a ship has been stopped and informed: “Oh, you’re from Sydney, are you? Well I conclude you’d best make tracks back again!”

In June, the formation of Committee of Vigilance, spelled trouble for the Sydney Ducks. Over the coming months the Committee set to work enforcing its own version of order upon the city – paying particular attention to the influence of Australian criminals.

According to the historian Mary Floyd Williams:

The constitution of the Committee of Vigilance was adopted on the ninth of June; Jenkins [an Australian thief – the first person to be executed by the Committee] was hanged on the eleventh, and by the fourteenth the Committee was deep in systematic and efficient work.

It must be remembered that its members felt that the safety of the community was threatened by an organized band of criminals, while the presence in the state of large numbers of ex-convicts from the British penal colonies provided a fertile field for the recruiting of just such a company of outlaws as was pictured by the popular imagination. It was against the Australian suspects, therefore, that the Committee exerted its earliest and most strenuous efforts …[3]

These exertions eventually included the arrest and interrogation of suspected ex-convicts from Sydney, forced deportations, and the public execution of four Sydney Ducks.

As the Committee carried out its work, the perceived hostility towards those from the Australian colonies and the exciting news that gold had been found back in Australia – encouraged a reverse migration across the Pacific. In 1851 gold was officially discovered in New South Wales and then in Victoria, sparking the first of a series of Australian gold rushes which took place during the second half of the nineteenth century. In response to the news from Sydney and then Melbourne many Australians in California, as well as Americans looking to capitalise on the new discoveries, set out for the Australian diggings. On March 13, 1853, Daniel Davis reflected to his sister Harriet:[4]

It is a generally admited fact that Cal is a great country but “Westward the tide of empire rolls”, California is not the jumping off place as has been supposed. Oh! no by no means Australia glimmers in the distance & the tide is setting that way with almost irresistible force. The Cal excitement in the States in 1849 is nearly thrown in the shade by the Australia excitement here now. Yankees will soon be plenty in the Australian mines.

In the years that followed, thousands of Americans joined the rushes to south eastern Australia, where they played an important role influencing the development of Australian history.

During the middle of the nineteenth century the Californian and Australian gold rushes helped to reshape the course of world history and to drive nineteenth century globalisation. As the CHS’s wonderful collections remind us, the gold rushes were a global phenomenon, enhancing connections (both positive and negative) across the Pacific and between disparate regions of the world.

About the Author:

Benjamin Mountford is a Senior Lecturer in History at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne. His research focuses on Global and Imperial History, Modern British History, and Australian History.

His first book Britain, China, & Colonial Australia was published by Oxford University Press in 2016, and was later awarded the 2017 Prue Torney Fellows Award. He is the co-editor of two books,  A Global History of Gold Rushes (University of California Press, 2018) and Fighting Words: Fifteen Books That Shaped the Postcolonial World (Peter Lang, 2017). Mountford has held research fellowships at La Trobe University and the Huntington Library, and Lectureships at Federation University Australia and the University of Buckingham. From 2008-15 he was at Oxford, as a Rae and Edith Bennett Travelling Scholar, a Beit Scholar in Commonwealth and Imperial History, a Research Associate at the Oxford Centre for Global History, and the first Michael Brock Junior Research Fellow in Modern British History.

Mountford is currently working on a history of how the mid-nineteenth century gold rushes impacted on Victorian Britain.

[1] Mary Floyd Williams. History of the San Francisco Committee of Vigilance of 1851. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1921, p. 228.

[2] Daniel Davis to Harriet Davis, March 13, 1853, Addington family papers, 1793-1941, MS 3013, Box 1, folder 1, California Historical Society.

[3] Daniel Davis to Harriet Davis, May 9, 1851; Addington family papers, 1793-1941, MS 3013, Box 1, folder 1, California Historical Society.

[4] Brewster to his father, May 14, 1851, Charles O. Brewster Letters and Miscellany, 1830-1851, MS 213, Box 1, folder 1, California Historical Society.