During the early Gold Rush period, San Francisco’s seaport was hastily constructed on a site that was ill-fit for its purpose. Challenges included firstly the need for incoming vessels to be unloaded by hand onto smaller vessels in order to bring goods ashore and, secondly, a series of six great fires over eighteen months, from December 1849 to mid-1851. The fires, which repeatedly burned San Francisco’s seaport to the ground, staggered the confidence of the business community and gave rise to a “moody conviction” that the city was doomed. These developmental challenges provide the context within which seaport workers living in San Francisco from Sydney were constituted as a problem. These migrants were attacked on account of the important roles they assumed in the operation of the seaport and were accused of starting San Francisco’s fires to create opportunities for theft and plunder. A strategic series of attacks orchestrated by the Committee of Vigilance saw these migrants pushed out of the valuable waterfront real estate they had occupied. These attacks also formed part of a broader post-fire redevelopment project. This attempt to tease out the social history of San Francisco’s built environment contributes to a spatial turn in historical studies that emphasizes the need to regard space as well as time as a critical dimension of social life.
“Burned by the Torch of the Incendiary”: A Pyro-History of Gold Rush Era San Francisco and the Lynching of Sydney Migrants
Cameron White has a PhD in history from the University of Sydney. He has been a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of British Columbia and a Research Fellow at Swinburne University. He has published in a range of interdisciplinary journals.
Cameron White; “Burned by the Torch of the Incendiary”: A Pyro-History of Gold Rush Era San Francisco and the Lynching of Sydney Migrants. Pacific Historical Review 1 November 2023; 92 (4): 507–537. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/phr.2023.92.4.507
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